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!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

A 2 Year-Old’s Favorite “Things That Go” Books #TeacherMom

You know your local library rocks when even your two year-old can access his favorites with ease. One such accessibility detail includes sorting the high-interest books by category, such as ABC’s, colors, dinosaurs, princesses, potty training, and above all (at least in my son’s eyes), “Things that Go.”

Every week, he makes a beeline for that section, quickly piling books on tractors, buses, cars, boats, planes, and bikes (and every week, we face the immortal struggle as he refuses add his books to the bag, but he can’t carry his entire selection. I can’t be the only parent that has failed to convince their child of the purpose of the book bag, can I?).

20161109_105628

Over time, I’ve come to notice he has definite preferences. So, for other parents of “things-that-go”-loving kids out there, I thought I’d share those for today’s #TeacherMom post. After all, every book in their hands that helps them make significant personal meaning is what it’s all about. And right now, for my son, most of that significant personal meaning revolves around “things that go.” So here we go:

construction

His absolute most-selected “things-that-go” book is Sally Sutton’s “Construction.” It might be the attention to detail in constructing a building. Or the variety of tractors and construction vehicles. Or perhaps the fun rhythm and abundant onomatopoeia. Or all of the above.

night-driving

This is probably the most my son has enjoyed a black-and-white illustrated book. “Night Driving,” by John Coy depicts a special nighttime road trip with a father and his son.

sheep-in-a-jeep

Sheep in a Jeep” by Nancy Shaw has now brought multi-generational delight to my family. The spare rhymes offer endless laughter with hilarious illustrations to match.

the-plan

Alison Paul’s “The Plan” is an instant classic. For now, my son just enjoys the process of a child constructing a plane, but eventually, I’m sure he’ll come to appreciate the deeper themes, along with the simple literary construct of shifting one letter per page.

flight-1-2-3

“Flight 1-2-3” by Maria van Lieshout is another frequent choice. The graphic design and use of actual airport symbols engage my son every time.

axel-annie

A bus + an enjoyable story-line of perseverance = another favorite read. “Axle Annie” by Robin Pulver will have your child wondering what’s next!

little-blue-truck

Alice Schertle’s “Little Blue Truck” gets double points with my 2 year-old as it brings farm animals into the mix. And I love that it addresses what kindness really means.

who-sank-the-boat

Another oldie-but-eternally-goodie is Pamela Allen’s “Who Sank the Boat?” It’s always fun for little ones to guess who, in fact, will sink that boat!

on-the-move

“Little Explorers: On the move” by Ruth Martin is a recent nonfiction discovery that has also become an instant favorite. My son spends a good deal of time checking under every single flap.

little-reds-riding-hood

“Little Red’s Riding ‘Hood” by Peter Stein is a delightful vehicular fractured fairy tale. Little Red the scooter meets the big bad Tank–what’s not to love?

old-mcdonald-had-a-truck

“Old MacDonald Had a Truck” by Steve Goetz is another fabulous vehicles-meets-farm story, with an ending that reveals what Old MacDonald and Mrs. MacDonald have been working on all along.

duck-on-a-bike

In “Duck on a Bike” by David Shannon, Duck shares his bike-riding antics with all the other farm animals–and finds out what happens when a bunch of kids park their bikes.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Meeting Your Students’ Authentic Reading Needs with Goodreads

I recently started reading Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer. Two quotes stand out sharply to me. The first:

“I believe that this corporate machinery of scripted programs, comprehension worksheets (reproducibles, handouts, printables, whatever you want to call them), computer-based incentive packages, and test practice curriculum facilitates a solid bottom-line for the companies that sell them, and give schools proof they can point to that they are using every available resource to teach reading, but these efforts are doomed to fail a large number of students because they leave out the most important factor. When you take a forklift and shovel off the programs, underneath it all is a child reading a book.”

Amen!

“I am a reader, a flashlight-under-the-covers, carries-a-book-everywhere-I-go, don’t-look-at-my-Amazon-bill. I choose purses based on whether I can cram a paperback into them, and my books are the first items I pack into a suitcase. I am the person who family and friends call when they need a book recommendation or cannot remember who wrote Heidi. My identity as a person is so entwined with my love of reading and books that I cannot separate the two.”

The best literacy teachers I know of are these kinds of readers. And they do it without the “corporate machinery” of literacy instruction.

It’s obvious why, isn’t it? For one thing, they are able to give timely book recommendations tailored to students’ needs and interests; their kids don’t need those drill-and-kill comprehension worksheets when they are already talking excitedly about that book you helped them find! More importantly, these teachers have thoroughly shaken off the hypocrisy of teaching students to embrace something they themselves do not. They keep literary enthusiasm front and center, regarding books as familiar friends, rather than as benchmarks to “pass off.” They are the embodiment of those “not the filling…a pail, but the lighting…a fire” (William Butler Yeats). Our literacy teachers should be the best readers around.

Yet, for me personally, I admit that I have felt overwhelmed by these prodigious teacher-readers. I love reading, but I have limitations that make me worry that I wouldn’t be able to meet my students’ needs as well as they can.

For me, those limitations here boil down to problems: #1) I’m a slow reader. #2) I have a terrible memory for book titles.

Enter Goodreads. Though I’ve had an account for years, I’d always considered it to be too cumbersome to use regularly. But the two features below have at last shown me how my efforts there can be richly rewarded and magnified to meet my students’ and my own reading needs.

Problem #1: Slow reading 

I don’t read the volume of books that these teacher-readers that I admire do. Without that volume, it’s difficult to offer suggestions that sufficiently meet their needs and interests. But as I sort books that I have read into custom digital shelves on Goodreads (see below), it generates recommendations based on the genres/levels of those shelves. This allows me to leverage the reading/reviews of millions of other readers to help me get that perfect book in my students’ hands.

Problem #2: Memory for titles

For the still-many books I am able to read, the titles tend to swirl together over time, making it difficult to pull one out for a timely student recommendation. Goodreads solves this problem by allowing me to sort and “shelve” these books into a personalized library with custom categories.

To an outsider, my many shelves may seem like madness, but for me, I know they will help me pick out the trees in the forest, so to speak. Some of my current shelves include:

  • 5th grade: Friendship (titles like WonderFlora and UlyssesThe Inquisitor’s Tale: Or the Three Magical Children and their Holy Dog, Three Times Lucky…)
  • 5th grade: Other-Worldly-Whimsical (The Magician’s Elephant, The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas, The Wild Robot)
  • 5th grade: Overcoming Odds (Rules, Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller, Holes)
  • Picture books: Challenging Status Quo (“In Mary’s Garden,” “Rosie Revere, Engineer,” “Cinder Edna,” “Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music”)
  • Picture books: Loss and Emotion (“The Heart and the Bottle,” “Boats for Papa,” “Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgois”)
  • Picture books: Unexpected Endings & Humor (“Stuck,” “The Skunk,” “The Wolf’s Chicken Stew”)

Bonus feature: Integrate your search with your local library’s database!

Today, I added a button to my account that takes me from a book page on Goodreads directly to the book on my library’s online catalog. This allows me to check availability and to place a hold that much more easily! Here’s a link to help you learn how to add the button. If you run into any trouble, just contact Goodread’s customer support and they will add your library for you so you can select it from their list! 🙂

Whatever your strategy–whether through Goodreads or more regularly scheduled library visits–our students will reap the benefits when we choose to commit to move toward greater authenticity as readers ourselves.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Hunting For Good Nonfiction Picture Books (10 Ideas) #TeacherMom

In the middle of a long speech about her favorite books, my 6 year old recently said something that surprised me: “But learning books are boring.”

I paused, not quite sure what she meant by “learning books.” Then I asked, “Do you mean nonfiction–books about real people and places and facts?”

“Yeah, I don’t like those ones very much.”

As I thought a bit more, I was transported back to my own elementary school years–I could almost feel the musty dinginess of the nonfiction corner of the library again. I honestly didn’t like nonfiction very much as a kid, either.

So I told her, “You know what, I have a hard time liking learning books sometimes, too. They often don’t really tell a story, do they? And I’ve noticed that a lot of time, the pictures aren’t as fun. But you know what? There are WAY more fun nonfiction books now than when I was a kid. How about we hunt together for the good ones?”

Since then, we’ve been working to shift her opinion of nonfiction.  I try to forego even telling her a book is nonfiction until we finish reading it–then it’s all the more a pleasant surprise when she finds out how much she liked that “learning book.”

This is just one of several strategies to help students become better readers and enjoy the process of making meaning for themselves–which, of course, is what reading is all about.

Since we started this expedition, here are a few of our favorite discoveries. If you have any great “learning books” to share, too, please add them in the comments–my 6 year old and I will thank you!

swan

Laurel Snyder’s biography of dancer Anna Pavlova had us both mesmerized. The beautiful illustrations and vibrant storytelling felt like a dance in and of themselves. My daughter spent days afterward creating her own versions of “Swan.”

in-marys-garden

I love the way Tina Kugler shares Mary Nohl’s love of making art for her own enjoyment. It’s a beautiful and important message for kids everywhere.

 

luna-and-me

My daughter couldn’t wait until the end of the story to find out if this was a real “learning book.” We were both eager to learn more at the end of Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw’s book about Julia Hill’s conservation activism.

 

some-bugs

A simple and charming read by Angela DiTerlizzi to get us thinking about all the different types of bugs and their functions.

over-under-the-snow

Kate Messner’s Over & Under the Snow was really an eye-opener to get my 6 year old considering what happens to animals in the wintertime.

actual-size

Both my daughter and my 2 year old son loved Steve Jenkins’ Actual Size, comparing the images with their own hands.

 

finding-winnie

Lindsay Mattick’s story of this loveable bear is an instant classic. You’ll be surprised to find out whose origin story this is…

 

im-trying-to-love-spiders

Despite Bethany Barton’s best efforts in providing all the facts that show what useful and loveable(?) creatures spiders are, my 6 year old still wasn’t convinced. But she did walk around afterward for a while telling people that she was trying to love spiders.

 

water-is-water

Miranda Paul does a beautiful job introducing the water cycle in a way that will captivate any audience, sparking our imagination for the many forms and uses of water.

 

look-up

Already an avid birder (following after daddy’s footsteps), it wasn’t tough to get my daughter to love this one. But I was impressed at just how engaging and informative Annette LeBlanc Cate’s guide on bird watching was. And best of all, it resulted in my daughter creating her own birding field journal.

Evolution of the Narrative in Picture Books (& Ideas For Your Next Library Visit)

I just finished putting a slew of new picture books on hold at our local public library.

Some were new releases by more contemporary beloved authors, like a new Jon Klassen (Another hat book! “We Found a Hat”), Andrea Beaty (“Ada Twist, Scientist”), and Oliver Jeffers (“A Child of Books”).

Others were by newly discovered authors like Amy Young (“A Unicorn Named Sparkle”) and Dan Yaccarino (“I Am a Story”).

And one was Doreen Cronin’s “Click, Clack, Moo,” which I should really just go ahead and buy already, because my 2 year-old is obsessed with cows.

As my mind sifts through all these authors’ styles, I’m struck by the huge amount of creative narrative voice out there these days. And even more by how dramatically the narrative seems to have evolved over the course of my lifetime.

Classics I enjoyed in my youth, such as Tomie Paola’s “Strega Nona,” Rafe Martin’s “The Rough-Face Girl,” James Marshall’s “Miss Nelson is Missing,” and Ellen Jackson’s “Cinder Edna” (publications ranging from the 70’s to the 90’s), almost always used a more traditional third-person narrative and voice.

A larger flux of first-person reads comes to mind when I think of the 2000’s, like Melinda Long’s “How I Became A Pirate” and Jane O’Connor’s “Fancy Nancy.”

And today it seems like most of the books I check out have incredibly unique narrative techniques and voice–so much so that it’s hard to neatly classify them. There’s Adam Rubin’s playful way of alternating speaking directly to the reader (“Hey, kid! Did you know dragons love tacos?”) and to other characters (“Hey, dragon, how do you feel about spicy taco toppings?”). Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett’s “Battle Bunny” with its dual narration. And of course, B.J. Novak’s “The Book With No Pictures” is truly in a narrative league of its own.

The upside of this shift is obviously our literary enjoyment.

But a potential downside/caution can arise when teachers get stuck in a rut on what a story should look like. Especially if they haven’t familiarized themselves with these modern classics that don’t always comply with the rules. Especially if they push the upside-down V story map so hard that students’ creative voices are quelled when their stories lack a setting (like Mo Willems’ Pigeon books) or when their pictures–not their words–illustrate the problem (like Mac Barnett’s “Sam & Dave Dig a Hole”).

In the end, I think the most important take-away is that it’s easier for us as teachers and parents to embrace the creativity if we stay current on it ourselves. If we stay stuck in the nostalgia of how things looked in our childhood, we may miss incredible opportunities to re-imagine and push the status quo.

new-picture-books

featured image: Kurt

#TeacherMom: Who’s Creating the Literacy Environment?

“Mom? Book?” [My two-year old suddenly chooses a book for me]. “There you go.”

[Walks over to the sofa and pats on a cushion] “Sit. Sit.” [I sit]. “You’re welcome.”

[Settles on the other side of the sofa with his library Lightning McQueen book].

A short time later, he also carefully arranges his stuffed fish with its own book about whales. 

His self-satisfaction is palpable.

Though literacy development has been of particular interest to me as a teacher, this exchange was just the latest in a long string of surprises in my teacher-parent-table-turning saga. One might expect that a teacher would always be anticipating and orchestrating the “next steps” in their own children’s academic growth. But the truth is, it blows my mind on a daily basis to witness the juxtaposition of what I think I know as a professional with my kids’ applications with the realities of daily life.

For instance, I knew that parents modeling reading for pleasure is essential for literacy development.

I knew that providing an abundance of books is important to provide my children with the access they need.

I knew that library books are key in providing that access (I actually counted the books in our house after reading the above-linked article, and I know that if my family depended on our book budget alone, we’d be in trouble).

But I didn’t know how quickly the busyness of life can overtake these practices.

I didn’t know just how much of an impact even our imperfect practices can have on our young children.

And I didn’t know how exceptionally dictatorial assertive my toddler could be when it comes to books.

So even though I should be the all-knowing teacher/mom taking the lead on all things involving academic development, it’s clear that this has already become a shared, symbiotic kind of culture. Truth be told, I think I like it better that way. And I looking forward to that application with future students.

By the way–the book he picked for me? It was was actually one I’d been meaning to read for a couple of weeks, but hadn’t yet gotten to. Thanks to him, I got just the jump-start I needed.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Come back next Wednesday for another “#TeacherMom” post. Read here for the rest of my weekly blogging topic schedule/background.

Why You Should Watch The Little Prince As this School Year Starts

When Netflix announced their film rendition of The Little Prince, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who worried whether it would do justice to the literary masterpiece.

Creative license was certainly taken to help weave the original ideas through a more chronological narrative, but I found it to have a complementary rather than competing effect.

But for reasons beyond simple enjoyment of a beautiful piece of art, I found myself repeatedly thinking what a marvelous watch this would make for anyone involved in education. I’ve listed the reasons I found most significant below.

#1: It reminds us to see the world through students’ eyes.

Amid a tense plot point when the Aviator’s fate hung in the balance, the protagonist’s mother told her, “Remember, tomorrow is a very important day.”

My daughter promptly said, “Not to her. The only important thing to her is that old man.”

It seems ironic that the very standards/hopes/priorities that are supposed to be about our students are the very fog that can prevent us from truly seeing those students: their learning, their hopes, and their priorities.

#2 It reminds us not to take too much stock in one solution, program, or set of standards.

“How can everything that is essential be in one book?”

When we depend entirely on one boxed program to “cover” content, we will absolutely miss out on what is most essential. After all, it’s in the little, messy moments that we find the real thinking and learning (not, as those boxed programs would lead us to believe, in all the “right answers” that students regurgitate).

#3 It reminds us to honor the present

“You’re going to make a wonderful adult.” (Protagonist’s mother)

With all the pressures on “readiness,” we can all use a reminder to see the child in front of us right now.

#4 …While also reminding us to consider what matters most for the future.

“You’re going to make a wonderful adult.” (Aviator)

I found it significant that this same line takes on different meanings in the two contexts. The same is true when we consider our children’s futures in general. Allowing our actions to be driven by fear of failure (theirs and de facto ours) just yields more stress and panic. Acting out of optimism for who our children are now and their worthwhile developing qualities produces more hope and confidence.

featured image: MissMayoi