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The Engaging Classroom
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Literacy Instruction: 2020 and Beyond
ILA Membership
ILA Next
Literacy Instruction: 2020 and Beyond
  • 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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  • young-boy-writing_w140
    • The Engaging Classroom
    • Teaching Tips

    Research-Based Literacy Instruction Strategies

     | Nov 05, 2019

    Every time students pick up a new word or understand the deeper meaning behind a story, their passion for reading grows and prepares them for a future of rich literacy education. The end goal for educators is to instill passion in their students to keep reaching for books. However, getting students to that point can be difficult. No one learner is exactly like another, and every student comes with personal learning preferences and challenges, which pose a major hurdle when it comes to collective classroom learning. 

    Research-based instruction strategies can help educators reach all of their students regardless of the differences among them. Not only do these strategies offer proven evidence for what does and doesn’t work, but they also propose ideas and tactics that educators may have never even thought of implementing in their classroom.  

    We’ve compiled a list of research-based methods for maximizing literacy instruction. Check out the links below for ways to improve the reading experience of our young students:

    Of course, just like every student, every classroom is also different. A concept that works well in one (or many) may be ineffective in another. The most important part is that educators never stop trying until they find the most effective strategies to complement their unique group of students.

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  • magic-read-aloud-th
    • Teaching Tips

    Trick-or-Read! Tricks for Treating Your Classroom to Halloween Literacy Activities

     | Oct 29, 2019

    While your students are focused on optimizing their trick-or-treat routes in order to get as much candy as possible, keeping their attention in the classroom can be difficult. But don’t let that spook you—take advantage of their Halloween excitement! This list of candy-coated classroom activities, terrifying tales, and phantasmic prompts are sure to keep things from getting “boo-ring.”

    • The National Education Association’s list of Halloween lesson plans for grades K–5 includes hands-on activities, printable worksheets, and more to help welcome the spooky spirit into your classroom.
    • TeachHUB offers suspense-filled reading and writing activities for teaching literacy concepts, language skills, and the historical roots of the holiday to horror enthusiasts of all ages.
    • Keep the day not-so-spooky with some storytelling. A Teachable Teacher’s guide to Halloween books provides descriptions for each book and some accompanying activities so you can make the best pick suited for your students whether they prefer witches or mummies.
    • Scholastic’s list of writing prompts offers 11 “spooktacular” story starters to get your students to express their excitement for Halloween through creative writing.
    • Halloween coincides with the Mexican holiday Día de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. EduHup’s resource roundup features ways to immerse your classroom into the holiday’s rich history and traditions, which will not only broaden your students’ knowledge but also help them develop an appreciation for other cultures.

    Share your classroom Halloween ideas with @ILAToday on Twitter!

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    • The Engaging Classroom

    Emotions Matter

    By Bhawana Shrestha
     | Sep 23, 2019

    LT372_Reflections_680wAs I overheard a heated Viber conversation between a 21-year-old female (we shared space in the same girls’ hostel in Kathmandu) and her boyfriend (who was studying abroad in the United States), I experienced a sinking feeling that made me question: Where are we heading as human beings?

    In today’s age, we have more opportunities than ever before. Yet, as the conversation I heard suggested, we are not happier and we are more stressed and overwhelmed.

    This young woman came to Kathmandu with high expectations to achieve her dreams. But life is not that easy. Kathmandu is expensive and remaining resilient every day in light of her family’s increasing expectations was frustrating for her. Unable to manage her emotions, she was venting to her boyfriend, who had his own share of struggles as an international student in the U.S. from a third world country.

    If critical thinking is regarded as a fundamental aspect of 21st-century education, why aren’t we starting with thinking about our own lives—what we are feeling and why, how we can manage our emotions better, and what our values are so that we can cultivate relationships and pursue careers that give us fulfillment?

    Always fond of asking questions, I started out as a journalist when I was 17 and later switched careers and served in rural Nepal through the Teach for Nepal fellowship. This was when I realized how emotional well-being plays a crucial role in the learning process.

    Later, when I joined a faculty for undergrads, I realized students even in the city struggled with

    emotional intelligence. A 2013 study by Travis Bradberry and his team at TalentSmart concluded that only 38 out of 100 Nepalese could explain what emotions they experienced a day prior.

    Astonished, I conducted my master’s research on 200 students to measure the state of emotional intelligence in Nepal. This led me to understand that the skills of emotional intelligence were lacking in teachers, and because the teachers weren’t empowered to nurture such important skills in their students, those students would go on to lack crucial skills to deal with life’s challenges.

    All these years, I have witnessed pain in a lot of confused youth who could do so much better if they learned the skills of emotional intelligence. But every time I talk to a crowd of 30, only two raise their hands when I ask if they know about emotional intelligence, and only one usually gets its definition right.

    This has led me to my latest venture, My Emotions Matter, a social enterprise committed to developing emotional intelligence in students, teachers, and working professionals.

    Through self-reflective experiences, we introduce emotional intelligence as a learnable life skill so that individuals are more aware, intentional, and purposeful in their personal and professional lives.

    If people develop the capacity to understand and manage their emotions, they will be in a better position to interact positively and form meaningful relationships. They will be better focused on their goals and resilient in the face of setbacks. These skills can help people navigate fluctuations in their emotions that come from 24/7 connectedness, cultivate intentional face-to-face conversations, respect others for who they are, and pursue meaningful careers.

    The World Economic Forum predicts emotional intelligence to be the sixth most important skill in the workplace by 2020. This crucial ability is what I believe can help human beings flourish.

    Bhawana Shrestha, an ILA member since 2015, is from Nepal. She holds a master of philosophy degree in English, with her research concentration on the state of emotional intelligence in Nepal. She is the cofounder of My Emotions Matter, which helps improve school and organizational climate through emotional intelligence. Shrestha was an ILA 2015 30 Under 30 honoree.

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

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