Wednesday, September 23, 2009

books based on primary and secondary research

Last night I was familiarizing myself with the grade seven social studies curriculum and reading about primary and secondary research and I thought what good examples the following books are of how writers may do this to create historical novels and how students can become familiar with primary research from autobiography.

I have read so many holocaust YA novels I have to admit I sometimes wonder if I can handle another one, but What World is Left by Monique Polak (Orca) I thought was excellent, one of the best. It also is a good example of how an author can use primary and secondary research.
The novelist made use of the memories of her mother who had been in Theresienstadt, the "model" concentration camp, as well as her own extensive research and imagination. This novel very much gives a sense of immediacy and also demonstrates that things just are not always black and white. Is Anneke's father a hero or a conspirator? How do you enable your family to survive in an impossible situation, what must you do and still be ethical?

In this vein, National Geographic has come out with an interesting series of the memories of real people in extraordinary circumstances. Alive in the Killing Fields is the real life story of the childhood of Kawuth Keat who with his family was captured by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Later he was able to escape and emigrate to the United States. This book came out of his telling his life story to a his World History teacher at night school, Martha E. Kendall, who co-authored this book.

Another book in this series is Lost Childhood by Annelex Hofstra Layson, who as young Dutch girl with her family was interned in a Japanese prison camp in Indonesia where they lived. This book was written after many years of not sharing her story with her husband or her own children due to the painfulness of her memories.

All these books show the resiliency of children I think and are an excellent source of understanding for our students. The books in the National Geographic series are aimed at students 12 and up. The books are realistic yet contain hope for a better world.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Nancy and Peter bring Dormia to Vancouver

It was a good day at school today. We didn't have to reorganize and I finally got my new class! But best of all, Peter and Nancy Kujawinski came to visit us. What a way to start a year! In Friday's post I told a bit about Dormia and invited you to visit the website. And then I told you I previewed the book with four classes and the kids really liked the story. Today we had a magical afternoon with co-author Peter and his wife musician, Nancy. Peter in his quiet way mesmerized the students. He is a born story teller showing them how one can use one's own life and experience to develop fantasy. Nancy played and sang the Dormia National Anthem (which you can find in the back of the book) and my class definitely wants me to buy her CD now. Both of them patiently signed autographs. There was a absolute fascination by both sets of sixty students who were there. We were all excited to hear that Peter and Jake have already written a sequel to Dormia and are at work on the third in the trilogy. Peter is on sabbatical from being a diplomat for a year so that they are traveling and he is writing as they await the birth of their first child. I had invited a couple of friends to attend the reading and they both have ordered books. It was also great having Moira, a teacher librarian consultant visit as well. I totally recommend this book to all and feel so privileged to meet Nancy and Peter and have them as our first guests!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Intermediate Reads

Well I didn't exactly meet my new class Friday as due to being seven students down in our projections we may have to reorganize which means losing a teacher and making classes bigger. We aren't moving our students to their new classes until we exactly what is happening. I did preview Dormia with enthusiastic grade sixes and sevens.

For awhile I have had a stack of intermediate novels for ages 9-13 to review so here goes...

Tabloidology (Orca) by Chris McMahon is about Marty who lives in a rather chaotic household but is a total perfectionist. He is the editor and writer of the school newspaper which no one reads. Trixie, is the daughter of rich parents who are never home. She is always playing pranks at school. The principal decides that Trixie should help Marty with his paper. Much to Marty's dismay everyone reads the articles Trixie writes, the problem is the articles are made up but then come true after they are written. Clever amusing book that could generate some good discussion.

Another Orca book is Bank Job by James Heneghan and Norma Charles. This book is about four children who live in a great foster home but the problem is that they are told that they don't have enough bathrooms. The foster parents can't afford to build another bathroom so that the children may have to live elsewhere. Nell comes up with the idea to rob banks to raise the money and surprise their foster parents. A rather far fetched premise perhaps (although based on a real story of teenage bank robbers) that has certainly has interesting results. Interesting characters and our students will enjoy the Vancouver area setting.

Leaving Fletchville by Rene Schmidt is another book about resourceful young people. I loved the characters in this book and I felt the setting was well done and used to move the story along. Schmidt is an elementary teacher and he knows kids well. Brandon, the main character is always in trouble and definitely marches to his own music. He befriends Leon, his neighbour in their apartment building and discovers Leon and his brother and sister's secret. As the author says in the beginning, we as teachers don't always really know the reality of the lives our students live. This definitely is shown in this novel. The one part I didn't find as convincing was the stereotypical bully in the story, but I still really liked this novel. I was interested in Fletchville which is a simulation that Schmidt has used for years to teach his students about money management etc.

Now for a little fantasy... The Solstice Cup by Rachel Dunstan Muller. Canadian twins return to Ireland where a run in with apparently fairies has damaged the relationship between Mackenzie and Breanne plus Breanne has a mysterious limp. This time they both journey into the Otherworld. I found this fantasy fast paced and Otherworld well drawn out.
Soccer Sabatage by Liam O'Donnell and Mike Deas is a graphic novel which may be popular with soccer and mystery fans. Devin's in Toronto with his sister Nadia's team for a big soccer championship. When their coach is mysteriously injured and Nadia has to fill in, Devin begins to play detective. I think that my students will enjoy this one.

Okay time for a break...

Friday, September 11, 2009


Well it's the first week and today I finally meet my new class today. I think I am still feeling a bit shell shocked. I haven't been in this state in 15 years since I began teaching a grade six at Moberly after seven years being an LAC teacher. This time as well I have been at the school board as a consultant for four years not in my own classroom. The idea of teaching grade seven math, science, social studies for the first time as well as grade six in a school with very little platooning is also a bit thought provoking. And to think a sensible person might have retired, sold her house, and moved somewhere exotic...
Oh well! I think I will feel better once I have real students in there or maybe I won't! And one day maybe my file cabinet will open, the computer table will be fixed,there will actually be computers, and I will finally be satisfied with my room arrangement! Otherwise all is well. Plus it's good to have to activate the brain cells in new ways (or so I tell myself).

But we are starting the school year off with a bit of a bang. One of the two authors of a new book, Dormia, Peter Kujawinski, contacted me this summer since he was going to be coming through Vancouver on a trip to Alaska. Since the trip was planned our first week back to school, it seemed a bit difficult to do much to help him coordinate school visits but I invited him to my school and put him in touch with our local children's bookstores though the lead time for them was too short as well for planning events.

I hadn't read or head of Dormia before but I checked out their website, read some reviews, and a week ago I read the book. I love some fantasy but can't say it's my favorite genre but I thoroughly enjoyed Dormia and was swept away in the adventure. I think kids will love it.
The characters are engaging and the premise unique. The "hero" of the story, Alfonso, lives in a small town in Minnesota, and he has a problem with sleep walking, but he doesn't know his unique powers until his long lost uncle appears, and they set off to the home his uncle and father left long ago, Dormia, a land hidden in the Ural Mountains, to save its last city. It's a quest in the best sense of the word. A quest that I think Peter is recreating somewhat on his current trip.

Peter, who is an American diplomat currently "stationed" in New York City (previously he has worked in Haiti and in Paris), wrote this book with his childhood friend, writer Jake Halpern. I can't tell you how excited I am to be meeting him and his wife, Nancy, a musician and teacher. I think this is going to be a very memorable event as well for four classes of Trudeau students on Monday.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Weeds and Other Stories-briefly reviewed

Weeds and Other Stories by Jacqueline Pearce is a good collection of stories about high school students set in the Lower Mainland. Each story is unique and touches a variety of themes. We visit the art gallery with a girl who has cancer. We watch another girl struggle to find herself again and find the strength not to go back to her boyfriend just to have a boyfriend. A work study in a bird sanctuary helps Shayleen find confidence. One boy deals with his own drug addiction after a friend dies, another is able to confront a gang who stole his leather jacket. Another boy finds what it means to be a team player. Each story is complete in itself but could provoke more writing as each story is only a beginning. Lots of opportunity for good discussions plus the immediacy of familiar settings.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Write to Learn Science

A couple of years ago I discovered the the National Science Teachers' Associations website
There you can find great resources and links. For instance they have lists of great picture books to teach science.

I wouldn't say Science is my strong point, but I value it. Once again after a lapse of many years it looks as if I will be teaching Science this year in the six/seven class. As I said in an earlier post I find myself reading professional materials differently as instead of thinking how I get these ideas to teachers I think how can I use them in my own classroom.

How to Write to Learn Science 2nd Edition is written by Bob Tierney (a now retired high school science teacher as well as a teacher and consultant with the National Writing Project) with a section on portfolio assessment by another science teacher involved with the Naitonal Writing Project, John Dorroh. By hitting the link you can even read the first chapter online free.

I have long been a believer in writing to learn and this easy to read book has great ideas and samples. I think one of the things I really want to focus on in science is having my students understand process and being able to think like a scientist. I like how in this book he advocates using a variety of writing assignments to help students build confidence and see science as relevant to their own lives. Many of his great ideas go across the curriculum.

I totally recommend this book to all science teachers grades seven to twelve! In high school, science teachers are of course unlike me science specialists and this book has so many good ideas on how to build writing with little pain into the curriculum.

I am actually feeling after reading this book, excited about the challenge ahead of me.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Leftovers and other teen reads...

There have been many good things about being the VSB's later literacy consultant but one bonus has been getting to justify reading young adult literature. And helping fuel my habit has been Orca Book Publishers, a Canadian company based in Victoria who publishes some great books for elementary and high school students. They have been kindly sending me their new books for several years, most of which I have been able to give away as prizes at various meetings and workshops, and I have to admit that I haven't read all the books but this summer I have been reading.

One I really enjoyed was Leftovers by award winning author, Heather Waldorf. Fifteen-year-old Sarah has a brush with the law and is sentenced to do community service hours at Camp Dog Gone Fun, a summer program for shelter dogs based on one of the 1000 islands near Kingston, Ontario. Cleverly and tastefully written, we gradually find out what secrets lie with Sarah and the other inhabitants of Camp Dog Gone Fun and how they are able to slowly heal.

Another book with an animal theme that I read this summer aimed at the high school crowd was Strays by Ron Koertge (Candlewick Press). Ted's parents have died who had a pet shop and seemed to care more for the pets than their son. He has no human friends but he has the ability to communicate and understand animals. The book describes his move into a foster home and how he slowly makes friends with humans. Well written and enjoyable.

Another Orca book is Inferno by Robin Stevenson. Inferno is literally about the hell that Dante (who has changed her name) feels she is in when she reluctantly moves with her parents from a city to a smaller suburban area. How things can get out of control is aptly shown in this novel.

When I went to the International Reading Association conference in Minneapolis I hear Jaime Adoff speak and decided to purchase this book. Jamie spoke as part of a session on Adolescent Literature: What Teachers and Students Need and Want. Jaime himself is interesting. He spent about ten years trying to be a rock musician before he found a career in writing. Son of beloved children's poet, Arnold Adoff, and esteemed children's writer, Virginia Hamilton, it probably isn't that surprising that he settled into being a writer.

In his talk to the conference, he described how important he thought it that kids could see characters like themselves in novels, kids who don't live middle class lives and have serious problems. Jimi and Me describes the sadness of a boy and his mother after his dad dies and they are forced financially to move to a small town in upstate New York where his dad grew up, in one of the few black families. Like his dad, a record producer, Keith workshops Jimi Hendrix, and Keith dresses the part, standing out in his new high school. When it comes out that his dad had another family including a son named Jimi, Keith has a great deal with which to come to terms.