Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Ms. Bixby's Last Day Blog Tour

I think I always knew I was going to be a teacher.
I think knowing my destiny made me a little more attuned to thing my teachers were doing for my peers and me, too. Or, maybe this is better attributed to growing up as the daughter of two passionate and committed educators. Either way, I knew what teachers were doing for kids, and for better or worse, I always positioned my teachers on a pedestal.

This is to say: I understand where Topher, Brand, and Steve are coming from in John David Anderson's new novel, Ms. Bixby's Last Day when the boys embark on a day-long quest to give Ms. Bixby the "last day" they thought she most deserved. When Ms. Bixby's health deteriorated and her "last day of school" came sooner than expected, the boys felt robbed of their opportunity to show their appreciation for the impact she had on their lives. And even though their personal motivations varied, their commonality was this: Ms. Bixby saw each of these boys for the people they were and she responded to their needs.

I could say kind words and share recollections of many teachers who made an impression on me along the way--I guess I'm lucky like that--but to me, the invitation to participate in this teacher appreciation blog tour in honor of Ms. Bixby's Last Day is for commending the Ms. Bixby's of our lives, and for me, my Ms. Bixby was Mrs. Vanier.

Mrs. Vanier was our interactive drama advisor. The main purpose of the extra-curricular club was to create and deliver open-ended skits about hot topic issues that allowed for audience interaction and participation at student awareness programs throughout our region and beyond. The club met on an as-needed basis, but we seemed to "need to meet" a lot. Although Mrs. Vanier and I never shared the traditional student-teacher relationship (that is, I was never a name on her class roster, and she was never responsible for teaching me content), she is arguably the teacher who taught me the most.

She educated me.
Quite literally, she took me out to practice driving when I was nearing my driver's test, and she taught me more than I'd care to admit about friendships and relationships. But of greater significance, she educated me about solving my own problems by listening, probing, reflecting back, and questioning. Her door was always open and she made opportunities for me to sort through whatever needed sorting so I could make my own best decisions. When my perspective was too narrow or too shallow, she broadened it. She modeled hard work and respect for the students she served.

She empowered me.
She instilled confidence. When I was looming beneath ugly middle school self-doubt and high school intimidation, she continued to make time for me, communicating through her actions that she saw something in me worth believing in. She guided me with gentle direction, but she always let me be the one making the choices. And I knew that whatever my choice was, her support was there.

She inspired me.
When you have the opportunity to be shaped by someone the way I was by Mrs. Vanier, you hope with your whole heart that the universe will allow you to pay it forward. I knew one day I would be a teacher. But the kind of teacher I aim to be--not only educating students, but empowering and inspiring students to be kind and compassionate and their fullest selves--that has more to do with my mentor and model. I hope my students, given the chance to read Ms. Bixby's Last Day, would agree.

Mrs. Vanier was my Ms. Bixby: the teacher with whom one less day would have been too few. She is a teacher with whom I felt I had a close relationship. She knew me when it seemed nobody else did. I was her favorite. But I'm sure everybody thought themselves to be, because that is how she made each of us feel.

I can't remember the last time I spent with Mrs. Vanier, except I know it most certainly wasn't long enough.
If I had to think up Mrs. Vanier's Last Day, I'd make all our plans. (I always did.) I'd drive, she'd ride shotgun, and maybe I'd let some old friends ride along, too. We'd blast Pat Benetar and the theme from "Friends" on the stereo and stick our arms out the rolled down windows, flapping them to pretend we were flying. We'd go to my tree. The one standing tall and exposed in the field on it's own, apart from all the clustered pines. We'd shop for scarves and sunglasses (ahem, with a more colorful name), and we'd make something crafty (probably not a wall-sized mural this time, but maybe), mistakes included. We'd reminisce about little jokes and memories, things that seemed big and life-dependent 20 years ago but would be mildly humiliating now (at best), things a lot like this that would make little to no sense to anyone else. And there would be laughter. Lots and lots of laughter.

Whose face do you see when you think back on the Ms. Bixbys of your life? 

Comment below with a memory shared with your Ms. Bixby by July 5. One lucky comment-leaver will win a copy of Ms. Bixby's Last Day, generously donated by Walden Pond Press.

Congratulations, Brenda! You win!

Looking for more about Ms. Bixby's Last Day?
Read an excerpt of Ms. Bixby's Last Day.
Read John David Anderson's Nerdy Book Club post about Ms. Bixby.
WaldenTV has posted a video on their YouTube channel.
Connect with author John David Anderson on Twitter or Facebook.

Monday, June 27, 2016

It's Monday, What Are You Reading? (6.27.16)

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!

Sidenote: This is two weeks' worth of reading. I've been feeling guilty about all the book thoughts I've been keeping to myself by not posting, so my intention is to participate weekly through the summer, and hopefully I'll toss in a few bonus thoughts about books I've read earlier this year that I think someone (everyone?) else should know about, too. Stay tuned.

What I Read this Week:

The Distance to Home, by Jenn Bishop
(Knopf Books for Young Readers, June 28, 2016)
     Quinnen was the star pitcher on her Little League Team. She used to live for baseball. But now, she doesn't play. The grief that set in after losing her sister Haley in a tragic car accident last summer has swallowed her passion for playing. Quinnen's parents sign up to host a player from the minor league farm team for the summer in hopes that the presence of baseball in their family will rekindle something for Quinnen. But grief is big. And it seems no one thought of all the reminders of Haley. Is a relationship with the minor league farm players enough to give Quinnen the courage to try again?
     Readers will make quick friends with Quinnen, will feel their own hearts whimper as they realize the immense loss she is fielding, and will read through the story with patient hope, willing Quinnen to make peace with the way things are now. 

Towers Falling, by Jewell Parker Rhodes
(Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, July 12, 2016)
     New York City. September, present day. Deja and her 5th grade class are about to enter into a study of state history, including the formidable events of 9/11. As her father's feelings about this controversial subject matter rise, Deja and her friends' curiosity grows about this significant event that had such a lasting impact on the adults in their lives, and which they know so little about.
     Jewell Rhodes writes from the perspective of today's youth, for whom 9/11 is history--a tragic event they know only second-hand. She captures the pain and long-lasting effects of the tragedy experienced by those who lived that day. Her father's concern and fear, his longing to protect Deja and her peers from the realities of destruction and loss, are representative of a growing question among adults in many forums these days about the right time for talking about big issue topics and how soon is too soon for talking about the enormity of this day with kids. Towers Falling is a book that provides and in-road to important, respectful conversations with middle grade kids.

Save Me a Seat, by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan
(Scholastic Press, May 10, 2016)
     Two students, two cultures, two different points of view...one problem classmate. For Ravi, hopefulness is crushed. Although he identifies with Dillon because they are both Indian, he comes to realize that is where their similarities end. For Joe, a new student joining the class helps him to escape being the target, a little less often anyway. It takes a week's worth of lunches, but when Ravi and Joe finally see each other for who they are, the boys are able to offer one another a hand in friendship that helps alleviate the distaste of a classmate like Dillon.
     Save Me a Seat will offer readers a chance to consider how too-common school happenings can be seen differently from multiple students' perspective. As a shared read, this book will open the doors of discussion about diversity, respect, and setting shared expectations for the way students want to be treat and student-driven standards for respect owed to others.

Ghosts, by Raina Telgemeier
(GRAPHIX, September 13, 2016)
     Catrina isn't taking well to her family's recent move to Bahia de la Luna. It seems the only redeeming quality of the move is the promise that the new town will improve her sister Maya's quality of life with conditions that are kinder to Maya's cystic fibrosis. Word of the ghosts that inhabit the town, on the other hand, are not helping Catrina to settle in this new place. In time, Catrina's relationship with Maya grows closer still as she learns more about her family's traditions, the Day of the Dead, and her connection to her ancestors.
     Fans will find the same satisfying qualities of Raina Telgemeier's other works in Ghosts. Though not autobiographical like Smile and Sisters, Raina has given readers characters who are just as vivid and feel as well-known as her own family. Not only will the girls' relationship touch readers, but this book will likely serve as a gateway to more reading and discussion about cystic fibrosis and Mexican culture and traditions.

How Writers Work: Finding a Process that Works for You, by Ralph Fletcher
(HarperCollins, 2000)
      With an honest and accessible voice, Ralph Fletcher speaks to young writers about facets of developing a writing process, for example: brainstorming, revising, and publishing. He provides stories and anecdotes from his own writing life as well as concrete interviews and excerpts from other published writers and kid writers alike. There are lots of healthy reminders in this short text for aspiring writers of all ages.

The Best Man, by Richard Peck
(Dial Books, September 20, 2016)
     Archer has grown up with admiration for the men in his life: his grandfather, his uncle, and his dad. As an adolescent boy, he knows about the man he wants to be and is impatient to get there. But in this first year in middle school, Archer builds a relationship with another man he surprisingly finds he aspires to emulate as well, his new teacher.
     There is so much warmth in the relationships Richard Peck establishes on the pages of Archer's story. While the book is speckled with humorous situations (some worthy of an honest out-loud chuckle) and knowing smiles of familiar middle school doings, the relationships radiate, between and among all of the men of Peck's newest novel. I can't wait to see what readers think.

Inspector Flytrap, by Tom Angleberger and CeCe Bell
(Amulet Books, August 2, 2016)
     If you have a Big Deal Mystery that needs solving, Inspector Flytrap will be the newest superhero detective to call on. (Unless you're a fly.) Inspector Flytrap and his sidekick, Nina the goat, will have you smirking as they set out to solve problems.
     Inspector Flytrap has the humor and silliness that will make this a sought after early reader for young students. Written as a series of short stories (or Big Deal Mysteries), students can digest smaller bits at a time. The format incorporates both traditional chapters and mini-graphic novel comics that relate to each of the mysteries.

The World from Up Here, by Cecilia Galante
(Scholastic Press, June 28, 2016)
     When her mother's health requires hospitalization at a center far from home, Wren and her brother move in with their aunt and cousin, Silver, neither of whom they know. Wren and Silver attend the same middle school, where the girls are trying to find their place, and their real selves. The girls form a bond over shared experiences, but none more lofty than to climb Creeper Mountain to interview the fabled Witch Weatherly whom all the local children fear. As they get to know one another, they mirror for each other the secrets of who they might really be.
     Wren and Silver are characters written so simply and so true. Their relationship falls into natural balance. This is a beautiful story of what it means to be brave and courageous and to act with empathy and friendship. These two girls would keep great company at a lunch table with Maggie (The Meaning of Maggie, Sovern, 2015) and Mattie and Quincy (Hound Dog True, Urban, 2012). I'd like to be their friend, too.

Soar, by Joan Bauer
(Viking Books for Young Readers, January 5, 2016)
     Jeremiah has never been unfamiliar with adversity, abandoned as an infant to be cared for by Walt (his adoptive father) and a successful heart transplant patient at the age of 11. Baseball has always been Jeremiah and Walt's shared passion, so when news comes of a relocation to a town that seems to eat, breathe, and sleep baseball, Jeremiah is optimistic and hopeful that this will be the place where he can again be involved with the sport he loves. Only news of dishonest coaching and performing enhancing drugs threatens to crash the town's outlook on baseball for good. Jeremiah, with the self-declared heart of an eagle, is determined to keep baseball soaring.
     Jeremiah is the character kids want to root for, the underdog with a hopelessly optimistic view and the leadership to go along with it. The aspiring young coach will have everyone cheering along as they page-turn to read the outcome of his goals.

Still a Work in Progress, by Jo Knowles
(Candlewick, August 2, 2016)
     Noah and his friends are trying to navigate middle school and everything that comes with the territory: homework, teachers, friends, girls, and relationships. All of that is enough to juggle, but Noah's world is further complicated by his changing relationship with his high school-aged sister who is growing increasingly moody and demanding about the family's food choices. 
     Jo Knowles so deftly brings a troupe of middle school boys to life in a way that you can't resist caring about them and their tribulations. Their antics are humorous and accurately outlandish. Jo honestly and sensitively conveys the emotional turmoil and conflict that arises as Noah's family confronts the crisis of his sister's relapse with an eating disorder. Still a Work in Progress is another 2016 book that sheds light on the real challenges and struggles today's families face and the need to attend to one another with compassion and empathy.

What I am Currently Reading:
The Way Home Looks Now, by Wendy Shang-Lu
(Scholastic Press, 2015)
A Writer Teaches Writing, by Don Murray
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1985)

What I am Looking Forward to Reading Soon (in no particular order):
The Scourge, by Jennifer Nielsen
Wish, by Barbara O'Connor
Midnight Without a Moon, by Linda Jackson

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

On Using "The Seventh Wish" in the Classroom

I'm that teacher.
I'm the teacher in Maine who read Kate Messner's newest novel, The Seventh Wish, to all my students. Twenty-three 5th graders and twenty-two 6th graders.
I'm the teacher who said to my colleagues: You need to read this now, and we need to think about how to use it with our students this year, even though it isn't published yet.
Now all of our fifth and sixth graders have read The Seventh Wish.

And our students are all the better for it.

I read The Seventh Wish in October. October 14, the very day the advanced reader's copy (ARC) arrived from Bloomsbury as part of Kate Messner's kid-blurb project. I knew I had lots of Kate Messner fans in my two classes who would be lining up to read her much anticipated "next book." (Me too, if we're honest.) So I cleared my agenda for the night and hunkered down.

I was entranced by the natural beauty painted in the opening descriptions of the magical ice flowers on the lake and I was wrapped up in the adoration that Charlie had for her older sister, Abby. I enjoyed getting to know Charlie and her middle school world. I liked her. She reminded me of kids I know. Kids like mine who sit at my tables each day. Kids who want more than they have--be it understanding, attention, courage, or a solo dress for Irish dancing. Kids whose relationships with their real life heroes--older brothers and sisters, parents, babysitters--are everything to them.

I was enlightened, too. Aware that the book would also address the topic of addiction, I saw the signs as they played out, and then I learned. I learned about a life experience different than my own. Charlie's experience with her sister's addiction let me see the challenges and complications of addiction on a user's loved ones through her eyes. Deception. Brokenness. Sacrifices and loss. And that was when I knew there was a discussion to be had with my colleagues about plans for our Healthy Choices unit. On that first read, I had texted my colleagues, "We need to use this book," before I had even finished reading.

The next morning, our conversations started about how we would incorporate The Seventh Wish into the unit, which also included nutrition, digital citizenship, peer pressure, and the D.A.R.E. program. I passed my ARC along to my colleagues. Soon we were discussing this addition to our curriculum with the D.A.R.E. Officer himself. We put The Seventh Wish ARC in his hands. We asked him to please read it, too. We knew there would be lots of conversation, and we anticipated questions. Almost certainly questions we didn't know the answer to or for which there isn't an answer. But we were ok with that. We would do our best to respond to students, to consult resources (like Officer Jack) to investigate further, or we would grapple with those questions without an answer together.

We consulted with our administrator, to whom I also loaned a copy of The Seventh Wish. We revised the traditional notification letter that parents have received at the beginning of D.A.R.E. lessons for as many years as the program has been part of our school. And, we acknowledged that students would be talking about big topics and supplemented the letter with sites and ideas for families to have conversations with children about drug use and addiction.
D.A.R.E. lessons happened weekly in the students' STEM classrooms. In Humanities, we read The Seventh Wish daily for read aloud. Here's what happened:
  • We researched ice flowers.
  • We watched Riverdance videos (and amateur feis videos, too).
  • We weighed out our own winners of the "thinking of a word" game.
  • We laughed together over Charlie's haphazard wishing and Bobby's hopeless crush and Drew's Lake Monster routine.
  • We decided we'd like to try eating insects to know what that's like. (And we did.)
  • We pondered Mrs. McNeill's words of the wiser on each trip onto the ice.
  • We talked about friendship, and our wishes for others, and secret-keeping.
  • We connected the information we learned in D.A.R.E. to the actions and effects of Abby and her heroin use.
  • We asked questions--thoughtful ones--and considered the human aspect of drug use as a choice and addiction as a disease.
  • We built empathy and understanding for individuals and families facing the obstacles of a loved one's substance use.
  • We internalized the power we have to make our own choices, to know and understand more fully what the consequences of our choices on ourselves and others.

See, when I read The Seventh Wish in October, I saw an opportunity.
The Seventh Wish is as much an example as any other that we are classifying as "windows and mirrors." The life of the Brennan Family is the life of many families today, even though we wish it weren't so. Some of my students live inside The Seventh Wish. Probably most don't. But this brave and honest book let us all be at times inside and outside of the story, providing us a safe distance and enlightened perspective to have important conversations about lots of big themes for kids, one of those being addiction. In reading The Seventh Wish together, we had the opportunity to open the door to unheard conversations, to say to our students, "It's ok to talk about This Big Thing here. It's ok to ask questions. We'll talk about this with you."

I don't think my students understand the adult perspective that the subject of heroin (or other substance) use is "too heavy" for them. They would disagree openly. They would argue that they want to know about "the hard stuff."
I know they would.
They did.
When one classmate shared with the others that Kate Messner's school visit to a Vermont school was cancelled because the book was "too heavy" for the 4th and 5th graders there, my students were vocal.

Kate Messner is a familiar and much-loved author to my students with a reputation she's earned by publishing many books that they have read and loved and grown from. The students trust Kate as a middle-grade writer who will invite them into the story and lend them characters to befriend, take them through trials and troubles, and will bring them out the story's end knowing something a little deeper or having learned something about themselves they hadn't thought about before. The same is true for The Seventh Wish. She writes the truth about characters (like our students) and a world that includes harrowing truths (like ours). She sizes up her research and knowledge of the subject and writes it to be perfectly fitting for her middle-grade audience. The Seventh Wish is gentle in building readers' investment in the story and conflict, but the serious nature of the topic of addiction is not dulled or downplayed, speaking solidly to Kate's respect for her readers.

What was the impact of reading The Seventh Wish with our students?

Traditionally D.A.R.E. program has students complete a formulaic five-paragraph essay as a requirement for graduation. With Officer Jack's support, our 5th grade team revamped the culminating reflection and asked students to write a letter to their 18-year old selves beginning with "Dear Future Me." This year's end-of-unit writing was some of the most personal and convincing evidence that students internalized their learning. Tracings of The Seventh Wish appeared in almost every student's letter. As a teaching team, we isolated one-line excerpts from each students' letter, filmed these lines, and compiled their reflections into one collaborative letter that we set to music.

Take a look.