Same Sun Here – fiction that helps us understand the world

This spring my fourth graders learned a little bit about energy sources used in the United States and started to think about the consequences, both positive and negative, of each. I was dissatisfied with the unit, feeling like the kids were not able to connect well enough with the information to gain a good understanding of those consequences.

IMG_0132My mistake in the unit was to neglect fiction. I wish I had read Same Sun Here by Silas House and Neela Vaswani before teaching that unit, but at least I’ll be ready next year.

Fiction introduces us to new friends and can help us to gain empathy and understanding in a way that nonfiction might not. (Though a good narrative nonfiction would do the same.) After reading The Tales of Despereaux as a class, the kids seemed to understand well why the little mouse who set up household in our classroom acted the way it did. Our Despereaux also stayed to the edges, ran when people approached, but crept out seemingly to better hear the stories during read aloud. Because of the valiant Despereaux of the story, they did not want to harm this little mouse but rather to find it a better place to live.

River’s experience with the coal industry in Same Sun Here might help kids better understand the consequences of this particular energy source. On the one hand, River’s family, like most of the families in his Kentucky home, depended on the coal industry for income. We see the disruption to family life when the coal jobs moved away and his dad had to go away to find work. The coal industry means jobs, means funded schools, means that people can afford to stay in their homes. Later, when mountaintop removal begins, the consequences become dire. The stream is polluted and can no longer be fished and then a rock slide puts kids in danger.

Stories like this can help kids see the consequences of such usually invisible decisions like where our electricity comes from.

Even without the connection to our energy unit, this book is a good read. It shows us long-distance friendship between two kids who on the surface are completely different. It reminds us that people are the same: we love our grandmothers, we want to fit in without losing ourselves, we want our families to be together, we want to know there is something we can do to fight injustice, we make mistakes, and we need a friend who lets us be our true selves.

Meena’s story reveals the struggles of many immigrant families to find their place in the United States, through the bureaucratic hoops and the economic realities. Her description of life in New York City would sound familiar  to many of my students who also have had to lie or hide to keep their family safely housed, who have seen family and friends move away because they could not afford to stay, who find joy in a trusted community despite the difficulties.

And, in their friendship, River and Meena teach us that stereotypes and prejudices only serve to keep us apart when a good friend could found instead.

Same Sun Here is told through the letters these pen pals exchange. We get to eavesdrop on their friendship and see how it grows and this format helps readers connect to the characters. We see how they each draw strength from the relationship, we see their kindness for a person they never met face to face, and we learn something about how to find common ground.

Read the book. Read it out loud with your elementary school students. Read it with a small book club, as part of an energy unit, as part of an immigration unit, or to launch a pen pal writing project. Or just read it because it is a good story, well told by kids who are a lot like ours.

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Marty Pants

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I spent my last week of school sneaking in time between paperwork deadlines and cleaning chores to read the first in Mark Parisi’s Marty Pants books, Marty Pants: Do Not Open. The book was recommended to me by one of my fourth graders who read it after talking to one of her third grade friends about it who actually got to meet Parisi during a school visit. (Parisi’s sister-in-law is a third grade teacher at my school.) Marty certainly helped make light of a stressfully busy week.

Marty Pants is one of those boys who seems completely oblivious to the world around him, functioning in a universe of his own making. It’s great to hear the story told by Marty himself but hilariously unbelievable to think that any boy – real or fictional – could survive long with his particular way of seeing the world. And yet, I think I’ve had a Marty in my class every year I’ve taught. Throughout the story he misinterprets just about everything that he sees and hears and gets into some trouble with grownups on a daily basis.

Though not a graphic novel, Parisi illustrates every page and parts of the story rely on those pictures. One of the rising 4th graders that I met on Move Up Day asked if I would let him draw his comic strips and we had a short discussion about the many ways to show learning and tell stories, including comics. I can’t help but think Marty Pants was a big inspiration to him.

You can tell by the dinged corners and grimy cover of the edition that I borrowed that lots of kids have already enjoyed this book. You will too. It’s a quick, easy read, especially if you don’t have cumulative folders to organize and report cards to finish.

who gets the hat?

IMG_0108Jon Klassen’s We Found a Hat is his least dark addition to the hat series. I fell in love with Klassen with This is Not My Hat and I have not met a kid who didn’t agree with me that it was one of the best picture books around. They love that the thief gets it in the end, though they always hope they will get away with their own transgressions. How will the kids react to We Found a Hat? The friends in the story ultimately put their friendship over a hat that only one could have. It’s a love story, it’s a story about characters acting the way society wants them to act. Klassen’s other stories don’t follow the traditional kindness model we often see in picture books. And I think that’s why we love it.

We Found a Hat is pleasant. I still love the way Klassen tells a story, relying on his sparse  illustrations and short sentences, requiring his readers to pay attention to the connection between the two. But, I found myself wishing that one turtle ended the story wearing the hat.

Books to make teachers cry

I have to give a big shout out to the guy at Phoenix Books in Burlington, VT who told me about the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Award and pointed to the little note cards on the book shelves indicating this year’s nominees. That’s how I found the book Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson.

Let me preface this by saying I am having one of the worst teaching years of my career. No, I mean it, the worst. Just to give you an idea, last week my principal said to me “Well, at least we got through 163 days without anyone setting anything on fire.” Yeah, we had to restart that clock on day 164.

img_0082.jpgAnyway, this book revolves around the relationship 3 boys have with their 6th grade teacher, one of “The Good Ones.” And this year, I feel like I may never reach that coveted title and become one of the Good Ones myself, so I wasn’t sure I wanted to read the book. But, the cover art showing the three boys peaking through a little window, and the burning need to figure out what happened to Ms. Bixby and why this was her last day, along with the high praise by Vermont’s librarians pushed me to buy the book.

Now that I’ve wiped away the tears, I can tell you that I’m glad I bought it.

This book is an adventure story that tells what happens when three 6th graders skip school to go see their teacher in the hospital. Each chapter is told by one of the boys, so we slowly get their back story and find out why Ms. Bixby is important enough for them to spend their allowance and risk getting in trouble. There are times we think they won’t make it, like when Steve has to face the shark in the toilet at the bookstore or when George Nelson double crosses them and runs off with their money (you are going to have to read it yourself) but you kind of know all along that they will make it, it just won’t be quite what they expect.

I see several of my students in these boys. They come to school and I have only the most basic understanding of what they live with. They bring their anger and sadness and neediness with them and make themselves hard to love. But like Ms. Bixby, like just about every teacher I know, I do love them.

Teachers should read this book. Parents should read this book. And middle school kids should read this book, because John David Anderson captured our love and dysfunction in this story and we should always take time out to look at our lives.

What would you do with your last day?

Kneeknock Rise

It seemed right to pick up a Newbury Honor winner for my next Book A Day Challenge. I’ve read Tuck Everlasting but I don’t think I’ve read anything else from Natalie Babbitt. Knee knock Rise is a short book, which will make it appealing to a few readers in my class, and a bit of a mystery, which will appeal to a few others.

The Megrimum has been a part of Instep for as long as anyone can remember, a moaning spirit that is delightfully spooky and keeps everyone on their toes in town. The feared monster is the highlight of the annual Fair where folks hope for the bad weather that will wake the beast and send him moaning down to terrorize townsfolk and visitors alike.

Teased by his cousin, Egan decides to climb Kneeknock Rise (a delightfully descriptive name) and defeat the Megrimum once and for all. The results of his adventure are not quite what he expected, nor what I expected, which makes it a good read.

At a level S, and only 118 pages, this is an easy sell to even a reluctant fourth grade reader.

All of the Above

My second read for the Book A Day Challenge, which, yes, took me more than a day to read, is All of the Above by Shelly Pearsall. I picked up the book because of its Math theme. Though fiction, the book is based on the quest of a Cleveland middle school to break the world record for constructing a tetrahedron. A misfit group of middle schoolers, led by what on the surface (and that’s all we get in the book, is the surface) seems like an uninspiring Math teacher, decides to start an after school club to break the record.

The team succeeds, though that there was a book written about it makes it pretty much a forgone conclusion that they would, but they do face some obstacles along the way. Each chapter is told by a different character, including parents and other grown-ups drawn into the project. That’s the part I like most – different perspectives were given without repeating the same scenes from different views. Every character is flawed, another plus, without being pitiful or caricatured.

The book is level U which makes it a reasonable independent read for half of my class at the end of fourth grade. The urban setting, the struggles of living in various levels of poverty, and the picture of school as a sometimes boring place that kids long to escape all make the book relevant to my students. The short chapters will appeal to some, and the sketches by one of the characters will attract others. This is a good example of realistic fiction for classes that don’t want to add yet another Holocaust book to their selections.

Starting Book A Day with Magic

IMG_0018I am drawn to titles that include a reference to magic and even more to book jackets featuring a dragon, so Susan Cooper’s The Magician’s Boy seemed the perfect way to start out the Book A Day Challenge. Granted, that it is a particularly short book weighed in as well, since my last day of school is still a month away and I have miles to grade before I read.

The Magician’s Boy also features another literary device that I usually enjoy. Cooper takes familiar stories and characters and places them in a slightly new context. The Boy, nameless through most of the story, is apprenticed to a magician who will not teach him magic. But he is given the responsibility of the puppet theater, telling the story of Saint George and the Dragon.

Margaret Hodges’ version of the story was a favorite of my daughters. We often included it in our “book festivals” until the pages started falling from the binding. But I did think it odd to include this as the central story for this jump into Story Land since it didn’t seem like a well-known tale in our day. Cooper summarizes just enough so her readers know what’s going on.

When the Saint George puppet goes missing from the boy’s performance case, the magician sends him into the story to look for him. That’s when things get weird for me. The boy meets the Old Woman who lives int he shoe, and her too many children; the Pied Piper who tries to lead the children away; Jack and his Giant; and even Little Red Riding Hood. The stories didn’t seem to go together for me, though I suppose once upon a time, children would have been familiar with all of them.

I wonder if my students are? I don’t think most would have ever heard of the Pied Piper though they likely read Little Red in school. Teaching 4th grade, I haven’t been reading the old fairy tales they way I did with my 2nd graders. My students, mostly born in the United States of immigrant parents, have not had the same exposure to tales as I once had. My childhood was not filled with books outside of school, as theirs is not, but somehow we seemed to base more of our popular media on traditional tales than happens now. It was as if we know Little Red Riding Hood as a neighbor, never having been formally introduced, she was just always there.

So, how will my students take The Magician’s Boy, or any of the many books based on fairy tale characters? Should I take the time to survey the class about their familiarity with traditional literature at the start of the year?

There is so much material to cover in 4th grade. But, it wouldn’t take long to read a fairy tale now and then. It would make a few books make a bit more sense.

Check out Miller’s 8th Annual Book A Day Challenge here.