Serving The Whole Child Through Literature

by LaVonna Roth

How can I serve the whole child if I teach a subject that is strictly academic? This is a common question, and you might be surprised by the answer. Literature is a great way to implement social emotional learning (SEL) and brain research techniques.

When I created Ignite Your S.H.I.N.E.®, I wanted something that could be a resource for all educators teaching any subject and for the lessons learned to extend well past the classroom. The goal is to empower ALL students with actionable skill sets applicable in every area of their lives.

Here’s a quick insight into what each letter in S.H.I.N.E. represents followed by how we connect to literature and life.



“Self awareness is the ability to take an honest look at your life without any attachment to it being right or wrong, 
good or bad.”  -Debbie Ford

Each of us is born with or we develop specific gifts, skills, strengths and talents,. We are ALL gifted in different ways. It is not egotistical to proudly acknowledge our gifts. It’s confidence. All students should be encouraged to confidently identify their gifts.

In addition we all have “opportunities for self improvement.” We don’t want to use the word weakness, because it is not a weakness. No one person is perfect in every possible way. Sorry Mary Poppins.

The empowering news is that we can grow through learning new skills. The methods and timeframes will vary between students, and THAT’S OK. Students need to know methods and timeframes ultimately do matter, but are not indicators of intelligence. Let’s build them up through a shift in our approach to how we teach the what we teach. How? By permitting students to have opportunities to show what they know and can do through their areas of strengths! This approach is a way to differentiate how our students learn and show that learning.


“Passion is energy. Feel the power that comes from focusing on what excites you.”  -Oprah Winfrey

We’re teaching our students to identify their strengths, which is awesome, but that’s not the whole of it! As they say in infomercials, but wait…there’s more!

We can now show them how to use their self awareness to pursue their passions. In the same way that each person has unique gifts, he or she also has a passion or multiple passions, and all are equally important. Although these will likely shift and change over time, they are still there. Are our eyes open to them? I hope so, because we can often take where students are challenged and use their passion as the entry point to capture attention and build understanding.

As adults with more years under our belts, we know how hard it is to chase a passion, a dream. It’s scary. It seems bigger than it really is. It feels audacious to even think we could achieve something as bold as our dream.

And it gets harder the older you get. The responsibilities pile on as do the reasons for not taking the next action step. Obstacles in our way are fear and self-doubt, the sentries to the road less traveled.

If students are going to be successful in the pursuit of their passions, they need help. They need champions who can teach them how to manage the fear and doubt that will convince them to settle for mediocre. Self management is the bridge between good and great.

We believe that the “secret sauce” to a fulfilled life is when we marry self (strengths) and passions together. We want to help our students bridge to great and this marriage is a route to greatness.


“It's easy to feel helpless - like you can't fight the tide. But remember: small actions can have a huge impact, and 
one person like you can inspire others to action.” -Celeste Ng

Once we’ve spent a healthy amount of time focusing on strengths, gifts, skills and talents, we must turn our gaze toward learning to inspire ourselves when we need it, while inspiring others. Our actions can and should influence others, which requires a certain amount of understanding and empathy. More on this later.


As you navigate through the rest of your life, be open to collaboration. Other people and other people's ideas are 
often better than your own. Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, 
and it will change your life. -Amy Poehler

Our students are seeking to belong since that is a foundation of what we do as humans. Our classrooms are the prime spot for such challenges, inspiration and collaboration to occur. We can be the catalyst for students to recognize the greatness they have and to do something with that greatness.

We can blow open the world of possibilities for our students here! Teach them to take that greatness they have and help them do something with it.


“The choices we make dictate the lives we lead; to thine own self be true.” -William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Responsible decision making leads our students to discover themselves, as does, and maybe even more, the mistakes they make along the way. Those irresponsible decisions. Either way, exceptional is the result. When we help students discover their strengths, their passions, how to stay inspired (and inspire others), and to do something with all of this, they are on their way to being the exceptional person they were meant to be.

Brain Research and SEL

So, the big question is how does this work in conjunction with literature? How do we teach students these very important lessons through fictional and non-fictional stories or literature of long ago? The key is by incorporating the key components above with characters and events happening in literature and building in brain research and SEL conversations.

Still how?

  • By having students think through the actions of a character or event and share in deep and meaningful discussions regarding the choices that were made and the outcomes.

  • We discuss how a character could have handled a situation in a variety of ways. By allowing our students to think through scenarios and relating it to their own personal life, we begin to create neural pathways that cause students to understand they have options and those options have different outcomes.

  • We help establish tools to know that there is more than one way to handle a problem. These discussions also create opportunities for us to learn that each character has a story. That story is a window into that character’s experiences, choices and thinking.

  • Once we see the impact that a story has on a character, we can develop empathy with students.

  • Then we bridge those very same things from character to student. We discuss, share and model empathy (teach empathy) for others based upon their story. We can also gain insight into our own story and how it affects our choices and thinking. Through this lens, we create a way our students see each other, their self and the world.

I am so excited to be speaking at NCTE-CEL on November 19, 2018 and look forward to sharing more about Ignite Your S.H.I.N.E.®  and how we can help our students share their S.H.I.N.E. and build a strong belief in themselves. I hope to meet all of you there!

Screen Shot 2018-10-29 at 1.01.58 PM LaVonna Roth is an author of eight books on brain research and engaging instruction, creator and founder of the Ignite Your S.H.I.N.E.® movement, and an international professional development provider for educators.


Teaching Grammar to Improve Writing

Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care

By Lindsay Jeffers

When I began teaching fifteen years ago, I was frustrated by errors that were repeated over and over in student writing.  Embarking on my own teacher research, I tracked the types of errors frequently made (fragments, run-ons, apostrophe misuse, homonym errors, etc.) and planned mini-lessons focused on grammar rules, providing handouts and worksheets with practice sentences.  Though I worked hard, my students’ writing did not noticeably improve.

In hindsight, fixating on student errors wasn’t helpful for me, nor was it helpful for students. Further, I was operating on what Constance Weaver describes as a behaviorist approach.  Weaver wrote, “We have simply taken for granted the behaviorist ideas that practice makes perfect and that skills practiced in isolation will be learned that way and then applied as relevant.  We have assumed that this is the way teaching and learning should work, despite the overwhelming evidence that…

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Coming Together Through Improv

Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care

By Sam Tanner

Larry, a 9th grader with autism, stood confidently on the stage in a small theatre. He was screaming triumphantly as the lights went out. Our small audience exploded with laughter as the performance came to an end.

“Seriously, this camp was one of the best experiences of my life,” Sarah, a 7th grader, told me a few minutes later. Sarah had just performed with Larry. In their scene, they defended humanity from global warming. And aliens.

Other students nodded vigorously as they made their way out the door of the small, black box theatre. This was where my colleagueAndrea McCloskey and I held a weeklongsummer improv camp. We taught fifteen 7th-12th graders how to improvise. We’d just staged an hour of improv for an audience of parents and friends. The crowd hooted and hollered as our students participated in a…

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#NaNoWriMoTinyTip: ogres and onions

Laura Bradley

When my students create characters for their NaNoWriMo novels, I push them to get super detailed: to hear the songs their characters will listen to when they plug in their earbuds; to picture the snack food they’ll pull from their backpack as they walk home from school; to feel the clothes they’ll grab from their closet on a Saturday morning. But those details don’t get to the heart of a character, to the backstory and soul that really drive a person.

So this year I added some layers to our character development lessons. I found this great article by Roxanna Elden on the three layers of a complex character:

  • the outer, protective layer, which is usually “socially acceptable but superficial”
  • the middle, defective layer, which we try to hide with our outer layer
  • underneath it all is our inner, human core, the part of us that helps explain our…

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Students “Spark Something” in Each Other: The Potential of Secondary Writing Groups

Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care

By Kira LeeKeenan

“Writing groups were so helpful, because when you got stuck, hearing just ideas–even if it wasn’t an idea you could use–might spark something.”

Emmy, 9th grade (all names are pseudonyms)

I met Emmy and 117 other high school students last year during a year-long study of writing instruction in four “culturally and linguistically complex” (Ball, 2009) English classrooms.  The high school, situated ten miles east of an urban emergent area (Milner, 2012), has “urban characteristics,” such as high levels of administrative surveillance, acute focus on standardized testing, and high percentages of traditionally marginalized students.  However, the teachers I worked with did not subscribe to the standardized instruction, and instead enacted pedagogies atypical in their school. Their instruction and curriculum drew from humanizing and workshop approaches to teaching, which positioned students’ experiences and lives at the center of their rigorous curriculum.  It was within this context…

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Shifting Note-Taking from Tedium to Authorship in a 2nd Grade Classroom

Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care

by Sara Kersten-Parrish

When Mrs. Kona, a 2nd grade teacher at a public school in a small district in the Midwest, began planning for her academic year, she told me she wanted to better integrate content area subjects within her ELA planning in order to meet the CCSS’s expectation about increasing instruction and reading around nonfiction texts. Using her teaching philosophy around Project Based Learning, she wanted her students to learn about the genres and types of nonfiction from creating their own nonfiction picturebooks. Thus, over the course of 4-months, students selected a nonfiction topic on weather, to comply with the district’s science standards, and created their own nonfiction picturebooks on their chosen subtopic. At the end of the study, I asked Sally about her final picturebook product. “It’s awesome,” she said, and proceeded to tell me her book belonged in the school library because, “It is a…

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Put the kids in charge

Laura Bradley

There’s nothing quite like the intensity, the chaos, the one-crisis-after-another, the sorry-I-can’t-help-you-go-find-someone-who-can, the exhilaration, jubilation and exhaustion of the first day of production in a middle school broadcast media class.

My brand new group of 7th and 8th graders had met six times in the first couple weeks of school (90 minutes, every other day) and our audience was antsy for a show. Our news program delivers the daily announcements to the staff and students, and at the start of the school year there is a lot of information that students need.

KTV Sports/Weather Studio Adjusting the sports/weather camera and tele-prompter.

So after just six class periods of training 12- and 13-year-olds to write scripts, create graphics, film and edit video shorts, set up cameras and lights, read from (and pace) tele-prompters, load media onto a TriCaster, manage the audio, direct the anchors, and operate a video bus and TriCaster during filming (which…

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The Writing Lives of Students with Learning Disabilities: How 21st Century Tools Change Perspectives

Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care

by April Whitehurst, Amy Vetter, Annamary Consalvo, Ann David, Alison Hruby, Katrina Jansky, and Marie LeJeune

“I only write at school if I have to.”  
“I am not a writer because I am not good at it.”
“I hate writing.”

The above statements, from students identified with a learning disability (LD) under the rules of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), make it clear that these students do not consider themselves writers or enjoy writing. Unfortunately, research backs up their thinking. Studies have consistently shown that students with LD, who are identified by school personnel due to lack of academic progress, struggle in all areas of the writing process. This results in writing that is not as clear, detailed or coherent than that of their peers, as well as grammatically incorrect and unorganized. These students often struggle with executive functioning skills such as goal setting, planning, and self-regulation…

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The Reading Rules We Would Never Follow as Adults


The number one thing all the students I have polled through the years want the most when it comes to reading.  No matter how I phrase the question, this answer in all of its versions is always at the top. Sometimes pleading, sometimes demanding, sometimes just stated as a matter of fact; please let us choose the books we want to read.

Yet, how often is this a reality for the students we teach?  How often, in our eagerness to be great teachers, do we remove or disallow the very things students yearn for to have meaningful literacy experiences?  How many of the things we do to students would we never put up with ourselves? In our quest to create lifelong readers, we seem to be missing some very basic truths about what makes a reader.  So what are the rules we would probably not always follow ourselves?


Removing choice.   I have to start with the most obvious; removing choice in reading (and even in writing).   We know that choice matters, we know as adult readers we revel in the sheer experience of being able to choose what we want to read.  We take it for granted and will even rebel in small ways when someone says we have to read something. Choice is the cornerstone of our own literacy life, yet it is one of the first things we tend to remove for children, especially vulnerable or developing readers.  And I get it, we think we know better when students repeatedly choose wrong, yet, it is in the selection process that students can uncover who they are as readers, if we give them time to discuss, reflect, and yes, even try the things they choose that may not be a great fit.

Forced reflection.  We seem to be reflecting kids to death with our requirements to write a little bit about every book they read.  Or having them keep a reading journal or having them write about the signposts or whatever else they are finding when they independently read.  It is not that we shouldn’t have students reflect when they read, it is that we make these one-size-fits-all requirements where students cannot discover how they would like to digest their reading.  How often do we as adults write a paragraph every time we finish a book? Or summarize it? Or make a diorama, (which yes, I made my students do)? While I know adults that would love to do all of those things, I also know many that would not.  In fact, many adult readers I know would slow down their reading or hide their reading if they had to do all of that “work.” Often when we ask students why they dislike reading, it is not the reading itself that is the problem but all of the things we assign to go along with it.


Forced tracking.  Oh reading logs, I am looking at you here.  Yes, as an adult I track my reading on my Goodreads account.  I even write reviews sometimes. But I don’t track my pages (unless I have a bigger purpose in mind and then it is for short amount of time), or time how long I read for, or even have my husband sign for me.  I make time to read because I love reading. And while we can say that reading logs foster more reading because it is a check up system, it also kills reading for many. If you want to see if the kids are reading, have them read in class and pay attention to what they are reading.  Allow students to track in a way that is meaningful to them; Goodreads, notebook page, poster, pictures of books on their phone, or even through conversations. There is no one system that fits all and if a system we have in place is even killing the love of reading for one child, then we need to rethink it.

Points and competition.  Yes, AR, you have it coming.  Plus all of the other initiatives that we put in place to urge students to read.  And I get it; we desperately want students to become readers and to keep reading, yet this short-term solution can actually have a long-term consequence; kids who do not read for reading’s sake but for the prizes or honors attached to it.  We know what the research says regarding motivation and reading and how it can actually have adverse effects, and yet, we continue to concoct programs to try to get them reading.  How many adults though would read more because we then could take a computerized test that would give us points?  How many adults would be okay with their reading lives on display for the world to see? Some would, while others would hate for the world to know something that they see as a personal discovery.  Why do we assume that what might work for one child will work for all?

Limited abandonment.  As an adult reader I practice wild book abandonment, passing books on when I know they are not right for me, yet as teachers, we often have rules for when students are allowed to abandon a book.  I used to subscribe to the 50 page rule myself. Why? If a child wants to abandon a book, they are on their way to knowing themselves better as a reader. This is something to celebrate, not something to limit.  If a child is a serial book abandoner, and yes, I have a few of those, then we should be asking them why, rather than just stopping them. What did they not like about this book? What do they need to look for instead?  Help them explore their reading identity so that they can develop it rather than have them mimic yours.

Inane bookshopping rules.  My students used to be allowed to bookshop on Fridays.  That was it. Yet, as an adult reader I bookshop all of the time.  I am constantly on the prowl for the next great read and my to-be-read list is ever expanding.  I get that book shopping or browsing sometimes becomes an escape for a child when they do not want to read, but then we work with that one child, rather than impose limits for all.  My students know that book shopping can happen anytime during our independent reading time, or even if they have completed other tasks. I would rather want children that want to look at books, than those who abhor it.

When my students started telling me their reading truths, I drove home in shame; how many of the very things they told me had killed their love of reading where things that I had done myself as a teacher?  How many of the things was I still doing? Yet, within the words of my students, I found the biggest truth of all; different children need different reading experiences and so that means now is I try to create a passionate reading environment, where there is room and scaffold for all of my readers.  Not just those that can work in one system concocted by me. I know that sometimes large things are out of our control, yet, there are so many small things that are. Think of what made you a reader or what stopped you from becoming one and then use that reflection to shape the way reading is taught and practiced in your own learning environment.  Being a teacher means that we learn from our mistakes, I have made many, and it means that we continue to strive for better. We cannot do that if we don’t listen to the students. And you know what; don’t take my word for it; ask your own students. Then listen. Then do something about it.


34509130_1674893855893554_4637223361393459200_n Pernille Ripp is an expert in literacy and technology integration and dedicates her research and practice to developing engaged and empowered students and communities.

She is a teacher, speaker, author, blogger, and passionate advocate for education. She is a Skype Master Teacher; recipient of the 2015 WEMTA Making IT Happen Award; and the 2015 ISTE Award for Innovation in Global Collaboration. Read more of her work on her blog:

Pernille will be a keynote speaker at CEL 2018. Come and see her in action!

Go ahead: ask your students what they want to write about. They will amaze you!

Laura Bradley

On my first-day-of-school survey, I asked my 8th graders:

If you could write about anything this year, what would it be?

Their answers remind me why it’s so valuable to give students choice in their writing. I never would have guessed they would want to write about so many interesting topics. Here are some of their plans:

I would write about…

  • a kid who is anxious about the future.
  • equal treatment for everyone. Or mental health.
  • social difficulties and internal conflicts in the modern times because I can easily relate.
  • my dog because he’s really goofy.

    justin-veenema-147056-unsplash Photo by Justin Veenema on Unsplash

  • an imaginary island.
  • people who are stuck in the wilderness, like in Hatchet.
  • a realistic fiction novel

(NOTE FROM THE TEACHER: WHAT 8TH GRADER SAYS THEY WANT TO WRITE A NOVEL?!? Must be an 8th grader who knows she will be a NaNoWriMo novelist this year!)


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