Saturday, April 16, 2016

Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate

Recently someone asked me what a culturally responsive classroom looks like.  This is a loaded question because so many factors go into making one.  I gave a brief answer, and explained that often the choice of books in the classroom is the most powerful tool to address the diversity, or more often the lack of diversity in classroom.

I currently work in a school in Denver that is not like the majority of schools in my urban district.  During Spring Break I had kids that went to the Virgin Islands, Beaver Creek, Costa Rica, Disneyland, Disney World, Mexico, Japan, and elsewhere.  In other words, the families are very comfortable.  Poverty is not something that is discussed even though the community is surrounded by some of the poorest parts of the city.

As their teacher it is my responsibility to make sure that they experience the world around them.  This goes back to my statement that books bring to life the world around us.  Whatever that may be.

I thoughtfully select read alouds for my class.  I am not saying that they are always serious or filled with life long messages.  Our last read aloud was The Unlikely Adventures of Mabel Jones.  Ok, maybe there is an important message in that book:  Don’t ear your boogers!  Anyhow, I read Crenshaw this past winter; and while reading it I knew it was going to be a read aloud this year.

Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate is a short novel about Jackson, a soon to be fifth grade, his family, and his very large imaginary cat friend named Crenshaw.  Crenshaw first came to live with Jackson when he was in first grade.  Jackson’s family and just become homeless and were living in their van.  Like many imaginary friends they just disappear one day.  However, Crenshaw reappears.  He shows up as Jackson is figuring out that his family is about to become homeless again.

Katherine Applegate is a master storyteller.  When I told my class what I was reading next T yelled out “Will this make me cry? The One and Only Ivan was so sad.”  There was a brief discussion about that book.  The class decided that she is a great author.

I know many teachers sometimes wonder if kids are really listening during read alouds because there aren’t always reactions we think we are going to get.  I knew that I would reactions from this book I just didn’t expect so many, and more importantly, so many thoughtful questions. We would have finished over a week ago if this hadn’t been happening.  My students have showed empathy for Jackson, and have asked questions about how does a family get poor.  Why don’t people help them?  One day someone asked; “Can you imagine what it must be like to be that hungry?” He really was interested.  In the book Jackson’s dad makes a sign before he panhandles on the corner to raise money.  The dad’s handwriting is so poor that the sign reads “Think You” instead of “Thank You”.  We discussed why did the author write that.  What is the message the first sign really says?

Crenshaw has been eye opening for my students and for me. Most importantly it is another example of why teachers MUST read aloud to their students.  If we want our students to be prepared for the 21st century they have to know that the world is filled with all different kinds of people with a variety of experiences.  More times than not the only way I can expose them to this is through the pages of a book.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Crossover by Kwame Alexander

I understand the importance of standards; but when they overpower what we believe, and know is good teaching I get scared.  Very scared.  It is very unlikely that many of the students I have taught over the years will end up as a published poet, but that doesn’t mean that poetry writing should be eliminated from the classroom.  Kids love writing poetry; especially, boys because writing rules can be bent and even broken.  In just a few lines their emotions are down on paper.  They feel successful, and engaged.  Would the following book been written if Mr. Alexander’s teachers hadn’t let him write poetry in class?

One of the books nominated for the Cybils is written in free verse.  Crossover by Kwame Alexander is a beautifully written novel.  It is about twins that are star basketball players.  Their mother is the vice principal of the school, and their dad is a famous ex professional basketball player.  The book is told in first person by one of the twins. Josh Bell, nicknamed Filthy McNasty.  He hates the nickname.  He and his brother are inseparable until a girl comes into the picture.  She causes great friction between the two.


Every once in awhile a book comes around and I start a list of whom I want to share the book with.  This is one of those books.  I can see my friend Carol using this book with a small group of fifth grade to middle school boys at her school.  I can see Liam reading it and sharing it with his friends at middle school.  I can see my friend Jennifer reading aloud to her fifth class.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy

Thank you Random House for the copy!
My last school is probably the most diverse school in the city.  About 20 different languages were spoken in the home.  There were African refugees, the governor’s son and everything else in between.    It was an awesome place to teach because of the diversity.  My new school is great, but far less colorful.  However, there are considerably more students with same sex parents.  Over the past year there has been a lot of blogging on the lack of diversity in children’s literature.  The dialogue has been thoughtful and thought provoking.

Does the diversity have to be the main point of the story?  I can’t really answer that question, but I can say is that the story MUST be great.  I am not going to encourage a student to read a book just because of diversity, just like I’m not going to give a boy a sports book just because it is a sports book.  With that said, I just finished a book filled with a whole lot of diversity.  The thing is, that wasn’t the main focus of the book.  It was just a fantastically, funny, family story.

The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy follows the Fletcher family through the school year.  The four adopted brothers are:

  1. Sam age 12 and in the sixth grade.  He loves sports and is willing to take risks. 
  2. Jax age 10 and your typical fourth grader, even down to the procrastination of schoolwork.
  3. Eli, also, 10 but younger goes to a private school for HGT kids.  Hates it because it isn’t a place that encourages freethinking or collaboration.
  4. Frog age six and besides himself with joy of life.  Loves kindergarten and, well, just about everything.


The pack is led by Dad and Papa.  Who not always successful get to school on time with out a cat barfing, dirty clothes and an annoyed neighbor.  In other words they are like any other family.  The difference is that there are two dads, adopted boys that are different races and religions; but still a family worth reading about.

I am trying to put down on paper the thoughts rushing through my head about this book.  I really enjoyed this book.  Not the best book to read at night the first two weeks of school because I was either too tired, or stayed up too late reading it which made me too tired the next day.  Ms. Levy effortlessly (ok it seems like it was, but we all know how authors fret) sucked me into a family I wish lived next door to me.  Rowdy, loud, reckless, loving, caring, funny are important characteristics to have in a family. 

I am starting a reading unit this week on characters and the Fletcher family is a great book to do character studies.  What makes these boys tick?  What makes them so loveable?  It is, also, a book that shows how our country is changing and diversity is a big part of why.  I look forward to doing this as a read aloud and sharing with some families at school.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Eye of Minds by James Dashner

Thank you Random House for the copy.
The Rule of Thoughts on sale August 26, 2014
Recently, I received a paperback copy of The Eye of Minds by James Dashner.  The second book in the series The Rule of Thoughts will be released on August 26.  As I lost my self in The Eye of Minds I began thinking of the importance of this book.  I am trying to organize my thoughts to blog about the book, but it hasn’t been easy.  After a brief summary of the book I will explain.

Michael is your average teen.  He is a total gamer.  Michael spends most of his free time in the VirtNet.  A place that seems very real.  At the beginning of the book he attempts to stop someone from killing herself.  Soon Michael finds himself helping the government stop the cyber-terrorist before he kills more.  To do this he enlists his friends to help.  They set off on a mission that is terrifying.

This is all you get about the plot.  However, I have a lot of thoughts about the book.  First off I loved it.  I am not a gamer, but after reading this I can see why so many are sucked into the gaming world.  Second, the characters are very interesting.  It was easy to relate to them and want to see what more will happen.  Finally, with all the focus on getting kids to learn computer coding this book is the perfect portal to have students want to learn coding.

Ok, so the reason I have trouble putting my head around how to do this entry has to do with wanting our readers to be come life long readers.  In other words we don’t want them to just read in our class or during the time they spend with me in guys read.  This summer I am reading Donalyn Miller’s new book Reading in the Wild.  (Very good, and I have some great ideas for the upcoming school year.)  Anyhow, she writes about the same thing.  What can we do to make them continue to love reading after they leave our classroom?

The last 12 months have been kind of tough, but one thing that has helped is one of my previous students consistently stopped by to visit, and even helped during Guys Read.  Ciaran is a wonderful young man.  At times he would stop by just to tell me something he thought was hilarious, or to talk about books.  However, something happened at the end of the school year.  He seemed to loose interest in books.  I am not around him all the time so it is hard to say why.  My gut feeling is that he is just taking a break while trying to figure out how to maneuver the big change of becoming a freshman.  So what can we do to make sure this doesn’t happen often?  I don’t really know, except that if any book is going to get him excited about reading again it will be The Eye of Minds.  I look forward to passing it on to him and hearing his thoughts. I know with sports, jazz band, and making new friends the book his old teacher is dropping off will not be high on his priority list, but when he does read it I hope the book love starts again.


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Oliver and The Seawigs by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre

Copy courtesy of Random House
Children's Books
Earlier in the month I was at The Bookies picking up a couple of birthday gifts, and the sign in the store says “one for them, and one for you…” (OK there really isn’t a sign that says that, but it is implied!) Anyhow, I picked up a new book and added it to my TBR stack when I got home.  After finishing my last book I picked it up and started reading it.  After a few pages I wasn’t too sure I was going to like, but a plodded onwards.  A while later I regretted buying the book.  You know that thought?  “Maybe I just take it back and say I already had a copy etc.”  There is just something about when the author talks directly to the reader and warns us that if we want to read something nice to stop reading and find another book.  Lemony Snicket was brilliant at this, but others just can’t get it right. 

As I teach my readers if you really don’t like a book put it down and get something else.  Cautiously, I approached the teetering mountain of books and selected a brilliantly and joyful book entitled Oliver and The Seawigs by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre.  Oliver Crisp is ten years old.  He has spent his entire live traveling the globe with his explorer parents.  They finally decide to return home to Deepwater Bay, but as they come around the bend to settle they see islands that were not there before.  After unloading the explorermobile his parents take off saying they won’t be long.  However, they don’t return, and Oliver sets out to find them.  He lands on a small island and meets a talking Wandering Albatross named Mr. Culpeper.   He, also, befriends a plump, nearsighted and tone death mermaid named Iris.  These islands aren’t really islands they are Rambling Isles, and Oliver is on the head of one of them.  After brief introductions and naming their isle Cliff the four set out to find his parents.  On top of the search for Oliver’s mom and dad the friends must help cliff prepare for the seawigs completion.  It is a year celebration where the Rumbling Isles compete for the best seawig using flotsam from the sea.  (More on flotsam later!)  Along the way they encounter a mean isle and an even meaner kid named Stacey de Lacey.  Yes, boys can be named Stacey too!

I loved this book.  It was a very fast read, and the characters are very different. How many stories have a plump nearsighted mermaid that can’t sing? The vocabulary is VERY rich.  Mr. Reeve is British so there are many terms that will make kids think and hopefully ask for clarification.  It even has the word flotsam.  When I was in high school it was one of our vocabulary words.  Living in a high desert there is not a whole lot of interesting flotsam.  For years I wondered why did I have to learn this word so out of context from anything? My first beach visit after moving to Boston finally answered that question, but it would have been so much nicer if I had learned it from a story.


The other day I wrote about finding my first read aloud, and today I know what my first book talk will be, Oliver and The Seawigs by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre.  I think my third graders are going to love this book!