Don’t Break the Bank on Books, part one

I moved about 30 boxes of books into my new classroom this summer. When I told boyfriend, he said, “and they’re just gonna keep on coming.” He’s right; I have since ordered books for my classroom at least 5 times.

I’m not about to apologize for this, or rationalize it. The steady influx of books is a fact of my classroom life. But as you can imagine (and as many a teacher well knows) books can be an expensive habit. Here are some ways I keep the costs down.

Memberships and discounts: My Amazon Prime membership and my Barnes & Noble educator discount are put to good use. The yearly fee for Prime is made worth it very quickly with the shipping costs saved & Amazon pricing. B&N’s educator discount is free & gets me a 20% savings on titles for my classroom – 25% during the twice a year educator appreciation weeks.

Outlet shopping: While Amazon & BN are close to unbeatable in terms of selection, there are insane deals available on YA and Middle Grade titles elsewhere on the Internet. If you are working in a Title I eligible school, meaning ____, you qualify for a membership to The organization serves teachers & students in two ways: a deeply discounted marketplace for books, and opportunities to receive loads of free books several times throughout the year.

Another great discount retailer is As with FirstBook, you probably won’t find newer titles on BO, but there are some notable titles, many that fall into the Popular For Years category, and quite a few readalike titles for students who have devoured the “cool” books & need new material. I bought 31 books for around $150 this August (& I only stopped at 31 because I needed to leave to catch a flight!). Even with $20 shipping in the US, that’s a steal at a $5/book average. I like that BO carries what they call “Scratch and Dent” copies, used books that they warn will show signs of having been read. I love a broken in book to begin with, and if it saves me money, so much the better.

I’ve also recently come across, which is similar to BO but with free shipping for orders over $20. TB also carries more new-ish titles, still at impressive discounts. I only grabbed 6 books on my first order, which cost me $26. TB also carries many used books, and the product descriptions will indicate if the copy you’re adding to your cart is excellent, very good, good, or acceptable. The shopping cart lets you know if a “greener” option is available for one of your choices, offering you a slightly lower price for taking a used copy instead of a new copy. I love the ease & convenience of used book shopping this way – I don’t have to scour shelves & lug my purchases home (as much as I love an afternoon of browsing used books, the tediousness of shopping for my classroom this way takes most of the enjoyment out), & I don’t have to spend hours hunched at my computer reading through product descriptions to determine which copy of a book I should purchase.  TB also offers a rewards program for registered members; points for every $50 spent. Most of the books I received from TB were formerly in libraries, so they were sturdy hardcovers with protective plastic casing – great durability for teenage readers.

This is only Part One of money-saving strategies for book shopping! What do you do to cut back on costs in your classroom? Share in the comments and help me build up Part Two! 

4 Ways to Manage Student Choice in Argument

I can’t believe that my last post here was within this school year! As you can imagine, given the months of absence, it has been an eventful year. I’ve found myself talking about argument units a lot lately, sharing the triumphs & the pitfalls of new approaches to teaching structured debate. From state standards to mandated assessments to curricular demands, argument units are becoming larger pieces of elementary through secondary classrooms.

Most teachers I know are always thinking about how to engage their students in any writing or thinking they bring to the classroom, & argument offers a unique challenge: teachers want students to have choice, but structure often gets in the way. In talking to many educators of different grade levels, here are 4 suggestions for keeping student choice alive & well in your argument units.

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Beyond the T-Chart


“I’m going to give you a little dude,” I announced, holding up a handful of paper rectangles. On each is the empty outline of a cartoonish body.

“Now, be kind to this little dude. Don’t draw on his face, or crumple him up, or poke him with your pencil.” In every class, this gets a chuckle.

“This little dude is Junior. He’s going to live in your notebook.”

Handing out everyone’s little dudes there were a few jokes – fake rips, little dude fights between tablemates – but all of my students were taking care of their outlines. They placed them in the center of their notebook pages, quickly taking the two pieces of tape I tore off before moving on to the next student. Some students adjusted the orientation a few times, looking for the best spot before committing to the tape.

“Does everyone’s Junior have a home?” I asked. Most of each class chorused, “Yes,” with some notebooks flipped to show me their secured little dudes. Some students were still labeling him; “Junior,” they wrote, then waited, not drawing on his face.

“What are we focusing on today? Remind me?”

“Internalexternalconflict!” someone called out, every class.

Junior’s internal conflicts – his personal struggles, the problems he carries around inside him throughout this novel – we wrote inside of the outline. External conflicts we arranged around him, drawing arrows that press into him from all sides. Students offered conflicts and suggested where they belong, then defended their positions. There were great (multi-lingual) arguments happening, more like negotiations:

“Poverty is internal because it makes him feel so bad about himself.”

“But I think it’s external, because he was born into this poor family and this culture, so it comes from outside of him.”

“Yeah, so his low self-esteem is internal, but poverty is external.”

“Can we put them next to each other?”

In most classes, I did little more than write. I placed my “marker” on the SmartBoard and said, “Ok, here? What am I writing here? Do we all agree? Where else could it go?” My most energetic class had me dragging chunks of text around the figure on the board, pulling out his insides and swapping them around until we created a Junior they could recognize.

I had them 2nd period, usually their most zombie-like time slot, and their raised hands punched the air with enthusiasm that made me nervous for possible concussions.

My coworker’s son is in 3rd grade. He just made a mobile for his book report. My coworker smiled when he recounted his son’s excitement over making the mobile. Just a coat-hanger, some paper, some string and tape, he told me. So much better than a book report.

What we really had to do on Little Dude Day was review. For a lot of reasons, we didn’t end where I had hoped we would before the winter break, and we were coming back in the beginning of the middle of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Before we jumped back in, we needed to recap. I’ve been trying to decompartmentalize literary elements with my students, who come to me with the idea that plot goes here and characterization here and never the twain shall meet. I want to help them see the connectedness of all those pieces, the overlap and interdependence.

They showed me some beginning understanding of that as we wrote in and around our Juniors – “This conflict is why he is like the way he is,” one student said, after the poverty and low self-esteem connection was established.

“Tell me more about that,” I responded, because it is my mission to make everyone roll his or her eyes at me.

Eye-roll, sigh. “He draws the cartoons and says really crazy stuff because he’s not really happy, right?” I will spare you my torturous replies, though this student was not so lucky.

My number one advice for teaching high school English has become, “Be corny.” Sometimes, I say I don’t know what it is about corny, but I do know; corny is fun. So much of high school is not fun, increasingly so these days. I have seen many teachers do a similar lesson on internal and external conflict, using a T-chart. T-charts are the wrong kind of corny. It should go without saying that fun is effective, even in small doses. It is more memorable, more meaningful. And it is easy. It added about 6 minutes to my prep to print out enough little dudes for my four classes. (I had a student cut the pages in half. In my more efficient classes, they managed the tape without me.) The room was alive, as tired as we all felt coming off a week-plus vacation. Their noise was productive and sparkling, their silences thoughtful.

In one class, a student said the bullying Junior faces (external, they decided) makes him feel very lonely.
“Is lonely a conflict for him? Where should it go?”

They paused, some waiting, some thinking. One of my students was looking down at her little Junior, frowning. She mouthed, “Lonely,” and put her hand over her chest before looking up to tell me, “Internal. Inside.”

“Yeah, inside,” said the student next to her, touching her own sternum. “Right there.”

2/24: It’s Monday! What Are You Reading?

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This past week was midwinter break here in NYC so I was hoping to devour about 10 books & get two posts up. Instead I spent the week rushing one of my cats back & forth from the vet & tending to him post-surgery. Suffice it to say that Monday came back around way too soon.

I did get some great reading in though!

monsterLast Night I Sang to the Monster, Benjamin Alire Saenz I mostly loved this. If you know BAS from Aristotle & Dante, there is familiar territory here, but I found Zach’s tale somehow enchanting in its rawness. It was a hard read in some respects – at times because of the content, because of Zach’s brutal & honest reactions, & at other times because Zach’s go-to phrases seemed to cheapen or diminish the story. Despite that, & an ending that came too soon & tied up too neatly, this was a beautiful, haunting book about addiction, trauma, secrets, & finding yourself.


The Real Boy, Anne Ursu – Finally! Back in November, I all but camped out at Scholastic’s NCTE booth in hopes of scoring a copy of this lovely book. No dice, though I considered being late to my own presentation to get it. Instead, I had to wait on my local library. Thankfully, I picked up Breadcrumbs, Ursu’s beautiful reimagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” to tide me over. The Real Boy was wonderful. It grabbed me; I found myself at times gasping & clutching at the book. Some loose ends that never quite came together, but I can forgive that. Really lovely fantasy tale, & awesome cats!


Every Day, David LevithanI’m definitely hooked so far, but I’m not in love. A is…complicated. It’s nice to have a complicated narrator, though. I become so attached to “good” narrators that I’m often too forgiving, so I’m enjoying disagreeing with A, so far.

On deck this week:

Rosie & Skate The Demigod Diaries The Living

February 17th – It’s Monday! What Are You Reading?

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?I love this meme! It does mean that my to-read list balloons every week, but that’s ok with me because books are wonderful. It’s the first official day of midwinter break in NYC, which means I came home with a bag of books on Friday, to go with the three towers in the corner of my bedroom.

Really tempted to build a fort...

It’s only a problem if you can’t admit it?

So! What am I reading?

House of Hades

The House of Hades (Heroes of Olympus #4), by Rick Riordan – I’m about halfway through the most recent in Riordan’s Percy Jackson follow-up series, & zomg. I absolutely loved the Percy Jackson series; Riordan clearly knows his mythology & history, not to mention teens. I really enjoyed the books, especially seeing what these gods & mythological creatures were up to in the present (kind of like YA American Gods). I got into this sequel series because of my students, & even though I’ve torn through the first 3 books, they haven’t felt as amazing as the original series. Even though there have been great moments of modern-day god-life, fun callbacks to characters from the first series, & the potential for awesome fights, things have felt rushed & more told than shown.

This installment has been such a welcome change of pace! There’s still a LOT happening on each page, & the drive-by appearances of Scrion, Triptolemus, & Eros have made me wish for a slower pace, but I’ve also found myself smiling & inwardly cheering at many moments. & Tartarus is pretty awesomely rendered so far. I’m forcing myself to move slower through this one, which makes it much more enjoyable, even when I catch myself in social situations inwardly wondering what’s going to happen next & how long it will be until I can find out WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN TO LEO/FRANK/PERCY/HAZEL!

Home of the Brave

Home of the Brave, by Katherine Applegate – I just finished this lovely novel-in-verse this week, a beautiful story about immigration, refugee experiences, & moving to a strange new land. & cows! I’m going to be reading this with my students soon. I’m so excited for them to meet Kek & Gol. If you’ve read One and Only Ivan, you know Katherine Applegate is amazing, & I do think she brings her A-game to HOTB. I read this right after A Long Walk to Water, & I could see them pairing really well together. Applegate is just so good at telling a story through these poems. It’s a joy to read them, & reread them, & chew them over.


Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell – Rainbow Rowell just needs to stop writing love letters to my soul. Or maybe to keep doing it forever. I LOVED Eleanor & Parkfiercely. I loved it in the primal, intense way that bears love baby bears. & then Fangirl came into my life & I was like, “How can I love you both so much?!” I’d heard a lot of reviews & recommendations that Fangirl was even better than E&P, but I can’t concur with that. They’re too different. & that might be what makes them so great, that FG is so different from E&P, that they speak to very different parts of me & do so honestly. FG was so dead on, about fandom, about college, about boys & nerds & creative writing professors & students. The way Rowell writes about writing unlocked something in me, & I know I’ll be carrying this book within me for a long time.

Also recently read:








What are you reading?

Book Review: A Long Walk to Water

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue ParkA Long Walk To Water, Linda Sue Park


128 pages – Middle/High School – Historical Fiction/Based on a True Story/Global Issues/War

In Short: Based on Salva Dut’s account of fleeing the Second Civil War in Sudan, this brief but intense novel takes readers on a journey across Africa and through time. Park alternates between two narratives: Salva at 11 years old in the 1980s, and Nya’s life in present-day Sudan (2008). Salva’s moving story will draw in readers regardless of age, though the honest depictions of violence and hardship make this novel appropriate for middle school and up. A Long Walk to Water would make an excellent companion for Ishmael Beah’s memoir A Long Way Gone, or Terry Farish’s novel-in-verse, The Good BraiderALTW could also support a unit on war, historical fiction, or interviewing. Continue reading for a more detailed review, and more ideas for bringing A Long Walk to Water into the classroom!

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“Do not spoil what you have now by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among what you only hoped for.” – Epicurus, ancient Greek philosopher

That was yesterday’s quote of the day. My lovely 11th graders were not daunted by the vocabulary, the length, even the loveable mutant of punctuation that is the semicolon. They set themselves to deciphering Epicurus’ meaning with gusto, the day before their four day weekend, giddy from the party they’d had in their previous class, they delved in.

And it struck me, as I moved around the room, watching them chunk phrases to work with and listening to them debate possible interpretations, that they have come to like doing this. By and large, they enjoy the hard work, the puzzle-solving of our daily quotes. And I just felt so grateful.

This quote was a lead-in for short letters of gratitude, and an opening act for the main event: chocolate pumpkin brownie bites. (I didn’t eat any, but I am told they were delicious. No leftovers.) I don’t have much in the way of Thanksgiving tradition, being estranged from my family of origin, and I don’t care for the official history of this holiday, but I believe in being grateful, and expressing that gratitude. I believe that it makes our lives better: happier, fuller, richer. Last year, Boyfriend put me on to daily gratitude journaling. The practice has since fallen off, but the habit of reflecting on what I have to be thankful for has remained, and I find that taking the time to appreciate the good in my life extends those moments and allows me to live in that happiness for longer. This year, I am most thankful for my job and my students, so I wanted to share that feeling with them. I want them to cultivate that same appreciation for the good in their lives, even when it can be hard to find.

This year, for me, it’s easy to know what I am happy about, what I am thankful for. It hasn’t always been so, and I’m thankful for that in itself.

I’m thankful for the school I work in and the amazing students I work with, who I have come to love very dearly, who never cease to impress me, who keep me laughing on a daily basis, who push me to be my best and give me theirs.

I’m thankful for my family of choice, for people who love me and support me and remind me that I have a good, good life.

I’m thankful for all of the hard-working, brilliant, clever, and inspirational teachers I know, through NCTE and the NYC Writing Project, and through my time working in the Bronx. I’m thankful, knowing that we will not go gentle into that good night.

And I’m so, so thankful that people read these posts, and share them, and comment on them. I rebooted this project just to give myself a space to geek out about teaching. At most, I figured my friends would read the posts because they like me. I never dreamed other people – strangers! – would read what I’d written and feel that it spoke to them. Thank you, to everyone who reads this, to everyone who has shared a post from this blog, to everyone who has commented. My heart overflows.

Last but certainly not least, I’m thankful for books! And for great ideas, like thanking authors for books that I love. So I’m on my way to make a pumpkin-pecan pie and send out thank you notes to authors on Twitter. What about you? What are you thankful for this year?

Happy Thanksgiving! xo, Priscilla