For Teachers

Movies Inspire Reading!

Bringing Books and Movies Together

Robyn Gioia

Teaching today’s students is a different ballgame than twenty years ago.

Even ten years ago. This is a generation of visual learners. Students in middle school down through elementary have grown up on cell phones and tablets. Visuals accompany almost everything they read. There isn’t a day go by that my students don’t say, “Can we see a picture of that?”

In the forefront are movies, moving visuals that provide setting, plot, memorable characters, action, and a storyline that comes to life in a different era.

This provides a great opportunity to take advantage of the stage movies produce.

Heroes stand out. It is from their hardships and the trials that follow that make history. One such hero is Harriet Tubman, a slave and political activist, who escaped captivity, and returned as a “conductor” to lead slaves through the “underground railroad” to freedom during the 1800s. She did this repeatedly, even though it put her in grave peril and she carried a bounty on her head.

Enter the Harriet Tubman Movie:

teacher's guide

A tremendous opportunity for children to understand what these women worked so hard to accomplish—one succeeding and one coming close. —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

Give students rich opportunities to learn more. Set the background. Provide students with information that provides historical depth and broadens the movie’s perspective.

Go beyond the internet. Teach your students the value of book research. Provide the class with a broad collection of books, both informational and historically based. Encourage them to be detectives. Encourage them to find the clues that tell us more. (Adjust as needed for your level of students.)

Brainstorm with the class. Discuss the different aspects of the movie. What questions do they have? Was the movie historically accurate? What was correct and what was fiction? Were the characters true to life? Did the plot follow the facts?

Examine the bigger picture. What drove the economy? What kind of  society was it? What was happening politically? What were the customs? How did these things contribute to Harriet’s plight?

Divide the class into topics that were generated from their discussion. Let your students discover the answers through research. Teach them how to use the book index and chapter headings to speed up fact finding. Groups love to share what they’ve learned with others. Provide time each day to let them tell their favorite fun facts. Help them become experts.

Make an Experts’ Bulletin Board: At the end of each session, have students post fast facts and visuals from their book research. Provide a parking lot for questions. Let the specialized experts research the answers and post them on the board.

Have a Socratic Seminar: Pose thought provoking questions and let students discuss the answers citing evidence from their research.

Stage a Debate: Students choose an historical issue and debate the pros and cons.

Read historical novels.

Below are some of my favorite activities for Book Reports or/and Research Projects:

  • Write a Readers’ Theater.
  • Produce a historical newspaper with student journalists.
  • Write a picture book for first grade.
  • Create a Jeopardy game.
  • Design a board game of the Underground railroad. Create a schoolwide simulation.
  • Make a Slideshow to teach others.
  • Write and perform a skit.
  • Design posters.
  • Produce a new book jacket cover.
  • Design an informational brochure.
  • Produce a video clip.
  • Create trading cards.
  • Write a story using historical evidence based on a different perspective.
  • Write and perform a song.
  • Create a dance.
  • Write a poem.


How to Conquer a Blank Page

October is almost over, but even with the scariest ghosts and goblins getting ready to beg for candy in the US, a blank page is way more terrifying. The possibilities are exciting.


*What if the words turn out wrong?

*What if this awesome new idea is a flop?

*What if the murky middle sucks the plot in like a pile of quicksand?

Take a deep breath. You can do it!

Here are some helpful hints.


Challenges can be extremely motivating, and you’re in luck—because NaNoWriMo starts on November 1st. The goal is to write 50,000 words of a novel by the end of November. They have motivating posts, a supportive community, and a fun way to track your daily and overall progress.

If your novel ends up being less than 50,000 words, you can still win. Start a second novel! Or see what’s missing from your first draft and add those scenes in.

*Teachers—there’s a fantastic program to use with young writers!


Word Wars

You can have word wars with others or challenge yourself. Put aside an hour (or half hour) and do your best to have uninterrupted time. It helps to jot down what you hope to cover in the next few chapters ahead of time, then write, write, write! No editing allowed—there’s plenty of time for that later. This helps word counts soar. Plus, it’s amazing how many gems pop up that might not have been discovered if an internal editor butted into the draft.

Think about what’s often missing from your first drafts. For me, it’s usually sensory details. So during word wars, I concentrate on adding in as many as I can. A bunch get streamlined or deleted…but I also find amazing details that I love. Ones that might not exist without this fun challenge.


More tips and tricks:

*If you get stuck, think about the worst thing that could happen to your character. I learned this from author Bruce Coville at a conference years ago, and it’s always been a huge help.

*Brainstorm! Set a timer for 10 minutes and type or write all the possible things that can happen non-stop. Don’t edit yourself, no matter how silly something might seem.

*Have your main character write a journal entry and see if it gives you more insight into wants/needs/conflict. It also works great with secondary characters.

*Let your internal editor know they aren’t allowed in your first draft! They can be stubborn, but there are ways to trick them.

-Write when your internal editor is too tired to butt in (it might be late at night or early in the morning).

-Signal your brain that it’s time for creativity—not your internal editor. Some people do this with one scented candle for writing and another for revising. Authors like Bruce Hale have a writing hat and an editing hat. Play around to figure out what works best for you!


Blank pages are scary—but take a deep breath and remember the fun and excitement of writing as you plunge into your novel. Your page won’t be blank for long!

Happy writing. 😊

I’d love to hear your tips for tackling a blank page and shushing your internal editor.

How Middle Grade Fiction Can Fuel Young Writers’ Search for Truth

In one of my Lit classes recently, students read I, Juan de Pareja, a Newbery Medal-winning novel by Elizabeth Borton de Treviño. This fictionalized account of the life of Juan de Pareja follows his childhood in 17th Century Spain to his role as servant-turned-apprentice to master painter Diego Velázquez. It’s a great middle grade book for studying voice, historical setting, and imagery. Though only a few factual consistencies are known about the life of Juan de Pareja, the author built this novel based upon those few facts, or what she called a “kernel of truth” (The Glencoe Literature Library).

This idea brought up a connected discussion regarding how events in real life inspire realistic fiction… and conversely, how fictitious characters and plotlines remind us of the real happenings in our lives. We began talking about our own “kernels of truth”—stand-out memories, transitions and moves, objects and possessions that hold special meaning, gifts given or received… so many authentic experiences that contribute to the construction of one’s identity! We then complemented the novel study with a writing project that became known as the “Kernel of Truth” creative non-fiction assignment. Each student wrote about an authentic experience that in some way contributed to or connected with his or her identity. With some established parameters and brainstorming sessions, they were well on their way to authoring excellent pieces.

Creative nonfiction is a great genre for middle graders to explore as writers. They get to jump directly into the writing process without time-consuming research or structured main points; instead, they can write what they know. It’s a way to express true narratives, nostalgic anecdotes, tales of travel or adventure, and stories of personal interest while employing storytelling techniques like dialogue, setting, plotting, and figurative language.

Best of all, creative nonfiction writing can work with any novel, and it can support another level of connection between the reader and the text. In other words, just as I, Juan de Pareja inspired my students’ ability to seek individual kernels of truth, most other novels have at least one feature (setting, history, conflict, etc.) that will inspire your students’ true stories, and their own creative nonfiction.

For example, here are a few recent realistic fiction titles along with some potential leads towards CNF writing projects that might accompany them.

Another Kind of Hurricane by Tamara Ellis Smith – What experiences have you had witnessing the power of nature? What’s the most curious coincidence in your life you can remember? Have you ever discovered a connection between you and someone with whom you originally thought you had nothing in common?

Hunger by Donna Jo Napoli – Home can be a complicated word. What joy do you find in your home (town, city, residence, or whatever home means to you)? What, if any, frustration? What situations have you encountered or witnessed in which a choice that went against the rules seemed justified (for the good of others)?

The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson – Any real-life mysteries in your experiences? What books have you read that have stayed with you long after you finished reading, and what does that book mean to you now?

The Orphan Band of Springdale by Anne Nesbet – What unexpected turn of events has contributed to your own “plot twist”? What curiosities have lately caught your attention, like pigeon photography caught the attention of protagonist Gusta?

Middle grade students may wonder initially how a historical or fantasy could inspire them to write about something from their own lives in a CNF piece. Take the time to brainstorm as a class, and soon they’ll see how many elements and factors about the character’s life and story are possible points of connection with their own lives.  Depending on the readers in your class or library, you may decide to give the group a lot of freedom of topic, style, and length… or that it might be better to put some guidelines down on paper. Guiding questions like the ones above or general topics and suggestions can be especially comforting to the hesitant writer. Sometimes it takes prompting and parameters for imaginations to lose their inhibitions.

Hope these ideas are useful ones for your bag of tricks! Good luck and thanks for encouraging reading and writing in middle graders.