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For Teachers: A Reading Program That Works

Getting teens to read was my most important mission as a teacher. When I realized how many of my high schoolers had NEVER read a book and bragged about passing tests on assigned classics by reading Spark notes and watching movies, I knew I had to act. We were losing them as readers, and once they left my class, my opportunity to change that would be lost. That's when I discovered the simple secret: CHOICE! If I wanted to teach kids the meaning of "reading for pleasure," I had to include young adult books in their assignments - books that were engaging, books they could relate to. Kids who've never read anything except the difficult assignments that are required for school don't understand what we're talking about when we say, "reading for pleasure." So I spent many years building a reading program that would help them become life-long readers. I'm happy to share the logistics of my program here, and I'll be traveling with Perma-Bound reps Kristen Ives and John Zeller to schools across the Southeast this fall to share tips and answer questions and getting kids to read. Also, you can visit the Perma-Bound website to find the books I recommend for reluctant readers, feature here on the blog - at a discount to you. Here's the step-by-step process I used: 


The Program

Step By Step with Beck McDowell


1. Get administrators on board with the idea that aesthetic reading (for fun) is just as important as efferent reading (for information.) Reading practice improves skills and increases vocabulary and comprehension levels. Many high schoolers have NEVER read a book. They brag about reading Spark notes and watching movies to pass tests on assigned classics. If we convince them to read through offering them a CHOICE, we can turn them into lifelong readers.

2. Send out Parent Letter. When parents understand your motives, they’re more likely to support you. Invite their input and be open to questions. If a parent objects to a book (which happens very rarely,) remind them that the list is OPTIONAL and no student is required to read any book. Let them know they don’t get to control what other students read – only their own. Be firm but friendly.

3. Hand out the list to students. Explain that they’ll still be reading classics as a class, but they’re now required to read two “choice” books per grading period. They may also read other books by authors already on the list. They may opt to read books not on the list, but only with prior permission from the teacher.

4. Read the annotated list aloud and have them mark books that sound interesting to them. Suggest that they check out  blurbs online for plot information and that they read a few paragraphs of the free sample chapter offered online to see if the writing style appeals to them. Remind them they don’t have to finish any book they don’t like.

5. Read aloud twice a week. Take 5-10 minutes to read from books on the list or others you bring in to entice reluctant readers. This is critical to the process. Some have no idea what’s inside a book.

6. Allow class time to read. Set at least aside one or two 10-20 minute reading sessions per week so you can monitor their progress. Use this time to assess levels of success by walking around and occasionally asking questions (very quietly) about the books they’re reading. Help the strugglers find good books. Encourage all with enthusiasm for reading and pride in their progress.

7. For grading, you have four options.

            1. Book Trailers – see NRR instruction sheet and grading rubric. Grade leniently, but let them know points will be deducted for spelling, punctuation and requirements on instruction sheet. (One note: when students have used popular music in the past, YouTube has allowed it and provided a link to viewers to purchase the music. If they use copyrighted music, they do so at their own risk, but most musicians allow it for the promotional opportunity. Just make them aware of the possible penalties. Maybe YouTube will make a policy statement about this soon, but royalty-free music is the safest route for now.)

            2.  Participation Grades – monitor progress informally during class reading periods and grade accordingly. Be lenient. The goal is to make reading fun. But insist that everyone reads and show them point deductions when they don’t.

            3. Book Interviews – If you prefer individualized assessment, choose several of the Not Required Reading discussion questions for oral “interview” assessment. Grades are 100 if they completed the book and 0 if it’s clear they didn’t finish by the deadline. If a student receives a 0, he may finish the book within three days for half credit, which is still a failing grade – but a “50” that can be pulled up more easily. Most students will finish after they realize how much a 0 affects averages.

            4. Reviews for NRR and other sites - If you prefer written assessment (or for extra credit to those who choose to do it,) have students first read three reviews in credible sources like NYT, LAT, NPR, etc. Then have them write 500-700 words on the book they’ve just read – with special attention to originality, personal response, and avoiding spoilers. Reviews should not be just plot synopses. 

            8. Early Bird Incentives - For Book Interviews, try offering Early Bird Incentives to spread out your workload. When students earn 5 extra points by coming before the deadline (after school, between classes, or during lunch,) the teacher is not overwhelmed on deadline day. Some students will “read ahead,” finishing an entire semester of “choice” reading in one grading period. This is fine. Those kids will usually keep reading even after they’ve completed requirements for the year. (Remind everyone that this is a flexible assignment. If they have lots of other homework one night, they can skip reading, so long as they catch up on the weekend or when other work is slower. On slower homework nights, they can “read ahead” and possibly finish early.)

            9. Extra Credit – Offer one extra “choic” book as the only extra credit allowed in your class. Make it worth their while points-wise. This is the very best incentive for reluctant readers who need to pull up a low test score or make up for missing homework assignments. Once you get them reading, lots will do this.

            10. You/Guest Readers – Your own enthusiasm for reading is key to the success of this program. Let kids see you read and tell them about books you love. Also, invite other teachers, coaches, local celebrities or officials or sports stars to come and read to the class. Show them that reading is for everyone!

Thank you, faithful teachers! It’s not too late to entice even 11th and 12th graders to the idea of reading as a legitimate leisure activity of choice. Build a classroom library by buying at used bookstores and library cast-off stores, surround your students with exciting covers, talk about books, read to them, and give them time and grade incentive to read and you WILL see a HUGE difference! And write to me at mcdowell.beck@gmail> and let me know how it’s going! I’m happy to answer any questions you have as you move forward with Choice Reading.











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Posted in 2013


Twenty-Six Books




Eight weeks ago my first novel was published – a book about a troubled gunman opening fire in a first-grade classroom. A book based on a recurring nightmare I’d had during the many years I taught, one every teacher holds at bay during waking hours as she shoulders complete responsibility for the students she loves. And last Friday, I watched in horror as parts of that nightmare, eerily similar to the book I wrote, played out on national television. Many authors will tell you their characters “come to life” as they write. It’s true; I grew to love the 18 first graders I invented, with their distinct personalities, almost as much as the hundreds of kids I’ve taught over the years. Friday I relived the scenes “my children” saw and heard in their classroom, sobbing with the rest of the country as we watched, devastated at the staggering number of victims – far worse than any scenario I’d imagined. I could protect my fictional children; but no one, not even the heroic teachers who willingly sacrificed themselves, could save these beautiful babies from the brutal rain of bullets that ended their lives.

I’ve struggled as we all have, searching for a way to comprehend this tragedy. Writing has always been my solace in times of pain, but for days I’ve been unable to finish a sentence. As important as gun control, mental health, and school safety issues are to me, I’ve maintained my silence, for the most part, while following the heated debates on social and mass media. I’ve kept vigil in my living room, unable to turn away from the heartbreaking photos of sweet-faced children who seem so familiar to me. I had hoped my book, about a soldier with PTSD, would draw attention to the plight of those with mental illness, but I find myself  sorely challenged to feel sympathy for the troubled boy who robbed 26 families of happiness in a heinous act of violence.

I wanted to “do” something, and my feeling of connection to these children and teachers I never knew demanded my best effort. After much thought I decided what my small offering will be - to donate a book, a first grade book, to my public library, for each of the victims. Twenty-six books with each name written in one – so that they will live on in my community. I spent several days making a list of current books that teachers listed online as kids’ favorites. I read reviews and descriptions and then studied them at the bookstore to make sure the message of each was happy and hopeful.

And then a strange thing happened. As I listened to the stories about each individual, their unique personalities began to mesh perfectly with the books I’d found. When Noah Pozner’s family said he loved tacos so much that he wanted to work in a taco factory, I knew he’d love Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin. I had ordered Matthew Cordell‘s Hello, Hello just a week earlier as a gift, and when Jessica Rekos’ family described how much she wanted a horse, I got chills picturing one of the most memorable scenes - a joyous young girl riding away on a horse. Emilie Parker’s parents told of the way she had a kind word for everyone; I thought of the beautiful lessons of Jacqueline Woodson’s Each Kindness. Grace McDonnell wanted to live on the beach and be a painter. She loved seagulls and shells and lighthouses, and she painted fish – like Walter Anderson, whose life is chronicled in The Secret World of Walter Anderson by my friend Hester Bass.  

I can’t presume to know these children, but I’ll gather as much information as I can find to help me choose the books that will tenderly preserve their memories in my community. I’ll ask for help from my elementary teacher friends, too. They’ll know which books would be appropriate for a soccer player, a future firefighter, a New York Giants fan, a budding musician, and a lovely principal who dressed as a Book Fairy to encourage her students to read. I’m happy to share the list when it’s finished if others would like to place a book with a Sandy Hook angel’s name in a school or community library.

I will write each of these names in a book: Charlotte Bacon, Daniel Barden, Olivia Engel, Josephine Gay, Ana M Marquez-Greene, Dylan Hockley, Madeline F. Hsu, Catherine V. Hubbard, Chase Kowalski, Jesse Lewis, James Mattioli, Grace McDonnell, Emilie Parker, Jack Pinto, Noah Pozner, Caroline Previdi, Jessica Rekos, Avielle Richman, Benjamin Wheeler, Allison N Wyatt, Rachel Davino, Dawn Hochsprung, Anne Marie Murphy, Lauren Russeau, Mary Sherlach, Victoria Soto.

And as I take them to my library for Huntsville children to enjoy, I’ll be remembering the Newtown families who are left with only memories of the precious ones they’ve lost. In the days ahead I will continue to pray that our country will have the courage to take definitive action in both increasing mental health provisions and legislating gun control measures to help keep our children safe.

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Posted in December, 2012


A Great Week with My Teacher Tribe

NCTE/ALAN 2012 in Vegas, Baby!

I LOVE being an author, but I’ll ALWAYS have a teacher’s heart, so traveling to Vegas to do a presentation at the National Council of Teachers of English was a long anticipated event.  Any time I’m around teachers, I feel like I’m home, and this group proved to be my “tribe” in so many ways.


First, I’d only met my presentation group online, so getting to know them in person was AMAZING! I actually met our fearless leader, Kelle Moye, an amazing “ideas” person, organizer, and dedicated reading teacher of very lucky middle schoolers, in the elevator, then had breakfast next morning with the rest of my articulate and uber-competent group: Gordon Hultberg, Lynne Eichel, Kellee Moye, Jennifer Fountain, and Katherine Sokolowski.



I'm pretty sure there’s not a person on the planet who cares more about books, kids, and the perfect matching of the two than these folks. If you’re a teacher, parent, or reader, you'll learn something new every single day if you follow and


Our presentation, Igniting the Love of Reading in Your Struggling Readers, was held in a basement room at the end of a maze of stairs and hallways so complicated, we were sure NO ONE would find us. But when the doors opened and teachers started pouring in, we found ourselves with a full house – complete with extra chairs brought in and people sitting on the floor along every wall. 



It was such a great feeling to see so many eager faces and open minds - educators who wanted to know MORE about the creative ways these master teachers are enticing kids to love reading. 


Another highlight of the week was the Nerdy Book Club party, where I got to talk with so many teachers and authors, including Kellee’s blog partner - the effervescent Jen Vincent, the three Nerdy Book Club founders: Donalyn Miller - author of The Book Whisperer (every teacher needs this!), Colby Sharp - star of the so-much-fun video “I Love Books,” and Cindy Minnich - talented computer guru for the group, and with my Twitter buddy, "John360," who made a special trip back to the exhibit hall right before it closed so I could sign his book (sweet). It was a night of great food, company, and fun – made even better with my Alabama author buddy Irene Latham there.  I also loved chatting with authors Jenni Holm and Lindsey Leavitt, and great impromptu entertainment was provided by Jonathan Auxier, author of Peter Nimble, yo-yo master, and engaging storyteller.



NCTE was another reminder that I’m so fortunate to be a part of the wonderful Penguin team. It was also my first chance to meet the amazing staffers who support THIS IS NOT A DRILL with their tireless energy and infectious enthusiasm. The amazing Scottie Bowditch, Penguin School & Library Marketing Director, remembers everyone and knows everything about Penguin books, wonderful Laura Antonacci planned our fabulous Penguin dinner party and arranged my schedule for two booth signings, awesome Kathryn Bhirud helped me at my presentation with publicity material, adorable Bridget Ryan was a powerful Midge-force for book sales in our booth, and the ever-efficient Mary Raymond helped me figure out where I was supposed to be. Our dinner at Fixe at the Bellagio was delicious and memorable – and what amazing company! We also celebrated author Ruta Sepetys' birthday (below with Scottie.)



Kellee and Katherine and I chatted with super-smart Ruta and authors Paul Griffin and Joan Bauer (love her books!) and charming editor Kendra Levin. Paul is quite possibly the nicest guy in the business and most definitely the best listener. Authors seated at the other table were Jon Scieszka, Marie Lu, Kristin Cashore, Beth Revis, Kathleen Krull, and T.A. Barron, so I got to meet a lot of my colleagues for the first time – so exciting! 


Joan Kaywell was the very first person I met in Vegas (on the airport shuttle) and she and I kept crossing paths until it almost became funny. What a great conference buddy to have; she's a former president of ALAN and was this year's recipient of the prestigious Ted Hipple award for her many contributions to young adult literature. She is a dynomo, for sure.



One of the biggest thrills for me at the conference was sitting in on a Round Table discussion led by the amazing Liz Hester Schults featuring Matt de la Pena and his work. Such a rewarding experience to see my former students become terrific teachers! So proud of Liz! The circle of life!




I also loved finally meeting the very talented Todd Strasser, author of Give a Boy a Gun, who was kind enough to write a blurb for the cover of This is Not a Drill. Todd has written over 100 children's/YA books! He was so generous in his praise for my book, and I'm very grateful.



I did manage to escape the convention hall and go out on the strip for a bit on a beautiful afternoon.


 I saw Elvis standing next to  Elmo on the sidewalk, which seemed about right for Vegas - and where else would you find a Jelly Bean Statue of Liberty?



I had a great view of the strip and got to watch Vegas come alive as the sky darkened each night. 


My fun roommate Wendy Stephens (fabulous librarian and another former student – I’m so lucky) treated me to my first Cirque de Soliel, which was jaw-dropping. We found a great restaurant, Mon Ami Gabi, where we sat outside and watched the Bellagio fountains – most relaxing meal of the week.



On my last night, I went down to the casino to play a few hands of blackjack because I knew my brother-in-law Tommy would give me hell if I spent a week in Vegas without gambling at all. I took $100 and left with $150 . . . three hours later. Met really nice people and had fun, even though I’m not much of a gambler. I used my “big” winnings to get a neck and shoulder massage on my airport layover – money well spent.

We’re living in a time in our country’s history when teacher morale is plummeting. Superintendents without education backgrounds are replacing experienced classroom veterans with Teach for America workers, unions are constantly under attack, cost-of-living raises are not even discussed, and the workload grows heavier as classroom sizes increase and staff is cut to save money. But you’d never know it from the teachers I met at NCTE/ALAN. Their enthusiasm for books and their love for kids cannot be dampened by the burdens heaped on them by a tough economy.  Many of them paid their own expenses and all of them left their families right before Thanksgiving to learn, to listen, to share, to grow. My spirits were lifted by their energy and commitment and my heart was warmed by their friendship.

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Posted in November, 2012



Thanks so much to these wonderful bloggers for hosting us!


Thursday, Oct. 25 – Launch Day           


Friday, Oct. 26


Monday, Oct. 29 

            THE STORY SIREN

Tuesday, Oct. 30

            YA BLISS

Wednesday, Oct. 31

              BUZZ WORDS

Thursday, Nov. 1

            YA LOVE BLOG

Friday, Nov. 2

            ICEY BOOKS

Monday, Nov. 5

            NERDY BOOK CLUB

Tuesday, Nov. 6


Wednesday, Nov. 7


Thursday, Nov. 8


Friday, Nov. 9


Monday, Nov. 12

            KATIE’S BOOK BLOG

Tuesday, Nov. 13

            ALLURING READS

Wednesday, Nov. 14


Thursday, Nov. 15



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Posted in October, 2012


Grand Fesitval of Art and Books

Grand Fesitval of Art and Books

I knew about Fairhope’s reputation as a haven for artists and writers before I visited last weekend. And Karin Wilson, owner of Page & Palette is known nationally as a passionate advocate for books and a generous host to thousands of authors through the years. So I felt right at home when I walked into the store and found my book prominently displayed.

I was lucky to have sister Susan Siniard traveling with me on this trip, and after our six hour drive, it didn’t take us long to find a great spot to rest and recuperate.


Sharing the stage with amazing Penguin sales rep and highly respected dynamo Doni Kay was a treat. It was my first time to talk about THIS IS NOT A DRILL because it won’t actually be published Oct. 25, but was released early to Page & Palette just in time for the festival.


And signing books is always fun for me – like giving my stories a little stamp of approval before sending them out into the world to do good things. Thanks to lovely niece and Mobile resident Margaret McDowell Miller for this photo (and for coming.)


It was great meeting Adam Gidwitz, whose book A TALE DARK AND GRIMM has just been chosen as Al Roker’s next book club pick. Adam’s smart and fun and had lots of terrific advice about writing and book promotion. (I know because I pounded him with questions.) Looking forward to seeing him on the Today show in November.


And I LOVED talking to Fairhope Middle Schoolers, who were an attentive audience with eager faces and intelligent questions. When I explained that my publisher, Penguin, sent a special box of books to Fairhope ahead of my publication date, one girl heard that without the commas and thought my publisher was actually a penguin – some rare breed known as a publisher penguin, I suppose. The picture in my head of a penguin packing a box of books made it a little hard to continue my presentation without giggling, but she was a good sport about the laughter her comment brought.

It was a great inaugural trip for THIS IS NOT A DRILL. Everyone in Fairhope is ridiculously friendly and there’s great shopping, eating, and relaxing by the bay. Can’t wait for my next chance to visit! If you’re anywhere near Page & Palette, you can snag a copy of THIS IS NOT A DRILL before anyone else in the country, so hurry on down to one of the South’s best indie bookstores.


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Posted in October, 2012

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