Top 10 Read Alouds for Upper Elementary from 2016

2016 has been an excellent reading year for me. I’ve renewed my use of Goodreads, enjoyed sequels in favorite series, and discovered a new genre I deeply enjoy (more on that later). My old lists of read alouds for upper elementary grades featured a lot of favorites I had read long ago (first list, second list), but not a lot of recent reads.

So to keep my recommendations fresh, and to help me keep up my momentum of reading more books, I want to start making a habit of sharing my favorites reads at the end of each year, starting today (note, these are not necessarily books published this year, but rather ones that I read this year). Hopefully this list will be timely for teachers looking for a quality winter-break stack (and for my own children and students down the road)!

#10: Confessions of an Imaginary Friend: A Memoir by Jacques Papier, by Michelle Cuevas

This book had me tickled by the fact that, without the title, readers wouldn’t even realize the narrator was not, in fact, a living breathing member of the family for the first several chapters. Rather, he seems more like just a kid with a lot of problems with getting ignored. This is a genre that I’ve designated as “other-worldly whimsical,” a personally-defined subset of modern fantasy of which I find myself constantly wanting more. A hilarious yet profound read about belonging and self-understanding.

#9The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas, by David Almond

This book originally caught my eye because of Oliver Jeffers. I was delighted to discover that David Almond’s style very much parallel’s Jeffers’. Follow Stanley Potts as he discovers his destiny far from his fish-canning home. You and your students will enjoy themes of courage, confidence, wonder, rules, and conformity. Also one I’d classify “other-worldly whimsical.”

#8: The Magician’s Elephant, by Kate DiCamillo

The Magician’s Elephant felt like a lovely poem or perhaps a dream. “We must ask ourselves these questions as often as we dare. How will the world change if we do not question it?” Peter Augustus Duchene changes his world by asking the question, “Does my sister live?” Readers then follow him through an enchanting and mysterious tale of truth and love.

#7: The War that Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Like the Pevensies of Narvia, Ada and her little brother are sent to the country away from war-torn London during WWII. There, they, too, discover a new world with their caretaker–one full of love, acceptance, and hope. This historical fiction will move and inspire your class.

#6: The Wild Robot, by Peter Brown

This outdoor adventure-loving girl fell in love with this book the moment I read the words, “If you stand still in nature long enough, something will fall on you.” It’s just so–real. Peter Brown helps us ponder what might actually happen if an advanced A.I. robot found herself on an uninhabited island. How might she adapt to her surroundings? Would she be able to learn the language of animals? And would she–a man-made creation–be able to find her place in the natural world?

#5: The Inquisitor’s Tale, Or Three Magical Children & Their Holy Dogby Adam Gidwitz

From the fascinating approach to narration, to the way we are invited to truly access life in medieval times, this is a fresh and truly unique story. I especially loved the idea of “illumination” as opposed to illustration, keeping in line with a common medieval practice. Learn of three children whose powers have the entire kingdom–from the king of France down–in awe, fear, and/or admiration.

#4: The Seventh Wish, by Kate Messner 

See my review here.

#3: Pax, by Sara Pennypacker

This is a tale of bonds that even miles and a war-torn country cannot break. Follow a story that shifts in perspective between Pax the fox and his boy, Peter.

#2: Lockwood & Company, The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud

If you are looking for a series that will have your students begging for more, this is it (I actually read book 4 in the series this year, The Creeping Shadow, and am dying to find out when book 5 comes out!). Lucy and her companions, Lockwood and George, are teenage agents working to rid London of the Problem (a development in which ghosts return, wreaking panic and death among the living). Only children can see the Visitors, but Lockwood’s is the only company that consists only of children. It is a bit creepy, so you might want to run it by your students before choosing it as a read aloud–but if they aren’t too nervous, it will have them on the edge of their seats!

#1: Three Times Lucky, by Sheila Turnage

I just finished reading the third and final book in this series (The Odds of Getting Even), and I loved every moment of it! Mo is probably the wittiest and sassiest 6th grader you’ll meet, and her best friend Dale is an equally loveable character. Follow the duo as they establish the Desperados Detective Agency and solve a murder. Packed with hilarious figurative language, mystery, and small town charm, Three Times Lucky is simply a must-read!

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Inquiry Into Cultures and Open-Mindedness

“The aim of all IB programmes is to develop internationally minded people who, recognizing their common humanity and shared guardianship of the planet, help to create a better and more peaceful world.”

While I taught at an IB (International Baccalaureate) we were encouraged to cultivate the 10 traits defined within the Learner Profile (inquirer, knowledgeable, thinker, communicator, principled, open-minded, caring, risk-taker, balanced, reflective).

This week’s provocation (appropriate for upper elementary and older) will look particularly at the open-minded quality. When I think of open-mindedness, cultural perspective readily comes to mind.

The first resource is one I’ve shared with my fifth graders in the past, and has made for some fascinating conversation. Graphic artist Yang Liu’s East Meets West helps students start to consider how our cultural differences influence the way people approach various situations (click link above for more of her images).

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The second is the awe-inspiring story of Rais Bhuiyan, a Muslim American who was shot in the aftermath of 9/11, but who worked to save his assailant from death row. I particularly appreciate how this illustrates that whatever our differences, compassion can bring us unity, understanding, and healing.

Provocation Questions:

  • How is open-mindedness related to cultures?
  • What is our responsibility for open-mindedness?
  • How does open-mindedness help with fearfulness (or other negative emotions)?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

What Featured Images Taught Me About Creativity

Stock photos have always made me giggle a bit. I think that’s why I fell in love with My Imaginary Well-Dressed Toddler Quinoa (I’ve included an example below in case you are not yet familiar with Tiffany Beveridge’s Pinterest wit):

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Yet when I first started blogging, I found myself using them because, well, isn’t that what bloggers do?

Thankfully, that ended the day it finally dawned on me that, at best, they were doing nothing for the meaning I wanted to convey (and at worst, they were a possible detraction). This revelation had me ready to ditch featured images in general.

Fortunately, that was around the time I also discovered Death To The Stock Photo, a company committed to sharing high quality, artistic images.

I was immediately impressed. Though (because?) there were no shots of smiling students raising their hands, I sensed an opportunity.

My initial thought was that using these photos would enhance the general aesthetic of the blog. That certainly was an instant effect.

But over time, I realized that something more was happening. I had gone from thinking that posts about classrooms/students required images of classrooms/students, to realizing that when I featured an image that I found genuinely inspiring, it matters.

It matters because it makes me think about making connections that are less obvious (such as this image of a tool display to go along with my post on curation).

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It matters because it makes me wonder. Unlike stock photos, each of these images clearly tell a story, and I love imagining what those stories might be (like the image below that I used for a post on refugees).

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And it matters because it makes me feel. The photos are no longer filler. They have real soul and significance and authenticity (I really loved selecting this image from the “Tactile” photopack for my post on helping students discover more personal meaning).

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All of this makes me consider how we go about teaching and learning. 

Are there any practices we do arbitrarily?

Are there ways we can dig deeper to get away from practices that feel too obvious and spoon-fed?

Are there ways we can use passion and creativity to invite rather than push learning more often?

Can we turn more often to sources that make us think, wonder, and feel?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

What is the Ship? What is the Sea? 4 Ideas for Vision #TeacherMom

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These words turn my mind to all the spheres of my life, past and present. What is the ship? What is the sea?

When I look at my children, the ship-building vision comes readily: raising healthy, happy, and competent individuals. It’s why I require them to wear clean underwear, to eat vegetables, to brush their teeth, to say ‘sorry.’

When I recall my 5th graders, a similar ship comes to mind: self-aware and self-driven people who can drive their personal learning and growth. It’s why I asked them to write in complete sentences, to reflect with peers, to study out evidence for thinking, to keep track of goals.

I find it interesting how easily these tasks and expectations quickly slip from being part of grander vision, down to dreary repetition. In isolation, no one much wants to do any of those things. But when we elevate our sights to that “vast and endless sea,” our days change. A few ideas come to mind when I consider how we can help our children and students catch the vision of the sea, not only for their futures, but for their present daily experiences:

    • Constantly ask why, and help them to do the same. It’s tough because there is always so much to do in a perpetually tight schedule, but it’s worth the effort to slow down. Ensure students aren’t just “getting it done” so we can get it done. I admire the way Katherine Hansen brings the why into a simple yet effective place in her classroom:

  • Deliberately cultivate creativity and inspiration. Show videos of awe-inspiring phenomena, mind-boggling inventions, and stories of perseverance and possibility. Help them find their personal passion to help them drive their daily efforts.
  • Let them experience natural consequences. This is not really about “tough love,” grades, or getting them to see how correct we are in our requests for them to perform the daily tasks. It’s about helping them gradually discover the need for these tasks and skills independently. And it requires a lot of metacognition instruction on our part to help them think more about their thinking process so they can identify what is going wrong and what is going right.
  • Cultivate ownership, choice, and voice. Yes, they still have to wear clean underwear and write in complete sentences. But when we give our kids as many choices as possible and let them in on the learning plan, it makes a tremendous difference in their ability to see beyond the mundane daily to-do list. Check out this fantastic example of student agency by Charlotte Hills.

If we’re not careful, life can become like one long series of “gathering wood, dividing the work, and giving orders.” Elevate the vision. Seek the inspiration. And help all those around you to also “yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

I would love to hear more ideas for ways you help your students elevate their vision! Please share in the comments!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Zipcodes: A “How We Organize Ourselves” Provocation

A while back, I shared a provocation to support one of the IB Primary Years Programme Units known as Who We Are. This week, I want to share one that can be used with How We Organize Ourselves. Take a look at this fascinating video to find out how the US went about the problem of an exponentially growing volume of mail.

Provocation Questions:

  • How are problem-solving and organization connected?
  • How did the zip-code solution change over time?
  • How might future zip code solutions impact people?
  • Why do we keep changing the way we organize systems?
  • What is our responsibility to keep changing the way we organize systems?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Provocation Into Recycling, Sustainability, & Making a Difference through Creativity

These two videos have really caught my eye lately. The first is entitled, “Washed Ashore, Art to Save the Sea:”

The second is one I used in an inquiry into inquiry with some teachers last month, in which artist Phil Hansen shares his experience when he developed a tremor in his hands:

Provocation Questions:

  • How does using (or reusing) what we already have impact our lives?
  • How can our limitations or problems provide opportunities?
  • What role does creativity play in solving problems?
  • How is recycling connected to creativity?
  • What is our responsibility to use our creative talents to improve the world?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

What We’re Still Not Getting About How Teaching & Learning Has Changed

Last month, I followed Pernille Ripp’s 7th grade English class’ progress through a project on refugees. I even pointed to it in a recent post as an example of Twitter’s potential for learning. And on Tuesday, Microsoft shared a beautiful Youtube video of their experience:

After witnessing how all this learning and growing has unfolded, I was saddened to encounter the following comment on the Youtube video:

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It’s not the first time we’ve heard this kind of rhetoric, nor will it be the last. The “reading, writing, ‘rithmatic” camp is still alive and well.

However, what those who are of this mindset still don’t understand is that this is English in today’s world.

A world in which we’re flooded with false, misleading, and clickbait-y “news.”

A world in which current events no longer sit quietly in the morning paper, and instead are loudly debated at all times from the devices in our pockets.

A world in which the negative is amplified and distorted truths go viral.

So when the standards instruct us to “engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions with diverse partners on grade 7 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.7.1), is it beyond English instruction to tackle an issue that is very much a part of their lives?

Or when we’re to teach students to “Delineate a speaker’s argument and specific claims, evaluating the soundness of the reasoning and the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.7.3), is it beyond English instruction to seek out civility and compassion to help bring clarity to current events fraught with misinformation?

The truth is, we can’t just direct our students to the encyclopedia anymore. The volume and quality of the information our students receive every day from the Internet is staggering, and we simply cannot pretend that it does not shape their learning process. Especially since with greater global access comes greater global citizenship. Thus, dramatic is the difference between asking a student from 1990 vs. 2016 to “Trace and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient to support the claims” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.7.8).

In the complexity of teaching and learning today, 21st century educators know that we are tasked to teach our students how to think, not what to think.

Or, as Pernille put it so well herself at the onset of this project,

“My job is not to make you think a certain way, my job is to make you think.  So whatever your opinion may be, all I ask of you is to have one based on fact, rather than what others believe.  Keep your ears open and ask a lot of questions.  That is the least you can do as the future of this country.”

Keep up the great work, Pernille, and all other teachers dedicated to helping their students make sense of this dynamic and exponentially shifting world!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto