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Three Lessons I Learned from the Boy Katrina Hero

Three Lessons I Learned from the Boy Katrina Hero

When I first heard about the boy who stole a school bus and rescued over 300 people after Hurricane Katrina, I was fascinated. In my high school English classroom after school, I searched the internet and learned the driver, Jabbar Gibson, had been jailed for selling drugs. But then I uncovered a San Francisco Chronicle article about a second driver, Courtney Miles, who’d moved to Oakland to play basketball – at a junior college very near the home of a friend I’d already planned to visit the following week. I hadn’t been to California in twenty years, but I’d soon be only an hour away from Courtney. It was a sign. I had to find him. His was a story I wanted to tell.

I’d just started writing seriously, and I had very little confidence in my abilities. Was I crazy to think a white female 50-year-old school teacher could be the voice of an 18-year-old black man? I’d never written a book before. And a basketball story? NBA to me meant National Book Award. I emailed his coach, asking if he’d give my contact information to Courtney. I told myself I’d drop the whole subject if I didn’t hear back from him.

The coach replied -- and sent me Courtney’s phone number. My heart raced as I stepped outside my classroom and dialed. The soft Cajun voice on the other end of the line was understandably cautious, but Courtney agreed to meet me at McDonald’s in Oakland. That conversation was the first of many (mostly after his practices so at midnight my time) that would one day become a book.

From Courtney, I learned a lot about humility. His buddy Jabbar had received national media attention when his was the first bus to pull into the Astrodome in Houston after he and Courtney got separated on the road. (Courtney dropped his passengers at the Cajundome in Lafayette, LA and returned for a second group.) Jabbar was in talks with Spike Lee about a movie deal, but Courtney kept quiet about his role in the bus rescue. He’d seen Bush’s “no tolerance” speech on the Jumbotron from his cot in the Cajundome while waiting for a FEMA trailer. And with an absentee father and a mother who’d been in jail for most of his growing-up years, he’d promised himself he’d “stay straight.”

But more importantly, he didn’t feel like a hero. “It could have been anybody,” he told me, “but God chose me. He gave me a way to help, and I’m blessed I had a way to pay back all the people who helped raise me.”

It was true – the people of the Fischer projects, who knew that “Streets,” as he was called, was raising himself, stepped up. When his grandmother left before dawn each morning for her housekeeping job at a big New Orleans hotel, they watched from porches to make sure he went to school. On weekends, the neighborhood men offered tips as he honed his skills at Fox Park’s netless goal. Courtney’s first tattoo was the word “Fischer” etched across his stomach, and he always chose jersey number “15” for the 15th Ward, his Orleans Parish home.

His life there taught him resilience, another trait I witnessed. At age seven he woke up with a gun in his face on Christmas Eve because his mother owed the wrong people money. At thirteen he saw a man killed directly in front of him in a quiet alley – by a shooter he thought for a heart-stopping moment was aiming at him. In 11th grade he lived alone for months without electricity or water. His grandmother, laid off from work, had moved in with his uncles in Lafayette. Because he didn’t want to lose his ball team and his chance at a college education, he told her he was living with a cousin, but that fell through, so he broke into an abandoned house. His friends, who knew he’d be sent to foster care if the school found out, piled their food on his plate at lunch. He showered at the gym after practice and ignored the gang members who offered him rides and food on the walk “home.” At night he dressed in layers of clothing to keep warm, sometimes watching his breath condense above him as he tried to sleep.

Two years later when I met him, things hadn’t changed much for Courtney. Because his basketball scholarship in California didn’t cover room and board, he still struggled to find food and shelter. There were months when kind friends from school and church took him in, and weeks when homeless shelters were his only option.

But his faith remains strong. It’s another of Courtney’s lessons for me. No matter what his trials, I’ve never heard him complain – and he talks to God like he’s talking to a friend.  “My grandmother taught me to be ‘prayed up.’” Courtney says he thanks God every morning for giving him another day. He carries with him the names of fourteen friends who’ve died in gun battles in the New Orleans area – his “Rest in Peace list,” he calls it. “I try to live my life for them because they didn’t have a chance to do the things I get to do.”

Courtney and I spent a lot of time together, peeling apart the layers of his past. He wanted to introduce me to “Miz Gerry,” the grandmother whose wisdom guided his life even when she couldn’t be there. But the day we met in New Orleans to retrace the bus route, I learned that her grandson, Courtney’s 18-year-old cousin, had been murdered the night before. He warned me that it might be dangerous to spend time with him that day.

“Are you involved in the argument that caused the shooting?” I asked.

“No, it’s just your company, who you hang around with and stuff. It’s not always you. Because of my cousin, I’m already in it.”

The idea of being drawn into a gang war is as old as Shakespeare, but it was my first close-up view of how things worked in Courtney’s world. It took a visual of the dilapidated building where he went to school, the shabby, run-down       project apartments where he lived, and the depressed neighborhood he grew up in to make me understand. In an environment where the poor stay poor because of failing schools, lack of employment, and easy access to drugs, many young people made poor choices – and some paid with their lives.

I’m glad I met Courtney. He reaffirmed what I already knew about the people of New Orleans. Despite post-Katrina reports that called them looters and rapists and murderers, they are kind, warm, hard-working people – men who call you “baby” and walk an extra block to show you the restaurant you’re looking for. Women who speak to you on the street and ask, “How’s ya mama?” in broad river brogues. They are true originals. When I was in town for a wedding just two weeks before the storm came, I saw a man walking down St. Philip Street with a cup of coffee – wearing nothing but a bathrobe (open) and penny loafers.

I pray that Courtney can keep his humility, faith, and resilience. I hope he can “stay straight.” The odds are against him. Statistics are not in his favor. But he has flexibility and resourcefulness on his side. He told the mud-caked people from the Ninth Ward, who squeezed into an already jam-packed bus, to “get in where you fit in,” and that’s his life motto. It’s an attitude many of the former residents of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast embraced when over 350,000 of them lost their homes.

Several months after the storm, as a temporary Red Cross phone volunteer, I spoke with a woman whose mother and aunt, both widowed early, had lived across the street from each other in Waveland, Mississippi for over a thirty years. She told me they were sharing a small motel room, and their town had been wiped off the map. They’d lost everything – including their way of life. Today my heart goes out to those who have, for ten years, battled depression, fear, anger, and nightmares that still continue. May they find some measure of peace on this important anniversary of the storm that changed their lives forever. 



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Teacher Guide for This Is Not a Drill


Teachers’ Guide/Readers’ Group Discussion Questions

for This Is Not a Drill by Beck McDowell


 1. Do you know anyone who has suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? What are some of its causes? How does it affect its victims?

 2. List the symptoms of PTSD that Brian Stutts displays in the story.

 3. Did your attitude toward Stutts change during the book? If yes, why?

 4. In what way does the setting enhance the plot?

 5. Describe two ways in which the author gives the reader a “break” from the tension of the situation. Was this a good idea? Why or why not?

 6. What methods are used to portray the kids’ various personalities? Which first grader was your favorite? Why?

 7. Why do you think the author used alternating viewpoints to tell the story?

 8. Do you identify more with Emery or Jake?

 9. What are some of the factors that contribute to Emery’s shyness?

10. Were you aware of POTS before you read this story? Do you know anyone with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome? What are its symptoms? How are they similar to PTSD? How are they different?

11. If Emery’s initial “speaking up” against the gunman is out of character, why does she stand up to him? Why doesn’t Jake? How did you feel about their reactions to Stutts?

12. Name characteristics that make Ms. Campbell a strong teacher.

13. List examples of Emery’s actions that show she might be a good teacher in the future.

14. What is your impression of Emery’s mother? List four adjectives that might describe her.

15. Why does Emery feel it’s important to engage Stutts in conversation? What are the risks involved? Do you agree with her decision to talk to him?

16. List the factors that complicate Jake’s relationship with his father.

17. Is Jake responsible for his involvement in the marijuana incident that leads to his arrest? Explain your answer.

18. What mistake does Jake make at the lake? Why does he engage in behavior he knows he’ll regret later? What might he have done differently?

19. What are the similarities in the losses Jake and Emery have suffered in life? What are the differences?

20. Point out examples of foreshadowing that heighten the suspense.

21. Give two examples of literary allusion in the first seven chapters. How do they add to the readers’ understanding of Jake’s reaction to the situation and Emery’s fear for the children?

22. Discuss the effectiveness of Jake’s use of the internet for help in a crisis. Can you think of news stories where social media interaction played a role?

23. How does Stutts’ knowledge of Tucker’s problems complicate his own?

24. What did you think about the ending of the book? Be specific.

25. Can you think of a time when yesterday’s anger almost robbed you of today’s happiness?

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Teacher Guide for Last Bus Out

Teachers’ Guide – Reading Group Discussion

Last Bus Out by Beck McDowell


Before You Read


1. Discuss any stories you’ve heard about Hurricane Katrina.

2. Look at a map of the New Orleans area and find the location of Algiers.

3. Define the term situational ethics. Is there any circumstance in which stealing

         is justified, or is it always wrong to steal, no matter what?


Individual Research

Find blogs online written by survivors of Hurricane Katrina and summarize the information you find about their personal accounts of their experiences.


Journal Writing

If you had only five minutes to pack before a major natural disaster and could only take one suitcase, what would you pack? Make a list in priority order.



Chapter 1 – Prelude to Disaster


Tuesday, August 23

1. List three things we learn about Courtney’s physical descripti.

2. What evidence do we have of his commitment to basketball?  his talent?

Wednesday, August 24

3. Why does the author include a violent scene so early in the book?

4. What is the effect of the narrative shifting into present tense?

5. What do you think Miz Geraldine means by “Follow your first mind.”? Is it good advice? Why or why not?

Thursday, August 25

6. What is Courtney’s nickname and where did he get it?

7. Why does Courtney consider the people of Fischer his family?

8. What two physical displays show his allegiance to his neighborhood?

9. How did Courtney stay away from the street gangs? Why was it hard?

10. What does Courtney fear when he jokes with the street dudes? Why?

Friday, August 26

11. What are three names Courtney calls his grandmother? Explain them.

12. Why didn’ he take the meteorologist’s hurricane warnings seriously?

13. What were the names of two previous hurricanes that damaged NOLA?



Chapter 2 – Riding Out the Storm


1. List several words and phrases that help set the mood and establish tone.

2. In Shakespeare’s plays, a storm in the opening scene symbolizes chaos in the political or social world. What trauma has Courtney suffered that might be seen as a parallel to weather in Chapter 2?

3. List some of the similes and metaphors used to describe the scene outside.

4. List three other phrases that describe Algiers after Katrina.


Journal Writing

Write about a time when you didn’t take something seriously that later turned out to be a bigger deal than you thought.



Chapter 3 –When the Levees Fail


1. What is a levee? How is it made?

2. List five things that contributed to the flooding of New Orleans.

3. What historical evidence shows Algiers’ higher elevation than New Orleans?



Chapter 4 – This Time is Different


1. How does the other boys’ treatment of Courtney indicate he's a leader?

2. Why was Courtney calmer about the post-flood problems than most people?

3. Is their anger over water bottles dropped from planes justified? Why or why not?

4. What health dangers did the people of Fischer Projects face?

5. Why couldn’t the people walk out of the city?



Chapter 5 – The Key to Escape


1. What is the median called in New Orleans? Why? Are there regional names for things in your city a visitor might not understand?

2. List three obstacles to the stealing of the bus that might have stopped someone less determined.


Journal Writing

Write about a time when you tried to accomplish something that was difficult. What were the obstacles that stood in your way and how did you overcome them?



Chapter 6 – Drive


1. Discuss possible multiple meanings of the title of the chapter.

2. What do we learn that complicates Courtney’s decision to take the bus?

3. As they drive out of the lot, Courtney admits he never really thought they’d find buses with keys and gas. Why did he go to the bus lot anyway?


Journal Writing

Write about a time something happened that you hoped for but didn’t really expect.



Chapter 7 – Loaded


1. Why did the people of Fischer project feel the government had abandoned them?

2. Where does Algiers, Louisiana’s name come from?

3. Besides the lack of funds for transportation and shelter, list two other reasons the people of  Fischer didn’t evacuate before the hurricane.



Chapter 8 – Roadblock


1. What memory is triggered by passing his old elementary school? Why is this important to the story?

2. Why is it ironic that his mother’s drug money keeps him healthy?

3. Courtney relies on instinct, doing what he feels is right even more often than what he thinks is right. Can you think of a time when you relied on instinct to make an important decision? Did it work out well? Why or why not?

4. What was Courtney’s plan for the passengers on his bus as they pulled onto the Westbank Expressway and headed out of town?


Journal Writing

Reread the author’s description of Courtney’s fear as he drives away from the police roadblock. Write about a time when you were afraid, paying special attention to your description of how fear feels to you. Include physical reactions as well as emotional ones.



Chapter 9 - To Lafayette


1. What metaphor is used to describe the landscape?

2. List two similes used to describe the randomness of the devastation. How is the second one extended into the next sentence?

3. What flashback is triggered by Courtney’s concern for people left homeless by the storm?

4. What fantasy does Courtney indulge in while living alone in the empty house?

5. Why does his Grandmother say his mom stops calling him? Do you agree and how do you feel about it?


Journal Writing

About his mother, the author says, “Courtney loved her and wanted her to be happy. But he didn’t know how to help her.” Write a journal about a time when you wanted to help someone but had trouble finding a way.



Chapter 10 - Ninth Ward Survivors


1. Why are the Ninth Ward victims’ stories so different from the stories of the Algiers people?

2. List some of the substances that contaminated the flood waters, posing health risks to the residents forced to flee in them.

3. Why were numbers of dead painted on houses with spray paint?

4. What were some of the problems faced by police officers after the storm?

5. What rumor fueled cries of racism by residents of flooded areas? What two factors influenced the rumor’s spread?

6. How did some reporters treat stories about white and black victims differently?

7. Many New Orleans victims were offended at being called refugees? Why?

8. Why does Courtney feel lonely on the bus?

9. What are some of the things he worries about while driving? Which do you think are the most valid concerns?


Journal Writing

Write about a time when you felt lonely.



Chapter 11 – Promises to Keep


1. Why does Courtney park on the side street at the Cajundome?

2. Why does Courtney step forward to answer the man’s questions?

3. Why does he walk to the front of the line when they first arrive?

4. What two sports similes are used in this chapter?

5. Describe Grandma Streets’ reaction to Courtney’s story? What does this say about her?

6. Why does he go with his Dad to the football game after hiding at his Grandmother’s?

7. What poem do the titles of Chapter 10 and 11 come from? What promises does Courtney set out to keep at the end of Chapter 10?


Journal Writing

Write about a time when you had to tell a parent, relative, or friend about something you’d done that might get you in trouble. How did you break the news and what was the reaction?



Chapter 12 – Miles to Go Before I Sleep


1. What do we learn about Courtney’s mom? Describe the two sides of her Gemini personality. What factors might contribute to the “rages” that came over her?

2. How does Courtney try to justify her behavior?

3. What does Courtney do to try to help his mother?

4. How did Hurricane Katrina hurt Courtney’s chance to pursue his dreams?

5. In your opinion, why do the two National Guardsmen allow Courtney to drive back into the city when they’re under orders to keep people out.


Journal Writing

Write about a time when someone you loved or respected disappointed you.



Chapter 13 – The Cajundome


1. What do Courtney and Tom learn about the fate of the people on the second bus?

2. What were conditions like in the Cajundome?


Journal Writing

Write about a time when your living conditions were not what you expected. How did you cope with the situation?



Chapter 14 – FEMA Trailer


1. Describe the FEMA trailer Courtney and his grandmother are given as temporary housing. What is their reaction to their living conditions?

2. What does Courtney’s grandmother plan to try to get back to normal?

3. Courtney realizes as he goes to enroll at Northside that he will never see many of his friends again. If you knew you might not see your friends tomorrow, what things would you want to do and say today?

4. Describe Coach Moore. What techniques does he use to motivate his players? How do you feel about him?


Journal Writing

Courtney is expelled from school for something he says he didn’t do.Write about a time when you were falsely accused or someone you know was falsely accused.



Chapter 15 – Get In Where You Fit In


1. How does the situation change at the high school after Courtney plays ball on Open Gym night?

2. Why didn’t people try to fix up their homes after the storm?

3. Why is Courtney not allowed to play ball at Helen Cox High School?

4. What offer comes from Gil Dorsey-Wagner ? How did he know about     Courtney?

5. In what way does Courtney’s decision to move to California parallel hisinvitation to people on the bus to “get in where you fit in”?


Journal Writing

Courtney feels alive for the first time in weeks when he plays basketball. Describe something you love doing and tell how it makes you feel.



Chapter 16 – Oakland


1. What were some of Courtney’s concerns as he flew to Oakland?

2. Who does Courtney meet in the office of the Castlemont ? Why is he surprised?

3. Why does Courtney have such a hard time academically at Castlemont?

4. How did other people in Oakland step up to help him succeed? Why did they?


Journal Writing

Write about a time when other people helped you accomplish something important.



Chapter 17 – A College Education


1.What adjustments did Courtney have to make at City College?

2.What insights does Courtney begin to have about his father?

3. Describe Courtney’s tattoo and explain what it represents.

4. How does the marijuana incident make you feel about Courtney?


Journal Writing

Make a list of expectations you have about college. What aspects do you expect to be difficult and what parts do you expect to enjoy?



Chapter 18 – Alone Again


1. What is the devastating news Courtney learns about Jamie? How does he react?

2. Why doesn’t the author reveal Courtney’s conversation with Jamie after he learns that she’s betrayed him? How do you feel about that?

3. What does Courtney do to relieve his pain?

4. What is Courtney’s RIP list? Why does he keep it?


Journal Writing

Make a list of things you do to lift your spirits when you’re feeling down.



Extra Journal Writing Assigments


Write about people in your life who have functioned in parental roles who are not your biological parents.


Write about a time when you were tempted to join in an activity that you knew was wrong. How did you handle the situation?


Write about a time someone gave you good advice. Explain how you applied it and how it helped you in life.


Write about a time when you or someone you know performed a heroic deed.


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Posted in March


YA "Choice" Lists for Middle and High Schoolers

Teachers, have you ever wanted to incorporate "choice" reading into your curriculum but were just too loaded up to figure out the logistics?  I've put together my road-tested system from my 25+ years of teaching here on the blog.)  I promise you it will make the set-up and grading for a "choice" or "independent" program SO much easier. And I'll be presenting at teacher and library conferences across the Southeast in the coming months with Perma-Bound School LIbrary Reps Kristen Ives and John Zeller to share this Step-By-Step program. (We'd love to come to your district!)

Here are the lists of books I recommend that are sure-fire tools to lure reluctant readers into the joy of reading. (Let me know if you have suggestions for additions. We're always looking for books that "hook.") And if you need some good test-data documentation to convince your administrators, there's a blog link here to a Nerdy Book Club post with a great success success story by some friends of mine, Dennis Jolley and Justin Jones, near Atlanta. Oh, and don't forget to follow the Nerdy Book Club on Twitter. It's a fabulous support network for teachers of all grades!

The books on this list with an asterisk are currenlty available through at a discount for teachers. And you'll find reviews for many of them on our website, (along with hundreds of other reviews by students for students.)

If you'd like my annotated NRR list, the Book Interview Questions I use, or the Trailer Instructions and Trailer Grading sheets mentioned in the program, you can request them through my email at Just drop me a quick note to let me know which you'd like and I'll send them as attachments you can print and use.


NotRequiredReading,com Young Adult Book List


Across the Universe by Beth Revis 

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins 

Ashfall by Mike Mulllin 

Beneath a Meth Moon by Jacqueline Woodson

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys 

*Boy 21 by Mathew Quick

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacquiline Woodson

*Burning Blue by Paul Griffin

*Cinder by Marissa Meyer

*Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

*Delirium by Lauren Oliver 

*Divergent by Veronica Roth 

The Diviners by Libba Bray 

Dramarama by E. Lockhart 

*Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell 

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card 

*The Fault in Our Stars by John Green 

*The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson 

*Grave Mercy by Rogin LaFevers

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Hourglass by Myra McEntire 

How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

*I Am the Messenger by Marcus Zusak 

I Heart You, You Haunt Me by Lisa Schroeder

*If I Stay by Gayle Foreman 

*I’ll Be There by Holly Goldberg Sloan 

Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma

*The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

*It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini 

King Dork by Frank Portman

*Legend by Marie Lu 

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork

*Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner

*Maze Runner by James Dashner 

*Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs 

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness 

The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson

*Origin by Jessica Khoury 

*Payback Time by Carl Deuker 

Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

*The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen 

Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen

*The Selection by Kiera Cass

*Ship Breaker by Paolo Baciagalupi

Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

*Small Damages by Beth Kephart

Sold by Patricia McCormick

*Something Like Normal by Trish Doller

Speak by Laure Halse Anderson 

*Sunrise over Fallujah,by Walter Dean Myers

*Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

*Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher (cover) 

*This Is Not a Drill by Beck McDowell 

The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen 

Tyrell by Coe Booth

Uglies by Scott Westerterfeld 

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher 

*What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell 

*Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

Winger by Andrew Smith

Yacqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina Mid-Grade Book List


A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz

Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff

Alabama Moon by Watt Key

Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea

Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle

Bigger Than a Breadbox by Laurel Snyder

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

Capture the Flag by Kate Messner

Chasing Vermeer by Blue Baillett

Close to Famous by Joan Bauer

Counting by 7’s by Holly Goldberg-Sloan

Don’t Feed the Boy by Irene Latham

Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick

Endangered by Eliot Schrefer

Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan

Flora and Ulysses by Kate DeCamillo

Found by Margaret Petersen Haddiz

Heart of a Shepherd by Rosanne Parry

Ice Dogs by Terry Lynn Johnson

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhhai Lai

Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George

Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes

One for the Murphy’s by Lynda Mullaly-Hunt

Paperboy by Vince Vawter

See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles

Schooled by Gordon Korman

The BFG by Roald Dahl

The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond by Brenda Woods

The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

The Eighth Day by Dianne Salerni and David McClellan

The Lightening Thief by Rick Riordan

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black

The Secret Hum of a Daisy by Tracy Holczer

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger

The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis

Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer Holm

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

Wonder by R. J. Palacio

Zane and the Hurricane by Rodman Philbrick

Zora and Me by Victoria Bond and T. R. Simon




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For Teachers: A Reading Program That Works

Getting teens to read was my most important mission as a teacher. When I realized how many of my high schoolers had NEVER read a book and bragged about passing tests on assigned classics by reading Spark notes and watching movies, I knew I had to act. We were losing them as readers, and once they left my class, my opportunity to change that would be lost. That's when I discovered the simple secret: CHOICE! If I wanted to teach kids the meaning of "reading for pleasure," I had to include young adult books in their assignments - books that were engaging, books they could relate to. Kids who've never read anything except the difficult assignments that are required for school don't understand what we're talking about when we say, "reading for pleasure." So I spent many years building a reading program that would help them become life-long readers. I'm happy to share the logistics of my program here, and I'll be traveling with Perma-Bound reps Kristen Ives and John Zeller to schools across the Southeast this fall to share tips and answer questions and getting kids to read. Also, you can visit the Perma-Bound website to find the books I recommend for reluctant readers, feature here on the blog - at a discount to you. Here's the step-by-step process I used: 


The Program

Step By Step with Beck McDowell


1. Get administrators on board with the idea that aesthetic reading (for fun) is just as important as efferent reading (for information.) Reading practice improves skills and increases vocabulary and comprehension levels. Many high schoolers have NEVER read a book. They brag about reading Spark notes and watching movies to pass tests on assigned classics. If we convince them to read through offering them a CHOICE, we can turn them into lifelong readers.

2. Send out Parent Letter. When parents understand your motives, they’re more likely to support you. Invite their input and be open to questions. If a parent objects to a book (which happens very rarely,) remind them that the list is OPTIONAL and no student is required to read any book. Let them know they don’t get to control what other students read – only their own. Be firm but friendly.

3. Hand out the list to students. Explain that they’ll still be reading classics as a class, but they’re now required to read two “choice” books per grading period. They may also read other books by authors already on the list. They may opt to read books not on the list, but only with prior permission from the teacher.

4. Read the annotated list aloud and have them mark books that sound interesting to them. Suggest that they check out  blurbs online for plot information and that they read a few paragraphs of the free sample chapter offered online to see if the writing style appeals to them. Remind them they don’t have to finish any book they don’t like.

5. Read aloud twice a week. Take 5-10 minutes to read from books on the list or others you bring in to entice reluctant readers. This is critical to the process. Some have no idea what’s inside a book.

6. Allow class time to read. Set at least aside one or two 10-20 minute reading sessions per week so you can monitor their progress. Use this time to assess levels of success by walking around and occasionally asking questions (very quietly) about the books they’re reading. Help the strugglers find good books. Encourage all with enthusiasm for reading and pride in their progress.

7. For grading, you have four options.

            1. Book Trailers – see NRR instruction sheet and grading rubric. Grade leniently, but let them know points will be deducted for spelling, punctuation and requirements on instruction sheet. (One note: when students have used popular music in the past, YouTube has allowed it and provided a link to viewers to purchase the music. If they use copyrighted music, they do so at their own risk, but most musicians allow it for the promotional opportunity. Just make them aware of the possible penalties. Maybe YouTube will make a policy statement about this soon, but royalty-free music is the safest route for now.)

            2.  Participation Grades – monitor progress informally during class reading periods and grade accordingly. Be lenient. The goal is to make reading fun. But insist that everyone reads and show them point deductions when they don’t.

            3. Book Interviews – If you prefer individualized assessment, choose several of the Not Required Reading discussion questions for oral “interview” assessment. Grades are 100 if they completed the book and 0 if it’s clear they didn’t finish by the deadline. If a student receives a 0, he may finish the book within three days for half credit, which is still a failing grade – but a “50” that can be pulled up more easily. Most students will finish after they realize how much a 0 affects averages.

            4. Reviews for NRR and other sites - If you prefer written assessment (or for extra credit to those who choose to do it,) have students first read three reviews in credible sources like NYT, LAT, NPR, etc. Then have them write 500-700 words on the book they’ve just read – with special attention to originality, personal response, and avoiding spoilers. Reviews should not be just plot synopses. 

            8. Early Bird Incentives - For Book Interviews, try offering Early Bird Incentives to spread out your workload. When students earn 5 extra points by coming before the deadline (after school, between classes, or during lunch,) the teacher is not overwhelmed on deadline day. Some students will “read ahead,” finishing an entire semester of “choice” reading in one grading period. This is fine. Those kids will usually keep reading even after they’ve completed requirements for the year. (Remind everyone that this is a flexible assignment. If they have lots of other homework one night, they can skip reading, so long as they catch up on the weekend or when other work is slower. On slower homework nights, they can “read ahead” and possibly finish early.)

            9. Extra Credit – Offer one extra “choic” book as the only extra credit allowed in your class. Make it worth their while points-wise. This is the very best incentive for reluctant readers who need to pull up a low test score or make up for missing homework assignments. Once you get them reading, lots will do this.

            10. You/Guest Readers – Your own enthusiasm for reading is key to the success of this program. Let kids see you read and tell them about books you love. Also, invite other teachers, coaches, local celebrities or officials or sports stars to come and read to the class. Show them that reading is for everyone!

Thank you, faithful teachers! It’s not too late to entice even 11th and 12th graders to the idea of reading as a legitimate leisure activity of choice. Build a classroom library by buying at used bookstores and library cast-off stores, surround your students with exciting covers, talk about books, read to them, and give them time and grade incentive to read and you WILL see a HUGE difference! And write to me at mcdowell.beck@gmail> and let me know how it’s going! I’m happy to answer any questions you have as you move forward with Choice Reading.











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Posted in 2013

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