Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Pilgrims of Plimouth

Title: The Pilgrims of Plimouth
Author: Marcia Sewall
Illustrator: Marcia Sewall
Genre: Juvenile Fiction, Historical Fiction
Price: $14.95
ISBN: 0698312504

With Thanksgiving just around the corner--or the day after tomorrow--I thought it might be fun to read a couple short Thanksgiving books. The first on my list was an old favorite called The Pilgrims of Plimouth, which is written by Marcia Sewall from the perspective of the pilgrims. Sewall takes on the voice of these wanderers and describes not only their reasons for leaving England, their journey, and the infamous feast (actually, feasts), but also the daily lives of these colonists and the hardships they faced.

Though Sewall has created a lovely picture book with illustrations that are soft and lovely, the colors bringing New England and Autumn to mind, the text is much more adult than one might imagine. At times, you could suppose Sewall had tracked down a pilgrim and interviewed them, then simply rewrote what he or she had to say and sent it off to the publishers. The vocabulary, cadence, and diction seem very authentic. That said, it would be a difficult book to read to a young child. The information given could be perceived as a bit dry unless you're interested in this sort of stuff and could be hard for a younger child to access.

Considering how jumbled the myth of Thanksgiving has become over the years and how those who are aware of the tawdry past the first colonists of this country have with the Native people, it can sometimes feel strange to celebrate a holiday that commemorates a people who soon attempted to annihilate another. This book gives a rather accurate description of these pilgrims, what happened during the first "thanksgiving" and how the pilgrims led their lives. It is much less about the myth than it is about who our nations ancestors were more or less down to an individual level rather than a larger, more ideological level. One may read this book and think less about Native Americans being forced from their lands as well as not being led into the belief that the pilgrims were perfect and had this one fantastic day in history. 

Comparable Reads: I honestly can't think of any right off the top of my head. I suppose a good companion to this book would be 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving, which I will have a review of shortly. The two books are not all a like, beyond subject, but they sort of overlap nicely.

Who this book is for: I feel like this might be a nice family book to have. Mom and Dad can walk their children through the book to help tackle the somewhat difficult language. I also think it would be a nice addition to a fifth or sixth grade classroom during this Thanksgiving time of year. If you were to have your students do a sort of origins of Thanksgiving project, this would be an excellent source to draw from. Sewall cites and uses sources in the writing of the book, so you can be fairly certain that though it's classified as fiction, the information is pretty accurate.

No Fear, No Shame

Title: No Fear, No Shame
Author: Ann Turnbull
Genre: YA Fiction, Historical Fiction
Price: $15.99
ISBN: 0763625051

In the turmoil of post-civil war England, Ann Turnbull brings us the tale of a girl and a boy very much in love, but coming from very different worlds. Susanna is a young Quaker girl facing persecution because of her religion. Will is the son of a wealthy merchant and has recently returned from school and is looking for an apprenticeship. The two meet not long after Susanna is sent to live and work for a widow (also a Quaker) running a printshop and bookstore.

What Turnbull sets before us is a sort of Romeo and Juliet type of story, where two kids from two different worlds very nearly fall in love at first sight and decide they need to be together. The advantage here is no one kills themselves and the story is far less tragic than the drama it shares some themes with. The story moves with the typical pace of a young adult love story, quick and sudden and filled with over-the-top emotions. It captures very modern teen thought processes, though in a very historical setting, adding another layer of complications besides the usual, "Does he like me?" conundrum. Another plus is the fact that the story seems to fairly evenly cover both Susanna and Will, giving two sides of the story, allowing both the girl and the boy be goofy and in love. While I generally find myself annoyed by those horribly dorky girls who mope after boys (despite the fact I did some of that myself not too long ago), the fact that Turnbull adds in the male perspective makes for slightly more interesting reading.

Another interesting aspect of the novel is the historical setting. Turnbull focuses in on the world of the Quakers during the mid-17th century and gives the reader another layer of tension to deal with beyond the love story blossoming between the two main characters. Quakers are dissenters from the Church of England, and their worship is deemed illegal. Many view the Quakers, at best, as law-breakers, and, at worst, workers of some dark art. When Will, the son of a well-respected local, takes up with Susanna and then decides to become a Quaker himself, all Hell breaks loose in the kinds of moral questions one might ask.
Do you risk everything for the person you love?
Do you risk everything for your beliefs?
How far will you go for what is right?
Is it better to keep yourself and your family safe or to work towards the better good?

In all honesty, if Turnbull had just left the story at a romance between two teenagers, I probably would have dropped the book. The characters, while engaging, don't create enough of a story just between themselves. The addition of these moral questions genuinely made me stop and think about what I was reading and if what Susanna, Will, and their Quaker friends endured was really worth it. It's hard to not enjoy a book that not only has some entertainment value, but also gets you to think about your beliefs and what's important to you.

Comparable Reads: A Stitch in Time by Ann Rinaldi comes to mind immediately, though it comes from a different time period  and country (post-Revolutionary war in Salem, Massachusetts). It focuses on the oldest daughter of a well-to-do family coping with numerous issues and romance, some propelled by people others by the time period. The novel also tackles issues to do with the time period, such as the treatment and views of Native Americans, women, and slavery.

Who this book is for: I'm seeing 13 and 14 year old girls (and up) really enjoying this book. Susanna is 14 in the book and experiencing emotions almost any teenage girl would be familiar with. I also think a fan of historical fiction would enjoy the novel as it tastes of realism, though I won't assume or say everything written is historically accurate. It may be an interesting way to introduce a kid who's not so interested in history to some interesting historical concepts along with some timeless ones.

Happy Reading!!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Book Whisperer

Title: The Book Whisperer
Author: Donalyn Miller
Genre: Non-fiction, Education
Price: $22.95
ISBN: 9780470372272

I've been asked to read a lot of books for my education courses, and some have been fairly traditional, perhaps to a fault (my classroom management text is abhorrent) while others have been a bit radical. But this book, one that was lent to me by my mentor teacher this semester, introduces a concept that completely turns the world of English education upside.

Donalyn Miller suggests that English teachers let their students choose their own books. Having come from the school of class-wide novels, starting in the 9th grade, I, at first, could not quite picture what that sort of classroom would look like. Chaos, perhaps? The depths of Hell stretching open and sucking the classroom downward because students weren't having Dandelion Wine shoved down their throats (this was the dumbest book I've ever been assigned to read in high school). Miller spends a bulk of her book explaining what does happen in her classroom, and it's far from horrifying.

Miller teachers a 6th grade English and Social Studies class and she does not assign class novels. Her students are instead required to read a hefty 40 books a school year. And they do it. Well, they do it for the most part. Miller does confess that not all students meet the criteria, but those who don't are still reading considerably more than they ever have in their lives, and plenty of students also exceed the required number of books.

There are multiple examples of how successful reading and expanded literacy throughout the book, painting a convincing portrait of Miller's classroom. Her students improve their reading skills, write better, and perform just as well if not above students who are placed in more traditional English classes on state exams.  She also provides numerous testimonials from students, as well as sample questionnaires and surveys from her students regarding how they feel about reading. Much of what Miller shares could leave even the most staunch advocate of the class-wide novel questioning her methods.

What's more, Miller is a solid writer. She leaves the dry, lecture-y style behind, which is often adopted in this sort of book, and speaks to you as a colleague, friend, and fellow bibliophile. I found myself engaged with her for all these reasons, but most especially because we seem to share an affinity for fantasy novels. That said, I could see how those who do not share similar tastes in books could become annoyed with her constant references to Harry Potter or Cornelia Funke's Inkheart series.

Another negative I found within the book does not contribute so much to the enjoyment or effectiveness of delivering a message, but with personal philosophy on teaching, or the teaching positions one is in or foresees oneself in. Much of what Miller promotes may not apply to anyone who teaches beyond middle school. I completely agree that before the 9th grade, students should be read, read, reading everything and anything they get their hands on and should be encouraged to LOVE it. I was very rarely ever assigned a book to read before the 9th grade (The Devil's Arithmetic in the 6th grade, and I loved it), and I credit that for helping to perpetuate my love for reading (it also helped that my mom and dad read to us every night before bed up until I was in high school). I found that once I hit the 9th grade and was started to be assigned novels, I read considerably less than I had before, if only because I had not time outside the reading I had to do for school.

However. In high school, you have the expectation that you're going to be graduating at some point and either moving out into the "real world" or entering some sort of post-graduate program (tech school, trade school, university and the like). You're going to have to learn how to delegate your time and energy. You're going to have to learn how to get through doing things you may not be completely emotionally engaged with. And, if you're planning on attending a four-year university, you're going to take freshman English, and this course will have required reading of texts that if you're only reading books you like, you may have never, ever experienced before. Miller never mentions this. In fact, she basically says don't worry about it, but I was not sure if she was saying that specifically to other middle grade teachers, or to all teachers. If it's just to middle grade teachers, right on, I agree, but if it's also directed to high school teachers--eh, wrong!!

I diverge from Miller's beliefs when I say students need to have experiences with different kinds of texts in order to be completely fluent readers. If I was allowed to read whatever I wanted with no check, then it would be YA Fic all the way! But because my education concentration in in English, I have been required to take a multitude of literature courses that have required me to read everything from Percy Shelley to John Donne to Virginia Woolf. Some of it I've liked, some of it I could have done without, but ALL of it has left me a stronger reader, because I've had to work at it.

That said, you probably can't get to that point without a strong foundation in reading to begin with, so elementary and middle school teachers need to get on that. I was lucky, others not so much, and I suppose that's what Miller was trying to say.

I apologize, this "review" has become more of a short treatise on what I think about the teaching of reading. Let's finish this thing up.

Comparable Reads: I haven't had the opportunity to read anything quite like this before, so I don't know that I have anything comparable. I'm more than open to suggestions of similar texts.

Who this book is for: Well, teachers. And I am disregarding content. I think teachers from almost any content area would benefit from hearing about how important it is for students to be constantly reading and engaged in reading. Even if I don't completely buy into everything Miller has to say (though she makes tons of excellent points), she is absolutely correct that actual reading needs to emphasized more in the classroom.

I also feel that parents should read this. Granted, I think parents should read almost any education book, because it's helpful to know how the people who spend six hours a day with your kid feel on certain subjects. I think this book gives excellent insight on how a classroom can be run and what should be expected of children as they take on new skills--and this is important for parents to know.

Happy Reading!!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Fires in the Bathroom

Title: Fires in the Bathroom
Author: Kathleen Cushman and the students of What Kids Can Do, Inc.
Genre: Non-fiction, Education
Price: $12.89 (on Amazon)
ISBN: 1565849965

I haven't felt too much pressure to post about the books I've been asked to read for my practicum course this semester, considering the assignments are made mostly up of textbooks, but this book is quite different. The goal behind writing this book was to give teachers, current and future, an idea of what is going on in their students' minds when it comes to school. Kathleen Cushman, along with several students from various areas in the U.S. (mainly California, New York, and Southern New England) wrote the book, giving advice in several areas, such as earning respect from your students, teaching the whole class as well as individual students, and working with ELL (English language learners) students.

While books like this can sometimes seem disingenuous, the kids words shaped into something a little bit more digestible for adults to hear,  the students responses are kept raw and the book is entirely from their point of view. A majority of the texts are quotes from students, explaining their feelings about teachers and what works in the classroom and what doesn't. Some of the responses make sense, at least to me, someone who hasn't been out of high school too long: "If someone gives you a bad grade, they should tell you exactly why" (pg. 27).

Other times things that had never occurred to me appeared, making me consider situations I hadn't had to while I was in high school: "Learning hard things feels most overwhelming when students see the new material as a daunting mass of unfamiliar ideas" (pg. 124). If you've been a good student all your life and then become an enthusiastic learner, it's hard to look at new material in this way, but when you've been in the position where school is not a place where you feel intellectually safe (as is the case with many students), then yes, new material is daunting. I think many teachers or soon-to-be teachers have mostly been in the position where school has come easily to them, and it's something they've embraced. It is not always, and sometimes rarely, the case with their students. It does those students a disservice to not know this other side of the school coin. "Fires" helps reveal that side to those who are unfamiliar.

As touted before, this book is written almost entirely from the perspective of the students. While in most ways, this is absolutely a benefit (it's so important to hear straight from kids mouths how they think--what they say can't be reinterpreted incorrectly), but in others, it can be frustrating. These are high school students, and while they may say they want thing, the also may want the exact opposite. In the beginning of the book, students state they feel like they want their teachers to know them better, to have an invested interest in them and their lives and try to understand what's going on. But they don't want teachers to ask them any questions. They don't want teachers to get to personal. They want them to read their body language. I couldn't help but chuckle a bit as I read this part. They want us to know them, but not at all. And, by the way, it was the same students saying they wanted their teachers to get to know them as well as saying they didn't want to reveal to much of their personal lives to them. It's very typical teenager to give these mixed messages, or at least I know it was for me and my friends.

Though what the students had to say in this part gave me a little laugh, it also frustrated me. The book offered few solutions to this conundrum beyond providing a copy of a questionnaire teachers can use with their students on the first day of school, perhaps making outright questioning less abrasive. I wish a little more information on how to approach the situation had been given. However, on another note, regarding the questionnaire, the book provides several worksheet sort of things to use to work with students or to record information about them. Some of them appeared as though they could be helpful, others perhaps not. I think judgment over helpfulness is more or less subjective. You may read this book and find all or none of the worksheets to be helpful--it depends on how you run your classroom.

Comparable Reads: This book, in some sense, reminds me of The Freedom Writers, by Erin Gruwell, but much less emotionally powerful. However, as far as teaching strategies, this book is far more rich than the Gruwell book (she does have a teacher's companion, however, which I have not read, but I expect it has some strategies there). Also, as I was looking up the price for "Fires" on Amazon, I saw that there were a couple of other books by Cushman, Fires in Middle School Bathrooms, which was published last year and has a focus on middle schoolers, and What We Can't Tell You, which seems like it might be the parents version of "Fires", where teens talk about the things they feel they can't say to the adults in their lives.

Who this book is for: Secondary teachers of any subject ought to investigate this book. It's clear why it was required reading for my practicum class. The insight it gives you, even if it seems obvious or conflicting at times, is insight you need to keep at the forefront of your mind when you go into a classroom. I personally need the reminders from the book because I need to remember every student is not me and that everyone has a unique motivation for getting or not getting work done.

I also feel parents may benefit in reading this book. It will give you idea of how you child may think about school, and the topics discussed might lead to an interesting conversation with your child in how he or she thinks about school.

The book may also be an interesting read for high schoolers themselves. I think, at the very least, teachers could take excerpts from the book and discuss what the students in the book say and feel versus how the students in the classroom feel. It might be particularly helpful if the book covers an area where the class seems to be struggling.

Happy Reading!