Friday, July 30, 2010

Two Days / Two Novels in Verse

I've spent the last four days with some very smart educators, and it was very invigorating professionally. If you don't already know about Choice Literacy, and you like to hone your teaching craft when it comes to reading and writing, I would encourage you to check out the Choice Literacy website. Choice Literacy sponsors workshops/seminars, creates DVDs about learning and classroom organization, and sends out a weekly newsletter called The Big Fresh.

I've been in Wrentham, Massachusetts, at one of those week-long workshops, where the learning opportunities and speakers are different every day. So many smart people from whom to learn, so little time!

In one of the Choice Literacy sessions I attended, Katie Doherty, a 6th grade teacher, spoke about her reading workshop in the middle school setting. It was delightful for me, as a 5th grade teacher, to hear someone in the secondary arena talk about how she has figured out a way to live within a middle school schedule, and still stay committed to reading workshop, writing workshop, and choice for her students when it comes to reading and writing. I could wax on forever about the amazing things Katie teaches her students each and every day. But I want to focus specifically on a "gift" she gave each of the people in her day-long session.

Spinning Through the Universe: a novel in poems from Room 214 by Helen Frost was first published in 2004. It is a story about a school classroom and its members told in verse. (Frost also wrote Diamond Willow published two years ago, and reviewed by Bill here.) I actually read it in the short flight between Boston and Washington DC (visiting my daughter for two days). It was powerful, and I found myself teary a few times.

Spinning Through The Universe tells the stories of many unique individuals that are in Mrs. Williams' classroom, Room 214. The reader learns about illness and heartache and friendship issues and family issues and so much more. Frost gives us a peep inside the different characters' lives by switching the point of view bookended by Mrs. Williams' thoughts in the beginning and at the end.

Every time a new character's voice is heard, a new page is begun. I think that makes it easier for the middle grade reader to keep track of who's talking, because there are so many people we hear from. I found myself flipping back and forth in the book to make sure I was staying true to one character's life; I think this would be a great book to share with students in a read aloud setting as we tracked the different characters and what was happening in each of their lives. The inferring the reader will have to do when a story is written in verse will also be something on which to work.

And each time a new character speaks, there is a new title for that section. It was good reflection for me to match the title with the emotions of the character and the story they tell.

In addition to the beautiful story Frost weaves together, she also gives the reader another gift. In the back of the book, Frost explains what form is. She has sectioned the story into two parts; in the first part, she uses a different form for each poem. In the second part, each poem is a very clever acrostic poem (so clever I didn't even catch that all of them were that form until I read the back!!). Frost then proceeds to explain the different forms of poetry and verse she used, giving them a name and a person for whom she used that form.

What a great gift, both from Katie and from Helen Frost. I had already planned on starting the year in writing workshop with poetry to loosen up my students' writing skills, but now that I've read Spinning Through the Universe, I have a perfect read aloud to complement that study! I can't wait to share it with students, and then guide them to the tub that contains the rest of novels in verse I have been collecting.

I anticipate that Spinning Through the Universe will become a new mentor text for me. Most importantly, I will use it for enjoyment of story. But I will also be using it for character understanding, inferring, and writing mentor. How wonderful to have a text that has multiple purposes. I absolutely loved this book!!

Stay tuned for the second, and the newest story in verse review. Coming your way soon...

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