“Just Me, Really?” Fostering Personal Taste in the Classroom

I happened upon a Facebook post this morning that included one reader’s comment that she was the “only person on the planet who really disliked that series.” That got me thinking of books that I find myself seeming to be the only person not to like them. Others soon chimed in with titles they felt alone in not liking, and we also quickly realized that we are not alone in our dislikes.

The idea was sparked, then: how can we bring this to the classroom? Should we have our students, perhaps, share the books they didn’t like that everyone else loved? Should we help them find that they’re not alone?

This made me think of my reading last night. I’ve been making my way through Donalyn Miller’s Reading in the Wild (I like to read professional books over break when I can really digest them). I’m in the middle of Chapter 2: Wild Readers Self-Select Reading Material. Without giving away everything that happens (as you really should read the book for yourself), Donalyn gives us a story of a time in her classroom when she abandoned a book that it seemed like everyone else had loved. What she does next, though, is brilliant. She turns it into a challenge to see who will try the book so that she has someone to talk to about it. Of course, her students follow her lead, and she has many students sign up to read it, and eventually, it finds its proper home (Miller 58-60).

There are things I think are right about the way Donalyn Miller does it that we might find ourselves neglecting if we try another way. The conversation clearly includes a reader’s right to not finish (from Daniel Pennac’s Reader’s Bill of Rights), yet — and this is the key — stays positive about books and reading. When inviting others to try a book you didn’t like, you’re communicating to them “this book was not for me, but I’d like to know who it’s right for. Maybe it’s right for you. Would you like to try it?” And it becomes a gauntlet thrown down, in a way, for someone to read the book and like it. And eventually, someone will.

Now, the Facebook thread was just fine for us, because just about everyone who commented was a teacher or librarian, or at the very least an adult reader. We know and understand that just because we didn’t like a book, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad book, and it doesn’t mean anything negative about those who do like the book. Our students don’t necessarily realize this. I think it’s vital that we spin the conversation away from “what books did you not like that everyone else did?” and more towards “who is the right reader for this book that you didn’t like?” It keeps the reading environment a positive one, reinforces the right for every book to exist, and supports those who feel in the minority — both those who like and those who dislike books.

So, even though I’m a math teacher this year, this is what I would do were I teaching English. Perhaps you English teachers could humor me and try this out, eh?

  • Upon returning from break, I’d share with my students a book I recently read (or abandoned) that I didn’t enjoy, even though it was highly recommended for me.
  • I’d ask them to create a short list (no more than 3 books) that they didn’t like that everyone else seemed to love.
  • For each book, I’d want them to list specifically what didn’t work for them.
  • For each book, I’d want them to think of who would like this book. If someone were to like this book, what other books would they probably like? Are there any specific people in the classroom who they think would like the book, even though they didn’t? Why?
  • We would share. And we’d try to match readers to books. We would foster the “I didn’t like this book, but I think you might” conversation.
  • And then, of course, we’d read.

What other ideas do you have with the “Just Me, Really?” phenomenon and how to use it in the classroom?


Curveballs, Part Two

In my most recent post, I talked about a few major curveballs in my life. Of course, there have been more than I discussed and there will certainly be more to come. Part of the beauty of curveballs is that we don’t know when they’re coming, so we just have to react as soon as we seen them. There’s really no way to prepare.

Or is there?

Though we cannot prepare for the changes life throws at us, we can prepare — mentally, emotionally, and physically — for change. This isn’t a case of “expecting the unexpected.” This just means that we need to be able to have the things we think we rely on and take for granted taken away from us or altered in some way, and still be able to come out the other side. And we can do this without demeaning the wonderful things we have in our lives. We can love our families with our whole hearts, yet still carry on — eventually — if someone dies. We can put all of our creative passion into our jobs, yet still move on if that job is no longer there. We can love running, yet still manage to get by if we lose our legs.

These are grand examples, obviously, but things happen, and we need to find ways to keep moving forward.


What are we doing these days to help our students with this? What are we doing to prepare them for the unforseen changes they’re going to encounter?

Are we providing them with a structured daily routine they crave because of its security, or are we shaking things up every now and then so they will learn to react to such changes?

Are we providing them all the steps necessary to solve a problem, and then giving them a problem, or are we asking them to find a solution on their own with the tools they have?

Are we teaching them the things that the CCSS says are important to them, or are we teaching them the things that we think are important to them, or are we helping them with the things they know are important to them?

We cannot, and must not, just produce a bunch of students who can snooze through the same thing day in and day out, fill out some bubble sheets for questions we’ve already provided the answers for, and pretend we’re helping out the future of the world. The public has invested in education because it is better to have an educated populace than an uneducated one. But what’s better yet is to have a generation which is able to handle the curveballs thrown at them. Because we can’t see what’s coming. Neither can they. So how can we possibly prepare them for it?

We can do it by training them to be comfortable with change.

So, what curveballs have you given your students lately? I’ll start off. Instead of giving my 7th graders a traditional test on percents, markup/discount, and interest, I gave them a problem in which they are opening a school store and had to use those skills to come up with a solution. They were prepared from a math perspective, but it was a different sort of assessment for them. They struggled. Some of them struggled mightily. But I believe they are better off for having a curveball thrown at them.


Sometimes, you find yourself working on a Tuesday night and realize that you haven’t blogged in a while. And if you happen to be me, that happened tonight. Now, I have a few things I’d like to blog about, and I will. But blogging has sort of taken a back seat to planning out lessons and assessments for the three levels of math I haven’t taught before. Side note, because I think this is kind of interesting: I have now taught math at every level my 6-12 certification allows me to teach. But I like this blog, and people are apparently still stopping by, so I ought to give them something to read.

Tonight’s thought: curveballs.

I was thinking I should blog about NCTE, my first time presenting at a national conference, and all kinds of good things from that. But then that got me thinking about my first NCTE. And I realized that I need to talk about curveballs.

You see, the first NCTE I attended was in 2012. It was awesome. I wrote about it here. But the first NCTE that affected me directly was in 2011. I did not attend. I asked my principal if there was money to send me, and she said no, there was not. I was bummed. I was getting into Twitter and had high hopes of collaborating with people in person. I knew if I wasn’t there, I’d be missing out on something. She suggested I attend MRA, the Michigan Reading Association conference, instead.


I was disappointed and upset. I didn’t want to go to a literacy conference. I was a literature teacher! Seriously, I actually said that to my teaching partner. I’ve since recanted. And I decided I should check out MRA. I stumbled upon a grant to attend, was awarded the grant, and was able to go.

While I was there, I met people who are still, to this day, changing my life. You see, MRA was in March 2012. The Nerdy Book Club was started in December 2011. Donalyn Miller, Colby Sharp, and many Michigan/Indiana/Illinois Nerdies were in attendance. I remember meeting Donalyn and Colby. I was walking with one of the other grant winners after the opening session. I saw them ahead of me and actually forgot to speak. I said something along the lines of “it’s…hey…buh…mahjongiternuh” to the person I had up to that point actually been saying intelligible things to. She wisely left me to myself, and I approached Colby and Donalyn, who were probably in the middle of hatching some plan to save the readers of the world (sorry for ruining that for everyone). When I shook their hands (and there was probably an embrace involved — I mean, who doesn’t Donalyn hug?), I remember saying their names to them. As if I needed to remind them of their names instead of introducing myself. Later on, I met many other Nerdy Book Club members, and remembered to give my name. I don’t remember everything I learned that weekend, but I do remember the connections that are still changing my life. I am a better teacher because of everyone I met at MRA. All because I was unable to find funding to go to NCTE.

Fast forward a couple months. I saw a Twitter conversation about something called Teachers Write! This was a summer writing project directed at teachers, especially those who are looking to write their own books. I decided to get involved, and it developed me tons as a writer and as a teacher of writing. I built relationships through this that led to me presenting with the organizers at NCTE this year. Did I intend for this to happen? Absolutely not. Am I glad it did and better off for it? Absolutely.


Fast forward…well, our timeline isn’t really in one piece right now, as we’re both in late spring of 2012 and in late fall of 2013, but fast forward/rewind to early fall of 2013. I find myself needing to leave one job, and I fortunately find another. I expected to teach high school English this year, and now I’m teaching middle school math.

Another curveball.

There are plenty of curveballs I’ve been thrown over my fairly young life, and they all have sent me to where I am now. But as I look back on them, I find that relationships are at the heart of them all. I don’t remember everything I learned. I don’t remember all the emotions. What has lasted for me are the relationships I’ve found and the community I have built around me. I can’t imagine my life without MRA. It would be far worse than it is. I can’t imagine my life without Teachers Write! and presenting at NCTE. Those are experiences I will always have to build upon, and have already been adding to my professional life. While it’s early in my time as a math teacher at Hale, I am excited about what this curveball will bring. Where will these relationships take me?


Coming up, which I’m posting here to get people thinking about it and to remind myself to blog about it: in what ways do curveballs affect our students?