Monday, September 7, 2015

It's Monday, What Are You Reading? (9.7.15)

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:

Ruby on the Outside, by Nora Raleigh Baskin
(Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, June 16, 2015)
     Ruby is grappling with a secret she keeps: her mom is incarcerated. This complicates everything for the 11-year old, but especially friendship. One summer, Ruby meets Maraglit and is filled with so much hope for her new friendship that she has to consider abandoning the rules she has always played by to keep her mom a secret. 
     Ruby on the Outside will appeal to readers who are drawn to realistic fiction as a means of experiencing another person's world. Readers develop empathy for Ruby through the conflict between the inside and the outside. Ruby's raw and difficult questions and emotions around loss, abandonment, self-worth, and normalcy rest on the reader's heart, making her a character you want to reassure and protect and love. 

Drowned City, by Don Brown
(HMH Books for Young Readers, August 4, 2015)
     Drowned City is an informational text about the devastation and horror faced by New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina. Written and illustrated in graphic novel format, Don Brown's book adds variety to the growing text set of books set during this same historical event (Zane and the Hurricane, Upside-down in the Middle of Nowhere, Marvelous Cornelius, etc.) Drowned City reads like a play-by-play of the sequence of events, and tension and emotion build as time passes and the severity of the situation compounds. Brown is honest and real in his writing, but even the most difficult truths of Hurricane Katrina (looting, disease, death) are presented in a tactful, middle-grade appropriate way.

Sunny Side Up, by Jennifer Holm, illustrated by Matt Holm
(Graphix, August 25, 2015)
     Sunny has looked forward to vacationing in Florida and has grand plans when she visits her grandfather for the summer. However, with the help of flashbacks, the reader realizes Sunny's visit is a temporary relocation while the family grapples with her brother's drug abuse. 
     The Holm's graphic novel memoir will likely be among the most circulated books in my classroom this year. Readers will scoop it up because it is a new, full-color graphic novel, and I hope will linger in the greater messages of the story for longer. Sunny Side Up opens the door for conversations about oppression from drug abuse and other family "secrets," letting readers know they don't have to feel alone.

Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast, by Josh Funk, illustrated by Brendan Kearney
(Sterling, September 1, 2015)
     When the breakfast duo of Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast discover there is only one drop of syrup left in the bottle, a wild adventure ensues as they both race to be the victor.
      The illustrations are bright and playful. The rhyming text of this picture book race is creative and entrancing. Filled with puns and rich word choice, readers will smile their way through the page turns to find out the results. Warning: results may be unpredictable.

The Greatest Catch, by Penny Kittle
(Heinemann, 20o5)
     In a collection of stories from her teaching life, Penny Kittle invites readers to consider what is truly important in the teaching profession. Her true stories evoke laughter, lots of head nodding, and tears at times, too. This is a renewing read, one that encourages our teacher hearts to hold fast to what really matters in our work with learners and reminds us that our work every day is a gift.

What I am Currently Reading:
Shadows of Sherwood, by Kekla Magoon
(Bloomsbury, August 4, 2015)
Upstanders, by Smokey Daniels and Sara Ahmed
(Heinemann, 2014)

What I am Reading Next (in no particular order):
The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg, by Rodman Philbrick
Death by Toilet Paper, by Donna Gephart
A Night Divided, by Jennifer Nielsen

Sunday, September 6, 2015

So Much Potential: On New Writer's Notebooks

Over time, my life as a writer has changed me. For instance, I have a greater appreciation for the potential of a new notebook.

Every time I begin a new writer's notebook, I find myself swept into this ultra-reflective state of mind. Flipping through the pages of the previous, finished notebook, I make note of the things preserved there--large and small--that I captured and stored away. Brave moments, developing ideas, markings of wonder, complaints, and celebrations. And inevitably, I close that finished notebook and smile to myself about all that filled the pages knowing that most of what is there now, committed in imperfect scribble, I didn't anticipate when I was writing on the first page.

Similarly, I found myself in this position this week when I saw my fifteenth First Day of School. I was ready with a few minutes to spare, and I sat in my too-quiet, too-tidy, too-white classroom, noting the connection between my feelings this morning to those that stir when I open to that first page of a new notebook. "There--at those cleared tabletops, in those empty chairs, on those blank walls--rests so much potential," I thought.

Soon, the quiet was replaced with eager energy, excited students looking and behaving a whole year older. The once empty tables were cluttered again with toppling school supplies.

We went about the business of sorting and storing materials. When I asked the students to hold up their writer's notebooks, something surreal moved through the air. As I gathered the notebooks at each of their tables, I was struck with the assortment and imagined them in the back-to-school aisles of the stores, thoughtful and deliberate in picking their new writer's notebooks. I was overcome by what I know from experience: on this day, they could not know how those blank pages will be filled, what will happen in the days they live as writers, but later they will look back with wonderment of what is there.

And this became the basis of launching writers' workshop with my students, the heart of my impassioned words about the endless possibilities and potential a new notebook holds. I held their stack of brand-new notebooks and talked with unrestrained enthusiasm about how much I wonder about their blank notebooks, and how wonderful and exciting it is to dream of the growing and self-discovery that will fill their pages. I spoke to my writers about the gift of time to write, to wonder, to explore. I spoke of writing imperfectly, taking chances, and the opportunity to revisit and revise. And I spoke about the great privilege that I feel, because I get to journey beside them as a writer, too. Every day. This whole school year.

I told my writers about my ritual of reflecting at the end/start of each new notebook, and I flipped open to the first page of the very notebook I'm writing in now. I read this first page aloud:

It was quiet when I stopped. I had goosebumps. I looked around at their faces, reading the expressions. They were on the edge of their seats, their eyes sparkled, and they couldn't suppress their smiles. So, I did the very most perfect thing to do: I invited them to write, encouraging them to let their first, new, blank page to speak to them.

I returned their notebooks with great reverence, as best I could between uncoordinated attempts to brush away embarrassing tears. But always astute, they noticed, and I heard one student tell another, "This matters so much, she's crying!" The tears were entirely unplanned, but Yes, Dear Writer, your new beginning as a fifth grade writer very much matters.

Once all of the students had their notebooks again, I settled with my own and began drafting this post. Once or twice I made myself pause to observe their stamina and behaviors. Almost without exception, their pencils were moving fluidly.

Before I left for the day, I peeked inside their notebooks, curious what I would find there. Some students had launched into drafting stories, but some had listened for the voice of the blank page, and their voices caught my heart.  
"How can I become the most spectacular writer I can be?" 
Wow, kid. Keep asking. Please.
I love how creatively the blank page "spoke" for this writer.
Moving from grade 4 to grades 5/6 this year, I recognize the growth on these first pages, too. A year later, a year more of life as a writer, and the students aren't as afraid of the blank page. Maybe, just maybe, they see that blank page as limitless much potential.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Happy Birthday, Milo Speck

Dear Milo,

I’ll admit it: this is a first. I cannot think of another time in all my book-crazed doings that I wrote a letter to a middle-grade book character (let alone published it online). But, no matter how much it heightens my nerdy-factor, I couldn’t let your publication day pass without writing to say: 
Happy (Book) Birthday!

I bet you have quite a team celebrating today. I can only imagine the feelings of your author and her incredible support team on your publication day. My students and I have celebrated book birthdays before, but we agree that yours feels different, maybe more personal thanks to Linda, who invited us into your world two years ago. You were a manuscript under revision. Unbeknownst to you, you were an experimental subject, the topic of many revealing and inspiring writing conversations between my students and Linda. We’ve anticipated this day, too, the more we got to know Linda as a fellow writer and witnessed her writing process and followed you through to publication.

I still remember two Decembers ago when you--a “smaller” you, in only your first five chapters--first made your way to my classroom. My students and I knew we were spending time something--someone--special as we read, discussed, reacted, and responded. We got to know you and your family. We ventured with you to Ogregon, where boy-hungry ogres seemed impossible to dodge. We couldn’t know your mission yet (really) and couldn’t imagine if you would survive it. But we were already looking forward to this day, when you would be published.

Do you remember the day you arrived in my classroom as an ARC? Our school secretary knew you were inside that decorated envelope and hand-delivered you to our door. The room erupted in excited noise. The students insisted that we stop whatever we were doing (I can’t remember what that was now. Telling, isn’t it?) and read on from where we had stopped in the manuscript that still lived in my inbox. And we did. Whenever we were inside your story, we were making happy memories--sharing our reading and writing lives.

We spent months in friendship with you as we virtually navigated the world of Ogregon, willing you to evade threats of danger and to be successful in your mission. We studied your actions, your words, your choices. We noticed as you changed and grew, and we found courage in your bravery, perseverance, and leadership.
Ready to begin again...

Today is not only your book birthday, Milo, but it’s also our first day of school. One of our very last memories of the past school year was talking about you in person when Linda visited us. The whole day felt celebratory, celebrating my writers and Linda and you, all the same. And now, here we are at the beginning again, and it seems fitting that my students and I will begin your story again--the published version--on page 1 with all of our new classmates and friends, in all of six of our new 5th and 6th grade classrooms.

Milo, your book birthday is a happy day for all of us, because there are so many other readers like us who will have the chance to read your story now, too. Kids and teachers and parents. They’ll laugh. They’ll cheer. They’ll worry and wonder for you, too. And then, they’re probably going to tell someone else about you. We sure hope they do.

It has been a real honor, Milo, to watch you evolve over the last two cheer you along...and now to celebrate you.
Happy Birthday, Milo Speck: Accidental Agent.

Two Years of Book-loving Friends at Oxford Elementary School