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Friday, April 22, 2011

Transitional Novels: The Best of Both Worlds

New blog follower Maddie recently contacted me to say this:
You need another blog. I enjoy Teach with Picture Books and also your novel blog, but I've got a number of students who fall between these two categories. They want to read novels (always the ones being made into movies) but their skills aren't equal to the task. What would you recommend?
To begin with, I recommended that Maddie write that blog! She seems to know a niche group that needs to be reached. But my other recommendation to her was to get a hold of some transitional novels.

In a June, 2009 post on transitional books at my Teach with Picture Books site, I said:
It's not a bad place to be: stuck between the vast and varied worlds of the picture books and the worlds of the novel. That's where many children find themselves at age eight (give or take), when they're trying to make the independent reading leap from picture books to more difficult chapter books. Is the language in chapter books that much more complex? Not necessarily. But gone are the beautiful contextual clues provided by picture books' illustrations. Fortunately for these readers, we have what can be called transitional books.
I recommended Lincoln and His Boys by Rosemary Wells as an example; Fatty Legs: A True Story by Christy Jordan-Fenton (see my post) would also satisfy the requirements of this category.

Let me now share a few more books that I highly recommend for getting this group of students excited about reading, and moving toward more full-length, sophisticated novels.

The Memory Bank by Carolyn Coman and Rob Shepperson is a cool hybrid for the age 8 and up group; like The Invention of Hugo Cabret, it's equal parts text and illustration. Note that I didn't say it's illustrated. That's because a good deal of the story is told only through pictures, and it's up to the reader to make sense of what those images tell.

Inside spread from The Memory Bank.
The narration follows Hope, whose mother and father have abandoned Honey, Hope's little sister, on the side of the road. "I've told you a thousand times," Father said, "No laughing." And as the tires squeal, leaving Honey in a cyclone of dust, Father warns Hope, "Forget her." But of course Hope can't, and when a mysterious visitor invites her to leave home, Hope feels that somehow this new adventure might lead her back to her sister.

Meanwhile, Honey's story is told entirely through pictures. We're given quite detailed events, but still... What's going on? The fact is, the World Wide Memory Bank and the Clean Slate Gang are at war, and somehow Honey and Hope are stuck in the middle! The two surreal, parallel stories eventually collide in a surprising and satisfying turn of events.

Me and Rolly Maloo is at first glance just another easy-reader novel, but author Janet S. Wong and illustrator Elizabeth Butler combine traditional chapters and paragraphs with graphic-novel conventions such as frames and speech bubbles, which place the reader more immediately into the action.

What's the action? A moral dilemma, really. When popular Rolly Maloo asks Jenna's help to cheat on a math test, what is Jenna to do? This book provides students with a multiple-perspective look at a common problem, while introducing them to internal and external conflicts. What should you do when the act itself is so simple, yet goes against everything in which you believe?

Me and Rolly Maloo provides several wonderful models for writing which students could try out for themselves. Identify a character in another novel who is also facing a difficult situation. Then, choose one of the portions of Me and Rolly Maloo to read aloud, pointing out that Jenna (or another character) is always careful to weigh all options before choosing a plan of action. That being said, however, is she always honest with herself? How does she sometimes twist facts to choose one option over another? Or, show one of the novel's many interactions between characters via a series of emails, phone calls, letters, or texts.

For those interested in transitional nonfiction chapter books, Usborne publishes a series of Books for Young Readers, which are written at Lexile ranges ranging from 800 to 1000. I'm in no way an expert on this, but by identifying the levels of some books I know, it gives me an idea of the reading difficulty. Ramona Quimby, Age 8, for example, is Lexile Level 860; the slightly higher levels of nonfiction titles are due to the inclusion of proper nouns of places, people, and historical events.

The books are perfect for this group of readers, since they're in a smaller (6 x 8 inches) hardcover format. The text is reader appropriate, not just in skill level but in approach to topic as well. The Holocaust by Susanna Davidson, for example, is one of the most complete, yet age-suitable, titles I've seen on the topic, and I've even made plans to incorporate it into my curriculum when reading The Devil's Arithmetic with my sixth graders. It not only provides much-needed background knowledge to read about this horrific time, but it also leads readers to want to learn more.

Other nonfiction titles in that series include The Story of Spying, Gladiators, The Story of Pirates, The Story of Slavery, and Vietnam. Another terrific title for hard-to-teach topics is The Story of Islam, which provides key understandings into a religion which is making history even today. Every volume contains full color pictures on every page, plus important nonfiction conventions such as captions, table of contents, index, and Internet links. At about seven or eight bucks a book (hardcover!), these can easily supplement any fourth through seventh grade curriculum.

Readers will also enjoy Usborne's Young Readers library of biographies. As a teacher and parent, I've always noticed a pretty huge void between biographies for young readers and those for middle and high schoolers. Students would typically need to make a big leap, of a couple grade level equivalents, to "read up." But titles such as Anne Frank, Florence Nightingale, Marie Antoinette, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, and Martin Luther King, Jr. bridge this gap, offering readers enticing anecdotes and facts at an independent reading level of Lexile 700-900.

I'm really impressed with the quality and readability of Usborne Books, but until just recently I mistakenly thought that they could only be purchased through the random Tupperware-like parties. But you can purchase them through Amazon and many independent Internet sellers. Scholastic Book Clubs have also begin carrying some titles in their monthly offerings. If you're an online seller of Usborne books, feel free to make a comment below and leave us your link.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Discussing Character Traits in The Outsiders

If you teach The Outsiders as a class novel, here's an activity guaranteed to spark discussion, while focusing students on a deeper understanding of character traits through close reading.

The resource I'm providing is a Whom Would You Choose? chart which requires students to select which of the Greasers they would choose to take on a double date, back them up in a fight, teach them to drive, and so on. While at first glance it seem to be opinion based, students soon discover that they need to identify text-based reasons for their choices. (The chart is embedded below, and can be increased to full size using the fullscreen button in the lower right corner).

The chart relies heavily upon Chapters One and the beginning of Chapter Two of the novel, and accomplishes three goals at once. The chart
  • forces students to truly understand and differentiate between the traits of the seven boys,
  • requires students to reread the chapter in order to supply supporting evidence for their choices, and
  • illustrates to students that the boys, while experiencing a collective identity through their affiliation with each other as Greasers, are in truth individuals with unique strengths and weaknesses.
Before handing students the chart, I have them create a simple quadrant chart in their notebooks for each of the seven boys. Under the headings Looks Like, Sounds Like, Acts Like, and People Say, students create bulleted lists from the information provided in Chapter 1.

As students began to fill out the Whom Would You Choose Chart, they use both the book and their notes to make selections. (The blank line on the chart, by the way, was for students to add a category of their own). When sharing time came, I read each category, named the boys in turn, and had students vote by a show of hands. The real learning experience (and the fun!) came as students tried to explain their choices.

A similar chart could be created for any novel containing a large number of characters which could be easily confused.


See my Teaching Reading and Language Arts wiki for the Whom Would You Choose Chart, plus lots of other useful resources.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Born to Write: What Students Can Learn through Author Study

How can studying an author create a better understanding and enjoyment of a novel?

In a previous post on Gary Paulsen: Living Literary Legend, I mentioned how that author's life experiences brought real authenticity to his earlier work, and how relentless research habits informed his later historical novels such as Woods Runner. Likewise, in The Most Misunderstood Advice for Young Writers, I passed along an interview with Laurie Halse Anderson in which she discussed her hands-on research for Forge. Both of these discussions make a solid argument for investigating authors and the ways in which they work.

Additionally, literacy coach Laura Kump (aka The Reading Lady) has this to say:
Author Studies are a powerful teaching tool. There is no better way to turn kids on to reading than to build a community joined by a great book. The goal of an author study is to make a connection between a book and an author's life. This shows children that authors are real people, develops motivation to seek out other work by the same author, and hopefully inspires children to write.
Reading Rockets provides their own 10 Reasons to Do an Author Study, and I've shared a few of my own below.

Teachers should engage students in author studies 
  • to develop basic knowledge of an author's education, experiences, and cultural background;
  • to determine how these variables have influenced the author's writing;
  • to hear what the author has to say about writing in general, and his/her own writing habits in particular; 
  • to discover those writers who influenced the author;
  • to begin identifying the author's style and patterns in writing;
  • to begin identifying the author's purpose through their choice of genre(s);
  • to use the author's work as mentor texts for improving student writing;
  • to create a common literary experience in order to discuss reading and writing from a shared perspective.
One book I'd recommend for a fascinating look into the lives of popular authors is Born to Write: The Remarkable Lives of Six Famous Authors by Charis Cotter. Through this book, the reader is given a glimpse into the formative years of writers Lucy Maud Montgomery (Anne of Green Gables), Clive Staples Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia), Elwyn Brooks White (Stuart Little), Madeleine L'Engle (A Wrinkle in Time), Philip Pullman (The Golden Compass), and Christopher Paul Curtis (Bud, Not Buddy).

Madeleine L'Engle, for example, experienced frustration and failure in school as a child. She did poorly in academics, and a physical condition which caused one leg to be shorter than another caused the other girls to call her "cripple" during gym class.

As shared in Born to Write, her one escape was through the pages of her own stories:

At the top of the page was the title of the story she was writing: "The Strange Adventures of Annabelle Rose." Last night she had left Annabelle in a dreadful fix, tied up to a tree in the middle of a forest, surrounded by desperate bandits. Today she had to find a way for Annabelle to get loose, defeat the bandits, and release the king from their terrible clutches. Her fearless heroine had long, curly, dark hair and flashing black eyes. She was strong and smart and there was no bandit on earth who could keep Annabelle Rose tied up for long.

A small smile turned up the corners of Madeleine's mouth as she began to write. School, Miss Hathaway, her distant parents, and even New York City all vanished as she entered her secret world. Day after day she sat at her desk, writing stories and drawing pictures. Her heroines moved gracefully through their adventures, their two legs the same so they didn't limp. They conquered all obstacles and gathered loving friends and admirers around them. This was the real world. School and Miss Hathaway and the silent apartment were just shadows of an unpleasant dream.

The other author biographies are equal parts tragedy and triumph, and definitely worth the read.

Author Study Resources Online

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Five Great Sites for Making Poetry Happen

What's the connection between 18th century Japanese poetry, S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders, and rock band Linkin Park?

I recently blogged about Teachers' Domain at my Teaching that Sticks site. In observation of Poetry Month, teachers in grades 6 through 12 can take advantage of some excellent resources and teaching ideas utilizing the 37 online video excerpts from public television's Poetry Everywhere series.

In the following video segment, for example, former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass shares a translation of haiku by the 18th century Japanese poet, Kubayashi Issa. These "vivid, specific, and often funny perceptions of everyday experiences" provide students with concrete examples of how poetry can be both simple and entertaining. The Teachers' Domain site includes a background essay and content-aligned lesson plans

If you're seeking additional poetry resources for middle grades and above, here are a few I'd recommend:

Favorite Poem Project This site, subtitled "Americans Reading Poems They Love," is built upon the pretty cool idea of allowing average Americans to share their favorite poems. You'll need to visit the site to see how it came about, but I like the idea a lot since it can be implemented so easily in the classroom using the lesson plans and suggestions provided at the site.

One of my personal favorite poems is shared by this guy:

Poetry 180 Subtitled "A Poem a Day for American High Schools," this site shares 180 full-length poems and sharing suggestions, but it seems that you'll need to do the legwork to make them work in your classroom.

Elements of Literature This collection of free teaching materials provided by Holt, Rinehart and Winston includes a number of writing response ideas in printable pdf format. While the poems themselves do not appear on the resources, they're mostly in the public domain and freely available on the Internet or in printed collections. I would never suggest you break any laws.

Poet's Paradise In this "Collection of Helpful Resources" you'll find web sites of poets, poetry forms, poetry collections, poetic terms glossaries, and more.

Fooling with Words with Bill Moyers If you're counting, yes, this makes it six sites, not five. But I snuck this one in after posting since I like it so much. Lesson plans focus on understanding modern poets and how they "fool with words,"  in order to encourage students to do the same.

But Keith, what does have poetry have to do with teaching a novel?

A whole lot, but most importantly: poetry can introduce, reinforce, and extend a novel's theme.

When introducing The Outsiders recently, I wanted to engage my students in a discussion of affiliation, one of the many themes at the heart of that novel.

After discussing some overt ways that one might show affiliation with a particular group, we read aloud and discussed a poem together. Some of the lines from that poem included:
I was confused
And I let it all out to find
That I'm not the only person with these things in mind...

I wanna heal, I wanna feel
Like I'm close to something real
I wanna find something I've wanted all along
Somewhere I belong.
What did the poet discover when he finally let his thoughts out? (He wasn't the only one who was confused, or hollow, or alone). Was it really a somewhere, a place, that the poet sought? (No, he was looking for a group of people who would accept him).

By now one or two students realized that the "poem" was in fact a Linkin Park song titled Somewhere I Belong (lyrics here, and a million other places as well). We decided that if these guys were truly wrestling with their feelings of loneliness and confusion, they probably weren't working it out with a school guidance counselor. They were more likely jamming in their garage after school, finding affiliation with a bunch of other guys who also felt misunderstood and alone.

The cool thing is, the back cover of the novel used many of the same words as the song itself, and these same ideas were voiced by the novel's narrator, Ponyboy, in the very first chapter.

The official video appears below, and is safe for school, as are the song's lyrics.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

For Those Who Can't Wait: Hunger Games, The Movie

Fans of Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy are all abuzz with some recent announcements regarding casting the leading roles for the movie. Bu while we wait for the real thing, here's a pretty cool Hunger Games excerpt made by some die-hard fans.

Hollywood Reporter explains:

There's a bunch of guys at this Utah-based production company that are fans of Suzanne Collins’ humongously popular Hunger Games book series and took it upon themselves to create this short, mainly as a way to give some actors they know some attention.

This is not a bunch of kids (or certain adults) who take a camera into the backwoods. These guys, led by director John Lyde, have made a very impressive and, not to get all pansy on you, moving fan film.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Teach Your Students to FLIRT

While I'm not a fan of formulaic writing, I'd argue that many students benefit from easy-to-recall structures to assist them with the writing process. One of the simplest, yet most effective, Mnemonic devices I'd recommend is FLIRT.

FLIRT is an acronym which reminds students to create sentence variety:
  • First Word of each sentence is different.
  • Lengths of sentences vary.
  • Inversion is used for variety.
  • Repetition is either avoided, or used for a purpose.
  • Types of Sentences vary.
Check out the following excerpt from I See London, an opinion piece written by Tracey Lloyd for the NY Times Complaint Box Series (a treasure trove of persuasive writing pieces!). Note that the author skillfully employs all five of the above tips while expressing her disdain for the recent fad of wearing sagging pants (be sure to click on the link above to read it all):

Flint, Michigan has defined not only what's decent,
but also what's disorderly and downright indecent.
And you think high heels are impractical? Try walking in some low-slung slacks. You must adopt a waddle to keep the pants from dropping completely and must always keep a hand free to hike them up. Then there is the need to buy ever-longer shirts to cover your rear end — shirts that apparently don’t exist, since I can see your underpants!

Nor are sagging pants the only sartorial choice that makes me cringe. Take rompers, or shortalls. They offer the ease of a dress with the comfort of shorts, and I’m for convenience. But when adults start wearing clothes that I’ve been buying for people’s babies, something is wrong. As for wearing a very adult thong with a short skirt: Do you really want to sit your bare derrière on a subway seat? Granny panties may not be that sexy, but neither is a visit to the urologist.

Did Tracey Lloyd consult my checklist? No. She most likely is an experienced writer with an ear for good writing and a willingness to revise.

So to give my students a fighting chance, I emphasize FLIRT and provide them with plenty of excellent writing models (although perhaps not the one cited above!).

First Word of Each Sentence is Different

It's not uncommon for egocentric students to write about their own experiences with "I" leading every sentence. Students fixated upon a topic, such as snakes, may similarly begin every sentence with that word.

The Fix: Require students to read aloud or list the first word of every sentence. Teach ways to restate ideas by using synonyms, additional phrases or clauses, or inversion of existing words.
Before: The great horned owl hunts small animals that live on the forest floor. The great horned owl uses its talons to catch them. 
After: Strong, sharp talons allow the great horned owl to capture small animals that live on the forest floor.
Lengths of Sentences Vary

Sentences of the same length, appearing over and over, give writing a sing-song rhythm which is apt to lull the reader to sleep.

The Fix: Use coordinate conjunctions and subordinate clauses to combine short sentences.
Before: The park is used by many people in the community. Some people just don't clean up when they're done.
After: The park is used by many people in the community; however, some users neglect to clean up when they leave. Is that fair to everyone?
Inversion is Used for Variety

Beginning writers tend to place the sentence stem first, adding details later:
We heard a loud crash sometime after midnight.
Lenny waited in the outfield eagerly with his feet spread apart and his hands on his knees.
Susette had no interest in the suitors like her sisters.
The Fix: Phrases and clauses within sentences can be moved to increase sentence variety and interest.
Sometime after midnight, a loud crash knocked us from our beds.
Feet spread apart, hands on his knees, Lenny waited eagerly in the outfield.
Unlike her sisters, Susette had no interest in the suitors.
Repetition is Either Avoided, or Used for a Purpose

Students need to see examples of writing that avoids repetition, and writing that purposely employs it. For the most part, Tracey Llloyd's opinion piece avoided repetition. Not here how it's used for effect:
Unlike the homes of readers, the homes of these students had no literary materials in sight. No magazines. No books. No newspapers. Without exception, however, every one of these homes contained a television.
The Fix: Help students discern between repetition and redundancy.

Types of Sentences Vary

Check out Tracey Lloyd's first paragraph again, and note that she employs four sentence types; in the second paragraph, she employs three.

Another place to find excellent examples of variety in sentence types is advertising. In a legendary Charles Atlas bodybuilding ad, for example, we read:

Take a good honest look at yourself! Are you proud of your body - or are you just satisfied to go through life being just "half the man" you could be? No matter how ashamed you are of your present physical condition - or how old or young you are - the "sleeping" muscles already present in your body can turn you into a real HE-MAN. I know - because I was once a skinny, scrawny 97-pound half-alive weakling.

Was this ad copy successful in selling a product? Yes, to the tune of millions! Good writing sells products as well as ideas.

The Fix: Provide students with boring paragraphs containing only statements, and challenge them to rewrite those paragraphs using the four sentence types.

So is FLIRT complete? No. Word choice is noticeably absent. But for beginning writers, this is a fine list for self-checking writing at a very basic level.

Do you have a repertoire of similar acronyms or Mnemonic devices to help your students with writing or reading? We'd love to hear them!