Wednesday, December 31, 2008

In the Small by Michael Hague, a graphic novel book review

What you're going to read from me over the next few days are a few graphic novel reviews, I am currently going through a stack of some that were either recommended to me or sounded interesting.

Today I am going to review In the Small, by Michael Hague. In the Small is the debut for Hague and is likely the first in a story series. In the Small is a post apocalyptic story about a blue flash that envelops the earth, turning humans 1/12 their normal size. Of course, you can imagine the panic that sweeps the world, as life as humanity knows it ceases to exist. Animals once thought benign are now predators on the largest scale, and years of technological advancement are for nothing, because humans are no longer large enough to use any of it.

This is a great premise, an interesting take on the whole apocalyptic story, certainly a departure from the celestial event or nuclear bombing that is the hallmark of 90% of all books and/or movies in this genre.

The first thing I noticed about In the Small is that I didn't care much for the delivery of the story in Hague's artistry or word choice. The story was highly contrived, based around mysticism a little bit too much, and was one of those stories where basically one family does all the work on two separate fronts and everyone else just satisfies themselves with being background players.

The graphics were rather gory, which isn't a problem, and actually comes with the territory, many graphic novels that are classified as young adult appropriate have a fair amount of blood and death, but this one was sensationalized a little bit at times.

I felt that the story was weak, and if I wasn't trying to get through it in order to have the whole story to look at (or the fact that it only took about 20 minutes to read the whole thing and gather my thoughts on it), then I may not have finished it, it couldn't hold interest and was just odd.

If you are a teacher (or just a reader) and have a love for apocalyptic fiction, or your students enjoy it and want more, I guess this book can be tried. I don't know how well received it will be by students, because it's getting highly mixed reviews in the literary world. I can just say that I won't personally recommend it, because I didn't care for it.

This book should carry a high school reading level, I would say 9th grade and up for the language usage, but probably 11th and up for the content, but that's just my opinion on that.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Arrival, by Shaun Tan: The Tour de Force of Wordless Graphic Novels

I went down to the library this morning to pick up some graphic novels to keep me occupied during this last week of vacation. One of the books I picked up was The Arrival, by Shaun Tan. The Arrival is the ultimate graphic novel, it is quite literally all graphics, there is not a single word in the entire story. Also, this book doesn't necessarily qualify as a "picture book," something like a Dr. Seuss or another book you'd see in a primary classroom, it is much deeper and multi-dimensional.

From the top, the visuals of this story are unbelievable. It's a story of immigration, of a man leaving behind his wife and daughter and heading to a new, strange, industrialized world. Upon his arrival, the language is strange, the customs are strange, and the man is confused and lost. What is amazing is how well the images capture this, and how the reader becomes confused and lost as well. There were times when I was viewing this book that I felt confused and lost, that I found myself trying to understand the man and his thoughts, and that is the very essence of this wordless book.

How good is this book? I can put it best in two different ways. First of all, on (a book social site that I discuss frequently in this blog), there is one book that I've come across that carries an average rating of 5 out of 5 stars, and it is this book. Secondly, every teacher in the United States should have a copy of this book, and should go through it, in great depth with their classes.

Wordless books are great to use in the classroom, and yet, oddly, are something I do not have a lot of experience using. The book Zoom (Picture Puffin), by Istvan Banyai, is a wonderful wordless book in which you continue to zoom out of a picture, revealing more and more of the world as you do. It's a captivating story that students are easily drawn in to and want to experience time and again. The book Zoom has become a mainstay in literacy classrooms across the world, from kindergarten to high school classes, and I highly recommend it.

But wait, back to The Arrival and the classroom usage of the wordless book. There is a great many resources out there that discuss the merit of wordless books and the many different contexts in which they can be utilized. On, there is an article by Judie Haynes titled Wonderful World of Wordless Books in which ideas for the implementation of wordless books as literacy lessons are given (in the context of ESL students, but honestly, every child can benefit from ESL instruction, especially in the elementary setting). There is also a great wikispace that's all about reading wordless books, it is aptly titled How to Read a Wordless Book, and contains in depth examples of using The Arrival.

This is the first review of a wordless book that I have done on this blog, but now that I am thinking about it, I want to encounter more of these. Those of you who are more involved in this type of literature, please share some of the better ones you have read. Please, pick up The Arrival, by Shaun Tan, and "read" it. There are so many ways that this book could be utilized, and I'm just scratching the surface here in this posting.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Diamond of Darkhold: The 4th Book of Ember

The City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau, was a book that intrigued me when I first read it last summer (see my review of it HERE). I enjoyed the mystery that surrounded this dark city, and the post-apocalyptic nature of the book. Not to mention that it was wholly appropriate for elementary aged students (9-12 years old). Even the sequel, The People of Sparks(see my review HERE), was interesting. Although The People of Sparks was very similar in many ways to The City of Ember, it had something of socio-political intrigue, and continued the story of Lina, Doon, and the Emberites, which seemed to captivate many of my students (I read The City of Ember with my class, and four of them have gone on to read The People of Sparks).

I have still not had a chance to read the third book in this series, The Prophet of Yonwood, which is actually a prequel. So when I saw that The Diamond of Darkholdwas available at the library, I knew that I could read it without needing The Prophet of Yonwood as appropriate background material.

Right off the bat, I found myself captivated by the idea of this great mystery still hidden in the mountains, and wanted to read on to find it. I also found out, very quickly, that Jeanna DuPrau seemed to be unnaturally extending the story in The Diamond of Darkhold to make me want to keep reading, or to meet a minimum page requirement from her publisher. Whatever the case was, it felt very contrived. This book is by far the weakest of the series so far (out of the three that I have read). The protagonists, Doon and Lina, have been fully developed as literary characters since The City of Ember, and at this point, there's nothing left to be said about them other than that they single handedly save their people time and again, and seem to be the only people in the world who ever encounter adventure and peril.

It was nice to see familiar characters continuing a familiar story with (slightly) new twists in their familiar world. This is very important to remember when handing this book over to students who have read the other books. Sometimes a book like this is just what your students may be looking for. It doesn't require any great leaps of chance, not knowing what the book is about. For the timid reader who may have enjoyed the other books, this is a perfect choice for them.

But as far as this book being a great read all around, having great plot devices, nice character development, and value as a read aloud, it's slim, there's not much here. Pick up The Diamond of Darkhold and put it in your classroom, because it's part of the series, but that's about it. I wouldn't get too excited about this book, but it is a worthy addition to the series that will be enjoyed by many. Its reading level is right on par with the others (around a 5.5 or middle of fifth grade), but the fact that it doesn't require any new knowledge of setting, plot, characters, or anything else along those lines, for the student who has read the other books in the series, it could end up being maybe a 5 or so). Basically, if your students could read the other Ember books, they'll have no problem here.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Media Literacy (a.k.a. Star Wars Literacy)

My oldest son, who is a six-year-old first grader, has a major interest in Star Wars, he loves the whole world that George Lucas and his "people" created. Today we sat down and watched some of the Star Wars movies, and then my son decided it was time to do some reading. We got on the public library website and reserved a few of the Star Wars books they had on the shelf.

What this really got me to thinking about it how media influences literacy, which is a "DUH" statement to anybody in the field, but is something that people like to sweep under the rug as they continue to read Little House on the Prairie and use outdated textbooks.

Media literacy is no longer something that we can ignore in the classroom. Our students are out there watching movies, they're out there playing video games, listening to music and podcasts on their iPods, and watching video clips, reading pages of information, and chatting on the internet.

Digital literacy is something I've discussed in the pages of this blog on numerous occasions, but today, I wanted to remind myself and my readers about media literacy as a pathway to get your students to read.

I went to a Scholastic warehouse sale last year, and found piles and piles of Star Wars books, that have sat on my shelf for nearly a year and have been checked out and completed by numerous students. I had a trio of male students just before Christmas all go together to the store and pick up Star Wars: Clone Wars, and read it together during silent/individual reading time.

I'm a little more old school when it comes to books and movies, I think that the books are almost always better (if they were written first and the movie adapted afterwards). Of course, this doesn't take into account series like Star Wars, which have literally hundreds of novels, comics, cartoon series, and even fan zines out there continuing the story. So much of this goes on with Star Wars, in fact, that the Holocron was created, in order to separate "canon" from non-official stories. What started as a neat movie in the '70s has become the source of a near endless world of books and other literary works.

OK, this post jumped all over the place a little bit, but it's just another reason that teachers need to understand the multi-dimensional reality of today's child that we must account for in the classroom. It's just something to think about, and discuss more.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Lost World of the Public Library

Here in Las Cruces, New Mexico, the city's public library, called the Branigan Library, sits basically in the center of town. The problem with Las Cruces is that there are no satellite branches, so there's one big library in the center of town.

I'll admit, this isn't a huge city, but for people like me who live on the edges of town, we may find ourselves as far as 10 to 15 miles away from the library. For the more economically disadvantaged in the area (most of whom live on the southern or eastern part of town), this means either a multi-stop, multi-change over bus ride just to get downtown. So for some of them, the public library simply isn't on their to-do-lists.

For me, I try to take my children (as in my sons, not my students) to the library at least twice per month, where we check out books by the dozens. The things I always notice about the library is that it's never very crowded, the majority of people that are in there are there for the public computers, the overwhelming majority of people in there are adults, and that the library is a safe haven for people that have no other place to go.

The problem with this all is that there are never very many children in the library, which is, in my opinion, the people the library should mainly be trying to serve. It's great that there are resources out there for adults, but kids are the ones who need to read, and for most of them, their school libraries are simply not adequate in terms of broad interests in books, and a trip to Barnes & Noble is simply out of the question, because it's so expensive.

After talking to a few of the librarians at the local public library about my concern, they had a few things to say as well. They said that first of all, the libraries are a by-day shelter basically for many homeless people who just want a roof over their heads. They said that as long as these people don't cause any trouble, they have as much right to be in there as anyone else. They confirmed that the majority of patrons enter the library to use the public internet computers, and that on any given day, there are probably ten books checked out to adults for every one to a child.

There are many different directions I can choose to continue on from here, because the issue of how to get kids in the public library, and why it seems that less are going is obviously one that has many influences. Let's just start from the angle of why I have defined public libraries as "the lost world." As a student at New Mexico State University for many years, I have lived near the main undergraduate library (the Zuhl), and have spent time in the graduate library (the Branson).

As an undergradute, I never had any massive need to enter the university libraries, and even now, as a doctoral student, the majority of research and texts that I need can be found online through the university article search features (which aren't cheap, but are included in the cost of tuition).

Applying this to public libraries, I'm beginning to think that people decide that if their kids can't find the books at school, then they can't find them. They decide to find those resources online (if the kid is interested in fantasy books, why take them to the public library to get The Lord of the Rings when they can read fantasy fiction online?) Of course, there's also a major problem of parents not knowing or caring what their kids are reading (if they're reading at all). But that's an entirely different discussion that could go on for days and weeks.

I have asked my own students about their perceptions of the public library, and can basically summarize their opinions in a few ways, which I'll try to do without offending anyone. In the state of New Mexico (I say this because I don't know how it works in other states), a school librarian does not have to be certified as a librarian, in fact, they don't have to be certified at all. They make about the same pay as an educational assistant, and are basically required to have the same amount of education (a high school diploma, some college preferred).

The problem then is that the person in the building who should be a resource to teachers and students alike has less knowledge and skill in the area of children and young adult literacy than probably anybody else in the school. The students see this, have to deal with it every time they walk in the door, and begin to associate the library with boredom and tedium.

This isn't true at the public library level, at least in most decent sized cities. There are many certified librarians who have that appropriate educational background, people who understand literacy issues, who children read and why, and who actually know the books and authors. The problem is, many kids get disillusioned at school, or have apathetic parents, and never make it to the library to begin with.

One of the great, eye opening experiences I've had while running this blog is that I've come across some professional librarians, and they are the people who should be running the libraries, not just at the public level, but in our schools as well. Librarians who read the children and young adult literature, who try very hard to stay at the forefront of new reads, and who know the ways to get those books on their shelves as soon as possible upon their release.

We need more of those people, as well as those who advocate the use of public libraries. We need to educate parents that these places are great resources to keep their children loving literature, a great place for children and adults alike to find not only books, but movies, documentaries, video games, cook books, magazines, etc. We also need to, as teachers and literary professionals, bring clarity to children about the joys of holding a book, and the satisfaction that comes with finishing one. We need to show children how much more fulfilling a book is than a web page or texting on a cell phone. If we can't get kids in the libraries, they surely will become lost, they're already practically empty.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Dead & the Gone: A Book Review

As a 5th grade teacher in New Mexico, I am responsible for teaching United States history, from pre-Columbian times to the present day. One of the things I start each year with is a study of Mayan, Incan, and Aztec cultures, and their influences on early American culture. One of the things that always comes up is the Mayan calendar, and their belief that December 21, 2012 will be the end of their long count calendar (and, as some say, the end of the world). My students, each year I teach this, become enamored by this idea, and some continue to study it on their own or ask questions on and off for the rest of the school year. This is one small example of how apocalyptic tales and/or warnings intrigue even the youngest among us.

The Dead and the Gone, by Susan Beth Pfeffer, is a companion book to Life As We Knew It(see my review HERE). In the reality crafted by Pfeffer, an asteroid has hit the moon, jarring it out of its precarious orbit with the earth, moving it slightly closer. The consequences of this event, in which the moon has a stronger gravitational pull in relation to the earth, causes massive tidal waves, volcanic eruptions, and near nuclear winter conditions world wide. The apocalypse in this story seems as if it could happen anytime, from the telling of the story, there's nothing ridiculous about it on the surface.

In Life As We Knew It, the story is told from a small town in Pennsylvania, with the struggles for survival in an isolated area. The Dead and the Gone tells this same story from New York City, and as the story moves along, we see a world almost more isolated, more prison like, than the Pennsylvania story.

The Dead and the Gone, in my opinion, is a much more telling read than Life As We Knew It. It's more jarring, more true to the realities of post apocalyptic fiction, and lives up to its billing as a book for ages 12 and up. With its images of death, disease, and the decaying human condition, its a good story from beginning to end. I found that the characters of this story, Alex Morales and his sisters mainly, were easy enough to relate to, and would be for pre-adolescent/teen readers as well.

Post apocalypse has been a topic of interest for me recently, and I've tried to pick up and read books that approach this concept from different perspectives. Most recently, I read Cormac McCarthy's The Road (see my review HERE), and found slight parallels between it and this book, possibly a future topic of research, at least, it's an idea I'm throwing around. If you read both, you will see similar stories of survival, self-preservation, and the stark reality of the world after events that have put an end to life as we knew it.

So in any case, before I go on and on, I want to end this review by saying that I enjoyed The Dead and the Gone a lot, more than Life As We Knew It actually, but understand that its content is a bit more mature. This is a great book, one that I enjoyed from beginning to end.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Rich Schools vs. Poor Schools & Standardized Testing Accountability According to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

**Since today is Christmas Eve, I figured it would be a perfect time to re-post something from my much older yet much less popular personal blog, a post that probably fits the content of this blog much better. This post was originally published on November 25th on my other blog, The Buss**

Since August, my world has been fairly upside down. It's not one of those major things that I should be complaining about, but all the changes, the changes in routine, the pace of life, and everything else, made it hard to sit back and find things to complain about (the basic purpose in having a personal blog such as this one).

This really put certain things in perspective for me, and is probably my most appropriate reaction to the test heavy school culture we now work under in the field of public education. I've heard it said that teacher bonuses should be tied in to test results, and on the surface that sounds like such a nice, wonderful idea, that is, until basic common sense takes over.

When I was an undergraduate student at NMSU, I continually had this thing called Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs rammed into my brain. It's something that is common knowledge now, and that is this. Take a look at the pyramid here:
This pyramid shows the levels of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. The bottom needs are the basic ones, and without those needs being met, major psychological setback occur, and the person not having those needs met will suffer. In education, this means that kids who aren't getting enough food, sleep, a consistent family life, consistent financial situation, a consistent place to live, and a safe and secure existence with routine, then they will not reach the upper levels.

Look at the top of the pyramid. Those are all the great things that we want our children to achieve. Teachers and parents dream of children who show those traits.

Now, with that in mind, who will show those traits? Will it be the homeless child looking for a place to sleep at night, wondering where their next meal will come from and where they'll be living in a week? Or will it be the kid who goes home to the same house every night, has a family that's always there, never has to worry about basic needs, and has a safe, secure existence? Of course, it's the latter.

Now, is this a rich vs. poor issue? Yes it is. Take this argument to the schools, and you'll see that if things like teacher pay raises and school accountability are tied to test results, who will achieve higher? It's quite obvious, on a number of different levels, that the more affluent, or even simply middle class schools will have a much better shot than "poor school."

The reality is right there, and it doesn't take a genius to figure it out. For me, personally, some of my needs weren't being met there for awhile, nothing major, just a few changes in my life. Those changes caused me to re-think my priorities and everything for awhile. If those smaller changes can affect an adult so much, imagine the extent that a child would be affected by not having those basic needs met. It's staggering. Somebody in the government needs to pay attention to common sense, abolish No Child Left Behind, and stop rewarding people for working in rich schools while punishing poor schools. It's classism, and it's wrong.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Christmas Wish List: The School Aged Literature I'd Like To See

The time for Christmas is almost upon us. It's a time of rest for teachers all across the world, as schools close for the holidays. My last day of work was this past Friday, and I don't have to head back until January 5th, so this is always a nice time of rejuvenation, relaxation, time with family, and time to read as many books as I possibly can.

I think I've chosen some pretty good books to sit down with here, but as good as they are, I sometimes find myself wanting something else, something that might not even exist out there in the world of children, adolescent, and/or young adult literature. Here are a few topics I'd love to see written about, my personal wish list of literary awesomeness:

1. More books from Markus Zusak: I read The Book Thief and I Am the Messenger, and needless to say I loved them both. He has written three other books, which I will surely pick up at some point, but I want more amazing Zusak, The Book Thief is quite possibly the single greatest book I've ever read, young adult or otherwise, and I need more!

2. A graphic novel adaptation and/or sequel/prequel to Nancy Farmer's The House of the Scorpion: This is a fantastic sci-fi book for the adolescent set, full of political intrigue, the possible alternate reality of the future, and border issues as well. I enjoyed it immensely, and want more, so much more. A graphic novel would make this story accessible to even struggling readers, while a sequel or prequel would give me more of this story to sit down with.

3. A first rate school aged book about the history of southern New Mexico: OK, this one could be put under my "least likely to ever happen" list unless I wrote it myself. Come to think of it, I have always wanted to write a book, I just lack one thing, the ability to write a book. Living here in the historical south west, I'd love to have the history of this area more easily accessible to children, because, as it stands, it's low history that is loved by adult history buffs mostly.

4. A book about the American occupation in Iraq: told from the perspective of an Iraqi child, that is both critical of the Americans, sympathetic towards everyone, free from self-pity, and is as honest and open as books like The Diary of Anne Frank, Sold (by Patricia McCormick), and Maus (by Art Spiegelman). I realize that it's a stretch to compare these books to my wish, especially given the historical aspect and reflective nature of them, but that's my vision, so give me this moment.

5. A textbook that isn't ridiculously horrible and inaccessible to the majority of students: I put this one out there as a challenge to textbook writers. Because, honestly, textbooks are horrible, pretty much all of the time, without fail. The newest version of such-and-such textbook comes out, school districts spend millions on them, everyone pats themselves on the back because the books are glossy, with many wonderful pictures and text layout that are "optimal to student learning," and with teacher guides that have been completely dummy proofed (independent thought proofed) in every conceivable way. The problem? Textbooks are HORRIBLE. If someone could make a textbook that didn't act like a textbook, I would become a fan of that person or group of people. Until then, textbooks remain the snake to my mongoose (or is it the mongoose to my snake, I can't remember which).

6. Zombie literature for kids: I mean it, zombie literature for kids, it would be the most amazing point in human history if this became a reality. And no, I'm not talking about comic books in this case, because I realize those are out there, I mean real, poignant, zombie literature, in book form, for school aged readers.

Alright, so there you have it. What are your wishes and dreams as they relate to children/ya lit? Maybe if enough of us ask, someone will listen and get to work. Or maybe on of us will write something. Anything is possible. Just remember, if it's you, thank me for giving you the idea.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Graceling, by Kristin Cashore: A Young Adult Book Review

Graceling, by Kristin Cashore, is a book that says "14 years and older" on the back cover. From reading this hefty piece of young adult literature, I would have to mostly agree with this, although I would not feel any reservations to sitting this on my 5th grade bookshelf and letting some more advanced readers try it out.

What caught me about Graceling is that, while this book is a fantasy, set in the fantasy world of Kristin Cashore's imagination, it has so many levels, more levels than some adult fantasy stories. This book is almost equal parts fantasy, combat, romance, survival, and political intrigue.

Clocking in at 480 pages, I would say that it's probably a bit too long to be a read aloud, plus, its content (fantasy), doesn't seem to have universal appeal. Now, before anyone takes offense to that, I'm just saying that fantasy stories seem to really attract some readers while others won't even read five pages of it. I do recommend this for the student or adult who enjoys fantasy reads. I would place this on my bookshelf next to The Land of Elyon (fantasy for pre-teens), and The Lord of the Rings (fantasy for older teens).

For me, the best thing about this book was the concept of Grace. The two toned eyes, the differing gifts, and the interplay of the Graceling's Katsa and Po. Katsa, the main protagonist of this story, is told masterfully. I found myself very intrigued by her, continually trying to form an image of this beautiful, dangerous heroine, and found that my image of her changed throughout the story.

I cannot stress enough how good this book was. I now just need to sit back and hope that Kristin Cashore is working on a sequel.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Time Without School

I am currently sitting quietly here at home, enjoying the first day of our vacation. Teachers here go back to work on January 5th, while students return on January 7th. The day before yesterday, I got on the website for the local public library and put a number of books on hold, and that same afternoon went to pick up many of them. I am happily reading Kristin Cashore's Graceling right now, and am loving every second of it. I stayed up way too late last night reading it and woke up way to early this morning reading it, and should be done with this rather large young adult novel probably tonight or tomorrow. I'll do a review when I'm done.

This blog has been a great experience for me, something that I've been happy to do and has introduced me to some great minds in the field of children and young adult literacy. I've had dozens upon dozens of benign postings about personal issues or about how to either improve literacy practice in the classroom, as well as a number of how-to's, and I've had a few posts that have been fun and have ruffled some feathers by way of me airing out some personal opinions on classic books, practices, etc.

I only recently began being contacted by book companies or authors with offers to send me review copies of children and/or young adult books that are soon to be released in order for me to review them and post those reviews on my blog here. This is a very exciting prospect for me, because I've always wanted to do this. I already have a standard reply to these companies that involves the fact that I will be honest and impartial in my review, if I like the book, I'll say it, and if I don't, I'll say it. The first of my books arrived in the mail last week, and I'm going to read it when I'm done devouring Graceling.

Those of you who have been blogging about children and ya lit for a long time, have you been contacted to review books for companies or authors? I'm just curious as to the prevalence of this.

Anyways, apart from all of that, I want to thank those of you who continue to read these things that I write, and will continue to come back in the future. I'm only in my fourth year of teaching, and the first year of my doctoral studies, so I hope to continue with this, and see where experience and education take me and my own thought process. Thank you all again, and have a Merry Christmas (of course, hopefully I'll post again this week, if I can find things to discuss). If you have any possible topics, let me know.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Winter Vacation Reading

The end of the semester is right upon us, only two days remain here where I teach. This basically means that teaching and learning are put aside and everything turns toward having celebrations, enjoying some stress free days, and setting up some winter vacation reading guidelines.

That's right, I assign reading to my students for the vacation. I'm asking my class to read 1 hour per day, with Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Years Eve, and New Years Day off. I let them select their own book, as long as it met length and level requirements, and they will complete some assignments, including a book report and chapter reporting pages, on them.

Teachers all over the country classically see a drop off in achievement when students return from vacation. This is understandable, because most kids go from day after day of work and practice to three weeks with no reading, no skill work, or anything.

I don't do winter reading to keep their skills from diminishing (which is more of a testing issue than anything else), I do it to show them that you don't have to be at school to read. Most of my students, at this point in the year, have found a genre or two that they really enjoy, and have said they want to read over the break. I'm giving them this opportunity to continue their hard work.

Do you do anything similar? Do you believe in working your students over vacation? I'm just wondering how common things like this are.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

My Children and Young Adult To Read List

On my account, I often run across books that sound great, and add them to my "to read" list (did that sentence make sense?). I figured that today would be a good day to just throw a few (five) of those titles out there, some great children and young adult reads that I haven't gotten to yet but want to read. I've heard this called a "book garden" before, meaning books that you have in a "to read" pile. If you know anything about any of these, then let me know if they're really worth the time and how kids are responding to them, I'd love to hear more.

1. The Dead and the Gone, by Susan Beth Pfeffer: I loved Life As We Knew It (see my review HERE), which is the basic story line that this book follows. I hope to read The Dead and the Gone first over the vacation.

2. Graceling, by Kristin Cashore: I've heard about this book through a few young adult lit blogs, and have run across some people on Goodreads that loved it, a few have even said it's their favorite of all time. From what I can gather, Graceling sounds like a fantasy mix, maybe slightly like Lois Lowry's Gossamer, with some other elements mixed in. I'm going to pick this one up at the bookstore tomorrow.

3. Surrender, by Sonya Hartnett: This book sounds like a great story all around. It's the story of a young man who has made some mistakes in his past, but has a dog named "Surrender." There seems to be some mystery, and (possibly) some redemption in Surrender. I want to check this out.

4. Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks, by Gene Luen Yang: Gene Yang is the writer of one of my favorite graphic novels, American Born Chinese (see my very short review in an article titled Teaching With Graphic Novels). It just sounds like a neat graphic novel, about a boy who gets something stuck up his nose. If it's anywhere near as good as American Born Chinese, then I'll love Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks.

5. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw, by Jeff Kinney: This one doesn't release until January 13th, and I'm not interested in personally as much as I am to have it for my class to read. The kids love these books (see my review of the first Diary of a Wimpy Kid HERE), and they're a nice beginning book if you're looking to get your students into graphic novels.

There are a few blogs out there that I comb through to find valuable information on new reads in children and young adult literature. A few of my favorites that you should check out include (these are also a few blogs that have discussed me in their pages recently, so they all obviously have good taste in blogs, right?):

  • Ms. Yingling Reads: One librarians attempt to read all the Young Adult Literature in the world and shoot her mouth off about it.
  • Charlotte's Library: Notes on buying and reading the children's and young adult books in my local public library, what I'm reading to myself and to my boys (ages 8 and 5), and other random bookish stuff.
  • Jen Robinson's Book Page: Promoting the love of books by children, and the continued reading of children's books by adults.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Teachers As Librarians

I've noticed a trend since I started keeping a large number of books available for check out in my classroom. I've noticed that my students want me to help them select the right books. "Help me find a good book" is one of the most common things I hear during silent reading time in my classroom. This means a few things.

First, it means that I need to know the books in my class. Now, when having a bookshelf of 400 books, it's impossible for me to have read all of them (ok it's not impossible, but it's not the easiest thing in the world). It's not hard to have at least a basic understanding of the books, and to, if possible, have read as many as possible.

When my students ask me to help them find a good book, I usually start by asking them what they're looking for. If they're not sure, I have them list out some books they've really enjoyed. Some students know the genre they're looking for, others are wandering aimlessly and need some help in selecting a book that is appropriate for their reading level (see my post titled How To Determine the Reading Level of a Book at a Glance for more on how to do this quickly even with books you're not familiar with). They also may need help finding a book that will keep their interests, and that they have the necessary background for.

I've heard it said that teachers are also nurses, psychiatrists, managers, counselors, surrogate parents, and now librarians (I left out at least 30 other things). That's right, it's part of the job of a teacher to make sure the right things are being read by the right kids.

It's really not that difficult, know your students, know their interests, and know your books. The next step is staying at the forefront of new and exciting children and/or young adult literature. That's where I am right now, and there are many great people out there (some of them linked to from this blog).

Friday, December 12, 2008

Managing the End of the Fall Semester

Courses at NMSU end officially today, and everyone there is surely ready for the break, I'm ready for a break from the rigors of grad school. Now, it's down to 4 and a half days of teaching until the break. It can't get here soon enough.

Teachers always sit around and joke about how the last week before Christmas... er, "Winter" (must be PC), break, is a throw away week, a week of fun activities and mostly just messing around. I can tell you, from experience, that this is in fact mostly true.

There are a few reasons for this, but mainly, the kids are hyper, burned out, and looking ahead to the breaks. The teachers, well, they're also those things. I've never really been one of those teachers who does tons of decorations and plays Christmas music and stuff like that. We do have a party, we do a gift exchange, we're reading The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Barbara Robinson, which, I'll admit, might not be the greatest Christmas book out there, but it's short, funny, and most of my 5th graders end up enjoying it, so I go with it.

I'm sure there are better Christmas books out there than The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, but at 80 pages, you really can't go wrong. Most of the story does take place in a protestant church, and Jesus is mentioned quite often, although mostly just as part of the story, it's not real preachy, and, like I said, it's short, we started it last Monday and will have it done by next Thursday, no problem.

So anyways, I turned my little personal post into a book review (figures). Let the last week before the break be what it is, a time to wrap things up, a time to celebrate the semester, and a time to embrace your hyper students and let them have a chance to kick back a little. It just goes with saying that school isn't all about getting every little thing out of every single second in terms of learning. You can kick back and enjoy the end of the semester, you earned it, and you're probably burned out, because that's how it works.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Teacher Selected and Student Selected Literary Choices

I thought about using the title "Teacher Selected vs. Student Selected Literary Choice," but I realized that they don't stand in opposition to one another, they must work together to form the literary experience for any student in any classroom. That being said, let's get into today's topic.

Teacher selected literature, sometimes referred to as read aloud, shared reading, or teacher led reading (although even in those alternate definitions, there are different approaches to the method), serves purposes that self selected, self read books cannot. First of all, the shared reading experience is in large part about the teacher modeling good reading, something I've talked about time and again in this blog. Here are some ideas/focuses of what teacher selected reading should be about:

  • The book you choose should ideally be above the reading level of the majority of your class, but not to an extreme point above their level. There should be opportunities for new vocabulary, more in depth story telling, and you should have opportunities for many questions, predictions, etc.

  • Know your class, don't just choose a book because you like it. I cannot stress this enough, if your students find the book boring and/or tedious, they're going to tune it out. Your selection should have many points for class discussion, journal work, and other extensions.

  • The book should be something that you are familiar with. Too many times in my short career I have seen teachers pick a book because they've "heard it's good," or "my kid read it," or something else along those lines. I've also heard too many teachers say that they don't have time to read the books beforehand. Well, that's nothing short of laziness and a cop out. How are you going to lead discussions and ask probing questions if you're experiencing it for the first time as well? It's important, imperative, to know your content.

  • Vary how the book is read. This depends upon whether or not the students hold a copy and are reading along, or if you have the only copy. It's ok to have the only copy, I do this often, and my students enjoy those books equally. But sometimes it is important that they read along and get chances to read together. This can be done through round robin, popcorn (where they read and choose someone else based upon pre-set rules, boy chooses a girl, etc.), partner reading, small group, and anything else that I failed to list here.

Now that I've discussed a little bit about teacher selected reading, let's discuss student selection. Self selection is something that I am a very big fan of, and believe is a cornerstone of a well run reading class. Self selection takes time and effort on the part of the teacher, and requires a few things. Here are a few of those requirements:

  • An understanding of the reading level of the student and the ability to find them appropriate books. If you teach 6th grade, you might have a student who reads on a kindergarten level and wants to read Harry Potter. There's a difference between letting them "give it a shot," and knowing that there is 0% chance of them succeeding with a given book. Set parameters, or if you're lucky enough to have a school program like Accelerated Reader or something, teach students to look at book levels. If you don't have that option, you can see my post on How to Determine the Reading Level of a Book at a Glance for some clues on how to do this on the run.

  • Have clear expectations. Are you going to have students do a reading log, book reports, or some other kind of progress monitoring? How are you going to know that they're reading and comprehending their book? These are important questions that you must have the answers to.

  • Have your students read at home. Have them read at home for 30 minutes each night. I send home a calendar, and the students must put how many minutes they read that night, and have a parent sign off for that night. Remember, the only way to become a better reader is to read, it can't be done through worksheets, snazzy presentations, or tests, it's all about practice, the more the better. If you find students balking at this idea, help them find books that interest them, work relentlessly to get that perfect book in their hands.

So, there's some ideas that should get you started. I tried to stay pretty well on the surface with this whole discussion, it can get deep into theoretical models and approaches to methodology, but I wanted this to be a resource. Let me know if there's anything else you need help with or have any other questions (or want to add to this in any way). We (teachers) learn from each other, and take ideas from each other, that's the only way to improve ourselves.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Designing My Own Literature Survey Course (ENGL 211 at NMSU in this case, but it fits anywhere)

When I was an undergraduate student at New Mexico State University, one of my core classes was called English 211, and it was a writing in the humanities and social sciences course that had a subtitle. What this meant was that it was up to that particular instructor to decide the focus of the literature that we read. I happened to choose my course based on a convenient time and not a convenient subtitle. I ended up taking a course that was subtitled women in science fiction. It was an interesting class filled with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and other books that I honestly don't remember, I just didn't pick a subtitle that involved my own interests when I was 19 (football and video games anybody?).

Well, I was thinking, what if I was called upon to teach this class (and I probably wouldn't, because I'm not even in the English department), what would I do, and what books would I use? Well, here's what it would be, here's my outline idea for an ENGL 211 course:

ENGL 211: Writing in the Humanities and Social Sciences
SUBTITLE: The Future Gone Wrong: Dystopic Futures & Post-Apocalyptic Novels

In this course I would explore the nature and perspective of various novels classified as dystopia (the opposite of utopia) and/or post-apocalyptic. There could be a movie spin off class involving such films as War of the Worlds, Waterworld, The Postman, Pleasantville, and Mad Max, among MANY others.

My book choices for this course would include 8 books classified along this sub-genre, and I would do them in the following order:

1. 1984, by George Orwell: Any course on dystopia, where the future has gone wrong, must start with the absolute standard for the genre. I would use this book as a starting point from which all other works would be compared. We could possibly watch the movie, and do a compare/contrast thing on it, that would be nice.

2. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley: This is the other standard for this genre. It lies in contrast to 1984 in many respects, and is a good second read. The rest of the course would lie in comparison to these two books.

3. Anthem, by Ayn Rand: I chose this book for a few reasons. First of all, Ayn Rand had and still has a huge following through her brilliant, bible sized books like The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Anthem gives the dystopic experience without taking four months to read. It's short, poetic, and to the point, it's like annotated Ayn Rand.

4. The Giver, by Lois Lowry: You know what they say (or what they will say once they start reading me), that once an elementary school teacher, always an elementary school teacher. This book could have major implications in a class like this. Its story allows for comparisons to Rand, Huxley, and Orwell, but it stands alone in terms of its actual content and meaning.

5. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury: Of course this book is in. Some might even say IT is the other standard, and not (take your pick, 1984 or Brave New World). What a great story about future society in which censorship and self-imposed ignorance are celebrated.

6. Life As We Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeffer: This is another teen read, which doesn't make it inappropriate for college undergrads. It would be the first post-apocalyptic novel (the previous 5 all being dystopias), and focuses on the diary of a girl after the moon was knocked out of orbit with the earth, causing catastrophic results. It's an easy read, and a good jumping off point.

7. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy: Hopefully no one tries to off them self after reading this one. What an amazing story, it's beautiful in its simplicity, but shows behind the curtain of post-apocalypse. Heck, it doesn't even mention the apocalypse. It's a direct contrast to everything else here in the course.

8. World War Z, by Max Brooks: Leave it up to me to sneak some zombie literature into the course. I mean, it is post-apocalyptic, and it's an amazing book, I think the class would enjoy it.

We would spend the end of the course summing it all up, drawing all the comparisons, talking about implications on today's society, etc. etc. I could even see some sub-genre courses on Zombie Literature (a few exist at NMSU now), the Post-Apocalyptic Novel, or Dystopia by itself jumping out. I think this course would be fun, and should be looked at. So if you are reading this and would like to have a skilled educator teach it for you, I'm your man! Wow, that read like a resume.

Anyways, if you could teach such a course, what would you do and why?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008 in the Classroom: A Slam Dunk Resource

About five months ago, I posted about the possibility of using in the classroom in a post titled Goodreads: Another Classroom Resource Possibility. Once you're on Goodreads, it's addictive, similar in social networking terms to things like Facebook and Myspace. However, Goodreads is focused solely around literature experiences. What I did was set up a private classroom group under my profile, and set up accounts for my students. I monitor their accounts closely because they're registered under e-mail accounts that I control in the classroom (I did this through, they offer free e-mail for classrooms that can be teacher monitored).

On the surface, the Goodreads experience isn't anything unbelievable. You have a profile, and you write reviews and give ratings to books you've read. But that's just the beginning. You can also connect with your friends, show them your bookshelf, see theirs, do trivia, write poetry or your own book, and even meet the authors of the books you've read. Within the classroom group, you can have ongoing discussions, give short quizzes, do polls, just let students discuss books with one another, and get recommendations for books based on your history of reading and ratings.

It's a valuable tool to use for your class. Students can use it to keep a log of what they've read, to express themselves to their classmates, and most importantly, to get excited about literature. I recommend this site, it is a little work to set up, but well worth the effort.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Validity and Quality of Teacher Education Programs

Coming out of the teacher education program that provided me with my Bachelor Degree as well as the necessary credentials to be a teacher, I didn't know for sure if I was prepared for what was in front of me. Walking into the classroom that first year, I found that I was shamefully unprepared to teach, discipline, and deal with the daily struggles of being a teacher. These are things that I fully take for granted now, it has become second nature. There were times during my first year that I considered leaving, it was tough.

Like many other new teachers, I entered a situation where I was "dumped on." A veteran teacher dropped every special education and behavioral problem in my lap, which made it even worse. Coming out of college, I had dealt with some good courses and some bad. Unfortunately for me, I was coming through right when the literacy department had a major shake up. So, to make a long story short, my literacy methods classes prepared me for next to nothing, and boy did it show.

I just picked up the basal reader and ran with it, I didn't know what else to do. I was also teaching the "low" group (they ability grouped students at the time), and that made the job all the more difficult. Looking back, I was probably one of the worst reading teachers of all time that first year. My students weren't learning, their test scores were in consistent free fall all year, and I didn't know what to do to stop it. So I decided to get my masters in literacy, I decided to do something about it. To make that long story short, literacy is "kind of my thing" now, and my students are doing very well in every measure. My methods and theoretical understanding are outlined in some form or another in the pages of this blog.

I have to wonder about other teachers though. All too often, the teacher education experience slants to one extreme, usually straight method with some theoretical understanding. Occasionally you get a professor that teachers "constructively" by assigning each student to teach a chapter, something that always draws the ire of students (and is a way that I DO NOT learn anything, and that many of my co-workers have admitted doesn't work). It's one thing to assign group work and things like that to students learning math, but to teachers learning to teach, it needs to be more intensive, it's not the same learning process with scaffolded outcomes.

When my student teacher enters my classroom after Christmas, I want to make sure that he gets chances to take risks with literacy, and understand the right choices. As important as college education is, in the field of education, the popular held belief is that you learn more in student teaching than you do in four years of college. I am entering the field of higher education as we speak, and getting deeper and deeper as each semester passes. One of my long term goals is to improve the quality and preparation of teacher education programs. I'm not saying it's dismal, I am saying there's room for improvement. This is a discussion that should be happening all over the field right now and should always be ongoing, but seems to be oddly silent right now.

Are there any comments from any of you out there? Any stories, suggestions, or critiques of programs around the country. I'd love to hear them.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy: Possible Young Adult Literature

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, was not written for high school students, it is an adult book. However, its content, as well as the way the story is told, is appropriate for high school and undergraduate college students alike. The Road is a post-apocalyptic story of the survival of a man and his son is told through very roughly formatted text, but in beautiful fashion. McCarthy, the author of No Country For Old Men (which is definitely NOT appropriate for school reading of any age), has struck a chord with this book among both science fiction and literary circles alike.

This book forces one to ask, can science fiction be heralded as a work of classic literature, or if this book even qualifies as science fiction. I wanted to originally classify this book as a dystopia themed one, much like 1984, A Brave New World, and such post-apocalyptic tales as The Planet of the Apes, I Am Legend, and Earth Abides, books that have all found their way into high school classrooms at one time or another. However, after reading it, I found that it fit with none of these books, although I was able to make connections that I found fit. This book defies classification in a clearly defined sub-genre, but is most definitely a work of science fiction and of the highest form of literary art, in my opinion.

This story involves no brutal murder, blood and guts, or even adult situations (other than the ongoing topic of death and suicide, which is not an uncommon theme in works of adult literature, especially such dark tales as this one). I can see high school juniors or seniors, as well as college undergraduates, delving deep into the possibilities of this book, including the origins of the apocalypse that took place, the relationship and goals of the man and boy, and the meaning of this story as a whole.

The prose of the book is especially interesting. McCarthy is known for his interesting style, and this book is no exception. The stripped down writing, with its incomplete punctuation, sometimes erratic structure, and bare bones dialogue are almost poetic at times, but on a deeper level, are a part of the story itself. When the man and boy are on the brink of despair and starvation, the grammatical structure of the story begins to thin, but when they are in higher spirits, it reads more like a novel (which isn't much). I think this would be an intriguing idea to show to students to let them think about on their own, it certainly interested me.

I am writing about this book in part because I thought it was of stunning beauty. It was a work of art, and engrossed me in every conceivable way. Its content is not inappropriate for high school students, and its vocabulary is not beyond 17 and 18 year olds. I recommend teachers take a closer look at this book, both for its value as a true masterpiece, and for its value in the classroom. Hopefully someone sees this and runs with this book. If I taught senior English/Composition, I definitely would.

I would draw possible parallels in the young adult and pre-adolescent literary worlds to this book through the following two books:

Life As We Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeffer - The story of a girl and her family struggling to survive after a massive meteor strikes the moon, knocking it out of its gentle balance with the earth, causing apocalyptic events (ages 10-14). See my review of Life As We Knew It.

The City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau - Some sort of unnamed apocalypse occurs, and a group of people are taken to safety in The City of Ember. This story is one of survival through dark circumstances, but is told in a fashion that is appropriate for children (ages 8-12). See my review of The City of Ember.

When A Problem Comes Along, You Must FIX IT

It's hard to argue against the fact that education is failing in the United States. This is a muli-dimensional argument that can run the from school funding to high stakes testing to curriculum choices to the attitudes of students and teachers, among many others. In the face of failure, many have started focusing in different directions, wanting school to be fun or kids to feel good about themselves. The reality is, we should take responsibility for the out dated system we have, stop making excuses and pointing fingers, and fix the problems in front of us. Why can't kids feel good about themselves because they achieved something, and why can't teachers expect more regardless of where they work and the population of their students?

Well, these issues are not easy to resolve, because it does matter what population of students you work with. But saying "if they come every day, my job is done," should be reason for a teacher to lose their job. You are there to teach, you're not a baby sitter, do your job. There, that's about as up front as I can say it. People put their children in private schools (which, in my opinion, are actually no better than public school, they just have a more involved population of parents and a higher socio-economic population as well), and home school their children, because they look at public education and say "I don't want my child there."

Now, we can either sit back and blame those people for leaving the system, or we can fix the system. Are private schools and home schools better than public schools? The answer is yes and no, but this post isn't about them, it's about public schools.

Teachers, first of all, are the professionals in the field of education, they're the ones who actually do the job. Forget the superintendents, leave them to their budgets, forget the "specialists" who have never spent a second with classroom teachers, and forget everything you learned from Dr. Wong's books, it's time for teachers to refocus themselves.

Good teaching comes from having a deep understanding of how to teach and why to teach it, which come from being taught in theory and method. Teachers should never dive into something because it's there. Are textbooks the best choice? How do you know? If you've never experienced anything else, how can you be sure? Why did you choose that book? Is there a better one? Are you sure your students enjoyed it or learned from it? How are you sure?

That's just a few questions teachers should be asking. Because after all, we can't worry about the attitudes of students if we don't take care of our business first and know our stuff. We can't worry about the parents who pull their kids out of our schools for whatever reason, because we've already failed them (or they just want to home school or pay for a school that is better for their child, which is every parents right, and no teacher should ever take that personally).

This post was mostly just speculation on this topic. I hope to post more in depth on this soon, including possible pathways to fix it.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: A Book Review For the Classroom Teacher

Early last school year, I was making a large round up purchase of books for my 5th grade classroom library, and picked up a few copies of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, by Jeff Kinney (as well as its sequel, titled: Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules). I noticed something very quickly. These books never even touched the bookshelf. They spent the entire year being read. This year, it was the same story, those books have continued to fly off the shelves and have been enjoyed, already, by over 25 of my students in the past 15 months.

So what is it about these books that make them so loved by pre-teen students? First of all, Diary of a Wimpy Kid books are one part fictional journal (written in a daily format), one part graphic novel, and one part realistic fiction. The books are the story of Greg Heffley, a middle school student who lives the life of, well, a middle school student. Greg is oblivious to the world around him, selfish like most middle schoolers can tend to be, and makes witty, age appropriate observations through spot on teenage dialogue.

Lately I've been writing a little about books being relevant to "modern students." These books are a prime example. I currently have a student, a struggling reader with a learning disability, reading the second book in this series (and who is eagerly awaiting the release of Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw, which releases on January 13, 2009), and who is eager for more reading because these books have shown him that reading can be interested and leave you begging for more.

There is honestly no reason that an elementary school teacher, grades 3-5 (and even middle school teachers, 6-8) shouldn't have these books in their classroom. They are great books that kids are enjoying tremendously, and there has to be something said for books that increase interest in reading. It has also set off a search in my classroom for other graphic novels (I have a post from last year titled Teaching With Graphic Novels that you should take a look at if this is something that interests you).

Finally, if you are interested in these books in your classroom, you can head off to and read the daily text of Diary of a Wimpy Kid there. I currently have a small group of below grade level readers working their way through this. CLICK HERE to go there and check it out for yourself, it's free.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Most Boring School Aged Books (my personal list of hatred and loathing)

In the spirit of keeping up with "what the people want," I'm going to further my posts from recent days in which I threw down on such classic books as Little House on the Prairie and To Kill A Mockingbird. Today I wanted to head off in a little bit more of a personal opinion direction, and discuss books that are boring (I don't even really want to get into the relevance or politically correctness of these books).

I'm focusing on literature, so no text books, because that literally would compose my entire list. Keep in mind, this is personal, and if you disagree, please, join in on the conversation, I'm having fun with this, and I experienced a lot of these in high school, when I was slightly less agreeable than I am today. My list consists of books from my own personal experience, meaning books that I have personally read or attempted to read but didn't finish (which was quite common of me in high school). I'm going to do a top 10 here. So here we go (I'm probably going to pay dearly for some of the books on this list, but bring it on):

THE TOP 10 MOST BORING SCHOOL AGED BOOKS, in no particular order (ages 8-18)

The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding - Yeah, the part when Piggy fell off of the cliff and his brains fell out was pretty awesome when I was 16, but this book dragged like a two-legged-dog (OK, wow, that is the worst analogy of all time). At the time, I wasn't ready to appreciate the microcosm for society at large that this book displayed, and now that I am old enough to appreciate it, I don't.

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë - I don't care what you say about this book, it was HORRIFICALLY BORING in every way that a book can be boring. Let me set the scene for you. Senior AP English, we're reading this book, and the entire class balked at it. We actually didn't finish it because the entire class refused. I have to say that is my great honor to have no finished this book. It may be whatever it is to you, but to me, *gag*.

Anything Shakespeare - I'm not talking about a book, I am literally talking about Shakespeare stuff. There were certain kids in class with me who profoundly enjoyed The Bard's work, but it put me to sleep. For some reason, it still does. My wife likes Shakespeare, but I can't stomach any of it, it's just a personal thing I guess. I would say that 3/4's of the words used in Shakespeare aren't even in the dictionary anymore, so that might have something to do with it.

Moby Dick , by Herman Melville- It's always a humorous title to say out loud for a young teenager. that light hearted, sick humor quickly fades by the end of chapter one. I've always thought that Moby Dick is considered great because it's one of those books that enlightened people are "supposed to like." Well, I'm enlightened now (in my own enlightened opinion), and I still can't get past "Call me Ishmael."

Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder - Uh oh, I'm returning to the scene of previous crimes against literary classics (offended by me, earlier this week, and again a few days ago). This was an elementary school read that I hated with my entire being. I hated it again when I first became a teacher and had to read a part of it out of the reading textbook. Eventually I got the guile to finally ditch the textbook altogether, and this lovely pile of boring set off my fight against textbooks, so I guess it's good for something.

The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger - If you go over to my Goodreads page, you might see 3 stars next to this book. It wasn't the worst book ever, in fact, some of the innuendo was pretty interested and funny. But the character of Holden Caufield, as a whole, came across a little hastily put together, a walking stereotype that was a little one dimensional. In my opinion, this book is not the classic many say it is, and I re-read it just about two years ago, in one sitting, and decided that it is still boring.

Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell - I had to read this book in middle school, and it still sits on my classroom shelf. I believe in giving my students some choice, and this book has been read by a few students of mine over the years, some liking it and some not. I'm more on the side of the not. I tend to have pretty demanding tastes, and the autobiography of a horse just doesn't cut mustard with me.

The Borrowers, by Mary Norton - I read this book to my class for two years, and finally decided it was time to stop. This book is inconsistent in terms of vocabulary, comes across a little slowly, and doesn't seem to hold interest anymore down here where I live and teach. I'm just speaking from experience and all that.

R.L. Stine stuff - OK, stop, don't yell. I have pretty much every R.L. Stine book ever written on the shelf in my classroom, and they are beloved by many. I'm saying that personally, I never could stand them. I actually feel like I outgrew them when I was like 10. I would get them for birthdays and Christmas, smile, say thank you, then go trade them off at the bookstore.

Leveled Readers - I'm going generic here at the last. Most elementary teachers know what leveled readers are, it's those really short books that teach a skill in isolation. The stories are usually hastily made, and the books have no real point. I guess they work sometimes for struggling students, but honestly, they're not literature.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Now That's Innovation

The classroom has always been a traditional concept where kids sit in rows, raise their hands before speaking, and take pop quizzes before hopping on the bus to head home (not to mention rancid lunches and hanging off the monkey bars on the playground). Reality is somewhat different than perception, especially if you've managed to pull your head out of the '50s.

Take Tom Farber, a high school teacher in California who recently started selling ad space on his exams to raise money to pay for the cost of paper. This ridiculous sounding story, which is on in an article titled Cash-Strapped Teacher Sells Ads on Tests, has received praise from both within Farber's school and from the community.

What Tom Farber has done is creative problem solving, with a little bit of tongue-in-cheek nose-thumbing at the legislators in California who are responsible for setting the education budget, which can't even afford teachers as much paper as they need for copies (a budgetary crisis that is also a reality right here in Southern New Mexico, where failed budgets are becoming the norm).

I mention this because it is another example of teachers, faced with obstacles, finding innovative ways to deal with the many issues that surround education and influence what happens in the classroom.

I believe that public schools are largely mismanaged, outdated systems that simply do not put students first. This includes curriculum decisions, money management, and the focus and perspective of administration. Of course, high stakes testing doesn't help, and some of the current issues that face public education are direct results of this fact. True innovation takes place all around us, usually in the midst of traditional instruction and educational programs that do not serve students directly. I wanted to mention this ads on tests thing because it's funny, a little ironic, and because I felt like it, so enjoy.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Another Look at the Downfall of Once Classic Book Little House on the Prairie (A Response to my own Must NOT Read List post)

In my post from Saturday, November 29th, titled Must NOT Read List For Elementary School, I discussed a few books that have lost their cultural relevance in the United States. I scratched the surface, and the ensuing discussions that took place, both within my own page and on other pages, showed that people still have very passionate opinions about these classic books. I respect those opinions, because reading preference is, after all, a matter of opinion, and was pleased to see multiple levels of discourse occurring over what I wrote (I am a teacher after all).

Another level of this critique could take me into suggestions of other books, a suggestion I received in comments, and I do plan on moving in that direction too, but I wanted to further the discussion from that post by offering a deeper criticism.

In my first year as a classroom teacher, I inherited a large book library full of class sets that belonged to the school (a library that has since been absorbed by a "book room" open to all teachers). One of the titles on this shelf was The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare. I had a sub one day when I was out sick, and upon my return the next day, he was still in the building. This substitute teacher was a member of a Native American tribe from the northern part of the country. He told me that Speare's book is pretty much blatantly racist, and just thought I should know.

I looked a little deeper into this by researching it and reading the book. I found out that this books treatment of Native Americans was in fact not appropriate. It stereotyped Native Americans, reminded everyone of hateful attitudes towards "Indians," and presented a racially superior world view (whites as superior).

Now it's one thing to say that this book reflected the ideals of the time when it was written. OK, fair enough, I couldn't really argue with that. There's one problem here. The Sign of the Beaver was written in 1984, so explain it now. It's not a historical criticism, to argue that basically means that you haven't read the book and are just arguing for arguments sake.

This same argument is equally valid for Little House on the Prairie, a book that claims that "The only good indian is a dead indian," a book that presents a story told from the perspective of power, the white group settling west.

To choose to keep this book in the classroom, you must deal with the above argument, it's right there in front of you. When confronted with the fact that The Sign of the Beaver was a blatantly racist book, I removed it, because there is no argument to keep it there. If you say you are keeping Little House around because it offers children a chance to critique racism historically, think again, especially when some of the comments I received talked about reading it to 6 and 7-year-old kids. These children don't yet have that capacity (I don't care how advanced they are, they DO NOT have that capacity yet).

It's one thing to pull out these books in an AP English class in 12th grade, or in college, and critique it, but for children, they are not going to see that far beneath the surface, even with help from the teacher/parent.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Retain in the Membrane

The actual research figures are all over the place regarding student learning retention rates, but one thing is agreed upon by all. And that is the fact that students will not remember everything, not even half, of what they learn in school. I'm not talking about skills, like addition, subtraction, and critical thinking skills, I'm talking about the lesson of that day, that one thing you taught that was so important at the time yet two weeks later only two students remembered what you talked about.

Retention rates in written language are very much the same as they are for spoken language, sometimes even less. I couldn't tell you one single fact about any of the textbooks I worked out of while I was in school, and I graduated high school less than 10 years ago. This isn't a failure of schooling entirely (although I would wager to say that the set up of the traditional classroom doesn't help). The process of information moving from short term memory to long term memory in the brain is complicated, and considering that this mechanism isn't fully functional in children yet doesn't help matters.

This doesn't mean that there's nothing you can do about it, but it is important to keep a few things in mind:

  • First, understand that every day doesn't have to be about drill and kill, textbook and respond, worksheet worksheet worksheet, and sit quietly and don't talk. These things can actually hurt retention over the long term. Talking is ok, it's good actually. The more students are allowed to reflect on and engage in what they've learned by discussing it, the better the chances are that it will make the journey from short term to long term memory. Interaction is key. Take an idea, and play around with it. Let them get curious, this ongoing play with the idea helps it stay in the brain.
  • Don't test to death. You don't become a doctor by taking tests over and over again. The test is simply a measure to determine that the skills have been learned over the short term, and again later over long term. Even on my master's degree exam, I wasn't expected to quote things verbatim and remember every single thing that was taught. I was expected to hit on general ideas, and have a detailed understanding of large concepts, that's the way it is. You learn to specialize later, no one specializes in everything. Use your tests sparingly.
  • Remember that everyday is unique, but you don't have to account for every second. It's ok to have fun in the class sometimes. Tell stories, allow students to revisit prior concepts, and by all means let it get loud as long as it doesn't get crazy. If you don't remember to make the ultimate use of those 15 minutes of instructional time, guess what will happen? Nothing.

If your students are reading something that they don't feel interested in, aren't connected to in some way, or don't understand altogether, they won't remember it for very long. If it's something that they are interested in, for whatever reason, they'll contemplate it, dig deeper, ask questions, and in the long run, remember more. You can't expect them to remember specifics, like character names, dates (unless you drill them), specific situations down to the very detail, and things like this. Heck, most adults can't do it in the long term.

Long term retention, especially in literary practice, is a difficult thing. The key is to not consider it an obstacle, just realize that this is part of the equation. Long term memory has to develop, and even then, it's not everything it's cracked up to be (I have a terrible memory, but am actually a very intelligent person, or so I'd like to think).

Monday, December 1, 2008

Fahrenheit 451: A Young Adult Book Review

Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 stands as one of the masterpieces of the 20th century, and for good reason. This book, originally published in its complete form in 1953, can easily be compared to books like George Orwell's 1984, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, the works of Ayn Rand, and, for those of you in the intermediate and middle school grade levels, Lois Lowry's The Giver. This book is so widely loved that it's an often read piece in high school, college, and by adults, who see in it parallels between the politics of book burning and dominating the lives of people and the world we live in now (similar things can also be said about the other dystopic books listed here).

Now, if you're not familiar, dystopia themed literature is about a future in which the world has gone wrong. They often closely resemble, and are sometimes even mistaken for, utopia themed books. The Giver is a book that, in the beginning seems to be a perfect world, but as the curtains are pulled back, society is actually quite appalling and horrific, making it dystopic.

Guy Montag is the protagonist of Fahrenheit 451. He's a man who holds a position of respect in society, he is a fireman. He does not fight fires, he starts them, he burns books. Imagine a fireman carrying a fire hose, but the phrases are both literal, firemen who start fires with hoses that spray fire. Guy is drawn into the world of books, and begins stealing some away. His wife, in the meantime, has become a mindless watcher of TV sitting in the TV parlor watching shows all day in which she interacts with the actors and actresses in a futuristic artificial intelligence.

Early in the book, Guy runs across Clarisse, a sharp witted, free thinking teenager who often wanders around instead of going to school. When Guy asks her why she doesn't go to school, she responds by saying (I will paraphrase this quote to include some of the more poignant parts): "Social to me means talking to you about things like this... or talking about how strange the world is... But I don't think it's social to get a bunch of people together and then not let them talk... we never ask questions, or at least most don't; they just run the answers at you."

In the very same paragraph as the above listed quote, Clarisse makes a quote that can basically sum up education in this future, and, if you're cynical enough, in America. She says: "It's a lot of funnels and a lot of water poured down the spout and out the bottom, and them telling us it's wine when it's not."

This book is a timeless masterpiece that can be enjoyed by a sharp minded 15 year old, and anyone older. I recommend this book for a junior or senior level English class, and even then, only with AP students. Use it with students who will look deeper and make those parallels between the book and society, both in the 1950's and now. I also see this book as a great read in a college undergraduate English class or as part of a survey of dystopia themed or politically charged literature. It would work great alongside the other books I listed at the beginning of this article.