Book Review: The Brooklyn Nine

I spent the last week feeling like a cranky book reviewer. Maybe I just dove into books that didn’t quite fit my mood. I don’t know.

But I was quite happy to come across The Brooklyn Nine by Alan Gratz just as our Little League season is about to start up. The book languished for a few months with my son, who never got around to reading it, and then in my classroom bookshelves, where none of my students picked it up. On a whim, I grabbed it early last week after finishing The Genius Files (one of my cranky reviews) and immediately got hooked.

On the surface, the book reminds me a lot of Accordion Crimes by Annie Proulx. That book follows an accordion through historical periods, as the instrument changes hands and stories unfold. In The Brooklyn Nine, Gratz tracks the history of baseball through much of the 20th Century as first a hand-sewn baseball, then a bat, and then more objects make their way from one generation of a family to another, ending up in the present as a disgruntled teenager finally learns the value of the stories of history. It’s a story of nine innings, told in nine chapters.

As Gratz nicely points out in an excellent Author’s Note at the end: “Baseball, more than any other sport, has a magical way of connecting fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, grandparents and grandchildren, and ancestors back down the line.” And as one character in the book notes, “I suppose that’s all we ever have in the end. Stories about the people who are gone and a few mementos to remind us that they were here.”

The characters are finely drawn, from the teenage girl breaking into the all-women’s league to the young boy hoping to get a black pitcher a chance in the big leagues to the boy on the mound in the midst of pitching a perfect game. The writing is superb, all around. I’m excited to have found this book and heartily recommend it to anyone with the love of baseball in their heart and soul.

Peace (in the field),
Kevin

 

Slice of Life: The Quidditch Fairness Doctrine

As I have mentioned before in Slice of Life, we play a version of Quidditch at our school (see the tutorial video we made a few years back) and March is the month where the Quidditch excitement takes hold for our sixth graders, as it leads to our 13th annual Quidditch Tournament in early April. Yesterday, we took our students to an indoor soccer arena for the entire school day, playing soccer and other games, but mostly focusing in on scrimmage matches of Quidditch between classes.

I love watching them play and my class did exceptionally well, working together, supporting each other and playing the game itself. It’s learning that won’t be found on next week’s standardized testing, that’s for sure.

The trickiest part for us, as teachers, to make sure the playing time is fair and equitable for everyone. It’s a lot of work, and I try to share with my students the tricky task of making sure that no one sits too long during the game (there are seven squads, each four minutes long). There are also some prime positions that most everyone wants to play (beater, chaser, seeker), and I need to make sure everyone gets some time at the positions they want to play. The larger the class, the harder that becomes.
Q Lineup Work

I think I must have spent about two hours working on the lineups for yesterday’s scrimmages. First, I take the requests that they make. Then, I pencil in a chart, marking off on another chart which position they are playing and in which squad. Then, I move those names over to a color-coded chart, which is also what I hang on the wall. Honestly, it is a pain in butt. But I don’t want anyone to feel cheated or left out.

That’s my Quidditch Fairness Doctrine: everybody plays.

We’ve had a few years where we have lost the big tournament because of my doctrine. I could  have easily stacked the decks with my athletes and let the non-athletes do very little. I refuse to do that, and if it means losing, I am OK with that. I want everyone to walk away from their special time with Quidditch (they look forward to it from preschool/kindergarten) and think, that was fun.

Of course, even with all my planning and cross-checking, sometimes things slip. Yesterday, one girl came up to me.

“I’m on the same squad twice, Mr. H, ” she said.

“What?”

She brought me over and showed me the list. Sure enough, there she was as a seeker and a sidelines tosser. I looked at her and smiled.

“Did you bring your magic potion? That one that allows you to be in two places at one time?”

She laughed, and then we moved things around to straighten it out. And then they played. All of them.

Peace (on the Quidditch pitch),
Kevin
PS — this is this year’s symbol for my team
Permafrost symbol
 

Dr Seuss on the Driveway

Dr Suess on the Driveway
My seven year old and my two young nieces took out the sidewalk chalk yesterday and created this wonderful driveway masterpiece to celebrate Dr. Seuss. I was going to share it as part of my Slice of Life, but … I already had something there. So, this is a visual bonus Slice of Life.

Peace (with some chalk and imagination),
Kevin

 

Slice of Life: The ‘Inside This’ Poetry Podcast

I’m a big fan of how technology can bring student voices forward. Yesterday, I pulled out my voice recorder as my sixth graders were sharing a poem entitled “Inside This …” and asked if anyone wanted to share their poems as a podcast. I got a handful in each class, and the poems were nicely done, and sound wonderful. (The poem uses figurative language techniques to get at the essence of an inanimate object. I allowed one exception for the girl who wrote about a chicken egg. She loves writing about chickens.)

Enjoy the voices!

Peace (in the podcast),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Gregor and the Code of Claw

Cover of: Gregor And The Code Of Claw by Suzanne Collins

And that wraps up the adventures of Gregor the Overlander.

My son and I finished the very last book in the Gregor the Overlander series by Suzanne Collins. Gregor and the Code of Claw kept up the pace of action and violence of the other books as the humans who live underground in the city of Regalia are engaged in a brutal war with the rats. Gregor, the 12 year old warrior, is a key piece of the puzzle for victory, as is his younger sisters, but Collins nicely develops his character so that he comes to loathe war and relish peace.

If my son had not been so interested, I probably would have stopped at the first or second book in the series. It’s not that the story is not interesting, and it’s not that the characters (particularly Ripred the rat) are not intriguing, but I have to admit that I continued to be put off by the war scenes (which echo our own history). The Code of Claw did bring a lot of plot lines to a close – including an unusual peace agreement between the humans and rats who did survive — and Gregor emerges from the underworld as a scarred, changed and more fully developed person than when he first dropped down through the grate in his laundry room so many books ago.

My son asked if there would be more Gregor books but I suspect Collins has her hands full right now with The Hunger Games and no doubt, some huge publishing contract has landed on her desk for another series. As for me? I am done, Gregor the Overlander. Fly you high! (a phrase that those who read the books would know)

Peace (in the overland),
Kevin

 

Slice of Life: Thinking in Haiku

Yesterday morning, I realized that it was World Poetry Day. OK, so I am not sure what that kind of holiday is but it sounds good to me! (I’m a sucker for writing-inspired-days). I decided that I would spend the school day, periodically writing down haiku reflections as my students were doing some poetry writing themselves (which we had already planned.) I also began sharing the haikus on Twitter when I had a few moments. Haiku works well with Twitter due to the brevity of lines and words.

The first poem came from the moment when I made the decision to write poems.

I celebrate poems
Small lines that entwine my heart
released to the world

On the drive to school, it was foggy. Very foggy. I was reminded of Carl Sandburg’s famous poem, and used that as a hook.

Sandburg speaks of fog
I see the cat this morning
shining bright car lights

As I pulled into the parking lot at school, the sun was trying to poke its way through the fog and mist. You could just make out the rays extended through the cloud cover. I know it was illusion, but it looked like strings from a balloon.

Defused sunlight drips
like tether lines off balloons
we chased as children

Before the kids arrive, and as I am getting ready for the day in my classroom, I often play (crank/blast) music in my room to gear up. I chose The Gaslight Anthem, a hard-rocking band that echoes Springsteen.

The Gaslight Anthem
soundtracks my morning with blasts
of blue-collar lives

I turned off the music as the clock struck 8:30 a.m. and then …

Noises in hallways
breaks the silence of morning
the day then begins

During our writing time, I watched the room, observing my sixth graders, writing lines myself.

They’re all poets now
carving out space between words
rhythmic thoughts collide

After the writing, there is the independent reading of novels. I’ve been amazing at how quietly and focused they can read for extended periods of time. (OK, so not everyone. But most of them)

Silence gets broken
only by pages turning
slowly, in their minds

The temperatures outside were reaching 70s by the end of the day and even I was looking wistfully out the window.

Inside; the Outside
beckons you to stare, helpless
as Spring comes alive

And finally, the kids went home, the school calmed down, and I closed up my classroom, walked outside to my van. I closed my eyes to take in the sun. Now, it is family time.

Out into the air
the building releases me
my mind shifts its gears

And that is my school day in haiku. If you are up for it, and you want to comment as haiku, I would be thrilled. (no pressure)

Peace (in the poetry),
Kevin

 

Book Review: The Genius Files

the-genius-files-mission-unstoppable

I suppose The Genius Files: MIssion Unstoppable will appeal to some core readership. Probably boys who value action over anything else. Dan Gutman has set in motion a kid spy novel series (featuring twin brother, Coke, and sister, Pepsi) that mines the genre thoroughly. Danger? Check. Killers after our heroes? Check. A cross-country adventure? Check. Lame parents who are clueless to the activities of their spy children? Check. An evil villain? Check.

Exhausted by the tropes? Check.

I was hoping for more, particularly since my son recommended this one to me. (He has read the second book in the series, too.) I guess I could not get into Gutman’s style of writing. What hooks me into novels are writing that flows, vocabulary that enhances the storytelling, characters who grow and whom I can believe in, and something that will keep me hooked right the very end. With The Genius Files, I was wondering when the book would end, not what would happen to Coke and Pepsi.

That’s not a good thing to be thinking as a reader.

I did like the geography connections. As the family goes on a cross-country trip in their RV, they take detours to strange places in America (Mom is a blogger who writes about the bizarre tourist sites in the country), and Gutman provides information in the margins of the book on how to use Google Maps to follow the adventure. As Gutman notes in an author’s note, the places referenced in the book are all real places in America. That’s a good point to make for young readers.

Gutman puts out a ton of books and a lot of those books appeal to our boys, so I don’t want to be too harsh here. There is an audience for this kind of book. And I hope that readers of this series will be intrigued enough by the genre to move to other spy novels and other mystery stories, and maybe even other Gutman books. For the reluctant boy reader, The Genius Files might be a hook to keep them reading.

Peace (in the book),
Kevin

 

Slice of Life: Overheard in the Van

I had the “pleasure” of driving five eighth grade boys to AAU basketball practice last night (and then, did some grading before picking them up and bringing them back home). Our five families are splitting the driving chores, and last night was our night. I quickly realized how big these kids have gotten in the past year as they crammed their way into our van, like clowns in a clown car. They were just missing the make-up.

For the most part, I just listened in to their conversations. Some of the things these eighth grade boys chatted about:

  • The difference between “smart math” and regular math classes.
  • How one of them was sent into the hallway for talking (“so unfair!”) and then when told to go then go to the vice principal’s office, refused to do so (“I just went back in the classroom and sat down at my desk. She didn’t do anything.”)
  • What cell phone carrier everyone had, and the relative merits of each.
  • Whether or not the new basketball jerseys they received from their Suburban basketball team is a  “sweater” or a “fleece” or something else.
  • How a friend of theirs dropped their iPod in the hallway at school, watched it get accidentally kicked down the hallway, and then when he finally retrieved it, he accidentally stepped on it, cracking the glass. (“You know how mad he gets, too. It was scary.”)
  • How they were “fooling” a mutual friend into thinking two of them had a fight with each other. It appears to be an elaborate ruse.
  • Whether baseball is a better spring sport than lacrosse but how basketball beats them both.
  • Whether the history homework was really due today (and if so, they needed to work on it when they got home)
  • How to take on a bigger person when you are playing one-on-one, playground-style.
  • Whether this year’s AAU team has any promise.

I had the windows cranked open as we drove home. They smelled like a sweaty gym. (Which, of course, was the source of many jokes). And we we listened to the final minute of the UMass vs. Drexel game in the NIT tournament as UMass clawed its way back from a 17-point deficit to win the game and move on to Madison Square Garden for the NIT. There was a collective “whoop” and then it was back to other topics.

Peace (in the front seat),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Transitions

14 Feb

A few months ago, a teacher friend down in Maryland with whom I have had a collegial partnership with over the years (see The Longfellow Ten for one of our collaborative classroom adventures) told me that his students had created and published a book of stories, and would I be willing to pass it along to some of my sixth graders? He hoped they might review the book. I did, and the few who read it really enjoyed it.

The book of stories is called Transitions, and it was written and illustrated by eighth graders in George Mayo’s class. It is only now that I have had a chance to spend some time with the book, and it is wonderful. The introduction by Zoe sets the stage for the stories to follow, as she explains that the theme of the writing was to capture characters in transition. “Life is full of obstacles,” Zoe writes, and the stories show how characters learn to overcome or at least deal with those hardships.

My favorites were “The Little Clouds That Could” (about friendship); “Jungle Friends” (about acceptance of differences); “Topler” (about doing the right thing); and “Everything Is Going to Be Okay” (about divorce). The stories were strong, the characters were interesting, and the theme rang through over the course of the collection.

Oh, I should mention the artwork, too. Wow. I was blown away by the detail and the quality of the drawings that go along with these stories. The colorful hand-drawn pictures make this book a real pleasure to read and experience. These young writers should be proud of what they accomplished, and I would highly recommend a copy of “Transitions” for any elementary and middle school classroom.

Peace (in our transition),
Kevin

PS — here is what one of my students wrote about the book:

I just recently read the book Transitions. I really enjoyed the creativity and was astounded at the fact that it was written and illustrated by an eighth grade class. I liked the book because it had answers to real life situations and made you look on the bright side of your life. Also, it was broken into 7 different stories witch were all different so , many questions were answered. In the end I think that the book was fantastic and that the class did a great job. Read to find solutions if your life takes a scary, bumpy road and you will be brighter.

– Rowan, sixth grader

Slice of Life: Analyzing Student Writing Data

 

I’ve been trying to use more data in my analysis of my classroom instruction. I’m not obsessed with the numbers, but I have been convinced that the use of data can help me think about how to bring my students along. I suppose this idea has its roots in the vast amounts of numbers now being provided by our state from our standardized testing. That information has been helpful in identifying overall weaknesses of our school and that has helped me make some shifts towards open response, non-fiction reading and more.

This year, our principal asked our team of teachers (our Community of Practice) to set an ELA goal early in the year. We decided that our goal would be around open response writing to reading, which is something I have been doing yeoman’s work around this year and last year with my students. I see the difference in the quality of their writing. Anyway, our goal was that 80 percent of our sixth graders would be “meeting the standard” of our open response rubric by January. (The “meeting the standard” is connected to our standards-based reporting.) I’ve been keeping charts of how all of my students have been doing as a way to document their growth.

 
Literature Open Response Sept11
In September, after administering an open response question to some literature, this is what the numbers looked like.  You can see that only 7 percent of my sixth graders were where we needed them to be. Many were in the “progressing” stage, which is what one would expect at the start of the year. What the numbers don’t show is that the writing across the board was pretty weak. They had trouble with using evidence to support their answers, with showing connections in the text, and with using critical thinking skills for analysis.

 
Japanese Paper Houses dec11
In December, that gap began to close. Notice in this next diagram how the shift began to move from various sections, upward. That was a good trend. But we were still far away from our January goal.

 
China Warrior Open Response march12
Two weeks ago, they were given another open response assessment. On one hand, we’re nowhere near our goal of 80 percent in the Meeting category, and I am wonder if that was even a realistic goal for us. On the other hand, notice how few students there are now in the lower bracket — the Beginning to Understand category — which is where our struggling writers have often found themselves. We’ve worked hard on graphic organizing and structure, and that is paying off for a lot of kids. And there is a slight shift from Progressing into Meeting, just not nearly enough.

So yesterday, I began to ponder my own roles. Am I being consistent with my scoring from September through the present? (I think so). What does it mean if not everyone “meets” the sixth grade standard around writing? What else can I be doing to support the development of my students as writers and thinkers? I think, as teachers, this kind of internal inquiry never ends. I feel like I am in a constant state of trying to make my approach more effective and more engaging for my students.

Peace (in the sharing of the data),
Kevin