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.

Learning About Our Students as Readers

Over the last few days I have been trying to get to know my new students as readers. At the end of last year I was a walking encyclopedia, a who’s who of book recommendations. Even now, I read a book and immediately think, “I know exactly who would love this”! But a new class means starting over from scratch. While I love the clean slate offered by a new year, it frustrates me that I am not an expert on my students yet!

Yesterday we organized our classroom library as a review of genres. It served as a great way to review genre definitions while also letting the students see the variety of titles the library has to offer. There were a lot of stunned reactions, let me tell ya! While most of my students told me that they dislike reading, I told them that’s just because they haven’t enjoyed the books they read up to this point. I promised to find them a genre, author, or series they will enjoy this year! But it’s hard when I don’t know them yet. :)

Today I booktalked a few “guaranteed” titles before we headed to the school media center; just a few to whet their appetite while I start reading interviews and read their literacy profiles. The titles I talked about today included Life As We Knew It, Cracker!: The Best Dog in Vietnam, The Face on the Milk Carton, Just Grace, Turnabout , and Cirque Du Freak Life As We Knew It was a huge hit, and Cracker! went over well with the war buffs.  Every student left school today with a book.  Even better?  When I ended independent reading today, there were a few soft groans.  I asked for a show of hands, saying “How many of you were annoyed that I interrupted your reading?  How many people didn’t want to stop?”  About hald the class raised their hands.  One boy said, “This has never happened to me before!”

It’s amazing how passion is contagious.  Our kids deserve our passion- whether it be for reading, science, history, geography, math, or anything else.  That passion will spread, as long as our passion is genuine.  That is true teaching.

I’m off to read more reading inventories now, and hopefully get to know my students better!

Summer Reading Update

Today I went into NYC to see “Hairspray” on Broadway with my friend’s day camp. A lot of my students from this past year were campers and we got to catch up a bit. Of course, I asked what they have been reading. What awesome language arts teacher wouldn’t? But I got a few recommendations from them, which made me happy. And we laughed because they are starting to see some of the ARCs we read earlier this year finally coming out in the bookstore. They love that they read the books and recommended them to friends before they were published.

Of course, we eventually got around to the summer reading list. The kids I didn’t teach seem to be avoiding summer reading, with most of them saying they will start after camp. But my former students have all finished their summer reading! I was so impressed. And even better, they enjoyed their books! Interestingly, everyone I talked to today read Cynthia Voight’s Homecoming (The Tillerman Series #1). They not only enjoyed it- they even read the next Dicey book on their own!  How awesome is that?  I do find it interesting that the newest book on the list seems to be the most-read.  Yet it is also the longest book!  It just shows what a great book talk can do for a book.  Kids who would never choose a long book on their own chose it based on the summary I gave.  Summer reading lists need to be booktalked!

Oh, and I was so happy to hear that a good number of my students have started using the public library this summer.  In our town, the library is used to research projects and summer reading once the kids reach the middle grades.  To hear that they are going to the library, taking out books, and even getting on the waiting list for popular books absolutely made my heart sing.  (I know, I’m corny).  But it made me feel like I made a difference!

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.

Summer Reading Rant

Over the last few weeks, I have been fielding a lot of questions from friends and family regarding summer reading. Many a parent has placed a list of 5-6 preselected books in front of me saying, “Which of these should my child read? Which one will be the least painful? Which one will help us actually enjoy our summer instead of making it erupt into a mass of screaming and fighting parents and children?!”

Ok, maybe those aren’t their exact words. But the look of fear in their eyes says more than their words ever can. And that’s a lot of pressure!

Yet, inevitably, the list that I am handed is dated, frought with “classics”, and BORING!

I do the best I can, pointing out books that the student can probably enjoy, but it’s usually a difficult task. Most of these summer reading lists look like they have not been updated in over a decade. And while I am all for kids reading the classics, like The Secret Garden, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer , and Gulliver’s Travels , I am not sure summer reading is the place for them.

Most of the classics require a good deal of scaffolding- the vocabulary is difficult, the situations are usually unfamiliar, and the context of the stories has not always been explained. While these novels can certainly be enjoyed by rising 7th and 8th graders (the lists I usually see them on), without that scaffolding they do not enjoy or even necessarily understand the books! All too often I see students reading the “Great Illustrated Classics” edition of the story, slamming the book shut at the end, and calling it a day. That’s it! They consider themselves well-read and some will even make it to college telling those around them that they have “read all the classics”. Yes, the abridged, illustrated versions! Are we really doing them any service at all by requiring these books as summer reading when students will not get the support that need and might even be turned off to these books for the rest of their lives?

And if the lists don’t consist of 5 classics, they are made up of middle grade or YA novels published 10, 20, 30, maybe even 50 years ago. And the choices are few- maybe 4 books of which the students must choose two. And worst of all, they all seem the same to me! There is no diversity, the books are not high-interest, and heaven forbid we include ANY YA or newer middle grade novels. Not to say that the books on these lists are bad- in fact, it is just the opposite. It seems like someone, somewhere along the line, grabbed a list of award-winning books, looked for a few that were age-appropriate, and then put them on the summer reading list. The problem is that that list hasn’t been updated since then! Most of these books have great literary merit but they don’t always “fit” the reader. In fact, when you only offer 5 books, very few of those will fit the majority of your readers! The problem with only allowing students to choose from older award-winners is that they see these awards as old and stale, not at all relevant to their lives. They don’t even realize that books written this year will be up for the 2009 Newbery or Printz award. In fact, I would venture to guess most students don’t realize those awards are still given out today!

Summer is the time for students to expand their reading horizons. They should be reading all those books they didn’t get to read during school because of their homework, sports, and activities schedules. When we force them to read what we deem to be worthy literature, we all to often force them to hate the books, and by association, hate reading.

This is my plea to administrators, teachers, media specialists, and parents- revamp your summer reading lists! The best decision would be to do away with specific required books while letting students choose their own reading material during the summer. But if this is not a reasonable request, then I beg of you-update those stale summer reading lists! Put together a committee of well-read teachers, students, administrators, and parents. Have them come up with the list. And no list should be stagnant. It should be alive, and it should be allowed to change as the years go by.

Even better? Make up a suggested summer reading list and include the reasons why each particular book was placed on the list. Or just have each teacher from the next grade choose a book and write a quick paragraph explaining why they are recommending that book. This allows rising students to become familiar with each teacher’s personality through their choice of book(s). This will also ensure a varied list. I would be willing to bet you would see classics right alongside newer books, award winners next to beach reads. And the students would see that each teacher values reading in a different way, just like them! Some teachers would recommend fiction, others non-fiction. You would see a variety of genres. And a list like this could easily be updated each year!

Summer reading should not be a time of torture, arguing, and cheating (I’m talking to you, movie-watchers and Sparknotes-readers!). Summer reading should be fun and enjoyable. It should allow students to try new books, read the latest in their favorite series, or try out those great classics. Without any pressure. It shouldn’t be miserable. I firmly believe that miserable summer reading experiences are just one of the reasons we are raising a generation of bookhaters instead of booklovers.

For some of my favorites (and some that I recommended to my classes at the end of the year), check out my Amazon store here.

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

Two Minute Drill (Comeback Kids) by Mike Lupica

This was a nice book to end the challenge on. I really enjoy Lupica’s books and was glad to have a chance to read some of the new Comeback Kids series.

Two-Minute Drill: Mike Lupica’s Comeback Kids is the story of the kid who tries and tries, but just is not a gifted athlete. Scott is smart, and his parents are proud of his academic and athletic accomplishments (ok, even if he mostly has academic accomplishments). He has just moved to a new town and is stunned when the most popular kid in sixth grade, Chris, befriends him. Chris convinces Scott to join the town football team, which he does. Even though he knows he will never get off the bench, Scott is happy to help the team and to just be a part of game day. However, even Rudy got a chance to prove himself, and Scott does, too.

I felt like this book really rang true. The boys were realistic, not just caricatures of 12 year old boys. Mike Lupica really knows preteen boys! I felt like I was reading about my own students. That’s one of the reasons I always enjoy Lupica’s book. They are timely and believable- both of which are very important to reluctant readers. I think this series is perfect for boys or girls in the middle grades, and even into middle school.

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