Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Misfits

       The Misfits is a children's novel written by James Howe.  It is geared toward students between grades 5 and 7.  I would rate this book 4.5 out of 5 stars.
       Bobby, Joe, Skeezie, and Addie are the four 6th grade students who are all outsiders in their school.  Bobby is seen as an overweight slob, Joe is seen as a girly gay boy, Skeezie is a gross, greasy, loser, and Addie is a towering smart alic.  Together, these friends decide to stand up against all the wrong they see happening in their school by forming a new political party to run for student government: The No-Name Party.  This party doesn’t choose sides or subject students to being humiliated.  Before being allowed to run, they must pick someone to run for president- this is where Colin enters the picture.  Since Colin in a minority student in a sea of likeness, he is a great fit for a party that goes against the mainstream.  The No-Name Party hangs posters with their slogan, “Sticks and stones may break our bones, but names will break our spirit.”  They stand up against bullying and labels that are thrown at students and cling to their identity in the school.  Later in the story, Joe shares with Bobby and Skeezie that he is gay and has developed feelings for Colin, which is a controversial subject for students at this age. 
       Unfortunately, the No-Name party loses the election.  The principal, Mr. Kiley, is so amazed by the effort and emotion put into their campaign that he announces that there will be a No-Name day in which students will not bully their peers.  Joe asks Colin to dance and they are free from the normal judgments passed by their classmates and can enjoy a budding romance. 
Bullying is here and it is serious.  It is a major problem in the school systems and it is only reaching younger and younger children every year.  It is very difficult for teachers to often identify bullying in time to intervene, but if a teacher sees bullying, they should act immediately and consistently.  The main characters in this book are all bullied and although they are all categorized as “different” the Misfits are all different from one another as well.  Although they do not fit the “norm” of the school, Addie is not teased in the same way as Joe who is not teased in the same way as Skeezie.  Although all these students are categorized as different by their peers, they do not see each other as different- or different enough to hinder forming friendships.  They see each other as individuals and they think each person brings something to the group. 
       In school, students should not cast judgments on one another because it is amazing how quickly the tables can be turned.  One week Brian can be the coolest kid in class and the next week everyone finds out he still sleeps with a baby blanket and he is thrown into the group of “losers” that he once berated.  If students bully others, they create an atmosphere where this is acceptable and where this could happen to them.  Although more often than not, it is usually the same groups of kids being bullied year to year, it doesn’t make it better or okay.  Students should not be afraid to come to school, they should not be so critical about what they wear or look like, they should not fake sick to avoid being made fun of.  This is not a learning atmosphere and this is not the place where children can grow emotionally and socially. 
       It is not a mystery that bullying exists and that it has a huge negative effect on its victims.  Teachers should incorporate activities to boost self-esteem as well as heighten class cohesiveness so a community can be formed.  If students learn that they are all, in fact, vulnerable, they might be less likely to see a peer as someone who is easily hurt.  They might actually feel guilty for hurting someone who they know is a human. 
       Another controversial aspect of the book is the fact that Joe is homosexual.  This issue is rarely ever addressed at such a literal level in children’s literature and it can often be a difficult area for teachers to tackle.  It may make some students feel uncomfortable and it may make some students go on the offensive and begin acting out in homophobia.  Although homosexuality in elementary schools is likely to be less common than bullying, it is still an issue and teachers still need to address it- in and out of the curriculum.  Students like Joe should not feel persecuted just because of an aspect of their identity or a group they identify with.  The Misfits teaches a lot of lessons that apply to elementary students currently and they should be exposed to.

Here is a lesson plan that discusses "us vs. them" or outsiders using a few different books, one of them being The Misfits

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

We All Sing with the Same Voice

        We All Sing with the Same Voice is written by J. Philip Miller and Sheppard M. Greene and illustrated by Paul Miesel.  It is written for primary elementary grades, ranging from kindergarten to 2nd grade.  I rate this book 4 out of 5 stars.
        This book describes the similarities that children across the world have while still having their differences.  Different hair color, eye color, home country, hobbies, and lifestyles are described, but the repetition of “my name is you” reaffirms the idea that we live in a global community in which a lot of the members are similar while maintaining their individual identities.  The authors also repeat “we all sing with the same voice, the same song, the same voice.  We all sing with the same voice, and we sing in harmony”.  This phrase suggests that we all bring things to the world and we work together in harmony to create what world exists for everyone. 
        This kind of harmonious community can also be created in the classroom.  It will not be hard for students of any age to find differences between hair color, skin color, eye color, ability levels, socioeconomic status, or other contributing factors to a community if they look hard within their classmates.  The things that divide a community are the things that bring it together and strengthen it.
        A diverse classroom is one that has a lot to learn, even from just the students within the walls of the community.  If a teacher does not have to bring diversity into the classroom for the students to learn what it is, they can connect more with the idea and see the theory of a community being acted out right in front of them.  This book is a great way to introduce diversity to children in a way that still is fun and friendly for them.  If a book addresses such a deep topic with a serious tone, children can apply a negative connotation to the idea and not realize that diversity is the spice of their lives. 
        This book can bring rich depth to lessons in the classroom and can provide students with a lot of opportunities to connect with their classmates on a deeper level.  Students could write a collaborative book about the things that they believe make up their own personal identities and then compile the writings to form a classroom book about the community.  Children will feel like they are a vital part to the environment in which they learn, which will also allow them to be more comfortable with sharing their ideas in general. 

Here is a great lesson plan using this book to promote and describe diversity in the classroom. 

Woodson Experience

Jacqueline Woodson
        I have never really read several books by the same author in a way that we did in this class.  I really enjoyed reading Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson and I was surprised to find such common themes threaded throughout a lot of her books and the specific connections that we were able to see between Locomotion and Miracle’s Boys.  Just starting at the title, the word locomotion and miracle are usually not referring to the names of people, but in both of these books they are.  The term “never judge a book by its cover” really hold true, especially relating to the title.  A lot of the driving factors of each of the plots were similar as well.  In both books, siblings are separated for an extended period of time- in Locomotion, Lonnie and his sister and separated by being put in two different foster homes and in Miracle’s Boys, the siblings are separated when one of them ends up going to jail.  The distance between family is described and stressed and it juxtaposes the ordinary “close bonds” of family that authors usually describe or rely on the reader relating to. 
        The other themes, like death and sadness were both described in the books as well as all the Woodson books discussed in class.  In Locomotion, Lonnie’s parents are both killed in a fire, a life event that he repeatedly refers to in various ways with diverse emotions ranging from sadness to guilt to remorse.  The sadness and emptiness that Lonnie feels in his life- the lack of his sister and parents is also demonstrated across all of Woodson’s books.  These emotions were described from the perspective of a child, so it makes it more accessible for elementary students to read and connect to. 
        I got a lot out of reading Jacqueline Woodson’s book and I found it interesting how much overlapping there was among all the books, with common themes.  The urban setting and the sense of family tragedy ran through all of her books, so it made finding a set of books simple for students who can relate to this theme.  Also, the main character in the books was mainly African-American.  Their Caucasian counterparts, especially in children’s books, outnumber this group of narrators.  Jacqueline Woodson does a fantastic job making her writing easily understood to readers while still discussing very complex and deep themes and ideas, which is ideal for upper elementary grades. 

I Dream of Trains

“I still stare at the tracks and wait for Casey and his engine to come flying past the fields and dream me away.”   

        I Dream of Trains is written by Angelia Johnson and illustrated by Loren Long.  It is written for 3rd-4th grade students.  I rate this book 5 out of 5 stars. 
        In this book, a young boy idolizes a famous train conductor.  The story briefly discusses the life and success of Casey Jones, the conductor the child dreams about.  After the child realizes the conductor is gone, he focuses his life more on following his own dreams and setting his own goals.  There is not too much to the story- it is mostly introverted thoughts and conclusions the child draws from reflecting on the life of Casey Jones. 
        Using this book in the classroom could serve so many purposes.  The imagery that is inspired by this child’s imagination could be used to model to students what good details in writing look like and what allowing the reader to imagine the words as a movie or image.  Coupling with the use of images in writing is the use of sounds in the story.  The quote “some sounds can remind you of times gone by” can really inspire students of any grade level to relate their life experiences to sounds in their lives.  Raindrops falling on the roof on days that they were stuck inside the house or the sound of traffic outside their window in a congested city are sounds that can prompt a very personal and sensory piece of writing.  For me, growing up above a bar in a busy neighborhood in Chicago has shaped my perception of what it means to have “noisy neighbors”.  Just the sound of the bass pulsating through my bedroom is enough to bring me back to my childhood. 
        Johnson also uses the notion of sound to describe something that is completely unrelated to the things that enter our minds through our ears.  “It’s the sound of leaving that speaks to my soul.”  This is something the young boy says while he is dreaming of leaving the cotton field of Mississippi where he currently resides and works.  A prompt related to this type of writing could be asking students what they want to do one day (just like the young boy wanted to leave).  Then they could write about what that would feel like, taste like, smell like, sound like, or look like.  By allowing children to step outside their normal realm of generic prompted writing, they can create something they are truly proud of and can relate to upon reflection. 
Angela Johnson
The prevalent theme of this book relates to dreams and aspirations a person can hold in his or her life.  The little boy in this book dreams of a life that is bigger than picking cotton in a world that is beyond his reach in Mississippi.  He connects with trains because they are a means of transportation away from his current state of being.  Students could write about things that they dream of and what they need to do to get themselves to that point.  This book also takes a specific dream (escaping) or hero (Casey Jones) and relating it back to the bigger world for children to focus on their future instead of mimicking one person.  “When Papa squeezes my hand I know I have another hero besides Casey.”  This lets children know that revolving your life or your future aspirations upon one person is not practical or a good start.  The only one pushing your dreams should be yourself.

Leo the Late Bloomer

    Leo the Late Bloomer is written by Robert Kraus and illustrated by Jose Aruego.  It is written for 2nd-3rd graders and I rate this book 5 out of 5 stars. 
    This story is about a young tiger that is not “blooming” or doing all the normal things that growing tigers do as they age.  He wasn’t writing, speaking, or eating neatly, so his father was concerned.  Leo’s mother told him to wait and allow Leo to bloom on his own timeline.  Leo’s father would watch him to look for signs of blooming and when he didn’t notice any, he surrendered and returned to his normal activities.  When Leo is left to develop free of his father’s watchful eye, he blooms.  His parents are joyous and the book concludes with Leo telling his parents, “I made it.”
    This book can be used in the classroom to discuss the various learning abilities between the students.  One student may be able to draw a beautiful picture but may struggle to write a narrative.  A classmate may excel in math while struggling in language arts.  Each student has their own strengths and weaknesses, as can be seen in Leo.  Leo may lack the abilities his father considers important, but he is not deficient in motivation or drive toward succeeding and making his parents happy. 
    Students may need some encouragement, like using Leo’s success as an example, to get motivated to succeed.  As George Evans said, “Every student can learn, just not on the same day or the same way.”  If students realize that learning differently or at various paces is not bad, the stigmatization of diverse learning curves can be erased in the classroom.  Also, Leo never doubted himself and his ability to succeed.  It was like he always knew it was going to happen, just when was left up to chance. 
    Also the illustrations in the book are very simple for young children to connect to.  They look like watercolors and they offer perspective and depth to the scenery because Leo is usually in the foreground and his father is in the background, which adds to the mindful attitude expressed in the text of the story.  

Here is a lesson plan to use this book in a kindergarten-2nd grade classroom. 

Scholastic has put together a great unit about "I Am Special" that includes Leo the Late Bloomer, along with I Am Special by Kimberly Jordano and The One and Only Special Me by Rozanne Lanczak Williams.  It involves students creating their own "special" books and involves the families too.

Hello World! Greetings in 42 Languages Around the Globe!

Hello World! Greetings in 42 Languages Around the Globe is written and illustrated by Manya Stojic.  It is geared toward 1st-3rd grade students and I would rate this book 4 out of 5 stars. 
            Each page in this book shows a child from a spoken language in the world and the way in which that language says hello.  There are a lot of colors throughout the book: background color, hair color, skin color, eye color.  Under each “hello”, the way to pronounce the word is also written.  There is a child on each page, representing the language through prominent features or clothing.  Although most people would generally think that each page represents a country, it is not the case.  A language is on each page, some are not connected to a country and others are connected to a country that has many languages spoken within its borders. 
            Besides the obvious appeals of this book, like immersion in foreign languages, it can also be used to promote an understanding for diversity in the classroom, even with younger elementary students.  The children can be utterly surprised with how many different languages there are: ones that they are proud to know and others they have never heard of.  A great page to serve as an example is page 30.  On this page, there are four children (as opposed to the usual one per page) and each one speaks a different language.  All the ways to say hello look completely different and come from completely different roots.  However, if one pays attention to the languages (Bengali, Hindi, Tamil, and Urdu), one notices that they are all spoken in the country of India and the surrounding areas.  This can show children that even within a country where it may be difficult to tell groups of people apart just based on appearance, there is diversity and communities. 

A mural where students wrote "hello" in different languages

            A way to turn this book into a classroom project would be to choose another word (to mirror the “hello”) like “peace” or “love” and have each student in your class take one language to be responsible for.  Each student has to find the word in their language that fits the English equivalent.  The classroom can then compile a new book with words that the children found on their own- maybe using a translator, a dictionary, or other resources.  This is a great way to ignite interest in foreign languages and allows each child to participate equally in a project together.  A way to wrap the project up could be making a mural with each child’s handprint and their language’s word for “peace” written near it.  The mural can represent the global community and lessons can go even more in depth with the idea of diversity.
 Here is a list of resources (websites, books, lesson plans, etc.) to help teachers cover the topic of diversity and the global community in their classroom!

Monday, November 8, 2010

I Love Saturdays y Domingos

    The book I Love Saturdays y Domingos is written by Alma Flor Ada and illustrated by Elivia Savadier.  It is written for 2nd-4th grade students and I would rate this book 3.5 out of 5 stars. 
    Each page of this book illustrates and juxtaposes a young girl’s experiences at her grandparents’ houses.  One set of her grandparents are Caucasian and the other set are Hispanic.  She shows each thing she does with her grandparents and how they are so similar, yet the language is what is different.  Instead of speaking to her completely in English, her Hispanic grandparents mix Spanish into their conversations with her.  Her grandparents both like to show her new things, tell stories, and share their family experiences.  The book italicizes the Spanish words to add distinction to them. 

   This book is a great way for teachers to show the differences and similarities between cultures.  Although the grandparents come from different ethnic backgrounds, they have similar life experiences and actions.  Also, since the main character is a little girl who is half Caucasian and half Hispanic, this book displays a pretty common occurrence of ethnically mixed people.  It is hard for students to not know of someone who is mixed since this country is made up of so many various ethnic groups. 
In the classroom, this book could be used to help students find aspects of their own lives that can be described as diverse.  Students could represent different groups through aspects of their lives such as socioeconomic status, gender, age, ethnicity, religion, region, or other factors.  If students find ways that they fit “in the box” as well as ways they stay “outside the box”, they can appreciate diversity more.  Students will struggle to connect with the idea of diversity if they think it is simply a foreign, far away idea that doesn’t have any precedence in their lives.  Students will also find ways in which their friends and classmates bring diversity to the classroom.  They can appreciate the many different aspects of culture that are represented in a classroom, even if all the students may look like they all come from the same subgroups in society. 

Here is a great lesson plan to deepen the connection to this book that you can use in your classroom.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Giver

    The Giver  is written by Lois Lowry and is geared toward 5th-6th graders.  I rate this book 5 out of 5 stars. 
    This book depicts a society where everything is the same, where everyone follows the rules, and where everyone has no control over their lives or choices.  There are no colors, emotions, or freedoms.  Yet, everyone seems satisfied with the society in which they belong.  Jonas, a 12-year-old boy, has been selected to be the new Receiver for the community.  At first, he is completely startled and overwhelmed at the “award” and doesn’t know how he will benefit his community members.  Once he begins his sharing sessions with the Giver, he is given the memories that the rest of his community does not have.  Memories of pain, war, snow, and other joyous and hideous things fill his mind and a weight of knowing weighs Jonas down.  It affects how he relates to his family and friends.  He is not himself anymore and he cannot believe that no one else in the community lives their lives without this knowing too. 
Jonas and the Giver divulge a plan for Jonas to escape the community and go Elsewhere.  He takes with him Gabe, a young toddler that Jonas’ father brought home from the Nurturing Center.  Jonas chose to bring Gabe because Gabe was going to be “released”, which Jones soon found out meant killed.  He saved Gabe’s life and swept a plethora of memories across the community when he left since the memories are released if the Receiver no longer retains them.  The book concludes with Jonas sitting atop a hill on a sled, Gabe on his back, much like the first memory that was passed to him from the Giver.  He slides down the hill toward light and it is difficult to distinguish toward the notion of Jonas dying from the cold and hunger that consume him or finally reaching peace and serenity in a life he has chosen for himself. 
    This book is amazing for classrooms.  I remember reading it in 6th grade and I cannot remember how I understood all of the information in the book.  Maybe I just didn’t get some of the major points.  It is incredible that this is considered a children’s book because I found some of the topic discussed mystifying and I cannot imagine what a younger student might think.  So many themes are discussed thoroughly in The Giver, like power, choice, freedom, pain, sacrifice, memories, and diversity (or lack thereof).  The elders in the community hold all the power: in the rules, the assignments that determine what people do for careers, the joys people are allowed to have.  This infringes on the choices and freedom people take for granted, even until this day and in this country.  There are places in the world where people cannot choose their actions, whom they marry, their religion, or what they say.  The people of North Korea are only exposed to the media and information that the government seems fit- this is the society in The Giver that still exists today. 
    Jonas is chosen to be the only one to experience pain in the community and so he carries the burden alone.  He can’t communicate the details of his work, so no one can even empathize with him.  He is a young child who is overwhelmed with all these new feelings, sights, sounds, and ideas with no one there for him.  He has to sacrifice his whole life- everything he has and everything he is turns into him being the Receiver.  He doesn’t get to have relationships that he did before because 90% of his life is now hidden.  The community is so homogeneous; there is no distinction between people besides the name that they are given.  They live with cookie-cutter families in houses that are the same.  They have the same routines with the same sharing of feelings, and they all follow the same paths in life.  They know nothing of the people who came before them.  Everyone in the community thinks their ancestors lived the same lives they currently live.  However, Jonas learns that people had memory at one point in their lives.  Their lives were not the same at all, they had diversity and color and fear and pain, which is something that is completely absent in his currently society.  Only Jonas knows that the society they live in is not what anyone thinks it is.  It is not how it always has been; it is some life sucked dry of anything too good and anything too horrible. 
An illustration representing the first time Jonas saw color
The Giver is a book that can inspire a lot of different discussions in a classroom that can follow a lot of paths.  Students can feel grateful about the societal choices and freedoms they have and can realize that there are other people who are not as fortunate.  Students can find things in the book they identify with and things they can never see themselves being familiar with.  They may feel bad for Jonas and wonder why he doesn’t rebel against the Elders to their faces.  No matter what students you have, they will have questions.  They will be passionate in their discussions because they will be shocked at how different this society is from the one they have become so accustomed to. 

Here is a 15-day unit lesson plan on The Giver!

Madeline and the Cats of Rome

    Madeline and the Cats of Rome is written and illustrated by John Bemelmans Marciano.  This book is for children in grades 1st-3rd.  I would rate this story 5 out of 5 stars (but I LOVE Madeline!). 
    This book is about a time when the girls and Miss Clavel set out from Paris to go to Rome when the sky is gloomy.  When Miss Clavel is trying to take a picture of the twelve little girls, a thief comes and snatches her camera and sprints away.  Madeline, deciding to be a hero, runs after the girl, but lost her in the end.  Suddenly, a cat is rubbing against her leg and of course Genevieve (the dog) does not appreciate this feline invasion, so she chases her off.  Madeline follows Genevieve into an abandoned house where Madeline discovers several cats living there.  The thief appears out of the dark and states that she is steals just to help the cats.  After Madeline pulls the guilt card, the thief returns the camera.  Madeline and the thief later end up in jail and Madeline finds out the thief is no orphan and has a family who is looking for her.  Once the story is explained, the two girls work together to adopt the cats out to the travelers in Rome.  Every cat goes to a great home!

    This book emphasizes so many various lessons and tidbits of information.  Initially, the author introduces the sights of Rome, including the Sistine Chapel and includes images of the Parthenon and other sights.  These images are hardly shown in children’s picture books, so any opportunities to immerse students in these sights are great.  Also, when Madeline confronts the thief, she says, “While I applaud your charity, Let me say this with clarity: STEALING IS WRONG- no matter the cause.  You may not like it, but those are the laws.”  This lesson is so important to stress to children at an early age and in a context that they can understand what stealing is.  This also shows that stealing doesn’t have to happen in a store or just be money to be wrong.  Stealing happens all the time, everywhere, to all different types of people and students shouldn’t be shielded form this fact, so that is a great point made. 

    Also, when the girls are all trying to adopt the cats out, the idea of charity is stressed.  They didn’t have to go back to help the cats, but insisted on providing them with good homes to live in.  They took it upon themselves to be good Samaritans and this is a lesson students should learn.  It could inspire them to volunteer or give up things they no longer need for less fortunate people.  While the girls are adopting the cats out, there is also a sign in three different languages, which shows that they are in a foreign place and it juxtaposes the words “CATS TO ADOPT” in English, French, and Italian.  This introduces (though very slightly) some foreign language, which young children cannot have too much of.  On the page next to it, there are people taking the cats home from all over the world, with typical dress and appearance for those countries, which is also a good thing for children to take note of.  There is so much to get out of this book that is cultural and it is humorous at the same time.

The Crayon Box That Talked

    The Crayon Box that Talked is written by Shane DeRolf and illustrated by Michael Letzig.  It is geared toward preschool or kindergarten students and I would rate it 4 out of 5 stars.
    This book is about a young girl who goes to a toy store to find a box of crayons that are all up in arms with each other.  They don’t like one another, with no reasons given for the animosity.  The girl purchases the crayons and when she gets home, she begins to draw a picture with all the colors, showing that they are all needed to complete a beautiful picture.  The crayons also learn that they have to work together in order for art to be created and they can blend together to create new colors of beautiful things.  In the end, the crayons are getting along and embrace each other since everyone is needed. 
    Using this book in an elementary classroom, especially the younger grades, will be a simple way to teach diversity without connecting the idea to people yet.  Since it is the crayons (which all happen to be different colors, like people) that are fighting, it is somewhat unlikely that students will immediately think that the book is metaphorical.  Students will learn that everyone needs to work together to get everything needed done.  Also, it is a great way to introduce the idea of mixing colors together to get a new one.  Since the crayons blend and color over one another to form new shades, students can try this on their own to experience the act. 
    Since the book is also written in rhyme, it will especially appeal to the younger children by keeping their attention in tune with the rhythm of the story.  A lesson involving this book could consist of students getting a pile of crayons and having to use every color coherently to create a picture.  If students can see how well the colors work together and benefit the picture, they might make the connection on their own about how each person is important to a community.  This book could be used to introduce diversity or the components of a group of people. 
There is a whole mini-unit that can be used based on this book.

The Colors of Us

The Colors of Us is written and illustrated by Karen Katz.  It is geared toward kindergarten to 1st graders.  I would rate this book 3.5 out of 5 stars.
    The book begins with a young girl painting a self-portrait.  Her mother (an artist) informs her that if she mixes red, black, yellow, and white together just right, she will be able to find a color that matches her skin just right.  The little girl replies by saying that brown is brown.  The mother then takes the girl on a walk to show her all the different shades of skin that exist in the people they know, often relating their skin color to a food of some sort.  At the end of the story, the little girl is amazed at how different all the portraits turned out of all her friends and family.  She learned that there are many different skin colors, but they all have the same basic colors used.
    This book is great for introducing diversity to a younger classroom of students to the idea of diversity.  Even if students have already noticed that different skin colors exist, they could realize that they have the basic colors to start with.  A classroom of students could even experiment with skin tones in paint and other art mediums.  The illustrations are also really fun, so students won’t think they are reading a book that is a structured lesson at all.  Many students, especially in a diverse classroom, will notice that many of their classmates or friends have different skin tones and this should be embraced and celebrated instead of swept under the rug.  Books like this can help bring out the diversity and realize that it is quite amazing how communities are composed of such different people. 

Here is a The Colors of Us lesson plan by Karen Katz!

It's Okay to Be Different

The book It’s Okay to Be Different is written and illustrated by Todd Parr.  It is geared toward preschool to kindergarten students.  I would rate this book 4 out of 5 stars. 
    The premise of this book is simple: diversity is okay and is seen everywhere someone looks.  Some examples of the different things that are shown include: having missing teeth, being bald, having wheels (like a wheelchair), and being adopted.  Each page displays a different person with different aspects of their lives that people may find peculiar. 
    This book is great for introducing the idea of diversity to children, especially at an age where children don’t really see the skin color differences.  However, children painstakingly notice differences like a wheelchair and will blurt out comments that can embarrass everyone around.  The illustrations are very colorful, so they do not depict one particular group of people and sometimes use animals to show the differences.  The book also links very silly things (like eating macaroni in the bath tub) to very serious things (like it’s okay to have different moms). 
Students may be more at ease with a serious topic if there are things that they can laugh at thrown into the mix.  This lifts some of the burden from the teacher and translates the word diversity into words that children can understand and relate to.  Children will also be able to point out people in their own lives that they see represented in the book and realize that they have already accepted the terms of diversity without consciously doing it. 


Jacqueline Woodson’s Locomotion is written for students in grades 4th-6th.  I would rate this book 5 out of 5 stars.

            Locomotion tells a story of a young boy named Lonnie Collins Motion (nicknamed Locomotion) through a poetry notebook he wrote for class.  His parents died in a fire while he and his sister were away on a trip to the zoo and he discusses the loss of them frequently in the book.  Since being put in a foster home with Miss Edna, Locomotion has found a comfortable place to belong.  His younger sister, Lili, lives in a more upper-class home with a mother who judges Lonnie constantly.  During the story, Lili prompts Lonnie to “find God” and gives him her copy of the Bible.  He wants to find God to get closer to Lili, but ends up finding God all around his life through the simple pleasures he enjoys.  The book mainly discusses his struggle with accepting his place of belonging and finding faith in his life.  Lonnie has experienced some horrible things, but does not broadcast it to his peers at school, which makes this book of poetry a great outlet for him.

            This book is a fabulous find to incorporate into any classroom.  It has so many unique themes that are covered and although it is not the easiest to relate personally to, the feelings Lonnie expresses are common to all people.  The theme of belonging surfaces a lot in Locomotion.  Even in the beginning of the book (p. 5-6), Lonnie recalls a memory where his mother refers to his younger sister as “her baby”.  Lonnie asks her if he was ever her baby and she tells him that he still is.  This sense of belonging to his mother sets up his future quest for the same comfort.  Then on page 33, he has a poem titled “List Poem” in which he lists everything he owns (which amounts to some clothing and parts of his body).  He writes these things out to give himself solace in the idea that he has things that belong to him in this world where nothing seems good.  On page 83, he says “Rodney’s voice sounds like it should always been in this house.” This is significant because this is Miss Edna’s older son who views Lonnie as a younger brother.  Having him move back into Miss Edna’s house means a lot to Lonnie and brings happiness to him and Miss Edna.  The voice of Rodney belongs in the house according to Lonnie, as if it is something that fits into the scene like a puzzle piece that he has been missing for years.  He needs this small detail to feel completely right in his life.  Lonnie’s teacher, Ms. Marcus, told Lonnie he had a poet’s heart (p. 87).  He goes on to say, “That’s good.  A good thing to have.  And I’m the one who has it.” This accomplishment, in Lonnie’s eyes, has brought him happiness as well as something to contribute to the world.  He was searching for a way to be good at something and since he found he had this heart inside him, he felt a wave of happiness wash over him. 

Jacqueline Woodson

            Locomotion is a book that can be taken in many different ways.  It is simple in language and writing style, but if you peel back the words to discover the character’s motivation and emotion, it is not hard to see that this book can be the source of great discussions in the classroom.  Students can open up about many things that are discussed in the book: adoption/foster care, having a friend who is sick, growing up in a low-income area, the loss of one’s parents at a young age, having your first crush, and many other interesting dynamics that are presented.  Teachers can really dig deep and make the book connect to their students, no matter what identity they hold. 

Here is a website to hear and see Jacqueline Woodson discuss her books: http://www.teachingbooks.net/spec_athr.cgi?pid=3460&a=1 and here are some teaching guides to accompany her books!

Scholastic also has this great discussion guide for Locomotion.  There is also an extension activity.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Man Who Walked Between the Two Towers

            The Man Who Walked Between the Towers is written and illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein.  It is written mainly for 3-4 grade students and I rate this book 4 out of 5 stars. 
            This book tells the story about Philippe Petit who strung a wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center and walked across in a daring act (See video of it HERE) .  He had previously walked between the two steeples of Notre Dame in Paris, where he was from.  Since the idea of him doing this seemed too dangerous to the owners of the towers and the police, he had to secretly plan to get the wire up and walk across.  Since the buildings were in the end stages of being built, he dressed as a construction worker and snuck in.  As he walked the wire when day broke, he was spotted and everyone began to gather around the towers to see.  Immediately, there were several policemen on the roofs of both towers, demanding that he come to the end of the wire to be arrested.  He danced around on the wire and even lay down.  When he went before a judge after being arrested, the judge ordered that he perform in the park for children.  The last two pages of the book are somewhat ominous.  After describing his act in the park, the next page shows the New York City skyline without the towers (presumably after 9/11) and the last page reads “But in memory, as if imprinted on the sky, the towers are still there.  A part of that memory is the joyful morning, August 7, 1974, when Philippe Petit walked between them in the air.”

            Since this book is geared toward elementary students, it is pretty acceptable that the author just glazed over the whole day of 9/11 to not distract the reader from the story at hand.  However, just simply stating “Now the towers are gone” can lead some students to be confused and wanting to know more.  The author could mention September 11, 2001 without going into too much detail.  Readers need something to go off of, especially students currently in elementary school who were babies in 2001. 

Images of Philippe Petit walking from tower to tower

            The illustrations of Philippe stringing up the wire at night are so great because they remind the reader that the act is taking place under the cover of darkness but still allows them to see everything that is going on.  Gerstein does a great job making the city glow beneath them and keeping the foreground dim.  Also the way in which the illustrations appear on each page is different: some pages have three long, panoramic illustrations (representing the sunrise as he gets ready to walk the wire), some take up the whole page, and some have two on one page with text dividing them in the middle.  It allows the reader to constantly be surprised by what they are seeing next. 
            Obviously this is a story that is not told very often, so any opportunity to explain a true event like this to children through a picture book is awesome.  The way in which the author juxtaposes the loss of the towers and the image of hope and happiness in Philippe in the last two pages is a great way for children to consider the literary elements.  They can consider something that is sad that happened in their lives and compare it with something better, but still related.  The teacher can also select random acts in history like this one that are free of political or cultural ties for students to discuss.  Since it is just so extraordinary, students may have a great time exploring other events like this one in the classroom through a reading and writing activity.   The rhythm used in this story can also be discussed in depth.  It is not quite a rhyme on every page, but the author does incorporate some sort of pattern in writing style, so students can develop their own writing style and form when writing of another event in history. 

Here is a lesson plan for this book that analyzes character traits: http://www2.scholastic.com/browse/collateral.jsp?id=32439

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Using Controversial Books in the Classroom

Although some teachers may be quite afraid of using controversial literature in the classroom, there are some very useful resources to turn to, and always remember, does this knowledge benefit children?

A lesson plan about censorship.  Although this is for high school students, it can be altered to include the elementary grades.

Students can learn more about censored and banned books in this lesson.  Also, students choose a book and write a paper about their position regarding the book in the classroom.

Here is some information from a website that is made by parents who are advocating for keeping "bad" books out of schools.

Of course, I could not look into controversial children's literature, without stumbling across a Lucky Article!

Controversial Children's Books

Nappy Hair

The book Nappy Hair is written by Carolivia Herron and illustrated by Joe Cepeda.  The book is written probably for 4th-5th graders.  I would rate this book 3.5 out of 5 stars.

            Following its title, Nappy Hair is about an African-American young girl who has the nappiest hair on Earth.  Her grandfather is telling her family about how this hair came to be, stating, “Her hair was an act of God, an act of God that came straight through Africa.”  The book also thoroughly discusses slavery in America and the auctioning of Africans to slave owners.  Throughout the book, nappy hair is given a strength and emphasis of power, referring to it as something beautiful, not to be tamed. 
            Although this book is controversial for many reasons, the literary merit of the writing is not hard to discover.  The style of the story is somewhat conversational, with the grandfather saying a sentence and the family he is telling it to replying on the next line.  The dialogue goes back and forth, so it allows the reader to feel like they are eavesdropping on a conversation instead of reading a story. 
            This book is controversial because it may make some Caucasian students feel uncomfortable or inferior (what a new experience!) to their African-American counterparts.  Herron refers to Ebonic-like speech as “king’s English”, putting the culture of this community at the top of society.  Also, the book is very empowering to African-American children and very few students know how to react to this in an elementary classroom.  This is not to say that this book cannot be used in a classroom, because it could provide powerful instruction on this writing style as well as documented struggle and lines of division between African-Americans and the rest of the country. 
Students could get a lot out of reading this book, but a teacher incorporating this book into a lesson needs to fully prepare a discussion and consider the possible paths this discussion could wander down.  The teacher needs to be highly knowledgeable about how to defuse heated or confrontational situations in a way that resolves the problem and is not biased.  This can be very difficult in an elementary classroom, especially a diverse one. 
            This book is about the more unique feature of an African-American’s appearance, especially in the eyes of children.  The author makes a statement like ‘We are here, we are this way, get used to it.”  This powerful message makes this book controversial, but the problem or facts will not disappear if this book or topic is ignored.  As Herron bluntly describes it, “Ain’t nothing going to straighten up the naps on this chile’s head.”

Rose Blanche

            Rose Blanche is written by Roberto Innocenti and is written for older elementary students, like 6th-8th graders.  I would rate this book 4.5 out of 5 stars. 

            Very few children’s books depict the Holocaust.  This book is not afraid to explore the history of such a horrific event and describes the life of a young girl, named Rose Blanche, who finds herself in a town that is taken over by Nazis.  Some of her neighbors have been taken away in trucks by soldiers and this leaves the young girl curious as to where they could have gone.  She follows the trucks one day and finds groups of people on the other side of an electric barbed wire fence.  Rose begins to save food from her meals to bring to these people as much as possible.  One day, everyone in her town begins to flee and Rose runs to the fence.  There, everything is destroyed and through the smoke, she sees soldiers with guns.  There was a gunshot and the story ends with Rose’s mother “waiting a long time for her little girl.” 
            Among controversial children’s literature, this type of book is one in which a teacher needs to use total discretion on.  If the teacher does not believe the students are ready to learn of such a dark time in history, this book should not be used.  However, if students are thought to be mature enough for the subject, this book could be a great way to experience the Holocaust on a child’s level.  The students probably have the same curiosity and questions that Rose Blanche did, so they can relate to her thought process. 
            A lot of literary strengths can be found in Innocenti’s writing as well.  In the beginning of the story, he writes, “I like the color of the river.  It looks like the sky.”  This can be used to introduce foreshadowing, since later in the story, Rose Blanche is hoping to be lifted away and have the situation change, much like linking the ground to the sky.  Also, as Rose Blanche stops eating to give her food to the prisoners, she grows thinner while the prisoners also grow thinner.  This can be used to remind the reader that both Rose and the prisoners are of one community and share similar characteristics and life stories. 
            Most adults are overwhelmed at the idea of explaining the Holocaust to children because adults want children to believe that the world could not be possible of hosting such an evil.  However, ignoring history is not a positive way to approach the subject either.  Lots of sensitivity and support are needed to convince the students that the world has learned from its gruesome mistakes, so teachers should host a lot of classroom conversations when discussing this topic.  This book is among one of the more controversial I have read since this is a topic that students are not exposed to everyday, like sexual orientation, religion, or sex.  The Holocaust is not something that is directly in their lives, it is just something they learn about in school, so the idea of mass murder and extermination is so foreign, it needs to be handled with care. 

Here is another blog, further discussing Roberto Innocenti.

Fairy Tales in the Classroom

The website readwritethink.org has a great list of fairy tale books published: http://www.readwritethink.org/files/resources/lesson_images/lesson42/booklist.pdf

Students can also write fairy tale biographies, which future teachers may find interesting: http://www.readwritethink.org/classroom-resources/lesson-plans/fairy-tale-autobiographies-1.html?tab=4#tabs

The Twelve Dancing Princesses

            This fairy tale is called The Twelve Dancing Princesses and it is written by Marianna Mayer and illustrated by K.Y. Craft.  It is directed toward 4th-5th grade students and I would rate this book 3.5 out of 5 stars.
            The Twelve Dancing Princesses tells the story of twelve princesses, all sisters, who mysteriously wear out their slippers nightly.  Their father, the king, is so intrigued and concerned he declares that any man who can find out their secret will be allowed to marry one of the princesses.  All the men who ventured into their bedroom at night were never seen again and the secret remained a mystery.  However, a young man named Peter used a magic flower from the garden where he worked to turn invisible and watch the princesses as they escaped their bedroom at night and went to a hidden castle to dance with all the missing suitors.  Once he knew the secret, he left little hints that he knew for the youngest sister, Elise.  She became irritated and paranoid and the sisters plotted to give Peter the same drink the other men had had: a potion that turned a heart into ice.  Elise grew fond of Peter and eventually refused to let him drink the potion, so she and Peter fell in love and got married.
            This book would be great to introduce fairy tales to older students who feel like they have outgrown the genre.  It is a lengthy book with a lot of advanced vocabulary and vivid imagery.  Also, it does not only appeal to female students since it has a lot of mystery involved and the main character is male.  However, the mystery is far from complicated since the title of the book completely reveals what the princesses are doing to wear out their slippers.  This kind of defeats all the building of suspense since you know from the start what the girls like to do.  Students can be encouraged to write their own longer fairy tales, including details that allow the reader to feel like they are in the story.  The illustrations in this book are very magical and detailed.  It is hard to drag your eyes away from them as you read the text. 

The Fairy Tales

            The anthology titled The Fairy Tales is compiled by Jan Pienkowski, translated by David Walser, and written by the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault.  The book is geared toward 3rd-4th graders and I would rate this book 3.5 out of 5 stars. 
            This book presents Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Hansel and Gretel told by the Brothers Grimm.  Cinderella written by Charles Perrault is also included.  The stories written by the Brothers Grimm have the same basic story line as the classic fairy tales, but they provide very vivid details that inspire readers to create deep mental images.  The language and rhythm they use is really whimsical and keeps the reader interested in the story.  Cinderella is also a little more vivid than the original version, which provides readers with a great opportunity to imagine the story, even though parts seem so unrealistic. 
            To use this book effectively in the classroom, it can be used with a writing unit on using imagery in words.  Students could be given a text, much like the ones in this book and be asked to draw a picture of what the text describes.  Although the pictures will probably be different, they will likely all pick up on some of the fundamental details or emphasized parts.  Students could then write outside, using very sensory details or somewhere else and share with their classmates to show how they changed images and sights into writing.  Also, the illustrations are all in silhouette, so the reader is really left filling in those details to the images in the story.

Also, here is a link to a lesson plan to incorporate the Brothers Grimm fairy tales into the classroom effectively: http://www.readwritethink.org/classroom-resources/calendar-activities/jacob-grimm-brothers-grimm-20423.html

Monday, October 11, 2010


            The wordless picture book Zoom is by Istvan Banyai.  It is geared toward 1st-4th graders.  I would rate this book 4 out of 5 stars. 
            This book starts with a picture that is hard to make out what it is.  As the reader moves to each page, the image zooms out more and more.  The reader is constantly shocked that the world they perceived to be to scale is actually much tinier than imagined.  A farm becomes a toy set which becomes the cover of a magazine which becomes a cruise ship which becomes an ad on a bus on a television in the desert which is a stamp on a letter on an island that a plane is flying over.  Then the pictures zoom out  to the Earth form space. 

Page 2 in Zoom
Page 1 in Zoom

  Zoom could be used for students to think about what communities they are in on a small and large scale.  For instance, a child could draw themselves on a soccer field playing with their team then draw their school as a whole, then draw their city as a whole, their state as a whole, their country as a whole, and so on.  This can help students assess how many levels play into their lives.  Students could also explore the idea of this book using photography or drawing.  

A Sequence in Zoom
They could find an object in nature or in a classroom, say a flower.  They could begin really close to it and back up until the observer can tell what the object is.  This is a way for students to feel like they are inventing riddles, so the interest level will be high.