Advantage Alexander: Kwame Scores Another Power Shot with BOOKED

photo credit: boswellbooks.com

photo credit: boswellbooks.com

 

     Through his two best-selling verse novels, The Crossover and Booked, author Kwame Alexander is telling us something very important: Kids connect with poetry.

     As a teacher, I find that my students, with round-the-clock schedules rivaling our President’s and hypnotizing little black hole screens, aren’t reading much outside of the classroom. I’m working overtime to change that, but it all boils down to the book. Does it hook my student? Is it “cantputdownable”? Could it potentially cause Mom or Dad to holler about reading past your bedtime? Will my student open the book to sneak a few sentences when there’s think time in the classroom? For The Crossover and Booked, the answers will always be “yes”.

     Over the past two years, I’ve found myself recommending verse novels to all my students–regardless of their reading ability. From kids who just can’t seem to finish a straight-up prose novel to those reading a book a day, verse novels deliver universal appeal. Kwame Alexander gets it. My middle grade students crave the heavier subject matter. Even in sixth grade, they’re already deep thinkers. They just don’t want to start a book that’ll take them 2-3 weeks to finish. In come verse novels, the year-round champions of my classroom bookshelf. The topics are thought-provokingly real. The characters are multi-racial, multi-dimensional kids dealing with the same junk that’s cluttering up the mind of any 12-year-old: fitting in and standing out, school struggles and successes, romance, self esteem, bullying, friendships, and tough family issues like chronic illnesses or divorce. Despite weighty topics, the pages of a verse novel b  r  e  a  t  h  e  with white space. In Alexander’s case, the black words artfully placed on the vanilla page pulse with the rhythm of humanity.  The laughter and tears his stories generate are 100% authentic. Did I fall in love with Booked? Definitely–just like The Crossover!  Yes, I have a book crush on literary fraternal twins. 🙂

     What’s all the fuss about Booked? Nick, a middle school, travel team soccer standout, has a linguistic anthropologist for a father. Big plays are Nick’s forte, but his professorial pop is obsessed with big words. In fact, he insists that Nick read a dictionary (his Dad’s) every day before he does anything else. That anything else includes soccer or hanging out with his best mate and fellow soccer phenom, Colby. Nick’s daydreaming about the girl of his dreams and an invitation-only soccer tourney in Dallas, but trouble is brewing in paradise. Bullies are on his back, and Mom and Dad’s perfect marriage isn’t storybook after all. Life is messy, and Nick’s is no exception. What is exceptional about this verse novel is that Alexander’s meticulously crafted words magnetize us. I was hooked on Booked from page one. Twenty-four hours later, I ordered another copy for my classroom bookshelf. I know exactly which book I’ll be promoting on Book Talk Tuesday. I plan to have a drawing to see which two lucky students will be the first to read Booked!

photo credit: kwamealexander.com

                       I found an NPR interview with Kwame Alexander that I have to share. “How to Get Kids Hooked on Books? Use Poetry!” Check out the transcript by clicking here. Or, simply listen to the audio here!

 

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel: Worth Buzzing About!

 

photo credit: http://animaliaz-life.com

photo credit: Amazon.com

Springtime is wasp time. I don’t know about your house, but a day doesn’t go by that my kids aren’t hollering, “Mom, there’s a wasp in the house.” Thanks to Kenneth Oppel’s The Nest, I have an entirely new, somewhat menacing, perspective on  these ubiquitous flying insects. My GoodReads review on this  phenomenally engaging book follows.

The obsessive compulsive handwashing has started up again. Steve’s baby brother has arrived, and something’s just not right. While his parents aren’t elaborating on the baby boy’s heart trouble, Steve knows one thing for certain: his once-attentive parents are exhausted from sleepless nights and countless hospital visits. Hushed voices whisper behind closed doors, and Steve feels his normal existence crumbling apart.

After allergic-to-everything Steve is stung by a wasp, the dreams of a black-eyed angel begin. The gossamer-winged creature promises to “fix” everything, and normally nervous Steve is mesmerized by the angel’s rhythmic voice. Every night, the angel appears, at first soothing Steve’s fears. Then, fueling them by feeding into the young boy’s deepest fears. What if the angels could replace Steve’s critically ill baby brother with a perfect model? One little three-letter word is all it takes to unleash a horrific chain of events: y-e-s.

Even though Steve realizes it isn’t an angel that visits his dreams, but rather a wasp queen, he gives into the temptation. Soon, a wasp nest is abuzz outside of his bedroom window. It isn’t long before Steve begins to see a baby forming inside the nest. When the wasps are done, all Steve must do is open his window and let the angels replace his damaged brother (who Oppel brilliantly leaves nameless for most of the book) with a flawless copy, carefully crafted by thousands of yellow-striped workers.

I couldn’t put this thriller of a little book down. The Nest stings the soul. It got me thinking about the potential repercussions and moral tightrope of genetic engineering. In fact, months later, The Nest is still buzzing around my brain. Toss in a little sister whose plastic toy phone receives incoming calls, and a knife sharpening salesman that shows up at only one house on the street: Steve’s, and you’ve got mega middle school creepiness. I so loved this book that I put two hardcovers in my classroom library. After I showed the publisher’s book trailer to my class, a swarm of students raided both my class library and the school library (We need more copies both places!).

The best endorsement: Owen, one of my first student readers, said he couldn’t put down the book. In fact, for the first time ever, his mom actually yelled at him to stop reading and go to sleep. For any author, there’s no greater compliment than a 12-year-old boy who willingly gets scolded just to keep turning pages. 🙂  Fly out and pick up a copy!

Brandon Mull’s Five Kingdoms: Sky Raiders Soars

photo credit: Amazon.com

Five Kingdoms: Sky Raiders   by Brandon Mull
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved that this fantasy novel drew me in like a realistic fiction title, putting me smack in the middle of Halloween night in anywhere America. I instantly connected with the characters, middle school kids too old to be out trick-or-treating and too young to give up the magic of this annual celebration.

When Cole urges his friends to visit a neighborhood haunted house, he’s worried that he’s let down his friends–and turned off Jenna–when the scares don’t meet expectations. An invitation to visit the basement, reserved for kids who really want to be scared, draw them all down into the musty darkness. The door locks behind them…and this ordinary tale instantly converts to extraordinary. The creepy costumed ghouls that haunt the basement are actually slave traders from another world. Cole watches helplessly as his friends are chained and transported through a time warp to the Outskirts. Cole could escape–but instead he follows, only to find himself captured and sold into slavery.

Soon, Cole is forcibly sent out to raid floating castles, remnants of times and places long gone. With his only weapon a jumping sword that propels him through the air, Cole must battle immortal knights and dagger-tailed creatures as he attempts to plunder castle treasures for his master. One young friend, Mira, could be the answer to his freedom–but she’s a slave, too–for now.

High praise to Brandon Mull whose genius is evident at every page turn. I want to climb inside this author’s head and watch the incredible mind movies that must be playing in that cranium. Outlandishly creative and unabashedly addictive. I am recommending this book to all of my strong readers. If they didn’t like fantasy before Sky Raiders, I guarantee they will after they read this book. Wow!

View all my reviews

The Great Mail Race

The Great Mail Race

Hello, blog. I missed you!

Wouldn’t you know it takes snail mail to get me back to posting on my much-missed blog!

A few weeks ago, our school received two letters from middle school participants in The Great Mail Race: Fruit Cove Middle School in Florida, and Godwin Heights Middle School in Michigan. Thank you to Vivian and Arnav whose letters landed in my teacher mailbox.

What is the Great Mail Race? An engaging way to have your students write authentic friendly letters to peers around these great United States. Students choose to type or hand write a letter to a class in another state. Easy-to-follow guidelines are posted on the website, as well as lists of teachers and students who are craving mail.

In our classroom, we’ve opted for the element of surprise. Students identified the middle schools to which they’d write by searching “state name + middle school” on Google. Some wanted specific towns or cities, like “San Diego, CA middle schools” or “Salt Lake City, Utah middle schools.” Digging up middle schools was a breeze. Navigating the school websites and locating an English or Social Studies teacher to whom the student could write required slightly more investigation. Still, my awesome sixth graders figured it out and got busy writing their letters of introduction.

I’m really excited that this writing project landed in my mailbox. The students researched the schools, and went to work drafting letters that showcased our school,  our state, as well as their individual interests. Next week, we’ll print out the letters from Google Docs, tuck them in envelopes, and use our best sixth grade handwriting to pen the addresses. Then, we’ll wait (impatiently, of course) for our shipments to come in.

I’ll report back on our responses, too, when they begin trickling in.

Boy, it’s nice to be back in the blogosphere. 🙂

Mrs. Rombach

 

 

Fish in a Tree: Six Word Memoirs

Thank you, Lynda Mullaly Hunt,

for giving my sixth graders a community-building novel

with characters of the utmost character–

authentic young people with whom we’re all identifying.

photo credit: nerdybookclub

photo credit: nerdybookclub

I typically read two chapters of Fish in a Tree daily–before we have independent reading. Each day, I look out into the eyes of my students, and I see engaged learners who’ve begun to feel as though Ally, Keisha, and Albert are classmates, even friends. (Shay, for the time being, isn’t well-liked, but I have a feeling  we’ll start to understand that mean-spirited young lady soon enough.)

Today, after we wrapped up our typical two chapters, I introduced six-word memoirs as a way to give all the Fish in a Tree characters a voice–and show what we know about characterization. Students crafted their own six-word memoirs in their choice of character. Then we shared out, trying to guess which character “authored” the memoir. I’m posting some of these inventive memoirs that crystallized fictional characters in a way that made this teacher mighty proud. Any fellow FIAT devotees who happen upon our blog, we encourage you to try your hand at naming the character behind each six-word memoir. By all means, leave us a comment with your guesses.

When it comes to teaching, there isn’t impossible, only possible. Thank you to all of the gifted authors who enter our classroom and in a few hundred pages alter how we view one another and our world.

Can you guess which Fish in a Tree characters “penned” these six-word memoirs?

1. I am the queen bee, loser. – Sam

2. I am alone. You can’t help. – Michael

3. I am not who she says. – Derek

4. One day, fish will climb trees.  – Zoe

5. Mean is cruel. Add some sugar. – Mackenzie

6. Stuck in a spider’s web. Alone. – Thiviya

7. There are mean people in life. – Amanda

8. Cars and tools are my life. – Ananya

9. Ally is smart. She’s something else. – Cecilia

10. Mr. Daniels is the kindest person. – Bryan

11. I don’t know what I’m writing! – Minahil

12. Star Trek. Star Trek. Star Trek. – Sean

13. Pickle color is my new style. – Kayla

14. The world of chess is unpredictable. – Alexa

15, Stuck under a hovering black cloud. – Rylie

16. Am I doing the right thing? – Spencer

17. Everyone is equal. There’s no favorites. – Owen

18. There’s more inside her, I know. – Rachel

19. Wooden nickels. Silver dollars. Love coins. – Jordan

20. Mental capability isn’t defined by writing. – Marissa

21. Dreams are determined by your will. – Kayce

22. Old things have lots of value. – Andrew

23. Broken. Being fixed by Mr. Daniels. – Ella

24. Why do people pick out differences? – Amanda

25. You can do it. I believe. – Ashrita

Until the next chapter,

Mrs. Rombach

 

 

 

Spooky Creatures in the Classroom

Just when I thought it was safe to go back into the classroom, the Play-Doh monsters arrived.

On the day before Halloween, outfitted with an Amazon-delivered box of 32 plastic jars of Play-Doh, I launched a hands-on creature creation lab that kept my sixth graders busy for half the class period. First, they came forward and collected their individual 3 ounce jars, and then they got busy molding their Play-Doh creatures–all of which were based on our previous day of monster-sized brainstorming. They got 15 minutes for this artistic endeavor.

While spooky music set the scene, the kids chattered and crafted outlandish creatures–some spine-tingling monsters and others cuddly critters that you’d take home to Mom and Dad. What I loved most was watching a roomful of inspired young authors put their pencils to paper and have to be told to stop. You read that right…told to stop. Many students wrote 2-3 pages and complained loudly when I called time so we could share out our stories. Better still, many returned this week to report that they’d finished their spooky tales.

Will this creature feature become a perennial event in my classroom? You betcha. Give it a ghost of a chance in your classroom, too. You’ll be amazed at the spirited writing that results.

 

The Thing About Jellyfish – New Book!

“I’ve written about astrophysicists and athletes, cosmologists and Arctic conservators, geologists and psychologists and farmers and awesome children. What I enjoy, above all, is telling a good story.This world of ours is complex, but  it’s filled with plenty of wonder and sparkle.”

– Ali Benjamin

credit: Good Reads

 

Sometimes, I get really lucky and simply stumble on the kind of book I found in The Thing About Jellyfish, the 2015 debut novel from author Ali Benjamin. On one of my many weekly trips to Amazon’s virtual bookshelves, the stunningly beautiful cover of this book populated my screen. I clicked on the image, read the description, and instantly clicked Add to Cart. I finished The Thing About Jellyfish about two weeks ago and it continues to thump  around in my still-in-awe brain like a damp beach towl in the dryer. 

From Goodreads.com:

After her best friend dies in a drowning accident, Suzy is convinced that the true cause of the tragedy was a rare jellyfish sting. Retreating into a silent world of imagination, she crafts a plan to prove her theory–even if it means traveling the globe, alone. Suzy’s achingly heartfelt journey explores life, death, the astonishing wonder of the universe…and the potential for love and hope right next door. 

 

The Thing About Jellyfish should be on every adult bookshelf, too. Who hasn’t ever hurt or been hurt by a friend, struggled with inexplicable grief, or wanted an impossible happy ending? We’ve all been there, like Suzy and Franny, trying to find our place in this physically and emotionally challenging world.  Plus, there’s real science poured into every delicately moving page.  The Thing About Jellyfish , recently named a National Book finalist, will touch your heart. Below are two videos about the book, one from me, and one from the author. I discovered Kizoa this morning  through Edublogs’ Student Blogging Challenge. I’ve given it a try so I can show my sixth graders  one way they might create a book trailer. See what you think.

 

Raise Your Voice: Blog Action Day 2015

The First Amendment of the United States of America gives us freedom of religion, speech, press, peaceable assembly, and the freedom to seek help from or complain about our government without fear of punishment. In honor of this freedom–which is both a tremendous privilege and a responsibility–we’re taking part in Blog Action Day on October 16, 2015.

Your blog is a public space where you can freely express your opinions about issues that matter to you.

For me, I’m worried about the overuse of toxic chemicals and the waste of water to maintain fairy tale green lawns. Did you know that 80% of all homes in the United States have grass lawns? The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that nearly 1/3 of all public water is used to water grass. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that “homeowners use up to 10 times more chemical pesticides per acre on their lawns than farmers use on crops.” Wow! Most lawn care chemicals can find their way to our groundwater supply. Lawn chemicals are toxic–they kill. I worry about the health effects of these optional pesticides. The U.S. Geological Survey found that 96 percent of all fish tested in major rivers and streams contained pesticide residue. We need to rethink chemical lawn treatments.

What do you care about? What’s worrying you?

What would you change here at school if you could? How can we make Ashburn, Virginia, America, or the world a little bit better? In your opinion, what changes should our government make to improve your future? Speak up on Blog Action Day. How might you help homeless people or animals? Are you concerned about climate change? Or gun control? Or education? Or bullying? Do you want healthier lunches? Are sports too competitive?

Whatever it is, tell me in a quality comment below.

Then, use the internet to find 2-3 facts about your issue. Jot them down and bring to school tomorrow. Be sure to record the websites where you found the info.

Finally, visit another class and leave a comment based on their current post. Just click on the link below! I’m counting on you proofreading your comment carefully. Follow 6th grade writing expectations! Be sure to include our blog URL so the classes you visit can visit us, too! Here’s our class blog URL:  https://kidblog.org/class/RombachRockstars/ 

CLICK HERE for complete list of class blogs in the Student Blogging Challenge (including ours).

Tomorrow, you’ll draft a blog post about what you care about. It’s time to raise your voice!

See you then! Mrs. Rombach

 

 

 

Welcome to the wonderful world of blogging!

Today, you’ll open your very own student blog. This is a place where your voice can be heard, your writing read, and your ideas and observations shared with the  world.

Some of you are undeniably pumped about blogging. You’ve asked me “when” ever since I mentioned we’d be blogging. Others of you probably aren’t too thrilled about any kind of writing, especially one that’s new and unfamiliar. Well, you know how I feel about the importance of fostering a growth mindset. We can’t stick with what’s comfortable and easy and expect to grow into the very best version of ourselves.

As we embark on this year-long journey, let’s celebrate the successes and overcome the pesky difficulties. I may be the teacher, but sometimes you’ll untangle the technology faster than me. I promise to deliver my very best. All I ask is that you do the same. Let’s explore and learn together.

Now, borrowing heavily from a post by Susan Lucille Davis, an Edtech blogger, here are six reasons why blogging makes us better writers, communicators, and citizens of the world.

Which one of these six reasons has you most interested in blogging and why? Leave a comment below. 🙂

1. Blogs are authentic.

With a blog, students reach real rather than pretend audiences. When someone from New Zealand or Kuwait is reading your writing, the quality of your work matters more. You’ll raise the bar for your own learning when the audience extends beyond the teacher, the classroom, and the grade.

2. Blogs allow students to give voice to their passions.

Blogs are an immensely versatile, energizing medium. In some ways, blogs are the new “show and tell,” allowing students to share their own infectious love of learning.

3. Blogs invite feedback.

As students unleash their passions, they must learn to respond to and learn from readers in the form of comments. Testing our ideas on others is an important part of our growth. Plus, feedback and connections with visitors makes students accountable for the quality of their work. Students value sincere, thoughtful responses.

4. Blogs provide opportunities for regular writing practice.

Blogs were never meant to be a one-shot deal, like an five-paragraph essay or book report.  Instead, blogs require a commitment to writing, to learning, and to growth over the long haul.

5. Blogging allows students to experiment with multiple media formats.

No other medium so seamlessly blends text, image, sound, and video to communicate a message as effectively to this wide an audience. As bloggers, students learn to consider the impact of the artfully placed photograph, video, audio insert, or infographic. Essentially, blogs allow students to learn how to write with every medium at their wriggling fingertips.

6. Blogging broadens students’ perspectives and connects them to the world.

The first dot from someone outside your home country that appears in your Clustr Map is a big moment. The world suddenly opens up to you. Next, you might find from someone halfway across the globe who’s interested in collaborating on a project or commenting on a recipe.

Blogging for a world audience shifts a writer’s perspective, builds empathy, or concern for others, and reveals new ways of seeing humanity.  

Don’t forget to leave a comment! Which of these six reasons has you most interested in blogging and why? Leave a comment below. 🙂

 

Letter to my newest Sixth Graders

Tomorrow, I’ll welcome 94 brand new sixth graders to my classroom. Am I ready? You bet I am. The past two weeks have been all about preparation–from attending professional development workshops to devoting full days to readying my classroom for its young occupants. I turned out the lights on Friday evening and couldn’t help but smile. I am eager to meet the new arrivals. I’ll be a little nervous, of course, but I simply must remember that they’re 100 times more nervous than me. We’re in this together–from the first day jitters to the last day goodbyes. Some days will drag; others will flash  by like comets. We’ll laugh, we’ll cry (well, at least I will during our many read-alouds), and we’ll make memories together.

One of my first-day activities is  to have every student write me a letter. I’ll read and respond to all 94 letters by Friday. Tonight, I’ve written  mine to them. 

Dear Awesome Sixth Graders,

     I’m thrilled to welcome you into our Language Arts classroom! I know we’ll have a wonderful year together.

     Today, I’m asking you to write a letter to me, so I thought it only fair that I write a letter to you. Let’s start with introductions. Who am I? I’m Mrs. Martha Rombach, teacher, writer, reader, and mom of five awesome kids ranging in age from 12 to 21. I graduated with an English degree from James Madison University, where I met my husband, Mike. I grew up in Yorktown, Virginia, where I built forts, rode my bike for miles, shot archery in my backyard, captured every type of wild critter I could raise in a box or tub, and even worked summers at Busch Gardens when I was a teenager.

     I love being outdoors. I enjoy hiking, traveling to unfamiliar places, and blasting music in my canary yellow Jeep. If I’m not outside, I’m probably curled up inside with a good book. Forget about trying to talk to me when I’m reading. I’m in another world. I read over 20 books this summer, and I can’t wait to tell you about them. In fact, our first read-aloud will be Fish in a Tree, one of my summer best.

     Speaking of favs, I’m a candy fiend. Hot Tamales and Twizzlers are my go-to sweets. Look around our classroom, and you’ll see I’m a huge Steelers fan. Music keeps me grounded; I can’t go a day without it. What am I afraid of? Heights! I’ll happily remove spiders from our classroom, but don’t ask me to climb a ladder or peer over a ledge.

     I’m a teacher who’s connected to technology–Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and a couple of blogs. That means we’ll be using technology in our classroom nearly every day–really! Bring in those devices. 🙂 Before becoming a teacher, I was a newspaper and magazine writer. Now, I write on two blogs–and will open blogs for each of you soon!

      I have the best job in the world. I love coming to work every day because of you. You are one of a kind. You are amazing. You have the power to change the world. As we embark on this year together, know that I believe in you. If there are bumps in the road,we’ll navigate them together. If you have questions, ask them. When you need to talk, I’ll listen. I’m here for you 100%. Be kind, be motivated, be ready to make your first year in middle school absolutely awesome (just like you)!

 Cheers,

Mrs. Rombach