Finishing Chains

Today both classes finished Chains. You could hear a pin drop in the room as I got to the final pages. I ended the experience by placing the final page under the document camera and projecting it onto the whiteboard. Let me tell you, those kids begged for Forge and were devastated to learn it wasn’t even finished being written yet! So Laurie Halse Anderson, you have 35 6th graders who are dying to get their hands on the sequel!

After we finished, we had a great discussion about the events in the novel.  It really made my students think about the differences between the rebels and the British, and what would have happened if the Patriots hadn’t won the war.  Then we discussed the crash of the US Airways and how the ditching occurred in a location that could very well have been where Isabel rowed across the Hudson.  What an amazing connection!  

So we have now finished 2 possible Newberys, with a third read-aloud planned for next week.  And then on January 26th we will all be listening to announcements live!

Predicting the Newbery as a Class and 21st Century Literacy

We are almost finished reading Chains as our current read-aloud. Both classes have about 25 pages to go, and they were begging to read more today! We ended right after Isabel escaped from the potato bin. The greatest sound in the world is the united groans of 20 6th graders begging you to continue reading a read-aloud!

Seeing as the Newbery will be announced in a little over a week, we have slightly altered our read-aloud plans. I plan to finish Chains tomorrow, complete with an awesome discussion.  We then have Monday off for Martin Luther King Jr., Day.  My class begged that we read Diamond Willow  beginning on Tuesday.  After considering the logistics for about a second, I said, “Of course!”  At 108 pages, and with a lot of white space, I think we can finish it before the announcement is made.  Then we will have read three books that are on numerous mock Newbery lists.

Diamond Willow will present some interesting challenges.  The diamond-shape poems and the bold words throughout need to be viewed to be appreciated.  I think I will show the book using my document camera.  This way the students can see the poems as I read them, just like if they had the book in their hands.  It’s the first time I will be combining technology and literacy this way, and I can’t wait to see how it goes!  Will the experience of reading the book on the board, via the camera, be the same as reading the book in your lap?  It should be a lot of fun and I can’t wait to find out!

And now January 26th will be even more fun!

Newbery Award Discussions

Last week I did a quick Newbery unit in my 6th grade class.  We reviewed the history of the award, the terms, criteria, and rules.  We also read articles about the recent Newbery controversy and discussed them as a class.  It was amazing to hear my students’ thoughts on the award and the recent controversy and I think we all learned a lot!  But my favorite part was the end of the unit- I had my students write me at least a paragraph explaining whether they thought Chains (our current read-aloud) or The Underneath (which we previously read as a read-aloud) deserved to win a Newbery or Honor on January 26th and why.

I was stunned by the responses I received!  Some of my students wrote over a page, expounding the virtues of one or both of the books.  They were extremely passionate in their opinions, so I wanted to share a few with my readers.

 

“I think that The Underneath should win because I like how it tells different problems happening with different characters.  If you don’t understand one problem that’s going on you may understand another one.  I also liked in The Underneath  how at the end all the characters come together.  “

“I think that Chains should win the Newbery because it is a good book with real info and sometimes you think Wow I have it good.”

“I think that both Chains and The Underneath should be honors.  The Underneath should not just be in the honors but it should win…It should win because it keeps you thinking and it keeps you reading.”

“I think that Chains will win the Newbery and The Underneath will be recognized as an Honor book.  Both books have great writing in them and the authors really did a good job with the character development.  In my opinion, Chains is written better, but The Underneath is good, too.  I can’t wait until Jan. 26th!”

“I think Chains and The Underneath both have a chance of winning the Newbery.  Chains is very interesting and seems like I am actually in the Revolutionary War.  I like this book because it is suspenseful and you don’t know what will happen next.  I like how bad things keep happening and Isabelle doesn’t give up.  The Underneath is a book that I liked but I thought it was hard to understand. “

“I really believe that Chains should win.  I believe there should be a change.  Since we now have an African-American president, we should have an African-American book.  This books is fantastic because because it has true facts about American history.  I feel this book should win over The Underneath because The Underneath is about imaginary things. “

“I believe The Underneath should win the Newbery Award.  I think because it has lessons to teach the reader.  It tells the stories about the struggles of life and how to get through it.  When the animals in the story get into difficult situations they seem to find a way out.  It also shows the sacrifices we will make for friends and family.  For example, when the mother cat saves Puck from drowning. “

“I think The Underneath should win the Newbery Award.  I think because it was a great book and made my class so emotional.  I saw and heard crying when the calico cat died.  I heard rage when Ranger was beaten.  I saw happiness when Garface died.  But most of all tears of joy for Grandmother helping Ranger, Puck, and Sabine and when they all ran away together as a family.”

“I think The Underneath should win the Newbery- or at least an honor book- for many reasons.  One reason she should get the award is because her book is a page turner for children.  I am a child and I know I loved the book. “

 

Those are just a few of the opinions in my two classes.  Between all of my students, the votes are pretty evenly divided between Chains and The Underneath.  But every student felt that they both fit the criteria and deserved to at least win an honor on January 26th!  I just love how passionate they are about both books and how invested they are in the award ceremony.

Tween Book Buying Guide for the Holidays- Read Alouds

I often get strange looks from other middle school educators when I tell them that I read aloud to my students everyday.  For some reason, adults have this idea that they should stop reading out loud to children once they are able to read for themselves.  This couldn’t be farther from the truth!  Reading aloud to your children is a great way to spend time together, have meaningful discussions, get to know your children better, and share a special bond.  (For more information on why all families should read aloud, at any age, check out Jim Trelease’s web site).

I always read a wide variety of genres to my students.  Some of the most popular read alouds include:

 

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt- The most recent read aloud we have completed as a class, this deeply complex novel is dark, moving, and full of hope.  My students were engaged in the story and our conversations ranged from the philosophical to the angry to the intense.

Drums, Girls, And Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick- Every year my classes create Valentine’s Day Hope Chests for the patients at the Institute for Children with Cancer and Blood Disorders.  Before we begin the project we read Sonnenblick’s heartwarming and funny story about a middle school boy whose brother is diagnosed with leukemia.  While the premise is heartbreaking, Sonnenblick approaches it realistically and much the book will leave you laughing out loud.  A great conversation starter, this book is great for middle schoolers.

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt- Would you choose to live forever, if given the choice? That’s the decision 10 year old Winnie Foster must make when she meets the mysterious Tuck family. Referred to as the greatest children’s novel ever written, Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting will force you and your child to think long and hard about the road they would choose. (Keep in mind that the book starts out slowly, but it quickly snowballs and becomes a pageturner!)

The Giver by Lois Lowry- Another controversial book that will stoke some great arguments. Jonas lives in the Community, a utopian town where no one argues, no one fights, and everything is perfect. Or is it? Does a lack of choices mean perfection? Or is it all just a big lie? (This is a book chock full of higher level thinking. And be aware that the meat of the story involves human euthanasia, a mature topic).

Guys Write for Guys Read: Boys’ Favorite Authors Write About Being Boys by Jon Scieszka- Aimed at reluctant middle school boys, this books never fails to connect with my girls, too. More than 80 guys (from Lloyd Alexander to Paul Zelinsky) contribute very short stories/anecdotes about their childhood. The stories range from the grotesque to the heartwarming to the hysterically funny. Short story anthologies are great read alouds because you can pick and choose the stories to read and they don’t take a lot of time to get through. Perfect for the busy family!

Leepike Ridge by N.D. Wilson- Need a great adventure book to hook your kids? Having trouble finding a well-written adventure book that adults can enjoy as much as kids? This is the perfect book! .Tom is a kid. He lives on top of a rock, in an old house that’s literally chained to the ground. He’s not too thrilled that his mom is considering marrying her boyfriend, Jeff, a teacher from his school. When a new refrigerator is delivered on the same day that his mother ponders accepting Jeff’s proposal, Tom takes the large box and sets off sailing down the creek that runs through his yard. Rebellious and angry, he rides the current for miles, eventually falling asleep. He awakens when the water becomes rough and he is suddenly pulled under a ridge and into the bowels of the mountain. He is alone, and trapped. Save for a dog and a corpse to keep him company….I hesitate to summarize anymore of the plot for fear of spoilers. Tom is brave, scared, brilliant, naive, and in a million other ways a normal eleven year old boy. He is Robinson Crusoe. He is Odysseus. He is MacGuyver. He is eleven.

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

I am a huge Laurie Halse Anderson fan. Just ask my kids from last year how often I recommended Fever 1793 to them.  I loved Independent Dames: What You Never Knew About the Women and Girls of the American Revolution when I reviewed it back in May, and I can’t wait to use it when I introduce our women’s history project this year.  And I still remember reading Speak for the first time in junior high (and I keep meaning to reread it).  As you can imagine, I was thrilled when I heard that Anderson would be publishing a new historical fiction novel this month and even more thrilled when my school librarian tracked down an ARC for me!

 Chains did not disappoint.

In 1776, Isabel is a young slave (about 11?).  She and her little sister, Ruth,  live in Rhode Island and Isabel dreams of the day they will be free.  Their master, Miss Finch, has promised them freedom upon her death, but when the time comes her lawyer has fled the sporadic battles between the Loyalists and Patriots.  Miss Finch’s greedy young nephew quickly sells the girls off to a wealthy Loyalist and his cruel wife.  Isabel and Ruth are sent to New York City, ophaned, alone, and at the mercy of the cruel Mrs. Lockton.  

When they arrive in New York City, Isabel immediately meets a young slave named Curzon, who convinces her that the quickest way to freedom is to spy on her Loyalist master and report to the Patriots.  

Ruth is “simple” and Isabel spends much of her time hiding her sister’s episodes from Mrs. Lockton.  But when they are discovered, she is thought to be possessed by the devil and Mrs. Lockton immediately sells her off.  Thus begins Isabel’s moral struggle- who should she support?  More importantly, which side will help her become free and find her sister?  She has no particularly strong feelings for the Patriots or the Loyalists-  she only wants her own freedom.  Sadly, both sides fail to take slaves into account, using them as tools rather than people: messengers, spies, soldiers, cooks, and everything in between.  

It’s difficult to do the plot justice in a brief recap.  There is so much going on, yet the reader never feels overwhelmed.  I found myself putting the book down after a chapter and going back to it later on.  Oh no, no because I wasn’t enjoying it!  Because I didn’t want the book to end.  I was digesting it in small pieces, constantly mulling ideas and events over in my mind.  Anderson does nothing if she doesn’t force you to think, really think about the American Revolutionary War.  I frequently found myself torn between the British and the Colonists, for Isabel’s sake.  I can honestly say I have never really sat down to consider the Revolutionary War.  We grow up romanticizing the fight for independence and history books rarely qualify or quantify the people who were chained between the two sides, forced to choose and getting nothing in return.  Wow!

Isabel’s voice rings true to the times, without being overwhelming.  The book reads like a story set in 1776 without being dry or difficult to understand.  In historical fiction that is extremely important.  If kids feel overwhelmed by dialogue, accents, or vernacular it is that much harder to get them to read and enjoy the book.  

What really makes me happy is how kid-friendly Chains is.  I already promised my students that we would be using it as a read-aloud later in the year.  As a teacher, I know it will push their thinking and I can already foresee the great conversations and debates we will have.  But I also know that they will genuinely enjoy the book.  Anderson has a gift- she makes history come alive and she makes it fun.  Yet I still come away from her historical fiction books knowing more than I did going in.  I know the same will be true for my students.

I am sure Chains will be at the top of many Newbery prediction lists and it is certainly on mine. However, it should also begin making its way into school reading lists. It seems like the same old books have been around since I was in elementary school. My Brother Sam Is Dead and Johnny Tremain are both great books but I think Chains is more historically-accurate and kid-friendly.  In NJ, the Revolutionary War is taught in 5th grade and I feel like Chains is just that much more kid-friendly and accessible while preserving (and exceeding) historical accuracy needs.  So I am starting up the chant, “Here, here!  Chains for the curriculum!”

First Read-alouds of the Year

It’s always a big decision- what will I read aloud first? My homeroom is finishing up Flying Solo, our community-building book for the beginning of the year. It’s always a huge hit and this year is no different. However, my afternoon class needed a read-aloud right away because I need to settle them down after lunch. I am almost done with Flying Solo so I didn’t want to start over in the afternoon. Instead, I decided to dive into our first official read-aloud of the year, the book that both classes would read with me. The decision-making process was not an easy one. I want the book to show my kids that reading can be fun and the books can transport you to another world. My kids always start the year with an irrational hatred of reading, so this first book is so important.

My decision? The Underneath. Believe me, I hesitated quite a bit with this one. It’s not the typical action-packed novel I would normally start the year with. It moves slow, like the water in the bayous of its setting. But it’s powerful. And gorgeous. And one of my favorite books of the year. So on Wednesday, my afternoon class settled in for the first 20 pages.

How did it go?

Well, they seem to be loving it! The “twistedness’ of Garface sickened them. They all connected with Ranger and the calico. The idea of trees viewing hundreds or thousands of years of history fascinated them. And Grandmother “creeped” them out. So far, so good! And I know they will enjoy it even more once Puck gets lost. Now I can’t wait to start it with the morning class!

Possible Read-alouds

I recently began thinking about what I will read aloud to my 6th graders this year. While I don’t stick to any prescribed list (including my own) I do like getting some ideas before the school year starts. My lists change as new books are published and as I get to know my class and their needs. But here are the books I am already considering:

Flying Solo by Ralph Fletcher- I love starting the year with this book. I usually only read it with my homeroom, during the week before we begin switching classes. It’s a great book about a class that has to work together when their school forgets to call a substitute for their teacher. The characters and situations are very realistic and it is a great community-building story. We talk about expectations, behavior, routines and procedures, and respect while reading it.

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt (review)- Like FLYING SOLO, this book is also a definite. I will read this aloud, though I might wait until later in the year. It’s a gorgeous story, but I think I have to get my students to love reading before I can get them to understand THE UNDERNEATH. This is a non-negotiable, though. I will be reading it aloud!

The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 1) by Rick Riordan- I love ending the year with this action-packed tale. My students are learning about Ancient Greece in Social Studies at the same time, so we are able to do a lot of cross-curricular activities. Plus, most of them end up running out and buying the next books in the series, so it is a great way to start off summer reading.

Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer (review)- I love this book. And the edge-of-your-seat events really pull kids into the story. I am not sure if this makes a better read-aloud or literature circle book. But I will definitely use it in some way. And it is a survival novel, which I love to use as our first theme.  Hmmm.

Leepike Ridge by N.D. Wilson (review) or Peak by Roland Smith (review) – I like to start the year with a survival or environmental themed book. LEEPIKE RIDGE is a great adventure/survival story. As is PEAK. I love them both, for different reasons. But I can’t decide which one to use!

The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry (review)- I am considering doing an author study of Lois Lowry this year in Reading Workshop. THE GIVER is one of our district reading requirements (and one of my favorites) and I would love to begin with THE WILLOUGHBYS, discuss NUMBER THE STARS (which is read in 4th grade) and other Lowry works, and then go into THE GIVER. Does anyone have any suggestions?

The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt (review)- Another favorite. This is a great character book, and it appeals to middle schoolers because it does such a great job describing middle school life. I really want to share this with the entire class.

Drums, Girls, And Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick (review)- Most likely a non-negotiable. We read this aloud while preparing our Hope Chests for the Center for Children with Cancer and Blood Disorders. It’s too perfect not to share as class, especially during that time.

Wow, that’s a lot of books!  Especially when I know that even more books will be added to the list when I begin reading the Fall publications.  Eep!  But I love the looks of this list so far, so it is going to be a great year!

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