Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Aristotle and DanteReading level: 5.0 (ish)
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.

Like Eleanor and Park, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe has a lot of hype surrounding it, but it lived up to every ounce of that hype. It is as complex and stunningly beautiful as the book cover, and I wish it never had to end. It was that kind of book.

This story has a lot of levels. First, there is deep friendship between the two boys. Then there’s the sexuality and romance. Add to that Ari’s coming of age a Mexican-American confused about identity and angry about an absent brother wrapped together in prose that feels like poetry. It’s not a book driven by plot. Rather, it’s driven by Ari moving forward with his life and plodding through his thoughts to discover himself in all his teenage boyness.

I would recommend this book to more mature readers who enjoy beautiful, deep stories and don’t need to be entertained by a fast-moving plot. Readers must be willing to open their hearts to these characters and to be gentle and nonjudgmental, as you would treat a friend. I might also recommend it to a boy searching for his identity, whether gay or not, but girls could easily enjoy this story, too. It’s definitely not boy-exclusive.

I adore Dante and Aristotle, of course, but I also love each of their parents. I’m not sure if I’ve ever read a book with such realistic and fantastic parents. So often in YA lit, parents are either perfect or so flawed that you really can’t forgive them. These parents are flawed and forgivable and generally wonderful. I’ve spent way too long on this paragraph and have written so little, so I’ll move on…

I would give it a PG-13 sticker due to language and brief discussions of boy body parts and sex stuff. It’s nothing out of the ordinary for teenage boys to be thinking about, and nothing more graphic than kissing happens, but it’s still there.

Because the characters are in high school and the writing moves slowly, I would recommend it to high schoolers over middle schoolers. As a middle schooler, I was not about to slow down and savor a character or beautiful prose, and that is half the story! But a more mature middle schooler might just fall in love with the story…

Pick up Aristotle and Dante when you’re feeling introspective and when you’re not in a hurry. A nice cup of tea would go nicely.

Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff

Pictures of Hollis WoodsReading level: 4.5
Lexile: 650
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle school

Summary:

Hollis Woods is an orphan and foster child, constantly bouncing from home to home, never really belonging while gaining a reputation for being nothing but trouble.  She is placed with a loving, elderly artist, and Hollis thinks she’s found her forever home at last. She realizes quickly that the woman she’s come to love is losing her memory and cannot support them. So Hollis takes the situation into her own hands, and they both run away together.

Pictures of Hollis Woods, I feel, is nothing particular new or moving. Orphan girl wants family, runs away, finds family, runs away again, finds family. What I thought was  interesting is the way this story is told. Hollis goes between past and present: the past of living with Steven’s family and the present of living with Josie. She remembers the past by recalling the pictures she drew. Pictures are Hollis’ way of making sense of her present, remembering the past, and, as it turns out, interpreting the past in order to make informed decisions for the future.

I would recommend this story to kids who enjoyed The Road to Paris and/or kids who enjoy slow-paced, deep, realistic fiction rather than fast-paced action. There is also a bit of mystery in the story about why Hollis left Steven’s family, and there is the anticipation of what will happen when Hollis and Josie flee together. I might also recommend Pictures of Hollis Woods to students who so badly want a loving family. Hollis teaches us that there is always hope and that to find hope, you must be resilient.

The reading level, lexile, and age of our main character (she’s 12) make this book best suited for middle school. From what I recall (again, I wasn’t paying super close attention), it’s ELL-friendly with pretty simple vocabulary. It might be helpful for students to know words such as picture, pencil, painting, shading, etc., because so much of Hollis’ identity is in her pictures.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor and ParkReading level: 5.5 ish
Genre: Romance
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

Two misfits.
One extraordinary love.

Eleanor… Red hair, wrong clothes. Standing behind him until he turns his head. Lying beside him until he wakes up. Making everyone else seem drabber and flatter and never good enough…Eleanor.

Park… He knows she’ll love a song before he plays it for her. He laughs at her jokes before she ever gets to the punch line. There’s a place on his chest, just below his throat, that makes her want to keep promises…Park.

Set over the course of one school year, this is the story of two star-crossed sixteen-year-olds—smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try.

Everything about reading Eleanor & Park made me nervous. I tend to dislike romance stories to begin with, but mostly this book had a lot to live up to from its multiple awards to its apparently incredible author. I’m please to say that I have no regrets. Eleanor & Park is a gorgeous book through and through.

Just from reading the above Goodreads summary, you can get a sense of the poetic language. For most of the story, the plot is slow moving, the author focusing on small moments and examining them up close. She alternates perspectives but unlike Flipped (that’s the only example I can think of right now), it’s not the same scene told twice. Eleanor and Park take up where the other leaves off.

The romance is sweet, of course. Looking back, though, what I appreciated the most is the juxtaposition of Eleanor and Park’s families. Park has it all and takes it all for granted. Eleanor has no money and a struggling family and is very cognizant of how her background is different from Park’s. I can only hope that kids (or adults for that matter) who read this book take a moment to think about what they have and to be thankful for it, no matter how much or little. Throughout the story, Eleanor’s classmates bully her because she’s different, but perhaps if they knew how she lived and with whom, they would have treated her with respect. Here is another reminder to not judge anyone harshly because everybody is fighting their own battles.

Tina is one of those bullies (or so we’re led to believe), and although she never seems like a kind, good person, she comes around to Eleanor in the end. It’s always heartwarming when the bully makes a change for the better. Doing something kind is never wasted.

Because this book has won so many YA awards, I was surprised at the language. There’s a lot of swearing and some crass sexual phrases as well. For those reasons, I’d put a rated-R sticker on my book if I were to put it in my classroom library. It’s definitely geared more towards high school because of language and the age and situations of our characters, so I might keep it off the middle school shelf unless it’s 8th grade.

I realize now that I was so wrapped up in the book that I forgot to think about its suitability for ELLs. Now that the book is back at the library, I can’t go back and look, but my memory says it’s not ELL-friendly for the most part. It has a lot of references to bands and comics from the ’70s. While that may seem like a small detail, these conversations make up the bulk of Eleanor and Park’s conversations at the beginning of the story.

I’ve been asked if Eleanor & Park is worth reading and if it lives up to the hype. I would say yes. It’s not a book that will necessarily knock your socks off, but you’ll find yourself closing the book for a second and thinking, “Wow.” Read it slowly and savor it.

The Name of This Book is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch

The Name of this Book is SecretReading level: 5.3
Lexile: 810
Series: Secret book 1
Genre: Adventure, humor
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Warning: this description has not been authorized by Pseudonymous Bosch. As much as he’d love to sing the praises of his book (he is very vain), he wouldn’t want you to hear about his brave 11-year old heroes, Cass and Max-Ernest. Or about how a mysterious box of vials, the Symphony of Smells, sends them on the trail of a magician who has vanished under strange (and stinky) circumstances. And he certainly wouldn’t want you to know about the hair-raising adventures that follow and the nefarious villains they face. You see, not only is the name of this book secret, the story inside is, too. For it concerns a secret. A Big Secret.

I may have overlooked this entire series had an 8th grader at my student teaching placement not pointed it out to me. If the description and title look a little wacky, you’re right. The Name of This Book is Secret was pretty fun, not to mention snarky. It compares to The Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket with the author’s coming through to interject explanations along with abundant danger and mystery.

This story is geared towards younger middle school/upper elementary, yet the lexile range is fairly high, making it not very well suited for ELLs. The vocabulary is pretty sophisticated although the plot itself is not. I think that this whole series could appeal to kids who are reluctant readers if they aren’t below the 5th grade reading level.

I decided about half way through this book that I wouldn’t continue with the series. I’ve been bored with middle level YA lately, but I am still interested in how the rest of the stories play out. There’s just 1000000 more books I’d rather read. That said, the Cass/Max-Earnest duo is excellent. (Unfortunately Max-Earnest seems to have no similarities to Max Ernst.) They are unlikely friends, and they’re not perfect. However, they find ways to overcome their differences. And of course our villains are excellent. Very mysterious. ;) This story teaches loyalty and bravery and does so in a clever way.

I’d recommend this book to (like I said) reluctant readers, kids with a good sense of humor, and those who like adventure/mystery.

Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta

Finnikin of the RockReading level: 5.4
Lexile: 820
Series: Lumatere Chronicles book 1
Genre: Fantasy
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

At the age of nine, Finnikin is warned by the gods that he must sacrifice a pound of flesh to save his kingdom. He stands on the rock of the three wonders with his friend Prince Balthazar and Balthazar’s cousin, Lucian, and together they mix their blood to safeguard Lumatere.

But all safety is shattered during the five days of the unspeakable, when the king and queen and their children are brutally murdered in the palace. An impostor seizes the throne, a curse binds all who remain inside Lumatere’s walls, and those who escape are left to roam the land as exiles, dying by the thousands in fever camps.

Ten years later, Finnikin is summoned to another rock–to meet Evanjalin, a young novice with a startling claim: Balthazar, heir to the throne of Lumatere, is alive. This arrogant young woman claims she’ll lead Finnikin and his mentor, Sir Topher, to the prince. Instead, her leadership points them perilously toward home. Does Finnikin dare believe that Lumatere might one day rise united? Evanjalin is not what she seems, and the startling truth will test Finnikin’s faith not only in her but in all he knows to be true about himself and his destiny.

I am not the first to be impressed by this book, and I hope to do it justice with this review. This is one of those books where I had the feeling I was in the presence of something great but didn’t quite know for sure until about the middle and I realized, wow, this is pretty excellent. Not to mention the giant plot twist. In particular (and I am not the first to say this, either), the world-building is fantastic. It compares to The Lord of the Rings in that way, minus unnecessary details and complexities.

I struggled to get into the characters, but now that the first book is over, Finnikin and Evanjalin are sticking with me. Finnikin of the Rock focuses less on character development for a majority of the story and more on the struggles of the people of Lumatere. But through that shared struggle and how each person deals with it, we come to learn more about each character, little by little. This is one of those stories that legitimately needs a sequel or two to build on the characters. I’m going to be really upset if Finnikin and Evanjalin are not highlighted in the books to come.

Most importantly, these characters are so real. They’re not perfect and don’t always make good decisions. They are inconsistent with their strengths and falter when heroes in fairy tales would not. This is fantasy at its finest because it could almost, almost be real. Or so I’d like to think.

There are a few school-inappropriate parts that include Froi attempting to rape Evanjalin, Finnikin going to a whore, and brief foul language. These first two “issues” aren’t graphic and are in fact pretty subtle. We actually come to like Froi, and Evanjalin does too, although she never forgives him. But even though he almost commits one of the worst crimes a person can do to another, we can’t help but see the better side of Froi as he sees the best in himself.

I would recommend Finnikin of the Rock to fans of fantasy, particularly those who enjoy The Lord of the Rings or books like The False Prince/fantasy books involving royalty.

Because the lexile is high and names of people and places are complicated, it’s not very ELL friendly. The interest level is actually 9th grade, but I think it would be fine for upper middle school. I’d put a pg-13 sticker on it for the near rape of Evanjalin, those pesky whores stepping into the picture, language, and general violence. But again, there’s nothing graphic that might outrage anybody. The closest I got to being offended was the near-forgiveness of Froi for his attempted rape.

BuzzFeed Teacher Hacks

BuzzFeed published an article about teacher hacks that mostly pertain to behavior management.

Here are the hacks that I fond the most interesting:

  • stamp the papers of students’ who are working quietly/on task. Don’t even say anything. Just start stamping. Stamps might mean nothing or might be worth a special point or ticket towards a prize.
  • use table cloths as backdrops of bulletin boards

Oh, I guess that’s all that I thought was clever.

Not Classroom Economy

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking over the months about the practicality of implementing a successful classroom economy system, especially within my first few years of teaching. I think that the smarter decision would be to simplify greatly until I’m ready to take on more.

Here are some of my current ideas to reward behavior, citizenship, and schoolwork.

First, produce tickets that reward three different skills/behaviors:

1. grades (scholar dollars)
2. behavior and classroom chores (citizen dollar)
3. reading (reading dollar; given as kids finish books)

The teacher gives the tickets to students as the behaviors happen. There might also be a kiddo or two that are the teachers’ helpers who spot good behavior and students who are helping around the classroom. These kids can be compensated with extra citizen dollars.

Each ticket can be filled out by the student and put into a raffle.

At the end of each week, the teacher will draw two winners from each of the sections. One winner will be chosen randomly. The other winner will be pre-chosen and will be the teacher’s choice.

The prizes might be small school supplies trinkets.

At the end of each month, super prizes are given out in each category to reward students who worked exceptionally hard. These prizes might include fancy school supplies such as a nice pen or notebook, and books for the reading winners.

Every few months there may be an all or nothing challenge in one of the categories in which ALL students must have at least one ticket in the raffle or nobody gets anything. The prize for having everybody in the raffle might be an educational movie period, educational art project, the teacher dresses up in something funny, or something else educational and fun that rewards the whole class.

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