Sunday, April 22, 2007

Kimchi and Calamari, by Rose Kent

Joseph Calderaro was adopted as an infant by an Italian couple in New Jersey. The story of his life before he left Korea and arrived in America, has never been fully explained to this 14-year-old. A social studies assignment to write about his “ancestors” leads Joseph to a stealth internet investigation, a friendship with a Korean family new to his town, a horrible lie, and some answers to painful questions concerning his “sandwich” identity.

I was initially very skeptical of this book. The plot takes on pretty serious issues of identity and authenticity, and at first I was nervous these issues wouldn’t be handled delicately. Yet, the characters are so well developed that they were able to not only overcome the challenges of a teenager understanding the ramifications of his adoption and ethnic identity, but they were also able to overcome my reservations about how these topics would be handled. They’re aren’t any neat, clean answers, and yet there is a satisfying resolution. The one thing I didn’t like that much were all the food details, and I’m concerned they will hamper my students’ ability to understand and really dive into the story. The title, in particular, could have been much better. I’d love to try both Calamari, and Kimchi, but I’d have preferred a more inviting title.

Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars

All these bloggers in the kidlitosphere are just wrapping up a raging debate about professional reviews vs. blog reviews. Read Roger, a high ranking fellow at Horn Book had some interesting questions and lots of the bloggers that I regularly read squirmed a bit, but then rallied and articulately defended the borders of their kid-lit-planet. What the whole debate has helped me realize, though, is that as a tiny little satellite of said planet, I am so far removed from the actual land of the kid-lit-blog world, that I have the luxury of making my blurbs about books here as casual as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. What I'm saying is that ASK AMY has no actual readership, that I know of, and I don't really want or need one. Nobody's sending me any free books to review, I'm an introvert anyway, even in cyberspace, and while I find a comment or two, once in a while, pleasantly surprising, I'm also happy orbiting kid-lit-land in quiet solitude. As stated in my little banner at the top, this blog is for me, and maybe for a few colleagues that I know personally, and that's really it. It's simply an extension of my "books read" lists, that I keep for my own reference. And so, I can be as brief, or as long-winded, as I deem necessary when I write about any particular book. Take today's gem, Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars, for example. What do I want to remember, someday, about this book? Well, that I liked it quite a bit, which is why it made it on to this blog in the first place. And I want to remember that the poems have fun rhymes, true facts, and are pretty short. And finally, I think lots of kids, even sixth graders, would enjoy this book. That's pretty much it.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Jaime Escalante, Part 1

I only have a handful of heroes. Jaime Escalante is one of them. Reflecting on his success as a teacher he wrote the following:

"The communication of love to one’s students goes further than just caring and listening. It also means that I must be willing to repeat an idea, concept, or term as many times as needed for the student to understand it. I have to make sure that every kid is listening to me and watching me when I teach, so that they do not miss a thing. There is no perfect approach that works for every student, so I am continually developing new ways of conveying ideas. That is one reason why I spend so much time at the job: to ensure that what I have said to the group is actually understood by each individual, I feel obliged to communicate to each kid personally. I find out what bugs students and what switches on their “learning light.” I learn their dreams, and I believe that I am here to assist each of them to realize these dreams."

Such beauty! Such idealism! Reminds me of Jen's student teacher Staci (who kept being genuinely surprised by instances in our building of Extreme Stupidity). Of course I believe I'm in the trenches every day to help each of them realize their dreams, but, let's be honest, I'm quite jaded. I let bureaucratic nonsense bother me and I sometimes wonder how much I can accomplish for each of them. It's amazing to me that he wrote this lovely prose at the end of his career. Just imagine--his life-long commitment to finding new and better ways to teach, his deep love for each kid, his bubbling passion, and his incredible patience. I feel fortunate to have such an honorable hero. I wonder if he's still alive.

Money, Money, Money

We get nine hundred dollars per year for all of our classroom supplies. Ask me where 80 percent of that money goes every year. Yep, you guessed it: books, books, books. And the situation next year is particularly dire; eighty percent of nine hundred is going to come up soooooooo short. Here's the problem: Two years ago I taught all of Washington's fourth graders. This year I taught half the fourth graders and half the fifth graders. Next year I'll be teaching half the fifth graders and half the sixth graders. The bottom line here is that we have a very small population of kids at Washington, Jen and I have taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grade three years in a row, and so we've absolutely exhausted our supply of class sets, literature sets, and favorite read aloud picture books. We've got nothing left for those sixth graders who will have been in one of our classes for THREE YEARS IN A ROW.

I can't complain too much. I've been dying to teach sixth grade ever since I started teaching. And I still think it's going to be tremendous fun. BUT--we've already read The Bad Beginning, Number the Stars, The Lightning Thief, The Birchbark House, The Key Collection, Holes, Out of the Dust, Gooseberry Park, Ribsy, Becoming Naomi Leon, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and The Tale of Desperaux. It's not that there aren't hundreds of fantastic books left to read, it's just that they're not books our school owns class or small group sets of, u c?

But every year, right around this time, there's always a surprising surplus of money that must be spent right away. So, in an effort to prevent a misguided waste of money that might be well spent on great books, I'm starting a wish list. Right here.

Wish List:
The Sea of Monsters
Harry Sue (I just saw this is out in paper back! But I have to hurry and reread it, check out the content--do I think it's appropriate for school??)
Rickshaw Girl
All of the Above
The Islander
The Adventures of Odysseus
Sahara Special
Bud, Not Buddy
Here Be Monsters
So B. It

Okay-that's a start.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

All of the Above, by Shelley Pearsall

Four middle school students work together on a math project to build the world's biggest ever tetrahedron structure. The voices of these four kids are strongly developed in chapter-length first person narratives. There are a couple minor, adult characters who also have short chapters, including a math teacher who is the adviser of the project. The students are intelligent, resilient, passionate kids who want desperately to be accepted and to be part of something bigger than themselves. Although the plot is pretty simple, there were several surprising twists. The voice of the tough boy who was only doing the project cuz he had detention, but then became the group's determined leader, was particularly powerful and well-drawn. (If only cuz it really made me miss my student Jessie--and, when this character had to leave the school, which had become his safe and stable place, before the year was over--well, those were real, live, cathartic crocodile tears on my cheeks.) This was an excellent book to read the week after I found out that I'll be teaching sixth grade next year. It helped build my confidence that I'll be able to find plenty of perfect books for plenty of sixth grade readers.

Booktalk: Have you ever thought it would be really cool to be on a team that set out to accomplish something that no one thought possible? Start on page 5 and read the whole chapter. Explain the structure of the tetrahedron tower (show prop of a 2 layer structure) And then introduce the 4 main characters: Rhondell, (collects college words and reminds me of Akeelah of Bee fame), James, Marcel, and Sharice (pretty scary, serious issues with her foster/family situation). These four unlikely friends tell the story in chapter by chapter narratives, from their own POVs. Their family and life stories come together and yes, there's the story of the project, but there's also the stories of their lives. I liked: the math aspect, and the fully developed characters. I think 5th and 6th grade students will like: James, cuz he keeps it real, and the way they are very private about their problems, seems realistic that they don't just start sharing everything with each other. You'll like the ways these students work hard at something they all care about and also the way they have realistic problems that don't end with happily-ever-after.