Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang

red scarf girlReading level: 6.1
Lexile: 780
Genre: Memoir
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle school

Red Scarf Girl is a memoir chronicling Ji-Li’s life during Mao’s Cultural Revolution while she was twelve to fourteen years old. She lives a carefree, happy life until the Cultural Revolution where her family gains poor political status, her father is detained, her immediate and extended family is humiliated, and she must choose between having a bright future and siding with her counterrevolutionary parents.

While the Cultural Revolution is not new to me, Ji-Li’s memoir is still moving, educational, and distressing. It’s written so simply, perhaps for the purpose of targeting a younger audience, but the matter-of-fact way she tells her story has a great deal of impact. I think it’s important for all people, students included, to know the story of this time period, because these horrors keep repeating themselves.

What is most interesting to me, personally, about this time period is that despite all the atrocities and injustices happening to Ji-Li and her family, she doesn’t lose faith in the revolution or in Mao. In fact, in the epilogue, the now-adult Ji-Li explains that she was thoroughly brainwashed, causing her, and others, to justify what was happening. Above all else, what will stick with me from this story is the idea that humans can be so thoroughly awful to one another and that we must understand our history as much as possible so as to prevent it from happening again(or to continue happening, anyway).

I see many similarities between The Cultural Revolution and the years leading up to (and during) the Holocaust in the ways people were treated due to their background and values. Even if I cannot teach about 20th century China, I would encourage students to read Red Scarf Girl if I teach about the Holocaust.

Like I said, the language and writing is fairly simple, so it’s good for ELLs. There are evidently lots of resources for teaching Red Scarf Girl. As a whole-class read along, it would be an excellent middle-grade book to discuss this time period, family ties, resiliency, hope, fear, propaganda, injustice… I would recommend this memoir to readers who enjoy non-fiction, Chinese students interested in their history, and students who need a bit of a challenge and enjoy learning about history and the world. Vocabulary words specific to this time period are listed in the glossary in the back of the book.

Red Scarf Girl is my thirty-fourth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

Jack Black and the Ship of Thieves by Carol Hughes

Jack Black and the Ship of ThievesReading level: 4.5
Lexile: 680
Genre: Adventure, steampunk
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Jack Black is thrilled when his father, the captain of the largest airship in the world, invites him on the ship’s maiden voyage. Once aloft, Jack overhears a plot to sabotage the ship. But before he can tell his father, Jack falls, plummeting through the air to be caught in the sails of a pirate ship. Now Jack must try to convince a crew of thieves to rescue his father. . . .In this robust blend of fantasy and whirlwind adventure, Carol Hughes confronts the difficult, real-life issues of trust, loyalty, and deception.

So this is steampunk. Huh. I wasn’t expecting steampunk from the cover, which, honestly, is kind of dorky. There is an updated cover that is much more aesthetically appealing, especially for kiddos today. Overall, Jack Black is an engaging, fast-paced adventure story, great for middle school boys.

While I did enjoy the book and gave it 3 stars out of 5 on goodreads, there were many aspects that I didn’t like. The plot is formulaic, for one. I saw just about all events coming from a mile away, which is really saying something because I’m bad at that sort of thing. Second, I didn’t like Jack. Man, he really screws up everything, poor guy, and I wanted to shout at him to stop doing all sorts of things that were pretty clearly headed for disaster…but that also means I was invested and engaged, so I can’t complain too much. Lastly, there is a great deal of ship-specific vocabulary. Since I am not an expert in seafaring, I was frustrated and confused for being unable to visualize what was happening because. Readers can certainly get the gist of what’s happening (it’s a low reading level, after all), but the heavy vocabulary alone prevents me from recommending it to ELLs.

From this book, readers learn to be resilient and never give up, like Jack didn’t give up in his search for his father, and Captain Quixote didn’t give up in destroying Nemesis. An underlying theme is that making stupid decisions can pay off. For example, when Jack makes Giant Mistake #1, it apparently works out for the best. Serendipitous? Yes. Sending the wrong message? Perhaps.

Jack Black and the Ship of Thieves is my thirty-third book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

The Sweet, Terrible, Glorious Year I Truly, Completely Lost It by Lisa Shanahan

the sweet terrible gloriousReading level: 6.5 (ish)
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

Gemma Stone is convinced that it’s always unseemly to chuck a birkett and that it’s actually insane to chuck one in front of a complete stranger. But that was before she fell in love with a boy who barely knows she exists, before she auditioned for the school play, before she met the family of freaks her sister Debbie is marrying into, before the unpredictable Raven De Head took an interest in her, and before she realised that at the right time and for the right reason, a birkett could be a beautiful thing.

I’m not the biggest fan of chick lit, so I was wary initially. As it turns out, while it can certainly be classified as chick lit, it is legitimately funny and heart-wrenching and deep. My biggest issue is with that cover: it has nothing to do with the story…

It took me a good while to get into the story and to love Gemma, our narrator. Gemma is an observer. She discusses what she sees, often as if she is separate from it. Unlike Dimple in Born Confused who is incredibly introspective, Gemma seems to let most things pass before her eyes. This type of narration was annoying to me because she felt so flat, but then I realized that Gemma is a lot like me, because she tries to separate herself from crazy and stressful events happening around her. Near the end, we get a much better sense of who she is.

Speaking of the ending – I turned the page and the story was over! Oh, another part of stereotypical chick lit that I dislike is the romance, but this story stopped before things could get too soppy, which I both appreciated and was frustrated about because I wanted to know what happened!

This story teaches a few, excellent life lessons, such as not judging people based on their background, family, or past actions (i.e. Raven and the De Head family). It’s also about taking risks and going out of your comfort zone.

The Sweet, Terrible, Glorious Year I Truly, Completely Lost It is a high school book for several reasons: Gemma and her friends are in high school, there are curse words peppered throughout (though not at all excessively), and there are brief mentions of various body parts, but nothing is described in detail. That said, mature middle schoolers might enjoy it, too. The author Lisa Shanahan is Australian, and the story takes place in Australia, so the vocabulary is quite a bit different to the point where it really slowed down my reading at times. For that reason, it’s not ELL friendly, but I think it’d be okay for strong readers who are good at using context clues and/or know to skip over non-essential vocabulary they don’t know.

This book isn’t leveled with Scholastic, so my best guess is that it’s at about 6.5 (6th grade, half way through the year), if not a little higher.

The Sweet, Terrible, Glorious Year I Truly, Completely Lost It is my thirty-second book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

25 Attention-Grabbing Tips

Samer Rabadi from Edutopia published an article that will lead you to a google doc powerpoint (whatever the term for that is) about getting attention in the classroom. There are some excellent ideas, and members have added more ideas in the comments.

Will in Scarlet by Matthew Cody

Will in Scarlet

Reading level: 6.0 (ish)
Genre: Adventure
ELL-Friendly: Not particularly
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Goodreads summary:

Will Shackley is the son of a lord, and though just thirteen, he’s led a charmed, protected life and is the heir to Shackley House, while his father is away on the Third Crusade with King Richard the Lionheart.

But with King Richard’s absence, the winds of treason are blowing across England, and soon Shackley House becomes caught up in a dangerous power struggle that drives Will out of the only home he’s ever known. Alone, he flees into the dangerous Sherwood Forest, where he joins an elusive gang of bandits readers will immediately recognize.

How Will helps a drunkard named Rob become one of the most feared and revered criminals in history is a swashbuckling ride perfect for anyone who loves heroes, villains, and adventure.

I’m not terribly familiar with the Robin Hood story, so I had no expectations going into this book, which I quite enjoyed. All I knew of the Robin Hood tale was the concept of stealing from the rich to give money to the poor, and Will, one of the main characters, does this with such purpose and urgency that it just about made my heart burst. Because there were so many characters and the focus went back and forth between Will and Much, we don’t delve deeply into Will’s character, but his actions speak volumes. Part of the reason why this story bears its title is because “Scarlet” comes from Will’s conscience being drowned in the blood of the suffering peasants (er, serfs?) under his family’s control.

In essence, Will realizes he has led a sheltered life and that the people under his father’s control have been suffering in poverty. He attempts to remedy the damage he feels responsible for by giving the serfs money that is stolen from rich people. Of course, these rich people are mugged and often wounded, but I guess it’s the thought that counts.

Much’s side of the story brings in a bit of Mulan: a girl disguised as a boy. I liked her fierceness and her need to protect Will (and vice versa) even if they didn’t trust each other until the end. Will teaches us about fairness and doing what is right while Much teaches about resilience, toughness, and being true to yourself.

I incorrectly assumed that Will would become our Robin Hood, because it’s his idea to give the stolen silver to a poor family in the first place. However, it turns out that it’s Rob that’s our Robin Hood (which, admittedly, should have been obvious just from the name…). Rob teaches us about having purpose in life. One question that never got answered, however,  was how Rob’s last name became “Hood.” Anyway, minor details…

Will in Scarlet is relatively new and not yet leveled with Scholastic. My guess at a reading level is 6th grade. Since it takes place in medieval times, some of the vocabulary is complex and specific to that time period, which makes it not particularly suitable for ELLs.  In addition, people’s titles (i.e. lord) might also be confusing. It’s more of a middle grade text, but I could see high schoolers enjoying it, too.

One aspect that might upset parents is Rob’s drinking. He’s a drunk for the first part of the book but transforms once he finds purpose, thanks to Will. I would argue that drinking is painted in a negative light; Rob’s drinking makes him useless and smelly. He comes alive only when he is sober, so, if anything, students are taught that drinking is a gross habit and does not solve your problems. To be really critical, some parents might have an issue with glorifying criminals, which the Merry Men are. First, the Merry Men live difficult and dangerous lives. Secondly, the Robin Hood story has been turned into a Disney movie. Lastly, kids play video games as criminals (I think?) such as Grand Theft Auto, so being on the side of the “bad guys” is nothing new, and it’s hardly the message of the story.

Will in Scarlet  is my thirty-first book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

the golden compassReading level: 6.7
Lexile: 930
Series: His Dark Materials, book 1
Genre: Fantasy, adventure
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Goodreads summary:

Here lives an orphaned ward named Lyra Belacqua, whose carefree life among the scholars at Oxford’s Jordan College is shattered by the arrival of two powerful visitors. First, her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, appears with evidence of mystery and danger in the far North, including photographs of a mysterious celestial phenomenon called Dust and the dim outline of a city suspended in the Aurora Borealis that he suspects is part of an alternate universe. He leaves Lyra in the care of Mrs. Coulter, an enigmatic scholar and explorer who offers to give Lyra the attention her uncle has long refused her. In this multilayered narrative, however, nothing is as it seems. Lyra sets out for the top of the world in search of her kidnapped playmate, Roger, bearing a rare truth-telling instrument, the compass of the title. All around her children are disappearing—victims of so-called “Gobblers”—and being used as subjects in terrible experiments that separate humans from their daemons, creatures that reflect each person’s inner being. And somehow, both Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are involved.

My mom tried reading this book aloud to me when I was younger, but we just couldn’t get through more than a few chapters. Then, in college, I read it for a young adult lit class, and I didn’t think it was anything particularly special. But I kept hearing great things about it from students and adults, so I thought I would give it another, honest try but with audiobooks this time. The superb narration of Philip Pullman himself, along with a slew of cast members’ voices, made me into a fan.

I think that part of the reason I didn’t get into The Golden Compass as a young child and maybe even again in college is because the story is complex and not always incredibly interesting, much like The Lord of the Rings series. The writing is beautiful, the characters are excellent, but there were times when explanations just took too long! Maybe that’s just me having a short attention span. Luckily, the audiobook is done so well that I was interested in these duller moments that I probably sped through without care upon my first read-through.

Now that you know the history of this book and me, I will say that I will happily place this book and its entire series (going through the second audiobook right now) in my classroom library at either the high school or middle school level. There are two issues that parents may have, however:

1. Tartars. These are the scapegoated, faceless bad guys. Tartars were actual people, however. We wouldn’t tolerate such insensitivity if “African Americans” or “Jews” were put in the place of Tartars, would we? So why is this okay? Well, it’s not okay and it’s not excusable. However, this race of people no longer exists (says Wikipedia). I suppose it’s sort of like scapegoating “vikings.” In any case, Tartars as bad guys might be insensitive, but the issue is minor in my eyes.

2. Promoting atheism – say some sources. I don’t think it’s promoting anything or has any agenda (Pullman’s personal beliefs aside), but there are some bits that made me cringe. There is one point where Lord Asriel reads aloud a part from Genesis (straight out of the the Old Testament I assume), but some parts are changed to add in daemons, which some could see as blasphemy. While doing so may also have been insensitive to who take the Old Testament as the word of God, Pullman is using and adapting a text under his creative license. I also don’t feel as though Pullman is saying that all religious people are bad – just that people can look at religious teachings and texts to interpret them in different ways, some of which are harmful to others. This has happened in history countless times.

Even if parents get hung up on these issues, I would argue that the good outweighs the bad. The Golden Compass is an astoundingly well-written, intriguing story with rich vocabulary. It stretches readers’ mind to consider other words, and the character of Lyra is unlike any other: stubborn, brilliant, driven, resilient, loving…

It’s not ELL friendly due to complex vocabulary, however. It’s got a pretty high lexile considering it’s leveled at under the 7th grade. The Golden Compass is one of those books that younger readers can enjoy (although I didn’t, myself…) for the story while older readers can appreciate in all its intricacies, characters, and world-building. Needless to say, I’m happy to have fallen in love with this story at last.

Grit and Growth Mindset

Edutopia published an article about teaching grit and growth mindset – two things I will most certainly teach (or at least start teaching) within the first few days of school.

At this point, I’m basically just re-blogging from the original source, but one of these days I’ll have actual lesson plans to post. I hope.

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