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Position Statements, Briefs, and Papers
  • Books Blog
    • Putting Books to Work

    Battle of the Books: How 25 Books Can Help Shape Students

    Julie Scullen
     | Feb 21, 2020

    Each year, our district middle schools participate in the Battle of the Books. If you are unfamiliar with the Battle of the Books, it is a massive book trivia contest in which participants battle in teams of three to answer questions about a list of 25 books everyone has read. It’s a shared reading experience of epic proportions. About 10 years ago, we started Battle of the Books merely to get kids reading and talking about books they might not normally choose. In hindsight, we recognize these battles have impacted our students far beyond that initial goal. The following are four areas in which these battles of the books have had an impact on our students far beyond our initial goal.

    1. Exposure. We select our books for our yearly list with an eye toward ”something for everyone.” Our list starts with the Minnesota Maud Hart Lovelace Award nominees to ensure books are available and likely to have been read by many other educators. This list always offers a wide variety of genres and styles of writing. To that list, we choose a few books that represent the first in a series (hoping to get kids hooked), a few graphic novels, a couple of sports books, and a nonfiction title or two. Every year, we add at least one book to the list our students’ parents were likely to have read in middle school, hoping to spark nostalgia and conversation at home. We seek out books representing multiple perspectives to ensure all students both see themselves and gain insight into the experience of others. Finally, we ensure that our list has books representing a range of difficulty so that everyone can participate and be challenged.
    2. Teamwork. In their teams of three, students attend monthly strategy meetings. They talk about the books and recommend ones they have read to others. Although most teams start by splitting the number of books to be read evenly, students learn to accommodate and shift responsibility for particular titles as life happens over those six months. Students learn to accept and honor the reading styles and preferences of their teammates. Those who participate for multiple years recognize the value of having more than one team member read each book. The teams come up with their own team names each year; names that represent them. One of the most memorable teams named themselves “My Favorite Students of All Time,” so that each time I read them a question I had to say, “And the next question goes to My Favorite Students of All Time.”
    3. Background knowledge. We know that one of the best ways to become smarter is to read. Students participating read as many as 25 books between September and February. Not only does this make students better, stronger readers, but also it introduces them to topics and perspectives we just don’t always have time to teach deeply in our harried classrooms.
    4. Insight. An entirely unforeseen benefit of the Battle of the Books has been the impact on staff. Our teachers and media specialists write our Battle of the Books questions (we don't purchase them through outside sources), which means our teachers read from a wide variety of middle grade literature each and every year. This enhances staff’s ability to recommend books to their students and allows them to say the most incredible thing to students: “When I read this, I thought of you.”. Our conversations about books are richer. Conferring with readers becomes more targeted. Inspired by this reading, several of our teachers have become Maud Hart Lovelace readers.

    Before the final battle for the district trophy every February, I provide students and families with a reminder of what reading does for them: The books we read help shape who we are

    Prior to last year’s battle, I read aloud the following list to students, staff, and families: 

    “Readers, this year in your wide reading for this battle, you learned:

    • What it’s like to be on a relay team in track
    • What it feels like to live in a theme park as well as all the work that goes on behind the scenes to keep animals safe and happy
    • What obsessive compulsive disorder feels like
    • What it feels like to have cerebral palsy, and how you’d like people to treat you if you have it
    • The ins and outs of our legal system
    • That butterflies drink their own pee
    • That it’s never too late to change
    • How to teach dragons to fly
    • How to deal with the death of a friend
    • How to dissect an earthworm
    • What life was like in the Old South
    • The impact of mental illness on families
    • How the culture of India is both the same as and different from ours
    • What is involved in climbing Mount Everest
    • The backstory and history of famous artists and authors
    • The training and responsibilities of the Secret Service
    • What important works are found in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art
    • The problems faced and sacrifices one makes when forced into witness protection
    • What it’s like to be a major league baseball player
    • What war is like for those directly involved
    • What it’s like when someone in your family is a veteran
    • What it means to live and survive in refugee camps in Africa
    • The impact of heart transplants
    • What it would have been like to attend segregated schools

    ….and about 25 ways to deal with a bully.” 

    This year’s list will have another long list of things our students learned without worksheets or quizzes, but simply enjoying books. Reading is about more than fluency, reading rates, and test scores. Reading shapes who we are and makes us better humans.

    Julie Scullen is a former member of the ILA Board of Directors. She taught most of her career in secondary reading intervention classrooms and now serves as Teaching and Learning Specialist for Secondary Reading in Anoka-Hennepin schools in Minnesota, working with teachers of all content areas to foster literacy achievement. She is currently a doctoral candidate at Judson University.

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  • Gerald30Under30
    • In Other Words

    Literacy and Social Action

    Gerald Dessus
     | Feb 11, 2020


    I vividly remember reading The Bully (Townsend Press) in Mrs. Collier-Bacon’s seventh-grade language arts class at Wagner Middle School. As I often mention to my students, Paul Langan’s teen novel was the first time I felt reflected in literature. There was a character who looked like me and shared similar experiences in public education, and that windows and mirrors moment helped me fall in love with literature. After reading this text from the Bluford Series, I read every book I could get my hands on.

    At this point, I realized why I wanted to teach. For me, reading was an opportunity to experience life through the eyes of a character, allowing me to escape the reality of violence and poverty in my Philadelphia neighborhood. I began wondering how many lives I could change if I helped other black and brown students, specifically black boys, fall in love with literature.

    At the time, I never imagined that I would have the opportunity to join thousands of educators from all over the world at a convening designed not only to unpack new research to support literacy instruction, but also, and more important, to explore the intersections among social-emotional learning (SEL), equity, and literacy.

    Our work is interconnected

    At the International Literacy Association (ILA) 2019 Conference in New Orleans, LA, in October, I attended the General Session and other keynotes and was moved by the thought-provoking statements shared. Literacy advocate and educator Chad C. Everett asked us to consider how we align the words on a page of a book with words in our world. Nationally Distinguished Principal Hamish Brewer challenged us to think about our legacy: “When you give students the opportunity to read and write, you give them a chance to change the world.”

    Brewer’s statement was a recurring theme at ILA 2019. As educators, we understand now more than ever the deep connection between literacy and social action, which is why equity—including ensuring access to literature that provides windows and mirrors—is so important.

    Although I had my own presentation to prepare for, I made space to attend Friday’s Equity in Education Program—“The Intersection of Literacy, Equity, and Social-Emotional Learning”—where Pedro Noguera shared a sentiment that teachers have echoed for years: “If you only focus on tests, you’ll fail to provide kids with what they need.”

    Later, Justina Schlund from the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning asked educators who are doing the work of SEL to think about their purpose: “Are you doing SEL to produce calm and compliant students? Or do you engage in SEL work to produce active citizens who will be prepared to go out and positively impact society?”

    That question resonated with me because too often SEL becomes code for building stronger relationships with students in order to increase compliance, which undermines its essence and purpose.

    Later that day, I had the pleasure of sharing my work as a social justice teacher leader and curriculum writer alongside my fellow ILA 2019 30 Under 30 honorees. I met Matt Panozzo and heard how he uses literacy to teach middle school students about identity and empathy in Houston, TX. Patrick Burke discussed his work with teacher preparation programs in Ireland. I spoke at length with Nangamso Mtsatse about the work she is pioneering in South Africa around literacy instruction for elementary students in their native languages. And I was deeply moved by Shontoria Walker’s work with black boys in Texas. Through her research, she found that SEL does affect achievement. Sharing a platform with young educators who have a positive impact on communities around the world was an honor and a privilege.

    SEL is deeply embedded in literacy

    The next day, I joined Kimberly Eckert, Shawna Coppola, Tamera Slaughter, and Tiana Silvas for the Equity in Education Program event, “Integrating Social-Emotional Learning in the Literacy Classroom.” Eckert reflected on a field trip to a Louisiana prison with her students, where they explored the education system and how SEL permeated the classrooms. Slaughter reminded us that SEL begins with the teacher. We must do the work on ourselves first before we can support our students. Silvas shared powerful stories of her childhood and emphasized how critical providing students with space to share their stories is. And Coppola challenged us to meet students where they are. Storytelling and SEL can look different for all students.

    My time at ILA 2019 ended shortly thereafter, but not before I had the pleasure of joining six educators from different states for a collaborative session. We discussed the problems our school communities faced with implementing SEL and proposed solutions that would support our respective schools.

    From theory to practice

    ILA 2019 reminded me of the direct connection between literacy and social action, and that as educators, we must move with urgency to create academic and professional spaces that are diverse, equitable, and aligned to social action.

    When I returned to Philadelphia, I was hyperaware of just how important literacy was in my own school community. I connected with my grade team at The Philadelphia School and challenged them to think about how we can use narratives and discussions in our community meetings to emphasize themes of belonging, diversity, and empathy. We decided to move forward with a nine-session unit on identity development. We chose to push students to grapple with who they are, what experiences and thoughts influence the decisions they make, and the obligations to create inclusive and empathetic spaces within our school community.

    My experience challenged me to consider the deep value in creating spaces for educators and researchers to convene. The sessions we attend, the conversations and networking we engage in, and the partnerships we create in those spaces mean nothing if we fail to apply what we learn to how we practice.

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  • Read Aloud
    • Teaching Tips

    Celebrating World Read Aloud Day

     | Feb 04, 2020

    World Read Aloud Day is Wednesday, February 5! To celebrate the occasion, Pam Allyn, the founding director of LitWorld, shares some ways to create a home or classroom environment for more impactful read-alouds:

    Designate a special place and time for reading aloud: Whether you are creating an elaborate fort together or something simpler, like a reading “nook,” building a safe space allows kids to relax and open up for conversation and to engage around the books you are reading together.

    Keep track of books that inspire the richest conversations: Make a file on your device to save favorite read-aloud titles. Find space in your classroom to post children’s reviews and comments after reading. Document the journey together, valuing the titles that invite new worlds and/or reflect your deepest selves.

    Solicit your students for story recommendations and books they want to read (and read again) to share ownership of the read aloud experience: Scholastic, LitWorld’s extraordinary sponsor in World Read Aloud Day, published the Kids and Family Reading Report, which shows that children are most likely to finish (and enjoy) books they choose themselves.

    Make read-aloud a performance: Invite students from other classrooms, teachers, librarians, staff, parents, grandparents, and members of the local community. Stage a play, read aloud from children’s own narratives, or host a read-aloud-athon on World Read Aloud Day to bring the importance of reading aloud to the fore.

    Use read-aloud as a tool for social justice and equity: By discussing a shared text, we can honor and hear quieter voices in our classrooms and at home. Make sure to stop for “turn and talks” during the read-aloud and to select books that reflect a wide range of cultures, languages, and perspectives.

    In this way, multiple voices and stories wash over your community like a cleansing, celebratory rain, signifying the start of a new era and a time when all children’s voices matter and will be heard.

    For more resources, visit Remember to use the hashtag #WorldReadAloudDay on Twitter to share your stories!

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  • Menu of Options
    • The Engaging Classroom

    Creating a Menu of Options in Classroom Libraries

    JULIE Scullen
     | Jan 29, 2020

    If you’ve been to the Cheesecake Factory, you know the menu. The Cheesecake Factory menu reads like a short novel; the pasta menu alone contains more than a dozen items. The online menu boasts 36 different types of cheesecake. There is a full page just for salads, another full page for pizza, and separate pages for sandwiches, seafood, and steak. Their website brags of "more than 250 dishes made from scratch every day."

    The first time I dined at the Cheesecake Factory, I was overwhelmed by the volume of choices. I couldn’t decide because everything looked good. Some things looked familiar, but I didn’t want to eat the same thing I always eat. Some things sounded good but had ingredients and descriptions that were unfamiliar. What if it was too spicy or had mushrooms? I hate mushrooms.

    My daughter tried to help by narrowing my thinking: “Are you hungry for pasta? Seafood? How about one of their nummy specialties?” This didn’t help one bit—now I wanted some of everything. I was paralyzed at the thought of making the wrong choice. Others around me were having no trouble choosing, which raised my anxiety.

    We had to ask the waitress to give us more time. Twice. Finally, I chose three items and asked my daughter to pick what she thought I’d like best of those. She had been to the restaurant before, and she knew me well. My meal was delicious.

    As I was reflecting later, it struck me that the emotion I felt as I struggled with the overwhelming menu was the same emotion many students can feel when they enter our school libraries. There are so many choices! Do I want fiction? What kind? Realistic fiction, historical fiction, science fiction? If I ask for guidance, what if someone gives me bad advice?

    What teacher hasn’t stumbled across students in the book stacks with a glazed look staring at spines with their hands in their pockets? 

    When someone tries to help, the pressure can be even more daunting. Do you want speculative fiction? A dystopian novel? How about dystopian romance? A dystopian adventure? Steampunk? What was the last book you read that you liked? Who is your favorite author? Do you like funny authors?

    That indecision brings many of our students to just pull any book with a thin spine off the shelf and run for the checkout.

    I am not concerned that classroom libraries would ever supersede our sprawling building libraries—they won’t. We need school libraries to provide something for everyone. Therefore, we need media specialists to curate shelves of books to represent our students and their interests. We trust these professionals to know what our readers need. They have a special menu of magic our classroom teachers can’t access because of time and funding. Classroom teachers can lead students to the right book, but media specialists ensure students have an opportunity to read widely over several years.

    Our classroom libraries can become an effective gateway to our building libraries. With the right guidance from someone who sees students every day and knows them well, students can make good choices. When a teacher has conferred with readers several times over weeks and months, that teacher can help students successfully narrow the vast menu of options or broaden it to include new choices. Reluctant readers, in particular, might need a “just right” suggestion to locate a “just right” book. A teacher who has listened to a student’s stories about his or her family might be able to pull something off a classroom shelf and invite that student to “try a few pages to make sure this is for you.” A teacher who knows a student’s traveling basketball team record might have the perfect picture book for him or her. Likewise, a teacher who knows a student likes Gordan Korman, or David Lubar, or Stuart Gibbs will be able not only to point that student to those shelves but also to introduce him or her to similar authors.

    Both building and classroom libraries are crucial to the reading success of our students, with each providing a different menu of options and services. Let’s make sure our readers can make use of both.

    (In case you are wondering, I had the lasagna.)

    Julie Scullen is a former member of the ILA Board of Directors. She taught most of her career in secondary reading intervention classrooms and now serves as Teaching and Learning Specialist for Secondary Reading in Anoka-Hennepin schools in Minnesota, working with teachers of all content areas to foster literacy achievement. She is currently a doctoral candidate at Judson University.

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  • Reflections NovDec19 LT
    • Putting Books to Work

    Reading the World

     | Nov 19, 2019

    Offering stories that reflect our contemporary communities is important for our children. “Let’s read the world” is a goal to champion! As a classroom and special education teacher, and now a university professor in curriculum, I’m interested in the opportunities we have in schools and libraries to teach so much more than literacy when we’re teaching the language arts. 

    In my role as a researcher in children’s literature, I’ve been exploring patterns and trends that should be concerning to educators. How many of the titles we share in our classrooms reflect people with exceptionalities? Are we representing gender in diverse, nonstereotypical ways? Could we do better in messages that help save our planet, that inspire children to care for each other and themselves, that break down barriers?

    I think of some amazing teachers I had in my own classroom contexts. Mrs. Gaston read aloud from Meindert deJong’s House of Sixty Fathers (HarperCollins) and—even today, almost 50 years later—I can recall everything about the way this exceptional story motivated discussions that we would not have initiated on our own. Mrs. Nichols shared Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (Macmillan) and Paul Zindel’s The Pigman (HarperTeen), two books I occasionally reread today for the courage they bring. But these teachers were the exception rather than the rule, and I continue to see classrooms where reading to students is not a key activity.

    Some titles I share with my undergraduate students that bring currency and engagement to their preservice teaching experiences are Kai Cheng Thom’s From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea (Arsenal Pulp Press), Sara Leach’s Penguin Days (Pajama Press), Sara Cassidy’s A Boy Named Queen (Groundwood Books), Beth Goobie’s Jason’s Why (Red Deer Press), Pamela Porter’s The Crazy Man (Groundwood Books), Kate DiCamillo’s The Tiger Rising (Candlewick), Cynthia Lord’s Rules (Scholastic), Kenneth Oppel’s Darkwing (HarperCollins), Arthur Slade’s Dust (Random House), Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s Skim (Groundwood Books), and Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse (Douglas &McIntyre).

    If you are a teacher who shares great literature with your students, or a teacher educator who models readalouds, I am grateful. You truly make a difference!

    Beverley Brenna (, an ILA member since 2009, is a professor in Curriculum Studies at the College of Education, University of Saskatchewan, Canada. She has published more than a dozen books for young people including the Wild Orchid trilogy (Red Deer Press) about a teen with autism (winner of a Printz Honor Book Award, a Dolly Gray Award, shortlisted for a Canadian Governor General’s Award, and listed on CBC’s “Young Adult Books That Make You Proud To Be Canadian”). She aims through her artistic work to address the gaps that she sees in literature for young people. Her most recent middle grade novels are examples: Fox Magic (Red Deer Press) explores mental health and suicide prevention and Sapphire the Great and the Meaning of Life (Pajama Press) invites discussions of diversity through LGBTQ+ characters.

    This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.

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