Archives For Books

The 7th and 8th grade teachers who administered our own  “How I Feel about Reading Survey” to teams of students have collected some contradictory data. The survey is based on questions suggested by Kelly Gallagher in his book Readicide. In this book, Gallagher uses the term “readicide” to define “the systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools.”

The student body is divided into four teams at each grade level, and each team has taken the survey these first few days of school. Each team’s survey provides a snapshot for  a group of students and their attitude towards reading.

The results are contradictory. Take for example the results on 8th grade team in student responses to two prompts: I think being a good reader is important for success in life juxtaposed with the results from I read everyday and look forward to my reading time.

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Yes, students agree that reading is important, but the data shows they do not feel that the practice is important enough to do every day. Moreover, most students do not think reading if pleasurable with over 50% voting they “rarely” look forward to reading. This results from these questions were repeated throughout the grades 7 & 8, team by team.

This data suggests Gallagher’s diagnosis that students could be suffering from “readicide”, an unfortunate consequence of education’s current culture of assessment. The requirements to assess student learning often means employing reading practices that include worksheets, quizzes, or tests; none of these are “fun.”

To counter this, teachers at the middle school are implementing an ambitious independent reading program- 20 minutes a day in a block period- where students are encouraged to read whatever they want from classroom libraries. There are no quizzes. There are no tests. There are no worksheets.  The students will have time built into their day to read, but most important, the students get to choose what they want to read. They can choose from the school book collections or bring in their own book. They will talk about their books with each other, and teachers will visit and conference with them to listen about the books they choose.

In fighting the toxic effects of “readicide”, teachers already have the data that gives them an ace up their collective sleeves…most students have admitted that reading is important for success in life. Guaranteeing that success will be the goal of the 7th and 8th grade teachers who will be working this year to change that high percentage of students who are “rarely” looking forward to reading to a higher percentage of students who “usually” looking forward to reading. Hopefully, teachers can add an “always looking forward to reading” survey choice as well.

I’m moving.moving_van

This blog is moving with me.

This Used Books in Class blog will now be headquartered in West Haven, Connecticut, as I have taken a position as the Language Arts, Social Studies, Library Media and Testing Coordinator for their public school system. West Haven is a shoreline community with six elementary schools, one intermediate school, one middle school, and a high school that houses a student population four times my previous school.

I am very excited about this opportunity.

One of my first responsibilities will be helping teachers at the middle school (grades 7 & 8)  develop an independent reading program for their extended English/Language Arts period. To make the reading program a success, the teachers plan to offer student choice in reading and that means the classroom libraries need to be expanded.

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Six bags full for $180 !

Building or expanding a classroom library can be expensive, but by seeking out gently used books, the expense can be minimized to as little as $.50/book. One simply needs to know where to look….and the best place to look for gently used quality books for any age is at the Grandmother of all Connecticut Book Sales, the Labor Day Book Sale that benefits the Mark Twain Public Library in Redding, Connecticut.

photo 1Some library book sales in Connecticut have a few tables or sections of a room devoted to books for children or teen readers. In contrast, the Mark Twain Library Book Fair has an entire room with literary treasures galore for young readers. I had hardly scanned the first tables when the neatly arranged copies of Rick Riordan books caught my eye. All three copies of the Red Pyramid filled the bottom of my bag, followed by novels from his Percy Jackson series, including the elusive The Last Olympian. I turned around to find a variety of titles from John A. Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice series, selections from Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider series, selections from Margaret Peterson’s Haddix series as well as copies from Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy.

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Boxes of Young Adult (YA) novels & non-fiction from the Mark Twain Library Book Sale; $.50-3.50 each!

Once I collected books from YA series, I looked for individual titles by writers who are always popular: Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet and Brian’s Winter, Mike Lupica’s Heat and Travel Team; Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Mcgee, Milkweed, Stargirl; and a plethora of princess stories from Meg Cabot. If there was a book that was a hit with middle school readers, this book sale had it…in triplicate. Finding multiple copies was helpful, since multiple classrooms will be accessing these books during the same independent reading periods. For this reason, I had no problem justifying the purchase of seven copies of Louis Sacher’s Holes or Wendelin Van Draanen’s Flipped.

There were several student volunteers tabulating my haul, and I would ask them every now and then, “Did you ever read that book?” or “Do you think a student would like to read this book?” They would nod enthusiastically. Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul got a soulful look from one of the tabulators, who explained, “Some stories in this are just so…sad. I felt better reading them.” They approved of my selections.

I was soon packed up with six bags full of young adult novels and non-fiction for $180, and I was helped to my car by a boy scout (literally…he was in uniform!).

Tomorrow, I plan deliver this first load of books to the teachers, creating the “book flood” in their classrooms. The Mark Twain Library Book volunteers who so capably load the tables, organize the donations, and make the whole experience a “destination” for readers of all ages must be credited with helping more than their own library. Their hard work has made an expansion of classroom libraries possible. A wonderful effort from a library named for the American writer who once said that, “out of the public school grows the greatness of a nation.”

Now, let us see how these expanded classroom libraries help grow the students of West Haven!

This morning I had to slow down in the children’s books section of the Friends of the Westport Library Summer Book Sale. I slowed to sort through the extensive offerings of books on tables in the big tent. I also slowed to keep an eye on three-year-old Pearl, my niece’s daughter, in the smaller tent. That slowing down resulted in a great payoff in picture books.

I shopped on the first day of the sale, Saturday, (7/19/14), prepared to haul away several bags of books for the classroom libraries. A check of the travel section did not disappoint. I quickly located seven copies of The Places in Between, a memoir by Rory Stewart who walked his way across Afghanistan in 2002. This memoir recounts how he survived:

 “…by his wits, his knowledge of Persian dialects and Muslim customs, and the kindness of strangers…Along the way Stewart met heroes and rogues, tribal elders and teenage soldiers, Taliban commanders and foreign-aid workers. He was also adopted by an unexpected companion-a retired fighting mastiff he named Babur in honor of Afghanistan’s first Mughal emperor, in whose footsteps the pair was following.”

This memoir is an assigned text for the Honors Grade 10 summer reading, a non-fiction selection to meet the World Literature focus. The seven copies would retail for $74.90; I got all of these copies for $13.00. There were other trade fiction paperbacks that I added: Little Bee; Cry, the Beloved Country; and The Things They Carried. There were also multiple copies of different episodes in the Bone series for students who enjoy graphic novels.

After shopping for the classroom libraries, the browsing through the children’s books tent felt like a bonus sale. Here was an opportunity to get books into Pearl’s hands, and the Westport donators did not disappoint. The tables were piled high, and the aisle wide enough for patrons with small children in tow.
The books were in excellent condition, so much so that my niece commented, “Look, these pop-up books can still pop-up!”
I located copies of books from the classic picture book canon, and we ended up with a small pile including:

  • Make Way for Ducklings  by Robert McCloskey.
  • The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka and illustrated by Lane Smith.
  • Shrek by William Steig
  • Linnea at Monet’s Garden By Christina Bjork
  • Miss Rumphius  by Barbara Cooney
  • The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop and illustrated by Kurt Wiese.

We had to stop and read some of the books to Pearl to keep her engaged and were particularly grateful for the large areas roped off outside the children’s book tent. This space lets patrons check their selections before heading to the check-out tent. This space is critical for some of the patrons who stock up like I do with multiple bags and boxes.

Pearl and her mom enjoy "Make Way for Ducklings"

Pearl and her mom enjoy “Make Way for Ducklings”

In total, we spent an hour collecting books at the sale and fifteen minutes at the organized check-out tables. As they are every year, the volunteer who counted my five bags full was pleasant and well-trained. She was curious about where I taught, however.

“You are putting these into classrooms…where?” she asked.
I explained these were going to a middle/high school in Northwest Connecticut.
“Oh, I don’t know that area well…I guess I lean more to the New York area,” she offered.
“When possible, so do I,” was my response.

Totals spent? $96.00 for the classrooms, and $13.00 for Pearl who left the sale toting her “summer reading” picture books. From emerging to life-long readers, the Westport Book Sale offers a chance to stock up on picture books and memoirs and all the other genres in-between.

Bags ready? Set to find great bargains? Go to Newtown, Connecticut, for the Friends of the C.H.Booth Library where over 100,000 books, records, DVDs go on sale annually. Their book sale always marks for me the beginning of the book sale season. This year’s starting date was July 12, 2014.

For the first time, I went on the admission day ($5) and used extra help (husband & son) to follow me with bags. Even then, I was too late to get the 20 or so copies of The Great Gatsby I saw someone packing up at the check out counter. My son noted that I also missed out on copies of of The Hunger Games Trilogy selections.
“The woman was only four feet away from you when I saw her stuffing them in her bag,” he claimed, “but I wasn’t going to tackle her.”

Fortunately, thanks to the diligent efforts of what looked like a small army of volunteer Friends of the Library, the tables were well organized by genre and author. I was able to get multiple copies of the 12th grade summer reading book, A Walk in the Woods.. In addition, I filled bags with the required summer reading for Advanced Placement English Literature including:
Little Bee, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and
Bel Canto. I also found copies for the grade 10 world literature library including The Places in Between, The Life of Pi, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, and A Long Way Gone.
There were also books to add to classroom libraries for independent reading including Dairy Queen, Elsewhere, and a pile of books from the Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series.

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Counting Books at the check-out with the friendly volunteer

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Five bags of books for classroom libraries for $229.00; a bargain!

The book sale at Newtown is a model of efficiency. There is room to move between tables, the books are properly sorted by genre ( for the most part) and the volunteer help is cheerful and efficient.

“You must be using these in a school?” suggested the woman checking us out as she counted out 20 copies of The Help.
“Actually,” my son replied feigning seriousness, “we really like this book….we’re going to read every single copy.”
“Oh,” she started, and then smiled,”you’re terrible…”

What is not terrible is that I spent $229 for over 80 books; some of them core texts and some for independent reading.
The summer book sale season helps me put books in the hands of readers. The Newtown Friends of the Library book sale does that extremely well.

12 graders during SSR

Our 12 graders during independent reading- SSR

How challenging is it for a teacher to run an independent reading program? Very challenging. That is the only thing thing that Newsweek reporter Alexander Nazaryan got right in his NYTimes op-ed piece The Fallacy of ‘Balanced Literacy’ (7/6/14).

His lack of success in having students choose their own reading for pleasure over the course of one school year, should not grant him the opportunity to decry the practice. His own failure to encourage students to engage in reading for pleasure should not dissuade other teachers from encouraging students to develop life-long reading habits. Had he the proper training and resources in balanced literacy, he would have witnessed how the challenge of implementing independent reading in a classroom can be met at any grade level and is a critical step to making students life-long readers.

If he had the training, he would recognize that teachers who are familiar with books for specific age groups and levels of interest can make reading recommendations to students or help facilitate highly successful peer to peer book recommendations. If he had the resources of high interest, low-level texts in jam packed classroom libraries for his students, he would have increased the level of engagement. If he had utilized the time for reading to individually confer briefly with students about their reading while other students read quietly, he would have established a classroom routine that would allow him to informally measure student growth as they read. Finally, if he had impressed upon students the importance of reading for pleasure, he would have helped their academic success in all other classes.

Research studies (compiled by the American Library Association) have determined that reading outside of the classroom is the best predictor for student success:

The amount of free reading done outside of school has consistently been found to relate to achievement in vocabulary, reading comprehension, verbal fluency, and general information. Students’ reading achievement correlates with success in school and the amount of independent reading they do (Anderson, Wilson, and Fielding 1988; Guthrie and Greaney 1991; Krashen 1993; Cunningham and Stanovich 1991; Stanovich and Cunningham 1993).

This research from the ALA is borne out by testing through The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test, which has monitored the academic performance of 9-, 13-, and 17-year-old students  since the 1970s. Long-term trend assessments in reading are measured on a scale of 500 points. In taking the NAEP, students volunteered information on their reading habits. The results from this data in 2012 demonstrated that the average score for the 22% of those students aged 13 who never (or hardly ever) read independently was 25 points lower than students who read every day. By age 17, the difference had increased to 30 points.

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NAEP scores for 13 year olds who read for pleasure and the increase in standardized test scores

This data confirms what we have witnessed in our own classrooms. Our students are given SSR (silent sustained reading) time in class for independent reading in grades 7-12. Independent reading for our school means that students get to choose what they would like to read without having to take a quiz or a test on the book. The only “requirements” are that students keep a running record (we are using Shelfari) of their independent reading books. We ask them to share their recommendations with their peers. We talk to them about what they read.

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Holding up cards with the numbers of book read independently (included one world lit choice book)

Sometimes students are offered a choice from a length list of thematically connected books, and sometimes the choice must be in a particular genre (non-fiction, memoir, world literature). Other times, the choice is entirely open and students can read whatever books they want. Our block schedule allows us the luxury of offering students 15-20 minutes each period. A quick estimate means that over the course of the school year (40 weeks), meeting twice weekly (roughly 30 minutes minimum a week), students will be offered a minimum of 20 hours of reading time in class. They make very good use of that time.

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Holding up the number of books read in grade 9

The main goal of our independent reading program is to encourage students to read beyond the walls of the classroom; our 15 minutes spent in class is intended as a “hook” to connect students with books that they might want to read or as a “refresher” to reconnect a book already being read.

Seniors holding up the number of books read independently in a semester

Seniors holding up the number of books read independently in a semester

Encouraging students to read independently means practice, and the time we provide in class contributes to that reading practice. At the end of this year, we are celebrating the number of books read over the course of the year by taking group photos of students proudly holding up the number of books they have read independently over the past school year. So, rather than read a confessed failure in an op-ed piece that incorrectly characterizes independent reading written by someone who has left education, take a look at how the challenge of independent reading is being successfully met in our classrooms. The proof is in the pictures.

Yesterday, there was one paperback copy of The Hunger Games squeezed in-between other trade fiction. Two hardcover copies of Mockingjay were together on an opposite shelf. These books from The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins had been donated to a local Goodwill store. When I found them tucked away on the store’s shelves, I knew that the series had met a tipping point: still popular but not popular enough to treasure and keep.photo (19)

The Hunger Games series (2008-2010) has been to today’s graduating seniors what the Harry Potter series (1997-2007) was to today’s 28 year olds…a collective reading experience. The series developed a dedicated young adult following, and the most obvious signs of their dedication was the carting of hardcover editions because each reader could not wait for the book to go to paperback.

Once The Hunger Games series caught fire (literally), book conversations centered on Katniss. There were speculations on her choice of Gale or Peeta. Predictions on the fate District 13 were rampant. The publication of each new book in the series was a major event; students shared copies from period to period. When the first film, The Hunger Games, came out students critiqued every detail that was present and noticed every detail that was missing.

Our Reading/English/Language Arts teachers loved having students read these books as well. The series laid the connections to more traditional texts such as the Greek myths or Romeo and Juliet. There were plenty of connections on current events in the economy and media that could be made as well.

Finding three copies in the used book shelves now, however, signals a sputtering of interest. Students will still pick up the used copies from the book carts in the classroom, but the rabid fans have moved on.  Collins has helped this year’s graduating seniors develop their independent reading skills, the kind of skills that will serve them well in the future.

There are benefits to the recycling of books. I spent $7.98 on the three copies that would have been $27.66 if purchased new. The consequences of reaching a tipping point in popularity is a benefit for classroom libraries, which means finding used books from this series will be easier now that …. “the odds be ever in our favor.”

Across the pond, British students studying for the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) will no longer experience a narrative on growing up in the Jim Crowe South or reenact the witch hunts of Salem, Massachusetts, or be immersed in stories of The Great Depression’s impact on itinerant laborers. A recent decision by the United Kingdom’s Department for Education means that British students will no longer be reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, or John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.  The Education Secretary of the United Kingdom, Michael Gove, has recommended a syllabus that favors British texts exclusively for students to “swot up” for their exam boards. In order to make more room for the strictly British diet of Eliot, Dickens, at least one of the Bronte Sisters, these 20th Century American classics are being dropped in favor of British texts. According to The Guardian, when Gove took office he told his party’s conference:,

 “The great tradition of our literature – Dryden, Pope, Swift, Byron, Keats, Shelley, Austen, Dickens and Hardy – should be at the heart of school life.”

A number of responders have noted Gove’s concern that the American texts come with “ideological baggage” that is not relevant to British students. The controversy was sparked when the new syllabus for OCR, one of the biggest UK exam boards, was released. A statement by UK’s Department for Education noted that in the revised syllabus, specific (American) books are not banned, but rather:

In the past, English literature GCSEs were not rigorous enough and their content was often far too narrow. We published the new subject content for English literature in December. It doesn’t ban any authors, books or genres. It does ensure pupils will learn about a wide range of literature, including at least one Shakespeare play, a 19th-century novel written anywhere and post-1914 fiction or drama written in the British Isles. (“To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men axed as Gove orders more Brit lit” Guardian)

Michael Gove, Britain’s Education Secretary, recommends removing American texts

Michael Gove, Britain’s Education Secretary, recommends removing 20th C American texts by Steinbeck, Miller, and Lee.

The news is not all bad, however. Instead of considering the removal as a literary slight to the multitude of authors who write in English -but who do not serve the Crown- perhaps Americans should be grateful that those discomforting moments of U.S. History are being hidden or systematically expunged from the prying eyes of young British readers. Students do not need to be exposed to the effects of prejudice, intolerance, and poverty through the lens of an American culture when British culture already has a plethora of masterworks that focus on their own brand of bigotry, bias, and destitution. Why would British students need a global perspective as they enter the 21st Century workforce?

Consider how wonderful for Americans that Gove has eliminated the need to explain the real inditement of our judicial system through the fictional violation of Tom Robinson’s civil rights despite the dramatic evidence provided by his defense attorney, Atticus Finch. How brilliant that British students will never have the opportunity to connect the fictional fraud in the trial of John Proctor to the real terror of the McCarthy Hearings and Communist witch hunts of the 1950s. How fabulous that readers in the United Kingdom will not be forced to read how the myth of the American Dream is often unattainable, especially when a scientifically confirmed climate change associated with the Dust Bowl contributed to harsh economic realities.

So, thank you, Secretary Gove, for keeping America’s literary exposés on dirty secrets hidden. Now, a schoolchild’s positive image of an American 20th Century will not be tarnished by the likes of those upstarts Lee, Miller, and Steinbeck.

Yes, Mr. Secretary, for British students everywhere, ignorance will be bliss!

Continue Reading…

“I find people confusing.” 

That particular quote is spoken by Christopher John Francis Boone, the 15-year-old narrator of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, who describes himself as “a mathematician with some behavioral difficulties.” Christopher lives in Swindon, England, and his behavioral difficulties are more along the lines of Asberger’s or high functioning autism or savant syndrome. This diagnosis explains his attitude towards his peers, 

“All the other children at my school are stupid. Except I’m not meant to call them stupid, even though this is what they are.” 

Or his obsession with truth:

“Metaphors are lies.” 

Or his appreciation for math:

“Prime numbers are what is left when you have taken all the patterns away. I think prime numbers are like life. They are very logical but you could never work out the rules, even if you spent all your time thinking about them.”

Christopher’s observations are also what make him interesting to our students who read the novel in literature circles in grade 10. Students at this age connect with the author, Mark Haddon, and his belief that the novel is not about a character with Asperger’s Syndrome, but rather,

“…a novel about difference, about being an outsider, about seeing the world in a surprising and revealing way. It’s as much a novel about us as it is about Christopher.”

CIDNT coverWe have well over 100 copies of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the NightTime in our book room. They are a collection of books purchased at book sales ($1-$3 a copy) throughout the state of Connecticut for the past five years. These copies are most likely the discards from book club members who, 10 years after its original publication date (2003), donated their used copies. The only problem in locating  copies of the text at a book sale is determining on which genre table the copies will be shelved. The novel is classified as a mystery, but it is also considered a young adult novel or trade fiction, and was published in England simultaneously in separate editions for adults and children.

Fortunately, I can see that iconic bright red cover from a distance, the same one with the dog cut-out onto the shiny black cover underneath. When I distribute the texts, no matter how I threaten to make sure the book comes back in pristine condition, there are students who will trace and retrace that cutout until the die-cut shape of the dog becomes the shape of a blob.

The students read the novel independently first, usually during a unit on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, before coming together in literature circles. I would like to think that the character of Christopher would enjoy being paired with Shakespeare’s murder and intrigue since he is uncovering a sinister killing of a neighborhood dog. Students are given time in class to read the novel as SSR, and the literature circles begin once the play is concluded. The students are organized into smaller groups, where they work together to choose a “big idea” that can be found in the novel. The “big idea” can center on large concept words such as bravery, fear, change, determination, trust, or belief. Once a big idea is selected for the day, each group has several tasks to complete, with each member of the group completing one task. The students receive one grade for the completion of these assignments, and disputes are resolved through peer review feedback sheets. The roles for the literature circles are fairly traditional:

  • Group leader/discussion director/writer: leads the discussion and writes the response that answers the question with contributions from the other members.
  • Notes taker/quote maker: keeps notes during the discussion, finds, and writes the passages that support the group’s conclusions about the big idea.
  • Artist: draws a series of cartoons or a particularly important scene that represents the big idea.
  • Poet: creates a found poem of at least 20 lines that supports the group’s conclusions.
  • OrganizerGets the paper, plans the poster, keeping everyone on task and contributing to the overall success of the assignment!

Because we are a BYOD school, we have on occasion also included some “digital” tasks where group members can use a software platform to create an Animoto or a Voice Thread as a way to illustrate the big idea.

The literature circles usually meet four or five times covering different sections of the book depending on the big idea selected. At the end of each meeting, students their findings to the class with each member explaining the contributions from his or her role.  The rubric is centered on Common Core State Standards that require the inclusion of evidence to support a position. For an exemplary rating, a group will produce the following:

POSITION: clearly addressed task, purpose, and audience

  • One page that answers question about the big idea
  • Found quotes in novel to support a group’s position; wrote them on the chart paper
  •  a cartoon or illustrated scene that supports big idea
  • Creation of a “found” poem of at least 20 lines, using words from the novel.

COMPOSITION:

  • Response answers the question; it has a thesis, and at least two quotations for support.
  • Poster displays the quotations you have found; they are written carefully & cited.
  • Art work is neat and colorful and expresses the big idea
  • The poem is of required length and is expressive and creative.

STANDARDS of the DISCIPLINE

  • Response has no more than two errors in mechanics, spelling, capitalization.
  • Quotations are blended.
  • Quotes have no misspellings, etc.

As they read, many students become curious about Aspergers and autism, so we have incorporated video supplemental materials including a speech on the inspiration for the novel by Mark Haddon; a film on autism activist Temple Gradin; and a quick 6 minute video on another savant Stephen Wiltshire: The Human Camera.

Sometimes, if time allows, we have included mysteries from Christopher’s idol, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. For the honors students, we have added the text of the Sherlock Holmes mystery “The Hound of the Baskervilles” for independent reading (audio text) . On other occasions we have used adaptations of Sherlock Holmes mysteries in short audio texts (Story Nory site).

While the addition of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has richly enhanced our curriculum of World Literature, the price was not expensive, roughly $250 for the entire set of books. This contemporary novel by a British writer allows us to connect the reading to other fiction (mysteries) and informational texts including speeches and documentaries. In the beginning of the novel, Christopher explains,

“In a murder mystery novel someone has to work out who the murderer is and then catch them. It is a puzzle. If it is a good puzzle you can sometimes work out the answer before the end of the book.”

By the end of the novel Christopher comments on the mystery as a “good puzzle” saying, “I solved the mystery…and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything.” That assessment is a powerful reason to share Haddon’s novel with students…if they can draw from a character like Christopher the inspiration that they too can do anything.

17 minutesI was researching websites for the Film and Literature class when I first heard about the “17 Minute Rule;” a rule that suggests the real plot is revealed to the audience 17 minutes into any film.  Todd Pack’s Messy Desk Blog uses a number of examples to illustrate  The 17 Minute Rule:

George Bailey tells his father he couldn’t face being cooped up the rest of his life in a shabby little office at his father’s building and loan 17 minutes into It’s a Wonderful Life.

The rest of the movie is about everything that happens that stops him from leaving Bedford Falls and drives him to consider jumping off that bridge on Christmas Eve.

  • Luke’s uncle buys the droids 17 minutes into Star Wars. The droids are what leads Luke to Obi-Wan Kenobi and Princess Leia and, ultimiately, the Death Star.
  • Buddy leaves the North Pole to find his real dad 17 minutes into Elf.
  • The shark eats the little boy on the raft 17 minutes intoJaws. It’s the second attack that forces the town to close the beach and go after the shark.
  • The Iowa farmer is thinking about plowing under the baseball field he built in his cornfield until Shoeless Joe appears 17 minutes after the credits in Field of Dreams.

This 17 minute phenomenon was corroborated on other blogs as well.  Writer and Director Nathan Marshall posted Screenplay Structure: Three Acts & Five Points Script Frenzy! blog where he also called attention to minute 17:

3) Page 17. Next time you watch a DVD, pause it 17 minutes into the film. Trust me—any film. What’s happening at that point in the story? Most likely, the essential character conflict has just been laid out. A teenage Indiana Jones runs to his father for help, but is shushed instead. Shaun convinces his girlfriend to trust him in Shaun of the Dead. Captain Renault asks Rick why he came to Casablanca. On page 17, your audience should realize what the film is really about. It’s not about finding the Holy Grail, Indy—it’s about learning to forgive dad!

The same was outlined on the  All About Screenwriting blog. In addition to explaining the rule, this post made the claim that the ratio of screenplay to minute of film is 1:1; and page 17 will be the 17th minute of a film. The site provides a basic outline for a screenplay of the average movie made today:

FADE IN: 

  • Between pages 1-5: The HOOK, something that grabs our attention and pulls us in.
  • Page 10: At this point in your script you should have the “MINI CRISIS”. The “MINI CRISIS” should lead us into…
  • Page 17: …The DILEMMA. Creation of the team and what the movie is about.
  • Page 30: The REACTION to the dilemma or situation.
  • Page 45: First “REVERSAL” of the 17 minute point. This point furthers the characters and pushes them deeper into the situation or the dilemma.
  • Page 60: The “TENT POLE” of the movie. Where the passive characters become active or vice versa.
  • Page 75: Second “REVERSAL” to the 17 minute point. To reaffirm what the story is about.
  • Page 90: The LOW POINT of action. The place from which our main character has to rise up from.

FADE OUT.

So when I noticed students picking up books for independent reading and discarding them after the first few pages, I wondered if they were giving the book a real chance. Could a 17 page rule apply to books student might choose to read? And, if the rule applied, would a student become more engaged once he or she reached page 17?

In a short experiment, I grabbed three books off the top of the book cart, and noted the following:

The Hobbit (The Dwarves and Gandalf invade Bilbo’s home)

“The poor little hobbit sat down in the hall and put his head in his hands, and wondered what had happened, and what was going to happen, and whether they would all stay to supper. Then the bell rang again louder than ever, and he had to run to the door.”

Little Women -Marmee gives  Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy their Christmas gifts with her words of encouragement to survive the difficulties of life.

‘We never are too old for this, my dear, because it is a play we are playing all the time in one way or another.Out burdens are here, our road is before us, and the longing for goodness and happiness is the guide that leads us through many troubles and mistakes to the peace which is a true Celestial City. Now, my little pilgrims, suppose you begin again, not in play, but in earnest, and see how far on you can get before Father comes home.’”

Lord of the Flies-The boys Ralph and Piggy discover they are on their own in a hostile environment:

“They’re all dead,” said Piggy, “an’ this is an island. Nobody don’t know we’re here. Your dad don’t know, nobody don’t know—”
His lips quivered and the spectacles were dimmed with mist.
“We may stay here till we die.”
With that word the heat seemed to increase till it became a threatening weight and the lagoon attacked them with a blinding effulgence.”

Yes, the rule was working for books from the canon. Later that same afternoon, I was working with a “reluctant reader” who had selected James and the Giant Peach as a guided reading text. I glanced at page 17 and noticed the wonderful passage where James finds the entrance to the giant peach.

James and the Giant Peach 

“Almost without knowing what he was doing, as though drawn by some powerful magnet, James Henry Trotter started walking slowly toward the giant peach. He climbed over the fence that surrounded it, and stood directly beneath it, staring up at its great bulging sides. He put out a hand and touched it gently with the tip of one finger. It felt soft and warm and slightly furry, like the skin of a baby mouse. He moved a step closer and rubbed his cheek lightly against the soft skin. And then suddenly, while he was doing this, he happened to notice that right beside him and below him, close to the ground, there was a hole in the side of the peach.”

Not every text has a page 17 moment…sometimes the dilemma is posed on page 16 or page 18 or 19. I suspect the rule holds up because the 17 minute rule/page 17 is part of a pattern in storytelling, and stories always follow a pattern.  Sharing this rule with students gives me another “tool” in my teaching toolbox, so when I see a student toss a book aside after reading only a few pages, I casually remark, “Did you get to page 17 yet? There’s a rule about page 17…. on page 17, something important always happens.”
I may get a quizzical look, but several minutes later, I have seen that same student engrossed in the text.
“The book got better,” says the student.
“Well, you got past page 17,” I respond.

Shakepeare winkingPlanning on teaching literature in high school? I suggest a brush up on literary pitfalls….and work on developing a sense of humor because sooner or later, a student, (usually a boy) will come upon one of the following words in some great work of literature:

Screw.
Bang
Bosom.
Laid.
Nuts.

In context, these words have been carefully chosen by an author to express some lofty ideal.  Yet, to that student who is looking for any way to make the class more entertaining, these words can mean something else entirely.

No author has been more successful in creating linguistic traps than Shakespeare. There are the overt references, such as Lady Macbeth’s startling announcement to “Unsex me here..!” (I.5) in preparation to assassinate the visiting King Duncan.  There are the more subtle problems with the “hoary-headed frosts” in Midsummer Night’s Dream, but Romeo and Juliet offers the most opportunity for student sniggering.

From the opening scuffle where, “My naked weapon is out”, a teacher must negotiate students through Lord Capulet’s Give me my long sword, ho“,  Mercutio’s  teasing  “Prick love for pricking,” or the Nurse’s explanation that Juliet “shall bear the burden soon at night.

“Is Shakespeare always this dirty?” I see the quizzical looks on their faces.
“Your parents are okay with this,” I reassure them, “Besides, this is required reading.”

The Bard does not have a monopoly on creating awkward moments with language in class. Students are capable of creating discomfort, intentionally or not.

Years ago, I taught an Animal Farm unit and delivered a lesson on George Orwell’s characters and their historical counterparts. I explained that Napoleon was Stalin, the dogs were his secret police, and Snowball was Trotsky. I mentioned in passing that Trotsky was considered an insurrectionist, and I paused to let the information sink in. Instead I heard the distinct sound of giggling from several of the boys in the back of the room.

“What is so funny?”I demanded.
“Nothing,” they stammered.
I should have stopped there, but I moved in to clarify.
“What do you think I said? Do you know what an insurrectionist is?”

There was a pause…
“When… it… goes down?” blurted out one of the offenders.

“No,” I was indignant…not to be stopped. “No, I said’ insurrection’…what did you think I …..”
Then it hit me.
Erection.
I doubled back.
“It’s someone who is trying to start an uprising…..”
That explanation was drowned out with guffaws.
Did I mention that a very good sense of humor is needed in with sophomores?

This past fall, I had posted charts around the rooms with questions associated with Oliver Twist.
As the students moved around the room I noticed students giggling when they got to one of the charts.
“Why would someone lie?” was the heading on the chart.
“To get laid,” was scribbled in small print.
I recognized that print.
That print belonged to Mitch. Mitch who stood all of 4’2″ and was 90 lbs, soaking wet.

Everyone had seen it, so I needed to address the problem quickly.
“Mitch,” I demanded, “is that an appropriate thing to write?”

“Sure, Ms. B,” he replied casually,”I could lie and say I’m dying…Like in the movie 50/50.
I had to admit he was using logic…to say nothing of his confidence.
He still erased the comment.

Next week, I plan to use an Advanced Placement Literature multiple choice prompt from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey as practice for the upcoming AP exam.  I was rereading the passage to check its length and the matching questions when I came upon the line, “She began to curl her hair and long for balls.”

Oh, Jane. That’s going to definitely cause a stir!