Middle-Grade · Summer Reading Mission 2017

Summer Reading Mission: Heartbeat, by Sharon Creech

A few weeks ago, I read Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai, which is written as a long free-verse poem. I loved the effect that this had on the story and started looking for more books like it. Today, I finished reading Heartbeat, by Sharon Creech.

Heartbeat is a book about a twelve-year-old girl named Annie. She loves to run, and the way the poems are written evokes the rhythm of her running, the thumping of her heart and the pounding of her feet against the ground. The story deals with her grandfather’s memory loss, her mother’s pregnancy, and her very symbolic attempts to draw the same apple every day for 100 days. It’s more emotion than plot, but it works, and the poetic format is a big part of why.

When I was in fourth or fifth grade, my teacher read this book to us as a read-aloud, but I didn’t remember much about it except that I sort of vaguely liked it. I don’t remember it having that heartbeat rhythm to it, though, and half of the story’s beauty is in the way it makes you feel as if you’re running right along side the main character, heart pounding and feet hitting the pavement, thump-thump, thump-thump.

This isn’t a book that every kid would enjoy. Aside from the unusual format, it deals with serious subject matter (in a kid-friendly way), and it’s character-driven and abstract. However, I think that for the right kid – a kid who is mature enough to deal with the serious themes and is open to inventive forms of storytelling – it would be an excellent choice. It was certainly a breath of fresh air for me.

Middle-Grade · Summer Reading Mission 2017

Summer Reading Mission: No Talking, by Andrew Clements

Yes, I know: I said I’d be reading a kids’ book a week, and it’s been nearly two. But better late than never, right?

I chose No Talking, by Andrew Clements, because I’ve enjoyed all of his books that I’ve read so far and thought it had an interesting premise. The fifth graders at an elementary school challenge each other to a competition – boys versus girls – to see who can talk the least, each trying to prove a point about the other. Needless to say, it doesn’t exactly go the way they planned, but they learn something much more important in the end.

The fifth grade boys and girls don’t usually get along, and that’s something of an understatement. As Clements explains it, they both still think the others have cooties, except they “didn’t actually use the word ‘cooties’ anymore … They used words like ‘dumb’ or ‘gross’ or ‘immature’ or ‘annoying’”. This isn’t too surprising, given that they’re fifth graders, but they take this to a whole new level with the contest they organize. They decide to spend 48 hours in near-total silence, allowing themselves only to speak to teachers or adults, and only in reply to direct questions, in less than three-word answers. Any words aside from those get tallied up by Dave and Lyndsey, the two team leaders, and the team with the lowest number at the end wins.

However, this odd sort of game the kids are playing has all kinds of real-world effects. They have to figure out how to problem-solve (by communicating through notes, clapping a beat for jump rope instead of chanting, etc.), how to compromise (singing doesn’t count, or else music class becomes impossible), and how to react to opposition (when the principal tries to order them to start talking again). By the end of the 48 hours, they aren’t thinking in terms of boys vs. girls so much anymore, and it’s almost a relief when the score comes out as a tie.

The thing I like about Andrew Clements’ books is that his kids are realistic and relatable. They’re not all perfect angels. They’re not always respectful to adults, and they don’t always follow the rules. But they’re always good kids who learn from their experiences and become better kids as a result. The best part is that it happens in a way that’s not preachy or condescending at all, even when there’s an important moral to the story. And that’s definitely the case with this book.

It’s a wonderfully light, humorous book, realistic without seeming mundane or dreary. This is something I love about the Andrew Clements books: they’re imaginative and larger than life. What happens in them is rarely impossible, but it’s still unusual and empowering. Most kids don’t write novels that get published, invent new words, or save classmates from a tornado. I think I would have enjoyed these books when I was a kid, even though they really weren’t in one of my preferred genres. I certainly love them now.

I didn’t love No Talking as much as I did The School Story, About Average, or The Landry News – most likely because the stakes aren’t quite as high, and the “no talking” competition seemed sillier to me as an adult than it might if I were reading it as a child. However, it was entertaining and engaging, and it had a great message at the end. I’d definitely recommend it for either boys or girls in the upper elementary age group, especially those that are looking for a humorous, realistic story.

Middle-Grade · Summer Reading Mission 2017 · teaching literature

Summer Reading Mission

I can’t believe I’m done with my first year (or, first semester, really) of teaching. I absolutely loved it, and I’m already thinking about next year.

Probably my favorite thing about teaching is helping kids to become lifelong readers. I love working with them on the books that we read and discuss as a class, and I also love watching them explore books of their own choosing. I firmly believe that both those things are important, and that they can both be used to help nurture a love of reading – if they’re done right.

Besides that, I love the books themselves. I’ve never looked at books for kids as being silly or less worthwhile than books for adults. On the contrary, they’re just as important, if not more so. Books can help kids broaden their horizons, make sense of their world, and hone their critical thinking skills – in addition to, of course, increasing their vocabulary and becoming better readers. And books for kids often explore big questions, questions that kids really do deal with: questions like what it means to be a friend, how to adjust to major changes in life, or even what the difference is between right and wrong.

I love kids’ books. Despite being twenty-four this month, I get way more excited to find a great new children’s author I can recommend at school than a great new author of books for adults. I’ve made a huge effort since I started teaching to keep up with children’s literature, to be aware of what the kids are reading and on the lookout for good books I can recommend. And I’ve even discovered a few gems I overlooked in my own elementary school days.

This summer, I’m on a mission, and that mission actually has three parts that all kind of fit together:

Part 1: Novel Studies. I’ve been asked to keep on doing these large-group book lessons, permanently, and I couldn’t be happier. I really enjoyed it last semester, and I have all kinds of ideas for how to make it better. This summer will be my main opportunity to work on that.

Part 2: Library. The library that all 4th through 6th grade students share has way too many books crammed into a small closet-sized room. Too many books is actually a great problem to have. However, it does mean that it’s very chaotic, disorganized, and difficult to find things in there, especially since we’re a small private school with no librarian to keep things in order. It’s being moved to a bigger space this summer, and since I’ll be using the new library for my Novel Studies lessons, I’m volunteering to organize it.

Part 3: Read. This summer, I’m going to be reading as much as I can. Especially books that I know the kids are reading. I’ll probably be borrowing a lot of books from our school library, and I’ve also made a couple of visits to the local used bookstore. As much as I love children’s literature, there’s a lot that’s been written since I was a kid myself, as well as a lot that I skipped over back then, or haven’t read since I was ten. I feel that, in order to teach reading, I simply have to be in touch with what the kids are reading, and able to nudge them in the right direction when need be.

That last part is what I’ll mostly be blogging about. Every week this summer, I’ll choose a different kids’ book to read and review. I’ll talk about why I chose it, what I thought of the story, whether there’s anything in it that parents or teachers should be cautious of, and most importantly, whether I’d recommend it, and to whom.

Book Reviews · Middle-Grade

Wow. I need more books like this.

The other day, I was at Barnes and Noble and happened to pick up a book called Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai. A 2011 Newbery Honor book, Inside Out and Back Again follows the story of a young girl whose family is forced to flee from the Vietnam War. They end up as refugees in Alabama, where the main character struggles to adjust to a new and very different life in an unfamiliar culture. It’s a powerful, moving book. But perhaps the most unusual thing about it is that it’s not written in prose: it’s a series of free-verse poems that come together to tell the story.

I didn’t expect this when I picked it up. If the back cover blurb hadn’t caught my attention first, I might have been hesitant to read any further. I do like poetry, and I write some of my own, but a whole novel-length book of poems? Who ever heard of that?

I’m glad I didn’t go with that impulse, because once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down. The poetic format didn’t make it difficult to follow at all. On the contrary, it helped it move faster and to really get into the narrator’s mindset. It’s the raw, conflicting emotions that drive the story, even more than the plot. The simplicity and power of poetry were exactly what it needed. Written in prose, I’m sure it would still have been a moving story, but it wouldn’t have packed nearly as powerful a punch.

A few Google searches later, I now know this is a genre, and that it’s called the Verse Novel. I’ll definitely be looking for more of them.

Middle-Grade · teaching literature

Teaching Tuck Everlasting: Epilogue

I finished up Tuck Everlasting with the 5th graders this week. For a final project, I had each of them write a letter from Winnie to Jesse, explaining whether she would drink the water or not and why. Even this on its own is something they seemed to enjoy, but the real fun began in class, when I helped them use tea to “age” the paper and make the letters look like they really had been written a long time ago.

The first week with this book, many of the kids told me they didn’t like it or found it confusing. But by the end, almost every single one of them seemed to love it. We used class discussion to make the confusing parts easier to understand, and projects like writing letters and diary entries to give the kids something fun to look forward to. Even many of the students who struggle the most with reading, and the ones that have the most trouble motivating themselves, ended up telling me how much fun they were having, and there’s no greater reward than that for a teacher.

Except maybe being able to keep on doing it. When I originally started teaching weekly Novel Studies classes, I was filling in for another teacher who was on maternity leave, and the assumption was that it would only last until Spring Break. But now, I’ve been asked to keep doing it for the rest of the semester while she eases back into teaching. I couldn’t be more excited. I’ve already been looking at what books are left in the curriculum, and I’ve got some great ideas for how to teach them, so I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about that soon.

Middle-Grade · teaching literature

Teaching Tuck Everlasting, Part III

We’re over halfway through Tuck Everlasting now, and it’s really been a joy to teach. It was one of my favorite books when I was that age, so I’ve loved coming up with projects for the kids to do. Even if not all of them love the book the way I do, I think they’re enjoying it and really getting a lot out of it. We’ve talked a lot about the metaphor of the wood as the hub of a wheel, bringing the characters together, and we also looked at the pros and cons of living forever this past week. Some of the things the kids brought up were factors I hadn’t even considered, like what would happen to an immortal person if the planet became uninhabitable, or – on the pro side – the possibility of swimming underwater without having to come up for air. It’s great to have them thinking about everything involved, because that’s kind of the point of a book like this – to ask an impossible, hypothetical question and then explore what it would mean if it was possible.

They also turned in their diary entries that I assigned last week. I loved reading them! A lot of the kids chose to write from Winnie or Jesse’s point of view, of course, but I also got one from Mae Tuck, and even one from the toad. Many of them showed not just a solid understanding of the book, but a lot of creativity and enthusiasm as well. There’s nothing more rewarding for a teacher than seeing the class respond so well and watching the spark of excitement you’ve tried to create really take hold.

Middle-Grade · teaching literature

Teaching Tuck Everlasting, Part II

About two weeks ago, I posted that I was getting ready to start Tuck Everlasting with the fifth graders. Well, we’ve started it, and it’s going great! I decided to use a tri-fold board, like the ones kids use to present research projects, and use each panel for something different:

  • On one side, theories about the man in the yellow suit.
  • On the other, pros and cons of living forever – we haven’t gotten to that yet.
  • In the middle, the “wheel” chart I was talking about last time.

tuck-everlasting-1

As you can see in the picture, the kids are helping to put the board together by writing their theories, the connections they find, and eventually their pros and cons, on sticky notes. This way, they’re actively contributing and hopefully learning from it. They all seemed very excited, so I think it’s going well.