Tag Archives: literacy

How to get physical copies of books to students

Getting books in the hands of students is crucial to supporting their sense of well-being and reducing anxiety during the Stay-at-Home order. And while we here are massive fans of ebooks, we also don’t want to overlook the importance of the good old-fashioned paperback.

To recap: paperbacks are good.

Ebooks are good.

Audiobooks, graphic novels, Choose-Your-Own Adventures, romance novels, online articles — all these things are good. They all count as reading.

Now, we’ve exhaustively covered the ways to get hold of digital reading materials, so right now we’re going to talk hard copies. Hard copies of books don’t require bandwidth. They don’t fall off the wifi and they’re remarkably nonchalant about whether you have a device available or no. At the same time, they can provide students with ways to stay in touch with friend networks or connect with their larger community about reading.

Let’s read!

Did we mention the libraries? We should mention libraries. Just a little.

Libraries are kind of amazing, y’all. For the princely sum of zero dollars, libraries will let you waltz into their living rooms and make off with their primo reading material. Or, at least, they used to. In order to comply with Governor Scott’s stay-at-home order, libraries have gotten creative.

Let’s get takeout!

Yes, libraries are now doing takeout. A number of them here in Vermont — and at a minimum we’re shouting out Carpenter-Carse, Brandon, Lincoln, Starksboro, Quechee, Swanton, and Shelburne — are taking phone and email orders for books.

Let’s pause here for a second and admire the fact that you can pick up a landline, phone your librarian and place an order for books. And these libraries package up the books for you in a neat, individual parcel and let you do curbside pick-up.

Quechee leaves your books outside the back door. Brandon has you drive up during normally “open” hours and a librarian will place your paper bag full of books outside the door. Carpenter-Carse does hands-free transactions in their parking lot. So many solutions.

Also: Brandon’s takeout line sizzled so hot they ran out of paper bags and had to crowd-source more from the community to meet demand. True story. Ten points: Brandon (town and library both).

(The Brandon Free Public Library has also begun hosting an online trivia night, online community meditation, and Zoom-based Dungeons & Dragons games, but that’s another story. Analog. Focus.)

Actually, I’m more in the mood for delivery.

Curbside pick-up is amazing, but a lot of your students may not have their licenses, or not have access to a vehicle, or might, realistically, be in households that are isolating or in quarantine. That’s fine, because pandemics rarely stop librarians. Have you met them?

At least one school librarian has sent books home with their school’s food deliveries and at the printed packet pick up. #unstoppable

But recognizing the ongoing need in their communities, many of the public libraries around Vermont are finding a way to deliver books directly to homes. Shout out to Carpenter-Carse, Swanton and Starksboro AT A MINIMUM.

Meg Allison, librarian at U-32 Middle & High School, in Montpelier VT, (and previous #vted Reads guest) created a unique solution by partnering with Montpelier’s local bookstore, Bear Pond Books:

I used encumbered money from my budget at Bear Pond Books to purchase a substantial gift card. I order books for kids & BP mails to their houses. I’ve only done this for a few students, but plan on having a book group  one more time this year w/books sent from the store.

Kids will need to return them in the fall to be catalogued.

That is a whole lot of good work in one place, y’all.

Cross the streams: online & off.

Taking a different tack, the Fletcher Free Library in Burlington VT, is offering patrons a chance to asynchronously earn digital badges to track their reading. That’s right, it’s like reading logs, only sexier. If you’re working with limited wifi or bandwidth, this is a great way to minimize your usage for maximum payoff.

Hop on: read the badge requirement, sign up. Hop off: go read a book for hours and hours. Then hop back on and grab your badge.

Fletcher badges

Tiny free libraries: they’re free & tiny

One community solution to running out of reading material: the tiny free library. Small, decorative, unmanned weather-proof boxes exist in communities around the world for you to leave a book, and take another book.

And right now tiny free libraries are hopping.

How popular are they? This rural writer can think of three within biking distance of her home. And since the stay-at-home order the turnover at tiny free libraries has been brisk.

They’ve also been responsive: at one tiny free library, a patron wrote in the log that she was disappointed there weren’t more books available for the 3rd and 4th grade reading levels. Within the week, books aimed at younger readers began appearing. Speak up, and ask for what you need.

Not seeing your tiny free library get much action? Hop on Front Porch Forum and ask your neighbors how they’re feeling about the selection and if they’d like to refresh their stock.

Not seeing a tiny free library in your neighborhood? Here are some detailed instructions about what you need to build a tiny free library in your neighborhood, including dealing with zoning laws and construction. We also recommend you hop on Front Porch Forum and ask if any of your neighbors are having the same idea about building one. That way you could pool resources (“I’m great at design and angles, but a bit dodgy with a saw. How are your wood-cutting skills?”) and meet other people who are looking to swap books.

Now, before we get too far down this road, a note about safety.

Please use the utmost caution in sharing physical items such as books and comics, whether from your local community library, the little free library down the road or your friends next door. Wash your hands. Set the books outside for 48 hours and wash your hands again. Wipe down the plastic covers of hardbacks or jacketed library books with a bleach wipe, and then wash your hands again, just for us. One more time.

Wash wash wash. Soap soap soap.

Thank you. And don’t think libraries themselves aren’t thinking along similar lines. At the Starksboro Public Library, in Starksboro VT, they instituted book deliveries only after the librarian and trustees drafted this whole entire protocol for book-handling:

As the virus is believed to live on paper for up to 24 hours and on plastic for up to 72 hours, items will be bagged on Monday by the library director, wearing a mask, and delivered on Thursday by a volunteer. The materials will be in a plastic bag marked with the patron’s address. Reading selections will still be confidential as they have always been. Deliveries will be made on Thursdays between noon and 3pm by a volunteer wearing a mask and gloves. Patrons may wish to further quarantine items at home before touching materials. Packages will be placed on the front porch of your home or another specified outdoor location and social distancing will be maintained. A text will be sent upon delivery. Patrons are encouraged to borrow more material, less often, to lessen exposure to other people.

Wash your hands after reading this post, too. Just to be on the safe side.


That’s: Build Your Own Book Circle.

One of the best ways to express your love of books is to share it with other people. The book club thing gets tricky once you take it offline, and accounting for safety protocols.(Go wash your hands again. It’s not getting old, treat yourself to some delightful smelling soap.)

So we suggest: Book Circle!

You and a few friends sharing and reviewing your books together in sequence. Decide what you’d like to read and set norms for talking about each other’s books. Set clear boundaries with each other by asking things like:

  • What level of peril are you okay with in your reading? (G, PG, PG-13, R?)
  • Are there any genres you aren’t familiar with that you’d like to become more familiar with?
  • Is it okay with you if we read spiritual or religious books, or is that something you reserve for your family?
  • Are there any subjects you absolutely positively don’t want to read about?

You and your friends can do this over email, or kick the process off over email and leave notes in each other’s mailboxes. Or, to be totally off-line, one person sets a notebook out — in the little free library, for instance — and you all take a page to write in. (Teachers, I’m sure you have a thousand great ways to coordinate this.)

Then everyone in the Book Circle contributes a book.

Pick a central location, like one person’s house, where you stash a special milk crate (or box or satchel — something distinctive but weatherproof) where everyone drops off their book. The idea with book circle is not that you’re all reading the same book at once, but that you all wind up with a different book one of the other’s has read, and the books keep flowing. Put a list in the milk crate so you know who has which book at any given time.

After you each read your new book, write up a quick review on a sheet of notepaper, sign it, and paper clip it into the back of the book. As the book circles, the reviews will accumulate, and the original owner will wind up with some reflections from friend on their favorite reads when the book comes home.

It can be tricky to just whip up a book review out of thin air, so maybe as part of setting up your circle, you can pull together a set of pre-determined questions for everyone to answer about their reads. We have some ideas!

Sample Book Circle Questions

  1. What did you like best about this book?
  2. What, if anything, would you have changed about the book’s plot?
  3. Did anything in the book remind you of your own life?
  4. Did anything in the book remind you of any of your own favorite books?
  5. If you could write a sequel to this book, how would it go?
  6. Did the ending surprise you?
  7. Would you read something else by this author?

Also remember that not everyone gets super jazzed about writing, so be prepared to make accommodations, such as recording answers to the questions on Voice Memo, or accepting typed responses over email. Teachers, again, will likely have all the best ideas for coordinating this part.

You could also reach out to your local library and see if they have any ideas for helping run or manage your book circle. After all, they’re pretty much doing everything else under the sun these days…

Happy #NationalLibraryWeek, everybody.

How to get ebooks in the hands of students

The other day as I imagined my thirteen-year-old self stuck at home for the remainder of the school year, I panicked!  By now I would have read, and re-read my entire library. Where would I get more books?

Never fear: books are everywhere!

Fiction has always been a means of escape for me, a way to forget about harsh realities.

And it seems it is not just my imagined past self that is having this crisis.  A colleague mentioned that his daughters and their friends have started a book exchange to refresh their own stacks of reading material. Numerous teachers have also reached out to ask how they can get new titles into the hands of their students.

Now, this is an emotional time, folks, and I don’t want to overwhelm you. But books are definitely an emotional topic for me, and that emotion is LOVE! You don’t need to access ALL OF THE THINGS, just find the ones that work for you and your learners. Find the ones that help you all get hold of reading material that you love.

First, check your local library.

Recently, librarians have been working overtime to make our Covid-19 lives a little more bearable. Libraries are going all-out right now to get books in your hands. Ask and ye shall receive.

Meet Libby

how to get ebooks libby appThe Libby App allows public library patrons (kids and adults) to borrow ebooks and audiobooks for free with a library card. They have a huge selection that’s categorized by genre, as well as special collections. Now is as good a time as any to get in the habit of using your local public library, albeit virtually!

(I am currently reading Free Lunch by Rex Ogle using the Libby App.)

Go into Overdrive

how to get ebooksThe Green Mountain Library Consortium, also affiliated with Vermont’s public libraries, makes titles available through Overdrive. And there are So. Many. Great titles here! Students can access titles on Overdrive via their local public library, or via their school.

Due to current public demand, the Green Mountain Library Consortium has made available additional copies of popular titles such as — be still my heart — the ENTIRE HARRY POTTER SERIES. Ebook and audio versions both. They too, assemble special collections for your heart’s content, including right now, a collection of curated STEAM project books for students.

These folks are serious about getting you good stuff, and we heart them real hard. Thank you Green Mountain Library Consortium!

Take off with Sora

how to get ebooks sora appMany Vermont School libraries have accounts that allow students to access books through the Sora App. The app is designed specifically for student access to ebooks, as opposed to access for the general public. Now, once you’ve downloaded the app to your device, you choose your school from the list. And then you log in with your school email account.

Second: authors are being amazing right now

Almost as soon as schools started closing, authors started stepping up. In a big, big way. They have given permission for teachers to read their books online, they’re going live on Instagram to perform their books and answer reader questions. They’re making extra material from the books available, they’re recording themselves reading on YouTube — you cannot swing a Babysitters Club paperback without hitting a passel of authors giving it their all to make books available. Thank you, authors!

Here are a few places to find them en masse:

Authors (literally) Everwhere

Authors Everywhere! is a YouTube channel that provides videos with a huge number of children’s book authors. They serve up book talks, readalouds, writer’s workshops, and more. The Children’s Book Council is assembling an ongoing YouTube playlist of authors reading their works aloud. Additionally, We Are Teachers is curating a massive list of authors reading their works aloud online. They’ve striated the list by age group because of course they did. Teachers are amazing.

Get involved: ask an author

Kids Ask Authors is a great podcast featuring writer Grace Lin and a guest author.  Kids can also submit questions, poems, book reviews, or jokes for future episodes.

And while we’re on the topic, if you have a favorite author you’d like to hear more from, this is a great opportunity to reach out to them and ask. (Transferable skills in action!)

Join a book club

National Book Club for Kids connects 4-6th graders with fabulous books and authors. May will feature Kelly Yang’s Front Desk and Refugee, just to name two.

2.5 Let’s give it up for authors, ’cause they are giving it up for us

I’m going to call this “reader advisory”. In no particular order, here’s nine authors giving us all their love:

  1. Vermont author Jo Knowles reads the introduction to Where the Heart Is and offers a suggestion for writers working on their own stories.
  2. Jason Reynolds reads a portion of Ghost.  (I admit it, I am a HUGE Jason Reynolds fan!  And I love the way he reads his own work!)
  3. Joyce Sidman’s books of poetry have been on the Vermont Red Clover Book Award list many times. Here she offers some poem starters for young poets.
  4. Prolific and award-winning Catherynne M. Valente reads from her hugely popular Orphan Tales each night on instagram, and just released a new free short story in ebook and audio formats.
  5. Meanwhile on her instagram, Sarah Rees Brennan is posting extra material from her Sabrina, The Teenage Witch tie-in novels.
  6. Daniel Pinkwater is giving away audio versions of his books for free. #SnarkoutBoysRide
  7. Maureen Johnson is sharing free lesson plans (Common Core included) to accompany her trio of Vermont-based YA mysteries that culminated with The Hand on the Wall.
  8. LeVar Burton is *not* an author, but he’s rebooted Reading Rainbow as a podcast and it’s even better than you remember it.
  9. Author Kate Messner has organized a TON of links to authors reading excerpts of their books and sharing resources.I’ve been dying to read Chirp, here is a video of Messner reading chapter 1.

I could go on, but I’ll stop before your eyes glaze over!

Third: publishers are showing up, too

It isn’t easy to offer your goods for free, but some publishers are doing just that.  Here are a couple that are offering their books at no cost.


Epic! provides ebooks to students aged 12 years and under.  Currently, they are offering free access to families for 30 days and free access to students until June 30, 2020.

Junior Library Guild!

Junior Library Guild is offering free access to their JLG Digital Online Reading Platform. It includes an array of options for elementary, middle, and high school readers, it features a variety of fiction and nonfiction titles. New books are added each month.


Simon & Schuster are providing free access to a range of YA titles through Riveted.  (I’m hoping to read Enchanted Air by Margarita Engle.)


Abdo Digital is offering a variety of books for students of all ages, as well as databases, all for free.

Finally, don’t miss out on online book events

For a lot of readers, myself included, a huge part of the excitement of reading is sharing that love. And while we’re currently constrained as to getting together in person, there’s a ton of folks heading online.

Yall West is this weekend! The popular Santa Monica CA-based book festival has headed online so yall stay home and flatten the curve. So many YA authors (I’m tuning in for fantasy powerhouses Sonan Chainani, Hafsah Faizal and Bethany C. Morrow. Plus Nic Stone. And Angie Thomas. And–) Festivities kick off Friday, and feature events for both students and teachers. A happy mix. Saturday morning features a Nic Stone and Angie Thomas smackdown. (Angie Thomas!)

(ETA: The lineup for Yallwest 2021 has been announced and it’s equally amazing.)

And while doing research for this post I found an event I will definitely be attending: The Everywhere Book Fest! This virtual celebration will feature picture book, middle grades, and young adult authors. Kids and adults are invited to attend on May 1-2, 2020.  With this amazing list of authors, there is something for everyone.

Until then, you’ll find me curled up with a book (currently rereading Stamped), listening to an audiobook (Dig.), or daydreaming about the reopening of my local public library.

Okay, this was a lot. Some of us potentially just got carried away here.

But: what’s the word on your street? What other resources are you using to get ebooks out there?

Setting & tracking reading goals

I am NOT a fan of mandatory reading logs.

I am, however, a huge fan of reading for pleasure. Stories, real or imagined, build empathy, connect us with the broader world, and help us understand our own lived experience.  Getting lost in a book is a real joy, one even the most reluctant readers can experience, as I learned in my many years as a school librarian.

Reading logs, on the other hand, can turn a fun activity into a chore and kill a love of reading.  They foster compliance over joy.  And they are often tied to extrinsic motivators: grades, rewards, prizes.  All of this sends a message: reading is a chore. (For more on the harms of reading logs check out this Atlantic article or this blog post by Pernille Ripp.)

But I am a fan of goal-setting.

Like countless Goodreads users (including many #vted teachers, librarians, and students), I set a reading goal each year: 52 books.  Every. Single. Year. For the last 5 years!

A list of completed Goodreads reading challenges for years 2019 2018, 2017, and 2016.
Jeanie’s past reading challenge goals and progress.

I don’t feel the need to up my goal, to beat a past record, or to compete with others.

I just know that a regular habit of reading feels good and that a book a week seems to be the right number for me.  Goodreads helps me track my reading, and that keeps me from falling into a reading slump for too awfully long. (You know… that moment you hit when you finish a great book and are worried nothing else will ever compare… that kind of reading slump.) I don’t have evidence, but I think it’s made me a more self-directed reader!

Self-direction and reading can go hand in hand

After all, self-direction is all about setting personal goals. And about monitoring your progress, adapting and strategizing to meet your goal, and exercising choice over how you get there.

I reach my personal reading goal by:

  • listening to audiobooks
  • giving up on books I am not enjoying
  • and including a wide variety of texts: professional books, fiction, poetry, graphic novels, and even the occasional picture book.

Keeping track of my reading keeps me on track!

2020 Goodreads reading challenge and progress.
Jeanie’s current reading challenge goal and progress.

So, what might goal setting look like for middle school readers?

Well, a year is a long (looooong) time.  Eric Curts of Control-Alt-Achieve has created a reading goal and record document that help readers break their goals into more manageable chunks (brought to my attention by Mount Holly Elementary School teacher Margaret Dunne). Learners can set goals for the number of hours, pages, or books they want to read, or a combination of these.

This definitely ISN’T just an online version of a pencil and paper, fill in the blanks reading log.  Rather, it’s a goal-setting, monitoring, and progress charting machine!  It helps readers see a visual representation of the strides they are taking towards their goal. It makes it possible for users to adjust their goal as they see fit.  And it allows them to document their reading such that they can identify and address any obstacles they encounter as they work to meet their goal.

I’ve modified it slightly for use in #vted schools:

Reading Goals spreadsheet with spaces to fill in reading goal by hours, pages, and number of books.
Reading Goals and Record spreadsheet

Goal-setting is a process

I think giving students an opportunity to set their own reading goals and monitor their progress can be an important step towards students become lifelong readers.  And I can imagine that this process will look very different for different students.  Certainly, there will be some who set an ambitious goal and meet it.  Others may need to adjust their goals, course correcting as they realize that their goals were too easy or too ambitious.  This is one step along the way to getting better at setting goals, developing a sense of agency, and exercising their rights as readers.

Here is a screencast showing how students might use the Reading Goals google sheet to set goals and celebrate their progress:


Conferencing with readers about reading and self-direction creates powerful synergy.

Imagine a 1:1 conversation with a reader.

They spell out their reading goal and share their progress.

Perhaps they talk about where they got stuck: the wrong (boring) book, waiting to read until bedtime when they are tired, or getting interrupted by a sibling.

And they celebrate their successes: the time they got so swept away by the story that they read for over an hour, when they stopped reading the boring book and chose a magazine instead, or the author they discovered who makes them laugh out loud.

The goal of a conference is empowerment, not surveillance.  Instead of focusing on the hours the student spent reading, the teacher focuses on the student’s self-direction.  How they adjusted their goal or their strategies for reaching it, what they learned by monitoring their progress, how they managed to overcome obstacles.  Perhaps the teacher asks questions to deepen reflection, or suggests other ways to deal with barriers to reading, helping students grow as both self-directed learners and as readers. Ultimately, the two connect reader to reader!

How are you empowering your readers?  How are your readers setting and tracking reading goals?

Piecing Me Together, with Jory Hearst

Also featuring: The Green Mountain Book Awards!

Legendary Librarian Jeanie Phillips is back on the podcast talking about what else but books! Not just any books, but how books can help educators unpack some of their privileges and connect with students. Joining her this time around is Jory Hearst, Vermont educator and six-time Green Mountain Book Awards committee member. They’re discussing Renée Watson’s Piecing Me Together, and what they learned from it about identity, racial microaggressions and teaching around deficit theory.

A full transcript follows.


Jeanie Phillips: Today I’m here with Jory Hearst and we’ll be talking about Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson. Thanks for joining me, Jory. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?

Librarian Jeanie Phillips, left, hosts Jory Harris (r) as they discuss Rene Watson's book "Piecing Me Together".
Librarian Jeanie Phillips, left, hosts Jory Hearst (r) as they discuss Rene Watson’s book “Piecing Me Together”.


Jory Hearst: Well, thanks so much for having me, Jeanie. I’m thrilled to be here. I love talking about books, especially young-adult books. I am an educator and an avid reader. I’m not sure which should come first in order. I have taught middle and high school, both in Southern Vermont and up here in Burlington. In English and History. I’ve also been a bookseller for many years of my life. I also currently serve on the Vermont Green Mountain Book Award (GMBA) Committee, which is our teen pleasure reading award list that the state comes out with every year. This is my sixth year serving on that committee. So I spend a lot of my time reading young-adult fiction.

Jeanie: Let’s start with Piecing Me Together. Could you give me just a brief summary?

No spoilers, a little bit about our main character, our setting and the big themes of this book?

Jory: Yeah, I would love to. Piecing Me Together was on our GMBA list last year, and it’s a book I loved and I’m so glad to see on this list. This is about from 2017, and the main character is a high school girl name Jade Butler. She lives in North Portland. She has a full scholarship to a private, sort of hoity-toity private school called Saint Francis, that she has a very long bus ride from North Portland to her school. Every day. It’s a school where not having much money is less likely than being a person of color.

And for Jade, she is both of those things.

Her mom is desperate for her to make close friends at the school but for her, she is just want to kind of keep her head down and plough through. And she talks a lot about sort of knowing she has to take advantage of the “opportunities” that this school has to offer.

Jade is a lovely, lovely character for many reasons. She is an artist and she makes these beautiful collages from scraps of other people’s trash, and we’ll talk about that hopefully little more today. As this book begins, a main point in the story is that Jade’s guidance counselor, Mrs. Parker, sets her up with a mentor. In this woman-to-woman — sort of Black woman to Black woman mentoring program. Jade, when she gets called in to the guidance office, thinks she’s about to get the scholarship for the study abroad program and she’s thrilled. But she finds out instead that she’s been chosen to be a mentee. She just feels like another thing where somebody is coming to help me. Like, “Do I really need all this help?”

That’s sort of where the book begins, and it’s sort of follows her trying to figure out who she is and how to feel more whole in her life as she is sort of collaging her own life together.

 Jeanie: That’s a great summary. Thank you for consolidating that so nicely. I think one of the reasons I loved this book so much is that, as a white woman in the world, a book like this gives me the opportunity to step into the shoes of somebody having a very different experience from my own. From the beginning of the second chapter — if you turn to page two — Jade is learning Spanish. Really loves language. I love that she uses these Spanish words at the start.

Tener éxito

Piecing Me Together, by Renée Watson

Jory: The top of chapter two says in Spanish: tener éxito. Which means to succeed. The chapter begins with,

When I learn the Spanish word for succeed, I thought it was kind of ironic that the word exit is embedded in it. Like the universe was telling me that in order for me to make something of this life, I’d have to leave home, my neighborhood and my friends.

Jeanie: Yeah, that exactly sums up Jade’s world’s view. That she has to leave the things that are familiar in order to make a success of herself. And her mom’s dream for her really is to do just that.

Jory: And makes me think about something we both loved about this book. Not only is Jade a really thoughtful, insightful character that gives, I think, both of us windows into other worlds, but the writer Renée Watson is a beautiful writer. And it makes me think of another passage where Jade talks about feeling stuck in the middle.

In this passage she’s talking with a friend and feeling stuck between these two worlds. Kind of like she does not really quite fit anywhere. And her friend is saying,

“It’s weird, huh? …Being stuck in the middle. Like, sometimes I hold back at school, you know? Like I don’t ever join in on those what-are-you-doing-this-weekend? conversations, because I know nothing I will say can compare to the weekend excursions those girls of Saint Francis go on,” Sam says. “But I also don’t talk much about what I do at school with my family or with my friends who don’t go to St. Francis. …God, Jade, I don’t know how you’ve done this for two years.”

Jade responds, ”I don’t either, but now that I have you, maybe these next two years won’t be so bad.”

This is the beginning of her friendship with another girl in her school who is also busing in from far away and on scholarship. She happens to be a white student, but they have a really interesting friendship about, sort of, they’re like the two kids who get that, like, this is this world of incredible privilege and no one else there seems to see that except for them. They’re in-between places.

Jeanie: I know a lot of students and adults in Vermont are reading The Hate U Give right now, and that really reminds me of Starr’s predicament.

She code switches between her private school and speaks one way about certain things there, and then goes home to her neighborhood and speaks a completely different way and about different things there. Jade is in — it’s not exactly the same but there’s a lot of commonality with Starr.

Jory: And while we’re on the topic of other books, this connects to another one that, I think, is really apt is Dear Martin, by Nic Stone, which is another book of the 90s. It’s a male protagonist, who writes letters to Martin Luther King, but he is also a Black student at a pretentious — pretentious and prestigious university — and he is constantly trying to navigate where he fits. And what it feels like most of the time is that he doesn’t really fit anywhere.

 I think a lot about for us in Vermont, there are increasingly more and more students for whom that experience is so true in our schools.

And I think this book can just be really helpful to remind, especially for you and I as educators, as white educators in the state, how many of our students — for race reasons or may be just because of [economic] class — are straddling multiple worlds. How difficult that is for them.

Jeanie: That makes me think of another place in which, I think, students can find some affinity with Jade. Which is that her parents are not together. Her mother had her at 16, and her parents did not stay together. There is a quote on page 11, that I really love, that captures that so beautifully:

“I think about this as I ride to school. How I am someone’s answered prayer but also someone’s deferred dream.”

Jade’s really talking about there is that her mother has put all of her hopes into Jade and Jade’s success. Because she cancelled her own plans to go to school because she got pregnant at 16. Her father on the other hand, feels like he is living his best self because of his daughter. Because of her, he feels like he’s become a better person than he would be. There’s this contradiction for her with her parents. I feel like she carries a lot. And I have seen a lot of my students, that I teach, carry a lot from the expectations or the lived realities — the lived experiences of their parents.

Jory: One of the other really beautiful things I think about this book is the way Jade is able to talk about herself not always feeling whole.

That is for due to lots of reasons. Partially as a female and especially as a Black female in the world she lives in. She has this explanation of it that I love, when she talks about the space as she feels whole and then the places that shatter her.

She says,

Listening to these mentors, I feel like I can prove the negative stereotypes about girls like me wrong. That I can and will do more, be more. But when I leave? It happens again. The shattering. And this makes me wonder if a black girl’s life is only about being stitched together and coming undone, being stitched together and coming undone. I wonder if there’s ever a way for a girl like me to feel whole. Wonder if any of these women can answer that.

Jeanie: That is such a beautiful passage. It really, Renée Watson’s beautiful prose really shines through there. And the beautiful image as it pulls us back to the title: Piecing Me Together. It pulls us to collage art that Jade has such expertise in, and then just that central conflict of how to hold yourself whole in a world that doesn’t see you as a whole. That sees you as broken, or as something that needs to be fixed.

Jory: Yeah. When I think about how many students I’ve had that feel broken in different ways, right? That there’s this sense of: there are many ways in which the world we live in shatter us. I think in this book specifically, but also that being a student of color in Vermont, I think, can be a really shattering experience. Especially if you are in more rural area here, you may be one of very few students of color in your school and so it feels really hard to have all those pieces of yourself honored.

Jeanie: Right. This makes me think a little of the story this summer, about the camp for children of color in Stowe. Did you hear that story? They brought a camp of students to Stowe, and they experienced a lot of racism and racial slurs. I think a lot of us were heartbroken by this experience. And it makes me wonder about what our job is, as educators, to expose Vermont students who are white, to stories of other people so they can see the humanity in others.

Jory: I think one thing, you and I have talked about, is that this book does a really good job illustrating how microaggressions work for people of color. I think this book is full of places where Jade experiences these little pricks. Like, a microaggression is this little comment that may be is meant with good intention but it just digs at her and it others her, right? She is constantly aware that she is “Other” than the other kids at Saint Francis, so that she needs more help than other kids or more “Opportunity,” right. All of those things in little ways dehumanize her, right? She has to work hard to hold on to her humanity.

Jeanie: There’s an excellent example on page 18, if you could read that for us, Jory?

Jory: Yeah, on page 18, she’s talking with her guidance counselor, an older white woman: Mrs. Parker. Of course, Mrs. Parker has a photo on her wall of her daughter and her son-in-law. And her son-in-law happens to be a man of color. And all of her grandchildren are mixed race, and so in some ways, I think, Mrs. Parker has the sense of like, Oh, I get you honey, right? That Jade always feels like there was like little bit of condescension there. Anyway, Mrs. Parker is setting her up with the mentor and Jade responds, “Mrs. Parker, I don’t need a mentor.”

Mrs. Parker responds, “Every young person could use a caring adult in her life.” Jade says:

“I have my mother.” And my uncle, and my dad. “You think I don’t have anyone who cares about me?”

“No, no, that’s not what I said.” Mrs. Parker clears her throat. “We want to be as proactive as possible, and you know, well, statistics tell us that young people with your set of circumstances are, well, at risk for certain things, and we’d like to help you navigate through those circumstances.” Mrs. Parker takes a candy out of her jar and pops it into her mouth. “I’d like you to thoroughly look over the information and consider it. This is a good opportunity for you.”

Again, we have this moment where this caring adult with really good intentions — l like Mrs. Parker, she’s trying her hardest. But in the process of trying to help Jade, the reader is very aware that she’s actually putting Jade down, right. Jade is saying, “My mom, I have my mom. I have all these caring adults.” [Mrs. Parker’s] like, “No, no, but you need real role models.” As if to say: your parents aren’t going to help you get out. Right.

Jeanie: Which adds insult to injury because what Jade really wants is to give.

She doesn’t want to always be the recipient, and so what she’s hearing from Mrs. Parker is, Oh, you honey, you just get to receive. You don’t have anything to give. These microaggressions, well-intentioned as Mrs. Parker may be, add up. And some of these have real impact.

Jory: Right. Because what Jade thought was going to happen when she went to Mrs. Parker’s office — what she was going to find out, and I’m going to quote from it — she says, “Of everything Mrs. Parker has signed me up for, this one means the most.” She’s hoping to sign up for a service learning project. Jade thinks, “This time it’s not a program offering something I need, but it’s about what I can give.”  So she wants to be able to say, I’m doing okay. Like, I want to give back, right.

It’s like we don’t even let her. Or, the world is not even letting her give back. They’re only seeing her need, right.

And the reality is Mrs. Parker as a white woman wants to be the giver, because giving feels good. It’s like we’re depriving Jade of this basic human need we have to help other people, right, and that she can only be helped, she can’t help others.

Jeanie: My educator self can’t help but think about the way we talk about moving from a deficit lens — what’s wrong with students — to a strengths lens about what do they have that they’re good at, what can they do well, what do they have to offer, and think about the power for Jade of Mrs. Parker shifting from this deficit lens to a strengths lens, and what impact that would have.

Jory: Can I just talk about her mom?

Jeanie: Yeah.

Jory: The other place, I think, in the book where it’s really obvious how these microaggressions, these little digs, are really effecting the characters is when Maxine, who is a seemingly more upper-class Black woman from Portland but who has been assigned as Jade’s mentor, shows up at her house. And she hasn’t contacted Jade’s mom. She’s just made plans through Jade. She comes to the house. Jade’s mom says, “I’ll answer the door.” Jade’s mom says,

“Good morning,” she says. “You must be Maxine.” Mom has her hand on her hip and she won’t let Maxine through the door. “I’m sorry, you wasted your time and gas coming over here, but Jade is not going with you today.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. I was hoping to do an early b-day celebration with her and spend some quality time together,” Maxine says. “Is she okay?”

“Oh, she’s fine,” Mom says. “I would just appreciate it if you would contact me first before you and Jade make plans. Jade is not grown. Believe it or not, she does have a mother. That’s me. …Please let this be the first and last time you try to take my daughter out of my house without my knowing and giving permission.”

I guess I love this scene because it’s the mom saying, like, you might be her mentor but you’re not saving my daughter. Mom says:

“At the end of the day, when this program is over, she is not going to be anyone’s mentee but she’s still going to be my daughter.”

For her mom, she’s feeling all this hurt. Like, [she] can’t take care of [her] own kid.

And there this sort of undoing of her own humanity and people making assumptions about what she is capable or not capable of.

Jeanie: That’s so intriguing because it falls to that strength-base versus deficit-based approach.

When people have all these stereotypes about students of color, families of color and families in poverty, and one of the stereotypes is that they don’t care about education. And yet the data shows that actually they care about education really a great deal. And I think, for Jade, the biggest advocate for her for getting a good education is not Mrs. Parker, is not her teachers, it’s her mother.

Jory: Right. Her mother is working her butt off for her.

Jeanie: Her mother is working multiple jobs, and, yeah, holding things together. In this society, mothers like Jade’s don’t always get the respect and dignity that they deserve.

Jory: I think just another way Renée Watson creates a lot of whole-feeling characters in this book.

Jeanie: Jory, how would you use this book in a Language Arts classroom or Humanities classroom? In middle school or high school?

Jory: Well, first of all I love that this book is on the shorter side and yet so rich and full-feeling. Like, there’s so much here and yet it’s not a super, super-long book. I find when I am teaching books even to super-loving reading classes, I actually prefer less text because it means that you can spend more time on other things. For me this book is perfect because who doesn’t want to make collages?

One way that I think would be really fun to use this book in the classroom is to kind of do it in collaboration with some art. And to talk about collaging and figuring out how students may want to piece themselves together.

I want to just read one little quick part on Jade’s philosophy on finding beauty in the world, and as sort of a jumping-off point for how you might use this in art with your students. So Jade says,

Lots of people can’t find beauty in my neighborhood but I can. Ever since elementary school, I’ve been making beauty out of everyday things–candy wrappers, pages of a newspaper, receipts, rip-outs from magazines. I cut and tear, arrange and rearrange, and I glue them down, morphing them into something no one else thought they could be. Like me. I’m ordinary too. The only fancy thing about me is my name: Jade. There is nothing exquisite about my life. It’s mine, though, so I’m going to make something out of it.

This idea of taking all these ordinary things in our life and creating something that pieces together a representation of us? I think with an eighth or ninth -grade student — which I think that this book is perfect for sort of late middle school, early high school — there’s so much stuff around collaging and identity.

But even from there you could do so much around piecing yourself together in poetry or interviewing a bunch of your friends about who you are, and then collaging their ideas of who you are and creating a written piece about who you are. I think this book is really useful in getting at who each of us are, which is an added layer of beauty in this book.

I also think, on a very concrete level, this is a really powerful book for Vermont students to hear in terms of thinking about “What do microaggressions look like?” 

And for students of color, for them, maybe, to feel like there is an allied  voice or — they may not resonate with Jade but maybe there is another character on the book they do. Or just sort of giving out other voices in our students’ lives that they hear other people? Is a powerful tool for this book.

Then as we talk about microaggressions, I think you could use this book really concretely to help kids define what it means when those little pokes at your humanity are constantly happening. That othering, and what that looks like and feels like for a character. I think this would be a really safe space to do that in. So lots of ideas. Yeah, do you have other ideas? What are you thinking?

Jeanie: Well, I love all of that. I think it really strongly connects with any identity work that’s happening in the classroom, really powerfully connects with that. I also love it as an opportunity to look at the way we build our identity from the inside? But our identity is also how we experience the world, and how the world experiences us. And this book is a really great example of that.

Jade has this rich inner life and knows who she is, but she also has to go out and face the world in ways, and she writes in lots of different ways about how her body takes up space in the world and what that means. But I’m wondering if there’s also a connection to youth voice. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but there are powerful ways in which Jade finds her voice in this book and uses them within that mentoring program. And I wonder about using that as a spring board for how did the voices of our students show up at school? How do we make space for the things they think are important, or the good ideas they have? So I’m curious about that as another avenue for this text, for this book.

Jory: Yeah, I love that idea. Again, no spoilers, but she does find some empowering ways to use her voice, totally.

One other thought I just have: I would hate to read this book with the class where that, maybe, makes a student feel really obviously targeted to. I think there needs to be just some thought about who’s in your class and reading a book like this, because it is a story about a girl who feels like she’s the only person with her perspective in the room.

I think even if done with good intentions, the book itself could be taught in a way that feels unsafe for a student in your room? Where it’s like, if there’s one kid in the room who’s aware that they’re the sort of the “othered” one that this book may actually be like, Oh, well, now my teacher is picking a book to make me feel normal but everybody knows who this book is for! Or something.

I think it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taught, because I think it can be really powerful for everyone? I am just thinking about my sixth-grade class last year. And they were a little young for this book, but if I had done it with them, I might have only focused on identity and collage. Like, I may have only used parts that felt really inclusive of everyone.

Jeanie: I think that’s really a good point. Like, we want to be prepared for our students to encounter any book, right? It could also be the case if you only have one student of color in your class that you’d want to do the work ahead of time to make sure everybody is comfortable and ready to experience this book and the discussions you’re going to have.

I really loved The Hate U Give. I really loved Dear Martin by Nic Stone as well, but in both of those the people of color in those books experience police brutality. And I like this book because they don’t. Like, both the racism is more subtle in this book. It comes in the form of microaggressions and deficit thinking, but also that doesn’t become the only experience of people of color, that someone they know gets shot. I like this as an alternative story to that.

Jory: Yeah, and I totally agree. We are seeing a real trend in young-adult fiction right now about police violence, and that’s powerful. I am thinking about All American Boys, which came out last year. Or, this year, Tyler Johnson Was Here, is a brand new one that I am just reading. They’re really powerful important stories, but there are a lot of other stories about being a person of color. So I think you’re right that I appreciate that this book does not feel like it has to have it all. Like, it doesn’t have every issue. There is a calmness and a quietness to this book too, which I appreciate.

Jeanie: Let’s talk about some other books it puts us in mind of.

For me, it brought up Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming. A beautiful memoir that was a Vermont Reads book a couple years ago. Were there books that it brought to mind for you?

Jory: Well, we’ve already talked about Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, which is really being read a ton, and libraries are buying tons of copies of, which is great; although it’s also banned in some places. It’s been getting a lot of attention. This book also that reminded me of an older book called The Skin I’m In by Sharon Flake, which is another book about being “othered” and what it feels like to be Other, and to have an adult in your life who might feel the same otherness you do. That I read actually as a middle schooner, and I’ve taught in middle school and have found it to be a really powerful book to this day. It’s an oldie but goody to keep around.

Jeanie: Excellent. I also just read Jacqueline Woodson’s Harbor Me which is for a younger audience but I think it speaks to some of these other themes about feeling other, because of your family circumstances, and creating a safe harbor, a safe space, for students to be themselves. I think that’s another great connection for the fifth and sixth grade classroom.

Jory: It’s a little bit of jump from here, but one of the things that’s been really exciting about serving on Green Mountain Book Award over the last six years has been seeing the huge increase in authors of color writing about … writing characters of color. There’s been a big movement: the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement has really, I think, had real impact on publishers, and in a way that maybe Hollywood has been slow to respond. I think in especially young-adult fiction, we’re seeing this just huge increase.

I’m thinking about two books I’m just reading.

One, American Panda by Gloria Chao, which I read few weeks ago. I’m just finishing up a book called Emergency Contact by Mary H. K. Choi, which I’m loving. Both are young-adult novels with Asian-American characters written by Asian-American female authors.

Just seeing the volume of authors of color and seeing feels exciting. All of us this year have been like, “Wow.” Like, “This feels exciting.” We’re in this moment where we finally hearing just a broader range of voices to represent our country. It feels, I think, especially in these political moments it’s feeling exciting to feel like there is some hope out in the world. Some good is happening in the world of stories.

Piecing Me Together: Books Discussed in this Episode


Jeanie: Stories are powerful. Tell me about the Green Mountain Book Award or what we often call the GMBA award?

Jory: GMBA is Vermont’s reader’s choice award for high school students in the state. We select a list of about 15 books every year, and they are meant to be books that are for high school students of Vermont to enjoy. Really the goal of it is really about pleasure reading. While it’s meant to be books that we enjoy, but it’s not always about literary acutance. It’s often about what do we think teens are going to pick up and what do Vermont teens specifically need to be reading, which is really fun.

The 2018-2019 list includes some of my favorite books, such as Robin Benway’s Far From the Tree, which is a story of three children who have all been either adopted or in the foster care system. They didn’t know they had siblings and they sort find each other. It’s a really beautiful, beautiful book. It was also a National Book Award winner from last year. Another book that was fun and sort of different for me was David Elliot’s Bull, which is a novel in verse retold about bunch of different Greek myths, and they are — it’s witty, and hysterically funny and also just sort of pithy. Couple other ones that were highlights from last year were, S. F. Henson’s The Devils Within, which I think for Vermont high school students is a really important book. It’s a fictional account of a teenager trapped in a white supremacy group, and they get out, and what that looks like. It’s a terrifying, page turning, harrowing book.

Jeanie: I read it. It’s so gripping and so informative. Yeah, it’s a powerful book.

Jory: Yeah. Another great one to do with a class or just hand to teen to read on their own. Then another one that I really love from last year was a non-fiction title: The 57 Bus: The True Story of Two Teenagers and The Crime That Changed Their Lives. which is the story of a transgender student who is lit on fire on the number 57 bus, a public bus in California, and all that transpires. They survive but all that transpires afterward with the accused and the victim, is a really powerful, powerful true story. Yeah, lots of lots of things and a whole mix of stuff from last year’s list.

Jeanie: The 57 Bus would have been perfect, Jory. When we used to teach together we could have taught that as a part of your juvenile justice unit.

Jory: Yeah, and it also would have fit really well with my narrative non-fiction. I am a huge fan of non-fiction that feels like a story. Where it’s like it to really like be a page turning gripping reader in the midst of non-fiction. Yeah, you’re right. We could have taught that in lots of good ways. If you go to the Vermont Department of Libraries, the 2018/19 list is there as well as all the previous 10 years of list. There are just awesome books on there. We work really hard to pick a mix of things that we love, but also things that, maybe, haven’t been given much voice and then need a little trumpeting.

Green Mountain Book Awards


Jeanie: I have always been a fan. When I was librarian and I collaborated with the high school language arts teacher. We would give kids choice from the GMBA list and for there one book a year, so they weren’t reading Shakespeare and weren’t reading what was in the cannon, but they had some choice. It was always their favorite book of the year. It was always huge. We did it for years because they loved it so much and the teacher saw the value of it as well so. I want to ask, a lot of middle school kids read these books, so how does GMBA work … it supposed to be a high school? Can middle school kids vote? What do you say about middle school participation in this program?

Jory: That’s a great question. A lot of people are very familiar in Vermont with the DCF list — the Dorothy Canfield Fisher list — which is also a reader’s choice award. DCF is meant to go from grades three or four through eighth-grade. GMBA was created as the high school equivalent, but what we’ve really seen and learned is that most students, by the time they’re in eighth for sure but even seventh, are really ready for older books. We’re pretty aware of that on GMBA. We do consciously chose books that will appeal the high school students, but we know younger readers would read them.

Part of how we have accommodated for that is that come usually around end of March, we open up voting, and it’s online through the Department of Libraries. There is a link to how kids can vote, and every kid can fill up their own individual voting form. There is a way to check that you are not in either ninth or 12th-grade. You can say you’re a middle school student, or you can say you’re a college or older student, because we know actually lot of college kids also read these. Yeah, we welcome middle school kids reading them; although we will say some of the content in these books is hard.

Piecing Me Together actually is one I would pretty happily hand to a middle school, but like The Devils Within is a really hard book about white supremacy, I would … there is a reason we say ninth through 12, but we also know middle schoolers are always looking to edge up.

Jeanie: Well played. Well played. Any other thoughts on GMBA or on Piecing Me Together, this beautiful book by Renée Watson?

Jory: I guess my final thought on this book and GMBA is just that I feel really grateful to get to read young-adult books as an adult, because every time I do I’m reminded a little bit more of what it’s like to be a teenager, and we have this funny world where people who write for young-adults and people who recommend — like you and I recommend books for young-adults — are adults. There is this powerful thing that happens in YA words often, and Piecing Me Together is a great example of. It’s really they’re stories often about someone really trying to figure who they are.

I think as an adult, as someone in my early thirties, who is constantly trying to figure out who I really am, that these stories really resonate, because the reality is it may happen for us for our first time in a powerful way when we’re 16 or 17. That’s my first memory of really piecing myself together, but that about every five years, I’m doing it again. I sort of appreciate that these books remind me of just how difficult it is to feel whole in a world that’s complicated.

Jeanie: Yeah. I strongly believe that reading young-adult and middle-grades literature makes me a more empathetic educator. Helps me understand my students … the young people in my life better.

Jory: I feel that same way.

Jeanie: Yeah.

Jory: And myself. And I understand myself better.

Jeanie: Yeah. Absolutely. Thank you, Jory, so much for taking the time to come and talk to us about “Piecing Me Together.”

Folks if you want a copy, I’m quite certain your high school librarian or middle librarian can get you one if they don’t have one on the shelf. Check out your local library, your school library, find a copy of Renee Watson’s “Piecing Me Together.” You won’t regret it. Jory, thanks for your time.

Jory: Thanks for having me, Jeanie. Talking about young-adult literature is my best life.





The 21st Century Classroom is the podcast of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont. A huge thank you to Jory Hearst for appearing on this episode. If you’re interested in finding out more about the Green Mountain Book Awards visit libraries.vermont.gov. They are continually looking for new committee members and would love to hear from the reading public. Also a quick shout-out to the Carpenter-Carse Library in Hinesburg, for loaning our editor a reference copy on extremely short notice. Ahem.

You can subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Soundcloud and the Google Play store, or right here on our blog. Music for this episode is by Argofox: Meizong & Yeeflex – Sunrise, used with permission.

And if you’re interested in reading Piecing Me Together with your students, check out this discussion guide about race, gender, class and intersectionality (.pdf).

Piecing Me Together Discussion Guide

Can sustained silent reading help reluctant readers?

How student choice can support literacy

sustained silent readingEnglish teacher Laela Warnecke set out to answer one question: “How might sustained silent reading impact 8th graders?”

Warnecke examined the effect of sustained silent reading on the engagement and achievement of her students. She surveyed her students and helped them set aside time during the day to read whatever they wanted. And it turned out that her so-called “reluctant readers” weren’t all that reluctant after all.

This is a story about student choice, student engagement, and how action research can impact student outcomes.

Continue reading Can sustained silent reading help reluctant readers?

Y is for Young Writers Project

Using the Young Writers Project to teach writing

using the Young Writers Project to teach writingThere are so many reasons to appreciate how we teach adolescents to write in Vermont. One of these gifts is the resource of the Young Writer’s Project.

Let’s look at what makes this online resource so powerful for educators to present as an option for students looking to explore their writers’ identities.

Continue reading Y is for Young Writers Project

About that NPR piece on kids’ reading habits…

It’s the End of Reading As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

Something new and different for us today: we tried podcasting! And we’re disagreeing with NPR.

I know! But listen: a couple weeks ago NPR ran a story covering this Common Sense Media study ostensibly showing that Kids These Days are reading much much less than they were in times past. Which times, you ask? ME TOO.

Cue my suspicious eyebrows.

Continue reading About that NPR piece on kids’ reading habits…

Using Google Forms for a reading log for middle school

As part of their celebration of Digital Learning Day, students at Edmunds Middle School hosted a “speed-geeking” session: they each had six minutes to explain a tech tool and how they’re using it in school. Here, one student explains how she’s using a Google form with lexile reading scores to keep a multi-level reading log for middle school.