Ella’s mother has been sick with cancer for many years. Now
doctors want to try a dangerous stem cell transplant as a last ditch effort to
save her life.While she
undergoes this treatment, Ella needs somewhere to stay.Her parents are divorced, and her
father has been absent for most of Ella’s life.Because he will be busy leading fishing expeditions, he
suggests that his daughter spend the summer with her grandmother, a woman Ella
has never met.Having no other
options, Ella and her dog fly to Albuquerque and encounter a very formidable
woman who lives in the desert without a television or the Internet.
Violet Von Stern has lived alone many years in her New
Mexico adobe with only the companionship of her dog and numerous peacocks.Her husband died long ago and her
relationship with her son, Ella’s father, is poor.Over the years, she has come to care more for her large
library of rare books than her own family.When Ella arrives, Violet does not know how to act.She spends more time correcting Ella’s
grammar and etiquette than helping her granddaughter cope the very real possibility that she may lose her mother. Ella refers to her
grandmother as the General Major and calls the residence the Good Grammar
Correctional Facility in the letters she writes to her mother.It appears that Ella is in store for a
miserable summer until a mystery arises. An incredibly valuable copy of Johannes
Kepler’s Somnium is stolen from
Violet’s library.There are plenty
of suspects, but Ella thinks she knows who is responsible; she just has to
prove it.As she investigates the
theft, Ella learns the tragic details of her Violet’s life, and she starts to
feel a bit of sympathy for her tough grandmother.
Juliet Bell’s debut novel is the kind of quiet story that is
appreciated more by adults than by children.Ella has a wonderful voice that is full of humor and
insight.In fact, all of the characters
in Kepler’s Dream are well developed, as are the themes of family, books, and
astronomy.Where the book falls short is in the mystery,
which is resolved without much interest.Though Kepler’s Dream will not
have mass appeal, fifth and sixth grade readers who enjoy novels like Walk Two Moons will appreciate this
Many of our teachers at DA are embracing blogging as a method of publishing student writing for an authentic audience. Our teachers have created Edublog accounts with the help of our Digital Learning Coordinator, Karl Schaefer. I have been so impressed with the very cool topics that students are writing about.
In 6th grade, Mrs. Donnelly's class is blogging about their grammar projects. Students selected a grammar rule to present to their class, and then wrote a blog entry to explain what they learned from creating the presentation. These projects are great mini-lessons that Mrs. Donnelly can refer back to all year.
In Mrs. Williams's 6th grade language arts class, students are reflecting about Durham Academy's new 1:1 iPad program. Students are writing about how they use the iPads, what they like, and what has been challenging for them. I love their honest reactions to the new program. One student wrote, "Instead of getting my papers ruined or ripped in a binder, they are safe
on the iPad. So far I think the iPads are really good learning tools." Another student had mixed feeling about the initiative, "iPad is a helpful tool however, I like to use paper and pencils better, some things are too good to change!"
In fifth grade language arts, students review the books they are reading like The Strange Case of Origami Yoda and Artemis Fowl. Finally, our French teacher has her students blog in French on various topics. I have to use Google Translate to figure out what they have written!
every three weeks language arts classes come to the library to hear booktalks and
check out books. For each booktalk, I present six books that I think are
excellent for the students' grade level. While this program has been very
successful and students report enjoying the booktalks, I felt I was
barely exposing students to the abundance of great literature we have in
our library. Today we tried a new reading encouragement program with the sixth
graders: speed booking. The program, which is based on the principles
of speed dating, is meant to introduce students to a wide array of books and get them excited
The set-up is so simple. I
pulled A LOT of books from our shelves that are appropriate for sixth
grade. I selected books that students might not notice,
particularly non-fiction, and tried to focus on high interest titles. I
placed about 20 books in a pile on six tables. Students in groups of four sat
down at each table. They had two minutes to select a book from their pile
and fill out a simple form. I used Online Stopwatch to countdown the time; when the two minute timer went off, students had to get up, move to the next table clockwise, and start again.
In just twelve minutes, every student had looked at over 100 books and given their opinions about six of them. They then had the opportunity to discuss what they saw on the tables with their peers and check out anything that looked interesting. The students really seemed to enjoy speed booking. They were extremely well-behaved during the whole process and very interested in the books. They loved having the opportunity to talk about what they saw with their friends after we were done. Though no one was required to take a book, of the 21 students who came during the first class, 18 checked out a book from the tables before leaving the library.
The students have a file in their English class where they keep lists of books they might want to read. They will place their speed reading forms there.
I will definitely continue using speed booking in addition to my regular booktalks. It is a fun, easy method for energizing students around books and reading. This program is very student-centered; my only involvement while they were here was to stop and start the stopwatch. The only downside is that I will have to shelve a lot of books after the program is over, but I can live with that.
To learn more about the major events of the 1920s, eighth graders came to the library to research a self-selected topic that they would then turn into a VoiceThread. Students could pick topics from a list we created, or they could find a subject on their own. I pulled books and articles from our Gale database to help with their research; we also provided students with a list of websites on the 1920s. While in the library, students filled out a note-taking template that would serve as the framework for their VoiceThread narrative. Many students used their iPad to research their topics. As they took notes and collected images for the project, students were required to cite all sources using MLA formatting.
After two days of compiling information, student went to the computer lab to create the VoiceThread. The initial setup of a VoiceThread is always a little difficult for students. Knowing where to click to add to slides is confusing, but once they get in the flow, it is easy to record the slide show. Our technology coordinator carefully walked them through the steps on their first day in the lab; students could also watch a video that would show them how to create a VoiceThread. Many students chose to use their time with the desktop computers to annotate their slides using Skitch, import the slides into VoiceThread, and finalize their bibliography. Several then used their iPads to record the voice portion at home or during study hall. Students could create the entire VoiceThread using the VoiceThread app on their iPad, but many commented that it is easier to use the desktop version or a combination of both.
We LOVE an occasion to decorate in library! A giant spider made out of paper, paper clips, and red glitter hangs over the entrance to welcome students to the library. Our little vampire stands inside the door.
Our bulletin board, decorated with items from the dollar store and headstones made out of Styrofoam, offers students scary books.
Orange lights on the circulation desk gives a festive feel.
Special thanks to the wonderful library assistant, Kathy McCord, for putting such care into our displays.
The Middle School Bookclub will meet on November 14 at lunch in the library to discuss Rebecca Stead's fantastic new novel Liar and Spy. Pizza will be served. Middle School Bookclub is open to all grade levels, but students must sign up in advance to attend.
There are lots of copies of the book in the library available for check
Set during the Lebanese Civil War of the 1980s, A Game for Swallows takes place one
evening in an East Beirut apartment building.Zeina and her little brother are waiting in the foyer of
their apartment for their parents to return from visiting their grandmother in
West Beirut.Bombings and sniper
fire intensify in their neighborhood, and their neighbors huddle with them in
what is the safest location of their building.As the neighbors arrive, Zeina tells how each came to live
in the building and how the war has impacted them.All seven neighbors hope that the bombings and gunfire will
end soon, but know they must come up with a contingency plan if it does
not.Some realize that they cannot
continue to survive in the middle of a war zone, but others are more fearful of
moving to a foreign place.As
hours pass, everyone worries about Zeina’s parents, and Chucri, the building’s
caretaker, debates whether or not to venture out in the fighting to find them.
Zeina Abirached’s graphic novel gives a glimpse of daily
life in the middle of a war zone.Though many of them have suffered greatly, the characters manage to stay
optimistic while realistically dealing with the challenges that surround them. The standout character is heroic yet
tired Chucri who risks his life to bring food, water, and
electricity to the residents of his building. Abirached shows the importance of
community as neighbors come together to comfort and support one another through
an incredibly difficult time.
Game for Swallows is bound to draw comparisons to Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, but it really should not.They are akin in their theme of survival
during political upheaval.Both
are set in the Middle East and told through the eyes of children.However, Abirached’s novel is very different
in its single day setting.You do
not see the impact this war has on Zeina and her brother.You get a snapshot of the
characters, their fears and tension, but there is very little of the character
development you see in Persepolis, which
spans over years. A Game for Swallows
is more plot-driven as the reader nervously waits with the neighbors to find
out if the children’s parents are alive. Abirached also differs in her highly
detailed, beautiful illustrations, which are much more expressive than those in
I am surprised that School Library Journal recommends this
graphic novel for grades 5 and up.Though there is no objectionable material in this work, I doubt many
fifth graders can empathize with the struggles of the adult characters.Abirached gives ample historical notes
and maps throughout the story, but the reader still needs some political and
social context to fully appreciate this work.For more older, more informed readers, A Game for Swallows gives a touching portrait of community during wartime.
In a modern retelling of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Francine Prose’s new novel The Turning transports readers to a
haunted island.Jack has been
hired by a wealthy man to babysit his niece and nephew, Miles and Flora, for
two months until school starts.The children, whose parents died when they were very young, are living
with are living in their family estate on an isolated island with the family
cook, Mrs. Gross.Despite the fact
that there is no Internet, television, or phone reception on the island, Jack
takes the job in hopes of earning money to go to the same college as his
novel is narrated in the letters Jack and Sophie send each other.
From the ferry ride to his new job, Jack receives ominous
warnings about his destination.An
elderly couple tells him that nearly a hundred years earlier, a young couple
from the island tried to run away and elope because the woman’s father did not
approve of the match; tragically, their boat capsized and they drown, leaving
the island with a haunted legacy.Jack finds this story spooky, but he is reassured about his decision to
come when he meets Mrs. Gross.She
is a warm, calm and attractive woman who convinces Jack that there is no merit
to the wild rumors about Crackstone's Landing. He
finds Miles and Flora to be very different from most children but well behaved
and friendly enough.As Jack
settles into life on the island though, he senses that something is not
right.He is troubled by the
strange stares that the children constantly give each other, the locked room in
the house, and the two strangers only he can see on the island. As he tries to
get to the bottom of these mysteries, he discovers that there is indeed
something evil at Crackstone's Landing.
If you had not read Henry James’s original story, you
probably would find The Turning to be
a spooky, enjoyable horror story. For those who are familiar with The Turn of the Screw, this
interpretation will be a disappointment.Prose never fully captures James’s creepiness and the ending falls
flat.The problem is in the
epistolary format, which does not allow the tension to build.The pacing feels too rushed; one minute
Jack is fine and in the next letter he is completely mad.Though there are plenty of scary
images, reader doesn’t have the opportunity to feel Jack’s fear and terror.
Despite the shortfalls, middle grade readers looking for
ghost story will enjoy The Turning.Recommend it to those you liked Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
or The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray.
In a departure from her verse novels, Karen Hesse’s new
dystopian book, Safekeeping,
envisions could happen if our government lost the respect and control of its
people.After the president is
assassinated, seventeen-year-old Radley immediately returns from volunteering
at an orphanage in Haiti to the United States.She is unable to contact her parents in Vermont before she leaves.When she lands in Connecticut, she
finds that the government, ruled by the American People’s Party, has instituted
martial law.Her parents are not
waiting for her at the airport, and she cannot cross state borders in a bus or
car without authorization.With no
one to call, Radley feels must walk from the airport in Manchester to her
Brattleboro home; however, when she arrives after days of walking on her own,
her parents are nowhere to be found.Radley fears they have been taken into custody because of their
opposition to the government, and she believes that the police will come for
her soon as well.Convinced that
her life is in danger if she remains in the United States, Radley takes off on
foot for the Canadian border.With
little money and no food, she must scavenge out of dumpsters to eat and sleep
in the woods at night.Along the
way she meets another girl, Celia, who is also traveling north with her
dog.The girls journey together
and slowly develop a friendship as they struggle to survive.
Karen Hesse is a very skilled writer, but I don’t think the
dystopian genre fits her well.Safekeeping is an interesting novel that offers a lot for young readers
to enjoy, but there are too many unanswered questions to fully embrace this
book.Why did the American
People’s Party come into power? Why was the president assassinated?Why is it so easy for Radley to fly
into the United States but so difficult for her to get a ride home?Given that Radley is very naïve, why
would her parents let her volunteer at a young age in a dangerous third world
country on her own? There is also a problem with all the photography in the
novel.Hesse includes her own
photographs, but they often distract more than add to the narrative.Finally, the ending feels abrupt and
have certain strengths though.This
book is a page-turner.You want to
find out what happened to Radley’s parents and if the girls will find safety.
Hesse develops the complicated friendship between Radley and Celia in a slow,
believable fashion so that you care about what happens to them. Finally, unlike
most dystopian novels, there is very little violence or profanity.
Safekeeping is a
good novel, but it will not be remembered as one of Hesse’s great works.I applaud her attempts at a new genre,
but I hope that she will return to the historical verse novels that she does so
In Invincible Microbe,
Jim Murphy and his wife Alison Blank chronicle the history of one of the
greatest killers in world history: tuberculosis. They trace TB back to microorganisms in African soil and water 3 million years
ago and follow it to the frightening drug-resistant strains of the disease that
threaten us today.Along the way,
they explain how TB attacks the body, how it is spread, and the bizarre
attempts throughout history of treating the disease. Murphy and Blank make excellent use photographs and
first-hand accounts to enrich the narrative. Readers obtain a complete picture
of how tuberculosis has impacted society and what having the disease is like
for the individual.
Jim Murphy is a seasoned non-fiction writer.In his books American Plague, Truce, Blizzard and The Real Benedict Arnold he has shown that he can both inform and
engage young readers.Invincible Microbe continues the
trend.He and Alison Blank have
crafted a fascinating tale that sustains younger readers’ interest.They provide just enough information to
thoroughly educate the reader without becoming to dull.This book would work very well for
classrooms looking for STEM titles. Students will enjoy discussing the various
attempts to cure tuberculosis, and they can debate what needs to be done to
combat the disease today.
Our middle school bookclub had its first meeting of the year today to discuss R.J. Palacio's novel Wonder. I selected this title over the summer after reading an advance copy from Netgalley. The book has a compelling main character and lots of material for discussion. In Wonder, Auggie Pullman just wants to be considered a normal kid, but he was born with a genetic defect that caused him to have severe facial deformities. In trying to protect Auggie, his parents have home-schooled him, but they realize that they cannot shelter their son forever. The book begins with Auggie enrolling in a school for the first time in 5th grade. Told from numerous perspectives, Wonder follows Auggie's ups and downs as he tries to get others to see him as he sees himself: just an ordinary guy. The lively discussion group consisted of twelve girls and two boys in grades five and six. I moderated the conversation along with one eighth grade student. Though some teachers wanted to join our group, I wanted to invite just students for the initial meeting to allow everyone to feel comfortable speaking in a group. Students had to sign up in advance, and I provided pizza. The overall consensus was that Wonder is a great book. We had a lot to discuss, and everyone had opinions. Students loved Auggie, and many stated they are better equipped to approach people with physical differences now that they have read this story. Wonder is an excellent novel for teaching acceptance and works well as a bookclub selection.
Here are our discussion questions:
did you decide to read this book?
2.Did you have a picture of Auggie’s face in
your mind while reading the book? Have you ever encountered a person with
facial deformities?If so, how did
you react?Would you behave
differently now that you have read Auggie’s story.
3.Did you find Auggie an
interesting character?What did
you like or dislike about his personality.
4. Do you think Auggie handled his bullying
well?Do you think he should have
behaved differently?Do you think
Summer should have stood up more for Auggie?
5. Many reviewers have criticized Daisy’s death.Was it necessary for
Auggie’s dog to die? Did the death add to the story?
6.How did you react the use of letters, emails,
Facebook posts and text in the story?
7.The story is told through many different
perspectives.Is there a
particular perspective that you liked or one that you did not like?
8.Is Mrs Albans’ attitude towards Auggie
different from the way that children treat him? Do you think there should have been a chapter from Mrs
Albans’ or Julian’s perspective? Do
you think she is correct in saying that asking ‘ordinary’ children, such as
Julian, to befriend Auggie places a burden on them?
9. What did you think about the use of precepts in the
novel.Was there one that you
really liked? Do you have any precepts of your own?
10.Many people believe this novel is a
frontrunner for the Newbery medal.Do you think it deserves to win?
Our November bookclub title will be Rebecca Stead's Liar and Spy.
In honor of Banned Books Week, Ireread Stephen Chbosky’s cult classic The Perks of Being a Wallflower to see how it has stood up over
time.In this short, epistolary
novel, Charlie is a socially awkward teenager, fearful of entering high
school.His only friend has
recently committed suicide, and Charlie feels his family does not really
understand him.He becomes friends
with Sam and her stepbrother Patrick, a pair of seniors who take Charlie under
their wing and introduce him to all that is ugly and beautiful in high
journey also includes a young teacher who supplies him with great literature to
read and write about outside of class. As Charlie watches the world spinning
around him, he struggles with his ability to “participate.”His lingering depression coupled with a fear of upsetting
others make it difficult for Charlie to figure out who he is and what he wants
in life, but literature and friendship help him grow in small, believable ways.
My feelings for this novel have changed little over the
years, though I have developed a greater appreciation for Chbosky.I was in college when Perks came out.While I thought the writing was a
little too simplistic, I felt that I understood Charlie. I now realize how adept
Chbosky is in his character development. Charlie’s letters sound completely
authentic, even today. He never came across to me as autistic, as some have
characterized him, just really bright, observant, and kind. His lack of
friends, somewhat cold parents, and self-absorbed siblings explain his
nativity. He loved his aunt, and when she died, he was left emotionally stunted.I did not think Chbosky went
overboard with the teen issues.A
lot happens in this novel (suicide, physical abuse, homosexuality, drug abuse),
but Charlie is just observing the world around him.He has sought out the most interesting people in his school,
and he is better than most of us at paying attention to what is really
happening. The overall message is fairly simple: be yourself and don’t be afraid
to tell others how you feel.
This novel is not life changing for me, but I do think it’s
insightful and interesting. For the past 10 years, it has been among the top 10
most challenged/banned books in the United States, and my rereading has
convinced me Perks is worth a good
censorship fight. The issues presented are handled realistically without judgment.I look forward to seeing the film