Starting a new novel unit

This week my class will begin reading Jean Craighead George’s “The Talking Earth”. I spent a few weeks looking for a good novel with an environmental theme. I also wanted it to follow a survival or journey theme, as our first unit is usually based around a survival story. I stumbled upon a class set of “The Talking Earth” way in the back of my room, left over from a previous teacher. After a quick read, I realized it was exactly what I was looking for.

I wrote a 20 day unit plan, combining a independent reading (each student will read 50 pages/week), guided reading, survival activities, and a few monarch butterfly connections. One of my favorite activities will be their survival groups. My students will be put into groups of 4-5 students and told they have crashed on an island. First, they will discuss their strengths and weaknesses and then assign tasks and responsibilities within the group. Once a week, their group will be assigned a problem. This will be something like, “After fishing for the last week, the fish are becoming scarce. You need to come up with a way to continue eating and letting the fish reproduce”. After discussing the problem as a group and coming up with a solution, their homework will be to research a current environmental problem that they think is similar to their group’s problem. They will hand in a 1 paragraph paper detailing the environmental problem and a solution they believe will work. This will count as a 25-point quiz grade for the marking period.

I will be assigning the groups and the first problem this week. I can’t wait to see how this pans out!


The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages

I have been meaning to pick up a copy of this book for a while (since it won the Scott O’Dell Award), and was very excited to see it offered in the first Scholastic catalog I handed out this year. The order came in this week and I just finished the book. I loved it! I have to say, I didn’t expect to love it after reading the back. A note to the publishers: the back summary does no justice to the story! None! At all!

The book follows two seemingly very different girls during World War II. Both end up at Los Alamos, where their parents are working on top-secret projects for the government. The information about Los Alamos offered throughout the book is absolutely fascinating. So fascinating, that I have been on Wikipedia for the last few minutes doing more research! To the rest of the world, Los Alamos did not exist in the 1940’s. Small details in the book really drove this point home. For example, high school seniors in Los Alamos had a very hard time being accepted into any colleges because their high school did not exist- the only address was a P.O. box in Santa Fe. The girls live in a bubble of sorts, untouched by the outside world. They are also surrounded by many of the brightest minds of the century.

While the main characters are fictional, Ellen Klages sprinkles in many real life scientists who spent time at Los Alamos. Names like Feynman, Oppenheimer, and Bethe are mentioned frequently. In fact, Dewety (one of the main characters) befriends Dick Feynman at the beginning of the book.

I would love to use this book in a literature circle at some point. It brings up some great questions and really makes the reader think, without being preachy. I just have to find a unit to fit it into!

And the best part of all? Ellen Klages is currently writing a sequel!

Back to School Night

I am exhausted tonight. It has been a very long week! Wednesday was Back to School Night, and I have felt like a zombie ever since. It is stressful and exhausting preparing for the 45 minutes when 25 pairs of adult eyes will be staring at you, scrutinizing your every word (and your outfit!), and never cracking a smile.

I lucked out this year! My parents were very relaxed and even laughed a few times during my slide show. I feel pretty confident moving forward this year. Luckily, no one seemed turned off by my reading workshop ideals and my goal of every child reading something they enjoy, and not necessarily something I assign. I also ended up with a bunch of donations to the classroom library, which makes me very happy!! Oh, and nothing beats being able to turn to the monarchs in my classroom when I run out of information during my presentation. The parents are all fascinated by the monarch butterflies and I can talk about them forever! It was a great way to end the night.

Today my students finished up their symbolic monarchs for Journey North’s Symbolic Migration (

I love to read!

There is no better feeling than having a student run up to you the moment they get to school, clenching a book to their chest that you recommended. Here is how I began my day:

“Oh my gosh!!! **** DIED! I couldn’t stop reading last night! This is the best book ever! I read 50 pages just last night! I can’t believe how good this book is!!!”

For those interested, she is reading the first book in Margaret Peterson Haddix’s Shadow Children series. Actually, she is probably finishing it right now. She made sure to grab the second book from my library before going home, so that she could start it the minute she finishes the first book. 😀

A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass

I had been meaning to read this book for a while. Somehow, it came up in discussion at school last week, and one of my students immediately responded with, “My aunt wrote that book!” I’m going to get more info this week, because Wendy Mass is semi-local and I would love to try and get her to visit our school!

I was completely fascinated by this book. The main character, Mia, has synesthesia. (I keep wanting to say “the disease” or “disorder” synesthesia, when that isn’t true at all. As one of the characters says, synesthesia is a gift!) Like me, you may be asking what the heck synesthesia is. According to Wikipedia, synesthesia is a neurologically based phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. Mia has a type of synesthesia in which letters or numbers are perceived as inherently colored.

In 8th grade now, Mia has been hiding her gift since 3rd grade, when she realized everyone else around her did not see colors associated with letters and numbers. Because of this, she is failing math. She is struggling with her gift until she meets others who share her gift. The book explores her journey as she learns who she is and if she wants to be “cured”.

I had never heard of synesthesia before this. While I have a very hard time visualizing something like Mia’s perceptions, I am fascinated by it. And more than a little jealous!! I would love to see life that way that she and others do!

This was a great, quick read. I enjoyed Wendy Mass’ style and have begun reading “Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life”, another book she wrote. Hopefully, I will have a review soon!

Cape May Migration

photo taken by me

This morning I rose bright and early for the two and a quarter hour drive to Cape May. I arrived right on time and met up with the other teachers from the Monarch Teacher Network. It was great seeing everyone! After catching up for a bit, I set out on the trail. (If anyone is looking for a great day trip, I highly recommend Cape May State Park!). I spent about an hour walking the trails out to the beach. It was relaxing and gorgeous. I saw 102 monarchs! The weather was warm and sunny, which meant the monarchs were nectaring as opposed to migrating. The birds were also feeding and I did not get to see any hawk clouds, but I saw a ton of migratory birds by themselves!

On the trails, I saw monarchs everywhere! They flew all around me, nectaring and slowly meandering south. I also saw swans, a yellow warbler, a great egret, a crane, sharpies, peregrine falcons, black vultures, and many other butterflies. Needless to say, my camera was constantly out! I ended up with some great shots, which I was very happy about

After I finished meandering along the trail, walking on the beach a bit, and then hanging out at the hawk pavilion, I headed out. First, I said goodbye to the MTN teachers still hanging around and had a great conversation with one of the teachers I took the workshop with 2 years ago. Hope is doing amazing work with her pre-schoolers and it was great to meet up with her again. Hopefully, we will see each other in Mexico later this winter!

After leaving the park, I decided to swing by a few other known monarch hangouts in Cape May Point. It turns out that almost everyone who lives in Cape May Point has some type of butterfly garden, due to the fact that it is the home to such a large migration flyway. I did get a chance to stop at the visitor center and gift shop, and I am now the proud owner of a
Jude Rose handmade chrysalis necklace
. I have been dying for one, but they are only sold at the Cape May Bird Observatory gift shop. I also picked up a butterly field guide, caterpillar field guide, and a monarch finger puppet.

Next, I headed to Pavilion Gardens. Pavilion Gardens is actually a neighborhood traffic circle that has been planted as a butterfly garden. It is such a great use of suburban space! I took my camera and hung out by a fragrant lilac bush for about 25 minutes, snapping pictures. I saw 20-25 monarchs over that time! I even caught two monarchs mating!!!!! I got some great pictures of that process, which I am so happy about. I had never witnessed that before in the wild.

All in all, it was a great day. I couldn’t help thinking what a great class trip this would have been. I wish I could take my students out there, with their writer’s notebooks. just to observe and write. I was itching to write in my notebook, but had forgotten it in the car! It certainly is a spot that cries out to writers. Between the plants, animals, and just plain quiet, I can’t imagine the writing that will come from the park. Instead, I will have to settle for sharing my pictures and my entry with my students, and letting that inspire them!

monarch nectaring
photo taken by me

Where I’m From

This summer, I learned about something called “Where I’m From” poems on the RealWritingTeachers yahoo group. I was intrigued and decided to give them a shot this year. The beginning of the school year is always chaotic because our team doesn’t switch classes until the second week (we are departmentalized) and we are constantly interrupted. I don’t like to jump into anything other than routines and procedures until we are past all that. I decided the poems would be a great way to introduce writing and get a nice Back to School Night display.

I was SHOCKED at how well this went. My 6th graders immediately dove into the project once I showed them the format and my own example. I tweaked a worksheet I found online to make it a fill-in-the-blank for the rough draft. After revising and peer editing, the students typed the pieces and decorated them. They are absolutely stunning. Plus, it was a great way to learn what is important to my students very early in the school year.

Now, to be brave, here is my poem (as an example).

Where I’m From
I am from books,
from Pepsi and the NY Post
I am from hills and grass
(green, soft and smelling like summer).
I am from the milkweed,
the hibiscus brought inside during winter
(an orange and pink sunset growing toward the sun no matter the season).

I’m from “taking a ride” and always being late,
From Jane and Tim.
I’m from the fast talkers and fast walkers,
From eating your crusts and haunted old roads.
I’m from Psalm 23, bagpipes playing hymns, and rosary beads.

I’m from Ireland and Scotland,
Grandmother macaroni and breakfast for dinner.
From the Little Grandfather, a professional football player who jumped
ship in the United Stateswhen sailing as a Merchant Marine,
from Nanny, following Papa around the country during his naval years, raising a son with a husband fighting in a great war.

I am from the photo albums and boxes of pictures in the upstairs closet, telling the stories of a loud, large, and loving family.
I am from dog-eared baby books and school pictures hung over the fireplace

I am from love.

history of a name

This week, my 6th grade class began working in their writer’s notebooks. During the first week of school, we wrote “Where I’m From” poems, which turned out beautifully. Now I want to get them into the habit of writing daily. I started with Aimee Buckner’s history of a name activity. I had not used this before, and I can’t believe how well it worked!

Both of my classes wrote for 20 minutes, completely uninterrupted. When they shared, I learned so much. I pride in the voices of students explaining the Jewish tradition of naming a child after a deceased family member. I learned who hated their name and who thought it was “ok”. Some students wrote about ancestors who came to this country and changed their last name (or had it changed for them) at Ellis Island. Some talked about famous relatives. Some talked about the pride they take in their Hebrew name or Confirmation name. Others talked about who named them or what their name almost became. No matter what they wrote about, they all wrote. And they were all dying to share! It was a great activity to start the year off with!

Monarch Magic

Tomorrow morning, I will leave bright and early to head down to Cape May Point. I will be meeting up with my friends in the
Monarch Teacher Network
, for the semi-annual Teachers for Biodiversity meeting. While this may sound odd for a Language Arts teacher, I raise monarchs with my class every fall. My classroom theme is “Journeys”, as my students are on the final leg of their journey to middle school. They also get the chance to emerge every morning, as a new person. Just like our caterpillars.

At 7am, I will begin the 2 hr drive to Cape May. As Erik, the director, states: “Each year the Teachers for Biodiversity group (a network we support) conducts two, one-day events for somewhere in …. for teachers and their friends/families, the Spring and Fall Gatherings. Because it seems likely this fall will be the best migration of monarch butterflies in over a decade… the 2007 Fall Gathering will be held at Cape May Point on Saturday, September 22… THE PEAK period for monarch migration in NJ with lots of hawk and songbird migration as well. The 2007 Fall Gathering offers the chance to explore Cape May, a world-famous migration site… and to socialize/share knowledge with people who share the same passions… ”

I can not wait for tomorrow. I have never been anywhere that is home to thousands of monarchs at once. I am hoping to see more monarchs than I ever have before. I also hope to see a monarch roost. A roost is when many monarchs (sometimes hundreds!) choose a tree, fence, or other safe area to rest or stay out of bad weather. When monarchs are migrating, they also rest in trees as part of a roost. I have never been lucky enough to see this and hope I can tomorrow!

I am sure I will a ton of pictures tomorrow, and I will be sure to post them!

Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin

ElsewhereThis book was recommended to me by one of my students. (Tangent- how great is it that I already have students recommending books to me in the first 3 weeks?). I picked it up in the bookstore last night and didn’t put it down until I finished it in reading workshop this afternoon. It is an absolutely amazing book! I highly recommend picking it up. I am shocked I haven’t seen it on many required reading lists. I know my student did read it because an older sibling chose to read it for summer reading, but I see so many possibilities for using this book in the classroom!

The main character, Lizzie (Elizabeth, Liz) is a 15-year old girl who is killed in a hit and run accident. “Elsewhere” is the story of her ‘ afterlife ‘- Elsewhere is where you go after you die. As one would expect, Lizzie is furious that her life was taken from her so suddenly. She struggles with meeting the grandmother who died before she was born, and people she admired from afar in life, like a famous rock star. She is not perfect, she misses Earth, and more than anything wants to live a normal prom and boyfriend-filled life back on earth. I don’t want to write any more than that because this book is an absolute must- read. It challenges your beliefs about life, death, love, and the afterlife. Zelvin writes beautifully and was constantly making me say “wow!” Run out and get this book!

I love having my students recommend books to me. Nothing gives me a greater feeling than having a student say, “What part are you at? Oh my gosh, that is my favorite part! Tell me what you think after this chapter”! I can already tell this is going to be an amazing year in reading workshop. I can also tell I will be buying a lot of recommendations to add to our library!!

Alright, I’m off to read “A Mango-Shaped Space”, another recommendation from a student!