Choice Words

Choice Words by Peter H. Johnston

In Choice Words, Peter Johnston (2004) discusses how “[language] creates realities and invites identities” (p. 9). In other words, the language we use communicates to others how we see them as individuals and as members of a larger community. In the classroom, language plays an integral role in shaping students’ identity, developing their sense of agency, positioning them in relationship to others, and creating a classroom community. I define identity, agency, positioning, and community as follows:

  • Identity examines how and to what extent a person associates with the characteristics of a particular group. Ideas about identity center around the fundamental question of “Who am I?” and “Who are you?” When we claim an identity, we abide by the traits of that “type” of person.
  • Agency entails taking charge of a situation and believing that you can affect change. It is knowing that you have a choice and that your choices have consequences. Agency is also realizing that risk-taking sometimes leads to failure, but that failure is a natural part of the learning process.
  • Positioning considers the relationships between people and the inherent power associated within them. Positioning tends to create a binary in which one person or group has more authority than another.
  • Community refers to the sense of belonging created by a group of people. The strength of a community can be judged by how its members function together as a society.

Identity, agency, positioning, and community are interconnected. For example, the concept of identity and positioning forces us to examine how we see ourselves and others, and how we perceive ourselves compared to others. Similarly, agency informs the extent to which we view ourselves as competent individuals and functioning members of a particular community. Johnston (2004) writes, “As individuals we can evolve only within the limits of our social environment” (p. 73). When we, as teachers, nurture a student’s sense of agency, we encourage them to assume a particular identity. Purposefully chosen language can help mold students into readers, writers, thinkers, and scholars. Language can position students as active, valued members of a literate learning community. Language can also do the opposite.

Cultivating agency is, I believe, one of the most critical components of ensuring a child’s success in school and, later, in society. I have witnessed the transformative power of agency at work in the classroom when a student who identifies as “a slow reader” or “a bad writer” is purposefully positioned in ways that allow him to bloom. And yet agency is a seed that does not germinate wholly on its own. The choice words we teachers use in conversations with students nurture their sense of agency by rooting their identities. Our words position students as colleagues and collaborators and create a community of learning. As an educator, I will use language to help grow my students into readers, writers, thinkers, and scholars who, in turn, believe language and literacy is their power.


Johnston, P. H. (2004).  Choice wordsHow our language affects children’s learning. Stenhouse Publishers.

The Line Tender

The Line Tender by Kate Allen

Allen, K. (2019). The Line Tender. Puffin Books.

Category: Middle-grade realistic fiction

Summary: Twelve-year-old Lucy Everhart deals with unimaginable grief and loss while attempting to find solace in finishing what her marine-biologist mother started.

Theme: Even loss brings new beginnings.

Generalizations: death, loss, grief, family, friendship, love

Potential uses in the classroom: The Line Tender can be used to talk about literacy elements such as setting and plot, but especially the richly complex characters. This book can also be used to explore the use of metaphors. Thematically, the book can be used to discuss relationships, death and grief, and living through loss.

Melissa’s note: I saw this book on a table for middle-grade reads at the bookstore. Because I tend to gravitate toward children’s picture books or young adult novels, I have been purposefully adding to my collection of middle-grade books. I was first attracted to this book because of the cover. I have always been fascinated—and slightly terrified—by sea creatures. I often have nightmares of sharks, so the fact that sharks feature so prominently in this book intrigued me. Perhaps that merits further exploration? I was also intrigued by the title, The Line Tender. What is a line tender? What does that mean? I don’t want to give away the plot, but suffice it to say a book has not inspired such passionate tears since The Fault in Our Stars. This is truly one of the most remarkable and beautiful stories I have read in a long time. If you choose to read this in your classroom, have tissues on hand and be prepared for some heavy discussions.

Concrete Rose

Concrete Rose, written by Angie Thomas

Do you enjoy stories of personal growth and redemption? Do you like reading about authentic characters navigating real and relevant issues? If the answer is yes, prepare to get hooked on on this tale of love, friendship, and loyalty.

Seventeen-year-old Maverick Carter’s got a lot going on. Not only is Mav about to start his senior year of high school, he’s just found out he’s a dad. Although determined to live the straight and narrow and be a good son, father, and boyfriend, it’s hard to make ends meet on just a part-time salary. It’s even harder to quit slinging dope for the King Lords. But when a loved one is murdered, Mav must decide what matters most in his life.

Back in the day when I was little, teachers would ask what I wanted to be when I grew up. I’d say stuff like an astronaut or a doctor or a vet. But at some point, I stopped imagining myself as any of that. Ain’t no astronauts, doctors, or veterinarians around here. Everybody I know just tryna survive, and that’s all I wanna do.

Concrete Rose (Thomas, p. 262)

Concrete Rose is a story about what it means to be a young black man in America: Dad in prison. Single mom. Life in the projects. Teenage pregnancy. Gangs. Drugs. Gun violence.

But it’s about more than that, too. It’s a story about perseverance, hard work, and accountability. It’s a story about hope, family, and community. It’s a story about strength and resilience.

Written by Angie Thomas, author of The Hate U Give and On the Come Up, readers of Concrete Rose will surely root for Mav as he struggles to figure it all out.


Unspoken, by Henry Cole

Unspoken, illustrated by Henry Cole

Cole, H. (2012). Unspoken: A story from the Underground Railroad. Scholastic Press.

Category: Wordless book

Summary: A young girl discovers a runaway slave hiding in the family’s barn and must decide what to do.

Theme: Doing what’s right takes courage.

Generalizations: the Civil War, slavery, the Underground Railroad, freedom, empathy, courage

Potential uses in the classroom: Unspoken can be used to introduce slavery and, more specifically, the Underground Railroad. This book illustrates trust, courage, and empathy, especially in times of conflict. More generally, wordless books can (and should!) be used to develop literacy skills. For example, children must “read” the illustrations to infer or predict. Additionally, wordless books provide younger children the opportunity to practice sequencing skills. Older children can practice their storytelling skills by incorporating text and dialog. Finally, children can compare different wordless books and discuss the many devices illustrators use to tell a story.

Melissa’s note: One of my friends, who is also a librarian, lent me her copy of Unspoken. I was so taken with the illustrations that I immediately purchased a copy for my own collection. It is one of those books that begs you to linger on the pictures. I was also excited to see Unspoken mentioned in “Enhancing English Learners’ Language Development Using Wordless Picture Books” (Louie & Sierschynski, 2015). I can’t help but imagine using this book with my future students. Unspoken won an award for Notable Children’s Book in 2013.

English Orthography

Orthography is a broad term that refers to the spelling, punctuation, spacing, and special features of a language. According to Freeman and Freeman (2014), “One reason that spelling gets so much attention in schools is that English spelling is complex” (p. 149). This is due to its roots in German, French, Latin, and Greek, as well as centuries of evolution. In fact, a study of children across 14 European countries who were learning to read using a relatively consistent orthography (spelling system) could read with at least 80% fluency and accuracy by the end of first grade. Contrast this with 34% fluency and accuracy among English-speaking children by the end of first grade. A cross-linguistic comparison of English, Spanish, and Czech was conducted to determine factors that might influence early reading growth (Caravolas et al., 2013).

The ability of English-, Spanish-, and Czech-speaking children to read in their respective language is largely determined by phonemic awareness, knowledge of letters, and rapid automatized naming (RAN). RAN is a measurement of a person’s ability to quickly name items on a page. The 523 children who participated in this study began with similar reading abilities and were assessed six times from kindergarten through second grade. The results of the study corresponded with the authors’ hypothesis: children who are learning to read in English, which has a relatively inconsistent orthography, experience a slower growth rate than children learning to read in Spanish or Czech, which have a more consistent orthography. Letter knowledge seems to be more of a factor in determining initial reading ability in English than it does in Spanish and Czech. In other words, if children have weak letter knowledge prior to formal reading instruction, they will experience a slower rate of growth compared to their peers with greater letter knowledge. The authors of the study also concluded that whether a child is a “good” reader or a “poor” reader is well established by the end of first grade and that this is unlikely to change (Caravolas et al., 2013).

There are several takeaways from this study. Learning to read in English is more difficult due to its relatively inconsistent orthographic system. Also, English-speaking children entering kindergarten without strong letter knowledge experience slower reading growth compared to their more knowledgeable peers. Most critically, however, is that children who are considered “poor” readers by the end of first grade are more likely to remain so. This underscores the importance of early literacy skills even prior to formal instruction.  


Caravolas, M., Lervåg, A., Defior, S., Seidlová Málková, G., & Hulme, C. (2013). Different patterns, but equivalent predictors, of growth in reading in consistent and inconsistent orthographies. Psychological Science24(8), 1398–1407.

Freeman, D.E., & Freeman, Y.S. (2014). Essential linguistics: What teachers need to know to teach ESL, reading, spelling, and grammar, (2nd edition). Heinemann.

Haim Ginott

I discovered this quote from Haim Ginott hanging in one of the classrooms at SUNY Cortland on my very first day. I took a picture and saved it to my camera roll, and I often reread it to remind myself that everything I do and say matters.

Haim Ginott (1922-1973) was child psychologist and teacher who shaped the way adults interact with children. You can read additional quotes here.

Ghost Boys

Ghost Boys written by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Ghost Boys written by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Rhodes, J.P. (2018). Ghost Boys. Little, Brown and Company.  

Category: Middle-grade Contemporary Fiction

Summary: Twelve-year-old Jerome is shot and killed by a white police officer while playing with a toy gun. As a ghost, he witnesses the emotional aftermath of his murder and realizes that “only the living can make the world better” (Rhodes, p. 203).

Themes: We must learn from the ghosts of our past if we hope to change the future.

Generalizations: family, friendship, racism, police brutality, social justice

Potential uses in the classroom: On the surface, Ghost Boys is a book about a young black boy killed by a white police officer. On a deeper level, Jerome’s story echoes the ongoing violence against blacks and, as such, can be used as a segue to discussions with young readers about racism and social justice. As Jerome says, “only the living can make the world better” (Rhodes, p. 203). Therefore, what is our collective responsibility to the ghosts of our country’s violent and tragic past that continue to haunt us? This book can also be used to explore the metaphor of ghosts. Jerome becomes a ghost when he is killed, but who in the story becomes ghost-like after his death? Finally, in terms of story structure and author intent, why does the story alternate between Jerome being alive and Jerome being dead? Why does the story begin with Jerome’s death? Who was Emmett Till and why is he a character in this story?

Melissa’s note: I chose Ghost Boys because I was curious how a children’s book would address the issue of a young black boy being shot and killed by a police officer. Even though this story is a work of fiction, violence against black people, even black children, sadly continues to be a relevant issue. As a parent and teacher, I believe we are obligated to speak openly about racism and social justice and challenge our students to make the world better.

Children of Blood and Bone

Children of Blood and Bone

Children of Blood and Bone, written by Tomi Adeyemi

Adeyemi, T. (2018). Children of Blood and Bone. Henry Holt and Company.

Category: Fantasy novel

Summary: Seventeen-year-old Zelie Adebola fights for the rights and preservation of her people and the magic they possess.

Theme: Stand up against those who seek to oppress.

Generalizations: loyalty, family, authority, revolution, freedom, identity, secrets, Good vs Evil, morality, Black Culture, police brutality

Potential uses in the classroom: Children of Blood and Bone can be used to discuss author’s purpose—How does the book reflect present day police brutality against people of color? What does it mean to be Black? Why and how do authors draw on fact to create fiction? Because this book is told from the point of view of several characters, this book can also be used to explore perspective. Why did the author choose to write a book from multiple perspectives versus only the main character’s?

Melissa’s note: I read this novel as part of a graduate level children’s and young adult literature course in the summer of 2020. I had been eyeing the book for several months–who can resist that gorgeous cover?–and finally purchased it after seeing Adeyami on the Today Show (click to view). Sadly, the book then sat in my to-read pile, which is what tends to happen when you’re a mom and student with limited free time to read for pleasure. The class provided the perfect opportunity to finally tackle it. Also, I have been purposefully adding more books by BIPOC authors to my personal and (future) classroom library, and this one seemed especially relevant given today’s political climate.

Read and listen to an interview with author Tomi Adeyemi here.

Back to School Again

Today marks the first day of the new semester, so of course this song has been taking up space in my head.

You’re welcome.

Unlike in the movie, however, there is no unmasked, group-dancing in early-September sunshine to celebrate the occasion. It is February 2021, and we’re still learning from home in our Covid-quarantine bubbles almost a year later. If that’s not enough to make one go all “Jack Torrance” on the world, we’re bracing for an imminent snow storm here in the northeast.

Despite Covid restrictions, distance learning, and inclement weather, I am excited to get back to school. Only five classes separate me and a master’s degree in Literacy Education, Birth-12th grade. I returned to school in January 2017 as a 39-year-old nontraditional student and have spent the last four years growing emotionally and intellectually. Choosing to return to school was one of the best decisions I made. I am privileged to have had the opportunity and thankful for the tremendous support I have received from friends, family, and professors alike.

I hope you will stick around for the long-haul as I grow into my role as an educator and literacy specialist.

Be well.

Melissa with back-to-school essentials: hot tea and blue-light filtering glasses