Summer Literacy Packets and Summer Reading

At the end of the school year I handed out a Summer Literacy Packet to my students.  I told my students it was completely voluntary, and I am very happy to say that a few of my students have been sending me weekly emails detailing their progress.  And come August I expect a few more to pop their notebooks in the mail to me.  It’s been awesome being able to continue our literacy dialogue through the summer months and I am enjoying the deeper conversations we have been having over email.  But today I received a letter essay from one of my students that only further fueled my anger with required summer reading lists.

This particular student is a very strong reader, and an avid one.  She is currently reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  (Three of the six books on our summer reading list are classics).  The email I received from her today broke my heart.  This girl loves to read and shouldn’t be forced to read a book that she is hating.  All year long I preached choice, choice, choice.  I taught my students to choose books on their level, and to be aware when books are not on their level.  Tom Sawyer needs a good deal of scaffolding for 7th graders, and that scaffolding can’t happen over the summer, when students are on their own.

I want to share a few quotes from her letter:

Today, I read chapters 15 and 16 in Tom Sawyer.  So far I rate this book a three out of ten.  this book is really boring and I do not understand it.  Every chapter talks about something different then the last chapter.  It doesn’t flow very well.  It also shocks me that it is considered a classic because I am not enjoying it.  I expect more from a classic than this book has to offer

Is this how we want to introduce the classics, the canon of English literature to our students?  How long will this attitude stay with these student?

Also, they talk in old southern accents and use older words and use old fashioned tools and devices.  Finally, it is boring because the print is small, it is hard to read, the characters are boring, the adventures are boring, and basically the whole book is boring.

Scaffolding, scaffolding, scaffolding!  This should not be happening!  The vocabulary is difficult, the accents are hard to decipher, and a lot of the “adventures” require a good deal of historical background knowledge.  All things students are not being supported with during summer reading.  Ridiculous!

I would recommend this book to no one except older people from the South.  This book is boring and a waste of time.  I can’t wait to finish this book and be done with the required summer reading!

The only thing these required reading lists is doing is making our students despise the classics.  There is nothing wrong with the classics, but forcing students to read them independently, without the background knowledge and support they require is practically cruel.  It really is a shame.

2007-2008 Class Book Lists

This year, my class read more books than we ever have in the past. In case anyone is interested in some great books for 6th grade, I made a list of the books we read, divided into read-alouds and class novels.

Class Books:


Flying Solo by Ralph Fletcher- This was the first book we read together (in my homeroom). We read it aloud during the first week of school and it was one of our favorites for the year! A great way to start off the school year, with the story of a class that has no substitute when their teacher is home sick.

The Talking Earth by Jean Craighead George (Class Novel)- I had never used this book before and probably would not use it again. The story is great for an environmental unit, but it was a difficult start to the year. As my kids put it, “Nothing happened in the book!”. George is a preeminent environmental writer, but this novel failed to grab my students attention at the beginning of the year.

Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree by Lauren Tarshis- I am desperately waiting for a new book from Lauren Tarshis. I fell in love with Emma-Jean and Tarshis has a great grasp of middle school life. I chose this as the first read aloud for both classes once school started, and they loved it! A great story about a girl who is “different” and her struggle to preserve herself in the churning waters of middle school.

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt (Class Novel)- A gorgeous story and well-known as the greatest children’s book ever written.

The Postcard by Tony Abbott- My class read this in ARC form, and they really enjoyed it. A great mystery that tells the story of a young boy, his mysterious grandmother, and the circus!

The Giver by Lois Lowry (Class Novel)- This is my favorite dystopian novel for young adults, and one of the first I remember reading in school.

Drums, Girls, And Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick- We read this as a companion to our Valentine’s Day charity work. Sonnenblick has crafted a gorgeous story of a young boy whose family is touched by cancer. It also made us laugh out loud a lot!

The Devil’s Arithmetic (Puffin Modern Classics) by Jane Yolen (Class Novel)- This is the anchor of our Holocaust study and one of my favorite novels every year. Yolen’s haunting story of a girl who does not want to remember is a powerful testament of the strength and courage of those who were persecuted during the Holocaust.

Guys Write for Guys Read by Jon Scieszka- Great short stories that appeal to boys (and girls!) by various authors.

Marley: A Dog Like No Other by John Grogan- The biggest tearjerker of the year, by far. I was sobbing by the end, as were many of my students. This is a beautiful story that most kids can identify with- the love and devotion of a family pet.

The Music of Dolphins by Karen Hesse- This is a wonderful book that combines children’s love of marine mammals and a new idea for most kids- feral children. Karen Hesse is a beautiful and gifted writer!

The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 1) by Rick Riordan- Definitely oneof my classes’ favorites! A rollicking story that infuses regular kid problems, Greek mythology, and tons of adventure! A must-read!

Eleven novels in one year! That’s a lot of read-alouds, considering many of these books over more than 300 pages. Sometimes, it was a pain making time for the daily read-aloud, but it was worth it! It made a huge difference in my classroom, though. Reading aloud everyday really made it obvious to my kids how much I valued reading. And I made sure to read a variety of genres, styles, and authors. Everyone enjoyed the books this year, even if they didn’t love each and every one.

Summer Adventure Packets

Tonight, I finally finished the summer adventure packets for my kids! It was definitely a labor of love, but I feel like they are finally perfect. Jen Barney shared the packet she uses in her class, and I used Stacey‘s as a mentor/template and then added in my own activities. I can’t wait to see if any of my students take advantage of this….

You see, my students move on to the middle school next year, so they will be responsible for emailing or snail mailing their completed packets to me. That’s a hefty amount of responsibility in the summer! But I have some truly awesome 7th grade survival packs planned, so hopefully someone completes it!

I will also be handing out my list of amazing books, places to get books, and blogs to check out. This is the first year I will be doing this, too. This way,my kids will have a list of books I love and think they will love, even if I can’t booktalk them!

Summer Literacy Packet (6th grade)

Must-reads 2008

Summer Reading and Writing

I have spent the last few days working on my summer reading and writing packets.  Because my students enter middle school next year, I will not see them when September rolls around.  This makes it difficult to hold them accountable for summer work, as they know they won’t be seeing me that first day of school!  I really have to rely on intrinsic motivation.  And maybe some bribing. ;)

Last year I made a summer reading packet, which was for parents and students.  It had 2 pages about summer reading and the positive effects it has on student learning and retention.  Then I listed 3 pages of books for all types of readers, divided by grade level (3-5, 7-8, 9+).  I am planning to hand out the same packet this year, but it needs some revising.  My students this year have become voracious readers, to begin with.  The packet will be adjusted for their needs.  Also, they love reading new books, and sharing their opinions on them.  I am adding a lot of new books to my booklist, along with a page of links to sites that might interest them.  The links will be a nice mix of blogs, publisher’s websites, and places like GoodReads.

I have never given summer writing work before, but I was inspired by this post over at TwoWritingTeachers.  I am using Stacey’s packet as a template and adjusting it for my soon-to-be 7th graders.  It will be an interesting experiment to see if I get a response to the reading/writing work packet.

And now, back to work!

Percy Jackson and Greek Mythology

Right now, my two classes are completely obsessed with our read-aloud: The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 1). I chose the first book in the Percy Jackson series as our final read aloud for the year because it is the perfect tie-in with my kids’ Greece unit in Social Studies.  I love the entire series, and was hoping my kids would enjoy the book (and get hooked on the series over the summer).  In no way was I prepared for complete and utter obsession that would result!

My students are BEGGING to have more read-aloud time everyday.  We stop and talk about the myths that Riordan alludes to and they are quickly becoming experts on Greek mythology.  It is a perfect example of using a read-aloud to teach the content areas.  My two classes have been reading the novel together and the other two classes on our team have not.  During the Greece unit, their social studies teacher has commented numerous times on my class’ enthusiasm and knowledge about the mythology, gods, and goddesses.  All of the knowledge has come from the conversations that spring from our read-aloud.  No direct instruction, just conversations!

The best part?  Many of my students purchased the first 3 books from Scholastic and told me that their plan for this summer is to read the next 3 books in the series.  That’s the best thing this reading teacher can hear.  :)

Why Don’t Our Students Read?

I read two fascinating articles today which really got me thinking. Reading has been my “thing” this school year. I don’t mean to brag, but it’s working. My students read, and read, and read, and read. They are sharing books, discussing them, making recommendations to friends and family. They constantly tell me that they have read more this year than they ever did before. Almost all of my students have read 20+ books since September, and many of them have read 35+.

I see the effects of their reading everyday. Their fluency has improved dramatically. Their own writing has improved, thanks to the abundance of great writers they are reading. Granted, not every book is an award winner (some even make me cringe!), but the point is they are reading for pleasure. And that they are equating reading with pleasure.

If only legislators and administrators could see this.

Jordan Sonnenblick, (author of Drums, Girls, And Dangerous Pie, one of my favorites) has a kick-butt editorial on SLJ.com right now. Entitled Killing Me Softly: No Child Left Behind, Sonnenblick laments the state of education across our nation right now. A former urban teacher in NJ, he visited his colleagues and was told more than once to stay home, keep writing, don’t come back. Why? Because of what has happened to Language Arts classes. Like myself, Sonnenblick loves sharing great literature with students. In this day and age of high-stakes testing, we are tossing out the books for workbooks. What has happened to us?!

No Child Left Behind has done to my school what it has done to untold thousands of urban schools. Our arts programs are gutted, our shop courses are gone, foreign languages are a distant memory. What’s left are double math classes; mandatory after-school drill sessions; the joyless, sweaty drudgery of summer school. Our kids come to us needing more of everything that is joyous about the life of the mind. They need nature walks, field trips, poetry, recess….What I loved most about teaching middle school English was the books, the stories, the poems. I loved putting great thoughts into the hands of my students, and watching what I really, truly saw as a holy communion between child and author, with me as the officiant. And it kills me to know that if I went back, I wouldn’t have much time to teach literature, which is increasingly seen as a frilly extra.

What???? What type of country do we live in now, where students no longer have time to read great books, learn about nature, or otherwise enjoy their learning experience? We have reverted back to the drill ‘em and kill ‘em rote memorization ideal of the 19th century. I fully believe that 50 years from now this will be looked upon as the worst time for education in American history.

A recent survey of 3 million kids in the U.S. revealed the number of books children read in 2007. Seventh-graders averaged 7.1 books in 2007, while 12th-graders averaged 4.5 books. This number is less than the amount of books I read in a given month. Yet I have seen the evidence in my own classroom. Students enter my room in September and fill our a reading survey. Most of them do not have a favorite book/author and it’s a rare student who has read more than 4 books in the last year. Why are our children not reading?

In my experience, our students are not reading because of NCLB. The joy of reading has been taken out of the classroom and the library. Students are no longer “allowed” to read for pleasure when they must attend mandatory test prep sessions, so that the school looks good on high-stakes testing. They are rarely introduced to the hundreds of new books that are published each year because library budgets have been slashed. Most schools have removed their classroom library budgets, too, so teachers are left to use their own money to stock their classroom library. Students crave new books. Instead, we force our idea of classics on them over and over again, never allowing them to find their own niche in the wide world of books. There are plenty of canon-worthy books that have been published in the last decade. Would it kill us to switch out a Hemingway or two for something like John Green’s Looking for Alaska or Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak?  Both are award-winners that are relevant to our students and their lives.  Both could also be used as a gateway to what adults deem “real literature”.  In other words, not YA literature.

To get back on topic, NCLB is destroying our classrooms and the education we should be giving our children.  Reading Jordan Sonnenblick’s editorial, coupled with the Washington Post’s recent survey, has lit a fire under me.  I hope it does the same for you.  Find a child or teen today.  Share a book with them.  Buy them a book or get them a library card.  Show them the blogs in the kidlitosphere and get them reading.  Help them find their niche and give them back what our schools are taking away.

TCRWP Saturday Reunion

At 5:40am this morning, I was out the door and headed towards school, where I would drop off my car, meet up with some friends, and head to the train station. By 6:35am I was on a northbound train headed to Penn Station. By 8:00am I was inside Riverside Church on Riverside Dr. in NYC. After years of trying to attend, I was finally at Teacher’s College Saturday Reunion.

When my colleagues and I arrived, we picked up our schedules and began scanning the multitude of workshops being offered. Within moments I announced I would be eating my brown bag lunch on the run and attending all four sessions. My colleagues quickly agreed. How could I possibly choose to give up a session for something as silly as lunch?! As I read the descriptions of the many sessions being offered, I was circling possibilities left and right. How on earth would I ever decide which workshops to attend?

Eventually, I made my choices. In the meantime, we made our way to the main chapel to hear the keynote speaker. Tomie dePaolo (author of over 200 books, including Strega Nona), renowned and award-winning author/illustrator gave a rousing talk entitled “No Teacher Left Behind”. He was a brilliant speaker and had the packed church in stitches. He shared many tales of his childhood and the importance that reading and writing held in it. He is also a strong supporter of teachers. He told us that his personal book sales have decreased 50% since the inception of No Child Left Behind. He and his agent attribute this to the huge number of teachers and school districts which can no longer purchase and use his books because they must focus on “the test”. It was a staggering statistic and I would be very interested in hearing if other authors have experienced a similar drop in sales.

After dePaolo’s speech, I made my way to my first session. I was very excited to finally hear Mary Ehrenworth (om/gp/product/0325006881?ie=UTF8&tag=thereazon-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0325006881″>The Power of Grammar: Unconventional Approaches to the Conventions of Language) speak, as she heads the middle school aspects of the Project. She gave a great presentation on working with stronger readers, the ones who are usually left on their own in workshop. She shared some great picture books to use in small groups that allow students to stretch their thinking above and beyond the literal. I ended up with a great list of picture books and plan to order one immediately, for our Holocaust unit.

More importantly, Ehrenworth told the group that we can not expect our students to be readers if we are not readers ourselves. We must share books with them, carry books around, even tell them, “I’m sorry, I didn’t even get to finish planning my lesson last night- I was reading this phenomenal book!” You will teach them more with that non-lesson that you would with any mini-lesson. She also shared a great analogy, courtesy of Lester Laminack. Ask any middle schooler what they can’t wait to do, and invariably you will hear “drive”. We don’t teach them this desire- there are no minilessons, no group discussions, no direct instruction on why driving is great. Instead, their experiences with cars and in cars have made this a natural desire. We need to make reading just as natural a desire. They should want to read, they should desire to read. I can’t wait to share that analogy with some of my colleagues!

My next session with with the famous Lucy Calkins (The Art of Teaching Reading, The Art of Teaching Writing). Her session was standing room only and it was like being in the presence of a celebrity. While she didn’t teach as much as motivate, she was extremely inspiring. She shared some sample writing with us and I still managed to learn a lot.

The third session was one I was looking forward to because it focused on grammar. A project leader (whose name escapes me right now) took us through a typical week of grammar instruction in the middle school she coaches. It was a great marriage of direct instruction and inquiry, and a model I think my district would be satisfied with me pursuing. She also told us that we shouldn’t spend more time planning our grammar lessons that we actually spend teaching grammar. So if we teach 20 minutes of direct instruction grammar during word study, then don’t plan for 3 hours. I took lots of notes in that session and walked out with a booklist of books I must buy! Already I am planning to get Constance Weaver’s The Grammar Plan Book: A Guide to Smart Teaching and Don Killgallon’s Grammar for Middle School: A Sentence-Composing Approach–A Student Worktext. Has any used either of these? Or have a suggestion for where I could find them a little cheaper?

I was very excited for the last session. Georgia Heard shared her poetry unit of study with us and it was phenomenal! First of all, she was a lot younger than I expected (which surprised me, for some reason). It was so inspiring to hear her share her own experiences with poetry in the classroom. I also have a much better understanding of the doors to poetry that she discusses in Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School. I took copious notes in all the sessions, but especially hers, and can’t wait to go back and read them over to let them really sink in.

I swear, I was such a fangirl today. I could have stayed at TC all day, because I was finally in the presence of these men and women who have shaped so much of my teaching. They were practically celebrities to me. To hear my own beliefs and experiences in the classroom affirmed by the Project leaders and the other teachers attending the Reunion really strengthened my resolve to continue what I am doing. It was an invigorating, renewing, energizing day. I would go every month if they offered it! My next goal is to attend a summer institute at TC, as soon as I can afford it (our district doesn’t pay for it). If 5 hours taught me this much today, I can’t imagine what a week would do! I would just need a little more sleep. Getting up at 5am killed me today!!

Oh, and I finally experienced a document camera/ELMO for the first time today. How do I get one in my classroom?! It was amazing! I could already name a million ways I would use it in my classroom!!!

Reflecting on Reading Workshop

My school is on spring break this week and I am enjoying some much needed rest and relaxation. However, I am also using this week to do some reflecting and planning. Last night I ordered a few books that I want to use in planning our April Poetry Month and our upcoming Holocaust unit. But today I finally sat down and did some of the professional reading I have been putting off.

I read about half of Franki Sibberson and Karen Szymusiak’s Day-to-Day Assessment in the Reading Workshop: Making Informed Instructional Decisions in Grades 3-6 and can’t wait to read more! As Franki and Karen say in the beginning of the book, there is a dearth of professional literature related to reading and writing workshop in the intermediate grades. As a 6th grade teacher, I have a hard time finding appropriate professional reading. Books either focus on early readers or middle school readers. Perhaps if my 6th graders were in a middle school environment it would be easier, but we are in an intermediate school. In our district, 7th and 8th graders are in the middle school. Thus, I have been looking forward to reading this book. I had no idea how awesome it would be!

Franki and Karen have broken down their reading workshop into manageable chunks. I am thrilled that each chapter deals with a different routine in reading workshop, including how much time is spent on each one. Very few books get into the nitty gritty of a teacher’s routine and even fewer include as much real classroom anecdotal evidence. I’ve been reading, flagging, reading more, jotting ideas, and flagging more. I’ve already come up with a few new ideas to integrate into my workshop. Even better, I have a new perspective on my reading workshop. I’ve struggled with assessing my readers this year. While I know I have succeeded in creating a room full of passionate, habitual, and critical readers (Atwell) I also know I have not done the best I can in terms of assessment. I need that hard data to back up my choice to use reading workshop (it’s not used in the intermediate/upper grades in my district) and Franki and Karen’s book is full of authentic and realistic assessments that I can integrate into my workshop routines.

This type of reflection and reading energizes me.  I am brimming with new ideas for my classroom and can’t wait to implement some of them!  I am also planning to attend TCRWP Saturday Reunion this coming weekend, which will also be an inspiring bit of professional development.  I should be rested, relaxed, and re-energized when we get back to school next week!

I’m only about halfway through the book right now but I expect to finish it tomorrow. I expect I will re-read it over the summer when I am planning for next year. I can not recommend this book enough!

Update on my read-aloud

Today I began our newest read-aloud. Thank you to everyone for your suggestions!

I decided I wanted to go with a new genre, something my kids wouldn’t pick up on their own yet would hold their interest, and something that was light and quick. Our newest class read-aloud is Marley: A Dog Like No Other by John Grogan. The kids love it so far! It’s a new genre for me to read aloud- non-fiction (that is not a picture book). It is also easy for my students to relate to. Already they are sharing stories about their own dogs, cats, and various pets. The connections were made immediately and I can only imagine them growing as we continue.

I am hoping that we can finish in about 10 days. We read 25 pages today and baring interruptions should hit 50 tomorrow. With less than 200 pages we may finish before spring break. That would be perfect, allowing us a fresh start when we begin the Holocaust after that.

Anytime we finish a novel, either as a class novel or a read-aloud, I print the cover and staple it to our “We Have Read….” bulletin board. Today I finally had time to update it. When our librarian saw it she was thrilled. For some reason, it is hard to convince other teachers to read-aloud. I can’t imagine my class without a read-aloud. It allows me to model reading behaviors and strategies while modeling a constant love of reading. It is contagious- my kids are reading more than they ever have before. Why other teachers don’t read-aloud baffles me!

I have heard all the excuses….no time, test prep, “the kids don’t listen anyway”, and more. Yet I make time with both my classes, even though I only have two hours with them. As for the students not listening, modeling should take care of it. If you constantly show that reading is important and fun it will begin to stick! My class is proof of this. And you must find exciting books that they will want to read. Realistic fiction is a big hit in my classes, but once they were introduced to it we were able to move to other genres. I know a lot of my kids wouldn’t pick up Tuck Everlasting on their own.  Now that we read it together many of them list it as the best book they have read!  It’s all in the teacher’s choices and modeling practices.
I am interested in hearing your experiences (especially at the intermediate/upper grades, when reading aloud falls by the wayside)!  Do you read-aloud in your room? Do you have a specific read-aloud time?  What are some of your most popular titles?

Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Margaret Peterson Haddix’s Shadow Children series is extremely popular in my classes this year.  I try to pick up all the Haddix books that I can, as they seem to hook many reluctant readers.  When I saw that Scholastic was offering “Running Out of Time” last month, I picked it up without knowing much about it.  While getting my car’s oil changed yesterday I had about an hour to read and managed to finish the book.  It is definitely a quick read, but an exciting book! Jessie’s family lives like most typical families- in 1840.  She’s a tomboy, usually the one in the group doing the dares, rather than the daring.  In many ways, she reminded me of Anne of Green Gables.  Her mother is the local midwife and Jessie enjoys tagging along with her on jobs.  Lately, however, more and more children have been becoming sick.  

When the book opens, Jessie accompanies her mother to  an appointment, but her mother will not let her enter the home where two children are very ill.  On the way home, her mother is acting very strange, and she sees signs on certain houses that signify the occupants are quarantined.  Her mother won’t answer her questions, but tells her she needs to meet her in the woods the next day, after school, but to tell no one. That morning, Jessie’s younger sister becomes ill in school.  Jessie brings her home and then heads deep into the woods to meet her mother.  What she learns in those woods will change her life, and the lives of those around her.  Her mother tells her that she fears diptheria is the disease they are fighting.  She needs Jessie to leave their village, Clifton, and find medicine in another village.  However, all is not as it seems.  

Haddix’s book takes a sharp turn about a quarter of the way through- a twist that I never saw coming!  I hesitate to say more, because I don’t want to ruin the experience for anyone else.  I really enjoyed this book and I know a few reluctant readers in my classes who will be hooked by this book.  If you enjoy fast-paced adventures, plot twists, mysteries, or Haddix’s other works, I highly recommend this novel! 

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