Bridge to Terabithia – Katherine Paterson

BridgeTerabithia6Reading level: 4.6
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Jess Aarons’ greatest ambition is to be the fastest runner in his grade. He’s been practicing all summer and can’t wait to see his classmates’ faces when he beats them all. But on the first day of school, a new girl boldly crosses over to the boys’ side and outruns everyone.

That’s not a very promising beginning for a friendship, but Jess and Leslie Burke become inseparable. Together they create Terabithia, a magical kingdom in the woods where the two of them reign as king and queen, and their imaginations set the only limits.

Spoilers ahead!

There is so much packed into this tiny book that it’s hard to even begin. Let’s start with grief. I didn’t cry when I read this book, and I’m a crier. I think the reason is that I somehow knew what the tragedy was going to be from some long-ago spoiler. It saddened me, yes, but it did not break me down like The Book Thief, The Fault in Our Stars, or Walk Two Moons.

Jess’ dealing with death takes up a good quarter of the book, and it isn’t pretty. Death and grief isn’t sugarcoated or idealized. It’s messy and painful. It’s realistic. In fact, while listening to the interview with the author and her son at the end of the audio book, I learned that Leslie is based upon the author’s son’s friend who was killed at the age of 7 or 8. The book was written to help the boy cope with the death of his best friend. I think it’s realistic to believe that this book may help young people find solace upon the death of someone close to them.

I typically gripe about parents in YA lit, but not for this book. Jess’ parents were clearly difficult to live with. Neither parent (especially his father) showed him much attention, let alone love. I think that sentiment can resonate with may people, especially those who have many siblings. In the end, both parents show heartfelt compassion, revealing their love for their son even though they may not show it often. Leslie’s parents were interesting to me. They were liberal with their love but didn’t have their lives “figured out” as we typically assume parents do. I liked that their lives was an experiment and not perfect.

When I wrote about Hoot, I griped about bullies. The real bully (I cannot remember the name – when I listen to audio books, names slip  my mind too easily compared to when I read) was the prissy, popular girl. She was the stereotypical bully just like Dana from Hoot. Leslie had the courage to comfort the girl and discovered the reason why she was so mean. Leslie and Jess ended up feeling sorry for the bully because they learned to understand that she acted out to compensate for the way she was treated at home, and she was just as human and vulnerable as them.

I can count the swear words used in this book on one hand. The only part I would even vaguely worry about having parents be upset about are the parts about the Bible and God. Jess’ little sister takes the Bible literally and tells Leslie that she’ll go to hell if she doesn’t believe in it. Leslie and the little girl engage in a very genuine conversation about what may happen after one dies, how one knows what happens, and what happens if one doesn’t believe in the Bible. There is nothing offensive; simply children trying to wrap their head around the enormous ideas of God, life, and death.

English language learners may struggle with this text, despite the reading level being quite low. There is a lot of slang and double-negatives. When they’re in Terabithia, Leslie and Jess speak in a very sophisticated way to sound like royalty. Leslie also references lots of literary words from Shakespeare to Melville which may even be confusing for non-ELLs but not in a way that would ruin the book for them at all.

I saw that one person on Goodreads was upset about the teacher stereotypes in this book. There’s the beautiful, perfect music teacher and then there’s the traditional, mean mainstream teacher. However, the music teacher may have partially, although indirectly, contributed to Leslie’s death by taking Jess on a trip, while the nasty teacher was Leslie’s advocate and tried to help Jess through his grief. Although he didn’t know how to take her kind words, he knew they were meaningful and might appreciate them later. These two teachers may be stereotypically bad and good, but that dichotomy is turned on its head at the very end.

Hoot – Carl Hiaasen

hootReading level: 5.8

Genre: Realistic fiction

ELL-Friendly: Yes

Library recommendation: Middle school

This is a clever little book! It takes two (seemingly) separate plots with different characters and gradually brings them together in a way that isn’t too obvious or too confusing (as it often happens with multiple plots). One one hand, I rooted for the kids who tried to protect the owls. But on the other hand, I rooted for the adults (the policeman and the foreman) who would have killed the owls, because they were far less evil than their counterparts, the corporation folk. Talk about split loyalty.

One issue I had was that Roy’s parents were too perfect. I know I say that a lot. But the only issue he had with his parents was that they wouldn’t let him go on some adventure because they had to have family time. Ugh, family time.

However, Roy’s perfect parents were juxtaposed with Beatrice’s lousy parents (at least her step-mother). All in all, though, the story just screamed “white middle class” to me. And that’s fine. It’s just not an accurate representation of many of America’s school children.

Roy as a character was pretty awesome, and this wasn’t the typical new kid in town book. Beatrice, the token female (besides Roy’s mom and Beatrice’s step-mom) was pretty awesome, too. She was tough and stood up for herself (and others) but sensitive at times. She is introduced as a bully, but as we learn her story, we learn that she’s not really a bully at all; she’s just protective.

Dana was the classic bully, and I was bummed that we didn’t see his other side like we saw Beatrice’s. Dana clearly had a lousy home life with an abusive mom and a do-nothing father. Granted, Roy tried to patch things up with Dana, so the kid clearly had the opportunity to turn over a new leaf or what have you. However, there wasn’t that clear of a link between Dana’s home life and the reason he was a bully. I understood the link because I’m an “adult,” but will kids understand that? I think it’s a valuable lesson to explore: people are often bullies because they were bullied or at least need to make themselves feel tough because they’re compensating for a lack of self-esteem or safety. In the end, Dana was put in jail and that’s the end of him. We don’t learn to feel pity for another youth gone astray. Again, Roy treated Dana with kindness and civility (for the most part), but it came too late in Dana’s life. More than fearing for the lives of the owls, I feared for Dana. And in the end, it was Dana who was lost.

Interestingly, although the story all but ignored the reasons for Dana’s situation, it was obvious that a bad parent was the reason for Beatrice’s brother’s delinquency. The kid turned out fine, which is why we relate to and feel sorry for him, but we aren’t made to feel terrible for Dana.

Some good news is that it’s ELL-friendly, has minimal curse words, and has no romance. It’s a bit juvenile for high school shelves, but I don’t think there’s anything that might make a parent mad.

Taking a Stand Activity

Bruce E. Larson wrote an article about the “taking a stand” activity in which students learn about a controversial issue and decide which “side” they take while discussing the arguments for the purpose of understanding the issue and coming to a possible consensus.

Here are the steps:

1. Present a non-biased, brief overview of the issue.

2. Explore 2 opposing viewpoints by gathering and distributing articles for students to read.

3. Have students “take a stand” by moving to one side of the room if they are one one side of the issue, to the opposite side of the room if they oppose the first group, or to the middle of the room if they are undecided.

4. Have students discuss by having one person from one side share his or her reasoning. Then a student from the other side responds to that comment, and so forth until all ideas have been shared.

5. Then have students respond, perhaps in an essay, describing both sides, why they took the side they did, and what might be done to solve the issue.

It would be useful to discuss expectations for this activity. It’s not meant to be a debate but more of a dialogue. Students should also be careful to disagree or criticize an idea rather than the person saying it.

Give One Get One Protocol

Here’s how it works: Students draw a line down the middle of their paper. One one side they write “give one” and the other side says “get one.” The teacher asks a question or makes a statement, and students respond by writing their answers/reflections in the “give one” column.

Then students are put into groups where, one by one, each students shares what he or she wrote in that column. Whenever a student hears an idea/question/response that he or she didn’t have in the “give one” column he/she adds it to the “get one” column.

The purpose is to share ideas or questions about a specific topic so students hear various voices and opinions while also sharing their own.

ACTIVE Reading Strategies

Amy Goodman designed the acronym ACTIVE to help students be active and critical readers.

A: ask questions

C: make connections

T: track down important information

I: infer

V: visualize

E: Eureka! Synthesis (because the acronym can’t be ACTIVS I guess)

Ask questions: students learn to ask questions that will help them understand the text better rather than asking questions like “what’s the character’s favorite food/color?” Teach the difference between open-ended questions and closed questions so students can discuss and really think critically about questions that go deeper than the surface (although closed questions are good to clear up basic confusion about plot, setting, characters, etc.).

Connections: Show students how to make text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-word connections, among others.

Track down important information: Students highlight or mark with sticky notes what parts are most important. Give students 1 sticky note to cut into 3-4 strips so that students have limited choices about what is “most” important.

Inferences: Make four columns on paper and put each of these words in a column: questions, it says, I say, and so. Students first write an open-ended question. Then they support it with textual evidence –  “it says.” Then students write in their own ideas – “I say.” Finally, students come to a conclusion for the “and so” part.

Visualizing: Read aloud a passage and have students draw a picture of what they see. Display the pictures with the text around the room. It shows that the text “looks” different to everybody. Or you could do this activity where the teacher reads the passage to everybody and then small groups work together to make one illustration.

Eureka! Synthesis: Demonstrate the concept of “synthesis” by talking about how the individual ingredients of baked goods make something totally different when combined together. The same can be said for students who take multiple ideas, put them together, and come to a new idea or realization.

Magazine Pictures for Higher Order Thinking

Rather than asking students to memorize and recite definitions of vocabulary and other concepts, give each student a magazine such as National Geographic. Ask students to look through the magazines and find a picture or two that represents the word or concept being studied. Then rip out the picture that best describes that word.

If students work in groups, ask them to find a picture or two independently and then justify their choice to the rest of the group. The group then picks one picture to rip out. Then each picture it taped to the board or a large piece of paper that is clearly labeled with the word or concept being defined by the pictures.

Rather than just memorizing, students are analyzing, discussing, and evaluating while learning the content.

There are several ways to assess each student: exit slips, entrance slips the next day, asking each student to verbally explain their choice, free-write about their picture, etc. The point is that an assessment is needed because there is no way to know for sure if every student understood the concept/word in-depth or if he/she just played along and found a picture that fit with the others.


Cris Tovani wrote a chapter about teaching students how to annotate as a reading comprehension strategy. I’m not sure which book it’s from… Anyway, annotations can be used in any classroom that uses texts. Students can write directly on copied texts or write on sticky notes to place in books they cannot mark up.

Annotations take the form of students jotting down questions they have, what they relate with, and general thoughts. Annotating helps keep students’ minds focused on the reading and then helps them remember what they read when they look over their notes.

Annotations can be used as assessments to see what students are confused about, understand, or relate to when they read. Once the teacher understands what students struggle with, he/she can provide concrete interventions and tactics to help those students. Annotations can be used as a pretest to assess knowledge of a subject and can be used as a basis for mini lessons based on students’ struggles.

Teachers can take students’ questions written as annotations and type them into a document to give to the whole class, so everyone can see what questions the rest of the class had. Ms. Tovani writes students’ names next to their questions, but that might make students not want to write their questions for fear of asking a stupid or obvious question.

If a student is not annotating, ask the student what they’re thinking. As they tell you, write it down for them. Then show the student what you did and help them take over the writing. If a student says he/she’s not thinking anything, model the process by reading aloud and annotating. Have the student read and say what he/she is thinking and then help him/her write it down.

Previous Older Entries