Sunday, May 27, 2007

Magic Tree House Musings

How could I have been so wrong, for so long? I always thought of The Magic Tree House series as perfect "bridging" books---those rare books that are at that just right reading level for kids just beginning to really strengthen their vocabulary and fluency muscles. I read a few, okay, okay, only two; but I found both the gorilla and dinosaur adventures fairly engaging. It's never been easy coaxing students into the series, but I thought it was just cuz their reading muscles were still a bit weak. But now, I've had a 180 degree change of heart.

There's a lively discussion over at Read Roger all about books that explicitly TEACH. Are the Magic Tree House books didactic? Well, yes, they pretty much epitomize didacticity. But I never realized how painfully so, until reading one this evening with my nine-year-old, Easter. Last week I had the reading guru of our building do a thorough assessment of E's skills. Her single, very strong recommendation: we gotta find a way to make reading more relaxing and enjoyable. The kid needs confidence more than anything else. Don't forget, Easter was being whipped daily at school while also experiencing the grief of her mother's death during her Ugandan equivalent of first grade. She's come a long way, in two years, here, and is even approaching that ridiculous but enviable benchmark "on grade level", but she still isn't enjoying it much. Reading causes Easter feelings of extreme anxiety. Arrrgghhh.

But I'm a determined mother and a fairly skilled teacher, and so I reread some words of inspiration from Mem Fox, grabbed a stack of books, and set out, this evening to have some relaxing reading fun, dammit. Well, we were having plenty of fun alright, up until we started reading Season of the Sandstorms. Try as I might, it was impossible to imbue a dry desert wind storm and Jack's citing of research books with anything approaching Mem-Fox-ish enthusiasm. For two whole, painful chapters I kept hearing Roger's questions rattle around my subconscious: Who's in charge here? When do we, the "bridging", but still quite intelligent young readers get to laugh, imagine, question, or create a small part of this story? Contrast this with the tender good fun we had reading Cynthia Rylant's Henry and Mudge and the Great Grandpas. (Betcha "skivvies" is one of the jolliest words in our lovely language.) Or with the knee-slapping stand-up routine we perform together every time we read a Pigeon book.

Poof. A belief of mine, in the necessity of kids passing through a Magic Tree House stage, has completely vanished. Thanks Roger, Mem, and Easter. And my future students thank you as well.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Beautiful, Bounteous Book Moments

I have some exciting book and teaching related updates. First off, that "must-be-spent-immediately" surplus came through, as expected, and we ordered sixteen hundred dollars of books for our two fifth and sixth grade classes. My most exciting moment was when Jen said that drugs and child abuse weren't good reasons to hesitate on buying a class set of Harry Sue. Yeah! I will be able to share my very favorite read of 2006 with my class next year. Jen reminded me of the violence and harsh realities we share with kids in books about the Holocaust, which I know isn't the same as reading about a kid whose mom is incarcerated. But I am happy to agree with her judgment: real life is okay to bring into our classrooms. Three of my twenty students have parents who are currently incarcerated.

In other exciting news, nine of my students got their first ever library cards yesterday. It wasn't a small feat to do all the work involved in scheduling a late-May field trip and also getting so many of them to bring back signed application forms. But seeing them with their plastic bags full of books as we rode back to school on the transit train was, well---priceless.

I had this stack of books behind my desk that I was considering for class sets and literature group sets for next year. Kelsey came up and asked me for a good book the other day, so I just handed her one of those, and then Sorayma and Blanca had to have their own "special" recommendation and before you know it, my whole stack is depleted and now I don't know what to order for literature groups for next year cuz these girls (who will be my students next year) keep devouring my favorite considerations right and left. This is the sort of problem I love, of course. And I'm not too worried; I have all summer to find more great literature group books.

I must end by sharing one last beautiful book moment. These same book loving girls of mine (ten out of my eleven girl students) have reading skills and ability levels that are all over the map. On our library excursion yesterday we each got to choose one free book and most of us chose Ella Enchanted. So today, during our independent reading time, a spontaneous book club formed. They were all sitting on the steps of our "common area", shoulder to shoulder, each with their own copy of Ella Enchanted. Independent reading time is SILENT reading time, but they kept helping each other read, read, read. They kept comparing how far along their friends were and whispering about the plot and hard words. This has me rethinking my beliefs about always running exclusively homogeneous reading groups. There was certainly some beautiful power today in having them combine their strengths and support one another---a power that I'd like to tap, at least occasionally, next year.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Spiderwick Chronicles

There are two reasons why I didn't discover (read READ) this series sooner. The first reason is the whimsy illustrations, hard-cover only editions, coy notes to the "reader", and the pretense that the author is representing the real life experiences of three siblings---all these details reminded me of one particular series that I don't really adore. I know, I know, lots of kids love The Series of Unfortunate Events. Lots of kids I know love The Series of Unfortunate Events, and so I promote it, have read The Bad Beginning with several classes and have occasionally turned my distaste for the series into an effective reverse psychology ploy to get students to read more of them. But by the ninth book, Lemony Snickett's tone, for me, was horribly grating and the plots were unbearably predictable. So, when I first came across The Spiderwick Chronicles I thought, "Oh, great, another Lemony Snickett. Well, let them find it on their own. I don't need to read and promote two of these series."

The second reason I didn't read Spiderwick sooner was that I thought it was just another Harry Potter knock-off. This reason is ironic given the fervor with which I defend the Percy Jackson books. (Just another H.P., being one of the primary complaints lodged against my favorite demi-god). But here's why I'm so glad I finally gave this series an earnest chance: It's an excellent fantasy series for readers whose skills aren't yet up for Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, or any of the Deltora series. The plot, language, vocabulary, and magical elements are all perfect for those students who I think of as "bridging" readers. Kids in fourth or fifth grade who've read all the Captain Underpants, but who still need lots and lots of reading experiences before they are ready for more demanding chapter books. So far, this enchanting series doesn't sacrifice any of the bubbling imagination, mysterious creatures, or captivating puzzles that define the fantasy genre. The Secrets of Droon is the only other fantasy series that I know about that's targeted for younger and less skilled readers, but where The Secrets of Droon is perfect for first and second graders whose reading skills are already strong, The Spiderwick Chronicles is perfect for fourth and fifth graders who are still making the leap.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Whales on Stilts, by M.T. Anderson

Lily has always been the most normal kid in her group of friends. She has an ordinary family and an ordinary life. But one day Lily visits her dad's office where she discovers that her dad's boss, a mysterious guy named Larry, is secretly planning to take over and dominate the entire planet---by using a secret marine weapon. Lily and her friends must uncover the whole plot, save themselves, and prevent the evil Larry from carrying out his sinister plot. The author of this book speaks directly to the reader and uses very unique words and a style that makes you feel like he's right next to you, telling an exciting, hilarious, entertaining adventure story.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Key Collection, by Andrea Cheng

I hate the way "multiculturalism" is taken up, most of the time. Imagine a flower drawn by a second grader with several colorful petals. You've got an "African American" petal, a "South East Asian" petal, a "Japanese" petal, an "American Indian" petal, a "Latino" petal, and hopefully several other lovely petals. But what often gets overlooked is the very "white" center of this deceptively colorful flower. Stories, people, families, cultures, and children are counted as "multicultural" if they are outside "whiteness". The normalization and invisible privileging of whiteness is often an unintended consequence of multicultural flowers and narratives.

"Well, it's better than nothing," cry the teachers who love to break pinatas on Cinco de Mayo. Maybe. I dunno. It's tricky. Here's what I do know: in my own classroom library I make a huge effort to have the majority of our books be visibly "ethnic". This doesn't mean we don't ever read books about white folks, it just means that I prefer books where the setting and white characters have a clear and particular ethnic context: books like Out of the Dust, Shiloh, Because of Winn Dixie, and Fighting Ruben Wolfe.

The irony of all this is that I am always on the lookout for books that celebrate the lives and stories of children of color, books that are often categorized as "multicultural". This relentless search is why I spend a couple hours each week in the kidlitosphere---a lovely place where I've made many exquisite discoveries. One book that I found and loved even before I started blogging was The Key Collection, by Andrea Cheng. This story is about a Chinese American boy who lives in Cincinnati and who has an incredibly close relationship with his grandmother. The tensions of being both American and Chinese are subtly explored and the main conflict revolves around the separation of Little Jimmy from his grandmother as her health necessitates a cross-country move. This very tender story was a favorite of one of my sweetest students, as it reminded her of her own struggles in the US and also of her separation from her grandma when she moved here from Mexico. I waited patiently, for two years, for this book to come out in paperback, but finally just bought a set of six in hard back.

You won't find any of my organizing tags referencing the culture or ethnicity represented in the books, but if you spend some time here you'll find plenty of "multicultural" literature.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Flush, by Carl Hiaasen

I liked the mystery part of the plot better than the way the relationships developed. I don't think I'll get this for my whole class, or even a small set for a literature group. It will make a great book-talk, though. In the official book leveling system I use, it is classified in the same category with Maniac Magee, Dicey's Song, and H.P and the Half Blood Prince. I think that once you get this far up into any leveling system, you have to be careful. Different books will challenge different students for different reasons. Sometimes it's the complexity of the plot and not just the challenging words or longer sentences that make a book hard. Sometimes it's the unfamiliarity of a particular setting, and sometimes what's hard is the language and tone of a strong "voice" telling a first-person narrative. The voice of this book would be highly accessible to my students but the setting has lots of things related to the ocean, to fishing boats, and to the Florida Keys--- a setting that will push many of my students to learn many new words.

Here's my plan for this book. I'll buy two paperback copies and then I'll book talk it. They can partner read it, if they choose. I have this vision next year for reading workshop of creating a culture of supportive partnering and teaming where we are all working hard to help each other grow stronger as readers.

The Titan's Curse, by Rick Riordan

I devoured this book in less than 24 hours. It was fun, entertaining, fast-paced, and once again full of crafty allusions to ancient greek myths. I particularly enjoyed the whole story line of Artemis and her maidens. I think it was fabulous how Rick was able to capture the devastating pains of changing from a strong girl into a confused, self-doubting teenager. If given the option, I would have chosen to be a huntress. No doubt.

Here's something I've been mulling over, ever since handing my copy off to one of my strongest readers: why can I only get two or three of them to dive into this series? It's soooo good and fun and full of action. My whole class enjoyed reading The Lightning Thief together. It's just the kind of series that will yank their reading fluency firmly up into the realm of "college-track" middle school levels. Maybe most of them just can't handle such demanding text yet, but why not? They read a lot. They like books. They have decent sized vocabularies. There's a huge missing link, though, either in my instruction, in my thinking, or in my students' motivation. How many comic books does it take to get their reading strong enough for a series like this? Am I wishing for too much too soon?