Student Reflections: Choice in Books and Time to Read


reading flickr photo by Ken Ronkowitz shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

I’ve been trying to work more independent and choice reading time into my classroom this year. I’ve always done so, but this year, I’m stretching the time frames and trying to be more thoughtful about the time they need in the school day to read. I’m inspired by books like Game Changer (Donalyn Miller and Colby Sharp) and Book Love (Penny Kittle) and others.

As we neared the end of a recent seven-week block of an independent reading unit, following a class novel unit at the start of the year, I asked them to write a bit about what they liked or didn’t like about this extended time.

Reading their responses, three main themes emerge across the board (and of my nearly 80 students, only two did not like the independent unit all that much, citing too much choice and freedom).

  • They liked the choice and the variety of books they could read, and some notes resistance to teacher-driven books, even if they like the story
  • They liked the quiet space we created in the classroom for reading — sometimes it was only 10 minutes a day but often I stretched it to 20 minutes — and many noted they don’t have time to read or desire to read outside of school
  • They appreciated learning about more books from other classmates reading, getting recommendations from peers (as opposed to me, the teacher, although many did ask and receive books from my classroom library upon my recommendation)

Here’s what some of them wrote:

I have enjoyed this extended independent reading unit from the moment we started it. One of the reasons why I liked it is being able to read what I wanted instead of what other people wanted or were reading. I like having my own book that is harder to have a spoiled finish than others that people already read. Some of the books that I read other people didn’t read or had forgotten about reading it. This experience of independent reading has made reading something more enjoyable. – GM

 

During the last several months I have enjoyed the independent reading unit. I have had trouble finding time to read in the past, which is a hobby I enjoy, so it is not only helpful but to have the opportunity in class but also fun. I like deciding where to sit in the classroom, and I enjoy the quiet atmosphere it provides. – CC

 

I enjoy independent reading. I like it because, If I did not have a time to read, I might of stopped reading or forgot about the book. I like choosing a book because the books that people pick out for me might not meet my interests. At school, the teachers pick out good books, but if anyone else did I probably would dislike it. — LB

 

I really enjoyed our independent reading. One reason is, I get the freedom to chose the book of my choice. I also like that if I don’t like a book I can stop reading it and chose a book that I will better enjoy. Lastly, I like that I can read at my own pace and I don’t have to stop reading if I’m enjoying something. In conclusion, I really enjoyed our independent reading. — JS

 

I have enjoyed it because teachers don’t always pick the best book for the class. I know because all last year I did not like the books. Also, it gives me freedom to try different genres. Also, because it is fun to read all kinds of books. – EM

 

I have enjoyed the independent reading unit. I love to read and I have really enjoyed being able to pick out my own books so that I can understand what I’m reading and enjoy. I have been able to read 2 books and I am starting a third. Even though I like to read I don’t usually read so it was nice to read every day in class. – LG

 

Yes I did enjoy it because you are able to pick your own book. I like it better than having to read an assigned book. Also it allows me to read diverse books. – LP

 

I have enjoyed quiet reading because,  it is nice to have sometime in the middle of the school day to sit back and quietly read a book after all the rushing around. It is nice to also be able to pick out the book that I want to read, unlike being forced to read a book That I may or may not like. When it is time for quiet reading, it is nice to be able to pick out where to sit, what to read, and how fast or how slow you read. – SB

 

Yes, I have enjoyed this independent reading unit. I like how I have the freedom to pick a book that particularly interests me. However, I did like the book that we read as a class. I also liked that I did not have a reading limit. Especially when I am at a suspenseful part. When reading in class I agree that it was really quiet and peaceful. I think that the amount of time we spent reading in class was good, not too long but not too fast. – OM

 

I love reading so naturally I love silent reading. I also enjoy the fact that we get to choose our own books because it encourages me to read more. Reading has always been one of my favorite things to do. However, when I’m forced to read a certain book I enjoy the book less even if it is a good book. – AH

Peace (pondering),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: Be Prepared

Vera Brosgol has mined her childhood (as part of a Russian immigrant family in the United States) for this interesting take on a common childhood experience: overnight summer camp. But in Be Prepared, Brosgol gives us a glimpse of something else, too: how Russian immigrants created an entire community here after the Purges to help children keep their Russian roots.

I know this a reflection of the times we live in, but as I read Be Prepared, I couldn’t help thinking: is this story going to shift in some spy indoctrination story of young Russian children (Perhaps I’ve been watching The Americans too much and reading the collusion headlines of this presidency). But no. This is about a girl trying to find her own place in the world, where cultural clashes and family tensions make friendships difficult.

This book was fun to read, and I really ended up caring deeply about the main character — Vera, a version of the graphic novelist, who tells us at the end that not everything here happened as it happened in real life. She’s funny, witty, creative and uncertain about herself, and in the end, she finds a friend and connection at the summer camp.

This book is appropriate for elementary and middle school readers, for sure, and high school students might enjoy it. Brosgol is a graphic novelist/cartoonist to keep an eye on, for sure.

Peace (in cultural frames),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: The Encyclopedia of Early Earth

What a find! I am thankful to some friends on Twitter who recently surfaced Isabel Greenberg’s mesmerizing and delightful The Encyclopedia of Early Earth. Rich in storytelling and packed with intense artwork, this graphic story within stories is steeped in layers of mythology.

The story itself revolves around the time before our own history began, when Greenberg’s imagined cultures were full of explorers and traditions, and the skies ruled by a mercurial god and his two offspring. A linking narrative thread is the roaming of a Nord man on a quest, and how the magnetic pull of love brings two worlds together, and how those two worlds also keep these lovers apart. You’ll have to read to understand.

Along the way, we have spiteful god interference (as well as helpful god interference), mad kings and kingdoms, long pages of art and no text, and a hearty stew of ancient creation myths woven together, and echoing into the present, by Greenberg, a writer and artist whose talent brims on every page. There’s also a sly narrative voice underneath this all — sort of like a winking at the reader, mostly in the form of the wise man.

Meanwhile, the illustrations and graphic design in The Encyclopedia of Early Earth is a joy to view, a pallet of mostly deep blacks and contrasting whites, thrown off now and then with splashes of color that surprise your eyes and bring you deeper into the story.

This graphic novel might be appropriate for high school, but there is some nudity here and there — nothing not in use of advancing the story — that might give a teacher pause, particularly for any students below high school age. The content itself would be accessible at an earlier age, however. And teachers could easily use sections of this book to teach about creation myths as well as the art of the graphic novel. It’s that good.

NPR has a link to read parts of the book. Check it out.

Peace (across oceans and time),
Kevin

Book Review: Towers Falling

How do write about tragedy for a young audience? This is what writers of young adult fiction often grapple with. In Towers Falling, novelist Jewell Parker Rhodes does a masterful job addressing this dilemma by having her young narrator — Deja, who lives in a homeless shelter in New York City with her family as our story unfolds — learn about the 9-11 attack just as the audience does.

Set more than a decade after the attack on the World Trade Center, the novel follows Deja and her friends as they learn more about what happened on that terrible day. It turns out that, although Deja is a New York City native, she doesn’t even know there had been an attack at one point.

She has been kept in the dark. And there is a reason for that.

I won’t give the story away except to say that the novel does not shy away from the discovery of the horror of the day itself, but  it is Rhodes compassion for Deja and her family that is the powerful guiding force, allowing the reader to be amazed, scared, compassionate and educated right alongside with Deja as her eyes are opened to the world in a new way. You may tear up at times, particularly when Deja and her friend, Ben, visit the new memorial, only to be stunned by its sadness and its beauty.

This novel is rich with character development and with the weaving of the historical record into the fabric of a family affected by the 9-11 events. There may be some references that might be a bit too much for elementary students — when Deja sneaks a viewing of the videos of 9-11, she is forever haunted by the images of those who jumped from the towers, the same as me and maybe you — but Towers Falling is a powerful book for middle school students, those who were born after the event and may wonder how New York City survived. It is through the stories of those like Deja that we grapple with the past.

Peace (please),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: Sci-Fu (Kick It Off)

So, strange title, right? Sci-Fu. But Yehudi Mercado’s new series — Sci-Fu — is a fun ride into the hip hop world of Brooklyn, with a slight detour into a world of battling robots. Plus, there’s an ice cream truck.

So, you know, weird title captures the strange book that this is, and that’s perfectly OK because Sci-Fi is a fun read, with lots of visual elements, likable protagonists, and a Sunday Morning sugar-cereal feel to the narrative.

I really enjoyed how Mercado captures the love of hip hop and rapping here, as the main hero — Wax — and his buddy are emerging street rappers, and throughout the story, this hip hop element is consistent, right down to the main conflict as Wax faces a huge robot in order to save Earth.

This book — Sci-Fu: Kick It Off — is the first in a series, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of the story (one of the character got left behind in another world, when she discovers her true identity as a hero).

This graphic novel is completely appropriate for elementary students, and is aimed at middle school readers. It’s fun, entertaining and comes with a Spotify hip hop playlist with some old school rappers so young readers have a bumping soundtrack to listen to while enjoying the story.

Peace (on the page),
Kevin

Book Review: Diary of a Wimpy Kid (The Meltdown)

Has it really been 13 years of Diary of a Wimpy Kids books? I guess so, and Jeff Kinney keeps going with onward his story. The 13th edition — The Meltdown — is another amusing, yet light, story (sort of, but not really) in which character Greg Heffley continues to struggle against the world.

Here, in this latest edition, the first half of The Meltdown is just a collection of gags and jokes about winter (although Kinney’s drawings are still quite funny) with almost no discernible narrative to hold it together. The pages breeze by. It’s only in the second half, when the frame of a neighborhood snow-fight, and the mayhem that ensues among the kids, comes to the surface as a structure, of sorts.

I have a fair number of boys in my classroom who are currently reading The Meltdown right now as an independent book, and while I know these books are way below our sixth grade, I never make a peep about. They are reading books. Let’s celebrate that fact. These reluctant readers are reading books. Meanwhile, I have a pile of other books ready to recommend for when they are done with the latest adventures of the Wimpy Kid.

Like a scattered few others before him (J.K. Rowling comes to mind as does Suzanne Collins), Kinney has gotten kids reading in a time when more and more young people — and alas, it seems to be mostly boys on this trend — are losing interesting in the power of stories on the pages of books. Whether this is due to video games as immersive alternatives, decreasing attention spans, over-scheduled outside activities or whatever, books and reading seem more like an endangered species than every before. We all need to get more books into their hands, and go from there.

Peace (in books and beyond),
Kevin

Picture Book Review: The Nantucket Sea Monster (A Fake News Story)

I am at in the middle in our Digital Life unit with my sixth graders, and the one component that I am adding to and beefing up in the last few years is a “critical digital media” component, with a focus on the veracity of news. I’ve been searching for a good book that might introduce the topic in an interesting way, and came across the perfect picture book and tale: The Nantucket Sea Monster (A Fake News Story) by Darcy Pattison and Peter Willis.

This true story of fake news takes place not too too far from where I teach (Nantucket is a few hours east and then a ferry ride) but I know plenty of kids know where Nantucket is and some have even visited or vacationed there (my wife and I had our honeymoon there).

The book centers on 1937, when an elaborate spoof of the public — the newspapers, some department stores and a few locals were all in kahoots on it — unfolded in the newspapers, first locally and then nationally. It had to do with the sighting of a monster in the fishing waters of Nantucket, and the curiosity and fears that came from it. The newspapers printed “authentic” accounts of sea monster sightings and spun the story from different angles.

Finally, the collaborators let the public in on their joke — an elaborate stunt by a local balloon maker getting ready for Thanksgiving Macy’s Parade. The monster was inflatable.

The picture book story is helpful for framing a discussion about Fake News because it points to gullibility of readers, responsibilities of the media outlets, and the way businesses use these elements to market products or information. I’ll also reference the use of radio in the War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938 (a year after the Nantucket incident).

Cut to modern day and the political use of news items and news outlets as rhetorical arms. Our work in the classroom is to make visible as much of the fake news phenomenon as possible and give them strategies for considering source and material for what we call “news” these days.

All in all, I recommend The Nantucket Sea Monster (A Fake News Story)While its reading audience might be younger than my sixth graders, I am always bringing different picture books to the classroom, and this one is a gem.

Peace (real, not fake),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: The Brain (The Ultimate Thinking Machine)

This is the third or fourth book in the Science Comics collection from FirstSecond Publishing, and all of them have been fun, informative and densely packed with scientific information. For the casual youth reader, it might be too much information. For those readers interested in any of the topics (such as dogs, dinosaurs, coral reefs, etc.), the Science Comics collection is a gold mine.

This latest — The Brain: The Ultimate Thinking Machine by Tory Woollcott and Alex Graudins — is a prime example. (Note: I received this as an advance copy). Built around a story framework (Fahama, our young female protagonist, has been kidnapped by a mad scientist and she buys time asking questions about how the brain works), the book is jammed with fascinating intricacies of how our brains function and work, with quite complex vocabulary and concepts assisted by interesting comic work.

I really liked that the writer/illustrator chose a young Muslim girl (and her younger sister, Nour) without making a big deal about it, incorporating her as a character as if it were common to have someone like Fahama a main character. It’s not. Or not enough. It works like a charm here, since Fahama’s curiosity and humor and Nour’s bossiness and feistiness bring them to life.

Still, for some readers, seeing characters who look and act like them in a graphic novel will be a big deal, and one that we readers (particularly we teachers, who can bring these books to our classroom) should celebrate. And the book holds up on its own, with story and science.

This graphic novel is aimed at middle and high school students, although elementary students might find it interesting if a bit of complex reading. It’s the vocabulary and science concepts that push it towards older readers, in my mind.

Peace (reading it),
Kevin

 

Graphic Novel Review: Hey, Kiddo

Compassion is a word that comes to mind after readingJarrett Krosoczka’s new graphic memoir entitled Hey, Kiddo. I’m not speaking of the compassion of the reader to his story — although one gets to know of his struggles and his family’s love for him despite the situation, and certain compassion is activated — but of Krosoczka’s compassion for his own younger self.

There’s a real spirit of fighting against the odds in this story, and of finding the people who will be there to support you along the way. If you are lucky. For surely, just as Krosoczka’s story shows how far he came with a mother with a heroin addiction and a father who did not reach out to him until his late teen years, there are so many kids — they’re in our classrooms if we look close enough — who are struggling without the support Krosoczka was able to get from his grandparents and extended family.

If you don’t know of Krosoczka, he is a talented storyteller and graphic artist, known mostly among my students for his Lunch Lady series. But he has also done other stories that reach an elementary audience. Hey Kiddo is very different in style and substance and depth (not to take away from Lunch Lady) — even my 14-year-old son, picking up my copy of the book, which I told him he really should read, asked: “He wrote the Lunch Lady? This seems … very different.”

What emerges from Hey Kiddo is the power of story, and the way he was able to use art and comics to find his way forward through his childhood struggles. It also points to the power of adults encouraging those talents. His grandparents — rough and endearing — were his vital support network, providing opportunities for his art (one birthday, he got a drafting table from them; another time, they surprised him with lessons at an art gallery that proved to be a critical juncture forward.)

I also appreciated the end notes, where Krosoczka writes about the writing of this story. How difficult it was to tell. How important it was to tell. And when he talks about his choices for the book’s artistic style – the reasons behind color hues, or the meaning of background images, or the rationale for frames spilling into each other — it is nearly a master lesson on making comics.

This book is more geared for middle and high school and adult readers, just in case you are in a school setting thinking of adding this to your library because of Krosoczka’s name and his previous work. While advanced elementary readers might be interested in his story, know that the references to drug abuse and other traumatic events are central to Krosoczka’s story. That said, there’s nothing here that does not reflect the larger world and nothing so graphic that even an elementary student would be alarmed by. Still, I ‘d suggest you read it first before bringing it into your classroom.

And of course, you should read Hey, Kiddo anyway. It’s that good.

Peace (between pages),
Kevin

PS — NPR Fresh Air has a nice piece, too.