Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Red Pyramid (Kane Chronicles #1) by Rick Riordan

The Red Pyramid (Kane Chronicles, #1) The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Red Pyramid was Percy Jackson and the Olympians with Egyptian gods. The reference to the Percy Jackson series was amusing (the comment was something along the lines of Manhattan has its own set of gods). It's a typical young adult hero journey, where the kids end up fighting battles and figuring out puzzles without the aid of adults. I did like that I had a hard time keeping track of who was on the side of the protagonists, and who sided with Set, the initial main antagonist. As with series novels, there has to be a bigger antagonist lurking in the shadows, just waiting for his moment (Kronos, anyone?). In this case, Apophis the serpent (a Bible allusion as well? Because an apple is never just an apple.)

A major difference between this series and the previous series (which excludes the opening section) is that Riordan hopped on the the alternating perspectives bandwagon. The narration is split between the two sibling-protagonists, Carter and Sadie. This is an effective device, and Riordan wields it well; Sadie and Carter have very distinct voices. I think it helps that one child was raised in England and the other in the United States. The balance of responsibility/challenges is even; neither character dominates.

The second book in the Kane Chronicles is due out sometime in the Spring of 2011.

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Sunday, June 27, 2010

Amulet, Book 2: The Stone Keeper's Curse

Today, I stumbled upon some code that will allow me to embed my Goodreads review in my blog. I thought to myself, "Self, this might not be a bad idea. Then you don't have to use space in Picassa with book covers, and you only have to write the review once." My self made sense, so here's my first short attempt just to see what it looks like.

Amulet, Book 2: The Stonekeeper's Curse Amulet, Book 2: The Stonekeeper's Curse by Kazu Kibuishi

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Another cliffhanger, this was a quick read with beautiful graphics. Reminds me a little of Lord of the Rings--The Amulet's attempt to gain power over Emily is similar to Frodo's struggle with the ring.

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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Teen Read Awards

I saw someone on Twitter talking about the Teen Read Awards presented by Indigo (Canada--from what I can tell it's a bookstore, but the page won't load on my computer) and decided to check it out.

With categories like Best Villian, Best Hero, Best Hottie, Best Book-to-flick, and Best Lip-Lock, it's sure to draw teens in a way that some other Best-of awards don't. And with authors like Patrick Carman (Skeleton Creek), Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games), Marcus Zusak (The Book Thief), and James Dashner (The Maze Runner), it's sure to be an interesting contest.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

What I Learned about Allusions

Ayn Grubb started us off with a picture. Looks like this:
from NM APSI 2010 handout p. 169
A complaint I've heard (and I admit, have given my students as a reason to study Greek mythology) is that students don't read, therefore lacking the background knowledge necessary to understand what purpose allusions have in a story.

There are some clues we can use to help our students recognize when there is an allusion: something that doesn't fit--something that's outside the story.
from NM APSI 2010 handout p. 170

So how do we go about scaffolding the instruction? Guiding students to think about why an author would choose to make an allusion rather than spelling everything out. In session, we read an excerpt of "Raymond's Run" by Toni Cade Bambara. Then we filled in a T-Chart with information on what we know about Dodge City (which I didn't know anything about until someone said "Wild West"), and what we knew about Squeaky walking down the street in Harlem. 

from p. 172...and my notes
The difference between this exercise and the T-Charts as I've seen them used at school is the question at the bottom: "What greater meaning is added to the story by this allusion?" We looked at what Bambara implied without really using all the words, and came up with a purpose for the allusion. For me, this was T-charts in a totally different light.

An Unwind Sequel?

I saw this tweet in my feed today and had to share. This was not a book I expected a sequel for, but I'm interested to see what Shusterman does with it. I'm definitely looking forward to the release of his novel Bruiser, on June 29th. My copy's already pre-ordered.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Freytag Revisited

When I was in school, plot diagrams (which I learned later were called Freytag's pyramids) looked something like this:
Image from at

There is argument that plot doesn't rise smoothly from the exposition to the climax, instead containing a number of smaller climaxes where an element of the conflict is settled--that is to say that the reader knows which way something will go for the character. 

I took a methods course on teaching Language Arts a few semesters ago, and my professors suggested a different take on the plot diagram. I didn't think too much of it, until last week when the facilitator for the NM APSI workshop made the same suggestion, then showed us how it worked. Freytag's Pyramid revised looks something like this: 

Example: A man dressed in black is running up to a roof with a black briefcase tucked under his arm. As he runs, he glances over his shoulder. When he reaches the far side of the roof, he crouches, opens the briefcase and presses a button. An orange timer appears showing 3:00. The timer begins to count down. 2:59... 2:58... The man looks over his shoulder one more time and runs off toward the fire escape on the other side of the roof.
He doesn't make it to the fire escape when another man runs onto the roof and catches him. They fight. The first man pulls out a knife. 
The good guy kicks the knife away and they exchange more blows. The good guy is knocked off his feet. But before the bad guy can get away, the good guy sweeps his legs.
The bad guy kicks the good guy in the face and the good guy blacks out, giving the bad guy the opportunity to get away. 
The good guy wakes up and sees the clock ticking at 30 seconds. He rushes toward the briefcase and looks around, realizing the bad guy got away. Then he pulls a pair of wire clippers out of his pocket and examines the wires.
Finally he snips the green wire and breathes a sigh of relief.
Was there a climax in that story? What if I said that this scene occurred in the middle of a larger story where the rising action to the final climax was a car chase/huge battle scene?

Because our workshop had an emphasis on vertical teaming, we discussed introducing a simple plot diagram like the one pictured first, when we introduce plot in the sixth grade, then working with the students, building and extending on their prior knowledge and introducing the second plot diagram later on.

Ayn Grubb, our presenter, has a neat lesson using the first 15 minutes of Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark to talk about suspense, climaxes, characterization, and other elements of plot. It can be found on pages 26-33 of this handout (link to a PDF).

Monday, June 14, 2010

NM APSI Reading List

I think it's impossible to put a group of Language Arts teachers together and not end up creating some sort of reading list. I'm going to share here what a group mostly middle-grade English teachers came up with.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Grade: 8; Skill: Hero Journey, character archetype

The Pearl by John Steinbeck
Grade: 8; Skill: internal/external conflict, symbolism, literary elements

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
Grade: 6; Skill: internal conflict

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
Grade: 8/9; Skill: Figurative language, vocabulary, complex sentences, characterization, point of view

Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikelson
Grade: 6; Skill: Figurative language, internal/external conflict

Call it Courage by Armstrong Sperry
Grade: 6; Skill: Figurative language

Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie by David Lubar
Grade: 8/9; Skill: Literary elements, internal/external conflict

The Ear, The Eye and the Arm by Nancy Farmer
Grade: 7/8; Skill: The archetype of the hero's journey

Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli
Grade: 6; Skill: Figurative language, conflict

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
Grade: 7; Skill: Conflict, characterization

The Giver by Lois Lowry
Grade: 8; Skill: internal conflict, allusion

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Grade: 8/9; Skill: Point of view, figurative language, mood, tone

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
Grade: 10; Skill: literary & rhetorical elements

The Oustiders by S.E. Hinton
Grade: 7/8; Skill: Internal/external conflict, theme

Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan
Grade: 6; Skill: Internal/external conflict, figurative language

Thursday, June 10, 2010


This morning we talked about how to help our students write good theme statements. Our presenter called her process 2Q2T or Two Questions to Theme.

First question:
What is this (story, poem, letter, speech, play, piece, etc.) about?

Here students generate a list of topics for whatever it was they read. We read the poem "Dandelions" by Deborah Austin. Some of the topics we generated for this poem were

  • war
  • flowers
  • weeds
  • gardening
  • warfare
The answer to the first question is plugged into the second question where it says topic.

Second Question
What is AUTHOR trying to say about TOPIC?

If I choose to talk about war then my question looks like this:

What is Austin trying to say about war?

In "Dandelions," Austin is trying to say that in war situations, soldiers never give up.

From here, students answer their questions, which becomes the claim sentence for their claim-evidence-commentary paragraphs.

Below, my notes. Glean from them whatever you can.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Reading and Lines: Guiding Students to Question

The student who answers questions is passive. The student who writes/asks questions is active.  That being said, how do we get students to ask questions that are meaningful and thought-provoking?

Teach them how to write leveled questions.  What are leveled questions, you ask? They're questions that are on the line, between the lines and above the lines. That is...

Level One: (on the line): Questions answered with facts from the text. You can put your finger directly on the answer.
ex.  In Goldilocks and the Three Bears, which bowl of porridge did Goldilocks eat?

Level Two (between the lines): Questions that require an inference to answer. You can put your finger on the evidence that supports the answer.
ex. What kind of person is Goldilocks?

Level Three (above the lines): Questions that are open-ended and draw in our own schema as well as evidence from the text.
ex. What different kinds of reactions can people have if someone breaks into their house?

Some uses for the questions students generate:
  • Socratic seminar
  • Fishbowl discussion
  • Games
We've talked in workshop about student involvement. If we want students to engage with the texts we're asking them to read, they have to take some ownership of the material and the learning process. I'm willing to bet that they'll care more about the answer to a question they've written than an answer to a question I've written. 

It's not enough to want kids to question everything. We have to show them how.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Scaffolding Writing

In our district, we use the RACE rubric for writing:

R: Restate the question
A: Answer the question
C: Cite evidence
E: Explain how evidence answers the question

It's not a bad format for struggling writers, just to give them a starting place and formula to plug their information into. I don't think it's a terrible scaffolding tool, however it's so formulaic that writers that aren't struggling can't grow or develop voice. The presenter for the workshop I'm attending this week, the Advanced Placement Summer Institute offered different words for the same type of writing formula:

Intro - which includes context, an interesting statement, or foreshadowing what's to come.
Claim - the statement that the writer is trying to prove
Evidence - a pithy statement one that contains the most meaning
Commentary - from your own head -- explain how your pithy statement proves claim

We started yesterday's session with interviews. Participants then took comments from those interviews, then built a claim-evidence-commentary paragraph around whatever comment participants saw as pithy. (I didn't get to participate because I came in late.) I was listening to people read their paragraphs, and I heard the thing that was lacking from RACE paragraphs. Voice.

I write RACE paragraphs and often feel like they're lacking that tongue-in-cheek type tone that my mother hates.

We brainstormed purpose/use of claim-evidence-commentary way of responding and here's what we came up with:

  • helps pinpoint ideas
  • for literary analysis - focus on one piece of evidence
  • helps express voice
  • use for rhetorical analysis
  • if every response is framed as an argument, the idea of "claim" works
  • helps refine thinking
  • format not limited to questions
The AP teacher in the midst of participants likes this format. She says that it gets them ready to do the kind of literary analysis students will have to do when they get to the 11th and 12th grade.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Why I Love Google Voice or...

..When things Work Exactly the Way I Want them To.

Over the last winter break, I requested access to Google Voice. I was accepted and set up the best number I could think of where the last four numbers spell BOOK. Perfect for a reading teacher, right? My thinking when setting up the number was:
Now my students can contact me outside of school if they need to, they're not using my home or cell number, and Google keeps a record of everything.

During the school year, some of the readers I roped into reading early on would text me in the evening if they finished their book and ask me to bring another to school for them the next day. I'm sure they thought I was weird, but this made me ecstatic.

Yesterday, I had the following conversation with a student (edit: when I was having the conversation, I wasn't sure who the student was. Looking back at my Google Voice records, now I know.)

StudentHey ms o have any new good reading recommendations? 2:06 PM
MeKeeper by Mal Peet. I just read it and it was awesome. About soccer and the world cup winning goalkeeper. What are you looking for? 2:07 PM
StudentJust any new books lol im going to be taking a trip up to barnes and noble and im hoping to find a couple of good ones  2:08 PM
MeThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. You wanna give me a few topics so I can narrow my recommendations? 2:10 PM
Studentmystery and maybe a comedy ?  2:11 PM
MeI'm on my way home right now, I'll take a look and text you in a few. 2:12 PM
StudentOka thank you :)  2:13 PM
MeFor humor: No More Dead Dogs by G. Korman, The Schwa Was Here by N. Shusterman, Fancy White Trash by M. Geerling 2:28 PM
MeFor mystery: The Compound by S.A. Bodeen, I, Q Independence Hall by R. Smith, The Tomorrow Code by B. Falkner, The Adoration of Jenna Fox by M. Pearson. 2:31 PM
MeHope that helps. Text me when you're there if you still need help. 2:31 PM
StudentOka thank you :) :)  2:31 PM

What happened here was the thing I dreamed would happen, but didn't figure would. A student needed something to read, remembered that I give suggestions, and even though she's no longer in my class, used her resources to get where she was trying to go. And that conversation with her totally made my day.