Spring Break Wonderfulness

I am on spring break this week and thoroughly enjoying myself.  Lots of time to read, watch Law & Order reruns (my guilty, guilty pleasure), cook, and shop!  Hopefully I can get a lot of books and reviews knocked out this week.  Should be a relaxing week!  


And maybe I should knock some of that stuff off my to-do list.  I made an appointment for an oil change tomorrow!  And I finished my APR.  I just have a lot more to cross off.  ;)

SLJ Battle of the Books!

SLJ’s Battle of the (Kids’) Books starts tomorrow and I can not wait!  I’ve been dying for it to start because I am a March Madness junkie.  Something that combines my love of kids books and the Madness?  Perfect!  And there is even a People’s Choice Poll!  So go vote for your favorite among the 16 contenders here and check out the standings here.  Don’t let your favorite book be left out in the cold. :)

No Post Today!

To everyone celebrating a holiday this weekend, enjoy!  I will be spending time with family, eating lots of hard-boiled eggs, and just relaxing!  Hopefully you will be doing the same.  :)

cimg0110Our eggs a few years ago.  :)

Books I Added to My Wishlist This Week

Over the past few days I have added a bunch of books to my wishlist, thanks to reviews from around the kidlitosphere.  Here are just a few of them.

  • The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly: This one is getting some Newbery buzz so I immediately added it to my wishlist. Plus, the main character is a budding naturalist. :)


  • Boys Are Dogs by Leslie Margoli: I am always on the lookout for tween-friendly romances and this one seems perfect! Jen recommended it and I loved her review. I really think my 6th grade girls will eat this one up. Romance schmomance!


  • Hunger: A Gone Novel by Michael Grant: I just finished Gone and can not wait to read the next book in the series!


  • The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo : I love Kate DiCamillo and when I found out she will have a new middle grade novel next fall, I was thrilled! It’s already on my wishlist and I am really, really hoping to find an ARC before then!


  • One of the Survivors by Susan Shaw: This is the story of a young boy who survives a school fire that kills many of his classmates. Focusing on his struggle to move forward, the novel sounds great!


  • Change-up: Mystery at the World Series by Joh Feinstein- I am so excited that John Feinstein has written another book in this series! I love sports mysteries and the first few books are a huge hit in my classroom every year.


Of course, there are so many more books on the horizon that I can’t wait to get my hands on! What are you looking forward to reading in the upcoming months? Any new books that I should know about?

Gone by Michael Grant

How did this one slip under my radar for so long?!  

One minute, Sam is sitting in class zoning out like a normal teenager.  The next minute, his teacher and some of his classmates have disappeared.  Just POOF!  There one minute, gone the next.  Within minutes, Sam and his friends learn that everyone fifteen and older in Perdido Beach is gone, without a trace.  Reminiscent of Lord of the Flies, Gone is a fast-paced page-turner that you won’t want to put down.

What happened to all of the adults?  Cars are left running, stoves are still on, and young babies are left alone.  Could it have something to do with the nuclear power station in town? Nobody can figure out what is happening as panic starts to set in. Most of the kids begin to wander Perdido Beach, looking for someone to take charge; Sam is an obvious choice (he once saved a bus full of kids) but he doesn’t want to take the lead. He is afraid his strange “powers” may have started all of this and he doesn’t want anyone to find out. His friend, Astrid, is aware that her autistic brother, Little Pete, also has special powers, but she is reluctant to let anyone know.  But when the students from Coates Academy, the school on the outskirts of town for “troubled” kids, including Caine, their ringleader, come down to the town they set themselves up as the new rulers of the FAYZ, as they now call Perdido Beach.  

As Sam, Astrid, Little Pete, Quinn, and Edilio work together to survive they discover things are even weirder than they first thought- they discover they are living within a ten-mile radius around the nuclear power plant that is bounded by a barrier they cannot see any end to, see through, or even touch without harming themselves.  And that’s not strangest thing in the FAYZ.  There are talking coyotes, seagulls with talons, and flying snakes.  Not to mention the strange “powers” that more and more kids seem to be developing.

I couldn’t put this one down.  Thank goodness there is a sequel coming out this summer!  I can’t wait to find out how the kids continue to react and adapt in the FAYZ.  


Check out this awesome book trailer for Gone .

Spring Break!

I am officially on spring break!  I can’t wait to rest, recharge, and read.  :)

If you are on spring break, what are you planning to read over the next few days?

This I Believe

Today I presented my classes with a challenge/contest.  I told them that I was so proud of their efforts during the Slice of Life Challenge that I wanted to give them another opportunity to show off their writing.  On a voluntary basis a few of them will be meeting with me and drafting personal essays for NPR’s This I Believe program.  

What is This I Believe?

This I Believe is an international project engaging people in writing, sharing, and discussing the core values that guide their daily lives. These short statements of belief, written by people from all walks of life, are archived here and featured on public radio in the United States, as well as in regular broadcasts on NPR. The project is based on the popular 1950s radio series of the same name hosted by Edward R. Murrow.

NPR has some great curriculum resources on their site and examples of various essays.  I can’t wait to get started with my kids after break!

A Mirror to Nature: Poems about Reflection by Jane Yolen

A Mirror to Nature: Poems About Reflection is Jane Yolen’s newest poetry book. The photographs in the book are absolutely stunning and are taken by Yolen’s son, Jason Stemple.

Each poem is based on a picture taken by Stemple and each picture is of a reflection in nature: seven wood storks with seven reflections, a frog sitting atop a floating bottle, a solitary cockle made less alone by its reflection. The poems are brief but powerful, describing the scene in each picture and digging deeper. One of my personal favorites is the frog on the the bottle, which Yolen points out is not biodegradable- yet the frog doesn’t know the difference between it and a log.

This is a gorgeous book, with full-page, full-color photographs. I shared it with my class today as a mentor for our observation door poetry and it was a big hit. The pictures drew a lot of “oohs” and “aahs” and the poems brought out laughs and sighs of agreement. A great book to share with students of all ages, this is a must-have for your poetry collection! It is also a great book to use for science/language arts connections, as each photograph is accompanied by a brief caption giving more information.

Nuts and Bolts of the Read Aloud in my Middle School Classroom

Reading aloud to my students daily is one of, if not the most, important aspects of my classroom.  I extoll the virtues of classroom read alouds to anyone and everyone who will listen, yet I realized I never broke down the nuts and bolts of it here on my blog!  Recently I have received a few emails seeking the answers to questions like, how do your read-alouds work? About how long does it really take to read an entire book aloud to the class? How much time do you spend per week on it? What types of assignments make their way into the gradebook?  Do you ever give traditional comprehension quizzes/tests or grammar tests? Does your school implement standards based report cards/grading?


How do your read-alouds work?

I read aloud to my class every.single.day.  Yes, there are days when it feels like a pain because we are pressed for time or the schedule has been changed.  But I refuse to shortchange my students when we are deep into a novel!  And if I ever feel like we truly don’t have time that day, my students make sure that we make the time (usually by begging)!  

I begin the school year with a read aloud on the first day of school.  From day one, my students see that I value reading and I value reading together as a community.  Those first days of school are always crazy- assemblies, extended class periods, getting to know you time, learning the ropes, and all that.  Well, that usually makes for lots of downtime.  Instead of doing silly bulletin board activities or useless worksheets, we read together.  It sets the stage for a great year!

When I read to my students, it is usually at the end of our period together.  I set aside about 15 minutes (sometimes more, sometimes less) to read each day.  My students stay at their desks  because we don’t have the time or space to move around- 6th graders are pretty big.  They just close their binders, put down their pens, and settle in for a relaxing few minutes.  I read and every so often stop to think aloud.  These think alouds might model a reading strategy or share a response I have to the text.  At other times they will elicit responses from the kids.  But I try not to spend too much time talking because that takes away time we could spend reading.   

I usually read between 1-3 chapters per day (depending on the book and chapter length, of course) and I try to leave my students at the end of a chapter.  If I can’t do that, I leave them hanging at a point when the time/action moves forward in a chapter.  This means I usually dedicate at least an hour to the read-aloud each week.  And honestly?  That hour is time that is usually lost otherwise because it’s “extra” or left-over time when we transition or the schedule changes or we have an extra 5 minutes here or there.  Learn to use time to your advantage!  


About how long does it really take to read an entire book aloud to the class?

Depends on the book. ;)  On average, I read about a book per month to my class.  Figure that most books are between 150-250 pages, and I read 10-20 pages per day.  This year I did read Chains and The Underneath to my class- each ran over 300 pages. These took slightly longer to read but were well worth it. I make smart decisions about the books I share with my class and that means trying to stay away from huge tomes. If a book is too long my students lose interest because it ends up being spread over 2 or 3 months. That’s just too long. Plus, I want to expose them to a variety of genres and authors through our read alouds and I can’t do that if we spend 3 months on one book.


What types of assignments make their way into the gradebook? 

I DO NOT grade the read alouds.  Read alouds are my way of modeling reading for pleasure, introducing my students to new genres and authors, and modeling my think alouds.  If I graded them, students would see them as work.  And I am trying to train lifelong readers, not academic-only readers.  However, I do grade reading.  The most important assignment I give is letter-essays.  Each student writes me a friendly letter, once every 3 weeks, telling me about the reading they are doing.  And then I write back.  If you aren’t familiar with letter-essays, you must check out Nancie Atwell’s The Reading Zone: How to Help Kids Become Skilled, Passionate, Habitual, Critical Readers.

I also give alternate assessments. I’ve gathered these from a variety of sources, such as Day-to-Day Assessment in the Reading Workshop: Making Informed Instructional Decisions in Grades 3-6. While it says grades 3-6, I think you could easily use many of the ideas up to grade eight.  I also give a monthly reading log that parents have to sign, which is worth 20 points.  If students hand it in on time, they receive a 20/20.  One day late is 15/20.  Two days is 10/20.  I do not accept it after two days.  (The reading log is something I struggled with- I don’t necessarily agree with them.  However, many parents asked for them and it appeases them.  For my kids, it’s no big deal because reading becomes an integral part of their life and daily routine within a few months.  They leave the log at home, mom or dad signs it, and they bring it back the day it is due.  A quick, easy grade and it forces them to be responsible!)

One of the best decisions I made was to grade based out of total points. Because I grade with a rubric 90% of the time, this makes it easier to get final grades. Each marking period is worth a total number of points (say 200) and I add up the points each student received. Then I divide it to get their average. For example, if a student received 165 points out of a possible 200, they would receive an 83 for the marking period.


Do you ever give traditional comprehension quizzes/tests or grammar tests?

Simply put, yes.  Each year I do two whole-class novels: Tuck Everlasting and The Giver. Both are required by the district. In the case of Tuck Everlasting, I use the novel as a means to teach my students how to annotate text. (Inspired by Monica Edinger ).  We read Tuck early in the year and annotating is a skill my students have very little experience with up until that point.  However, it’s a skill that will serve them well.  I treat the novel as a read-aloud but we annotate the text together and individually.  Because they are so familiar with it, my students are tested on the novel.  However, the test is short answers and an essay, not multiple-choice questions that they would just memorize.

The Giver is also a district requirement.  My students read it individually, and we discuss it together.  I do read certain chapters aloud, because the novel is difficult.  Again, the students are tested but the test consists of short answers, explaining the importance of quotes, and an essay.  There are also a few multiple choice questions.  

I know it seems like giving a traditional comprehension test/quiz goes against everything I believe in.  However, I have to prepare my students for middle school, where comprehension tests and quizzes are the norm.  And in high school.  But because my students are growing as lifelong readers, the tests and quizzes aren’t an issue for them.  I also make sure that I have enough alternate assignments in my gradebook that one test won’t hurt their grade too much if they don’t test well.  

As for grammar, I teach it within writing workshop as much as possible.  I also use Story Grammar for Elementary School: A Sentence-Composing Approach: A Student Worktext and Grammar for Middle School: A Sentence-Composing Approach–A Student Worktext a lot. I don’t give a lot of straight grammar tests but I sometimes give grammar quizzes.


Hopefully, this helps someone out there who wants to begin sharing read-alouds with their class.  Now is as good a time as any to start!  Questions?  Comments?  Ideas?  Leave them in the comments!

Poetry Unit of Study 2009

My favorite unit of study during the year is our poetry unit.  We read and explore poetry all year, using a variety of resources (especially Nancie Atwell’s Naming the World: A Year of Poems and Lessons) so that my students are familiar with poetry and not as wary of it as they might be. However, I still leave the unit until rather late in the year because I know that we need to be close as a class and community in order to open up our hearts and minds when sharing our own poems. I don’t think I would get the same results earlier in the year.  

I began the unit this week with an exploration of the genre, which is my normal protocol when beginning a new unit o study in writing.  My students had two days to complete poetry centers, which allowed them to read through poetry anthologies and picture books, listen to poems read by their authors, crack open words, illustrate their poems, and more.  I think it went really well this year!

Here are the centers I used, with huge thanks to Georgia Heard and her amazing book Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School (my poetry bible- if you don’t have a copy, get one ASAP!) :


Using the centers as an exploration of poetry really allowed my students to delve into poetry as a genre by reading poems and playing with language.  They enjoyed themselves and were surrounded by amazing words and authors for two full days.  I also gave them a packet of poetry that I put together, with poems by “cool” authors that they already know and love and new poets that I knew they would like; Walter Dean Myers, Valerie Worth, Jack Prelutsky,  Naomi Shihab Nye, J. Patrick Lewis, Douglas Florian, Nikki Giovanni, and many more.  The kids are always amazed to find out that “poets still exist today” because all too often they think of poetry as a genre that has come and gone, a genre that isn’t still written today.

After spending two days exploring poetry, we began to dig into our own lives and write as poets.  I teach poetry using Georgia Heard’s doors of poetry and it has always been a success for me.  This week we started with the heart door (or the feelings door, as my kids refer to it).  Without a doubt, the day we begin our heart poems is one I always treasure.  Without fail, I end in the class in tears, with at least 2-3 students also crying.

The heart door allows us to write poems about what is true in our lives- feelings like grief, sorrow, happiness, stress, anxiety, love, etc.  I begin by sharing poems written by my former students and talking to my current kids about what poetry looks like in our writer’s notebooks.  I assure them that it’s ok to write their poems in a more paragraph-like form, because line breaks, spacing, and punctuation will be dealt with in our revision stage.  At this point, I tell them, I just want them to get comfortable getting their ideas down on paper.  I also let them know that they will never have to share these if they are too personal, but not to be afraid of writing a sad poem or an anxious one.  Poetry can be an excellent way to work through feelings they might not be comfortable sharing with their parents or their friends.  

Some students always begin writing immediately.  Others take a little longer.  Those who are stuck might start with a list of events they could write about or they may go back to their heart maps from the beginning of the year. Within 10 minutes I usually have everyone writing.  And I allow students to share as they finish, because I tell them that hearing their classmate’s read their poems might inspire other poets in the classroom. 

This year’s heart poems were absolutely phenomenal.  I was so proud of my students because they truly opened their hearts and poured their feelings onto the page.  One student wrote a powerful poem about her step-sister’s death earlier in the year.  She shared it with the class because she told me she wanted them to understand why she had been so quiet this year.  She asked me to read it for her, because she wouldn’t be able to get through it- my heart broke.  I was barely able to read the words aloud.  But when she shared her words and her feelings, my class drew around her like a huge hug, embracing her as a family would.  After she shared, another student tentatively raised her hand and said, “Miss M., I was afraid to write a poem about my Poppy because I thought it would make me cry.  But when  A. shared her poem I saw how brave she was.  I’m going to write about my Poppy now, because she inspired me and showed me it’s ok to cry when I write”.  At this point, my heart just shattered.  These sixth-graders have become so mature in the last few months and I am so proud of them that I could just burst!

Lest you think that only my girls were working hard at becoming poets, let me tell you about my second class.  As I was explaining the heart door, I saw one of the popular, cool boys in my class with his head over his notebook, pen moving furiously across the page.  Within minutes of setting the class loose, he raised his hand and asked if he could share the two poems he wrote.  “Of course”,  I said.  Well, those two poems were some of the most emotion-laden poems I have ever heard in my classroom.  Dedicated to his grandfather who passed away a few months ago, this young man bared his heart and soul to his classmates, showing them the empty space still in his life and the ache in his heart everyday.  He read the poem with flushed face, tears in his eyes, and his voice wavering.  When he finished, he walked over to the tissue box and took a few minutes to compose himself while his classmates slowly went back to writing.  You could hear a pin drop in the room.  And I have never been prouder.



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