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.

Newbery Controversy in the Classroom

For the past few days my classes have been learning about the Newbery Award.  Yesterday we reviewed the history, terms, and criteria for the award.  It was a lot of fun, because my students really didn’t know a lot about the award.  But today I shared the latest controversy with them.  

Each group took an article (the Post article, the BYU study, one of my own blog posts, and Anita Silvey’s article) and read it together. Then they summarized the article for the class at large, sharing the argument and evidence that the article focused on.  It was so interesting to hear their take on the Newbery controversy.  Most of them thought the controversy was silly, though they did agree that forcing students to read Newbery winners just because they are Newbery winners was silly.  And both classes came to the consensus that forcing kids to read any books “just because an adult thinks kids need to read it” can turn them off to reading.  It was very interesting!

We ended the class with me sharing last year’s winners.  I booktalked them, and the read a few of the monologues from Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village out loud.  They went over really well!  Plus, I got to perform, which was too fun!

One month!

In exactly one month, the Newbery award winners will be announced.  I still have a good number of books to read!    Thanks to Betsy Bird at Fuse #8 for putting together a tally of the mock Newbery lists so far!  I’ve read a good number of them so far:

 

I’m pretty impressed with the reading I have done so far!  Of course, I have a good deal left to do.  And everyday I read about another book that I just have to read before the awards are announced.  So here’s to lots of reading in the next few weeks!

Newbery Controversy Part…..Oh, I give up!

Growing up, I never had a problem finding books to read.  My aunt was a 7th grade Language Arts and was always passing books on to me to read.  I knew what the Newbery Award was but I didn’t ever read a book just because it was a Newbery.  I read what I wanted to read, whether that was a book my aunt recommended or something I found while browsing the library shelves (totally based on my impression of the cover, of course).  Every few years one of my teachers would assign a book report on a Newbery winner or honor book, but I never had trouble finding something I was ok with reading.  Granted, I was a voracious reader, so I probably was not a typical student.

When I went to high school and college I stopped reading middle grade and YA books for some reason.  Most likely it was because I was so busy with school and homework  (I did go to the #4 high school in the country….yay Techers!) that pleasure reading fell by the wayside.  At the same time, my aunt moved on from teaching to administration.  And I hadn’t yet discovered blogs or other lists of notable books.  But since I started teaching I have read many of the Newbery winners and honor books that I missed during those years, like Because of Winn-Dixie and Al Capone Does My Shirts.  Many of those award-winners are staples in my classroom library now.

Over the last few months, various media outlets have been picking up a story about the supposed downfall of the Newbery.  This past week the Washington Post printed an article about the so-called “problems” with the Newbery Award.  The fact that this supposed controversy actually stems from a nearly identical article in School Library Journal a few months ago notwithstanding, the article is just another example of the media not understanding what the Newbery Award is awarded for and why.  The Newbery is not and was never meant to be an award for the most popular and accessible book for all children.  The article quotes Lucy Calkins, and I think it is the first time I have ever disagreed with her.

“I can’t help but believe that thousands, even millions, more children would grow up reading if the Newbery committee aimed to spotlight books that are deep and beautiful and irresistible to kids,” said Lucy Calkins, founding director of the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University’s Teachers College and a professor of children’s literature.

Really?!  That’s taking an incredible leap. There are thousands of books published for kids and teens every year.  A list of 1-5 books is the only one teachers and parents are relying on?  And because of that, the award is at fault when not every single child wants to read that year’s winners?  Just based on the fact that the Newbery is given to any book for 8-14 year olds should tell you that it’s not a list to be arbitrarily used!  If you yourself have not read the book, how do you know if it is appropriate for your child or students?  Sorry Lucy, but there are plenty of amazing book lists out there that can help parents and teachers find great books.  The Newbery winners are not the be-all-end-all, and they are certainly not the reason for the decline in reading for enjoyment by kids!  The Newbery is awarded to the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature in a given year.  This does not mean the list of Newbery Medal and Honor books is a go-to list for that parents and teachers must use when assigning or suggesting books to children!  

 

Newbery winners are typically fairly high level books that deal with a range of issues in depth.  The Washington Post article specifically points to last year’s winner, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village.  According to the article, 

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices From a Medieval Village” by Laura Amy Schlitz — a series of monologues that Deborah Johnson, manager of the extensive book section at Child’s Play in the District, agreed would be difficult for most kids to read on their own.

You know what?  I love Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!.  Would my 6th graders pick it up on their own?  Probably not.  Have I had great experiences with my kids acting the monologues out and having a ton of fun?  Yes!  In fact, the monologues were written specifically for the author’s students to perform while they were studying medieval times.  It is a wonderful book and certainly different from any other book I have read with my students.  And it is one they really enjoy with the right amount of scaffolding and support from me.  

The article constantly comes back to the idea that the Newbery winners over the last few years are so inaccessible that they are causing children not to read.  Again, that is quite a leap to make. The decline in pleasure reading is seen from children to adults, and I strongly doubt that kids are giving up on reading strictly based on what book wins the Newbery.  You know what?  Most kids have no idea when the Newbery is awarded, how it is awarded, or even that it is anything other than a shiny sticker on a few books in the library.  What is causing children to stop reading is being forced to read books that parents and teachers randomly choose for them strictly based on the fact that they won a Newbery.  The Giver is always referred to reverently in these conversations, as a Newbery winner that kids adore.  But guess what?  It is far from appropriate for younger readers.  You are talking about a book that deals with human euthanasia, free will, and a dystopian society.  We read it as part of our curriculum, and it is an amazing read-aloud.  But I would never hand it to a 4th grader.  Unfortunately, I think that is happening far too often.

Attention teachers and parents:  The Newbery Medal and Honor books list for each year is NOT a list to be used to select books children should or must read.  It is one of many tools that can be used when selecting books.  In my classroom, most Newbery winners are read-alouds.  The reason for this is that they require a good deal of scaffolding and conversation in order for my students to enjoy them and get the full experience of the book.  The stories are wonderful, the issues are important, and the writing is amazing in Newbery winners (talk about great modeling).  But they are not perfect for every child’s independent reading.  Stacey mentions in her post that a lot of recent winners haven’t been appropriate for her fourth-graders.  So she does not read those with her students!  She does, however, read them herself to judge their suitability for her group of students.  And I do the same.  Those same books have been perfect for many of my 6th graders.  And there are even more that are better suited to eighth and ninth graders.  The winners are not books that are appropriate for all 8-14 years olds.  They are books are suitable for someone in that age range.  

So instead of automatically grabbing a book because it has a sticker on it and assigning it as a book report or forcing your child to read it, check out some of these other great resources for book lists:

On January 26, 2009, my class and I will be waiting with baited breath to hear the Newbery Awards announced.  We will have read at least 2 contenders as class read-alouds, and my students are very invested in the awards.  We have discussed the criteria for winning and they fully understand that the award is not given for popularity but for a distinguished contribution to children’s books.  So when they choose a Newbery winner for independent reading, they will know that it is full of amazing writing, but that won’t be the reason they choose to read it.  Instead, they will choose their books based on what they want to read and what is right for them.  Just like I don’t want to be forced to read the National Book Award or the Pulitzer winner each year, we have no right to force our kids to read the Newbery winners when they might be grossly inappropriate for the child in question.

Newbery winners make wonderful read-alouds, as do many other hundreds or thousands of books.  Use some of the industry lists to help your children choose books, but the best way to really help them is to know them.  Know them as readers and as people.  Let them choose their books.  

And you know what?  If they want to read Sweet Valley, the Wimpy Kid books, or Twilight- that’s great!  And if they want to read Newbery or Printz winners- that’s great!  They deserve the same choices we take for granted as adults.  And leave the Newbery alone!

Laura Amy Schlitz

A few weeks ago I had the honor of hearing Laura Amy Schlitz speak about her Newbery win for Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village (out in paperback on December 23).  WOW!  If you have the opportunity to meet Ms. Schlitz or hear her speak, you must must must do it!  

Ms. Schlitz began her presentation by walking onto the “stage”, removing her shoes, and performing Giles’, the beggar’s, monologue from her Newbery-winning book.  Man, can that woman act!  She had the room full of librarians and teachers rolling in the aisles.  Her students are so lucky to have her.

She then spent the rest of her presentation talking about her writing career and the pinnacle- her Newbery win.  I was shocked to find that she had written a novel under a pseudonym in 1990.  She then assumed she could get anything published, and proceeded to write her dream novel, a huge tome of historical fiction; The Nightingale’s Cage, 700 pages.  Sadly, it never found a publisher.  During this time, she wrote the monologues for Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village in 1996 while waiting to hear back from publishers about her dream novel.  The monologues were written for her students and never intended for a wider audience,  When her dream novel was rejected over and over, she gave up on the publishing industry.  She especially knew that no one was interested in a childern’s book about medieval times told in dramatic verse.  

Inevitably, she was told year after year that the childrens’ performances were wonderful and that she should really try to get the monologues published.  When she finally decided to send out the manuscript, it was only to prove everyone wrong.  That way she would be able to say, “See, no one wants it”.  So, she sent out 11 copies to various publisher (which she named) and was stunned to receive an acceptance email from Candlewick.  She then imitated her reaction, which included bounding down the school hallways due to excitement!  Of course, it took years for the book to come out, and in the meantime she published other novels.  But when the book was published, and Newbery buzz started building, she honestly did want to win the award and woke up at 4am the morning of, hoping for a phone call!

Laura Amy Schlitz was a phenomenal speaker and I can not recommend her enough.  Her honest description of winning Newbery was refreshing and thrilling to experience vicariously through her.  Her performance of Giles’ monologue was flawless and full of laughs.  And she was extremely sweet when she held the book signing at lunch later that day.

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