Saturday, January 31, 2015

Sixty Days: Making Writing a Habit

To be entirely honest, I probably wouldn't have realized the milestone if it wasn't for a student's inquiry this week.
"Ms. Guerrette, how's YOUR writing coming along?" was the question he quietly asked me during an unusual moment of calm in our writing workshop. 
"Oh, I'm still writing," I answered, my mind jogging for where this out-of-the-blue question had come from. "Thanks for asking!" I was reminded, yet again, that they are always watching. 
Then came his explanation. "I was just wondering. You must be behind on marking your chart."
The chart in reference is the Don't Break the Chain calendar that hangs on the bulletin board near my desk with other "about me" items: my mission statement, quotes I try to live by, a picture of story time with my nephews. And he was absolutely right. Somewhere back in the middle of January, I had fallen behind on crossing off my writing days.

But I had not fallen out of writing. 
And that...that was what I celebrated as this week drew to a close. I successfully maintained my commitment to writing for 30 minutes daily through a second month. Writing daily is becoming a habit.

At the end of December, I celebrated my success with this goal. It was my longest string of uninterrupted time. More important than the uninterrupted string though, I had succeeded in carving out time to write regularly. My previous efforts had started well, but been derailed by variations on the litany of excuse making for why I couldn't fit writing into my world.

At the end of December, I had some decisions to make about my goal. I had uncovered an idea that was nagging at me, it needed more of my attention to develop. But I was also afraid that my very new success of writing daily would take a hit if I restricted my writing to only this one "project." I need my writing time to be flexible enough that I can go where I need to when I sit down with my notebook and pen.

So, I kept the same overarching goal for January. I wanted to continue my commitment to find 30 minutes to write daily. And I threw in a few other measures, too. Instead of limiting the focus of my writing, I listed four specific writing "tasks" I wanted to complete in the month of January. These would be my measures of success: maintaining my daily commitment and accomplishing these smaller writing goals within the time frame of January.

I did it. Mostly.

One of my four writing tasks was to resume my Monday posts as part of the It's Monday, What Are You Reading? meme. I posted most Mondays in January, but this past Monday, I skipped. It weighed on me all week. And it means I didn't *exactly* accomplish my goal. But, that's awfully darn close. In addition to the writing tasks I had outlined, I began a blog series about our whole-school community reading project (OES Reads), posting almost weekly with updates. My blog saw more posts in January 2015 than any other month since I started blogging.

Being able to say I met my goal feels good, but I've been thinking about more than just accomplishing the goal. Reflection has a way of seeping into everything.

Writing has become something I do. I'm still afraid to say I've built my writing habit, because there are days when it takes everything I have to keep the commitment. Some nights I feel like my writing is more legitimate than others--better subject, more coherence, less "work"--but regardless of my judgement about the quality of my writing, I'm writing daily. The routine I'm establishing matters.

I value my 30 minutes. I appreciate that small chunk of time when I power down, put the phone in "do not disturb" mode, set my timer, and empty my thinking onto the pages of my notebook. Most days it is the most peaceful, attentive time I spend. 

Ideas abound. More than I can attend to. Phrases or whole ideas jump out at me, and I have a knowing feeling when loose ideas need to be tethered and captured in my notebook. Then I can play with them, get to know them, and find out the substance of these ideas.

Many ideas are asking to share my time. Daily, there are new things to scribble about in free writes, and yet many potential pieces or posts wait inside the pages of past free writes. I need to balance free-writing and discovery with time for revision and polishing.

In February, I will continue my goal to write for 30 minutes daily. In the next day or two, I'll make a "wish list" of writing tasks I want to accomplish in February, mindful that I want to balance new writing with mining pieces from the last sixty days of writing.

And I'll try to do a better job remembering to mark my progress on the calendar. For my students' sake.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

OES Reads: Week 2

Our whole-school family reading project (OES Reads) continues! Read on to learn more about how we are making two books by one author a shared focus in our school.

(Find more information about OES Reads in these previous blog posts in the series: Building Excitement, the Big Reveal, and OES Reads: Week 1.)

Our Library Books Arrived!
When the committee decided to feature Kate Messner and her books for our OES Reads project, we discovered an embarrassing truth. Although there were copies of some of Kate's books in other schools in our district, OES actually had zero residing in our school library. This was going to be a problem, since we wanted teachers to be familiar with Kate's books and had made the decision to focus on Kate Messner because her wide-spread of books could potentially fuel students' reading plans with other books in the series and her other work. We needed more Kate Messner in our library.

Fortunately, I didn't have to beg. When I contacted our new rockstar district librarian, she sprung to action, recognizing the deficit right away. She ordered 13 Kate Messner books for our school library, including new 2015 releases like All the Answers; Up in the Garden, Down in the Dirt; and Ranger in Time: Danger in Ancient Rome. It was a bright addition to the library to see all the available titles go up on display atop the shelves this week!
A primary student used Lego blocks
to construct a covered wagon.
"Wall of Fame"
The main hallway in our school boasts of our OES Reads project with the "Wall of Fame." Students who bring in artifacts or products inspired by our family activity calendars (featured in Week 1) may find their work on displayed on the Wall of Fame for all our school community to see. Currently the wall contains flag replicas, collections of idioms, and stories of being stuck in an airport inspired by Capture the Flag. Some of the Ranger in Time inspired items include brainstorms of ways to pass time on the Oregon Trail and descriptions of artifacts students would keep in their pockets to remind them of home on a long journey.

Some products are bigger or difficult to hang on the bulletin board. The counter space in our school lobby is also housing some Ranger in Time projects like dioramas and first aid boxes assembled for Ranger.
A third-grade student shows off her first aid box, filled and
dog-ready--she tried it on her own!

Classroom and School Activities
All around the school, on any given day, you can find students toting Capture the Flag or Ranger in Time. Their books accompany them to lunch and indoor recesses. They carry their books into and out of the building in their hands, to keep the books accessible on the bus. I can't help but smile when I notice.

Daily trivia questions continue, alternating between Capture the Flag and Ranger in Time: Rescue on the Oregon Trail. Students listen carefully to the question each morning. Many of my fourth graders often submit an answer slip for the Ranger in Time questions because they have been curious enough to read a classroom copy or are reading Ranger in Time at home with their younger siblings, too.
Fifth grade fingerprints

This week, two classes of fifth grade students investigated their fingerprints in connection with Capture the Flag. Each student made a card with their fingerprints inked on and then did some informal analysis of their prints.

The primary students are tracking Ranger's movement on the Oregon Trail with a large map in the main hallway.

Students in grades 4 through 6 have started a star-spangled art project with our art teacher.

Primary students are tracing the
Oregon Trail travels on this map

Tonight should have been our OES Reads Family Literacy Night, but due to early forecasts announcing today's snow event, we postponed to Thursday. Please come back to visit next week for a recap of the action and events shared when families and staff come together to celebrate our Kate Messner books!

Use this link to read the next blog post in the series: OES Reads: Family Literacy Night.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

OES Reads: Week 1

We're already one week into our whole-school family reading project (OES Reads), and there's lots going on. In my effort to share as much of the project with readers as possible, I'll attempt to recap some of the happenings of the first week.

(Find more information about OES Reads in these previous blog posts in the series: Building Excitement, the Big Reveal.)

Activity Calendars
Because one of our main objectives of OES Reads is to get books into students' homes and promote family literacy, we try to support families with ideas for home activities that relate to the book selections. Our school designs an activity calendar that all students take home with their copy of the book. The calendar spans the entire project window. Each week lists the "assigned" chapters for reading to help families keep a steady pace. The span of chapters still allows families flexibility. Some will read the whole range of chapters over two days, others spread the reading out through the week.
We hope our calendars inspire you, but we strongly encourage creating
and choosing your own activities. The calendars help us to really get to know
our book selections well, and so many other ideas are born from this process!

The calendar--tailored to each book selection--also features a different activity or prompt for discussion/writing every day. Some days are marked with a star, indicating that students should bring in their products to be shared on our "Wall of Fame," housed in the main hallway of our school. This year, because the unifying component of our project is one
A 5th grader proudly displays her calendar-inspired flag
author, we've also designated two days each week as "Write Like Kate" days with recommended writing activities students and families can try that are modeled after actual writing exercises like Kate Messner. (Thank you, Real Revision reading, various workshops, and Teachers Write! experiences!) My 5th grade neighbor and I are trying to inspire more participation with our students: for each calendar-inspired piece of work they bring in to share, students are earning a raffle ticket entry into a classroom drawing for a Kate Messner book of their choice!

Maintaining Momentum
In the past, to coordinate with another school initiative about vocabulary, we would identify a "word of the week" from the week's reading assignment to attend to in our school community. With two books and less emphasis on that initiative, we chose to honor the natural emphasis on writing and authorship that comes with our study of Kate Messner's work. We selected five stages of writing (which is not all possible stages, but five that fit well with the project) and are encouraging teachers to highlight those stages int he classroom during their respective weeks. These stages--with short descriptions--are also featured on the calendars for families.

Daily trivia questions are announced, alternating between Capture the Flag and Ranger in Time: Rescue on the Oregon Trail. Students who know or can find the answer to the daily question fill out an entry slip. There are daily winners and weekly winners, with weekly winners awarded another of Kate's books.

A 4th grader makes a
Kate Messner TBR list
Community Connection
We are grateful to Erica Jedd at our community bookstore Books N Things for her willingness to team up with us. This week we were able to share that Books N Things would be willing to order Kate's books for OES families at a discounted price. Families who use the provided order form will be able to pick-up their books at the upcoming Family Literacy Night, but the discount will also be honored in-store for the duration of OES Reads. She is also willing to honor the discount on pre-orders of Kate's upcoming books that will release through the end of the school year if the order is placed during OES Reads

Classroom and School Activities
As we progress through the five-week period, different classrooms and teachers are engaging the students in many other experiences and enrichment activities related to the books.

First-grade students have been comparing packing and preparation for a trip on the Oregon Trail in the 1800's with packing for trips in the present day. Their results are showcased on their class bulletin board.
Our art teacher has been incorporating quilt designs and patterns from the Oregon Trail into the K-3 art classes. Each class has their quilt hanging outside their classroom door.
Many classrooms have started a new read aloud. A few intermediate classrooms are reading Wake Up Missing because it is a nominee on the Maine Student Book Award list.
There was no easy way to photograph the length of the timeline!
Everybody's reading...
Even this office friend!
Lots of buzz is happening in the staircase, and even though that is usually a quiet zone for kids, teachers are sharing stories of good book talk and interpretive skills based on our Kate Messner timeline. The timeline spans September, 2007 to November, 2015 (and beyond!). The covers of all of Kate's books mark their publication dates. It is fair to say students are most excited to see the cover of Ranger in Time: Danger in Ancient Rome hovering over June, 2015!

Plans are underway for the Family Literacy Night that will mark the publication date for All the Answers AND the halfway mark in our OES Reads program. Plus, many more classrooms are busy at work with more we can showcase as we move into Week 2. Stay tuned for more!

Use this link to read the next blog post in the series: OES Reads: Week 2

Monday, January 19, 2015

It's Monday, What Are You Reading? (1.19.15)

Every Monday bloggers all over the web participate in an effort to share books we have read and what we are excited about digging into. Thanks to Jen at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee & Ricki at Unleashing Readers for hosting us all!

What I Read this Week:

Finding Serendipity, by Angelica Banks, illustrated by Stevie Lewis
(Henry Holt and Co., February 3, 2015, ARC provided by NetGalley)
     Tuesday McGillicuddy is impatiently waiting for her mom to finish writing the last book in a fantasy series about Vivienne Small so that they can again spend time together. When she finds her mother is "missing," Tuesday takes it upon herself to find her mother. In doing so, Tuesday travels into a fantastic world of the writer's mind searching for "The End," where she expects to find her mother. In the meantime, Tuesday finds she is tangled in a story of her own that she must persevere through.
     There is something fascinating and captivating about the way Angelica Banks creates the world of discovering stories like it is a place that can be visited and envisioned. Tuesday's adventures in the world of Vivienne Small will appeal to students, with elements of fantasy, adventure, and danger. Student readers may need some help to monitor transitions in setting. 
Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas, by Jim Ottaviani, illustrated by Maris Wicks
(First Second, 2013)
     Primates presents the stories of three female scientists and their primate research projects in various parts of Africa: Jane Goodall's study of chimpanzees, Dian Fossey's study of gorillas, and Birute Galdikas' study of orangutans.
     This informative text, presented in graphic novel format, will attract many readers and expose them to important animal studies and conservation work. The structure of the text is an effective balance between showcasing the three women and their work as separate entities and also showing the overlap between the women as they were connected to Louis Leakey. This text will make a great pairing or addition to text sets with books like Me...Jane (McDonnell, 2011) and The Watcher (Winter, 2011).
Little Red Henry, by Linda Urban, illustrated by Madeline Valentine
(Candlewick, April 28, 2015, ARC)
     Henry's family cares for him so much they want to help him with everything or do everything for him. When Henry asserts his independence, the family is left unsure of what to do. A lesson is learned on both sides.
     Linda Urban turns the well-known story of Little Red Hen on it's head in Little Red Henry with Henry's family offering too much help. This book will easily lend itself to conversations about mentor text. The predictable pattern of the story and the well-chosen language pair beautifully with Madeline Valentine's illustrations. 
Goodnight Already!, by Jory John, illustrated by Benji Davies
(HarperCollins, December, 2014)
      Bear is exhausted. He cannot wait to get to sleep. Duck, on the other hand, is wide awake. He wants to do something. When Bear's sleep is repeatedly interrupted by his insomniac neighbor, he loses his patience. 
     I cannot think about this book without smiling, recognizing too many nights when I have been either Bear or Duck. Kids will enjoy the banter between the two characters and the way Duck becomes Bear's obstacle, especially when this book is shared as a read aloud.
Creature Features, by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page
(HMH Books for Young Readers, October 2014)
      Twenty-five animals with interesting facial features are the subjects of Creature Features. For each animal, a question is posed about the feature of interest and information about it's purpose is shared from the animal's point of view.
     In true Steve Jenkins fashion, the artwork in this nonfiction book is bold, bright, and attractive. There are only small chunks of text on each page, keeping it manageable for interested developing readers. The writing, from multiple points of view, is illustrative of many voices, presenting with different imagined emotions or attitudes of the featured creatures. Additionally, Jenkin's has designed a website you can visit to learn more about the process of writing Creature Features.
Neighborhood Sharks, by Katherine Roy
(David Macaulay Studio, September, 2014)
     White sharks feed on seals in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Francisco. Scientists and researchers have been studying the sharks, their habits, and how we may be impacting their survival. Katherine Roy presents factual information while "shadowing" a single shark on his quest for dinner. Detailed information addresses body shape, blood flow, eye sight, and teeth and jaws.
     Roy's writing is accessible to intermediate readers, and they will likely spend time with the informative text after being drawn in and captured by the thoughtful and impressive artwork. Roy effectively communicates the movement of the sharks in her illustrations. Her diagrams are equally informative opportunities to practice nonfiction reading skills.

What I am Currently Reading:
Mark of the Thief, by Jennifer Nielsen
(Scholastic Press, February 24, 2015, ARC)

What I am Reading Next:
Beetle Busters, by Loree Griffin Burns
The Question of Miracles, by Elana K. Arnold
My Cousin's Keeper, by Simon French

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

OES Reads: The Big Reveal

It's not a secret any more! 
For our 2015 whole-school/family reading program, OES is excited to be reading books by...

Students in PreK through grade 3 are reading Ranger in Time: Rescue on the Oregon Trail, and students in grade 4 through 6 are reading Capture the Flag.

Yesterday the big news was revealed at a whole-school kick-off assembly.

The Announcement

The announcement about what book the whole-school will be reading always comes at the assembly. Because there are two books this year (this post touches on why) and one author, the assembly had to reveal the mystery author AND both books. 

The Book Reveal

Not only do we want to show kids the book they will be reading, but we want them to know a little about the books, too.

To introduce Capture the Flag to students, we staged the book cover heist last week, and wrote a skit for the assembly in which the culprits were caught and had to confess to their crime at the assembly. The kids loved seeing staff members in costumes and playing a part. (Some haven't quite forgiven the "guilty" teachers either--those who took the covers or those who knew it was staged!)

We introduced Ranger in Time: Rescue on the Oregon Trail with a skit between two characters who were learning about their neighbors, the Abbotts, heading out on the trail. They shared their hopes and worries for the family. Again, the unexpectedly costumed-staff caught the students' attention and we provided them historical background we felt they needed before starting.

Fortunately, Scholastic recently released great promotional videos for Ranger in Time (here, start at 4:30), and we were able to trace down a similar preview video for Capture the Flag (here, start at 17:19). We showed each in their respective segment, because what better way to keep the emphasis on one author than to hear the author talk about her books herself?

Author Message

We have been extremely fortunate that Kate has been so involved in helping us make this a successful project. Her willingness to work with us helps make the project come alive. Kate took time to record a video message specifically for the readers at OES that would match our release plans and the outlook for the five-week program. She talked about other books for further reading and took the students inside her writing space. This video was the most important of all. The students recognized that the author--the person behind the book--knows that we are reading her books and is excited for us to dive in.

Book Distribution

One book per student is a lot of books! Prior to the assembly, we bagged the books by classroom, and as the assembly wound down, teachers took their bag of books to where their classroom was sitting. EVERY student was personally handed a copy of Capture the Flag or Ranger in Time by their teacher. Roughly 400 students took a brand-new book home with them.

Then, we started reading. Because there are two titles, grades 4-6 moved across the hall to the cafeteria, and PreK-3 tightened up their circle in the gym. But each group heard the first chapter of their book read aloud, together.

As teachers lined their students up to return to class, many in both groups were heard lamenting that the read aloud was over, and they wanted to read on. Nothing could be a better affirmation that we've selected great titles (by a fantastic author) to share with our students and families. There are lots of things planned to help keep the reading momentum flowing over the next five weeks, too.

This assembly was the kick-off of our five-week program, and that means there will be more to share, including activity calendars, family nights, and other fun. Stay tuned.

Use this link to visit the next post in this blog series: OES Reads: Week 1.

Monday, January 12, 2015

It's Monday, What Are You Reading? (1.12.15)

Every Monday bloggers all over the web participate in an effort to share books we have read and what we are excited about digging into. Thanks to Jen at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee & Ricki at Unleashing Readers for hosting us all!

What I Read this Week:

Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai
(HarperCollins, 2013)
     Ten-year old Ha narrates the story of escaping war-torn Vietnam with her family in 1976. She and her mother and three older brothers take refuge on a ship bound for safety, stopping in Guam, and later moving to Alabama. Her story highlights prejudice, hardships of culture left behind, and the pressure of assimilation.
     The poetic nature of Thanhha Lai's novel-in-verse contributes to the overall sense of brokenness and struggle, while maintaining a beautiful quality--the rebuilding and healing that continued over time. The writing in this book relays the emotion of the story in a way intermediate readers can share. This is an important glimpse into history and the impact of war.
Marty McGuire Has Too Many Pets, by Kate Messner, illustrated by Brian Floca
(Scholastic Press, January 2014)
     Marty McGuire returns in another third grade adventure. Marty is inspired to sponsor chimpanzees captive in a sanctuary. To raise the money needed, Marty begins a pet-sitting company with the help of her friends, unbeknownst to the adults in her world. Marty's pet-sitting detracts from her time to prepare for the 3rd grade talent show. When the pet-sitting trouble sets in, Marty is all kinds of stuck and must figure out how to make things right again.
     There's nothing not to love about Marty McGuire, a book character with whom most readers will connect. Marty's passion for the chimpanzees will be familiar for many readers, and they'll find themselves laughing along as the pet-sitting business gets riskier and riskier. And in the end, they'll be satisfied with how things work out for Marty (and the pets!), too.
Blue on Blue, by Dianne White, illustrated by Beth Krommes
(Beach Lane Books, December 2014)
     This picture book is a beautiful poem about the way weather changes when a beautiful day is interrupted by a rain storm and what happens when the clouds pass.
     The lyrical language of this book pairs well with the striking artwork, creating a picture book you can fall into. 
The Farmer and the Clown, by Marla Frazee
(Beach Lane Books, September 2014)
      When a clown is separated from his circus train, he is taken in and cared for by an old farmer. The farmer thrives with the opportunity to care for the clown and share his company. Then one day, when least expected, the train returns to reclaim the clown, and he and the farmer must say farewell.
     Marla Frazee's wonderful artwork upholds a strong story arc in this wordless picture book. The reader extracts all the implied emotion of the two unlikely friends. In a most magical way, Frazee's wordless illustrations leave plenty of room for all readers to bring to this story their own personal transaction. But I'd dare say all will reach the end and feel a fuller heart.

A Perfectly Messed-Up Story, by Patrick McDonnell
(Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, October 7, 2014)
     Louie is about to star in "A Perfect Story," but he stumbles upon some plops and splats and smudges that seem to be out of place and threatening to his perfection! When Louie realizes the blemishes have not sent the reader away, his mindset changes and he realizes it's not so bad, "Messes and all."
     Clever art and creative thinking turn Louie's "Perfect Story" into A Perfectly Messed-Up Story.  This book from Patrick McDonnell lives in the same vein as Scieszka and Barnett's format-bending Battle Bunny.
Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla, by Katherine Applegate, illustrated by G. Brian Karas
(Clarion Books, October 7, 2014)
      In the nonfiction picture book companion, Katherine Applegate tells the true story of Ivan, a silverback gorilla taken into captivity as a baby and his journey to a restricted environment at a shopping mall.
     What is there to say about this book that hasn't been said already? It's beautiful--in artwork and story, in truth and in the challenge it issues to readers of all ages to be compassionate and considerate of animals' well-being. For readers who have befriended Ivan, this companion text will be similar to another visit with a friend. Pairing with The One and Only Ivan provides opportunity for text comparison and analysis about the author's purposes, craft, and choices. I don't expect Ivan will stay on the shelf very long once he makes his way to the classroom!

What I am Currently Reading:
Finding Serendipity, by Angelica Banks
(Henry Holt and Co., February 3, 2015, ARC)
On Writing, by Stephen King
(Scribner, 2010)

What I am Reading Next:
Beetle Busters, by Loree Griffin Burns
Mark of the Thief, by Jennifer Nielsen
The Writing Thief, by Ruth Culham

Saturday, January 10, 2015

OES Reads: Building Excitement for a Whole-School Reading Project

It's *almost* here.
And good thing, because it is becoming harder and harder not to talk about it.

We've been building excitement and anticipation for our whole-school family reading initiative since mid-December. And it's almost time to make the big announcement.

We call our initiative OES Reads. Three years ago, we were trying to find creative ways to connect school and family learning and to bridge the physical separation (upstairs/downstairs) between primary and intermediate classrooms in our building. The result was establishing and organizing the first OES Reads The premise of our program is similar to the well-known One School, One Book project, as we have selected one book that all students, families, and staff (including office personnel, lunchroom workers, custodial staff, and bus drivers) read during the same window of time.

Our first two years were successful, but as with any program, we are always seeking ways to keep involvement and participation high. Choosing a single book (already hard to do!) for the entire PreK through 6th grade population was a challenge. In our third year, we've adjusted course to try something different. We decided to make two book selections by grade-spans (to attend to interest level and hopefully engage more students) by one author!

This shifted our planning a bit. Adding a second book meant doubling the work in the preparation phase. But it also has rounded out the literacy immersion of our project, too. Since the common factor in this year's OES Reads selections is one author, we've found excellent opportunities to incorporate writing into our whole-school project.

Never doubt the value of caution tape to promote curiosity!
Before vacation, we made a bulletin board display. Lots of vague spots made for wonder: a large unknown image to represent the author, a set of "clues," and caution tape. (Aside: If you're looking for a fool-proof way to attract kids' attention, stretch caution tape over what they should notice. Works like a charm!) The visual worked wonderfully at reminding everyone that OES Reads was coming.

This week, everyone returned from vacation to find two new book covers arrived to stand beside the two book covers from the previous two years of OES Reads. Only, these two new covers were draped with black plastic and (again) caution tape. Their very obvious presence reminded students that the big reveal is getting closer. Daily, a new clue about the author was revealed on the bulletin board and shared as a morning announcement. Students started having conversations about authors they know and if any of those authors could fit the clues. Then, on Thursday, the unthinkable happened... The office interrupted our classrooms to announce that the book covers had gone missing! Suddenly, the students were in motion, abuzz with suspects and possible motives, trying to solve this evident problem. Our literacy coach shared the story of students she had seen working in the hall who had to be stopped from tearing off to the cafeteria to see. My students rallied, one girl going home to interrogate her mother, who spends a lot of time in our school as a PTA volunteer. As of Friday afternoon, the covers had not been returned, and sadly, in their place were only tape-outlines (think body-outlines) on the wall of the stage where they had been.

Though we've made changes to include two books by one author this year, one thing has not changed: curiosity. In fact, it may be in part because students and families have come to anticipate OES Reads each year. But the students' and families' curiosity and excitement continue to build and they are already invested in OES Reads, as evidenced this week. There were conversations about OES Reads, the mystery author, and the book covers happening all over the school. Second graders questioned me about the missing books on my lunch duty. Former students, fifth graders, checked in with me daily about the author clues and how they were whittling it down. "I'm determined to figure this out before Monday!" he resolved. (Actually, they had impressively figured it out on Wednesday's clue, but I didn't confirm or deny it!) Parents asked about how much longer they had to wait and verified the assembly time when picking up students from their after-school clubs. Kids and parents are talking. Everyone is awaiting the big reveal. 

But that doesn't happen until Monday.

On Monday, the whole-school and friends and family will get together for the OES Reads Kick-off Assembly. The teachers will act a little silly, the kids will get a little loud, and the author and book covers will be revealed. A new book will be presented to EVERY student. And then--together--we'll read.

And then I'll (finally!) be able to say more.

Use this link to read the next post in this blog series: The Big Reveal.

Friday, January 9, 2015

How to Outswim a Shark Without a Snorkel by Jess Keating

Last summer, I was one of the many readers who discovered Ana in Jess Keating's first novel, How to Outrun a Crocodile with Your Shoes Untied. I appreciated Ana's character right away. She's a nerdy (read: informed) introvert, an awkward and self-conscious middle school girl in all the ways in which you can relate. In Croc, Ana undergoes an evolution by summoning up her inner courage to share who she really is more confidently with the world...but most notably her intimidating classmates.

After closing the cover of Croc, I was glad to know I could look forward to Ana's return in a sequel adventure.

I wasn't disappointed.

When Ana's Sneer-enemy Ashley turns up as a student volunteer at the zoo for the summer, Ana's instincts kick into high gear. Convinced this is an elaborate plan to get revenge for an embarrassing incident at Ana's Croc presentation, Ana's defenses are heightened. Yet somehow, as Ashley spends more time at the zoo, and the girls work together in the shark exhibit, Ashley manages to coax Ana's mind into second guessing.

Can sharks be more friendly than they seem?

Ana, afraid to trust there may be more to someone than meets the eye, waivers in her position on Ashley, creating conditions in her head that steer her. But when a combination of dangerous mistakes cause Ana grief at the zoo, she must decide where her relationship with Ashley stands.

Reasons I Loved How to Outswim a Shark without a Snorkel
  • Ana lives in a zoo. No, really. How can that not perk your interest? Ana's family moved into the zoo in Croc, and the wild adventures continue in How to Outswim a Shark without a Snorkel. In this installment, Ana's grandfather has added a shark exhibit complete with a shark tank and touch tank. Though she prefers to work with reptiles, the marine exhibit will be her new assignment for the summer.
  • Drama. Ana has just recently (end of Croc) embraced her talent for talking to audiences at the zoo about the animals and creatures that inhabit the zoo displays. Ashley's presence as a zoo volunteer challenges Ana's still-developing confidence. Additionally, Ana is trying to remain close to her first best friend, Liv, who moved to New Zealand and is on an accelerated track to high school. And of course, there is that boy, Kevin, who Ana is trying to figure out-impossible as that is. Keating's cast provides the reader curiosity, suspicion, and the kind of drama you can't put down.
  • Character building. Keating steers Ana through questions without being heavy-handed. Ana's resulting inner conflicts are accurate portrayals of how middle school girls think about themselves and others. Ana's internal dialogue about decisions and what is right or wrong helps readers to think about their own position on friendships. Middle school students test their identities, trying to wrangle who they are and will be. Ana isn't exempt from this as she navigates a big important question: Who does she want to be?
  • The shark business (part one). Ana's learning about sharks and other marine life is embedded throughout the novel. From the marine life facts that begin each chapter to the true information that is woven into Ana and Ashley's time at the shark exhibit, readers of this fiction work will take away more information about marine animals than they may think at first glance.
  • The shark business (part two). Keating's use of the shark as a metaphor for the bigger message in Ana's story is artful. And that's all I'll say about that.
  • Who doesn't like to laugh? There is humor everywhere in this book. Whether your laughter is the result of Ana's incessant self-doubt or her description of her brother's thoughts and actions, something will make you chuckle. Maybe you'll be laughing because you, too, will find Ana reminds you of yourself a little.
  • Ana is special. Ana makes readers feel normal. Ana doesn't think her life resembles "normal" in any way, but her worries and fears, her fluctuating feelings about everything (friends, Ashley, boys!), her need for reassurance that she is ok...are oh-so-middle-school normal. I can't help but wonder what it would have been like to make a friend in Ana when I was a middle school reader.
  • It's as good as the first. Sometimes when you love a character in the author's first book, the second book can be a let down. Not so with Ana. Keating successfully takes Ana and who she has become with her new-found self-confidence and adds layers to her story with pressures from her cast of characters that challenge Ana to continue to grow into her own skin. Croc left me applauding Ana in her self-discovery, and so did How to Outswim a Shark without a Snorkel, for a different reason.

How to Outswim a Shark without a Snorkel, the second book in Jess Keating's My Life as a Zoo series, published on January 6 (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky). If you want a pair of books for that middle school girl who is still looking for her amazing inner self (ok, or even if she doesn't know she's looking), you'll want to know about Jess Keating's titles.

Learn more about author Jess Keating at her website and find her on Twitter at @Jess_Keating.

Monday, January 5, 2015

It's Monday, What Are You Reading? (1.5.15)

Every Monday bloggers all over the web participate in an effort to share books we have read and what we are excited about digging into. Thanks to Jen at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee & Ricki at Unleashing Readers for hosting us all!

What I Read this Week:

The Exact Location of Home, by Kate Messner
(Bloomsbury USA Childrens, December 23, 2014)
     Kirby "Zig" Zigonski is back in this e-book companion to The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. While Gianna returns, too, the story is Zig's. Zig is grappling with feelings of loss and confusion when he is again disappointed by his father cancelling plans. Zig's feelings are quickly compounded when he and his mother face eviction from their apartment. Zig is certain that he can get his father to make things right again, especially when he picks up the lead on another geocaching fan who just might be his dad. 
     Zig's complex feelings are one reason to love him. Readers will be hard pressed not to have their empathetic hearts expand when let into his story and the challenges that every day presents, from added responsibility, to secrets, to just wanting things to be ok. 
Gone Fishing, by Tamera Will Wissinger, illustrated by Matthew Cordell
(HMH Books for Young Readers, 2013)
     Sam has long awaited the day he can go fishing with his father, just the two boys, so when his sister wakes early and his father invites her to come along, Sam's tune goes sour. His attitude doesn't improve when Lucy catches a few fish, and he does not. When alas he catches a fish that garners a lot of attention, Sam decides having Lucy along to share the trip wasn't so bad after all.
     A novel in verse, Sam's story will be easily accessible to striving readers, making this book a strong contender for passing off among students in my classroom. It is also a Maine Student Book Award nominee. The poems are labeled with type/style of poetry. This would be a comfortable way to ease students in to mentor texts for poetry as the writing is not intimidating.
Coaltown Jesus, by Ron Koertge
(Candlewick, 2013)
     Walker is dealing with the loss of his brother, Noah. The family is engulfed in typical grief and avoidance, and Walker knows things aren't right. He prays for help, and one day, Jesus appears in the flesh. A friendship, of sorts, develops between Walker and Jesus, and Walker shows evidence of healing.
     Something about this book was just right for me. Part of that was appreciating the unexpectedly witty and down-to-earth voice of Jesus in his interactions with Walker. The book is written in verse, making it a relatively quick read, but there is plenty to linger over, too.

Handle With Care, by Loree Griffin Burns, photographs by Ellen Harasimowicz
(Millbrook Pr Trade, 2014)
      Curious after learning that butterflies at the Boston Museum of Science were imported for the exhibit, Loree Griffin Burns asked questions about how and why butterflies are imported. This text documents the butterfly life cycle while also telling the story of butterfly harvesting in Costa Rica through their arrival in various locations.
     The text and photo pairings for this book are perfect. Students will flock to this book again and again for both it's stunning photography and for informative text in sizable bites. For readers who are overwhelmed with lots of print in most nonfiction books, this provides an equally informative text with excellent supports, respecting their thirst for knowledge and experiences.
Real Revision: Authors' Strategies to Share with Student Writers, by Kate Messner
(Stenhouse, 2011)
      Successful author Kate Messner invites teachers into her life as an author and into her classroom as a teacher with this collection of examples of activities and routines. To support teachers in making their classrooms "revision-friendly," Kate has drawn from the expertise of many other authors who share their approaches to revision.
     The ideas and suggestions in this professional text are incredibly practical. The style of writing and balance of information (teacher-to-teacher) is empowering to both writing teachers and student writers. The accounts included illustrate that the ways of revising text are as varied as writing itself. The back-stories of revision behind popular middle grade texts are enlightening, also.

What I am Currently Reading:
Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai
(HarperCollins, 2013)

On Writing, by Stephen King
(Scribner, 2010)

What I am Reading Next:
Finding Serendipity, by Angelica Banks
Mark of the Thief, by Jennifer Nielsen
The Writing Thief, by Ruth Culham