The Apothecary by Maile Meloy

the apothecaryReading level: 5 (??)
Lexile: 740
Series: The Apothecary book 1
Genre: historical fiction, adventure
ELL-Friendly: Yes (mostly)
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Goodreads summary:

It’s 1952 and the Scott family has just moved from Los Angeles to London. Here, fourteen-year-old Janie meets a mysterious apothecary and his son, Benjamin Burrows—a fascinating boy who’s not afraid to stand up to authority and dreams of becoming a spy. When Benjamin’s father is kidnapped, Janie and Benjamin must uncover the secrets of the apothecary’s sacred book, the Pharmacopoeia, in order to find him, all while keeping it out of the hands of their enemies—Russian spies in possession of nuclear weapons. Discovering and testing potions they never believed could exist, Janie and Benjamin embark on a dangerous race to save the apothecary and prevent impending disaster.

This book was recommended to me by my fabulous cooperating teacher, and I loved it. Five minutes have passed since I finished it, and I’ve already begun the sequel.

Being a history lover, I was naturally intrigued by the setting, both the location (London, at least for a while) and the time period (1955). The Apothecary is a perfect blend of believable historical fiction with some magic thrown in there. I was completely drawn into the world Meloy had created, not to mention the lovely characters. Janie and Benjamin (and their parents) were a breath of fresh air after the maddening characters in the Divergent series that I just finished. Janie is intelligent, careful, bold, brave, and shy all at once while Benjamin is much the same with some rebellious qualities. Oh, and Pip. I wasn’t sure about him at first, but he’s sure adorable, if not a stereotypical Dickens-esque pickpocket. I’m curious to see what role he will have, if any, in The Apprentices (the sequel).

The romance is adorable and beautifully done. It isn’t soppy or inappropriate, and you can’t help but root for them. The real test of Benjamen’s love is when he has to say goodbye. Oh man, that ending…

It could find a place in both an English or social studies classroom, and it would be an excellent companion while studying WWII or the Red Scare. It’s got too much mysticism to be read as a class text for the purpose of studying history, but it would be an excellent way to get kids interested in history by doing a booktalk or using it in a book club. Something to point out, though, is that Germans, Russians, Japanese are cast in a negative light by the Americans and English, as they were at this time period. To students, I might explain why there was such negative sentiment towards these groups of people but that it’s never good to generalize or stereotype. In fact, the Russian spy and his son were an example of people trying to do “good” while so many people assumed they were evil simply because of their heritage.

Some of the beauty of this book comes from the message of peace in a time when humans have created weapons to destroy each other, Mutually Assured Destruction. The characters believe so strongly that the world can be saved from such weapons that they risk their lives so that everyone else may live. It’s an interesting look back at history and the Cold War as well as the issues we continue to face as countries around the world hold (or are suspected to hold) nuclear weapons.

The Apothecary isn’t particularly ELL-friendly because there are names in different languages as well as a pretty fantastic vocabulary, which helps add to the book’s magic. I think it would be an acceptable challenge to advanced or transitional ELLs as well as native English speakers. I disagree with the reading level being 5th grade because the vocabulary is rather complex throughout. I’d estimate it being at a 7th or 8th grade level, if not 9th.

I read somewhere that the book is written for middle schoolers, but I could see high schoolers getting into it too. It wasn’t childish or too complex for younger readers to understand.

The book can certainly stand alone, but there are so many questions left unanswered, and I desperately want to see Janie and Benjamen be reunited, although it’s implied at the end of the book that they will see each other again, although we’re unsure of the circumstances under which they will meet.

Oh, and the illustrations are beautiful.

Allegiant – Veronica Roth

AllegiantReading level: 9 (ish)
Lexile: 700 (ish)
Series: The Divergent series book 3
Genre: dystopian
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Goodreads summary:

The faction-based society that Tris Prior once believed in is shattered—fractured by violence and power struggles and scarred by loss and betrayal. So when offered a chance to explore the world past the limits she’s known, Tris is ready. Perhaps beyond the fence, she and Tobias will find a simple new life together, free from complicated lies, tangled loyalties, and painful memories.

But Tris’s new reality is even more alarming than the one she left behind. Old discoveries are quickly rendered meaningless. Explosive new truths change the hearts of those she loves. And once again, Tris must battle to comprehend the complexities of human nature—and of herself—while facing impossible choices about courage, allegiance, sacrifice, and love.

I feel like I should get a t-shirt that says, “I survived the Divergent series.” What a ride it has been. I actually liked this book the least because I was so upset with both Tris and Tobias; they were so mean to each other. More on that later. It was also just horribly depressing. I hoped maybe all the death would have ended with Insurgent, but it just got worse. So much worse.

I wrote “ish” next to the grade level and lexile because those numbers aren’t available on Scholastic since the book is still relatively new and has not been leveled. I determined the rough numbers by taking a look at the two books that came before Allegiant.

I did NOT see the plot twists coming. In a way, it was kind of a d’oh moment, like in first two Maze Runner books, but it was cleverly disguised until Roth was ready to reveal it. I’m still reeling from the awesomeness of how the plot unfolded throughout the series. When I have the courage, I’ll re-read it all and look for hints.

I felt my dislike for Tris coming on during Insurgent, and I really did try to like her more in Allegiant, but she was so mean and rude. Always. Without having to be. It got to the point where I didn’t even enjoy her character. Tobias got on my nerves a bit too. But with him, and through reading his narration, we saw how conflicted he was, how he hated parts of him that loved killing and hurting, and how weak he really was. At least I felt sorry for him. He tried harder (in my opinion) to keep his relationship with Tris alive where Tris burned bridges everywhere she went. Their fighting was so disheartening. I have to say, though, that my emotions were expertly played with, and I was rooting for both of them by the end.

You know who I really liked? Christina. I loved the way she recovered from her losses, forgave those who hurt her most, and took care of Tobias. If I were to take any cues about how to live my life, I would take them from her.

You know who else I was also kind of rooting for and feel guilty for admitting it? Peter. He was really coming around. His actions in Divergent can never be excused, but there was definite hope for him throughout Allegiant. I legitimately felt sorry for the guy at the end.

I was pleased to find three gay characters in this series: Lynn (revealed in Insurgent as her last breath), and Amar and George. It wasn’t a large part of the story, and it was just…normal. Way to spread acceptance, Ms. Roth.

Okay, so the ending. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil it if you haven’t read it. That said, one of my students told me what happens at the end, so I mentally prepared myself about a week in advance before I actually reached it. I didn’t cry my eyes out like I did with The Fault in Our Stars or The Book Thief, probably because I was as ready as I could have been. The character’s death was also so valiant that it was just…worth it. That last action redeemed this character to me, just in the nick of time. I don’t think it could have ended any other way.

It’s ELL-friendly although the reading level is fairly high. A possible issue I see parents being upset about is the one scene where Tris and Tobias sleep with their clothes off, but it’s nothing explicit. And that’s exactly what they do: sleep. Literally.

Honestly, I’m glad the series was done. It was a rough ride, but only because I was so invested in these great pieces of literature that contained so much loss and destruction. I feel like I’ve lost some friends along the way but that some of them, the ones who survived, are out there still, advocating for a humane world.

Classroom Economic System

I’ve loved the idea of having a classroom economic system ever since taking an Economics for the Teacher class in college. Some reasons for having such a system are

  • it’s fun
  • students learn responsibility
  • math skills improve
  • students learn financial and real world math
  • students learn about economics
  • students have a part in their classroom
  • less work for the teacher (once the system is in place)

It gets tricky to implement the system outside of elementary school when the same students are not in your classroom all day. There’s always the issue of finding enough time for all 5 periods (or fewer depending on if classes are blocked), but I think that allowing a few minutes at the beginning of class, during breaks and lunch, and when students finish work is acceptable. After all, students don’t want to jump straight into work when they come into your classroom; they’ve just come from another subject and need a moment to breathe.

Rafe Esquith writes a bit about his classroom economic system in There Are No Shortcuts. Some jobs that he lists and that I found on the internet or came up with on my own include:

  • banker (1 for every 5 students)
  • janitor (3)
  • police officer (monitors behaviors) (3)
  • attendance monitor (1)
  • clerks (pass out and collect papers) (3)
  • librarian (keeps track of in-coming and out-going books, writes recommendations, may give an occasional book talk, and keeps the library organized) (1)
  • gardener (waters plants) (1)
  • table/desk washer (3)
  • absent work monitor (can explain what assignments were done to student who were absent; files all worksheets; fines students for needing extra copies if they lost theirs) (1)
  • pencil monitor (because students so frequently come to class without a pencil, I will have pencils in the class with huge flowers or something large taped onto them. It’s his person’s job to make sure the tape is staying on and that the pencils are sharpened to minimize sharpening during the lesson. This person also makes sure the pencils are collected at the end of the period). (1)
  • display monitor (hangs up student work, hangs up abandoned/no-name papers) (2)
  • planner monitor (writes due-dates on master planner in classroom; writes notes for the teacher about how far the class got in each assignment to help the teacher remember where to begin class each day when classes become out of sync) (1)
  • current events reporter (brings in newspaper clipping or notes from a news story about what is happening in the world/the city; student may share in class once per week or upkeep a bulletin board with the information; students may alternate weeks that they will look up current events but both students will work on the bulletin board together) (2)
  • rent monitor (makes sure everyone pays their rent. This student may meet with the banker to get a list of anyone who hasn’t paid and will be in charge of getting the money from that student or enforcing the rule that if a student can’t pay his rent, he sits on the floor) (1)
  • grade monitor (students show proof of getting an A to this student and he/she will write them an invoice) (1)
  • supervisor (makes sure all jobs are being done well; will report to the banker and teacher if a student isn’t doing a good job and should not be paid) (1)
  • work station monitor (makes sure there are enough resources and that they are in working condition, such as glue, scrap paper, pencil sharpener, etc.) (1)

There aren’t enough jobs for each student in the class to have one, but I’m working on coming up with more.

On the first day of school or so, students are given a brief overview of each job, collect the job descriptions of the ones they’re interested in, and apply.

The idea is that students get paid once or twice per month for doing their jobs, and they must pay rent to sit in their seats. Therefore, everyone must have a job. Monetary incentives are given for As, having perfect attendance, finishing a book, writing a book review for the class, doing a book talk, researching a current event for the current events board, etc. When students get an A, have perfect attendance, etc., they must go to the appropriate person whose job it is to monitor that aspect of the classroom economy. That person will write each student an invoice which will be taken to the banker. Upon payday, the banker will add up the money and write one final check to each student.

Money is charged when students are tardy, turn in an assignment late, need another copy of an assignment that students have lost, are rude/mean, have late rent payment, are dishonest, etc. When students are charged money, they are docked pay and given a ticket from the appropriate person. If they were tardy for example, the attendance person will write them a ticket. The tardy student will write a check to the attendance monitor which will be given to the banker. If a student loses a paper and needs another, they will go to the absent work monitor. That person will then issue a ticket. If a student is mean or rude, the teacher will call him/her on it, and the police officer in that student’s jurisdiction will issue a ticket to the rude student. If students don’t do their job, they are docked their pay or not paid at all.

The banker writes the checks to the students at payday. When students deposit or cash their checks, they keep track of the amount in each student’s account (for simplicity’s sake, let’s say that there are no savings accounts, just checking), collect rent checks, and cash checks. The banker will collect all invoices and accept checks for issued tickets. That’s a lot of work for one student to do, so there is one banker for every 5 students. Because it’s the most work, they are paid the most.

Rafe has auctions every so often at which students can spend their money. Money can also be spent on books (your local bookseller may be willing to give you a box of advance reader copy (ARC) books for free), coupons for lunch with the teacher, buying one’s seat (for 3x the rent price so one doesn’t have to pay rent), or buying another student’s seat so that the student must pay the owner each month. Other incentives may also be offered such as sitting in the teacher’s chair/a beanbag chair for an allotted amount of time.

It’s a wee bit of a complex system, but I think it can work like a well-oiled machine provided there is enough time. Not every student would do every job every day. For example, the librarian would organize the books maybe once per week, especially since there may be multiple classes with a librarian in each. Each job would have a monthly schedule made by the teacher.

Eragon – Christopher Paolini

eragonReading level: 7.8
Lexile: 710 (I doubt this is correct…)
Series: The Inheritance Cycle book 1
Genre: fantasy
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

When Eragon finds a polished blue stone in the forest, he thinks it is the lucky discovery of a poor farm boy; perhaps it will buy his family meat for the winter. But when the stone brings a dragon hatchling, Eragon soon realizes he has stumbled upon a legacy nearly as old as the Empire itself.

Overnight his simple life is shattered, and he is thrust into a perilous new world of destiny, magic, and power. With only an ancient sword and the advice of an old storyteller for guidance, Eragon and the fledgling dragon must navigate the dangerous terrain and dark enemies of an Empire ruled by a king whose evil knows no bounds.

There is quite a bit of politics behind this series, and I was wary to begin. Lots of people hate the books because it’s poor writing, it’s a rip-off of The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, and it’s nothing special in the world of fantasy literature.

Much of the writing, plot, and names of people and places did remind me a lot of The Lord of the Rings. I can’t speak to the Star Wars part because I can’t stay awake through the movies. But I actually thought the writing wasn’t terrible for a fifteen year old. I mean, some of it was cheesy and I inwardly “d’oh’d” a few times, but I thought it was pretty okay.

I just couldn’t get into Eragon very much. I’m going to continue with the series because I want it to pick up and because I hate giving up on a series, not because I was actually intrigued. I really want to care about Eragon and his journey, but I’m having a hard time.

I zoned out frequently when I listened to the audiobook, so maybe I just missed it, but what I think the book is missing is urgency. I rooted for Frodo because the world was going to turn into, I don’t know, terribleness, if he didn’t destroy the ring, and Voldemort was going to kill basically everybody if Harry didn’t kill him. So what is Eragon trying to accomplish again? He’s helping a cousin we don’t know much about? And he’s trying to stop a tyrannical ruler? Well that’s nice.

The lack of females was irritating, as was the elf character, one of the token females. Eragon was all kerfuffled because the elf was going to fight rather than run away with the other women. Uh, no. We’ve been through this with my rant in the Lord of the Rings series. To Paolini’s credit, the elf is clearly physically strong, cunning, and smart, but she’s also treated like she’s helpless, needing to be rescued and all. But hey, the author was a teenage boy, what can you do?

The book isn’t particularly ELL-friendly with the magic words and complex names. I can’t even keep track of them all.

I recommend this book for middle schoolers. I feel silly saying that, because so many of my 6th graders are already devouring the series without me “recommending” it to them.

Lastly, someone on goodreads pointed out that Eragon = dragon but with an E. Not sure how I feel about that…which pretty much sums up my whole experience with this book. But we press onward!