Friday, December 30, 2011

Looking for Newbery begins again (2012 version)!!

There are so many places online these days to find Newbery predictions that we actually talked about not running this series in January again this year.  But over breakfast recently, we made the decision to do it anyway.  If nothing else, it will be a sounding board for us to talk about books we have loved this past year.  In addition, as we follow the other online resources for mock Newbery lists, we will talk about some of the books we have discovered from those lists that might not have come to our attention otherwise.  Is there anything better than finding a great new book?!!

We have decided to run our Looking for Newbery series from January 1 - January 22 this year.  Our goal is to post about one book a day that we think might be worthy of the Newbery Gold or Honor medals (OR just chat about books and characters we really, really liked!).  Chances are we won't get it right, but that's okay.  We can't wait to talk about books we love!!

Please join us on our Looking for Newbery expedition as we look at some of the best and the brightest books of 2011!!

Thursday, December 29, 2011


Sidekicks by Dan Santat is a hoot!!  From first page to last, I was chuckling at the bumbling, and sometimes successful, attempt of pets who want to be their owner's (an aging superhero) sidekick.   A mouse, a dog, a cat, and and a chameleon -- not the most likely candidates to be a superhero's sidekick, but as they try to win the coveted role, sometimes by outdoing the other, humor ensues.  I love that buried inside the humor and the wonderful art of this graphic novel, there is also a great message - we are better when we work together.

This book comes complete with a great villian as well; he even has a great villian name -- Dr. Archibald Havoc.  And there's a Society of Superheroes in this town that work together to help one another.  Who knew you could pick up a phone to assemble a group of superheroes to find a new sidekick?!

On my second read of this book, there were some great clues in the pictures that I had missed the first time; clues that foreshadowed the events that would lead to the destruction of our superhero.  And if you don't usually read the author's page on the back flap, make an exception for this one!!  First of all, Dan Santat's picture is posted in the outfit he would be wearing if he was chosen to be the sidekick for the superhero - priceless!  And the very last page of the book is his application to be the superhero sidekick - fun!!

I am so happy I found this book with my students when we were checking out the Top 20 Books of 2011 compiled by John Schumacher and Travis Jonker (I can't get a bookmark for this one / will come back and try later), two amazing librarians.  As we read what they said about this book, I knew I had to read it and get it into our classroom pronto!

Speaking of which, I was in a dilemma about whether to buy 2 copies of Sidekicks because I know it will be so popular, and I teach language arts to two different groups of 5th graders.  After an online conversation with Donalyn Miller, she gave me a great idea.  She said for popular books like this, she holds a drawing for who gets the book.  Once the book comes back in, she draws another name out of the jar.  Smart thinking, right?  I guess that's why they call her The Book Whisperer!

I can't wait for students to start enjoying Sidekicks in 2012!!!!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts is a book that I predict will be very popular in our classroom.  It is reminiscent of the tween angst found in the series of The Diary of A Wimpy Kid and Amelia's Notebook, coupled with the great illustrations found in My Life as a Book, My Life as a Stuntboy, and Origami Yoda.

The angst comes from the main character, Rafe Khatchadorian.  His last name alone leaves him open to the unkindness of some classmates.  Rafe is the narrator of the multiple stories he has to tell - there is always the real story, and then there is the "Rafe" story - the latter will amuse many of the boys in my room.

Rafe's plan to make himself memorable in middle school is to break every rule in the student handbook as a 6th grader.  Again, many students will enjoy his quest to break the rules.  And the quirky illustrations by Laura Park that go with the story and Rafe's imagination are a hoot - full of detail and creativity.  I envision an entirely new style of writing will take place in our writer's workshop after students read this book.

Rafe often talks directly to the reader, and there is one surprise layer that is added to this story that brings more compassion to Rafe's character, but there will be no spoilers here.

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life is the type of book that might not win an award, but will most definitely be one of the most checked-out books in our classroom library.  I can't wait to see who gets it first!!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Thoughts (Very Late!!) from NCTE 2011 (Part 1)

It's been almost a month since I attended NCTE 2011, and much of my learning has been percolating in my mind, but I haven't been able to process how to share it. After reading a recent post from Cathy, I realized that snippets of thinking are all I could probably do as well without getting incredibly long-winded.

So, here is a breakdown of some of the sessions I attended, and a few of my take-aways:

I listened to Kathy Short at the Elementary Get-Together on Thursday as she accepted her award for the Outstanding Educator Award and was fascinated by how she talked about how important it is to share the stories of her life. What a great kickoff for the rest of the convention as I brought the framework of "story" to what I heard and experienced for the rest of the convention. It was also amazing that I sat a table right next to Ken Goodman - what an amazing thinker!!

I missed the first sessions of Friday because I needed to meet with my fellow presenters as we put the final touches on our poetry presentation for Saturday. One of the biggest stories that came out of this breakfast meeting was that I discovered that one of my cohorts, Katie, had gotten engaged since I last saw her (she lives in Oregon; I love in Ohio)!! Such exciting times ahead for her! The other story of this meeting is how much one can learn from doing a presentation with others. The two smart ladies with whom I presented (Katie and her mom, Dee) made me a better teacher just by our interactions through the past few months. It is a true gift to learn alongside others!!

One of my Friday sessions was titled Authors as Mentors for Peer Critique Groups, and it was a panel that included Matthew Kirby, Eric Luper, Linda Urban, and Kate Messner. Before I do any sharing here, can I say how fun it was to meet Kate in person after being connected to her on twitter (and after the session to get an autographed copy of her ARC, Eye of the Storm)!! These are four brilliant authors who go through the same struggles our students and we experience as writers. They all had similar messages -- writers need to engage in art of giving and receiving critiques, it is incredibly important to create a safe environment for this type of conversation, and the overall idea of critique groups is to bring out your best when writing. What terrific messages to take back to my own students.

Then, I was off to hear Ralph Fletcher speak. How fortunate that he had teamed up with Dan Feigelson and Kate Morris, as they all talked about how mentor texts lift students' writing. This session was packed with people even sitting in the hall to hear these panelists speak. Kate is a teacher who was sharing practical applications of her writing instruction. My favorite example was how she uses the v-shape to help students go from a big topic (vacation) and narrow their focus (how my brother broke his arm on vacation). She ended with my favorite line of the day, "My biggest dream is not for kids to be 'standard'." Brilliantly stated.

I ended Friday in another packed room for a session about nonfiction - Ellin Keene was the moderator, and the panel was comprised of Seymour Simon, Linda Hoyt, and Ann Marie Corgill. They were all wonderful. Seymour Simon shared how he uses strong words to enhance text - my immediate take-away after he shared some examples was that I need to go back to the books of his I own and focus on his language choices with my students. The idea that his books always promote curiosity intertwines perfectly with how we are wondering in our class this year. Linda Hoyt focused on the importance of modeling in front of students, but also making sure our modeling isn't just whole class modeling. We should also model in small groups and individually. I love Ann Marie; the thing she shared that I will be trying is the idea of group research. The level of her students' writing was really elevated because of this opportunity. Her final message was, "We want our kids to leave our classrooms thinking 'I can make a difference'."

Okay, as I look back at this post, I realized I got a lot more long-winded than I wanted, but I have the dilemma of trying to figure out what to cut. My answer -- look for Part 2 of NCTE 2011 in a day or two. :) I still have stories to tell...

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Skyping with Laurel Snyder

I'm a little embarrassed that this post is about three weeks overdue, but the experience was so fabulous, I had to swallow my embarrassment, and deal with it. :)

On November 15, both of my language arts classes had the amazing opportunity to experience a Skype visit with Laurel Snyder. This visit occurred after we had spent about a month reading her latest book, Bigger Than a Breadbox, aloud in class. Laurel was so warm, gracious, and personable, it felt like we were guests in her home (which by the way, we could see over her shoulder). One of my students is a huge dog lover, and when it came time to ask questions, his had nothing to do with Bigger Than a Breadbox or Laurel as a writer; he wanted to know all about her dog to whom we were introduced. She was as delighted with his question as with any that dealt more with the purpose of our visit - discussing Bigger Than a Breadbox and learning more about being an author.

First of all, if you haven't yet read Bigger Than a Breadbox, I would strongly encourage you to do so (I posted a mini-review here). This book contains so many meaty topics that just beg for deeper conversations. Second, I have to tell you how we scored this visit. Because I follow Laurel Snyder on twitter, I was immediately intrigued when she offered to do free Skype visits for the first 100 people who contacted her. As an educator who wants her children to be well versed when talking about authors and how they create, I immediately contacted Laurel. I'm thankful that twitter gives me a platform to interact with authors and other educators in ways that benefit my students.

Okay, back to my point: Laurel's Skype visit. As she talked to the students, I jotted down some things she said that I knew I would want to come back to and talk about further:
  • Authors write to know what you didn't even know you knew.
  • The main character, Rebecca, is based on her own life. She also had divorced parents.
  • In 4th grade Laurel started writing stories , but she didn't know who to share them with. She ended up sharing with her best friend, Susan. Turns out they had similar leanings for stories - fairy tales.
  • In 7th grade, her mom moved her family, and a comment from a teacher stopped her from ever wanting to share her personal writing again
  • She was an adult before she went back to writing what she loved - fairy tales.
  • But, even given that, she told the kids that sometimes you do end up being what you wanted to be in 4th grade -- hold on to your dreams!
  • It took her 49 submissions before her first book was accepted.
  • The character of Miss Adda is loosely based on her grandmother.
  • **Great advice to students -- it's the tiny details that make your story real (for those of you that know the book, this came after one of the students commented on how many details were written about Miss Adda).
  • She is currently working on a prequel to Bigger Than a Breadbox - my students were so excited, begging me to read it to them this year. Then Laurel had to explain to them the process of publishing a book takes several years. :)
These are just some of the snippets I wrote down. But you can see how powerfully my students were connected to what they considered a "real" author. After talking to Laurel, they realized they are "real" authors as well.

Thanks so much to Laurel for such an amazing visit, one we will come back to multiple times this year.