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My Top Contemporary Text Ideas for your ELA Classes

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I see a lot of posts each month inside our Facebook group, Creative High School English, asking for text recommendations for different courses. What’s the best book to teach ninth graders? The best short story to teach tenth graders? The best performance poetry for seniors?

I love this type of collaboration, because we all make discoveries at our local libraries and bookstores, and in our own little internet corners. You may not know about my absolute favorite yet, and I may not know about yours. With that in mind, today on the podcast I’m going to share my top favorite recent discoveries. This is going to be my (rather long) answer to the next post I see asking for a great course title to order.

You can listen in to episode 190 below, click here to tune in on any podcast player, or read on for the full post.

As always, before diving into text recommendations, I’ll say that it’s important to preview texts before teaching them to make sure they are right for your classroom and community.

Short Texts to Consider for your Curriculum

Maybe you’re all set for longer texts, but you have some small holes to fill or your need more paired texts.

We all know about Amanda Gorman’s Amazing poem, “The Hill we Climb.” But did you know about her video project, “Earthrise“? Her fun tribute poem for Simone Biles? “A New Day’s Lyric?” Her children’s book? I’m planning a whole monthlong focus on Amanda Gorman for The Lighthouse this year because there is waaaaay more there than her inauguration performance, and a whole lot of ways you could use her work in class.

Mel Alter Smith from Teach Living Poets brought Harry Baker’s “Paper People” to my attention this year and WOW am I glad she did! I am a huge performance poetry fan in general, and think it’s a perfect hook to get students interested in poetry. Harry’s Ted Talk in which he hilariously dubs himself the best poet in the world and reads this poem and his love poem for prime numbers is gold.

Again I have to thank Mel for introducing me to Ada Limon and her poem “Instructions for Not Giving Up,” from the collection The Carrying. Wow.

Ken Liu’s astounding short story, “The Paper Menagerie,” is perfect for your next short story unit or any unit relating to parent/child relationships, immigration, or identity. This story about a son, his relationship to his mother, and the living paper animals his mother made to be his childhood toys before he swept them aside in his rush to fit in with the culture of his schoolmates, just might have you in tears.

Matt de la Peña’s short story, “How to Transform an Everyday Ordinary Hoop Court” is a fun read that provides a nice hook for kids who love sports. In this story, a rising basketball star discovers a gym with incredible players and does everything he can to join them, but it’s a long and complicated road.

Graphic Novels to Consider for your Curriculum

First of all, let’s talk classic adaptations. If you are teaching The Odyssey, The Iliad, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, or King Lear, Gareth Hinds has a graphic adaptation for you. And it will be carefully researched, the language carefully preserved, and the illustrations, stunning! Put some of his work into your Libby queue this summer and think about how you could use it alongside of your original text to help more students understand these classics.

If you’re looking for a sure thing in a ninth or tenth grade class, Jason Reynold’s Long Way Down (in graphic novel or text form) is a strong option. I’ve heard so many teachers talk about how incredibly engaging this book is, and am still waiting to hear from a single one that their kids didn’t go for it. I’ve read eight of Jason Reynolds’ books now and I think every single one would be amazing in different types of courses.

If you’ve got middle schoolers, Jerry Craft is my top recommended graphic novelist to look into. New Kid is fantastic, and I’ve heard that School Trip – his latest – is equally so.

For high school, my top picks this year were The Dark Matter of Mona Starr and Dragon Hoops. Dragon Hoops is another story with a basketball theme, but Yang digs to deeply into the history of the basketball program at the school where he teaches and the stories of the players, coaches, and even his own – it’s really not only a basketball book. There is a little bit of mature language in it but nothing that felt offensive to me. (Heads up though). I love Mona Starr for the intricate way Laura Lee Gulledge illustrates emotions. Page after page had me stopping to examine the artwork, but don’t worry, the story is equally compelling! I did a whole podcast episode on this a couple weeks ago in the “Highly Recommended” series so you can dive deeper there if you’re in the mood.

Long Texts to Consider for your Curriculum

I’ve been following Matika Wilbur’s “Project 562” for years and was so excited to see her book come out this year. I have to wait till I get to the U.S. this summer to get it, but based on all of the photography and storytelling I’ve seen from her over the years as she worked on it, I think this is going to be an amazing text. Because it is a huge and expensive hardcover, I’d suggest getting one copy and using it in displays, choice reading programs, and as a text to work with during station activities.

If you haven’t yet picked up Trevor Noah’s book, the time is now! Once again, I hear such positive feedback over and over for its classroom use. It is HILARIOUS, and there’s a YA version for younger readers if your students aren’t ready for a couple of slightly more mature moments.

Starfish, a novel in verse for middle grade, blew me away when I picked it up last month and read it in one night after my whole family fell asleep. This one could be used in a verse novels book club unit, in a First Chapter Friday program, or as a highly compelling choice option. There’s a “Highly Recommended” mini podcast all about this one too!

Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House is another powerful read for middle grade. In this story, we see a young girl growing up in an Indigenous village as white settlers gradually move into the area. At first, it’s an almost lyrical coming of age story, as she struggles with her relationships with her siblings, grows her connection to the environment around her, and learns from life experiences. Then smallpox hits her village and the story tears you in two. The ending leaves room for hope though, but I won’t give anything else away.

For older students (probably 11th/12th), Where the Crawdads Sing is a fascinating read. My husband kept trying to make me keep reading it after I got bogged down by the sadness at the beginning, and eventually I got deeply into it. It’s really like nothing I’ve ever read. It mixes science, fiction, and thriller together in a way I simply haven’t seen. Read it for yourself to see what I mean!

OK, I don’t want to throw too many texts at you at once! I’d love to hear your recs too, so please feel free to add them in the comments below or DM me on Instagram!

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I'm Betsy

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