Friday, October 16, 2009

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, By Ishmael Beah

When my dad was in school, Vietnam was the conflict that had many people the world over calling for attention to the abuse of human rights. This was around the same time that many previously uncovered (in the United States media) events in Africa began boiling over, including the conflict in Sierra Leone. Of course, right now, the world conflicts that are garnering attention from human rights groups throughout post-industrial nations include what's happening in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the Darfur region of Sudan, and the civil war in Sierra Leone, among many others.

There are many books out there now in ya and children's literature circles about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the catalog of books is ever increasing. Darfur has moved to the forefront for many who decry what is happening throughout Sudan. A great book that discusses and showcases the human side of the events in Sudan (not necessarily Darfur) is called What is the What, written by Dave Eggers telling the true story of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee. Of course, this book is clearly written for adults, it is quite dense, and would be very cumbersome to read in a high school classroom, so I wouldn't recommend it.

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, written by and about Ishmael Beah, a boy soldier from Sierra Leone, is a book that is sized just right for the young adult audience. Content wise, this book is gritty and disturbing, as Beah takes us through his horrible experience of fleeing the rebels after the presumed death of his family, and hiding alone, as a child, in the jungles of Sierra Leone. He is eventually found and turned into a boy soldier, capable of ruthless genocide.

This story disturbed many adults in my reading group to the point that they could not finish the book, yet I was looking at this text as a resource to be used in an 11th or 12th grade literature class. As a non-fiction story (which we don't use often enough), a clear picture is painted here of genocide in our time. This isn't reading about the Holocaust and saying "wow, we must learn from those mistakes," because these things in Africa are happening right now.

First of all, this book is bloody, it is gritty, it is disturbing. It was written for the ya audience, and it is not any less appropriate for them than reading Maus (Art Spiegelman) or showing videos about the Darfur crisis. It's not a long book, which makes it a good two or three week long read, and the discussion that will surely take place upon completion of the book will go in many different directions, including morality, regaining humanity, and the place of an American in this crisis.

Where Are the Wild Things.... Or, Wait... Where the Wild Things Are... There

If you've spent a little time with my posts, you know that I usually post about young adult or at least adolescent aged literature, usually things stay above the 4th or 5th grade level. Well, I'd like to start branching out a little bit into the world of children's lit as well. Now by children's literature, I'm meaning early children's literature, because I do review and discuss elementary literacy quite often, because I am currently a 4th grade teacher and have taught 5th in the past.

Today I took my own children to see Where the Wild Things Are, the Spike Jonze adaptation of the Maurice Sendak classic picture book. I went into this movie not really knowing what to expect other than spectacular cinematography. My expectations, or lack thereof, were blown to pieces (or not, depending upon the philosophy of having no expectations) by a movie that was engrossing to young children yet appropriate for adults at the same time.

First of all, it was nothing like the book, which is undoubtedly a classic in pre-K and kindergarten classrooms across the world. The book is great whether told with your own voice, or using the classic narration that has influenced countless tellings of this book. The movie puts a human face on Max, one that many parents and teachers alike can relate to, that of the outcasted Oppositionally Defiant child. His tantrums lead him to the world of wild things, where the story really comes to life. Spike Jonze nailed this movie, it was a true masterpiece.

I'm writing about this because the book has become such a force in early literacy, and then along comes this movie that is, in my mind, Oscar worthy, it is a movie that adults will laugh and cry along with their enchanted children, seeing one of their favorite books come to life on the screen. Go out there and see this movie, and then read the book again.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Departmentalizing (Blocking) Reading: Caution

This year, I moved to a new grade level in my building (a change that has been pleasantly nice), and we made the switch to departmentalizing reading across grades 3-5. If you're not familiar with the concept, to departmentalize in this case means that the grades involved share a common time for the subject, and students are put into ability groups, meaning that the majority will not be with their "homeroom teacher." This is also known as "blocking" in some circles, depending upon the jargon that is used where you teach. For the previous three years, the school I work in did self-contained reading groups (with the exception of some pull out special education students), and I was met with great success, because I was responsible for my students, and they performed up to the level that I demanded of them.

Now with this move to departmentalization, something I had previously dealt with four years ago, I have been forced to advocate for what I believe is best, both in my own experience and from what the research says.

I will first discuss my own opinions apart from the research:

I believe that self-containing classrooms in an elementary setting have many great advantages, ESPECIALLY in the area of literacy. We teach pre-service teachers that reading should be cross curriculur, that students need consistency, they need to reflect on their reading all day, and that they should have a classroom where they are able to revisit their readings and branch out into the other disciplines with their new knowledge.

My school has blocked reading from 3rd grade through 5th grade, and it basically looks like this:

Highest Group (taught by a 5th grade teacher)
2nd Highest (taught by 5th grade teacher)
Next (taught by 4th grade teacher)
So on and so forth, moving down the line to 3rd grade.

Now, for the highest groups, these teachers keep their high 5th graders, and are given the highly advanced 4th graders and off the chart high 3rd graders. So the highest 4th grade group is not truly the highest 4th grade group, because the highest 4th graders move up, while lower 5th graders move down. So basically, all but the top two groups become remedial in nature. Students, whether we want to admit it or not as teachers, are keenly aware of what group they are in. They know if they are "high" or "low," and this has detrimental effects on the motivation of all but the highest students.

Putting these facts aside, let's look at the effect of splitting the classes up for reading block. I love to teach literacy thematically, and let it flow over into social studies, math, and writing. With my students spread all over the building, I can no longer do this. To sum this up, everything that WORKS in the classroom is fundamentally impossible to do in a blocked environment.

The research in this area in the past has been mostly qualitative in nature, and has focused on standardized test scores, as well as student input, mostly in the form of narrative or question responses. For every study that opposes blocking, I can easily find one that is in favor of it, both in theory and in data. As with most issues in reading, there are opposing camps, and if this had been definitively proven one way or the other, it doesn't necessarily mean that we wouldn't be here anyways (because a shockingly low number of teachers actually read and understand current research). I am currently performing some doctoral level research on this very subject, and hope to have some beginning level results in by Thanksgiving.

Obviously I am opposed to the departmentalization of reading. I would like to continue this discussion. Maybe some of you have success stories, and that's great. But personally, I do not see the value, have not seen the value, and continue to not see the value.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Red Glass, by Laura Resau

Red Glass, by Laura Resau, is a great "coming of age" story. Sophie is an outcast (much of it born out of lack of self esteem and other internal conflicts) living in Tucson, when a young boy, Pedro, enters the lives of their family. Pedro was crossing the border illegally when his family died, and he was left alone.

Now, first off, Red Glass is an excellent piece of young adult literature that would be appropriate to the reading levels and content appropriateness for young high school students, possibly 9th or 10th grade. The reading itself is surprisingly easy to get into, I actually read this book in two evening sittings, it's a fluid, wonderful love story.

I can see many students relating to either Sophie or her love interest Angel. The characters are so well written that at times I felt like I was reading a first person biography. The way the story moves from Tucson to southern Mexico and then off to Guatemala is entrancing. This book is great for students living in the desert Southwest or the border areas of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.

I highly recommend this book, and its wonderful play with words and metaphors. The metaphor of red glass will not be lost on high school students. This book is one of the better ya novels written in the last few years (published in 2007).

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Back At It

The hardest issue that arose in keeping this blog running was one of time and resources. There's only so many books I'm reading, and now that I've read a lot more, I can do some more reviews. I've also been refining ideas and things like that, so I hope to be back to writing now. Check back, my first new book review should be forthcoming.