Many of us teachers may have no difficulty remembering the first books we fell in love with, and this year in my 11th grade class I got the chance to witness students not only reading books in English for the first time, books they had chosen for themselves, but I got to witness the moments of surprise as their initial understandings shifted, the moments or language that challenged them, the moments of frustration and the desire to keep going. All because they connected. To the words on the page. To the characters the words formed. And to the imagination and souls of the authors behind them.

100 students

46 different books (Miracle’s Boys by Jacqueline Woodson was a popular choice, as well her book If You Come Softly)

I didn’t tell them what to read. I told them what books we have and grouped them by overarching topics/themes like Black Lives Matter, and Love that Defies the Odds, and No One is Illegal — some I grouped by genre like historical fiction or graphic novels.

Below is the opening to one of my student’s papers. I asked and chose to share his because of how unexpected his emotion and honesty was.

I had encouraged students to tell part of their journey as readers or why they fell in love with the book in their literary analysis papers. For them it was a chance to see value in their experience as readers and for me it was a way to assign a project required for graduation but with a twist: to give evidence of the dialogic nature of reading and to help students see that writing is a creative experience, not a measure of adhering to a genre form. If we always teach genres simply as form, we remove agency. But I digress.

This requirement indirectly challenged some of my own peers who wanted traditional essay structures: thesis statement as the final sentence of the first paragraph, no use of “I”, etc.

I hope you can see in this one example why I chose to buck tradition with my “inexperienced” writers.

I hope you disagree with the teacher who said this particular narrative in particular “took away” from the essay.

I hope, instead, you hear his voice and how this book will forever be marked in his mind and heart.

Here is the opening:

The next paragraph shifts the paper back to digging into the text. For anyone who read this book, I was particularly moved by his zooming in on Ty’ree, who is not the narrator and therefore perhaps a less obvious focus.

Throughout the 2-3 months of reading they engaged in (when I say 2-3 months, I mean 4 days/week from beginning of November to mid-January, skipping winter recess and I never assign homework), and the weeks it took them to write (mid-January-March, depending on when they started), I didn’t grade a single thing. But I gave tons of feedback. I was worried my grade-hungry students would get angry and lost motivation but they were like, “no, I can tell I’m growing.” 😍