Book Review: Ungifted

Cover image, Pop

When my 12 year old son finished reading Ungifted by Gordon Korman (Mr. Prolific), two things happened. First, he said “this is the best book I read all summer” and then he asked if he could find a website that calculated his IQ. I let him give it a try, although we talked about the validity of online tools and about why IQ is just one measure of a person. But he was curious because Ungifted (read excerpts) centers around a school for the gifted, and what happens when a “regular student” enters their midst and messes things up, for the better.

Donovan Curtis is a troublemaker from the public school, who is always instigating one mess or another, and when one of his impulsive decisions goes completely awry and causes damage to his school, he finds himself unexpectedly and mistakenly in a school for gifted kids, thanks to the bumbling school superintendent. The story quickly becomes a rather predictable tale of the outsider changing the group in a good way while the group changes the outsider in a profound way. I enjoyed Korman’s storytelling, as always, but felt as if he dug up one too many stereotypes of nerdy kids, anxious school superintendents, and other characters that pepper this story.

The climax scene, involving a robot named Tin Man Metallica Squarepants (great name!) and a rival robot, Potzilla, is quite amusing and fused with high energy and humor, and Donovan shows some true colors as the story progresses as a friend with a large heart. Maybe that is what my son was talking about.

Peace (in the gift),



Book Review: Common Core Literacy Lesson Plans

I’ll be the first to admit that I get turned off by publishers who put Common Core in the title of their teaching resource books. I know it probably sells books off the shelves like crazy (particularly for administrators desperate to be doing something, anything, to shift forward with their staff), but I am sensitive to marketing gimmicks. So when Common Core Literacy Lesson Plans, by editor Lauren Davis, arrived at my house from the publisher (Eye on Education), I was wary (although they get points for honesty in advertising, since the title pretty much directly sums up the content of the book in a no-nonsense way).

Luckily, I looked inside.

The book, which is geared towards middle school, is chock full of well thought-out lesson plans, activities and handouts that might connect to the Common Core in overt ways, but are just as likely to be good ideas that teachers can pull into the classroom around reading and writing and research. In fact, the book is built around the main themes of the Common Core: Writing, Reading, Speaking/Listening, and Language. Even if your state and school is not a Common Core follower (mine is), that organizational strategy makes sense. Each section has a solid introduction, with tips for teachers to pay attention to, and many of the lessons have reproducible handouts (which are also available online, with a code from the book)

In fact, the day after I got Common Core Literacy Lesson Plans, I was using one of its resources with a lesson that I had designed for my sixth graders around paraphrasing, summarizing and quoting from direct sources. This tied in perfectly with our inquiry research project, and the handout that we used from the book included as short piece of reading and three questions, which led to some great discussions in class about how to use sources without the “copy/paste” mentality. Over the next few days, as my students were writing, I reminded them about our work around paraphrasing and summarizing.

I know I will be returning to this book when we get to our Digital Lives unit because some of the lessons and handouts here around evaluating websites and understanding the influence of media are part of the work that my students do to understand their role as writers and readers in the digital age. I’ll also be sharing it with my sixth grade teaching team as part of our Community of Practice meetings, as we talk about how to keep moving reading and writing and literacy more and more into the content areas.

Peace (outside the core),



Book Review: Energizing Research Reading & Writing

Talk about the right book at the right time. Christopher Lehman’s Energizing Research Reading & Writing dropped on my doorstep just days before I began launching into the start-of-the-year research project with my sixth grade students, and I feel as if I have had Lehman by my side just about every step of the way. Written in an engaging tone, and very teacher-friendly format, this overview of how to think anew about the benefits of research projects (and how to consider research through the Common Core focus) has so much good advice, it is difficult to know where to begin.

From the opening chapter that puts our ideas about research projects in perspective (particularly the way that technology and Internet access has reshaped the ways in which students find information) to helping students narrow down topic choices, considering and using sources without the “plagiarism” effect, the benefits of graphic organizers (or not), and the need to balance short-term research with long-term projects to develop skills.

I highly recommend Energizing Research Reading & Writing as a resource for any classroom that has research in its future (which, if you are a Common Core state is just about every upper elementary classroom through high school). I’ve already been sharing out some of the many charts that Lehman pulls together around the main ideas, in which he helpfully shares teaching strategies and ideas to differential the research instruction for a variety of students, and makes direct connections to content-area classroom research, too.

Peace (in the search),


Book Review: Wildwood

I got so completely and utterly sucked into this debut novel by Colin Meloy (of The Decemberists fame) that I didn’t want to stop reading. Gosh darn it, life got in the way. But I snuck my moments here and there, and when I was done with the story, I wished I had read Wildwood out loud to my son, and I still yet may do that (when we get through Rick Riordan’s Mark of Athena.) In Wildwood, Meloy has created a convincing and imaginative world of the Impassible Wilderness where adventure lies in store for our young heroes, Prue and Curtis. Prue’s baby brother has been kidnapped by a murder of crows, and she must go off to save him. Thus begins an adventure of a lifetime in a world not too far removed from our own, and yet magically distant from our own experiences.

I won’t give much away except to say that the book works as a pace perfect for read-aloud – with lots of action and adventure, and female protagonist in Prue that will connect to girls and boys. There’s much to love in this book. As soon as I ended Wildwood, with one of the characters remaining behind as the others returned to the regular world, I was on my Barnes and Noble account, calling up the second book: Under Wildwood, and placing an order. And I can’t wait to see what happens in that story.

Peace (in the wild woods of childhood),


Encouraging Home Literacy Moments: The Laptop Letters

Laptop Letters from Bill Zimmerman

Bill Zimmerman, whose Make Beliefs Comix site is a great place for students to begin to learn how to make web comics, has just put out a book called Laptop Letters. Zimmerman, whose aim is always to strengthen literacy, has assembled many of his comic-based writing prompts into one collection for parents as a way to encourage them to write to their own children. This is a great idea worth considering, as a parent and as a teacher connecting with parents.

And the book is offered up as a free ebook, too, from Zimmerman (although I think it might be even more valuable as a real, paper book where you could use the prompts and visuals a little easier.) Throughout the book, Zimmerman (with illustrator Tom Bloom) offers advice for how to write letters from parents to children, on themes of memories and experiences and shared hopes and dreams. There is a certain spiritual element to some of the prompts, but mostly, they are centered around sending forth a message of caring and compassion and thoughtfulness.

What’s fascinating is how Zimmerman is trying to frame the letters from a technology standpoint, noting that parents should find ways to reach their children through communication means that the children will read. In the introduction, he notes that while some bemoan the lack of traditional letter writing, many of us (adults and children) now use email and text messaging throughout the day, and why not use that medium to send words of love and support and wisdom to our kids?

I was wondering what my older boys would say if I started writing them stories via their cell phones. Would I be invading their space? Would they write back? We certainly have our struggles with our oldest son around communication. I guess I am not sure what the impact would be if I used some of the prompts here. And while Zimmerman notes that the power of these laptop letters is in the sharing of words and wisdom that last as family memories, there is such a temporary effect with text messages. Nothing gets saved beyond a moment of time. It had me wondering if texting is the medium for these literacy moments.

Still, one can’t argue that any suggestions for strengthening the bonds between parents and kids, particularly during this age where technology seems to cut off some of those interactions, is a good idea and one worth advocating. Zimmerman has provided a path for those kind of connections in Laptop Letters with some wonderful prompts to consider and starting points from which to begin.

Peace (in the letter),



Graphic Novel Review: Zeus and the Rise of the Olympians

Campfire Books has been putting out an increasingly interesting array of graphic novels lately that deal with mythology in various cultures, and this one by writer Ryan Foley and illustrator Jayakrishnan K. P. is the dense, but fascinating, tale of the origin myths behind the Gods of Olympus. Zeus and the Rise of the Olympians tracks the myth of the creation of the world, and resonates with the theme of the “son overtaking the father” that comes into play in so many Greek stories. The graphic novel — which is gorgeously drawn and inked and really captures the sense of being in a world of gods — explains the story of the rise of Cronus over Ouranous, and then the rise of Zeus over Cronus, and the birth of the Golden Age.

Like many, I know the story, but I think I have known the simplified story. Here, Foley brings other details into focus and, using the technique of a Greek teacher recounting the story to her students, lets us know that much of the story is still shrouded in the mystery of the gods. We have to accept, for example, that Cronus swallows his children but they don’t die (and grow in his being to become the Olympians). Even the hero of the story, Zeus (looking like some powerful super hero of DC comics), and the villain, Cronus, are complicated creatures, with strengths and insecurities brought to the surface by this book’s story.

Some years, I teach The Lightning Thief as a novel, and I have a stack of Greek Mythology books ready as additional resources. This graphic novel will surely join the pack, and while it may be a bit tricky for the casual reader (the text is sort of dense for a graphic novel), I can see some of my stronger readers with high interest in mythology eating it up (and hopefully, not spitting it out, as Cronus did).

Peace (in the myth),



Book Review: The Endless Caverns

About two years ago, a teaching colleague of mine – Mike Flynn — told he was writing a kids’ book. I wasn’t all that surprised. Mike’s work in the classroom with the younger kids had earned him lots of recognition and kudos (Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, meeting the president, working around the country on helping other educators with math, etc.). He told him that the book stemmed from work he was doing as a consultant on a website for kids, a place of interactive activities built on educational concepts. The site — Mutasia — is colorful and full of interactive play but I’m not sure what differentiates it from other educational “portal.” Still, Mike said the organizers had done a lot of research, and talking to teachers, and were working hard around thinking of how to build a site for kids in meaningful ways that combine challenging fun with learning. I don’t know enough about the site to give an opinion, except to note that along with activities, they also sell products (plush toys). So, there clearly is a marketing element (I imagine the word “synergy” comes up in meetings)

At one point, my colleague — Mike Flynn — asked me to read over a draft of the book that he was writing, and I gladly did, offering up some advice and impressions. I liked the concept of Mike’s story — the central theme is about taking chances on new ideas and how to be a good friend — and the characters (which come from the website) were interesting, in a Fraggle Rock kind of way. Plus, I was excited that Mike was asked to write a book. Anytime a friend is writing a book to be published is cause for a little celebration, right?

Mike’s book — The Endless Caverns — is now out, and Mike’s publisher sent me a copy. (I had asked Mike if he could get me a copy to look at when the final book was published.) It’s an adventure story in which a character named Figley goes off into the wild jungles of their homeland but then has reservations about his abilities to make it to the end of the journey, and some fears crop up. His friends, however, step up and help him work through those fears, with compassion and support. The story (a version of the ‘heroic journey” for the younger set) ends with a crazy and thrilling ride over a waterfall.

I am going to leave The Endless Caverns on the table near my second grade son (the grade that Mike used to teach before he left to help run a Summer Math Program at a local university) and see what he thinks. And then I am going to bring it to my sixth graders, some of whom had Mike as their second grade teacher. They will be thrilled, I am sure. And kudos to Mike for working through the years-long process of writing, revision, more revision, and even more revision … and then, to publishing a children’s book.

I wonder if I can get him to visit my classroom?

Peace (in the book),


MiddleWeb’s Professional Book Review Collection

A book review that I did for the MiddleWeb site (aimed primarily at middle school teachers but has a lot to offer to teachers of all levels) is part of the site’s Fall Book Review Festival. There are some interesting books on the list and all the reviews were done by educators, so you can mostly trust the lens. The book I reviewed — How to Teach Critical Thinking Skills Within the Common Core — was just OK. I wouldn’t rush out to buy it, but if it were on our teacher resource shelf, I’d pull it down to peruse.

Read my review

And, of course, I could not resist a comic element.

Peace (in the review),