Summer Reading

One very exciting thing about teaching 5th grade Language Arts is getting to dive deeper into books with kids. I’m kind of obsessed with reading. For “currently reading,” my goodreads.com account has 8 books, at all times. If I finish one, it will be quickly replaced by another. I have books for every occasion. I must have a book on my kindle app on my phone for reading before bed or avoiding awkward social situations (waiting rooms, lines at the DMV). I have another on Overdrive to listen to in the car or while doing dishes. I have another one that I’m reading aloud to my husband. I usually have 2-3 going on subjects involving spiritual nourishment or self-reflection. And there are still probably a few I’m forgetting. Anyway, the point is that I read a lot. So my new 5th graders better get ready!

 

One thing I did this summer that made me feel like I was being productive and “working,” while still having fun, was read books that I thought might be good for my new class. So, I’m going to use this blog to share my thoughts and recommendations from those books with my readers.

Books that Made Me Laugh

  1. Rainbow Valley (Anne of Green Gables #7) by L.M. Montgomery

**** (4 out of 5 stars)

~audiobook~

I am a big fan of Anne of Green Gables and have read the first book in the series multiple times, but this was my first time to read Rainbow Valley. It doesn’t feature Anne very much, and when it does, she seems to share the role of an audience member with the reader. Mostly, it focuses on her children and another group of children in the village where they live. I didn’t think I would be that interested in it, but I found the various characters to be really charming and humorous. The sincerity and earnestness of the children makes you cry both from heartache and laughter.

  1. Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo

****(4 out of 5 stars)

I am a big fan of Kate DiCamillo and would recommend any of her books. I sobbed through the last chapter of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. Flora & Ulysses was a fun and quirky book, though. It is almost written in the style of a graphic novel with carton panels featured on most of the pages. The chapters are short but poignant. The reader is carried along effortlessly on this adventure of a young girl, who rescues a squirrel and becomes convinced he is fated to become a superhero. I love all the characters she meets along the way, who are all working through their own personal griefs and journeys but find themselves connected to each other. Many great lessons to be learned, but in a lighthearted way.

  1. Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

*****(5 out of 5 stars)

I was afraid I’d have to put this book in the “makes me cry” category, that it would be too heavy and sad. And there are certainly some heavy themes. The main character is a young African-American boy, orphaned through the death of his mother and unaware of the whereabouts of his father. The time period is the Great Depression (and I read The Grapes of Wrath, so I know where that could go). This book was a pure joy to read, though. While dealing delicately with some important and difficult themes and historical events, it focused more on the characters and gave each of them a heart and soul. The main character, Bud, reminded me of a Tom Sawyer or Maniac Magee. I laughed at all of “Bud Caldwell’s Rules and Things to Have a Funner Life and Make a Better Liar Out of Yourself “ and his innocent reactions and misunderstandings of the adults around him. This may have been my favorite book of the summer.

Books with Heart (aka “books that may make you cry”)

  1. Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech

****½ (4 ½ out of 5 stars)

~audiobook~

One fabulous discovery to come out of this summer was Sharon Creech. I knew nothing of her books until I read this one (and another called Bloomability), and now I’ll probably become one of those people who says things like “You don’t know about Sharon Creech’s books? You haven’t read her? Are you sure you have a soul?” (Some people might accuse me of already being like this with another author’s works…last name rhymes with “bowling”). The first thing I loved about this book was the different accents the reader used for all the characters. She used a lot of great southern drawls, and one thing I look for in a good book is the opportunities it affords me to read-aloud in different accents. Already sold there! The story is also such a great mix of humor and sadness. Salamanca goes back and forth between the story of her friend Phoebe Winterbottom (and gives up trying to correct her grandparents’ pronunciation of “Peebee”) and her journey to see her mother in a way that will have you laughing one minute and crying the next. A beautifully told story.

  1. The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

**** (4 out of 5 stars)

I really enjoyed this book stylistically. The chapters are like small vignettes that are weaved together as the story unfolds.  It’s about animals living in a mall as part of a local circus, and it focuses the story on the gorilla, Ivan. I did feel like this story had an agenda, which I don’t always appreciate, but it was done in a well-rounded and honest way. So, you were left feeling sorry for the animals but also sorry for the hurt people who kept them in cages. It’s a good illustration of “seek first to understand and then to be understood.” And interestingly, it’s all based on a true story.

Books I Just Don’t Get (aka “life is too short”)

  1. The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians #1) by Rick Riordan

** (2 out of 5 stars, if I’m feeling generous)

~audiobook~ But I honestly couldn’t finish it.

If this is your favorite book…if you found it to be riveting and adventurous and compelling (as I’m sure many of my students did), please skip this review and feel free to hold on to your own opinions. My intention is not to spoil anyone’s fun. As for myself, however, if I had read this book in paperback form and not listened to it through an app on my phone, I would have been tempted to throw it across the room. I just couldn’t believe how unoriginal and poorly executed it was. Just a brief synopsis: Percy Jackson goes to a boarding school and starts noticing weird things keep happening. He finds out later that he is “special” and is sent to a special camp for “half-bloods,” where campers are separated into “bunks” and compete in various games. The winners of these games get to decorate the camp with their banners. His best friends at this camp are a know-it-all girl and a bumbling boy. REALLY!?! This doesn’t sound maybe a little bit familiar? Okay, let me paint a picture. Let’s change “Camp Halfblood” into a school for people with special abilities. And just for the sake of argument, instead of calling them “half-bloods,” we’ll call them…I don’t know…wizards. But if they’re not at camp, then we can’t really call their divisions “bunks.” So, we’ll call them “houses.” And now let’s name some of these aforementioned characters and places. We’ll call the know-it-all girl “Hermione,” and while we’re at it, we might as well call the bumbling boy “Ron” and the school “Hogwarts.” If you haven’t followed any of that, then please follow my earlier advice and skip this review. On top of all the similarities between this book and one of my very favorites, I just didn’t think the book was very well written. It was told in the first person past tense, which is an awkward way to tell an adventure, when the main character is still discovering things about themselves and their story but also telling it as if they’ve already come through it. All in all, I can’t recommend it.

  1. 11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass

* (1 out of 5 stars)

~audiobook~

In this story, the main character relives her 11th birthday 11 times. It’s like “Groundhog Day” but not funny. That was one of the frustrating things about this book. The characters would start laughing when nothing funny had happened. It’s like the author expects the reader to just go along with it. Like she said, “You’ll just have to take my word for it. It was pretty funny.” Sorry. Didn’t work for me. I also cannot tell you how frustrating it was to read in excruciating detail about the character’s day, and then read about her making the same obvious mistakes over and over again. I really wish the book had been called “3 birthdays.” I think if most people were living the character’s life, it could have been resolved in that time.

Honorable Mentions (aka “books I don’t have time to review”)

  1. Odd & the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman

**** (4 out of 5 stars)

~audiobook~

A great alternative to Percy Jackson, involving Norse mythology!

  1. Bloomability by Sharon Creech

**** (4 out of 5 stars)

~audiobook~

This made me nostalgic for my time of studying abroad.

  1. The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

**** (4 out of 5 stars)

Such a magical & poetic story!

  1. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

*** (3 out of 5 stars)

Interesting but also kind of dark for a children’s book. I didn’t find it compelling enough to really want to read the next book in the series, but we’ll see.

  1. Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

***** (5 out of 5 stars)

~audiobook~ (A wonderful reading performance by John Ritter)

I am in love with this book!

  1. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

*** ½ (3 ½ out of 5 stars)

~audiobook~

Such an original plot and maturely told story.

I am very excited to introduce and recommend these books to my new class and learn about the books they are already passionate about. Who knows? Maybe someone will be able to convince me to give Percy Jackson another try.

The Leader in Me

I attended a 3-day training this week on “The Leader in Me,” presented by the FranklinCovey group and based on Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” I’d heard of the 7 habits before but always thought they were 1) some kind of gimmick &  2) only really applied to people in the corporate world. Last year, when the 5th grade team at my school presented how they wanted to use the 7 habits to raise our school’s 5th graders into leaders, I started paying a little more attention. Now that I’m a part of that team, I was interested in becoming more familiar with the philosophy of the 7 habits and am excited about the potential I see for these habits to improve my personal and professional life, as well as the lives of my students.

During this training, we had a few opportunities to do some reflecting and thinking about our lives as elementary students. Thinking back to myself at that age, I remember being a shy and insecure kid. I didn’t feel very empowered to change many things about myself. I had a scarcity mentality when it came to things like friends (“Everyone already has a friend, so there’s no one left for me” or “This person likes me, so I have to hang onto them and not let anyone else take them from me”). I didn’t know myself well enough to know what I was good at or what I really liked to do, so I focused mostly on my faults and how I didn’t fit in. Going to this training made me wonder about how my experiences might have been different, if the 7 habits had been part of my learning in elementary school.

 

Vision. The starting place for making any change or shift in your operation is developing a vision for what you want to see. If I could go back and change my experiences in elementary school, I would want to instill confidence, empowerment, social skills, and an abundance mentality in myself. I would like to see the same happen for my 5th grade students this year. So, how could I see the 7 habits affecting my students?

 

 

Let’s take a look…

Habit #1: Be proactive (the habit of personal responsibility)

This is so important for students. It is my job to teach, but it is their job to learn. If they are unwilling or disengaged, it is so hard for the learning to happen. Being proactive means that students will be engaged in learning, asking questions to better understand, and taking responsibility for the attitudes they bring into the classroom. FranklinCovey calls this “carrying your own weather.” I know it’s difficult to not let circumstances dictate our happiness, but there are changes we can make in our mindset to impact how we feel and respond to life. Which student is more likely to be successful? A student who embraces the attitude that he/she can grow to meet a challenge OR a student who thinks ______(insert subject area) is just too hard. Being proactive gives students some choice and control to make their lives better.

Habit #2: Begin with the End in Mind (the habit of personal vision)

I picture a student being able to use this habit to develop goals. These might even be short-term goals, like “My goal is to write 3 pages a week in my Writer’s Notebook” or “My goal is learn 5 new words a month and incorporate them into my writing on a daily basis.” Teachers use goals to track student progress all the time, but if we truly want students to be proactive and own their own learning, don’t they need to know what they’re working towards?

Habit #3: Put First Things First (the habit of personal management)

I can certainly relate to this habit. I always feel like I have a million things to do and not enough time, so I really appreciate the strategies we learned about scheduling and classifying activities based on “importance” and “urgency.” It’s all about taking care of the “big rocks” first or prioritizing. But what can a 5th grader do with this? Well, I see it affecting their choices. Maybe it’s a matter of choosing to finish eating lunch before chatting with friends. Or maybe they will finish homework before watching TV. In the classroom, it could be about being prepared for class with all materials and keeping themselves organized. Students can practice prioritizing the responsibilities they have now so that they will be able to handle more in the future. This habit is also about developing awareness of what the important things really are and what their greater impact will be. That’s a pretty mature concept to develop, and I’d love to help my 5th graders get there.

Habit #4: Think Win-Win (the habit of mutual benefit)

This is a great habit for students to have. Spending time in an elementary classroom means being around lots of people all the time, and sometimes conflict can arise. I am excited by the idea of students being able to resolve conflict themselves using a “win-win” mentality. One of the practices for this is balancing courage with consideration. What a great understanding for students to attain! Learning how to consider others’ feelings but not let other people walk all over you is a strong skill for leadership. It takes time and effort to understand another’s point-of-view and express your own, but finding win-win solutions creates a supportive climate for learning and living well. 

Habit #5: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood (the habit of empathic communication)

I am not very good at this one. It is so hard for me to listen well to someone and not jump in and give advice or try to solve their problems. Empathic listening means reflecting back to the other person what you hear or understand they are saying. It builds trust and understanding. It opens communication, because it removes judgment and personal agenda. Students who can practice this habit will have less misunderstandings and arguments. They will work together better and not make as many assumptions about others. 

Habit #6: Synergize (the habit of creative cooperation)

Kids often do not naturally know how to work together. Taking turns, listening, sharing responsibilities, and producing something together can lead to crying, yelling, pouting, withdrawing, and all manner of lovely behaviors. And that’s just as true with adults. Synergizing isn’t about compromising (where no one really gets what they want, so everyone is equally unhappy). Synergy is using the strengths and ideas of everyone in the group to come up with something even better. Students who can use synergy are able to recognize the gifts of their peers and encourage them to use those gifts to benefit the group. Students feel recognized by peers for their gifts and gain confidence. Synergy = engagement in learning.

Habit #7: Sharpen the Saw (the habit of daily self-renewal)

This is my favorite habit for myself. I think self-care is so important, especially being a teacher who is responsible for young people every day. Sharpening the saw means taking care of my body, heart, mind, and spirit. Students already have some of this built into their schedules at school. PE works on exercising the body. Learning hobbies and playing brain games can exercise the mind. Using lunch and recess time to invest in good uplifting friendships is a renewal for the heart. And engaging in activities where they serve others or work on developing values help them to renew their spirit.

Can you imagine what a classroom full of students practicing the 7 habits would look like? I’m blown away by the possibilities of the 7 habits in my own life! I can’t even imagine what the positive impacts would have been for me had I learned them in elementary school. I’m excited to see how learning these habits will impact my classroom this year. I’m a little nervous about my own ability to practice, model, and teach them, but I’m hopeful that they will challenge me to be a better person and a better teacher and that my classroom will be a happier place for it.

“At it’s highest level, the purpose of teaching is not to teach—it is to inspire the desire for learning. Once a student’s mind is set on fire, it will find a way to provide its own fuel.” ― Sydney J. Harris

My 5th grade teacher was really pretty amazing. I don’t think I really appreciated it at the time, but looking back on that year, she definitely went above and beyond to make learning come alive for us. I didn’t exactly make it easy for her either. I arrived to the class a few days after the school year had started as “the new kid.” My family had just moved back to Texas from Connecticut, and though I had technically only been a Yankee for 2 years, I had adopted an attitude about it. I spent the first few weeks of school trying to show my teacher and everyone else in the class that I was smarter than them or had already learned everything we were learning (neither of these things were actually true). Every teacher’s dream, right?

Iguanas from Flickr via Wylio

© 2005 zOz, Flickr | CC-BY-SA  | via Wylio

Eventually, I got past this stage and became another willing participant in the classroom. This class was different than any I had ever been in. My teacher taught us all the subjects, but you could tell that science was her favorite. She had 2 pet iguanas that she kept in a glass aquarium against a wall. They were called Elvis & Anaugi (iguana spelled backwards). She let us hold, pet, and feed them and warned us about pulling on their tails, while also teaching us about reptiles. She showed us how one of her iguanas had a brown tail, because it was growing back from falling off, a defense that some lizards have to help escape from predators (in this lizard’s case, the predator was a careless 5th grade student from the year before). She also explained that the iguanas needed a heat lamp, because they are cold-blooded animals.

Clownfisch/ Anemonenfisch (cc) from Flickr via Wylio

© 2007 Martin Fisch, Flickr | CC-BY-SA  | via Wylio

The classroom also had a saltwater aquarium with clownfish and sea anemones, because our teacher wanted us to be able to witness a symbiotic relationship (way before “Finding Nemo”). Do you have any idea how hard a saltwater aquarium is to maintain? As a 2nd grade teacher, I struggled to keep the tiny guppy-like fish we used for one of our science units, alive in a freshwater tank for more than a few days. But my 5th grade teacher was very into marine biology and had us doing all kinds of neat experiments and research related to ocean life. I was convinced for most of that year that I wanted to grow up to be a marine biologist. I credit her and “Free Willy.”

One of the most significant things she taught us about in 5th grade was this new thing she called “email.” She tried to explain how exciting and important it was and how we could use it to communicate with people all over the world. She wrote a long line of words and letters on the board that had no spaces and included a weird looking “a” with a circle around it and told us to copy it down. I figured I was just having trouble reading her handwriting and that surely she hadn’t meant to write the “a” that way. She arranged for us to write emails to a friend of hers, who was traveling in Australia. She collected our notes and questions and compiled them into emails to send from us. Now my experience with computers at my previous schools was playing games like “Oregon Trail” and “Math Number Crunchers,” so I didn’t really understand what she was doing. But within a day of sending our letters emails, we had received one back from her friend. Our teacher shared the email with us, reading aloud to us his descriptions of his travels around Australia and all the strange animals he had come across.

Looking back, I am very impressed with the way my 5th grade teacher incorporated new technology and hands-on experiences into our classroom. I’m sure she had to do a lot of extra work to make that happen, when she could have much more easily assigned us pages to read in a textbook.

I appreciate my 5th grade teacher more now, because I am about to enter my first year of teaching 5th grade. I hope I can create as stimulating and engaging an environment for my own students. I hope they can enter into the subjects I’m teaching, with as much curiosity and enthusiasm as my teacher was able to instill in us. And I hope they understand the technology I introduce a little better than I did when I was their age. 😉