Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Writer's Workshop: The Novel

This may be the perfect first read aloud of next year! I don't know how I missed this one two years ago, but what a great story. Thanks to my sister, Martha who teaches reading to several grades in our hometown, 4 Kids in 5E & 1 Crazy Year by Virginia Frances Schwartz will be on our library shelf, and I will recommend it to all of our fifth grade teachers.

At PS1, an overcrowded school in New York City, exciting things are about to happen. A new section of fifth grade is started with students from three existing classes. The students are hand picked, but that doesn't mean that they are the best and the brightest. Eighteen kids are chosen and sent to a new classroom with a new teacher full of new ideas. The story unfolds month by month through the eyes of the four main characters.

Max, who, with his mother, escaped an abusive situation through a series of shelters. He uses reading as an escape, and always has his nose in a book. He makes frequent trips to the library and one of the most meaningful parts for me is when he helps his friend Giovanni get a library card. This moment makes Giovanni feel like a rich man. While Max is a gifted reader, he doesn't like to write. In fact, in the beginning he refuses to write for fear that it will dig up too many bad memories and reveal too much of himself to the others.

Destiny is the student that comes from the most typical home. She is surrounded by lots of extended family and has plenty of support. In the beginning she is stressed that her best friend will not be in her class, and how will she ever get along. Destiny is the class busy body and actively snoops to find "dirt" on her classmates, especially Max, whom she considers a "man of mystery." Since her mother and Max's mother work together, she uses her connections to get the scoop. When she decides to share it via notes passed in class, Ms. Hill puts her at the front of the class and tells her to mind her own business.

Giovanni is an Italian immigrant that speaks English as a second language. His older brother before him was held back until he dropped out, and fears teachers and school in general. Giovanni also has the retention label hanging over his head, but makes the most of his second chance in the new classroom. He latches onto Max, the reader, and becomes one himself. His biggest hopes are to pass the fifth grade, and please his father. Giovanni is my favorite character with his "can do" spirit and humor.

Willie has recently moved to New York from Jamaica so that his single mother can better herself and her family. Every summer he returns to Jamaica to be with his grandmother and he constantly dreams of the islands and the blue green ocean. Ms. Hill gets him to channel his daydreaming into descriptive writing about life in the islands that help ailing grandmother get well.

Other students stories come into play as they interact with these four kids during the school year. Readers are also treated to stories about the characters outside of school, Giovanni's family pizza shop, Willie's mom encouraging Max's mom to go back to school, Destiny's family gatherings with cultural cooking, and Max's difficult time making it from an abusive home to some peace with a new man in his mother's life.

The new teacher, Ms. Hill, uses the Writers' Workshop with journals and lots of books to get her students enthused about their learning. At first I was a bit afraid of the "super teacher" syndrome, but Virginia Frances Schwartz does an excellent job of making her real and believable, and a role model for us all. In the author notes in the end, it is clear that this author knows of what she speaks!

The story is based on her experiences teaching in NYC while a student of writing guru Lucy Calkins. Schwartz was part of the Gould Grant at Columbia University which provided her with plenty of resources and ideas to increase children's reading and writing abilities. She continues to teachwriting to elementary kids today. The book reads like an entertaining case study for "The Writing Workshop," that will not only help teachers teach better, but also students learn better.

Kids are going to love this realistic fiction with its drama, humor, and learning portrayed. I may be late to the party on this one, but better late than never!


  1. I'm walking into the party after you, Bill, so you're not the last one! Gotta get this book!

  2. I totally missed this one too--thanks for finding it and sharing it!
    Not sure how you are reading so much this time of year!

  3. I'm a librarian, Franki, it's my job! You'll see!

  4. And I'm in the party after all of you... but I'm buying it tonight!


  5. I heard about the book a few weeks ago, but it is only after reading your review that I order it from Amazon. THANK YOU! I adore Lucy Calkins. I also use a ton of literature in my writing lessons. I have lots of writing lessons on my site if you are interested.

  6. Thanks for sharing another great find. I really enjoyed the author's note at the end - it answered so many questions I had from a writer's point of view.