Trouble picking books??? Who, me?

Believe it or not, I’m having a hard time judging the appropriate level of books from online blogs and book reviews! Broad naming categories such as YA, middle grade, middle school, intermediate, etc. have left me reading some novels that are either too simplistic or too difficult for the average middle school student. That said, since I’ve always been one to focus on the interest level of students rather than on a published reading level I’ll mention these two recent reads, and hope they aren’t read by most students until high school!  Both books are easy reads, however the topics are mature, sensitive, and probably not developmentally appropriate for students under age 14.

  • Shine, by Lauren Myracle – I love the story of Cat and the young lady she becomes as this novel progresses.  Set in the rural North Carolina, the setting of this story is key to the plot lines and twists, and in truly creating a rich experience for readers.  Shine starts with the story of a hate crime, but expands to explore addiction, poverty, sexual aggression, and family relationships.  If your child is reading this book – you should be too!
  • A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl, by Tanya Lee Stone – I loved this book!  I’m fond of books written in verse, as well as books with multiple narrators, so this was a win-win for my literary senses.  The sexual content and descriptions were necessary to the story, but definitely put it as a high school read on my criteria list!  That said, it’s a perfect book for a teenage girl who is struggling with issues of self-confidence, peer pressure, and fitting in.

A snag in my reading …

Over the past week I have actually started and abandoned three separate books – Diary of a Wimpy Kid (don’t ask), Beauty Queens by Libba Bray, and The Poisoner’s Handbook … by Deborah Blum.  It’s frustrating to me because I am typically not one to leave a book mid-stream, and have been very reluctant to do so. I’ve started and re-started, I’ve picked back up, I’ve tried something new to break up the reading, and I still cannot commit to any of these books.  All three books were either highly recommended, or I was reading for a specific purpose, and that has led to my determination to continue on.

This morning, however, I thought back to the lessons we teach our students on abandoning books and really started to question myself.  I know when I love a book everything else in my life tends to get pushed aside and I could stay up all night to find out more!  In these three books I have built no relationship with the characters or people described, I have no commitment to the storyline, and would do anything else rather than read.  But even greater than that,  I thought about all the other books in my T-B-R pile and all the intriguing book reviews and recommendations I read daily.  There are too many books out there for me to give these three books any more of my precious reading time, and for that simple reason I am letting go!

Darth Paper Strikes Back

I found myself engrossed in book #2 of the Origami Yoda series.  Not a personal genre favorite of mine, but highly recommended (and I needed a break from the civil war book!) I only wish I had the opportunity to read The Strange Case of Origami Yoda first so I would know the characters and the back story.

Thinking about my take-aways from The Book Whisperer, I know exactly the students who I would love to hand this book to.  Star Wars fans?  Absolutely.  Creative/artistic kids?  Absolutely.  Students who are overwhelmed with too much text on a page?  Absolutely. Students who love comics or graphic novels?  Absolutely.  I could go on, and on, but more about the book …

The first book in this series was about a 6th grader named Dwight and his advice-giving, origami, finger puppet of Yoda.  This book continues the story, but now it’s Dwight and Origami Yoda who are in need of assistance, and the students of McQuarrie have taken up the charge – all except Harvey and his origami Darth Vader, a/k/a Darth Paper.  Darth Paper is insulting, possibly evil, and the root cause of Dwight and Origami Yoda’s troubles!

Darth Paper Strikes Back is written as a case file, with more than ten different students offering his or her perspective on Dwight and Origami Yoda.  There are numerous entries from Tommy, and a few with Kellen, but it’s in the offerings of the other students where the readers truly see the story of Dwight and Origami Yoda.  Two case examples:  Lance writes, “Origami Yoda and Exploding Pizza Bagels of Love” while Cassie’s entry is entitled, “Origami Yoda and the Body Odor in Wonderland.”

For readers to successfully navigate this book, they must not only read the text, but also follow the drawings, diagrams, and comments written in the margins, all the while tracking which narrator is telling the story at any given point.  Also, if a reader isn’t familiar with Star Wars, it might be difficult to understand many of the references and innuendo – but for those Star Wars enthusiasts, and those up to the challenge of navigating the textual features, then this is the book for you!

Here is the Amazon link to Darth Paper Strikes Back, written by Tom Angleberger. (He also narrates this how-to on making your own Darth Paper.)

The Book Whisperer

The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller has been on my to-be-read list for quite a long time, but only recently came into my hands. Mrs. Miller teaches 6th grade and is highly respected by all educators as a guru who remains in the classroom fostering a love of reading for her students!

I read this book in one night, but know I will return to it again and again. While valuable for teachers and other educators, I believe many parents would find it helpful in understanding upper elementary and middle grade readers. I actually found my copy on the shelves of my local library, so it should be fairly easy for you to get a copy of as well.

Mrs. Miller discusses many of her ideas about students as readers, including her worries about:

  • Developing readers (a/k/a struggling readers) and says, “…these students have the ability to become strong readers. They may lag behind their peers on the reading-development continuum, but they are still on the same path. What they need is support for where they are in their development and the chance to feel success as readers instead of experiencing reading failure.” (p.25)*
  • Dormant readers (a/k/a reluctant-readers) feel that “Reading is work, not pleasure. Without support for their reading interests and role models who inspire them to read, these students never discover that reading is enjoyable.” (p.28)
  • Underground readers are “… gifted readers, but they see the reading they are asked to do in school as completely disconnected from the reading they prefer to do on their own.” (p.30)

Donalyn Miller’s premise is simple … children will become readers if we give them ample time to read, help put interesting books in their hands, and model for them what a reading life looks like! She highlights how to recapture lost instructional time during the day** and how to repurpose a few “traditional” classroom activities with independent reading. Her book is practical, straightforward, and has challenged me to reflect on what literacy looks like across a school building.

(*)In thinking about developing readers, I keep coming back to this quote from Kylene Beers which I’ve happened on repeatedly over the past few weeks. “Do I think reading books is the only way to help struggling readers? Of course not! Sometimes I suggest reading more books.”

(**) In thinking about repurposing time I was reminded of this post by Howe Elementary School Principal, Matt Renwick. Matt is a true literary principal and has many ideas worth stealing!

The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller at Amazon


The term mandibulofacial dysostosis doesn’t often come up in children’s novels, but it is the heart of a fabulous book entitled Wonder.   This is the story of Auggie, a soon-to-be 5th grader who will be attending school for the first time at Beecher Prep.  Auggie has been home-schooled, due to years of surgeries and medical fragility, but that is about to change!   Check out this awesome video book trailer.

While this book is about Auggie’s 5th grade year, it’s certainly also a book about disability, human nature, and friendship!  Written from the viewpoint of multiple narrators, the story lives and re-lives various events through the eyes of those involved.  Wonder  is a book many parents should read alongside their children, as the perspectives are varied and the lessons are many.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway comes early in the book, but is repeated throughout …. “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.”  Dr. Wayne W. Dyer.

Wonder is written by R.J. Palacio.  The Amazon link is here.

I read after I posted this morning that the July Twitter Bookclub will be based on the book Wonder, and there’s a free book giveaway today and tomorrow!

Step-Up Activities

All students in grades K-4 “stepped-up” today to meet the team of teachers that will be at their grade level next fall.   At Winthrop this involves some staff moving into new roles and positions, so it was important for students to be able to match names and faces before receiving welcome letters in August!

  • Rising 5th graders met Mrs. Harris, Mrs. Lewis, and Mr. Yeaton
  • Rising 4th graders met Ms. Bruce, Ms. O’Brien, and Mrs. Ogiba
  • Rising 3rd graders met Ms. Bates, Ms. Hatch, and Mrs. Herook
  • Rising 2nd graders met Ms. Gorevitz, Ms. McElligott, and Mrs. Orlofski


  • Rising 1st graders met Ms. Hurwitz, Mrs. Twist, and Ms. Wilcox

All students were given information* to bring home about grade level supplies, and our almost 2nd-5th graders also received packets of information* regarding summer practice for literacy and math.  Having sat through each session, the resounding plea was for students to become more automatic with basic facts (addition and subtraction in the lower grades, and multiplication in the older grades!)  One teacher reminded students of their younger days when learning the alphabet.  The teacher asked the students to think about how hard they worked to recognize their letters, and how easily the alphabet comes to them now.   She then related that to practicing and becoming automatic with math facts!

Yesterday, children’s librarian Marianne Stanton presented to students and sent home information regarding summer reading, summer programming, and a suggested book list for Dream Big – Read!   The Melrose Public Library will not charge children this summer to replace any lost library card, and all were encouraged to visit Monday-Thursday from 10-8, or on Fridays from 10-5.  Books from the library are a great way to keep busy this summer, and an inexpensive way to reinforce learning and academics from the school year.

*All supply lists and summer packets will be posted on the Winthrop website within the next week.

The Great Book Swap of 2012

This year Field Day will also serve as the kick off for our summer reading push!  During a break in the games, activities, and performances, all students K-5 will be able to attend The Great Book Swap.   This new event will take place on the grassy area outside the main office, and will be run by Mrs. Herrera and some literacy loving volunteers!

The rules are quite simple – for every book a student donates (up to ten) he or she will be able to swap for the same amount of new reading material.  Students can bring in books from Monday through Wednesday, and there will be donation bags set up in each classroom.

Families with overflowing bookshelves or personal libraries may donate excess books (that is – over the 10 book student maximum) at the main office!  If we have enough “extra” donations, we’re anticipating every student will be able to go home with at least one new book to read over summer break, regardless of participation.

Just a reminder that field day is Thursday, June 7th.  All students who chose to participate in The Great Book Swap should have books to their classroom teacher by Wednesday, 6/6/12.

Further Book Swap 2012 Information

MCAS – Round One

Earlier this month I presented an overview of MCAS to a small group of 3rd grade parents. The presentation is posted on the Winthrop website.

This week begins our first round of testing. Students in 3rd and 5th grades will each have two days of ELA (English Language Arts) Reading Comprehension, and our 4th graders will also have those two days of ELA, plus a full day of Long Composition (writing.)  These days are spread out over the next two weeks – please see the website calendar, or the e-Notice,  for specifics.

In addition to what I mentioned to the 3rd grade parents, below are some additional tips that you may find helpful in preparing your family for the testing block.

Positive Encouragement goes a long way (all year-long) …

  • Make sure your child gets enough sleep, eats properly, and gets to school on time (8:15AM.)  During testing, make this a special effort.
  • Encourage your child to read.  No activity is linked to academic success as much as reading, and as I mentioned in an earlier blog post, reading books that are easy or just right for the child’s abilities, not reading books that are overly challenging or frustrating.

Prepare students on the day of the tests

  • Make sure that your child is well rested and eats breakfast.  My son always wanted an egg sandwich on MCAS days.  Not something we whip up on a typical morning, but I did always allot the extra time during testing!
  • See that your child arrives at school on time and is relaxed.
  • Dress comfortably – it looks to be a warm week so have your child dress in layers.  If the forecast changes, a sweatshirt for cooler days may be necessary.  
  • Encourage your child to do the best work possible, and to have a positive attitude.  The power of positive thinking is a real test-taking asset – if a child can visualize himself doing well, he probably will!

Test anxiety is rampant and can keep students from doing well …

  • Always talk about the test in a positive way.
  • Encourage best efforts, yet have realistic expectations.  Third graders are having their first standardized testing experience.  Fourth graders are now having to transfer answers from the test booklet to an answer booklet, and write a long, organized, on-topic essay!  Fifth graders are experiencing science MCAS for the first time.  Elementary teachers strive for growth and improvement, but it isn’t until middle school that many students get the hang of standardized testing!
  • Assure your child that the test is only one measure of academic performance, and it is not reflected on the report card (this is a real relief for many students).
  • Emphasize that test scores do not determine a person’s worth!

The second round of MCAS testing will take place in May.  Students in 3rd and 4th grade will have two days of Math testing, and students in 5th grade will have two days of Math, followed by two days of Science and Technology/Engineering.  That testing block is currently scheduled for May 7th through May 25th.  The exact days for each grade level will be out in the next few weeks.

Thanks to Principal Clery at Roosevelt for many of these bullet points!

What Are You Reading?

Reading, like piano, soccer, ballet, or chess, requires practice in order to learn the fundamentals and to get better at it!  Improvement in reading (as in the other activities), not only comes from practice but also from modeling by those who are already experts.

Parents know and do this for their toddlers.  The adults are rhyming and reading, teaching letters, sounds, and words along the way.  As students get into school, reading aloud becomes a bit more complex.  If you have a young student (K-1), this article, Seven Things You Should Be Doing as You’re Reading to Your Child, has some worthwhile tips you might not have thought of as you’re reading together.

As students become more independent readers, parents typically back off and let the student read.  This is great, but not enough!  The child still needs a good model, especially if the book is more challenging than the student is ready for.  Independent reading for elementary school students should not be frustrating!  Research has proven that it’s much better to have a student read and re-read easy books, as that is where automaticity and fluency are solidified, and comprehension built.  Think about Rajon Rondo practicing his free throws.  He’s shot them a million times, and makes them most of the time, but even he still needs repetition and practice!

Reading aloud with your child provides access to materials that are above his or her reading level.  Jim Trelease (author of The Read Aloud Handbook) says, “A consistent mistake made by parents and teachers is the assumption that a child’s listening level is the same as his or her reading level. Until about eighth grade, that is far from true; early primary grade students listen many grades above their reading level. This means that early primary grade students are capable of hearing and understanding stories that are far more complicated than those they can read themselves.”  So, if your child is anxious to read, The Hunger Games, before the movie comes out in late March (and you think they can deal with the subject matter) then that book becomes a great read aloud for you together, not something for him or her to tackle independently.

Need some suggestions?  The local librarians always know what’s new (and sometimes more importantly, what’s hot!)  Also, there are numerous sites on-line (including Jim Trelease’s website which I linked above.)  Others include:

March is typically one of those long, boring months where winter activities are winding down and spring things haven’t yet started. There are no holidays, no long weekends, and the weather is quite unpredictable. It’s a great month to choose a book to read together.  There is a time for independent practice, and a time for modeling, I hope you can fit in both!