The Misfits by James Howe

the misfitsReading level: 6.1
Lexile: 960
Series: The Misfits book 1
Genre: Realistic fiction, LGBT
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Skeezie, Addie, Joe, and Bobby — they’ve been friends forever. They laugh together, have lunch together, and get together once a week at the Candy Kitchen to eat ice cream and talk about important issues. Life isn’t always fair, but at least they have each other — and all they really want to do is survive the seventh grade.

That turns out to be more of a challenge than any of them had anticipated. Starting with Addie’s refusal to say the Pledge of Allegiance and her insistence on creating a new political party to run for student council, the Gang of Five is in for the ride of their lives. Along the way they will learn about politics and popularity, love and loss, and what it means to be a misfit. After years of getting by, they are given the chance to stand up and be seen — not as the one-word jokes their classmates have tried to reduce them to, but as the full, complicated human beings they are just beginning to discover they truly are.

The Misfits is a lot of fun. I particularly liked the voices of Addie and Joe, but all the main characters were pretty hilarious throughout the entire story. Not only was it funny, but it included lots of important and serious topics written at the middle-school level.

First of all, we learn how people deal with the death of loved ones, how people heal, and how the pain  never really goes away. Anyone who has experienced loss can relate.

Another topic is equality and fairness, as shown by Addie’s struggle to form a third party in the school elections and her opposition to saying the Pledge of Allegiance.

Joe brings to light issues that gay teens and young adults face, from name calling to complicated crushes and beyond.

Addie shows us unintentional racism by her wanting DuShawn (an African American) to be president of the party because he’s a visible minority, although she won’t admit that his skin color is her main reason for targeting him. DuShawn calls out her stereotyping (that all Black people experience racism, bullying, etc.), and Addie struggles to believe what DuShawn says, perhaps because she has a fixed idea of how society functions and who struggles the most.

And, of course, name-calling is a big part of The Misfits. The middle school I interned at had a no name-calling week where students pledged to not call people names, not just for one week, but for always. It’s important for students to take a moment to think about how the things they say can have an impact on one another.

In essence, this book deals with how people treat and judge one another. I don’t think The Misfits is a terrific piece of literature, but I think it’s important for students to read and discuss, making it a contender for a class read-along in middle school.

Apparently there is a whole series?! The Misfits ends in a way that could be the end without continuing into a series, so there aren’t any cliffhangers or anything. It was intriguing enough that I want to read the others, though.

The lexile is apparently pretty high (I listened to the audiobook, which is harder for me to gauge), but it seems basically ELL-friendly if they’re reading at about the 6th grade level. It’s geared more towards middle school since the characters are in middle school themselves, but I think the concepts are deep enough to be enjoyed and discussed with high schoolers too.

The Misfits is my eleventh book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

Maniac Magee – Jerry Spinelli

Maniac MageeReading level: 5.4
Lexile: 820
Genre: Realistic Fiction
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Jeffrey Lionel “Maniac” Magee might have lived a normal life if a freak accident hadn’t made him an orphan. After living with his unhappy and uptight aunt and uncle for eight years, he decides to run–and not just run away, but run. This is where the myth of Maniac Magee begins, as he changes the lives of a racially divided small town with his amazing and legendary feats.

I might be a little bit in love with this book.

In particular, I loved the whole “race” bit – as in skin color, not the actual racing. Maniac Magee’s city is divided into the west and east side, with Blacks and Whites on opposite sides. As a young child, he truly is “color blind,” a word many of us educator folk cringe at. Color blindness means one does not see skin color and race (okay, yes, I know race doesn’t exist and is a social construct…), which is a large part of many people’s lives. Not seeing color means not seeing a huge part of people’s identity. But Maniac does not see color in a very innocent way, which is why he has no qualms about living on the “wrong” side of town.

Although the book is now categorized as a “classic,” it’s also relevant in that it can evoke conversations about segregation, racism, and lack of understanding between people of varying backgrounds:

  • Why do Whites and Blacks live in separate parts of town?
  • Are cities still segregated like that? (Spoiler: yes)
  • Why do the twins’ dad create the “bomb shelter”? (I can’t remember names when I listen to audiobooks!)
  • Why did some Blacks not want Maniac to live in their part of town?

Despite this book having insights into race, Spinelli surprisingly made at least 3 derogatory references to Natives. Very disappointing. However, if this book were to be taught as a class text, that’s something that could be dissected – why was that language offensive? How can the author, a White man, portray one racial group in a positive light but say such negative things about another?

I loved loved loved that Mars Bar, the bully, becomes friends with Maniac Magee. We’re able to see that Mars isn’t a bad kid and is just putting up a front – which also can create conversations about acting cool, manliness, integrity, and bullying.

Maniac Magee as a character isn’t very dynamic. In fact, he’s a rather flat character. But I almost think that, in this book, having a flat main character fits because we need to focus instead on the kid’s situation rather than how he changes throughout the story (or doesn’t change).

The reading level is pretty low, but I wouldn’t suggest it to ELLs because it’s got lots of Black English that could be confusing if they were to read it. I think that if it were read aloud to them and they were able to follow along, it would be easier. The Black English could also be used as a lesson on Ebonics and “standard” English. How does Maniac Magee talk compared to Mars/Amanda? Why do they talk differently? Is there a “right” way to talk? (Spoiler: no)

Over all, this book would be fantastic as an all-class test at the lower middle school level and lower.

Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger

Shine, Coconut MoonReading level: 5.5
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: High school (middle school okay too)

Goodreads summary:

Seventeen-year-old Samar — a.k.a. Sam — has never known much about her Indian heritage. Her mom has deliberately kept Sam away from her old-fashioned family. It’s never bothered Sam, who is busy with school, friends, and a really cute but demanding boyfriend.But things change after 9/11. A guy in a turban shows up at Sam’s house, and he turns out to be her uncle. He wants to reconcile the family and teach Sam about her Sikh heritage. Sam isn’t sure what to do, until a girl at school calls her a coconut — brown on the outside, white on the inside. That decides it: Why shouldn’t Sam get to know her family? What is her mom so afraid of? Then some boys attack her uncle, shouting, “Go back home, Osama ” and Sam realizes she could be in danger — and also discovers how dangerous ignorance can be. Sam will need all her smarts and savvy to try to bridge two worlds and make them both her own.

Shine, Coconut Moon was rather “meh” for me. It’s the author’s first book, and it’s not written incredibly well (not like I could do any better). Much of what happens and is said seems forced, and it just doesn’t flow very well. I regret that I lack the language and knowledge to explain further.

The premise of the book is great: an Indian-American teenager starts to discover her identity just after the September 11th terrorist attacks when she meets her turban-wearing uncle. (India is not an Arab country, by the way.)

The beginning with Sam and Molly talking about sexy lingerie and “doing it” with the boy who’s the “real deal” was unnecessary. I was even more irritated because that would be the only part that would make the book not appropriate for school. For that reason and the fact that the main character is a senior in high school, scholastic recommends it for 9th grade and up. I think middle school (girls) might like it too. As much as that lingerie scene was unnecessary, one could argue that both girls were being careful with their bodies, were waiting for the “right” boys, and weren’t jumping into doing anything unsafe or inappropriate. They’re just being high school girls.

Towards the end, Molly and Sam drink alcohol and eat 2 pints of ice cream and other junk food. I was more appalled at the unhealthy amount of calories they were consuming, but parents might take issue with the drinking part. The girls have a fun time drinking, but, beneath it all, they have to cover it up, and they feel some guilt. It’s not explicitly stated that they feel guilty, but they know they shouldn’t be doing it. Unlike Tippy drinking alcohol in It Ain’t All For Nothin, there are no repercussions, although drunkenness (by Mike and other boys) is definitely not a good thing in Sam’s eyes.

I found it rather unrealistic that Sam, at age 17 or 18, becomes interested in her background and family because 1) it took so long and 2) high schoolers tend to be moving away from their family…right? It was also weird to me that she is just now beginning to realize the racism in society as well as her being different: “As I look around the table, I notice something I’ve never noticed before: I’m the only brown face here” (63). After all, isn’t middle school the time when kids are hyper-aware of their differences? After facing bullying in elementary school, Sam is just now thinking about how she’s the only brown-skinned girl in a sea of White faces? Hmm.

At the same time, I appreciated the author bringing to light some feelings that non-White people have: being the only person of color in the room, at a table, or in a classroom.

Near the middle of the book, Mike makes this comment in passing: “Phil Taylor and Todd Hamilton got fired last week. The company’s hiring illegals under the table for pennies a day.” Mike’s mother replies, “I hope they tighten those borders like they said they would. Especially now – it’s such a scary world out there” (127). I expected Sam to jump in and defend the immigrants, but she doesn’t. She (rightly) gets upset about the stereotyping of Apu in The Simpsons but is silent when it comes to defending any minority that isn’t South Asian/Indian. I think the author missed a huge opportunity to give us a lesson about the culture of power, being different, and just having a moral compass.

As much as I took issue with a lot of parts of this book, I think students (girls), would like it. It is a pretty good story about digging in your past, bringing together a broken family, and dealing with discrimination. And let’s be real, that book cover is going to draw in the girls…despite the cheesy tag line: It isn’t always easy to find your true self. *sigh*

25 Websites for Educational Equity

Here is a link to an article from written by Paul Groski in which he lists and explains 25 websites related to educational equity. If the link is broken, search for the author’s name and “I don’t want to live without them: Twenty-five web sites for educational equity.”

The author gives sufficient explanations about how to best use each resource he lists, so I don’t do the same here. The article was written in 2005, so some resources may be outdated, but it’s a good starting place.

The War Within: A Novel of the Civil War – Carol Matas

the war withinReading level: 6.1

Genre: Historical fiction

ELL-Friendly: No

Library recommendation: Middle school

The War Within chronicles General [Ulysses S.] Grant’s General Order #11 that forced Jews in Mississippi out of their homes, which actually happened. Far from being a reflection on the situation of Jews at the time, the book also reflects on the morality of North vs South and slavery.

I found the narrator, Hannah, hard to like because of her ignorance throughout most of the book, but that was the point. It’s all about her changing her life views, albeit slowly although realistically. What I really didn’t like was the submissiveness of the women who kept saying that they needed men, they would only listen to men, etc. However, the females in this story, including Hannah, her mom and sister, and their slave Jule, were pretty strong female characters and could (and did) hold their own, despite stating their submissiveness at times. To be fair, I suppose that was how society functioned in the 1860s.

There should be no problem putting this on middle school shelves, but it might prove difficult for ELLs due to the Civil War era writing and dialogue – very prim and proper. High school students may also like it too, but the book is definitely written for ages 10-14.

God is mentioned frequently in this book as it relates to the Old T estimate/Bible because the narrator and her family are Jewish. It’s not preachy, though, and I don’t think parents would have an issue with it. As a non-religious person myself, I found the God references important because Hannah struggled to see how God would create all people equally or not, and how God would want humans to treat one another.

My hope is that those who read this book may think about their attitudes towards those who are different from them, be it gays and lesbians, the homeless, or people of a different ethnicity. The War Within doesn’t state the “correct” way to think or act but points out that we must keep an open mind and to remember that we are all equal.

Teaching Anti-Hate: Using the Holocaust as a Lens by Liav Shapiro

I stumbled across this lesson as a Google Doc probably a few years ago, bookmarked it, and forgot about it. I’m assuming I can repost it because I found it for free on the Internet. All credit goes to Liav Shapiro. I’m always on the look-out for good lessons about the Holocaust because it’s part of my own history, and part of everyone’s. It’s not just about the killing of Jews but the intolerance and hate for people who are different.

While I did my middle school practicum, my cooperating teacher was Jewish and he told me he didn’t teach about the Holocaust. He had books about the subject (nonfiction and historical fiction), but he didn’t explicitly have a unit on it. He said there were other, more relevant instances of hate and intolerance that weren’t so far in the past. It sounded like the Holocaust was so far back in history that kids can’t understand it…or that there were just “better” examples. I’m still struggling with the teacher’s answer. It just seems like an injustice for any students who not understand the Holocaust.

At any rate, here is an excellent unit plan on the Holocaust. It would, of course, need to be adapted to one’s personal classroom depending on whether you can find a Holocaust survivor to speak to your class and who your students are. This lesson was created for a 5th grade class, and it seems to me that the subject is explored in-depth and with sensitivity for the students and the subject matter.

If you are perhaps reading this post, consider leaving a comment about whether or not you think teachers should have a unit on the Holocaust and the importance (or not) of teaching this subject at all.

Anti-Hate Campaign: Teaching Anti-Hate: Using the Holocaust as a Lens
Lessons compiled and produced by Liav Shapiro 2009

What is hate? Introducing the word HATE:

To begin our study about standing up against hate, the students and I brainstormed words and situations that we associated with the word HATE. We created a web on large chart paper that still hangs in the back of the room. From
this discussion, my students mentioned ideas around gang fights in their communities, violence on the street and bullying in school. We talked about how hate can escalate into violence and how people get involved in violent acts that
are fueled with hate.

The next day, the students were broken into groups to define vocabulary around hate and intolerance. The students created their own definitions and then created posters to depict the meanings. These posters to posted around the
classroom for reference throughout the entire unit. Vocabulary used: Intolerance, discrimination, prejudice, axis powers, allied powers, genocide, segregation, and holocaust.

Day by day: How 5th graders began to understand how hate can escalate…
Day 1: KWL Chart: What is the Holocaust?

Day 2: Read The Butterfly and add to the class KWL Chart

Day 3: Hiding: Why did people need to hide in Europe during World War II? Do we know of other events in history when a group of people had to hide from another? Students offered parallels to the Civil War, slavery in the United States, and Native American History.

Day 4: The students were challenged to make a private list of things that they hate. They were asked to refrain from using names. Students listed people, places, foods, personalities, homework, etc… I then asked the students to count
how many entries on their lists were things and then how many were people or groups of people. As the students looked around the room, noticing that many more hands flew to the sky as I asked about people or groups of people that we
hate. We did not ever share these lists. They were meant to serve purpose and teach a lesson. We talked about how we all hold prejudices and believe many stereotypes that make us add certain people and groups to our lists. The students were shocked by this discussion. They wanted to talk about why they hate certain people and groups, but I quickly made it clear that the idea behind this unit is not to justify hate; it was to bring hate to the forefront of our class conversation, bringing awareness to ourselves and our community about what hate can lead to if we don’t fight against it.

Day 5: Watch Holocaust video on and add to KWL chart

Day 6: Understanding what Jewish life was like before, during, and after WWII. Students research life in Europe prior to 1935. Students begin to understand that Jewish businesses were flourishing, freedom of religion allowed Jews to practice
without fear, relations among Jews and Germans were strong.

Day 7: Read A Picture Book of Anne Frank. Discuss how life changed for Anne’s family as Hitler rose to power.

Day 8: Watch Anne Frank Video on Students write letters to Anne Frank. They asked her questions and told her about times in their lives when they have experienced discrimination.

Day 9: Understanding what life was like in the Ghetto: Read The Cats in Krasinski Square. Discuss the purpose of ghettos, what the Nazis were trying to accomplish by forcing Jews into the ghettos. My students were eager to talk about Ghettos. They defined a ghetto as a place where African American live together for comfort, support, and unity. I asked them to research what the word ghetto means and we then changed our class definition to: A section of a city, where a large number of people that belong to one ethnic or religious group live; usually under political, economic or other hardships. The students were shocked to hear that a ghetto could be more than what they have seen and experienced.

This discussion marked a clear turning point in my classroom. The students were now extremely eager to learn about worldly events and issues. They asked questions such as: If there were ghettos with Jews in Europe during World War
II, are there ghettos anywhere else where certain groups are forced to live? How do you end up living in a ghetto? Can you ever get out?

Day 10: Refer back to Hitler Video and discuss Hitler’s Final Solution. How did Hitler plan on getting rid of so many people? Begin discussion of concentration and death camps as well as deportation.

Read: Luba story

Day 11: Understand resistance during the Holocaust and consequences for helping Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies, the disabled, and anyone else being sought after by the Nazis. Refer back to The Butterfly to reference resistance and the underground. Students pointed out similarities between hiding in the Holocaust and hiding slaves in the United States.

Day 12: The Black Holocaust

At first, the students were shocked that there was a Black Holocaust Museum at all. But with further probing and conversation they began to make parallels between how hate spread in both the Holocaust in Europe and involving African Americans in the U.S.

Day 13: Racism: In my classroom we had much earlier in the year discussed the word Race and how “races” are simply social constructs that have dictated and allowed for Racial discrimination for centuries. On Day 13, we discussed in more
depth, what is racism. The students wrote in their journals, describing events and anecdotes from their own lives where they have experiences or witnessed racism or racial bias.

Day 14: Watch DVD Paperclips

After watching the film, we discussed what the paperclip symbolizes and how the Paperclip project changed the small town of Whitwell, TN.

Day 15: My class and I decided that we wanted to do something in order to make sure that something like the holocaust never happens again. The students came up with the idea to write pledges against hate and injustice. At first I modeled a
pledge I might write, then the students returned to their desks and wrote their own. They were personal and original.

Day 16: Paper Clip Ceremony: First thing in the morning, the students and I assembled ourselves into a circle in the meeting area. I began by saying that today we would all be reading our pledges aloud, and than accepting a large paperclip to wear on our shirts as a symbol. We would spread awareness around our school by wearing these paperclips everyday for a week. The students were excited! I began, by reading my pledge aloud, then placing my large golden paperclip on my collar. My 29 students each followed. They were clearly enthused and inspired. Even my most difficult students, during our ceremony, remained serious and committed to this community event.

Day 17: A Holocaust Survivor comes to visit our classroom.

On this day, an amazing woman, who survived WWII Poland, came to speak to my students. Word quickly spread around the school, and 6 out-of-classroom teachers came to join us that afternoon as well. During the survivor’s discussion, the students were engaged, respectful, and intuitive. They asked thoughtful questions and truly showed empathy. Two of my students, having been born in Poland, shared stories of they grandparents’ experiences during World War II.

After the amazing survivor left for the day, my students wrote her letters of appreciation for sharing her experiences with them. They wrote that she changed the way they think about the world, that they feel fortunate to have spoken to a
survivor, and that they understood the Holocaust so much better after her visit.

Culminating project: Advertising Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism

During the final days of our unit, the students were asked to list the themes that they felt came out of our study. They listed: injustice, justice, hate, prejudice, discrimination, equality, equity, equal rights, civil rights, freedom, etc…

I provided the students with poster paper and paint and then asked them to choose a partner to come up with a way that they could advertise for one of the above themes.

The posters were beautiful and meaningful. They were displayed in the school auditorium for the 5th grade graduation!

Multi-Media Used to Teach about the Holocaust:
The Butterfly by Patricia Polacco
The Cats in Krasinski Square by Karen Hesse
Luba, the Angel at Bergen Belsen by Luba Tryszynska-Frederick
I Never Saw Another Butterfly by Hana Volavkova
Anne Frank: Behind the Diary by Rian Verhoeven, Ruud Van der Rol, Tony Langham, and Plym Peters
Paper Clips (2004) Contains multiple short animated videos that teach about
various topics such as WWII, the Holcaust, Hitler, etc…

Teaching for Change

for change

Teaching for Change has an archive of articles about stereotypes and culture that are appropriate for adult readers or high school students. There aren’t lesson plans that I can find, although the articles are well-researched and have good talking points for parents and teachers. Articles are available in English and Spanish.

I could see using some of these articles (what it means to be White or mixed race, what is culture, Arab stereotypes) in middle or high school classrooms with editing or just to give teachers some talking points or questions to ask during a lesson from another source. I could also see using these articles with parents whose children are biased towards students of other ethnicity or teachers who could use some professional development in stereotypes and tolerance.