Creating a Student Book Review Website

A good book puts us in conversation with a compelling character, offers a new perspective, takes us places. It can teach us new things about our world and ourselves, make a lasting impression on our lives, or help us get through a global pandemic and accompanying lockdowns. But when presented in school, reading can sometimes be treated like an onerous chore, a burdensome task that one needs to get through—and get past. Obviously, this is not usually how we want young people to view reading.

One of the ways to address this is to offer more choice — albeit curated — to student readers, and to help them learn to make informed choices about their reading, now and in the future. The “book club model,” as opposed to an exclusive focus on common class texts, is increasingly incorporated into high school English classrooms for this very reason.

In this year’s Grade English 9 English class, most students read two novels during the octomester, and they had opportunities to share and receive recommendations from their classmates. In journals, student-teacher conferences, and even with their families, students practiced important comprehension and thinking skills as they discussed and made connections to their reading. Then as a final assignment, they each contributed a multimedia book review to create a book review website for a peer audience. Writing and publishing their reviews, however, was not just about summarizing or sharing opinions on a book; it was about helping to create a community of readers, in which teenagers are empowered to read.

Choosing the right book may be a start, but students also learned to use a range of strategies, from using an audiobook to summarizing and asking questions, as they read. Reading can be hard, and there might even be parts of a favourite book that are hard—or boring, confusing, or otherwise unenjoyable. In our English course, readers were encouraged to prepare for this, and to acknowledge it in their reviews as needed. Reviewers have also included some advice, where relevant, about what those who are interested in a particular book might want to learn more about first. It is our hope that the reviews will be helpful to other students as they make their own choices.

The site is a work in progress, and will continue to be updated and expanded with more student reviews, created in different courses as well as purely out of interest. In the future it will hopefully also see the addition of various features like grade-level and interest filtering and feedback, request, and submission forms. But for now, the Grade 9 English book reviews have the spotlight.

YMCA Academy Student Book Review Website

Media Literacy in the Age of Misinformation

“Fake news” is a phrase that has been thrown around over the last few years, but what role does it play in the lives of today’s students? And what are they learning about questionable “news,” from misleading headlines to hoaxes to blatant disinformation, and everything in between?

Students in Grade 9 English have been asked to consider these questions, and more, as they learn about news from a few different angles — how news writing is structured and presented, how to differentiate between fact and opinion in what we read and write, and how to evaluate the reliability and credibility of information coming from different sources. As teachers, we are often asking ourselves how we can best teach about media and information literacy so that students develop as not just readers and writers, but also responsible media consumers, media creators, and citizens. But the proliferation of misinformation over recent years continues to present challenges.

All students agreed that misleading news is a problem that can have terrible consequences in the real world, but not all shared the same opinion on whether or not enough was being taught in schools about “fake news” and other kinds of misleading information in the media. Most, however, took the position that the Ontario curriculum should include more on the subject. Now with the pace of an octomester, opportunities to link different skills and concepts together must be seized. And so, this issue provided the topic for a persuasive writing task the class is currently engaged in — writing to the Ministry of Education to let their views be known in a letter, one in which they must express a supported opinion on the matter, but also one that we hope may have other, more positive, consequences of its own.

Do you think that young people are learning enough about false and misleading news? What can we all do to support them in developing the skills they will need to responsibly and capably navigate an ever-changing landscape of messages and information?

The Y-Fi: Creating a Digital Student Magazine in Magazine Club

Y-Fi Magazine

This year in the magazine club, a group of students has been working to publish a quarterly magazine for their YMCA Academy peers. In creating the first issue of The Y-Fi Magazine, available to the student body next week, the group has learned a lot about collaborating with each other: sharing ideas, making decisions together, giving feedback, and sometimes compromising.

The magazine includes all sorts of sections: puzzles, birthdays (of those who’ve opted to have them shared), seasonal recipes, music, movies, opinions, and more. Each section has a different editor, but students have also been eager to help each other out and offer encouragement. Many of the skills students are making use of, from writing and editing to design and digital literacy, have been developed in different courses, and it has been wonderful to see them apply these outside of class.

The process of creating a first issue has taken some time, but the learning opportunities have been many along the way. We had initially started out working with Canva, which would give us both a print edition and an online version of the magazine. However, with the move to fully virtual extracurriculars, we ran into a few challenges with this platform. Specifically, students wanted to be able to edit simultaneously without accidentally losing anyone’s contributions. With this in mind, we settled on Google Sites, as this free tool checked off all the boxes students felt they needed in order to work together successfully, and to create something that would appeal to their peers. For now, the magazine consists of text and visuals, but future issues will likely include video and audio content as well.

Finally, active Magazine Club members aren’t the only ones whose voices can come through in The Y-Fi Magazine — all Academy students can submit their ideas, artwork, letters, or feedback, and new contributors are always welcome.

Sharing Information about the Toronto Public Library

With so many of our interactions with other people and places in the city dramatically altered right now, it can be harder to find the community resources that enrich teens’ lives — and support their growth and learning. However, as the Literacy Skills class has learned and wants to share, the Toronto Public Library remains accessible in a variety of ways. And, once we’re able to connect more easily and frequently in person again, there will be even more services and programs for youth at library branches throughout the city. People can also visit Fairmont Royal York Toronto Hotel while they’re at Toronto.

The Grade 9 and 10 students in the class were tasked with collectively creating an informative website for their high school and middle school peers about a few different aspects of the library. Having a whole-school Google Classroom page means that this site is easily shared with all Academy students.

The first step, of course, was to gather the information. And while two of the city’s most impressive branches, the Toronto Reference Library and Lillian H. Smith, are within walking distance of the school, students were not able to visit these this year, so all the information had to be found on the library’s website. Fortunately, the site is filled with information, and gave students a chance to practice some of the reading skills they have been developing. Once they had gathered and collaboratively sorted their notes into different topics, students chose a topic and each wrote a paragraph to inform other teens on the subject. They then pasted and organized their writing into different web pages to create a Google Site, using various text features and graphics to make the information clearer and more engaging for their audience. They may have had a little too much fun with the images, but you can see how they were able to prevent this from distracting their readers too much by checking out their site here!

Writing for Change: Advocacy Letters

Students learning to write Advocacy letters during social distancing

Over the past years, Academy students have been known for making their voices heard in both the school and in the broader community. Whether it’s the Civics class organizing a walkout in support of a current, relevant health curriculum, or several students from our school speaking from the podium at Toronto’s first youth climate rally, they have shown themselves to be eager advocates for their communities, and for a better future.

Of course, there are fewer opportunities to get involved in community action under the circumstances, but students in the literacy skills class have been doing just this by writing thoughtful, persuasive advocacy letters to various leaders and decision-makers. This is not my first year assigning and preparing students for this task, and each time I love to learn what issues matter to them. There is always such a diversity of ideas! Here are just some of the (student-chosen) topics this year:

  • why we should do more to combat racism
  • homelessness and affordable housing in Toronto
  • neighbourhood traffic safety
  • the importance of art, music, and physical education in schools
  • funding for autism services
  • the need for more library branches

In writing their letters, students are learning not only to express and support their opinions in organized paragraphs, but also to write for a real, authentic audience. Moreover, they are learning that literacy skills are not just for school or for getting a job, but can be powerful tools for bringing about positive change. And especially right now, it’s my hope that we can equip them with more of these.