Middle School Teacher in Rural Alaska

The Dark Frigate

“Ok, if I read 10 pages then I can go run on the treadmill,” I said to myself.

Normally, it’s the other way around: reading is the thing I look forward to and running is the the thing I must force myself to do. But while reading the Dark Frigate, I looked for any escape from reading.

“What’s that honey, you want me to do the dishes? Sure! No problem!”

Reading The Dark Frigate was an incredibly frustrating experience for me. I found the dialect and dialogue hard to follow. I didn’t ever make a connection with the main character. I found the plot tedious and slow. To get through this book I had to break it into small chunks and reward myself at the end of each section.

It was an interesting process for me as a reader to be faced with this book that I dreaded reading. Usually reading is my escape from the worries of life and is something that makes me incredibly happy. In contrast, during the few days I was reading The Dark Frigate I found myself to be a bit cranky!

Luckily, a copy of Graceling arrived in my mailbox when I was about a third of the way through The Dark Frigate. I made a deal with myself, “Get through The Dark Frigate and then I can read Graceling and Fire before attempting the next Newbery book or any other required readings for my grad. school course.” That deal provided a good incentive to hurry up and finish the book. Happily, I finished The Dark Frigate and my mood was quickly lifted by reading Fire and Graceling.

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The Voyages of Dr. Doolittle

After reading the 1922 Newberry Award winner Story of Mankind it was a nice to launch into the imaginative The Voyages of Dr. Doolittle by Hugh Lofting.

The reason this book is so good is that its basic premise plays on a profound human desire: the desire to communicate with animals.  As a dog owner, I have learned to pay careful attention to my dog’s body language. I can tell when he is anxious, when he needs to go outside, when he is hungry, etc. But I can never really know what he is thinking. I think many people who interact with animals have felt this yearning to know what goes on in their minds.  Thus, it’s incredibly fun to read about Dr. Doolittle talking with the animals he meets. The best parts of this book are the human-animal interactions: Dr. Doolittle scheming with the bulls to get bullfighting outlawed on a Spanish island, Dr. Doolittle asking porpoises to help rescue his crew after a storm destroys their ship, Dr. Doolittle calling birds to come attack an invading army, etc. Nearly every scene that involves human-animal interaction is amusing and entertaining.

Unfortunately, the parts of the book that center only on human interactions are not as fascinating. The chunk of the book that is set on Spidermonkey Island and chronicles the interations of Dolittle with the indigenous people is simply not very interesting.  While the human interactions was the main thing I disliked about this book, I also found the ending to be a bit far-fetched. In the end of the book Dolittle and his companions journey on the bottom of the ocean inside the shell of an enormous snail who is “as large as a big house” and has a shell that “is made of transparent mother-o’pearl so that you can see through it.” While certainly imaginative and creative, I found this part of be fairly absurd. It reminded me of the unrevised endings to some of my students’ nanowrimo stories. With the deadline looming they rushed to get anything on the page to try to get to an ending. While my students later revised their stories it seemed like Hugh Lofting didn’t revise his story to have a coherent ending.

Although there are some plot issues, the scenes where Dr. Doolittle and the narrator interact with animals make this book worth reading. If, like me, you have never read this book before it is definitely worth reading. If you can find a child to read it aloud to, even better, kids will love the imaginative nature of it!

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The Story of Mankind

I was unsure of what to expect when I began Hendrik Van Loon’s The Story of Mankind. Some had suggested that it was dense and tough to get through. Others were questioning how it won the first ever Newberry Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature.

Although I began this book with some trepidation, it did not take long for me to begin to like the author. After explaining the evolution of life on earth Van Loon discussed how early humans discovered fire and cooking, “And then one evening a dead chicken fell into the fire. It was not rescued until it had been well roasted. Man discovered that meat tasted better when cooked and he then and there discarded one of the old habits which he had shared with the other animals and began to prepare his food.” I laughed out loud while I was reading this particular passage. The hilarity of this image means that this important fact of history becomes cemented into your brain as you picture the chicken just falling onto the fire.

Overall, I actually found that his writing was far from dry. In fact, I think he did an incredible job of inserting bits of humor into the book to keep the reader engaged. Another favorite passage of mine was, ““As everybody in Greece drank wine (the Greeks thought water only useful for the purpose of swimming and sailing) this particular Divinity [He’s referring to Dionysis here] was as popular as a God of the Soda-Fountain would be in our own land.” What a brilliant, and scarily accurate, metaphor! If I were to make a conjecture about why this book won the Newberry Award I would say that the author’s voice and humor are probably the main factor.

While the humor and the voice are certainly aimed at children, many seem to be questioning whether this is really a children’s book.  I’d like to argue that it is a children’s book. It is certainly a children’s book of 1922. And I will even go so far as to say that ambitious, historically inclined young-readers today would enjoy it. To understand why I think it was considered a top notch children’s book in 1922, you must understand that the way history is taught in schools has vastly changed. Now many of our schools focus Social Studies classes on Project-Based Learning and 21st Century skills. In the past, history classes were taught very differently. As an example of this, just look at an 1869 Harvard entrance exam. Examinees were expected to be able to, “Name the chief rivers of Ancient Gaul and Modern France. Is France larger or smaller than Transalpine Gaul? What are two principal rivers that rise in the Alps? Where is Mont Blanc?” While we can debate the value of this memorized knowledge, I want to point out that if you knew these things off the top of your head it would be much easier to read the sections in the book about the divisions of land between different European powers.  The background knowledge that children had in 1922 made this book more readable than it is today. Yet, I think students today who have had strong Ancient and World History classes would really get a kick out of this book. They would enjoy the way the author takes bits and pieces of history and melds them into one coherent story.

Overall, I actually enjoyed this book. Of course, I am a history teacher, so I’m a bit biased. I definitely think some parts were boring and I don’t think most kids today would like it, but I am definitely glad that I read it.

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2012 Is The Year

2012 is the year that I will finally start my Masters Degree to become a Reading Specialist.

2012 is the year that I will read every book that has won a Newberry Award.

Why undertake both of these challenging endeavors at the same time?  Well, I want to be a Reading teacher (right now I’m only certified to teach Social Studies). No, let me amend that, I want to be a great reading teacher. My M.Ed. will be a giant step towards this goal.  I’ve never had any formal training in teaching reading so the M.Ed. should give me the basics that I desperately need. While I’m sure that all the great reading teachers out there have their degrees and certifications I also know that in great reading teachers don’t stop there; I’ve learned that great reading teachers read children’s literature. Hmm, let me amend once again. The great reading teachers that I admire read A LOT of children’s literature. And, from what I’ve seen, it pays off. The students of these great teachers read more because they interact with an adult that can recommend books that fit their needs.  With that in mind, I’m undertaking the Newberry Challenge because I want to know more about children’s literature. Will I end up recommending books like Hendrik Van Loon’s The Story of Man to students? Probably not… But will find some gems that I hadn’t read before? Most likely. Will I learn more about the field of children’s literature? Probably. And perhaps most importantly, will I have fun? YES, definitely!


Pre-Newberry Challenge

This fall I found a poster in our school that showed the covers of all the Newberry award winning books from 1922-2011. I laminated it and hung it on my classroom door. Students and I each initialed the books that we had read. Many of my students said, “Wow, I’ve read a bunch of these books!” But as I sat there and looked at the poster I felt pathetic. These are some of the best children’s books in existence and I’ve read so few of them.

Here is my list of the Newberry Award Winning Books that I have read in my lifetime:

Johnny Tremain

The Twenty-One Balloons

King of the Wind

Amos Fortune, Free Man

The Witch of Blackbird Pond

Island of the Blue Dolphins

A Wrinkle In Time

From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

Julie of the Wolves

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

Bridge to Terabithia

Jacob Have I Loved

Sarah Plain and Tall

The Whipping Boy

Number the Stars

Maniac Magee


The Giver

Out of the Dust


The Tale of Despereaux

When You Reach Me

Moon Over Manifest


A grand whopping total of 24 books.  Not much when compared to the 89 Newberry award winning books that are out there. Yet, some of my absolute favorite favorite books from when I was a kid are on this list. I’m hoping that as I undertake the Newberry Challenge this year I will discover many more favorites.

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Which dystopian world would you live in? Which is most realistic?

“Man, this is JUST like the The Giver,” I said to myself as I was reading Matched by Ally Condie tonight.

Well, at least I thought I said it to myself. Turns out that I must have said it out loud because my husband said to me, “What is just like The Giver?”

“Well, in Matched they euthanize the old people just like they do in the Giver. And in this book they also assign jobs to people like they do in the Giver. And didn’t they match spouses in the Giver too?” I remarked, nearly incredulous at the similarities.

“Hmm, I haven’t read Matched yet, but it does sound like there are some similarities,” hubby said, and then went back to his book.

The similarities between Matched and the The Giver got me thinking about all the dystopian books I’ve read in the past year or so.  I started to wonder: which society is most realistic? If I had to pick one society to live in which would it be?

Now, before I begin pontificating, let me list the titles & series that I have read: The Giver by Lois Lowry, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, Ship Breaker by Paulo Baugucipl, The Uglies by Scott Leviathan, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix, and The Maze Runner by James Dashner. With the exception of Matched if the book is part of a series I have read all books in the series.

First, the society that is most realistic… There were a few contenders. The Uglies series came to mind, particularly because remants of our current society exist in the book’s vision of the future. Similarly, the mentions that Matched made about the problems in our current society gave it an element of realism. I also thought that the violence and the reality show aspect of The Hunger Games has a lot of truth to it. But ultimately, Oryx and Crake was the most realistic dystopian society. For those who have not read Oryx and Crake the society it presents is one where wealthy corporations make all the decisions, genetic engineering produces horrific animals, and the divide between the rich and the poor is immense and unbridgeable. Sound like any societies you know? The dystopia of Oryx and Crake is frighteningly close to our own future…

Now, if I had to pick one society to live in which would it be? There’s no way I would live in the world of The Maze Runner, far too dismal. While I wouldn’t mind meeting some of the characters from the Hunger Games, living in that society simply sounds too dangerous. The world of Among the Hidden wouldn’t be too bad, the living conditions for most people in that society aren’t awful. But, after looking at all the options I think I would go live in the world of The Uglies.  For most people in this book life is free of violence. And even though The Pretties have brain damage, they sound like they have a lot of fun at their parties- certainly more fun than the boring scheduled life portrayed in Matched.

All that being said, the Social Studies teacher in me is itching to jump out and give a civics lesson about why people need to understand and participate in government, but I shall save that for another day…


Thank you twitter for the titles!

My journey that led me to sit at my computer frantically making lists of titles began with two books:In the Middle and the English Teacher’s Companion. Oddly enough, neither of these were books that I purchased, they were books I found, laying around unused in the school where I teach.  In the spring of 2010 I read the English Teacher’s Companion and joined the ning. I loved the ideas I got from other teachers and I grew as a profesional from my use of it, but reading and writing on the ning never really became a daily habit.

Fast forward to the Fall of 2010 when I picked up In the Middle.  I was inspired by Nancie Atwell. “Wow,” I said to myself, “a love of reading is really important and I am not helping my students with that at all!” You see, my district asks me to use a specific reading curriculum. Luckily, that was also the year that I transitioned from being a high school teacher to a middle school teacher. As a middle school teacher I got an hour with my students after lunch for homeroom. This was the time for me to teach them health, art, career skills, etc. “Well then…I bet I could finagle that time a bit and build in some time for a Reader’s Workshop…” When I proposed the idea to the higher ups at my school it was a go.

I started off with approximately 200 books in my classroom library last fall. I quickly learned that this was not nearly enough. Afterall, my classroom library is the only truly accessible source for my students to get books.  Our school librarian is also a Special Ed Aide and does not get time to be in the library with students. Meanwhile, the town library was unstaffed (meaning not open at all) for a good chunk of last year. Finally, since we live in a 300-person Inupiaq Eskimo village that is only accessible by plane we obviously do not have a bookstore. So, I needed more books in my classroom library.  The question then became, what books will my readers enjoy? What books will help my readers grow? Honestly, I didn’t really know. Although I’ve always been a reader myself, my familiarity with young adult books was limited to the books I had read when I was a kid. I also didn’t really have anyone to ask on my staff, because there are only ten teachers in our school.

I started reading some book blogs, paying attention to book reviews in the New York Times, etc. but it wasn’t until I started actively using twitter that I really found my place. I started following other reading teachers. I lurked around a few #titletalks. My list of books for my kids just kept growing and growing and growing!

Now, approximately once a month I open up goodreads to find the books that I ‘ve heard mentioned on twitter. Then I go to and set up a project where people can donate money to buy these books. One to two months later the books arrive in our classroom and students love them!

I’ll admit that I’m still a bit of a lurker on twitter. It’s hard to participate in conversations sometimes since Alaska is four hours behind the East Coast. Even though I don’t always participate in conversations, the ideas and books that you all share on twitter have really had a big effect on my classroom. So really, this post is a long-winded way of saying thank you to all those who share book recommendations on twitter.  Teaching and learning in Alaska is incredibly difficult, we don’t have access to libraries, bookstores, and other resources that make life easier. Your recommendations and insights not only help me feel less isolated, they also provide my students with a steady stream of top-notch books. So thank you! 

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Code-Switching Lessons

“Last summer my family and I go to Aunt Sue fish camp.  When we were there we swim lots.”

“We was working on our free shots and then the buzzer ring and it was time to start the basketball game.

“I was on my uncle snowmachine and I lift up my uncle rifle to shoot the caribou that was right by us.”

For two years, I have taught writing to Native Alaskans in an incredibly rural, isolated village. For two years, I have remarked on what wonderful, unique stories my students have to tell. For two years, I have wielded a red pen and asked students to “correct” the mistakes they make in their writing. A few weeks ago, as I was reading students’ writing I threw down my papers in frustration.  All the correcting that I was doing on their papers was having absolutely no effect! It was nearly the end of the school year and students were still making the same “grammar mistakes” that they had been making at the beginning of the year.  We had even been using grammar workbooks daily and those didn’t seem to make any difference either; students could get some of the answers correct in their workbooks, but this never translated to their writing.” Fed up, not with my students, but with my own ineffective practices I decided it was time for a new approach.

One book I ordered was Code-Switching Lessons: Grammar Strategies for Linguistically Diverse Writers by Rebecca Wheeler and Rachel Swords.  The Code-Switching approach relies on the idea of contrastive analysis. The lessons in this book ask students to compare and contrast formal and informal grammar patterns and then deduce the patterns of each.  For example, in the unit on showing possession students examine the chart below and then explain what the pattern is on the informal side and the formal side.  Further lessons in the unit give students practice applying both patterns.

The book has eleven units: diversity in life and language, showing possession, plural patterns, reviewing possessive and plural patterns, showing past time, subject-verb agreement, was/were, am/is/are, using be, multiple patterns, and character and voice in literature.  Each unit focuses only on one grammar topic and thus ensures that students achieve mastery in each topic before adding in new topics. There are enough units and lessons that teachers can use this for months of effective instruction. At the same time, the units focus on the most important grammar patterns and do not bog students down with excessive details or trivial grammar rules.

Any teacher with students who do not speak Standard English in the home should rush out immediately and purchase this book!  This book promotes a lively approach to language that will involve and engage students. In addition, research included in the book shows that this approach to grammar is far more effective than correcting students’ writing. I have not yet tried this approach in my classroom, but for next year these lessons will be my primary mode of grammar instruction.

Wheeler, Rebecca & Rachel Swords. Code-Switching Lessons: Grammar Strategies for Linguistically Diverse Writers. Firsthand Heinemann, 2010. 978-0-325-02610-7. $42

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