Final Read Aloud of the Year

This past week I began our final read aloud of the year.  It’s always a bittersweet experience- my students have come so far but we will be saying goodbye soon.  I spent a few weeks debating which book I would share, but ultimately decided on Rick Riordan’s The Red Pyramid (The Kane Chronicles, Book 1). For the past two years my final read aloud had been The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians), working alongside our social studies teacher in the ancient Greece unit.  But this year many of my students were already huge fans after seeing the movie and I knew I had to choose something else.

The Lightning Thief was always popular in my room because it was funny, easy to relate to, and full of action.  Boys and girls alike fell in love with the book and many of them proceeded to read the rest of the series over the summer.  I wanted to do the same thing with our last read aloud this year.  While Riordan may not be the most literary of choices the kids love him.  He opens up doors to new knowledge and ancient mythology.  I can’t tell you how many of my Percy Jackson fans are now reading Greek mythology and even classics like The Odyssey.

When I began to read The Red Pyramid, I knew it would be perfect for our end-of-the-year read aloud.  Like Percy, Sadie and Carter are funny and easy to relate to.  I also love that we have two protagonists, male and female.  While I’m not sure we will actually complete the 500+ page book together, I know it will leave my students wanting to read it on their own over the summer.

We began the book over the past week.  It’s already a huge success!  Within days I had 15-20 students who went out and purchased their own copies.  I have a few more planning to do the same.  They read ahead and then listen again when we read together.  For those students, they are learning the value of rereading.  Inevitably, they learn something new or notice something else on the reread.  My more dormant readers are loving the humor and adventure in the story and enthusiasm is building.  I’m hoping our read aloud leads to more reading for pleasure this summer!

Have you started your final read aloud of the year?  What will you be reading and why did you choose it?

They Never Came Back by Caroline B. Cooney

Caroline B. Cooney is a go-to author for me.  Whether I am looking for the perfect book to hook a reluctant reader or a fantastic mystery that will keep my readers on their edge of their seat; Cooney is the answer.  She writes fast, suspenseful, non-stop action thrillers that leave you thinking that maybe the story was true.  Were you reading a newspaper account of an actual story or was it fiction?

Her newest endeavor is no different. They Never Came Back is a fast-paced thriller about a young girl whose parents embezzle millions in a financial scam. When they flee the country, their ten-year old daughter Murielle is left behind. In the ensuing 5 years she is put into the foster care system and seems to disappear.

Now going by the name Cathy Ferris, Murielle enrolls in an accelerated language summer program in her hometown of Greenwich. Thinking she will be able to get a glimpse of her beloved cousin, Tommy, she is shocked when he recognizes her. At that moment, her life once again changes. Suddenly, the FBI is back. They want to use Cathy/Murielle (whoever she is) as bait to lure the parents back to the US. Cathy isn’t sure if she wants to remember her old life. And she had no idea how her parents’ actions affected others, like their employees who were sent to jail in their place.

Awesome, awesome, awesome book. I could not put it down. A great introduction to some of the recent financial scandals, this book educates while keeping readers on the edge of their seats. As a teacher, I was thrilled to see the characterization of the ensemble characters. They are overachievers, kids who are willing to give up their entire summer to learn a new language. And they are attached to their cell phones, social media, and laptops. The ensemble and background characters ring true and bore more than a striking resemblance to my own students.

Highly recommended for middle school and high school libraries!

*Review copy courtesy of the publisher

Reading in Middle School: Choice, Independence, and Community

It’s been a crazy few days for reading in the news.  First, I was devastated to learn that Reading Rainbow has been cancelled and its final episode aired on Friday.  I remember watching Reading Rainbow often as a child and singing the theme song even more often.

“Butterfly in the sky, I can go twice as high. Take a  look, it’s in a book…”  I can still picture the opening credits in my head!

According to vice president for children’s programming at PBS, Linda Simensky, “research has shown that teaching children the mechanics of reading should be the network’s priority…”  This breaks my heart.  It’s just another example of the mentality that mechanics and how-to takes precedence over why reading (and often writing) is fun and enjoyable.  As a teacher I can promise you that enjoying reading has taken my students to new heights and in my experience is just as important as those mechanics.  If you hate reading it doesn’t matter how well you can read, you still aren’t going to pick up a book.  And if you struggle with reading it’s hard to see a reason to enjoy it. It saddens me that PBS no longer sees teaching the enjoyment of reading as important but I plan to continue teaching and modeling that enjoyment in my classroom.

After reading about Reading Rainbow I was I was thrilled to see the “reading workshop” approach to teaching getting publicity with an article in the New York Times.  Motoko Rich’s  A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like isn’t ground-breaking- reading workshop has been around for decades- but any publicity for this way of teaching is good publicity in my opinion. There are thousands of teachers out there who are unfamiliar with the workshop approach, don’t believe it can work in this age of standardized testing, or don’t feel confident enough to take the plunge. Hopefully this article will encourage a few more to try it in their own classrooms.  Presenting students with choice in reading opens new worlds.  I have the anecdotal evidence from my own classrooms as do many other teachers. You only have to read my literacy surveys at the beginning of the year and the end of the year- you’ll see the difference in my readers.  Speak to their parents.  More importantly?  Speak to my students.  Having a choice in their reading leads to enjoying reading!

I don’t agree with every single thing in the article, just like I don’t agree with every single thing Nancie Atwell or Lucy Calkins preaches.  Lorrie McNeill, the teacher in the article, doesn’t believe in any whole-class novels.  While I use them (very) sparingly, I agree with Monica Edinger (a fourth grade teacher) that they can be very valuable.  Adults read with book clubs, so why not students?  I do agree with McNeill’s opinion that too many teachers overteach whole-class novels.  That’s the problem.  But this is why I love the workshop approach- you do what works for you and your students.

My teaching was shaped by my student-teaching experience.  I was extremely fortunate in that I taught at a Teacher’s College Reading & Writing Project school in New Jersey.  I attended staff development and saw the workshop approach work over my two semesters in third grade there.  My cooperating teacher was an inspiration and I’ve never looked back.  Nancie Atwell, Lucy Calkins, Kelly Gallagher, and so many more have been inspiring me ever since.  But my reading workshop isn’t identical to anyone else’s.  I teach 100 sixth grade students in 55 minute periods.  I have to modify the system to fit my classroom and my students.  For the record, I do think reading workshop works at its best with small classes for larger quantities of time, like McNeill’s classes.  But we all work within the parameters of our district.

Here’s a broad overview of my sixth grade reading workshop:

  • Independent Reading- The cornerstone of my workshop.  All of my students are required to have a book with them at all times.  We read in class, while I model by reading or conference with individuals.  At the beginning of the year I spend a lot of time modeling reading while easing into reading conferences with my students.  Our minilessons are related to each child’s independent book because I focus on comprehension strategies which can be applied to all books instead of lessons tailored only to a specific novel (a la the numerous novel guides out there).  My students begin the year with in-class reading logs while easing into letter-essay responses.  They also keep an at-home reading log that is collected once each month as a quiz grade.  The quiz is pass/fail and everyone passes as long as the log is turned in.  The logs, and later letter-essays, allow me to keep track of each student’s progress and help guide them.  I also have individual reading conferences with each student along with numerous informal chats in the hall, during homeroom, and hopefully online this year!
  • Read Alouds: Can you have two cornerstones?  Because read alouds are equally as important as independent reading in my class  We are always reading a book together.  This is a “for fun” book, as I tell my students.  They aren’t quizzed, tested, or graded.  What they rarely realize is how much they are learning from my modeling, thinking aloud, and our class conversations.  I choose books that they class wouldn’t normally choose to read on their own and the books are always a few level above my average reader.  We usually use Newbery buzz as a guide, trying to read the Newbery winner before it is announced in January.  Of course, we also read picture books, non-fiction related to the content areas, and numerous articles.  This year’s first read aloud? When You Reach Me.  See here if you are interested in what we read last year.
  • Whole class books:  The dreaded whole-class novel.  *shudder*  We do read books together.  These are different from our read alouds because the students are responsible for these books (tests, quizzes, or projects). One of the reasons I grade the activities attached to these books is because my students will experience reading class this way from 7th grade until graduating college.  It’s my job to prepare them.  We normally  read Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting as we learn to annotate text and dig deeper. We read literary articles about the novel, including Horn Book’s amazing interview with Babbitt, “Circling Tuck: An Interview with Natalie Babbitt”. We also read Lois Lowry’s The Giver as we debate euthanasia, free choice, and so much more. Every year it is a wonderful experience. And nothing beats hearing kids moan and groan about a “boring book” before we begin reading it and then listening to their devastated reactions when Jesse and Winnie don’t end up together or debating whether or not Jonas made the right decision.
  • Book Clubs- We study the  Holocaust at each grade level (4-8) as part of our district initiative.  We read and research different aspects of the Holocaust before students break off into book clubs of their choosing. The groups read a variety of books, fiction and nonfiction, about different aspects WWII.  They take notes, do further research, and then present what they learn to the class.  Every year I learn something new and the students are able to dig even deeper into aspects of the war they might not have been familiar with before our book clubs.
  • Primary and secondary sources- Our students participate in National History Day each year and I love introducing them to primary sources!  Connecting with history through those who actually experienced it turns on so many students to research and helps them overcome the dread attached to the word “research”.

This is only a brief, very brief, summary of my classroom and my personal approach to reading workshop.  The reaction I get the most when I mention I use reading workshop is a frown followed by, “Don’t your  students just read “junk books?”  Of course.  However, they aren’t junk books to me or those students.  They are gateway books.  I watched this year as one of my most reluctant readers  read Twilight, followed by all of its sequels, every other vampire book she could get her hands on, and then Sarah Dessen, Laurie Halse Anderson, and eventually Wuthering Heights!  One person’s junk is another’s treasure, and that same junk opens up a whole new world to readers.  And that’s also why I am sure to include all the other aspects of my reading workshop- read alouds, book clubs, and even whole class selections.  My students are surrounded by books and words at all times.  Each book connects with each student differently.

Reading workshop works so well because it can be personalized by each teacher.  Every classroom is different.  Just check out some of these other responses around the blogosphere:

-Monica Edinger’s In the Classroom: Teaching Reading
-The Book Whisperer’s The More Things Change
-Lois Lowry’s I Just Became Passe’
-Meg Cabot’s How to Foster a Hatred of Reading
-Kate Messner’s Heading Off Book Challenges

Jarret J. Krosoczka’s Lunch Lady Graphic Novels

I’m always on the lookout for graphic novels that appeal to boys as much as the Babymouse series appeals to girls. The Babymouse series never fails to hook a few dormant or struggling readers at the beginning of the year, but they are usually girls. Something about all that pink makes it a hard sell for 6th grade boys. But I think I found my series- Lunch Lady by Jarret K. Krosoczka!

In the first book, Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute, we meet the “breakfast bunch” (Hector, Dee, and Terrence). Like most kids in the early intermediate grades, they are curious about the school lunch lady. What exactly does she do when she isn’t serving them lunch? I remember being in school and wondering about the “real life” of school workers. Well, the breakfast bunch decide to follow her one day to see what her life is like outside the cafeteria walls.

While the kids decide to follow the Lunch Lady, she and her pals begin to suspect the new substitute teacher, Mr. Pasteur, is up to good. When he refuses fresh baked cookies it only firms up their suspicions. In fact, he doesn’t eat anything. The ladies decide to follow him home – not knowing that they themselves are being followed by the breakfast bunch!

In the second book, Lunch Lady and the League of Librarians, we meet a cranky school librarian and her evil cronies bent on destroying video games! When the breakfast bunch and the Lunch Lady crew get wind of the plan, they set out to stop the League of Librarians! Can they do it, or will video games be destroyed in favor of reading?!

I have to say, I laughed out loud at both books. I enjoyed Lunch Lady and the League of Librarians the most because the librarians were hysterical. Some of the jokes might go over the heads of younger readers, like the librarian demanding to be called a media specialist instead of librarian. Regardless, it is very funny. Plus, the lunch lady comes up with a great compromise between reading and video games- everyone is a winner here.

I think this is a series that will appeal to boys who love graphic novels or need a series to really “hook” them into reading. It’s silly but the plot is fun and easy to relate to, being set in a school. The bright yellow color on each page reminds me of the pink used in the Babymouse series but more gender neutral. I think these would be a great lead-in to the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books.  I definitely plan to add these books to my library and I think they will be a big hit with boys and girls!

I imagine these books are going to blow up when the movie comes out.  Did you know Amy Poehler will be starring in the movie?  How cool is that?  I can totally picture her as the Lunch Lady!

 

 

Review copy courtesy of publisher

Notes from the Dog by Gary Paulsen

Every year, I have a few students that I refer to as my “Paulsen Posse”.  They read every book Gary Paulsen has written, use him as a mentor in their writing, and talk about all of the Paulsen-like adventures they plan to live.  Now, I like Gary Paulsen as much as the next guy- maybe even a little more because he inspires so many dormant readers.  But I’ve never connected to him like the posse does.  

That just changed. Notes from the Dog is Gary Paulsen’s latest novel (available tomorrow!).  A thin little book, I didn’t give it much thought when I sat down to read.  Little did I know…

Finn is a fifteen-year-old loner.  His goal for summer vacation is to talk to as few people as possible.  He figures he can get by just talking to his father, his true friend, Matthew, his grandfather, and his dog, Dylan.  It’s not that he doesn’t like people.  He just can’t figure them out so he prefers to avoid them.  Settling in for a summer full of books, his world is turned upside down when Johanna moves in next door.  Housesitting for the summer, Johanna is cool, pretty, and chatty.  Before he even realizes it, Finn has been swept up into her world.  And you know what?  It’s not that bad….a pretty, older girl likes Finn!

Johanna treats Finn like an equal.  He finds it easy to talk to her which never happens with girls.  Plus, Dylan loves her.  And she’s pretty, which doesn’t hurt. Slowly but surely, she manages to draw Finn out of his shell. But most importantly, she’s a good friend to Finn.  She’s obviously not your typical twenty-five-year old.

Something else not typical? Johanna is battling breast cancer.  

Spending the summer with Johanna, Finn learns what it means to really care for someone on all levels- physically and emotionally.  Johanna is young, only in her mid-twenties, but she is fighting an all-too-often fatal disease.  Yet she always has a smile on her face.  She and Finn set out to plant a garden in his yard, something Johanna has always wanted.  Also something Finn is awful at;  he’s got the blackest thumb in the world!  But working with Johanna opens his small world to new ideas and made him braver.  Johanna constantly encourages him and tries to make him see how awesome he really is.  She even manages to set him up on a date or two!

At the same time, Finn and Matthew vow to raise enough money to sponsor Johanna in the breast cancer triathlon she hopes to compete in before the summer is over.  Even though the two friends can’t imagine Johanna competing (she can barely get out of bed some days), they move outside their comfort zone to raise enough funds.  For Finn, this means making presentations to groups of people.  Before he knows it, he’s talked to 100x more people than he planned to during the summer.  

I don’t know how to put into words what I think about this book.  It is a must-read and a much-needed book.  Breast cancer is so prevalent these days, yet there is very little of it in middle grade literature.  When it is mentioned, it’s all-too-often in a “girl” book.  Paulsen takes a decidedly female topic, which affects the entire family, and presents in it a book that will appeal to both genders.  Too many of my students lives are touched by cancer and I know they will connect with this book.

 But don’t think this is a depressing book because it is about cancer.  It’s also a funny book that will have you laughing at loud.  Like when Finn and Matt are camping at the arboretum and get lost!  Or when Grandpa announces he is moving in with his new girlfriend!  There’s a certain feeling of joy that jumps between the pages of the book.  Johanna lives every day to the fullest and you can’t help but be inspired by her.  Her joy is contagious and even Finn is affected.  It spreads to his father, his classmates, and eventually the whole town.  Paulsen has crafted a testament to the importance of community and friendship in today’s world.

This is a must-have for any middle school or high school library.  As always, Paulsen packs a powerful punch.  And I am now an official member of my classroom’s “Paulsen Posse”!

Be sure to check back tomorrow for an interview with Gary Paulsen!

 

 

 

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid 4!

Big news! Tomorrow, Abrams Books will reveal the cover, color, and title of the newest Diary of a Wimpy Kid book!  Be sure to visit www.wimpykid.com to view a special presentation by Jeff Kinney tomorrow.

 

I know my students and my youngest sister have been making bets for months about the color of the cover.  Anyone want to throw out a guess?

Dork Diaries by Rachel Renee Russell

Dork Diaries: Tales from a Not-So-Fabulous Life by Rachel Renee Russell is going to immediately draw comparisons to Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Both are in the illustrated novel category and both focus on characters in middle school struggling to be cool and part of the “in” crowd.  A universal theme, and one that my own almost-middle schoolers struggle with daily, boys and girls alike love the Wimpy Kid series.  Dork Diaries: Tales from a Not-So-Fabulous Life is similar in theme, but this is a girl book through and through.  Not that this is a detriment- I already have a waiting list for my ARC because some of my girls saw the pink cover with the manga-like illustration and demanded I read it quickly and pass it on.  And they certainly won’t be disappointed.

Nikki can not believe that she has to go to snotty Westchester Country Day all because her exterminator dad just got a gig there.  And to make matters even worse, she’s on a scholarship.  And her parents are completely clueless!  Don’t they realize that she will never fit in at WTC?  If they expect her to fit in with these rich kids, she totally needs a new iPhone.  A new wardrobe would help, too.  When her mom says that she should save up for the phone, she lists three very important and totally serious reasons that will never work:

  • Buying Nikki a phone will help her mother practice with money management.
  • Her allowance is so small that saving up would take years and by then iPhones won’t be cool anymore so everyone will laugh at her antiquated phone.
  • Nikki is an artist and she needs to save up for art camp instead.

I admit I was laughing at loud at Nikki and her reasoning.  It reminded me so  much of my students and their “drama”.  There’s always drama in middle school!  Nikki, of course, is no exception.

As you read Nikki’s diary of her eighth grade year, you can’t help but laugh.  Her fascination with the queen bee/head mean girl at school is reminiscent of so many middle schoolers.  She wants to hate Mackenzie and her designer outfits, but she also wants to be her.  And when Mackenzie enters her fashion portfolio in the school-wide art contest, she almost intimidates Nikki into skipping the contest.   Even when Nikki does enter, she’s convinced that she won’t win. She changes and grows during eighth grade, but in a realistic way.  Nikki isn’t perfect at the end of the book and her life isn’t picture-perfect.  She’s a regular kid, an everygirl.  And I think that’s why middle schoolers are going to connect with her.  And because she is in 8th grade, this will also be a great book for struggling/reluctant readers in early high school.

Nikki’s parents were one of my favorite parts of the book.  Convinced they are completely clueless, Nikki can’t understand why they want to make her life miserable.  Like when they decide the perfect solution to her friendless life to put positive affirmations all over the house.  Including in the toaster.  Which Nikki promptly sets on fire by accident.  Sounds like something that would happen to me!  But her parents are trying to do right by her and give her the best education they can while also making sure she is happy.  Nikki just can’t see that at thirteen.  And what thirteen-year old can?!

Rachel Renee Russell has a hit on her hands here.  This book is going to appeal to a lot of middle school girls.  And I couldn’t be happier that they will be reading a book where being a dork is cool.  Nikki realizes that sometimes being a dork is fun!  As a loud and proud dork/nerd, this makes my heart leap.  Too many of our girls spend their time trying to be someone they’re not.  They can learn a lot from Nikki and laugh along the way.  

Whenn

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