Why Teens Like Dystopia

January 2, 2018

I’m often asked by parents why I recommend dark novels to students.  My 8th grade book club tried to read one novel in particular, Ember Burning by Jennifer Alsever.  I asked for permission slips because the book does include many young adult themes that might be better suited to high school, but we discussed those elements and used them as an opportunity for instruction.  A parent wrote on the permission slip, “Sounds dark — teens need uplifting literature to read.”  I agree.  But my readers usually don’t.

Why?  My theory is that they are increasingly bombarded by messages that say the world is messed up — the world is about to end — global warming bring impending doom — you’ll never have enough money for college — your adult life will be riddled with financial worry if not World War III — and so on.

I truly believe the “zombie apocalypse” is their embodiment of all fears rolled up into one fantastical fear that can’t actually happen.  That makes it easier to deal with.  But all kinds of real disasters can and do happen, and that’s what keeps them intrigued. That’s also what keeps them reading.

Here’s a great article, mostly from the mouths of teens themselves, that explains why teens are so attracted to dark novels.

For now, my job is to get them hooked on reading.  If reading about future disaster is what gets them there, it’s OK with me.  And who knows … maybe reading about disasters that won’t really happen will help them to deal with the little disasters in their lives that really might happen.  I like to think that literature has a very definite power to do so.




The Instructional Gourmet

September 12, 2017

If cooking is your passion, you know it helps to add the right stuff to make the dish taste better.  That’s why my husband, a gourmet chef, has a list of four different balsamic vinegars on his birthday gift list.

On the other hand, if a standard knife will do the job of slicing cucumbers for salad, why pull out the fancy mandoline to do the same task?  It might actually take longer to find, use, and clean the fancy device – and the flavor is just the same.

Going digital in the classroom is all about the right tool for the right job at the right time.  If pencil and paper work best for a particular lesson, use them.

So when is it appropriate to plug in?  Whenever you want to reach outside the four walls of your classroom or delve deeper into a topic.  Whenever you want to give students more voice and choice in their learning.  Whenever there is a task that students should and could be doing, but the conventional tools don’t get them there. Here are a few examples.

-You’ve read a chapter on ancient river civilizations, and students are mostly asleep because they haven’t been asked to do anything.  Use Discovery Education to find a video on each civilization, and ask students to watch one of their choosing while completing a mind map or graphic organizer.  Have each of them create a Kahoot quiz that a small group could try out.

-Teach students the etiquette of email and have each of them write to an expert for information.  Make this part of a mini-research assignment.  Then teach how to cite an email using EasyBib.com.

-Several students and parents complain that the online textbook is complicated to use, and they keep forgetting the access codes.  Create an instructional video and post it in Google classroom where they can watch it from home.

Our students have more technology walking into our classrooms than Buzz Aldrin had when he walked on the moon.  So put it to good use.  At the same time, not everything you do has to be digital – nor should it be.  Start small.  Pick the right tool for the right job at the right time.  Before long, you’ll be like my husband, adding ingredients no one has ever heard of, but the salt and pepper will still be on the table.


This article will also appear in the Mountain Ridge MTSS Newsletter

A recent news article reminded me there is a down side to using devices in the classroom:

Learning software in classrooms earns praise, causes debate: https://apnews.com/620924b7d5544841a0b0398dfb9c6e7d
The question, it seems to me, is the same question all parents have grappled with since … well, since parenting became a thing we do here on planet earth.  At home, the answer is limits.  When you provide a device to a child for the purpose of learning, it is important to lay out some ground rules first.  The device belongs to the parents.  They worked for the money that paid for the device.  They have provided the device.  How the device is used is entirely up to them.

Some parents only allow device use in public places, such as the kitchen table.  Good idea.  Another good idea is turning devices in at bedtime, so that every child in the house with a device, be it a smartphone or a laptop, must place their device(s) on mom or dad’s dresser before bed.  Maybe you set up a charging station right there on the dresser, so there is an additional purpose for placing the device there.

There are also monitoring systems you can purchase, such as Disney’s Circle.  https://meetcircle.com/

In school, the answer is balance.  Please don’t think that schools are plopping kids down with a device and abdicating their role of teaching.  Devices in the classroom does not mean the teacher is taking a less active role.  Usually, just the opposite is true.  Teachers have to be more active because students may all be doing something different.  The teacher is monitoring this and making sure each student is doing what each student needs to be doing.  And if the activity is best served by the traditional pencil and paper, that is what the thoughtful teacher will be asking learners to use.

As a librarian, I have been asked for at least a decade now, “When will you be replacing all these books with digital copies?” or “How long do you think books will be around?”  I know that I prefer to hold an actual book in my hand.   When I ask my students, my digital native learners, what they prefer, I get the same answer:  real books.  As long as books remain the more convenient option, there will always be books around because they serve a purpose a device just can’t serve.  You can flip through a book.  You can pick it up any time and just dive in.  No need to plug in, log in, or charge up. So balance is the key.  Just because a digital tool is an option doesn’t mean it will become the only option.

What we’re aiming for is the right tool at the right time for the right purpose.  Sometimes, that is a laptop or a tablet.  Other times, it’s just a plain old piece of paper.


Recently, a fellow teacher came to me elated because her students did exactly what they were supposed to do the previous day, when there was a sub in the room.  She spent the day full of anxiety because her class, broadcast journalism, requires every student to be doing something different with all kinds of equipment — cameras, microphones, computers, and hard drives.  It was imperative, on this particular day, for her students to turn in their video assignments — and turn them in to the right location — because the broadcast had to be finalized the very next day.  And this was just the second week of class, so her students had not had all of their training.

Sounds like a lot for a sub to handle, right?  But the class pulled through.  Every video clip was saved exactly where it was supposed to be, with a file name that made sense.  Every piece of equipment was put away just where it should be.  The broadcast was ready for a final edit, in spite of the newness of the experience and the complicated nature of the tasks.

Welcome to the power of personalized learning.  There are many reasons contributing to the success of this situation, one of which is the skill of the teacher to set clear expectations.  But that’s not all.  In a class where the product is real, such as a broadcast the whole school will see, the students have buy-in to do their best.  When a teacher lets go of the reins and sends the message, “I need you  … the class needs you … the whole school needs you … and I TRUST you to get the job done,” the results can be amazing.  And very satisfying for the teacher.

Of course, not every class has an authentic product being produced like this one, but with a little creativity, most classes can produce something that a real audience will see.  At my school, social studies classes create a museum with artifacts and articles, and the whole school community is invited to visit.  In art classes, students choose their best work to be put on display in an art show and competition.  Language arts classes create blogs.  The bigger the audience, the better.

It’s gratifying to see students take responsibility for their own learning, and they feel good about the time and effort they are putting into their work.

This is the kind of power technology allows us to harness.  When students have control of a device, they have more control over their own learning.  They might also have access to a larger audience, such as the student who creates a Kahoot quiz that is posted on the Kahoot site for others to use.

The power of putting the power in their hands is that students become engaged, motivated partners in their own learning.

Make Learning Personal

March 2, 2017

make learning personalThis book, and its companion, How to Personalize Learning, are pretty much the “bible” for understanding why schools are making the switch from computer labs to devices in every hand.

My library is no longer a tribute to Dewey-Decimal symmetry.  It is a not-quite bookstore model/Dewey hybrid that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever … unless you happen to be an actual patron.  That’s because I have re-imagined the question of “where should this go” by looking at the picture from a student’s point of view.  I know from experience that my readers who read about sports don’t particularly care whether a book is fiction or nonfiction — many of them probably aren’t sure they remember what those words even mean.  They just want a book about football, or baseball, or hockey.  So I can steer those readers to their very own place in the stacks, and they suddenly feel at home.  I have inter-filed books on animals, mythology, supernatural, and war for the same reason.  General nonfiction, otherwise known as “the stuff no on ever reads unless they have a research assignment,” is still very much Dewey, with stickers and dividers to help lead the way.  To my more traditional teachers and parent volunteers, it’s a bit confusing, but to my students, it makes perfect sense.



I hear from many teachers who wish for something that will never happen — 1:1 devices for every student.  Not only will there never be a budget for this at my school, but I would not prefer it anyway.  Our aim is personalized learning.  Personalized learning is … well… personalized.  Imagine being asked to use a new smart phone, tablet, or laptop every time you sat down to do something productive, like pay your bills online.  You would spend more time fiddling with the settings on the device and trying to find where things are than you would on being productive.  I can’t even type on a new keyboard without frustration, even though all the letters are in the usual places.  There is always a long and uncomfortable period of adjustment.  That’s what we ask learners to grapple with every time we sit them down in front of a new device.  Once you get used to a personal device, your use of that device becomes organic.  You become familiar with where the buttons are, how to access the various tools, and so on.  I would rather have students bring in a hundred different devices that they have made intimate friends with than give them a new “friend” each day and have them struggle to use it.