Awesome Christmas Gift!

Chris and I exchanged gifts tonight, as we will be busy traveling from my family to his family tomorrow.  After laughing because we bought each other tons of Rutgers stuff, I opened the gift he was most excited to give me.  

How to know you are a book geek extraordinaire- your boyfriend gives you a USB scanner, UPC labelmaker, and instructions to catalog your vast library!  After downloading Delicious Library, I have been playing with my USB scanner ever since.  It is so much fun!  And I can sync my library to my iPod!    SO COOL!

Bookmarks

Here are the finished products! My students loved their personalized bookmarks and were very excited to use them over vacation.

 
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Diamond Willow by Helen Frost.

Diamond Willow by Helen Frost is a short, concise story that packs a powerful punch. I finished it yesterday afternoon and it is still on my mind.  The action of the story takes place over the span of a few short days, but don’t make the mistake of assuming nothing happens.  Willow grows and changes more in those days than most middle-schoolers do in a lifetime.  

This is a gorgeous book, despite the fact that there are no illustrations. Instead, this verse novel is told in a series of diamond-shaped poems, based on the shape of the diamond willow. Within each poem, a few words are bolded and when from top to bottom, they form a poem-within-a-poem, the heart of the story.  Every single diamond is different, and the word choice in each poem is amazing.  I sometimes stopped on a new page just to look at shapes, which almost served as illustrations.

The story is simple and middle-grade students will easily connect with Willow and her family.  Willow is a 12-year-old part-Native Alaskan who lives in a very remote town, accessible by snowmobile, plane, and boat.  She is struggling with herself, with school, and with finding happiness. She begs her parents to mush the sled (with three of their six dogs) to her Grandparents house one weekend.  While they say no at first, she is determined to prove her maturity and they finally give in.  But on the way back there’s an accident. From there, it builds and to go on would spoil the rest of the story, so I will stop there.  but I will say you should pick this up immediately!

One of my favorite parts of the story was Willow’s connection to the past.  She struggles throughout the book, all the while unaware that the animals surrounding her carry the spirits of dead ancestors and friends who care for her.   I loved this aspect of the story, so simple and serene in it’s beauty.  It was comforting, and who hasn’t caught a glimpse of nature and felt the flicker of recognition, the momentary thought that someone or something is watching out for us?  I also loved the theme of respect and love of nature.  I seek out environmental themes in my books and this one did not disappoint.  

Diamond Willow is a must-have for middle school teachers, and I expect it may even get some Newbery love next month!

Intrigued?  Read the first few chapters here!

Cracked Up to Be by Courtney Summers

When I received a review copy of Cracked Up to Be, I wasn’t sure when I would have time to read it.  Between school reading, Cybils reading, and reading up on Dublin (for my trip next week!), I placed the ARC on a pile and planned to read it next year.  But a few weeks ago I needed a break from my “required reading” and picked up Cracked Up to Be.  I was not disappointed!   

WHAT’S THE WORST THING YOU’VE EVER DONE?

When “Perfect” Parker Fadley starts drinking at school and failing her classes, all of St. Peter’s High goes on alert. How has the cheerleading captain, girlfriend of the most popular guy in school, consummate teacher’s pet, and future valedictorian fallen so far from grace?

Parker doesn’t want to talk about it. She’d just like to be left alone, to disappear, to be ignored. But her parents have placed her on suicide watch and her counselors are demanding the truth. Worse, there’s a nice guy falling in love with her and he’s making her feel things again when she’d really rather not be feeling anything at all.

Nobody would have guessed she’d turn out like this. But nobody knows the truth.

 Something horrible has happened, and it just might be her fault.

-Via Courtney Summer’s website

 

The story takes place a few months after a terrible event, something Parker never wants to talk about again but that haunts her every waking and sleeping moment.  What bothers her the most is the fact that everyone else seems to have gotten over what happened and acts like there isn’t a huge void in their lives and school.  But Parker feels guilty about what happens and blames herself.

I found that I couldn’t put this book down.  Parker wasn’t always likable (in fact, I wanted to smack her upside the head a lot of the time), but I was dying to know what the tragic event was.  I read this in one sitting because I just needed to know!  Parker is constantly reminded if that horrible night, but she pushes the memories away so quickly that we only get a brief hint of what might have happened.  I keep making guesses, trying to pinpoint the exact event, but I was wrong in all of my predictions.  Courtney Summers has written an important, emotional, powerful book that you won’t want to put down.

In some ways, this reminded me of Speak: 10th Anniversary Edition by Laurie Halse Anderson. I didn’t find it to be quite as powerful as the first time I read Speak, but I think it tells just as important a story. This should be required reading for teens!

Cracked Up to Be will be released on 12/23.

 



Holiday Gifts for My Students

I have spent the past few hours working on personalized bookmarks to give to my students on Tuesday, as part of their holiday gift.

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Each of my students will receive a bookmark with their name, our class and year, and embellished with ribbon (after I laminate them).  As I will also be giving each of them a book, I thought this was a personalized, meaningful gift they could use for the rest of the year.  

Quick Writes

I spent a lot of time over the last few weeks analyzing how my students were using their writer’s notebooks. While they completed the HW I assigned in writing workshop, I wasn’t seeing a lot of enthusiasm for writing and they definitely weren’t carrying their notebooks with them outside of my classroom. After hearing about My Quick Writes: For INSIDE WRITING by Donald Graves and Penny Kittle, I decided to give quick writes a try in my classroom.

I began by introducing the idea to my students. I told them that I would be projecting some ideas for writing, but they did not have to use them. They could write about anything they wanted, as long as they wrote for ten minutes, without stopping! To my surprise, they were actually very excited. I think that a lot of my students struggle with what to write, as they have very little experience with writing workshop. They still have the feeling that writing must be about something big and important and that their lives are neither big nor important. The moment I gave them suggestions, I saw a light bulb go off in their heads.

That first day, we all wrote for 10 minutes, with the lights off (at their request). We then shared. The enthusiasm in the room grew by leaps and bounds as each child decided to share their writing. About half of the students took the ideas I gave them and used them as a starting place. The rest had their own ideas. Regardless of what they used to get started, their writing was great! I was so proud of them and they were just as proud of themselves.

The next day, they asked if we could do quick writes again. I agreed, and the results were just as enthusiastic. It seems that due to their lack of experience with a workshop setting, quick writes really help them feel comfortable with writing. Needless to say, I decided to take this idea and run with it!

I remembered that Stacey at Two Writing Teachers had mentioned giving one of her students some quick writes when they struggled with writing Slices of Life. After a quick search, I found her post and was inspired.  Knowing that winter break was coming up and wanting to keep my students writing, I decided to assign a few notebook entries over break.  As much as I hate assigning entries as “work”, I have to come to terms with the fact that I am teaching my students how to function in a workshop.  I can not teach as if they have had years of experience with writing workshop!  So, I typed up a quick packet.  And using prompts from Graves and Kittles book and very other sources, I put together what I hope will inspire my 35 students to keep writing over break,

As most of my students will be celebrating with friends and family for the holidays, I figure that quick writes are simple enough to complete during the odd moment of downtime.  While they groaned at first (homework?  over break?), most were satisfied when I pointed out that I would not allow them to spend more than 10 minutes on any quick write!  They are to complete at least four entries over break, and can use the suggestions/prompts as needed.  I know that some students won’t need the prompts and ideas at all, while others will be very grateful for the guidance and inspiration they provide.

Come January 5th, I am very interested to see the results of this.  It’s the first time I have assigned writing homework over an extended break like this and I am hopeful that it will be a success!

Vacation Reading (continued)

I’m excited for vacation reading!

I am going to be reading Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate and Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

What did your class decide to read? Post the ideas please!

 

A sampling of some of the titles my students plan to start working on during winter break:

The Angel Experiment (Maximum Ride, Book 1)
Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire
The Secret Language of Girls
Cirque Du Freak #5: Trials of Death: Book 5 in the Saga of Darren Shan (Cirque Du Freak: The Saga of Darren Shan)
Life As We Knew It
The Twilight Saga
I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You (Gallagher Girls)
The Luxe
A Wrinkle in Time
Maniac Magee
39 Clues: One False Note
The Trouble With Magic
Cracker!: The Best Dog in Vietnam
Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life

Newbery Controversy Part…..Oh, I give up!

Growing up, I never had a problem finding books to read.  My aunt was a 7th grade Language Arts and was always passing books on to me to read.  I knew what the Newbery Award was but I didn’t ever read a book just because it was a Newbery.  I read what I wanted to read, whether that was a book my aunt recommended or something I found while browsing the library shelves (totally based on my impression of the cover, of course).  Every few years one of my teachers would assign a book report on a Newbery winner or honor book, but I never had trouble finding something I was ok with reading.  Granted, I was a voracious reader, so I probably was not a typical student.

When I went to high school and college I stopped reading middle grade and YA books for some reason.  Most likely it was because I was so busy with school and homework  (I did go to the #4 high school in the country….yay Techers!) that pleasure reading fell by the wayside.  At the same time, my aunt moved on from teaching to administration.  And I hadn’t yet discovered blogs or other lists of notable books.  But since I started teaching I have read many of the Newbery winners and honor books that I missed during those years, like Because of Winn-Dixie and Al Capone Does My Shirts.  Many of those award-winners are staples in my classroom library now.

Over the last few months, various media outlets have been picking up a story about the supposed downfall of the Newbery.  This past week the Washington Post printed an article about the so-called “problems” with the Newbery Award.  The fact that this supposed controversy actually stems from a nearly identical article in School Library Journal a few months ago notwithstanding, the article is just another example of the media not understanding what the Newbery Award is awarded for and why.  The Newbery is not and was never meant to be an award for the most popular and accessible book for all children.  The article quotes Lucy Calkins, and I think it is the first time I have ever disagreed with her.

“I can’t help but believe that thousands, even millions, more children would grow up reading if the Newbery committee aimed to spotlight books that are deep and beautiful and irresistible to kids,” said Lucy Calkins, founding director of the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University’s Teachers College and a professor of children’s literature.

Really?!  That’s taking an incredible leap. There are thousands of books published for kids and teens every year.  A list of 1-5 books is the only one teachers and parents are relying on?  And because of that, the award is at fault when not every single child wants to read that year’s winners?  Just based on the fact that the Newbery is given to any book for 8-14 year olds should tell you that it’s not a list to be arbitrarily used!  If you yourself have not read the book, how do you know if it is appropriate for your child or students?  Sorry Lucy, but there are plenty of amazing book lists out there that can help parents and teachers find great books.  The Newbery winners are not the be-all-end-all, and they are certainly not the reason for the decline in reading for enjoyment by kids!  The Newbery is awarded to the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature in a given year.  This does not mean the list of Newbery Medal and Honor books is a go-to list for that parents and teachers must use when assigning or suggesting books to children!  

 

Newbery winners are typically fairly high level books that deal with a range of issues in depth.  The Washington Post article specifically points to last year’s winner, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village.  According to the article, 

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices From a Medieval Village” by Laura Amy Schlitz — a series of monologues that Deborah Johnson, manager of the extensive book section at Child’s Play in the District, agreed would be difficult for most kids to read on their own.

You know what?  I love Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!.  Would my 6th graders pick it up on their own?  Probably not.  Have I had great experiences with my kids acting the monologues out and having a ton of fun?  Yes!  In fact, the monologues were written specifically for the author’s students to perform while they were studying medieval times.  It is a wonderful book and certainly different from any other book I have read with my students.  And it is one they really enjoy with the right amount of scaffolding and support from me.  

The article constantly comes back to the idea that the Newbery winners over the last few years are so inaccessible that they are causing children not to read.  Again, that is quite a leap to make. The decline in pleasure reading is seen from children to adults, and I strongly doubt that kids are giving up on reading strictly based on what book wins the Newbery.  You know what?  Most kids have no idea when the Newbery is awarded, how it is awarded, or even that it is anything other than a shiny sticker on a few books in the library.  What is causing children to stop reading is being forced to read books that parents and teachers randomly choose for them strictly based on the fact that they won a Newbery.  The Giver is always referred to reverently in these conversations, as a Newbery winner that kids adore.  But guess what?  It is far from appropriate for younger readers.  You are talking about a book that deals with human euthanasia, free will, and a dystopian society.  We read it as part of our curriculum, and it is an amazing read-aloud.  But I would never hand it to a 4th grader.  Unfortunately, I think that is happening far too often.

Attention teachers and parents:  The Newbery Medal and Honor books list for each year is NOT a list to be used to select books children should or must read.  It is one of many tools that can be used when selecting books.  In my classroom, most Newbery winners are read-alouds.  The reason for this is that they require a good deal of scaffolding and conversation in order for my students to enjoy them and get the full experience of the book.  The stories are wonderful, the issues are important, and the writing is amazing in Newbery winners (talk about great modeling).  But they are not perfect for every child’s independent reading.  Stacey mentions in her post that a lot of recent winners haven’t been appropriate for her fourth-graders.  So she does not read those with her students!  She does, however, read them herself to judge their suitability for her group of students.  And I do the same.  Those same books have been perfect for many of my 6th graders.  And there are even more that are better suited to eighth and ninth graders.  The winners are not books that are appropriate for all 8-14 years olds.  They are books are suitable for someone in that age range.  

So instead of automatically grabbing a book because it has a sticker on it and assigning it as a book report or forcing your child to read it, check out some of these other great resources for book lists:

On January 26, 2009, my class and I will be waiting with baited breath to hear the Newbery Awards announced.  We will have read at least 2 contenders as class read-alouds, and my students are very invested in the awards.  We have discussed the criteria for winning and they fully understand that the award is not given for popularity but for a distinguished contribution to children’s books.  So when they choose a Newbery winner for independent reading, they will know that it is full of amazing writing, but that won’t be the reason they choose to read it.  Instead, they will choose their books based on what they want to read and what is right for them.  Just like I don’t want to be forced to read the National Book Award or the Pulitzer winner each year, we have no right to force our kids to read the Newbery winners when they might be grossly inappropriate for the child in question.

Newbery winners make wonderful read-alouds, as do many other hundreds or thousands of books.  Use some of the industry lists to help your children choose books, but the best way to really help them is to know them.  Know them as readers and as people.  Let them choose their books.  

And you know what?  If they want to read Sweet Valley, the Wimpy Kid books, or Twilight- that’s great!  And if they want to read Newbery or Printz winners- that’s great!  They deserve the same choices we take for granted as adults.  And leave the Newbery alone!

Poetry Friday

It was supposed to snow today.  Instead, we got rain, slush, and sleet.

 

I would have preferred the snow!

 

While looking for a poem for Poetry Friday, I fell in love with this short but sweet ditty.

 

Winter Twilight  
by Anne Porter
On a clear winter's evening
The crescent moon 

And the round squirrels' nest
In the bare oak 

Are equal planets.

Vacation Reading

Inspired by an article over at Choice Literacy, today my students and I planned out vacation reading.  We filled out a questionnaire about what we were looking forward to reading, when we would have time to read, and planning some general fun reading.  While my students were a little upset with me at first because I reminded them that I still expected them to read over break, we had a lot of fun with our planning!

 

After sharing our ideas and the books we were looking forward to reading, I booktalked a few of our Battle of the Books choices and a few Cybils nominees.  When they left, every student had  a list of books and magazines they planned to dive into over break and they knew what I was planning to read.  We even discussed trying out some audio books for those who get car/motion sickness!

If I can keep them reading over break, I will have less to rebuild when we get back after the New Year!  :)

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