Category Archives: Book Reviews Grades 6-12

Dear Accelerated Reader, It’s not fair.

Dear Accelerated Reader,

It’s not fair that you assign fewer points to nonfiction than fiction. For example, students who read The Hunger Games (GL 5.3) get a whopping 15 points, but students who read Titanic: Voices from the Disaster by Hopkinson (GL 7.4) receive a measly 7 points. Yes, Titanic is only 289 pages compared to The Hunger Games at 384 pages, BUT Titanic is a multi-layered, cognitively demanding text with intertwined narratives about multiple passengers, the sinking of the ship and the rescue as well as many many non-narrative sidebars including explanations of the engineering of the ship, comparisons to other ships, descriptions of the lifeboats, etc. and, on top of all of that, dozens of primary sources to interpret. It is also written at a higher Lexile level probably due to a lot of domain specific, challening vocabulary. And yet – you award Titanic LESS THAN HALF the points that students get for reading The Hunger Games.

Grrrr….

titanicScreen Shot 2016-08-22 at 11.24.11 AMhunger games

More examples? Marching for Freedom: Walk Together, Children, and Don’t You Grow Weary by Partridge (GL 6.6), winner of numerous awards, tells the story of the children who marched for voting rights in the 1960’s in Selma, Alabama. It has 62 pages of text, but it has a large format so each page of text equals about two pages in a typical fiction chapter book format. It’s a complex text in that the reader has to follow multiple narratives and grapple with complex issues like racism, social activism, and perseverance. The reader also has to understand the motives and work of organizations like the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). And yet – you award it only 3 points!

marching for freedom

hive

On the science end of the reading spectrum, check out The Hive Detectives: Chronicle of a Honey Bee Catastrophe (GL 7.5). Only 59 pages but again with a large page format with twice the text on each page of what is in a typical chapter book. The author chronicles, describes, and explains colony collapse disorder. This is not a book for spring chicken readers. It’s difficult and demanding and yet amazingly rewarding as the reader walks away with knowledge critical to understanding an important issue in our world. Again-at a higher Lexile than The Hunger Games. And yet – you award it only 2 points!!!

UGH!!! Do you hear me moaning???

AR, I will give you a small, very small, bit of credit. Picture books geared towards the primary grades typically get .5 AR points regardless of whether the book is fiction or nonfiction. Just a little bit of credit.

Back to my point. I don’t know how you, Accelerated Reader, are assigning points, but I’m begging you to rejudge books like these and GIVE MORE POINTS!!! After all, we do want our students to read more nonfiction, correct? And IF we have to assign points (which I’m not a big fan of anyway), then let’s use this as an incentive to read more nonfiction, too? RIGHT?????

Teachers. AR may continue to fail us. In that case, would you double the points offered for a nonfiction book? Or maybe require so many books read in a particular genre versus assigning points? And if you already do, HOORAY!!! Thank you!!!!

Hope this helps.

Sunday

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New book by Tonya Bolden – Searching for Sarah Rector

searching for sarah rector

New book for late-intermediate and middle grade students – Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America (Bolden, 2014). Let me start by saying that Tonya Bolden has become a “go to” author for me; her research is meticulous, thorough and her writing is appropriate for her audience with rigorous and rich content. I was surprised by this book, though. From reading summaries, I thought I was in for an adventure. Maybe an adventure akin to The Impossible Rescue (Sandler, 2012) or Chasing Lincoln’s Killer (Swanson, 2009). But this book is not a “can’t-put-it-down” adventure. Instead Bolden, uses Sarah Rector’s story as a frame for bringing to life the political and legal experiences of African Americans born and/or living in the Indian Territory and the state of Oklahoma as the culture of community-shared-land shifted to individuals owning land. Sarah Rector, a “Creek freedman” and, therefore, a citizen of an Indian nation, was eligible at birth to be allotted a piece of land. Her parents pursued this and then, through a lease to an oil driller, Sarah became very rich. Except that African American parents were not trusted by the government to be guardians of their children’s estates; generally, a white man had to be assigned. Except that many of these guardians were crooked. Except that…

A central theme in this book is how misunderstandings lead to unfair judgments or distorted views – in many arenas including those of journalists for The Defender in Chicago as well as lawyers for the NAACP in NYC as well as the judgment the author, Bolden, made about what kind of guardian Sarah had been assigned until she dug further into the primary sources available.

This is a case study in the limitations of what we know – in the present and regarding the past. There are actually no primary sources that provide insight into Sarah’s actual thoughts. There are only court documents, other legal documents like land ownership papers, newspaper snippets, a few photographs and so forth. Bolden notes how she aquired a lot of information through a “Dawes Packets” – files of information “tied to an application for a land allotment in Indian Territory, which includes a birth affidavit, census cards, and often testimony” (p. 58). The layout and design of the book integrates a lot of primary sources – including sources like photographs of cabins in the same place and time Bolden used to infer what might have been Sarah’s living conditions. Because Sarah’s personal voice (through journals or interviews) is not present in the primary sources, we only get to know her from a distance; this was an unpleasant surprise for me, but I adjusted.

The power of the author’s work is in Bolden’s perspective – she can only write what she has interpreted from primary sources, many times very dry ones 🙂 If you are working with a savvy group of readers/writers, I’d share this book with them as a mentor for doing their own research. Reading excerpts from this text might be beneficial to all (5-9th grade) students engaging in research, in reading, in writing – including the author’s notes (p. 51) about her research and about the care we have to take when consulting primary sources (that may present distorted pictures of what happened).

Recommended Nonfiction Authors & Books for Middle School Classrooms

nazi huntersblizzard of glassThe Elephant ScientistThe Impossible Rescue by Martin Sandler

I’ve received several inquiries about which nonfiction books to purchase for middle school classroom libraries – in the content areas and in ELA classrooms.

Here are few thoughts –

Science books I’d invest inScientists in the Field series – these titles are well written and align with the Next Generation Science standards. They range in complexity and are appropriate for middle school. An example is The Tarantula Scientist by Sy Montgomery. You could easily just order from this series – there are plenty of titles.

Social studiesI have some “go to” authors that write engaging texts with middle school students as their audience. I’ve only listed books I’ve read by each; many have numerous books) –

  • Marc Aronson (Trapped: How the World Rescued 33 Miners from 2,000 Feet Below the Chilean Desert)
  • Martin Sandler (The Impossible Rescue: The True Story of An Amazing Arctic Adventure; Imprisoned: The Betrayal of Japanese Americans During World War II; also like his Through the Lens series)
  • Steve Sheinkin (The Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weapons; Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights; haven’t read but hear good things about his Notorious Benedict Arnold and Lincoln’s Grave Robbers)
  • James Swanson (young adult version of Chasing Lincoln’s Killer and The President Has Been Shot! The Assassination of JFK)
  • Georgia Bragg (humorous, but historical – How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous)
  • Joe Rhatigan’s White House Kids: The Perks, Pleasures, Problems and Pratfalls of the President’s Kids
  • new young adolescent author Neal Bascomb – The Nazi Hunters

Authors that students might need some coaching to pick up, but are worthy, worthy of reading…and once students start, they may dive in to…

  • Tanya Lee Stone (Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickels – America’s First Black Paratroopers)
  • Jim Murphy (The Great Fire and Invicible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure; An American Plague – which has been on my shelf “to read” for years)
  • Russell Freedman (Freedom Walkers: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Lincoln, A Photobiography)
  • Sally M. Walker (who combines history, anthropology, forensics, and archaeology – fascinating stuff; Blizzard of Glass: The Halifax Explosion of 1917; Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland)
  • Elizabeth Partridge (Marching for Freedom: Walk Together, Children, and Don’t You Grow Weary; not a fan of her book about Woodie Guthrie, though; she has new book out about the Beatles that is sitting on my desk to read)
  • Phillip Hoose (nature and history author; my favorite is Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice)
  • Susan Campbell Bartoletti (Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow)
  • Ann Bausum (Denied, Detained, Deported: Stories from the Dark Side of American Immigration and Marching to the Mountain: How Poverty, Labor Fights, and Civil Rights Set the Stage for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Hours)
  • Tonya Bolden (I’m new to her work but her new title – Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America has received some notable reviews)
  • Larry Dane Brimner (Black & White: The Confrontation of Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth and Eugene “Bull” Connor)
  • Cynthia Levinson (she has only one book but it’s good! We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March)

Great American Dust Bowlmarch book one coverpersepolis book cover

 

Nonfiction graphic novels – (more and more of these are being written and well done)

  • The Great American Dust Bowl by Don Brown
  • March: Book One by John Lewis (haven’t read, but it’s already receiving awards)
  • Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Satrapi (haven’t read, but again, numerous awards)

Many of the books that have won the Sibert Award or honor award would work as well – http://www.ala.org/alsc/awardsgrants/bookmedia/sibertmedal.

For many of these books, I have written reviews including suggestions for close reading excerpts and teaching on my blog at http://www.sunday-cummins.com. When you go to my blog, look at the topics tab for book reviews and suggested instruction in grades 6-8.

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I also have bookshelves with texts by topic and/or grade level at Goodreads.com – you can request to be my friend and peruse the shelves. There are lot of teachers who write reviews on Goodreads – so this might be another source to peruse.

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A FINAL NOTE – Students who are used to reading fiction novels will  usually not just pick these up. If you’re a classroom teacher, you’ve probably noticed this. Please consider reading aloud from nonfiction books that are in your classroom library and doing some heavy book talks! I find that if students pick up these books, they are more likely to choose nonfiction independently later.

Hope this helps. (I know always end with that – but I really do!)

 

 

Book for Independent or Circle Reading Grades 5-8

witches

Book Review + Excerpts for Close Reading. In Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem (winner of Sibert Honor Award for Nonfiction), Schanzer’s straightforward text and stunning illustrations will captivate middle grade readers. The narrative is non-stop craziness – revealing how beliefs can drive a community to foolishness and the devastation of members’ lives.

CAUTION: You may need to help launch students’ reading of this text. The first couple of pages are dense in vocabulary and the content is worthy of close reading and careful discussion. Schanzer describes the beliefs of the Puritans – in two worlds – the natural world of humans and “the Invisible World swarming with shadowy apparitions and unearthly phantoms of the air” p. 14. (BTW – chapter one starts on page 13. I’d do a close reading of pages 13-15.) Students have to “get” this idea in order to understand the rest of the book and deepening their understanding at this point may serve to deepen their understanding of the rest. No doubt, there are students out there who may not need this support especially if they have been in a unit of study on this period in American history. Just something to consider.

Schanzer’s writing is strong  – she doesn’t “make up” what happened; her writing is straight forward. For example, when describing how a former minister in Salem village was accused of being a wizard, she writes “Burroughs was examined…” – in other words, she doesn’t turn it into a drama. You can tell she’s relying on primary and authoritative secondary sources and careful not to embellish. 

I don’t know enough about art to comment well on her illustrations – but they set the tone for the book and are worthy of close reading/viewing and discussion by students. I appreciated that at the beginning of the book, she included a two-page layout of portraits of the “accused” with their names and who they were and another two-page layout of the “accusers.” This made for easy referencing if I needed clarity for who the players were at certain points in the narrative.

I’d definitely have this in my middle school classroom library and even encourage pairs or small groups of students to read and discuss. There could be some powerful discussion and essays written in response to questions like, “How does a person’s beliefs drive his/her actions? Why is this important to consider?” These are questions that can serve as lenses for reading other informational texts as well.

Martin Sandler’s new book – his work continues to be amazingly accessible for grades 5-8

imprisoned martin sandler

REVIEW OF NEW BOOK + SUGGESTION FOR CLOSE READING. Once again, Sandler has written a text for our intermediate/middle grade readers that captures the reader in the grip of a devastating experience – the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. What stood out for me in this book is Sandler’s continual revelation of the irony of this situation and the language he uses to make this irony explicit for students. Let me back up. Japanese Americans faced racism when they came to the states – and yet they figured out how to thrive and be successful economically. There was no evidence in general of espionage or lack of loyalty to the U.S. after Pearl Harbor and yet the decision was still made to intern this group of citizens. They could have languished in terrible living conditions and yet they turned these spaces into livable communities and joined the military and received the highest recognition for their contributions to the war effort (combat, nursing, translators, etc.). And all of this in the face of loss of identity, long-term emotional/psychological scarring, loss of wealth or means of making a living – all of which also occurred.

The beauty of this book is how Sandler’s writing helps our student readers access these themes – perseverance, injustice, irony, courage, the effects/impact of displacement, surmounting obstacles, knowledge versus ignorance, determination, ingenuity, etc. The book is crafted in a way that you see how terrible things are and THEN you see what the Japanese Americans do in response (that reveals perseverance, etc.). Next you see how terrible things continue to happen to them and AGAIN you see what the Japanese Americans do in response and WHAT ELSE THEY DO in response AND what else they do in response. Does this make sense? Sandler’s tone, his language, his choices about chronology all contribute to this.

Our instruction or our coaching of students might highlight this. For example, we could do a close reading of pages 76-78 (no text on page 77), where Sandler describes how the internees turned the unfathomable living conditions into culturally relevant spaces. The first paragraph starts with “In the opinion of many of the internees who had become unofficial leaders in their camps, there was only one way to combat the sadness and depression that had come with imprisonment…” He’s clearly setting the reader up here – for a contrast, for a shift, for a defining moment. Students should continue by noticing language like “ambitious projects” and “remarkable achievement.” Phrases that reveal that “and they also did this” theme – like “In addition to improving their surroundings…” You might then engage students in a close reading of the paragraph at the top of 87 that starts with “But despite this type of demonstration and the continual pronouncements of allegiance to the United States by internees of all ages, the question of how loyal they really were would not go away.” Here Sandler proceeds to introduce another obstacle.

courage has no colorBeyond Courage

By doing a close reading – helping readers think through just these few paragraphs – students can  begin to see what Sandler does throughout the book to reveal the Japanese Americans’ determination in the face of obstacles as well as the irony involved. My copy of this text is riddled with sticky notes – all marking where I see him using language and structure to help the reader access these ideas. This should have a ripple effect when they read other texts about the mistreatment of groups like Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickels, America’s First Black Paratroopers by Tanya Lee Stone and Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust by Doreen Rappaport and shorter texts like “Yellow Journalism” by Small Planet Communications.

New 6-8th – They Won’t Be Able To Put This Down

nazi hunters

Neal Bascomb has written a gripping account of an international effort to capture Adolf Eichmann – the SS official who basically visualized, organized, and ran the Holocaust. Eichman disappeared for over a decade and, while Europe and the U.S. got caught up in the Cold War, a tenacious few kept hunting for ex-Nazi officials who were responsible for the murder of millions of Jews and others. In a spy-like, action packed text, the author tells the story of how Eichman was discovered in Argentina, kept under surveillance and then captured through an elaborate plan by an international team led by the Israelis.

What struck me were some of the thematic threads that ran through the book –

  • Everyone involved (and there were dozens) had lost a relative in the Holocaust and was still suffering the loss (why wouldn’t they be?) – this served as motivation, but also as an energy that sometimes had to be suppressed in order to pull off the mission successfully;
  • Even when world powers like the U.S., Europe, and even Germany lost focus on pursuing these criminals, a tenacious few – a lawyer in Germany, leaders in Israel, every day people in Argentina including a teenage girl – continued this pursuit.
  • To pull off this mission, meticulous care had to be taken as well as innovation – disguise, caution, use of new technology, etc. As well, collective thinking and collaboration and trust played an important role in the mission.

Beautiful. Well written and thoroughly researched. Actually, I found this in a bookstore and had not heard of Neal Bascomb. I immediately turned to the author’s note to check out his research and was impressed enough to pay. While the notes and research were extensive, Bascomb writes the following note: “Now, despite my best efforts, my reconstruction of these events is no doubt imperfect” and then he goes on to explain. Great example for your middle school students to consider in thinking critically about the informational texts they are reading.

Read This Book on Titanic Not That One

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A Night to Remember (Lord, 1955) is listed as an exemplar text in Appendix B of the Common Core. It’s okay, but not stellar. Instead I would recommend reading Titanic: Voices from the Disaster (Hopkinson, 2012). It is a better exemplar of what 6-8th grade students should be reading. See my blog on Hopkinson’s book for more of my thoughts on this gripping, well-written book.

Titanic voices from disaster

Notes on A Night to Remember (Lord, 1955) –

  • Lord’s purpose is to retell the events of the night the Titanic sank. His writing is straightforward and sometimes feels hurried as he almost lists who did what and when. As a result, it wasn’t until very late in the book that I wanted to keep reading. He also jumps straight into narrating the night of the disaster by telling how a seaman on watch spotted the iceberg. Unlike Hopkinson who builds an understanding of the Titanic and its passengers/crew up front, Lord’s details about the difference between the classes, luxuries of the ship, and how the building of the Titanic was an engineering and design feat are sometimes marginal and don’t run as a coherent thread throughout the book. (He discusses the issue of more first class passengers surviving than those in steerage – but explicitly and late in the book.) Really, because I’d read Hopkinson’s book which does a magnificent job of developing central ideas through the text, I was waiting for similar ideas to surface in Lord’s book and was disappointed. In other words, I pieced together details that revealed a theme – because I knew what to look for, not because Lord helped me through his writing.
  • Lord did extensive research to gather information for this book and details his research in acknowledgments at the end of the book. He admits to the difficulty of accurately recounting what happened with statements like this one about the times of events  – “The times given in this book are the honest estimates of people intimately involved, but they are far from foolproof” (p. 151). For the most part, the book is written in a way that reveals research versus conjecture – so Lord quotes what survivors said versus making up what they might have said and so forth. But he’s not perfect and our students need to keep this in mind. Two examples

1) On page 76, Lord writes “George Q. Clifford of Boston had the rueful satisfaction of remembering that he took out 50,000 dollars’ extra life insurance before the trip.” Clifford did not survive. So how do we know this?

But two paragraphs later he writes – “Little things could return to haunt a person at a time like this. Edith Evans remembered a foretune-teller who once told her to ‘beware of the water (p. 76).'” The word “could” is key here – he is probably using someone’s recollection of a conversation with Edith (who did not survive) and conjecturing, but he qualifies that it is just conjecture with “could.”

2) Throughout the book, Lord sheds negative light on women’s role in the event. At one point, when he is writing about one of the men trying to get the women to step into the life boats, he states, “Andrews had good reason to be exasperated. Women were never more unpredictable.” Throughout the book, women are portrayed as helpless and passive and the men mostly as courageous, solid and firm. Lord wrote this book in 1955 – before the second wave of feminism (which began in the early 60’s). While Lord portrays himself as a writer who is narrating the facts of an event which he has thoroughly researched, his prejudices are still present to some extent. It reminds me of author Jim Murphy’s comment in The Great Fire (1995) about the perceptions of the males who wrote about the great Chicago fire – “Men who wrote about the Great Fire generally portrayed women as passive and helpless, waiting for their husbands, brothers and some other man to save them. This seemed to go doubly for women who were wealthier. But if we look beyond the condescending references, a remarkable picture of strong and very active women emerges…” (p. 91). Lord might be guilty in a similar way. Let’s remember he’s narrating as fact what was really just the perceptions of survivors about what happened (as revealed in transcripts from hearings, in interviews with him, in letters, etc.) and he chose what details to share based on his perceptions of reality as well. (This would make for a very good conversation amongst students!) Late in the book, he comments about how some women rowed the oars of the life boats and one even steered, but his statements are too little, too late (for me).  Just skimming Hopkinson’s book – her language is very different – I need to reread again with this lens in mind – but I’m fairly certain her language choices regarding women’s responses and actions are more neutral. This would make for an interesting close read – contrasting excerpts from the two texts and discussing how women are portrayed through choice of language and details to share.

  • Another reason Hopkinson’s book is better is because current nonfiction authors make use of features in a way that a writer in 1955 would not have. Hopkinson’s book has extensive photos of the Titanic as well as the Titanic’s sister ship which would have had similar features and luxurious accomodations; she also includes pictures of the people, images of documents, maps, etc. Lord has a diagram of the ship with a numbered list of events at the beginning of the book.

Okay…just my thoughts. Not a bad book. I just think there are better, more current choices. Hopkinson’s book wasn’t out when the exemplar texts were chosen and there probably would have been copyright fees the CCSS writers didn’t want to deal with when they chose excerpts so we got A Night to Remember instead.

Ann Petry’s Harriet Tubman does not meet current standards for “nonfiction”

harriet tubman by petry

While there might be value in reading this book to get a “feel” for Tubman’s life, it should be considered historical fiction not nonfiction (despite being listed as an exemplar informational text in the CCSS Appendix B). It was written in 1955 and Petry’s purpose was to provide readers with a viewpoint of slavery that was not being represented in textbooks of the time. Her purpose was noble and should be noted. What writers in the field have agreed on since then, though, is that to be accurate when writing “nonfiction,” you cannot make up what was said during an event in a person’s life – without asserting that you are doing just that. You can use quotes from primary sources or from people you’ve interviewed during your research, but you cannot just make up what might have been said (even if it’s based on research) and present these conversations as fact. If you read Russell Freedman’s book Lincoln: A Photobiography – he tells a lot without ever making up what someone said. Petry, on the other hand, from the beginning of Harriet Tubman, writes specifically what was said during a discussion that took place in Harriet’s parents’ cabin the night Harriet was born and continues to do so from there. There is no documentation of what was said -specifically at events like the night Harriet was born. Petry is conjecturing. This is not acceptable in 2013  – despite this book’s continued publication as “nonfiction.”

Petry does end each chapter with factual statements about other events that were occurring during a particular period. At some points late in the book, she includes quotes by Harriet and a few others, BUT the majority of the book is a narrative that includes what was happening, being said, and so forth without reference to specific documentation or quotes from primary sources. It’s clear Petry did some research – although there is no author’s note included in the book. She passed away in the 1990’s and I haven’t found any kind of description of her research on-line so it’s hard to know her research and writing process for this book.

scenes in the life of harriet tubman

I want to contrast her book with others on Tubman. For example, I want to read Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman by Susan Bradford – who knew Harriet and interviewed her extensively for the book (to raise money to support Harriet). I’d also like to read two more authoritative books – Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom by Clinton and Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of a Hero by Kate Clifford Larson. While the first book by Bradford was criticized for accuracy – it is based on the perceptions of Tubman (who did not know how to read and write). This text might serve as a primary source that represents one person’s viewpoint – similar to Frederick Douglass’ autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

If students do read Petry’s book – there’s room for teaching about an author’s interpretation of historical documents and how that influences what is written, what can be written from our study of primary and secondary sources and what cannot be written without some assertion from the author that the text is an “interpretation” or “conjecture” of what might have happened. In addition, Petry’s book could be contrasted with others – a good learning experience for students and a way to help them achieve Common Core standards related to contrasting multiple texts on the same topic.

End of the Year & Summer Reading Recommendations – Nonfiction, Of Course

blizzard of glass

Funny…I haven’t been in the classroom as a full-time teacher in awhile, but I still get that “WE’RE ALMOST DONE” feeling about this time of year. In the schools I’m visiting, I’m strongly encouraging teachers to host lots of time for students to just read, hoping this time spent carries into the summer when the students are reading on their own. My suggestions – introduce engaging nonfiction, book talk nonfiction, create a special display of nonfiction, match books to readers and put those books in kids’ hands. Most importantly provide time for students to just read, read, read. And be present to coach at the point of need. This might be during reading workshop when the whole class is reading – OR it might be during guided reading. Now is a good time to cut “teacher-talk” down to a few minutes and be fully present to guide those five or six students at your table as they read continuously for 15-20 minutes.

Would it be radical to even say, “Let go of the sticky notes and reading response journals?” Students will not be writing notes when they read on their own this summer. This might be a good chance to coach and take anecdotal notes – but to also free students of the sometimes cumbersome stopping and jotting. Just provide space for them to immerse themselves in reading. They can be accountable through their conversations with you during reading conferences, right?

Okay…I might be preaching to the choir here…just a few of my thoughts.

With that in mind…I’m going to be blogging for the next couple of weeks with a focus on high-quality trade books for students to read as the year winds down…and maybe to find at the public library this summer.

My first recommendation is Blizzard of Glass: The Halifax Explosion of 1917 by Sally M. Walker. Couldn’t put it down. I can see 4th/5th/6th grade students being drawn in as Walker narrates the stories of several of the families and other individuals who started out having a typical day on December 6, 1917. At 9:00 a.m. a ship carrying tons of munitions to the war in Europe was making its way through the narrow straight between Halifax and Dartmouth and collided with another ship. At first it seemed as though the initial fire could be contained. Within a few minutes, though, the largest man-made explosion prior to Hiroshima devastated the two cities, instantly killing 2000 people. If you were standing at a window watching the fire before the explosion, chances are the blizzard of glass flying at you also blinded you. Walker describes the aftermath including how people came from all over Canada and the United States to help the community recover.

Walker’s writing is superb. She has become a “go to” author for me as far as finding good books for students. She understands her young audience of readers and, in this book, weaves together details to create a suspenseful narrative filled with intriguing facts and tidbits of information students will ponder over and over again.

If you get a chance, put this book in a kid’s hands.

Be a Nonfiction Book Whisperer – Please!

Anybody read The Book Whisper: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child (Miller, 2009)? Miller reminds us that one of the best ways to teach reading is to provide space and time for students to do a LOT of reading of high-quality texts. She challenged her students to read 40 books in a year and they rose to meet and exceed her expectations. As many reading workshop advocates do, Miller leans heavily on good fiction to draw kids into becoming lifelong readers. Mainly because that’s what we’ve always read and found interesting, right? WAIT A MINUTE! (Okay…my colleagues and friends know what I’m going to say next!) There’s so much good nonfiction out there right now and so many benefits to students who read them. Tons more than when I was growing up and nonfiction came in three colors – black, white, and gray. The trick is knowing the books out there and then knowing these books well enough to excite students into reading them.

This has been my mission lately – finding these books. A new “go to” author for me is Sally M. Walker. “Go to” means she’s reliable as far as appeal, authority, and accuracy.

blizzard of glass

Blizzard of Glass: The Halifax Explosion of 1917 (Walker, 2011) would be a “I-can’t-put-this-down” book for 4-5th grade readers and an easier read for older proficient readers. Walker has woven together the experiences of several families on December 6, 1917 when two ships collided in Halifax Harbour. One of the ships was full of munitions (headed to Europe for the war) and the explosion obliterated the towns of Halifax and Dartmouth, killing 2,000 people and wounding hundreds of others. To put this in perspective – this explosion was the biggest in human history prior to dropping the bomb on Hiroshima. I immediately thought of Walker’s description of the explosion and aftermath when I heard about the explosion at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas. I think reading this book actually helped me understand the devastation that has happened in West and remember that we shouldn’t take for granted the presence of dangerous substances in our every day lives.

their skeletons speak

Their Skeletons Speak (Walker & Owsley, 2012)  would be good for late middle school to early high school readers. LOVE this book because it’s a well, written blended text – narrative and non-narrative. The narrative tells the story of the accidental discovery of Kennewick Man, a 10,000 year old skeleton and the journey of this skeleton through the court system, numerous federal agencies, and research labs. Owsley is a researcher and scientist in the field of Paleontology and has clearly weighed in on the descriptions of current techniques for dating skeletal remains as well as determining the person’s diet, whether they were buried intentionally or not, what they might have done for a living and so forth. Really, really fascinating information – especially how technology is growing so fast we can determine even more than we did just a few years ago. A central idea is that skeletons have a story to tell and we need a village of specialists/experts to reveal the details of this story. I’m going to blog on this particular book again sometime soon and include excerpts for close reading.

Okay…any “go-to” authors out there you know students will want to read?