Wednesday, September 28, 2011

How Can We Improve Middle Schools?

Interesting article this morning in the Washington Post about the "mess" that is middle school.

What do you think?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sharing: Bigger Than a Breadbox

I feel intimated by trying to write down my thoughts about Bigger Than a Breadbox. After reading Penny Dreadful earlier this year, I became an official fan of Laurel Snyder. So, when I heard about Bigger Than a Breadbox, I knew it would be a must-read. And indeed, as the release date got closer and I read reviews posted by friends, this book quickly became one of my most anticipated MG fall releases. The kind folks at Random House were nice enough to send me an ARC, and my husband can tell you how crazy excited I was when it arrived!

All of that major digression now having been covered, I have to say that this book is matched only by Breadcrumbs and Wonderstruck in books that I have read this year.

We meet Rebecca just as her mom and dad's relationship is falling apart, and as that happens, we see her struggle with that very difficult in-between place of feeling grown-up, yet still very dependent on the people around her. She is very much 12; one minute she feels old enough to take off on her own, and another she feels very slighted and hurt because no one has come to tuck her in. Combine this internal confusion with all of the confusion going on around her, and that leaves you with - quite understandably - a very confused young girl.

Her determination to fix what is wrong in her life is exacerbated by discovering a magic breadbox in her grandmother's attic. While wishing for something that reminded her of Baltimore, she discovers that the breadbox will grant any wish, as long as what Rebecca wished for can fit inside. She thinks that this will solve all of her problems, but adding magic into the jumbled mix that her life has become makes things happen that Rebecca never would have dreamed.

I love the very subtle use of magic in this otherwise heartbreakingly realistic book. It's a seamless blend that doesn't feel forced, and is crucial to the story. The story takes place in both Baltimore and Atlanta, and you get a sense that you are getting a taste of the best and the most weird of each city. It made me want to visit both places. And it made me grateful that I get the opportunity to work with kids at this very odd stage of their lives, where they sometimes feel adult and invincible, but also sometimes, still just want to be tucked in at night. Bigger Than a Breadbox is, without a doubt, one of the best Middle Grade titles of the year.

Who Should Read It?
This book is ideal for any middle grader. The uncertainty that Rebecca deals with internally will be all too familiar to them, and will go a long way in helping them understand that it's not just them. It will also be wonderful for a child dealing with upheaval at home, especially the separation or divorce of their parents. This book seems to hit, spot on, the vast mix of emotions and depth of pain and desperation that can come from watching everything you've known unravel around you.

To show just how much of a chord it is striking, here is a fantastic book trailer for Bigger Than a Breadbox, created by a 12-year-old fan:

Bigger Than a Breadbox will be available for purchase on September 27, 2011.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Sharing: The Death of Yorik Mortwell

The Death of Yorik Mortwell was brought back to me from ALA by a librarian friend of mine. I've been interested since I saw the cover, and knew that I would have to save it for a time that was a bit closer to Halloween, and that I did. I finished the book this weekend, again on a road trip, and it is a great middle grades read.

I gave the book a test run a couple of weeks ago when I let a young man in the 8th grade borrow it to read after he had finished his work in class. He was enthralled by the first chapter, and that gave me even more incentive to read it quickly.

The book is vaguely steampunk-esque, with repeated mentions of a flying carriage when the rest of the book has a distinctly Victorian sensibility. Yorik Mortwell is a 12 year old servant to the Family, who lives alone in a shack with his sister, Susan. Yorik and Susan were orphaned when their father died, but they were allowed to continue living and working on the estate.
One afternoon, while out in the woods with his sister, Yorik has a disagreement with Thomas, the spoiled son of Lord Ravenby. Thomas, his eyes filled with an empty hate, kills Yorik. And here the real story begins.

We are nearly immediately taken into a behind-the-scenes alternate reality, where glowing hounds, living topiaries, and powerful Princesses are the norm, and Yorik has become a ghost. In his new form, he is finding new abilities as well as new limitations. He is also finding whispers of a new evil that he never knew existed, but he recognizes it as the same dead emptiness that filled Thomas' eyes before he killed him.

As Yorik struggles to figure out how to defeat this new evil, he learns the world around him is much more complex and intricate than he ever realized, and he plays a much larger part than he ever dreamed in determining whether or not that world will continue as it is.

Who should read it?
Most middle grade students will be in the mood for a good ghost story this time of year, and this story could fit the bill. The beginning is engaging, but the middle slows down quite a bit followed by a rather abrupt and anti-climactic ending. I would give this book to students who were looking for a quick, slightly spooky read.

Friday, September 9, 2011

My School Year So Far...

This August marked the beginning of my "in the classroom" experience! I am in the practicum phase of my MAT program, which is essentially my student teaching. Fortunately, I will be with my mentor teacher and my students for the entire duration of the school year! I am really excited to be able to see the growth, change and fluctuation that occurs over the course of two semesters.

As far as details go, I am at my county's middle school for first and second periods each day, for 8th grade Language Arts. So far, I have helped students construct Veteran's Day essays, created and led an activity on verbals, and observed very carefully. Regardless of what I am doing, the more I am there, the more confident I feel that I have finally meandered my way down the path I was supposed to be on.
I love being in the classroom, even if it is just for observation. I love the heady air of possibility and potential that hangs over everything each morning. Even when the kids come in sleepy or grumpy or homework-less, I'm sure that I smile like a big goon every time I see them, simply because they are living, breathing, walking, talking potential and I feel honored to have a part of shaping that potential.

As I watch my mentor teacher, take my classes, and begin to develop my own concrete ideas of what I want my classroom to look and act like, I have become a devoted convert to the reading/writing workshop method of Language Arts instruction. The atmosphere of collaboration and respectfulness are exactly what I hope to offer the students who will be in my classroom. In case you're interested (and because I always love book lists!) the two books that have led to this complete conversion are:

The Book Whisperer, by Donalyn Miller
In the Middle, by Nancie Atwell

If any of you have other reading suggestions for me, please let me know! Or if you would like to share details about what works in your classroom, I would love to read and learn from them.

In addition to student teaching, I'm also working as a Graduate Assistant in the education department at my university, and that has been wonderful as well. I'm assisting with research (which is one my most favorite things, as if I weren't nerdy enough) and I'm also taking a great English class. My plate is heaping, but great and I hope that everyone reading this has a great plate as well :-)

Happy Weekend!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Sharing: Wonderstruck

My family and I took a short road trip to visit our Indiana family today, and I brought Wonderstruck along to read in the car. Wonderstruck is the newest work by Brian Selznick, author of the Caldecott medal-winning The Invention of Hugo Cabret. I was so engrossed in this book that it pained me to leave it in the car when we arrived. I was drawn in from the first page, which is a striking sketch of two wolves running in a forest. From that point on, the book tells two parallel stories, one through text and one through the lovely sketches. As the story progresses, you begin to see overlaps and seeming coincidences, until eventually the two stories become one. 

In the text, we are following Ben, a young man who has recently lost his mother. We meet Ben as he shares a fitful night of sleep in a room with his cousin, Robby. Ben has moved in with his aunt and uncle after his mother died. As he tries to ignore Robby's radio so that he can go to sleep, he turns his good ear to the pillow to drown out the sound, and we learn that he is deaf in one ear. As the story progresses, Ben loses his hearing entirely. This adds an extra sense of urgency to the ensuing journey that we take with him. In dark hallways and dusty rooms, Ben begins to find out that all of the small intricacies that he thought made him odd actually explained parts of himself that he had not previously known existed and he finds answers to questions he never knew he had.

This book was just as incredible as I had suspected it would be, and all throughout, I just wanted to give Ben a hug. I can't possibly do this book justice. Brian Selznick creates a lovely, urgent, melancholy world within the confines of the things that I personally hold so dear - books, ephemera, history, and family.

Who should read it?
The better question is 'who shouldn't?' I plan on passing this on to a former professor of mine after I share it with my 7 year old son. The story is aching and universal.

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick will be available for sale on September 13th, 2011.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Sharing: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

This post has been months in coming, but I devoured this book in much less time than that; The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is magical.

The book was written by Catherynne Valente  and was released on May 10, 2011. I was sold as soon as I saw Neil Gaiman's endorsement on the front cover. "A glorious balancing act between modernism the Victorian fairy tale, done with heart and wisdom," he says. And he was not wrong.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is most decidedly for fans of fantasy who can lose themselves in the other worlds that lie within the pages of a good book. The book begins with a girl called September who is whisked away from her lonely household and taken on a magical journey to Fairyland. Fairyland is a place rich in sights, smells, sounds and adventure, all of which are described with a deliberate and fantastical detail that lends itself to exploration.The characters are like no others I have ever encountered; for example, one of the story's main protagonists is a Wyverary,  which is a dragon who happens to also be part library. As in, his mother was a Wyvern (a dragon) and his father was a library. Surprises abound in this book, whether it be from the characters' choices, the interesting creatures and people that September encounters, or the rich sensory experience that is found in the deliberate and engaging writing style. This book would be beautiful to hear read aloud.

Who should read it?
I would happily recommend this book to any middle grader who enjoys extremely imaginative fantasy titles.