5 Classic Books that are Great for the High School Classroom


ClassicsI think it can be nice to switch up the reading list every couple of years or so.  Sometimes we are forced to change because of school/district policies, and sometimes we just want to change to keep students (and ourselves) engaged in the curriculum. Today I want to share 5 of my favorite books for the high school classroom so that next time you are approached about changing the book list, you have some place to start.  I’d love to hear your suggestions/reasons in the comment section below!  I’m also including links and helpful information about the Simply Novel Reading Guides that will get you ready to teach these books in no time! (Simply Novel reading guides are aligned to common core and are available in print and pdf from simplynovel.com. Check out the website for these titles and much more.)

If you are not already reading these titles, you should consider adding: 

1. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros:

  • Why your classes should read it: This novel is a series of vignettes that tell the story of a young Latina named Esperanza.  The concepts are mature, but the reading level is accessible for struggling readers.  So many times students with lower reading levels get stuck reading banal selections that hardly inspire deep thought or a love of reading.  This novella bridges the gap perfectly.  It is also a quick read so it is friendly to already crowded curriculum maps!
  • What the Simply Novel Reading Guide has to offer: The House on Mango Street guide includes guided reading questions/answers, vocabulary development, and formative/summative assessments as well as work on slang, colloquialisms, historical context, sentence structure, and more!

2. 1984 by George Orwell:

  • Why your classes should read it: Advances in technology make this novel more relevant to teens every year (unlike other novels that struggle to hold on to relevance for today’s teens).  Just trust me on this one; they get it and it is amazing to watch.
  • What the Simply Novel Reading Guide has to offer: The 1984 guide includes guided reading questions/answers, vocabulary development, and formative/summative assessments as well as work on propaganda, censorship, word origins, dystopian literature, and more!

3. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe:

  • Why your classes should read it: First, many schools are lacking in great African literature and this one really hits the mark. Second, students can definitely grasp on to the universal conflict of family dynamics and overbearing parents. Plus, it offers great insight into how cultures change, which can be the beginning of some amazing iSearch and research papers!
  • What the Simply Novel Reading Guide has to offerThe Things Fall Apart guide includes guided reading questions/answers, vocabulary development, and formative/summative assessments as well as work on proverbs, allegories, historical context, and more!

4. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley:

  • Why your classes should read it: This novel offers so much more than the pop culture understanding of the monster with screws in his head.  I’ve had so many students who feel like they are part of an exclusive club of intellectuals after reading this novel, especially when they find a moment to correct an adult or media post referring to the Creature as Frankenstein instead of referring to Victor as Frankenstein.
  • What the SimplyNovel Reading Guide has to offerThe Frankenstein guide includes guided reading questions/answers, vocabulary development, and formative/summative assessments as well as work on genre (Science Fiction, Gothicism, Mythology, and Romanticism), allusions, mood, archetypes, and more!

5. A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare:

  • Why your classes should read it: Most students leave high school having read a few Shakespearean tragedies and zero comedies. This comedy is packed full of thought provoking text and the typical beauty of Shakespearean language.
  • What the Simply Novel Reading Guide has to offer: The Midsummer Night’s Dream guide includes guided reading questions/answers, vocabulary development, and formative/summative assessments as well as work on drama conventions, Shakespearean language, and extensive work on character development.

What would you add to this list and why?  Do you teach any of these?  What has been your experience?

A Teacher’s Thoughts on Summer Reading:

Summer Reading

It is the time of year again when we meet in departments to plan out summer reading programs. For me, the words “summer reading” can be a delight and a drain. I work at a school that requires summer reading for college prep and honors English classes at every grade level, which can present some challenges.  Even with the struggles, I think that summer reading is a battle worth fighting.  If you are interested in some of the scientific benefits of summer reading, click around this site for a bit.  Here are my thoughts on putting together a summer reading program that will enhance the curriculum without burning out teachers or students.

1. Offer high interest materials. Summer is a great time to give students a book that will keep the pages turning and not keep the eye lids drooping. Pick something that will appeal to the teenagers at your particular age and level.  This strategy combats my biggest struggle, which is the lack of motivation for some students.  Some suggestions:

  • The John Green books, like Looking for Alaska, The Fault in Our Stars, or An Abundance of Katherines-  It is fun for teenagers to read about other quirky teenagers.
  • Science fiction and fantasy- the kind of books that often get left out of the traditional canon in the school year.  I like books like Dune, The Time Machine, or Hitchhikers Guide too the Galaxy, but there are tons out there to choose from.
  • Other YA faves like Catcher in the Rye, 1984, Perks of Being a Wallflower, etc.

2. Offer reasonable choices. It is nice to offer choices in case some students have read some of the books on the list and also to honor the interest factor for a wide range of students. Each book should be of reasonable length for students and the book list should be of reasonable length for teachers.  In my humble opinion, the teacher should have read all of the books on the list in order to engage in discussion and assessment.

3. Keep assignments simple. If you are doing handouts, questions, essays or anything else with the book, keep it simple.  Summer reading should be about enjoying some quality literature and not getting bogged down in minutia.

4. Make it count. Students learn very quickly and then word gets out if the summer reading assignment does not “count for anything.”  If you can, make the assessment or discussion worth a substantial point value.  In case students don’t complete the assignment well, I like for the summer reading to be worth enough to hurt the first quarter grade, but not so much that the semester grade cannot recover.

5. Bring the conversation online. If you are working with a manageable sized group, using a platform like Collaborize Classroom could be a great way to check in with students throughout the summer. Click here for a Collaborize Classroom tutorial.

6. Be flexible and have a back up plan.  I’ve never had a year with no transfer students or other I-didn’t-get-the-summer-reading situation.  When this happens, I usually excuse the assignment or give students until the end of the first quarter to get it done. The first few years, I let this eat me alive because I was in pursuit of that perfect summer reading program.  It is not out there. Make it work.


What are your thoughts on summer reading? Leave a comment below!


9 Tips to Inspire Students to Actually Read

Get Students to Read

We’ve all had those class periods that seem to drag on with a flat discussion because half the class didn’t really read the last night’s homework.  With all of the shortcuts out there on the internet and sometimes a general apathy that hits teenagers, how do we get them to actually read?  Here are some of my ideas and I’d love to hear yours in the comment section below:

1. Introduce with enthusiasm. It doesn’t always work, but I know that sharing the reasons why I fell in love with the book or author goes a long way with some students to get them excited to start reading.  It sounds cliché, but attitude really is 90% of teaching sometimes right?

2. Daily reading quizzes. Most of my homework is reading.  Read a chapter, read a story, read a speech.  I don’t usually assign questions with the reading because I want them to read fluidly and possibly even enjoy what they are reading without the hassle of stopping every paragraph to answer a question (Plus, grading daily homework and reading quizzes on top of regular essays would probably put me over the edge!).  Every day after the reading, I give a quick comprehension quiz that is not based on the sparks note version, but the actual reading.  During the first quarter, grades suffer, but after that most students figure out that actually reading is the easiest way to pass the quizzes.

3. Talk about the long-term. I teach mostly college prep and honors classes and I find that sometimes high school students need a little perspective.  In my most non-condescending voice we have candid talks about the kind of reading skills and self-discipline students will need to compete in college.

4. Put students in charge. Create projects, assignments, and assessments in which students teach the reading.  Check out this post for a specific game plan on this one.

5. Leverage technology. Check out these posts on how to enhance curriculum by using resources like collaborize classroom, twitter, prezi, google presentations, google forms, explain everything, iPads, and infographics.  Kids love technology, let’s use it to our advantage.

6. Create a social experience. Students are more likely to read when there will be some social aspect with their peers in class. I personally love using socratic seminar and literature circles.

7. Give students options. When possible, allow students to pick a book from a thematic list.  For times when the whole class is reading the same book, give choices on the accompanying assignment.  For example, for a chapter of The Great Gatsby, choose a character and outline his or her actions and motivations.  This allows students to connect more meaningfully with a character that they choose.

8. Use the power of the audio book. My students told me about the librivox app and at first I was a little leery, but now I’ve heard so many success stories that I am sold.  I have students who need to read the chapter with the audiobook and others who read first and then listen as a review on their way to school.  If they are going to have the headphones in anyway, it might as well be in the name of the classic authors.

9. Teach annotation strategies. Actively teach students how to highlight and write brief notes in the margins.  If they become more successful at reading assessments through close reading strategies, they are more likely to feel motivated to actually read and not give up before they start.

What would you add to this list?  I think it needs an even 10…

Nine tips for taking notes in a book (without ticking off your librarian!)

When I took my first English class right out of high school, I was shocked that not only did we have to purchase our own books, but we were even allowed to write in them!  I had always been told not to write in my schoolbooks—and all I ever saw written were things like “School SUX” or obscene drawings.  I was never taught to take notes in a book, but over time I learned that by writing notes in the margin, being able to highlight or underline a key point, and using my textbook as a practical, tangible tool was invaluable.

When I went into teaching, I was reminded that the same “hands-off” rule applied to my students.  Because of budgetary reasons, the school was only able to afford enough books for about 120 students at a time (the fact I never had enough books for my classes is a whole other story, but I digress…). Students were never allowed to write in their books.  Thus, I was always searching for creative methods to help my students to use their books as a living, breathing, interactive tool, rather than an untouchable, inaccessible tome filled with random obscenities. I felt (and still feel) that the more students are able to make their books—especially novels—an active tool for learning, the better they will learn.  The more involved they are allowed to be with the story the better, and being able to be an active learner and note-taker in that process helps them be an active participant in the workings of the story.

This month, I have decided to share some of the tools I have used over the years to help my students use their books as active learning tools, while keeping the librarian happy by not making permanent marks in the books.  (If you have other tips and tricks for teachers who are not allowed to have students write in books or cannot require students to purchase their own books, please feel free to comment on this blog or share them with our followers at http://www.facebook.com/secondarysolutions!)

  1.  Sticky-notes.  These are not always cheap, but usually dollar stores have good deals on sticky-notes, or you can get bulk packs for a good deal during back-to-school sales. Encourage students to write their thoughts, questions, and ideas on sticky-notes, and to stick away!  The more notes, the better.  Be sure that students know what kinds of things to write on their sticky notes.  Don’t just have students summarize the chapter or section, although this might be one sticky note.  You may want to model a book that you have already marked with notes to show how it is done.  Teach students to question the text, then once they find their answer, to go back to their sticky and write the answer.  They can either remove the sticky, or they can keep it there in the book.  Once students have completed the novel (or section of a text), have them remove their sticky notes, stick them onto blank sheets of paper and use the notes as a review/study guide.  If they have not found the answers to questions they posed, have them go back to the text to find the answer.  Encourage them to bring any outstanding questions or concerns to a class discussion.
  2. Flags.  Flags are a modification of sticky notes, but can be used to highlight major points or things to remember rather than writing them down.  Flags are the skinny sticky notes that are either shaped like an arrow or are rectangular.  They are small enough to write one or two words, but they are more useful for just quickly pointing out things to remember for future reference.  From there, once the book is finished, students can look back on their book to their flags to help them arrange written notes.  Sometimes students will find that what they flagged seemed important but wasn’t, or that they didn’t flag something that turned out to be important.  This helps students in the long-term to be able to help them become more active readers and find the more important aspects of the text.
  3. Paperclips.  These days, paperclips come in all sizes, and a variety of different colors and shapes, so students can have fun with this one.  If using multi-colored clips, have students decide which colors correspond to which color paper clip.  For example, a pink clip can represent a note about character.  Have students clip a sticky-note key to the front of their book for reference.  When they find something interesting or note-worthy about a character that they would like to remember, have them clip the pink paperclip on the start of the line or passage in the book. They can use different colors to represent other notes, such as blue for important quotes, red for important plot twists or conflicts, etc.
  4. Original Bookmarks.  Have students cut a plain piece of horizontally aligned paper into 5 sections, like a bookmark.  At the top of each, have students write Characters, Conflict, Plot, Quotes, and Questions (or whatever you would like them to take notes on).  Students can decorate their bookmark, but it must have room on both sides for notes.  As they read, they use the specified bookmark to take notes.  If they find an interesting quote, for example, they would write on their “Quotes” bookmark the page number and the first few words of the quote so that they can come back and find it later.  They can leave the bookmark on that page as they continue to read.  When they find another notable quote, they move the bookmark to the new page and repeat the process, noting page number and first few words of the quote.  Once students have used the bookmarks, they can start a new one and staple them together.  When they have finished reading the text, they have a built-in study guide.  Students should then go back (keeping with the example) and re-read the quote, taking notes in a notebook of who said it and why the quote is important to the story.  An especially fun bookmark to make is Prediction, as students move their bookmark chapter by chapter, they can see what they predicted and whether they were right, again helping students retain the reading and remain active readers.
  5. Note cards. Have students write details of each chapter on a note card designated for each chapter.  For each chapter, have students write: Major Characters, Important Events, Important Quotes, Questions on the Chapter, and Predictions.  Students should complete all sections, helping create great study cards for review after reading the novel.  Be sure to remind students to write down page numbers for later review.
  6. Dog-ear.  While your librarian may not be thrilled that students are actually touching the pages (!) the old-fashioned approach of dog-earring pages still works.  Have students gently fold the corner of a page they find interesting, for whatever reason at the time they are reading.  Once they have finished the chapter or section, have students go back and write down reasons they dog-eared the page.  It could be an interesting quote, something that doesn’t make sense the first time they read it, or something they want to remember.  From there, students can either use note-cards or a simple notepad or piece of paper to write down page numbers and reason for the dog ear.  This is still making students a) actively read the text and b) go back at least a second time to re-read for the reason for the dog-ear, which will help them make connections with the text.
  7. Bubble diagrams or webbing.  Have students start with 5 blank pages of paper.  In the middle of each one, have them draw a circle.  Have them write the one of the words characters, plot, quotes, questions, problems in each of the five circles. Have them then draw “legs” off the center circle.  Encourage students to add bubbles to their main circle as they learn things about each of the five main circles.  Allow them to write what they learn, as they learn it about each of the five topics.  For students who can’t handle 5 pages, limit to two or three topics, or have classes work in small groups to complete their work and compare notes each week or so.
  8. Give students an outline.  This is something most of our Literature Guides offer.  Our “Note-taking and Summarizing” activities ask students to outline chapters or sections, looking for specifics about the novel, such as major characters, plot events, setting, important quotes, personal responses/thoughts, questions about the chapter, and predictions about what will come.  Often, having a familiar outline will help students learn the most important aspects they should be looking for in a novel.  Once they can find the basics (i.e. characters, conflicts, etc.) naturally, they will be able to move on to more complex aspects of text analysis, such as symbolism, irony, and such. Be sure to model at least the first chapter, working together as a class to actively use the text and the note-taking sheet to find important notes.
  9. Create a Facebook page for the novel your class is reading.  Title it something like “Mrs. Smith’s classes for the study of Romeo and Juliet.” Have students post notes, interact with each other in discussions and share comments.  You will have to monitor this one, however, or it could become a breeding ground for sharing answers!  It is also important to check with your school/district for their rules for the use of Facebook in instruction.  Be sure that rules about conduct are clear.

Of course, be sure to have students remove stickies, tags, notecards, and fix dog-ears before returning the books to the library, or you will surely then tick off the librarian!

(originally posted 3/1/2011)

Good luck!


Helping to make boys “readers”

I just finished reading an interesting article from the New York Times this morning about helping boys to become “readers” (Boys and Reading, Is There Any Hope?).   There is no question that there is a huge output of Young Adult fiction today.  In fact, as the article mentions, it seems as if the genre of Young Adult fiction is surpassing the interest in Adult fiction today.  This made me think of The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) trilogy.  I still cannot get those characters out of my mind…The Hunger Games has moved toward the top of my “all-time” favorites list, for sure.

So, what do we as teachers do to help support and encourage these boys who feel reading is a “girl” thing?  We need to have a list of books that appeal to boys that pique their interest.  Here are some books that I recommend to help interest and engage boys in middle and high school.  Please feel free to make your own recommendations – especially for non-fiction, as my personal list is definitely lacking!  I would love to have a huge list of both fiction and non-fiction to share with other teachers struggling with the same problem.

Here is my list (in no particular order)

Beowulf A Separate Peace
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Oedipus Rex Hatchet Hobbit
Monster The Chocolate War Touching Spirit Bear
Dracula Frankenstein Maniac Magee
Holes Lord of the Flies The Hunger Games
The Catcher in the Rye 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Fahrenheit 451
Nothing but the Truth Crash Bud, Not Buddy
Freak the Mighty Eragon Johnny Tremain
The Outsiders The Jungle Always Running

Recommended websites with booklists and other resources:

Guysread.com (look under “Books for Guys” for a list by interest; Warning: not all are “classroom” approved, or even high-quality)
“A web-based literacy program for boys.  Our mission is to help boys become self-motivated, lifelong readers.”
Multnomah County Library “Good Books for Guys”
Includes list of both fiction and nonfiction for boys, categorized by age group
Young Adult Library Services Division of American Library Association
List of Award winners and recommended books for 2011 so far.  You can also access past winners and lists.
International Reading Association
Book lists, including “Teachers’ Choices” and “Young Adult Choices”