Cousins by Virginia Hamilton

cousinsReading level: 5.5
Lexile: 550
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Cammy loves her family – except for her cousin Patty Ann. Though she knows she shouldn’t feel this way, she can’t help it. Patty Ann is too perfect to like, too perfect to be a friend.

If the summary is any indication about the simplicity of Cousins, you’ll understand why I gave up half way through this book. I thought it was boring and overly simplistic as it is told through the narration of a young girl. What kept me reading all the way to page 70 was that I had a student in mind who I thought might like this story, so I tried to like it, too.  I’ll keep the book, but I doubt many students will pick it up.

The story is simplistic, yes, but it also has bigger issues such as aging and death, love and friendship, teenage alcoholism, and eating disorders. The latter two are only toughed upon in the first half, and I doubt they are discussed in much depth later on.

I would recommend this story to students who need simple stories and don’t necessarily need a plot to be interested. Those students are few and far between, but, like I said, I had a student in mind while I read Cousins. It’s not particularly ELL-friendly due to sentence fragments, colloquialisms, and some Ebonics.

Journey of the Sparrows by Fran Leeper Buss

Journey of the SparrowsReading level: 6.3
Lexile: 760
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: Mostly
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Nailed into a crate in the back of a truck, fifteen-year-old Maria, her older sister, Julia, their little brother, Oscar, and a boy named Tomas endure a terrifying and torturous journey across the U.S. border and then north to Chicago. There they struggle to find work-cleaning, sewing, washing dishes-always fearful of arrest and deportation back to the cruelties of El Salvador. By turns heartbreaking and hopeful, this moving story of the secret lives of immigrants is not to be missed.

If you’re like me, you may not be too thrilled about reading a book with such heavy content. I was a few chapters into the story when I realized that Journey of the Sparrows had gripped me. I couldn’t put it down as I wondered what would happen to Maria and her family.

This story is also painfully realistic, making me think about immigration a bit differently. Students whose families are recent immigrants, who must provide for their family, and who take care of younger relatives might identify with Maria’s story. Students who have no experience with immigration might read this story and see the world differently.

Maria is a resilient and kind young woman, and I can’t help but admire her. Her relationship with Tomas is also beautiful in the way they care for each other but are too young to know exactly what to do about it. The story is painful, yes, but it is full of hope. It’s similar to Esperanza Rising in that the main characters are young women who learn to take care of their family, but in different ways. Maria has always known hardship whereas Esperanza is new to it.

My copy of the book is old and outdated. The over is pretty uninteresting-looking, but I might do a book talk about asking students to think about what it might be like to flee your country out of necessity and arrive in a foreign country in which you know few people, don’t speak the language, don’t have a job, and can be deported at any minute. And suppose half of your family is in another country and you must act quickly to save up and send money to bring them to you. I’m willing to bet that many students haven’t thought about this at all.

It has a pretty low reading level, which leads me to think the book is best suited for middle school, but it’s definitely appropriate and potentially engaging at the high school level. A few minor red flags are mentions of rape and prostitution, although neither acts are specifically stated. Unless you are a careful reader with background information and inference skills, you’ll miss the references. Some of the vocabulary is complex, making it not completely suitable for ELLs, but it would be an okay book for a strong (L3 – L4) reader.

Journey of the Sparrows is my twenty-seventh book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

Grow Your Brain

Donna Wilson of Edutopia wrote an article about brain plasticity and teaching kids about how you get smarter. I definitely want to start the year off teaching students how they learn and that they must Grow Their Brain by trying hard, practicing, and pushing themselves, because no matter how “bad” students are at a subject, they CAN get better and smarter.

I definitely need to research this more, but I want to present some information about this subject to get students interested, and then maybe I’ll “turn them loose” to research, which will allow me to teach research skills and note taking. They can work together and learn collaboration, then write about and present the information to practice writing and public speaking.

I also want to have a big poster in my room that says GROW YOUR BRAIN.

The First 5 Minutes a la The Nerdy Teacher

I read a post by The Nerdy Teacher where he discusses using the first 5 minutes of class as time for students to chat with each other and time for the teacher to chat and get to know the students. Part of the rationale is that by getting the chatting out of the way at the beginning, students are much more ready to go by the time class begins 5 minutes after the bell.

I am all in favor of this. If chatting at the beginning makes management and engagement better throughout the rest of the period, using the first 5 minutes for this purpose is well worth it.

What I’ve been taught to do is start class with a warm-up or a Right Now activity. To incorporate this new idea of the first 5 minutes, I might direct conversation towards something in the news or a new movie coming out so that all students can chat about basically the same thing before having a focused discussion or a writing prompt later. Or the task might be something small and quick like correcting grammar in a paragraph where students can work together and still have time to chat after finishing.

Or, using the first 5 minutes as chatting time might be used as incentive for good behavior: if students can get on task and get their materials ready in a timely manner, the next day they can have 5 minutes of chatting as they get settled.

8 Ways to Use Music in the Language Arts Classroom

Heather Wolpert-Gawron from Edutopia posted an article about using music in the language arts classroom, so here are the activities listed, copied and pasted verbatim:

#1 Songs to Teach Academic Vocabulary

Using music as an aid in memorization is just plain smart. Add in songs that are focused in your content area, and they’re gold. That’s why history teachers still use “Elbow Room” from Schoolhouse Rock fame to introduce the concept of exploration. As a Language Arts middle school teacher, I love the Princeton Review Vocab Minute podcast. You can look through the list of short minute-long songs that teach concepts from word origins to synonyms.

#2 Lyrics as Poetry

I love looking at lyrics through a poetic lens. Clearly I’m not alone because my own second-grader’s teacher sent him home with the printed out lyrics to Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive.” My son had circled the nouns and underlined action verbs. In my own classroom, I have even had students create a web trying to trace the logic from Willie Nelson’s version of “I Am My Own Grandpa.”

#3 Songs as Writing Prompts

Picture this. The students enter the classroom. John Williams is playing on the speakers. Maybe it’s the ominous opening from the film Jaws or the flying sequence from Hook. Now write.

#4 Music to Aid in Role-Playing

Earlier this year, my students embarked on a project-based learning unit that I developed based on the United Nations. On each day, we had music from the different nations playing, national anthems, processional marches, etc…as we role-played as ambassadors to the U.N.

#5 Developing Playlists to Teach Narrative

I once did a great project when I was in eighth grade in Ms. Sauve’s class that’s always stuck with me. We had to develop an album cover, complete with visuals on the front and a song list on the back. We then had to include a dust jacket that had lyrics to each of the songs. As I think about it, there would be something interesting to have the students develop a mythical playlist, a mix-tape of sorts, that tells a story through its song titles.

#6 Jingles to Teach Persuasive

Commercials jingles are a great way to show that people are writing persuasively in many genres and in many modalities. Have students analyze a jingle as you might analyze an article or review. Better yet, have them write one.

#7 Reviews as Literary Analysis

Music reviews are persuasive, sure, but they are also a form of literary analysis. Look at Amazon reviews or Rolling Stone reviews for elements of analysis. Have students listen to the music they are referring to. Did the reviewer miss the boat? Do they agree with the review and what evidence can they bring to the table to prove their analyses?

#8 Music to take “Syn-naps”

Last, but not least: simply turn on a good tune every now and then. I talk a lot about Judy Willis’ concept of “syn-naps.” This is when you wake up the brain by jolting it a bit. Sometimes you can use an image stuck in the middle of a Powerpoint slide, but music works beautifully as well, flicking the groggy brain into wakefulness. It doesn’t have the last long, merely a stanza or two, but enough to get the oxygen back to their noggin’ and the alertness back in their eyes.

An Island Far from Home by John Donahue

An Island Far from HomeReading level: 5.5
Lexile: 690
Genre: Historical fiction
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

The twelve-year-old son of a Union army doctor killed during the fighting in Fredericksburg comes to understand the meaning of war and the fine line between friends and enemies when he begins corresponding with a young Confederate prisoner of war.

Sometimes I bring home really boring-looking YA books that are in the “free” pile at the library. It’s sort of like picking up a hitchhiker: it could be a very bad idea, but you also feel bad for the person and decide to give him/her a ride and do a good deed. Basically, adopting one of these books is a bargain. This one was a “meh” bargain in that it wasn’t terrible but kids probably won’t read it.

An Island Far from Home has a genuinely interesting premise: a kid communicates with an “enemy” kid on the other side of the war. The overall message is that we are all human and that war hurts everyone. It’s also just a sweet story of friendship. Unfortunately, it’s not very well-written and it’s not terribly engaging. It’s more suited for upper elementary and lower middle school. It’s also not very ELL-friendly with outdated vocabulary (from the Civil War) and regional dialects with strong accents.

A book talk could get students interested even if the book itself is a bit of a letdown. I’d begin by saying: imagine that the US is in the middle of a war with Canada (or another country), and a Canadian killed one of your family members. You have the opportunity to write a letter to a kid your age who is an enemy prisoner. Would you write that letter? Is it possible for you and this “enemy” to be friends?

All that said, I won’t get rid of this book just yet. It’s a solid addition to the historical fiction shelf if I wind up teaching middle school. It could be highlighted when learning about the civil war or when a reading challenge is about reading books with dorky covers.

An Island Far from Home is my twenty-sixth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen

The False PrinceReading level: 6
Lexile: 710
Series: The Ascendance Trilogy, book 1
Genre: Adventure, fantasy
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Goodreads summary:

In a discontent kingdom, civil war is brewing. To unify the divided people, Conner, a nobleman of the court, devises a cunning plan to find an impersonator of the king’s long-lost son and install him as a puppet prince. Four orphans are recruited to compete for the role, including a defiant boy named Sage. Sage knows that Conner’s motives are more than questionable, yet his life balances on a sword’s point — he must be chosen to play the prince or he will certainly be killed. But Sage’s rivals have their own agendas as well.

As Sage moves from a rundown orphanage to Conner’s sumptuous palace, layer upon layer of treachery and deceit unfold, until finally, a truth is revealed that, in the end, may very well prove more dangerous than all of the lies taken together.

Okay wow. Let’s start with that.

At first, I didn’t know what to make of Sage. I started to really dislike him because of his arrogance, but he grew on me quickly, especially after his insecurities become clearer and we see that he can be a kind (and incredibly clever) person. By the end, I learned to not necessary love him but admire him a great deal.

Conner reminded me of Mayor Prentiss from the Chaos Walking Series. Both are excellent villains that part of me loathed and part of me wanted to trust because they are so convincing. With the exceptions that I’ll write about in a second, all the characters are unique, complex, and amazingly written. Listening to the author talk about them, you’d think they were sitting with her while she wrote the story.

The only part that bothered me about The False Prince was the lack of women. There are two female characters. One is the princess who will marry the prince, but she has a minor say in all of this and doesn’t want to marry Prince Jaron but has to anyway. The second female is Imogen. She is content being a slave, takes beatings and verbal punishments, and, for reasons I cannot understand, trusts Sage with her deepest secret. The princess will probably have a larger role later in the series, and I have every hope that she will show her true colors and be another great character. My audiobook copy has a section at the end where Jennifer Nielsen talks about her book and the characters, and I think Imogen will redeem herself, too. Nielsen has plans for these ladies.

It’s basically ELL-friendly except for names of people and places and maybe some vocabulary here and there. The setting reminds me of Europe in the last few hundred years, thus making various names sound outdated. I could really see boys getting into this series because, like I said, there are only 2 female characters, it’s not all romantic, it’s full of adventure, and there are surprises, deceit, and danger at every turn.

I’m not going to spoil anything, but there are a few plot twists that really got me – in the best possible way. Nielsen writes the story from Sage’s viewpoint, and just as Conner and the boys are lying to and deceiving each other, Sage is keeping details from the reader that we would never suspect.

The False Prince is my twenty-fifth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

Classroom Reading Challenges

Reading challenges are great ways to motivate people to read, kids and adults alike. I came up with an idea to make reading challenges a part of the classroom all year round by having a new challenge each month.

Challenges may include:

  • read a book with a dorky cover
  • read a “girl book” if you’re a guy; read a “guy book” if you’re a girl
  • read a genre outside your comfort zone
  • read more pages than you ever have before
  • read a book about a different culture
  • finish a series you’ve started
  • read a book where the main character is gay/Native American/African American/not American
  • read a scary/horror book (good for October)
  • read a biography
  • make up your own reading challenge (which students can do any month)

Participation in challenges are voluntary. Those who participate write up some kind of report/make a poster/something fun. If the product is of high quality, each participant is rewarded with something small. Rewards might include:

  • lunch with the teacher (that’s still a cool thing, right?)
  • book mark
  • money for classroom economy
  • gift cards of small amounts
  • school supplies bundle (baggie with pencil, eraser, sharpener…)
  • coupon to sit in the reading lounge of the classroom

Goodness, all of these are great for middle school but not high school. We all know what grades I’m meant to teach…

In addition to those rewards, each student who participates can put their name in a jar for a raffle/lottery. The student who’s chosen gets the grand prize. That prize may include:

  • gift card to a book store
  • a book of the teacher’s choice
  • a book of the student’s choice

Students who have won the grand prize are not eligible to win again but can participate each month and get the smaller prizes.

Burger Wuss by M.T. Anderson

Burger WussReading level: 5.4
Lexile: 420
Genre: Realistic fiction, general fiction
ELL-Friendly: Not particularly
Library recommendation: High school, (middle school okay)

Goodreads summary:

Anthony has never been able to stand up for himself —- that is, not until his girlfriend is in someone else’s arms. Then Anthony vows revenge and devises the Plan. It begins with getting a job at the fast-food restaurant where his nemesis happens to be a star employee. But when the Plan is finally in place, will Anthony’s hunger for revenge be satisfied? Will he prove he’s not a wuss?

I bought Burger Wuss when I realized I needed some “boy books,” and the cover looks like it’ll appeal to boys, right? I think I was right. The main character Anthony is a boy, and he struggles with a bully and girl problems. Typical boy stuff. It’s a light, quick read and is pretty funny if you get the satire.  And honestly, M.T. Anderson’s writing bugs me, but the plot was engaging enough that I actually enjoyed the story.

Burger Wuss is a good example of an engaging book where you want to punch the main character in the face. He’s kind of immature, not to mention awkward and annoying. He goes on and on about how Turner stole his girlfriend, as if the girl had no say in the situation. Fortunately, the girl sets Anthony right and explains it was her choice, too, and that she doesn’t belong to anybody. Okay, come to think of it, there were no characters I actually liked. I’m sure Anderson did that on purpose as some statement about the idiocy of America’s youth or something. He’s into that sort of thing.

I really enjoyed the message of the story: an eye for an eye doesn’t make you feel good; stooping to your enemy’s level to beat him does not make you brave. Anthony might still be a dweeb by the end of the book, but at least he understands who he is a little better and embraces his niceness, even if it makes him a “wuss.”

Scholastic claims that the interest level is 6th grade. I could see that, but this book needs a pg-14 sticker. There’s a good amount of swearing, Anthony and his friend talk about sex (but nothing graphic or in-depth), there are references to drinking and smoking week, and there are several recounts of the scene where Anthony’s “nemesis” is found laying half-naked on top of a girl. I have few qualms about putting it in a middle school library, but I could see it making pre-pubescent readers uncomfortable – hence the pg-14 rating.

It’s not particularly ELL-friendly due to frequent colloquialisms and sentence fragments. The writing in general is choppy, which is undoubtedly another statement about how youth think and speak. I think that if ELLs have a decent command of conversational speech (BICS), then they’ll be okay, though.

Burger Wuss is my twenty-fourth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

The Shadow Thieves by Anne Ursu

the shadow thievesReading level: 5.4
Lexile: 850
Genre: Myth, fantasy
Series: Cronus Chronicles, book 1
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

See that girl, the one with the bright red hair, overstuffed backpack, and aura of grumpiness? That’s Charlotte Mielswetzski. And something extra-ordinary is about to happen to her.

Oh, it’s not the very cute kitten that appears out of nowhere and demands to go home with her. It’s not the sudden arrival of her cousin Zee, who believes he’s the cause of a mysterious sickness that has struck his friends back in England. It’s not her creepy English teacher Mr. Metos, who takes his mythology lessons just a little too seriously. And it’s not the white-faced, yellow-eyed men in tuxedos, who follow Charlotte everywhere.

What’s so extraordinary is not any one of these things….It’s all of them. And when Charlotte’s friends start to get sick one by one, Charlotte and Zee set out to find a cure. Their quest leads them to a not-so-mythical Underworld, where they face rhyme-loving Harpies, gods with personnel problems, and ghosts with a thirst for blood.

Charlotte and Zee learn that in a world overrun by Nightmares, Pain, and Death, the really dangerous character is a guy named Phil. And then they discover that the fate of every person — living and dead — is in their young hands.

Okay that summary was really long. But it was gripping, wasn’t it? The whole book is cleverly written with the reader hanging onto every word. But you’re probably thinking, “oh great, another Greek myth book.” This one is quite original and has more to do with the friendship between Charlotte and her cousin Zee and their maturity than gods and goddesses. I’d recommend The Shadow Thieves to students who want something else like Percy Jackson once the series is over or just students who have a great sense of humor and like a good, clean adventure story.

Aside from colloquialisms, it’s basically ELL-friendly. Key vocab words include shadow and underworld.

It’s also necessary to understand that the story starts in the middle and mostly focuses on Charlotte. Then it goes back in time and focuses on Zee. These transitions are quite clear and are expertly done. I didn’t expect to get Zee’s side of the story…or Grandmother Winter’s, which helps make all the characters well-rounded and loveable. Charlotte and Zee teach us to be ourselves and not worry about being like others while trying our hardest to accomplish our goals. And Grandma Winter demonstrates how to love one’s hardest.

It’s more of a middle school book because the main characters are in middle school and it’s a fairly simple story. But it’s also funny and snarky, which older students might enjoy, too. If you want to get students interested in this story, just read the goodreads summary of the first few paragraphs of the book. Kids will be hooked.

THE ENDING IS SO GORGEOUS. It concluds the book absolutely perfectly. Although it’s the first book in the series, it can certainly stand alone, but it’s one of those books that makes you want to keep reading because the characters are so fantastic.

The Shadow Thieves is my twenty-third book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

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