Provocative Nonfiction about the Birth of Our Nation

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

I used to think that nonfiction was not my thing. But I’m a librarian, so I have to make it my thing in order to best serve my students and staff. Still, I often felt like I was twisting my own arm while reading nonfiction.

But then, as I often tell reluctant readers, after a few missteps with the wrong books at the wrong times, I started to find exciting, narrative nonfiction that was as captivating and readable as my favorite fiction pieces.

I was reading unbelievable stories about mutinies, revolutions, sports stars, and even corpses, and they were true! Not only did I have a great tale to tempt my students with, but every event actually happened.

People are enchanted by dynamic, true stories even more so than by fiction because they engage our child-like curiosity about the many events and topics that have previously eluded us. Yes, we have been in school (or out of school) for years, but we haven’t yet learned it all. I recently finished reading In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives, by Kenneth C. Davis (a 2017 YALSA Excellence in Young Adult Nonfiction finalist) and found myself alight with all that I had learned and wanted to share with others.

The Story

In the Shadow of Liberty tells the true stories of five African-Americans who were enslaved by four of the country’s founding fathers. We learn about Billy Lee, Washington’s right-hand man on and off the battlefield; and Ona Judge, Washington’s house maid who escaped and was fervently hunted by both George and Martha Washington.

We hear about Paul Jennings, who grew up playing with Dolly Madison’s oldest son, though Jennings was already enslaved to the family. And we learn of Isaac Granger, who was enslaved to Thomas Jefferson after Jefferson wrote a law ending slave trading to America.

Finally, we read about Alfred Jackson. Jackson lived his entire life at Andrew Jackson’s “Hermitage,” watching as Andrew ordered enslaved workers to be whipped savagely–but then doled out vast sums to provide defense lawyers for enslaved men on trial for involvement in a slave rebellion.

Kenneth C. Davis writes about the full scope of the labor that these five people were expected to perform. He describes the way that they were treated, and most especially, the roles that they played in the major accomplishments of their owners.

Why It’s Worth Reading

We spend a great deal of time learning about the Founding Fathers and the way that they helped develop the country and institute democracy. But like all famous figures, these men did not work alone.

There were many people, including hundreds of enslaved people, who fought in the wars, managed the meetings, and built famous structures, like the White House. Billy Lee went everywhere with George Washington, fought alongside him, and carried his most precious items and documents. He is one of the most famous enslaved people in U.S. history, yet no one knows when he died or where he is buried. He never even knew his own birthday.

The thing that stands out to me most about this book is a great historical paradox. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Jackson were all deeply involved in battles related to rights and liberties, but each of them failed to consider, at least initially, that enslaving others was a direct contradiction to their fights for freedom.

This book will make you think about American history in a completely new way. It’s a fabulous text to work into a history or sociology class, and I can see it as an engaging title for students who are interested in current civil rights issues. In the Shadow of Liberty could turn anyone into a nonfiction convert.

Book Details:
Title: In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives
Author: Kenneth C. Davis
Reading Level: AR = 8.2
ISBN: 9781627793117
Publisher: Henry Holt & Company
Publication Date: September 20, 2016
Format: Hardcover
Awards/Accolades: 2017 YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults finalist and at least 3 starred reviews

Bethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and was the recipient of the 2015 Michigan School Librarian of the Year Award.  She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group.  She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education.  She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.

Star-Crossed Lovers for a Modern World

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

sun is also a starStar-crossed lovers . . .  by the time that nearly every high school student reads Romeo and Juliet, the battle between love and tremendous odds has become one of the most common motifs in all forms of the media they consume.

Songwriters pen lyrics about trying to make love work–in opposition to fierce outside forces. Countless movies and television shows depict relationships blossoming, and sometimes subsequently wilting, as friends, family, and even pets put forth major resistance.

But the world of literature is the big kahuna for complicated romance, and YA literature has a corner on the market. It is only fitting that young people make the best star-crossed lovers (even Shakespeare thought so), since their relationships are under more scrutiny and supervision than those of most adults.

I’ve read some truly excellent YA novels that have come out in the last few years, and are about conflicted or ill-fated romance (Eleanor & Park, Like No OtherDaughter of Smoke & Bone). But The Sun is Also a Star tops my list. (I’m not alone; see Awards & Accolades in the Book Details section of this post).

The Plot

The day that Natasha and Daniel meet is one that is already slated to change both of their lives.

Daniel is headed to his Yale admission interview. If it goes well, he’s headed to Connecticut to become a doctor, just like his parents have always wanted.

Natasha’s family is being deported to Jamaica–tonight. She’s hoping to meet with a lawyer to figure out a way to stay. They are in the middle of major moments in their lives, but when they meet, they both have entirely new reasons for staying in New York. Do they dare disturb the universe and its plan already in progress? Or is being together part of the plan?

Why It’s Worth Reading

There are a lot of sappy teen romances out there. This isn’t one of them.

The Sun is Also a Star is a clever, sincere, hilarious–yet poignant–story about two young people who don’t have time or space in their lives for each other. But they just cannot help themselves. They come from completely different cultures and have completely different life philosophies. No one would ever put them together, and some are actively trying to keep them apart. But the universe has other plans.

As an adult, I appreciated that while this is a teen romance of the sweeping-off-the-feet variety, this relationship is not one dimensional. Their lives continue when they are apart. Their problems do not simply disappear because they have fallen in love. This is love in the real world: consuming, but complex.

If the story itself were not enough, author Nicola Yoon also includes chapters that depart from the narrative, and which function as informative asides. This adds tremendous depth and oft-needed background to the plot.

One of these asides, for example, might focus on a minor character with whom Natasha interacts for only a few minutes, giving history and explanations about how their momentary interaction has a lasting impact. Later in the story, after the reader learns that Daniel’s South Korean parents own a black-hair-care store, one of these chapters briefly but compellingly explains the fascinating history of the South Korean hair trade, which led to nearly all black-hair-care shops in New York being owned by immigrants from South Korea.

There is a reason that this novel made seemingly all of the “best of” lists in 2016, and was a finalist in multiple award categories, including the John Steptoe New Talent Award (a sub-category of the Coretta Scott King Award) and National Book Award. As YA star-crossed lover novels go, it’s hard to beat.

Book Details:
Title: 
The Sun is Also a Star
Author: Nicola Yoon
Reading Level: AR = 4.7, Lexile = HL650L
ISBN: 9780553496680
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication Date: November 1, 2016
Format: Hardcover
Awards/Accolades: 2017 Printz Award finalist, 2017 John Steptoe Award for New Talent, 2016 National Book Award finalist and at least five starred reviews!

pic of meBethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and was the recipient of the 2015 Michigan School Librarian of the Year Award.  She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group.  She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education.  She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.

Excellent Debut Fiction about Detroit

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

american streetWhat’s more fun than reading a book set in a place with which you are intimately familiar? To read about restaurants, buildings, and even street names that you know personally is a small thrill.

Reading a book set in Detroit, my closest “big city,” adds an additional layer of excitement. I’ve lived within half an hour of Detroit for my entire life. I attended graduate school there, and I visit frequently. I have a certain amount of suburban pride for all that the city has to offer–despite never having lived within city limits.

I recently read a fantastic debut YA novel called American Street, which is about a Haitian immigrant who settles in Detroit. It offered recognizable street names and locations that connect me to the city, while showcasing the realities of a daily life that I have never actually experienced.

The Plot

Fabiola and her mother have been planning to leave Haiti for years. But when they finally make the trip, her mother is detained at the U.S. border.

Fabiola is forced to navigate her way to Detroit, and to live with family she has only known over the phone. Her aunt is mysterious and often ill, disappearing into her room for days at a time. Her cousins are legendary. Known around their school as the 3Bs, they strike fear into the hearts of anyone who crosses them.

Fabiola feels most at home with this side of her family, but she also fails to understand the complicated world in which they live. She wants to stay in the U.S. But she also misses Haiti and her mother, about whom no one else seems to share her concern. She’s living at the crossroads of Joy Road and American Street, and she has reached the crossroads in her life as well. Where does she belong?

Why It’s Worth Reading

Fabiola is a sympathetic character, and it’s so easy to relate to her consistent inner conflict. She wants to connect with her family and make new friends, but she can’t help but feel like she’s on the outside, looking in. As a reader, one’s own circumstances may be different, but everyone certainly knows the feeling of being pulled between two strong forces.

Plus, Fabiola opens up the city of Detroit in an entirely new way. She sees it through the eyes of strangers, navigating places familiar to me, but foreign to her. Her perspective of the city is fascinating. While she recognizes that it has many flaws, she draws direct comparisons to her hometown of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, an area which has also seen some struggles and setbacks. Author Ibi Zoboi, through Fabiola, is able to assess the community very matter-of-factly, without melodramatic judgment or the overwhelming historical perspective (a fall from greatness, or rejuvenation after that fall) that is often represented in books about Detroit.

And I have not even mentioned the incredible writing! The language is poetic. Hints of magical realism in the plot evoke a mystical mood. And tons of beautiful metaphors, most particularly with the street intersection of American and Joy, make it clear that this book is something special.

Book Details:
Title: American Street
Author: Ibi Zoboi
ISBN: 9780062473042
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Publication Date: February 14, 2017
Awards and Accolades: five starred reviews before release!
Source: Advanced Reader’s Copy (full disclosure: I received a free galley in exchange for my honest opinion)

pic of meBethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and was the recipient of the 2015 Michigan School Librarian of the Year Award.  She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group.  She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education.  She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.

International Settings Fill Contextual Pools

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

city of saints and thievesI’ve had frequent conversations about contextual pools lately. I hear more and more of my colleagues speaking about the challenges that arise in teaching their subject matter when the contextual pool of the students is so limited. That is, when our students have very little background knowledge on a subject, it is very difficult for them to learn new material or to garner any interest in doing so.

I found myself wondering about my own contextual pool and quickly realized that, like so many aspects of my identity, it is largely constructed and filled by my reading. When I consider my knowledge of a concept with which I have no personal experience, I recognize that my understanding or appreciation was gleaned from a book–and often a novel.

But in a novel, when all aspects of the settings, culture, and people are new, I can’t help but feel that I’m gaining a sliver of awareness about that world. My contextual pool is expanding.

I recently read City of Saints & Thieves, by Natalie C. Anderson, a YA suspense novel set in Africa that offered exactly this experience.

The Plot

Tina’s been plotting her revenge for the last four years. Her mother was murdered and Tina knows exactly who committed the crime.

She joins the Goondas, a gang in her town of Sangui City, Kenya, and with their help, she vows that she will take the murderer’s money, then his power, and finally, his life. On the night that she sneaks into his house to enact her plan, everything goes wrong and Tina finds herself caught by Michael, the killer’s son who swears that his father is innocent. He convinces Tina to give him a few days to figure out the truth behind the murder and, in doing so, opens a door to a past full of secrets, lies, and a family history that she never knew existed.

Why It’s Worth Reading

Some really excellent books set in African have been written in the last few years. Still, American publishers tend to publish works set in the United States. And if we branch out to other countries, it is much more common to find European settings than those on any other continent.

It’s fantastic to leave the familiar settings behind and explore a completely new part of the world with these characters. Plus, this book was an absolute page-turner! I was totally gripped by the mystery behind Tina’s family, her mother’s initial move from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to Kenya, and her complicated relationship with the wealthy and powerful Greyhill family.

Anderson does an incredible job of connecting the setting (particularly the DRC) to the story, and interweaving culture and history with the characters, as they journey to unearth the truth. My contextual pool steadily filled as I read about politics and corruption in countries with ever-changing leadership, as well as the daily events of communities engulfed in war. Reading about such events adds one more layer of value to this text–I found myself awash in gratitude that I live in a place that, despite its faults, is relatively safe, secure, and prosperous. New knowledge, an exciting plot, and feelings of gratitude combine in one book that is truly worth your time.

Book Details:
ISBN: 9780399547584
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: January 24, 2017
Awards/Accolades: 4 starred reviews only three days after its release
Source:  Advanced Reader’s Copy (Full disclosure: I received a free e-galley in exchange for my honest opinion.)

pic of meBethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and was the recipient of the 2015 Michigan School Librarian of the Year Award.  She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group.  She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education.  She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.

‘Tis the Season for a Fantasy Adventure

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

crowns-gameSomething about winter calls for a good, strong fantasy story. The cold, blustery weather makes me want to curl up and disappear into an epic tale full of adventure and magic. There’s no shortage of such stories available, but if your favorite reader has consumed all of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings iterations available, they will be itching for something new and exciting this year.

Look no further than The Crown’s Game, by Evelyn Skye, an alternate history set in enchanting Imperial Russia, with all of the magic, adventure, and romance for which fantasy buffs will clamor. (Bonus: The cover is gorgeous! We know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but most kids admit that they do anyway.)

The Plot

Vika’s father has been training her to manipulate weather and animals since she was a child. He wants her to become the Imperial Enchantor, the powerful magician who protects the Tsar and helps him defend Russia against enemies. It is the only thing she has ever wanted.

But Vika doesn’t know about Nikolai, the talented orphan adopted by a wealthy family that has helped him hone his abilities to charm machines and conjure fantasies from his dreams. They intend to make him Imperial Enchantor and solidify their place in Russia’s high society.

Neither Vika nor Nikolai know about the other, and neither of them know about the Crown’s Game — the Tsar’s magical battle that will force them to demonstrate their skills. The victor becomes the Imperial Enchantor and part of the Tsar’s Guard. The loser suffers defeat and dies.

Why It’s Worth Reading

We all have times when life gets busy or exhausting. Sometimes we need a break.

Reading this kind of fantasy fiction, set in an exotic location and full of activities that could never take place in real life, is like stepping out of reality for a few moments a day and taking a mental vacation. I’ve never had the privilege of traveling to Russia, but I felt like I was visiting the real locations depicted in the book — the colorful buildings of Nevsky Prospect and the regal Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. The Crown’s Game makes Russia intriguing and exciting, and may even spark some natural inquiry from students about where this book departs from history and becomes fiction.

9361589Additionally, this book reminded me of a Russian YA version of The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, which is a favorite of mine. Who doesn’t love a story in which the high-stakes battle pits soul-connected contestants against each other? I never stopped hoping that they would somehow manage to find a magical loophole so that they could both survive and go forward together. If you know teens who liked The Night Circus, encourage them to read this title, or start with The Crown’s Game and use it as a bridge to stretch their interest from YA into literary fiction.

Evelyn Skye is a debut author, but The Crown’s Game is the first book in a planned series (The Crown’s Fate is expected to release in May), and I have a feeling that it is going to be quite popular. Jump on the bandwagon before everyone else is doing it!

Book Details

Reading Level: AR = 5.9, Lexile = HL800L

ISBN: 9780062422583
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Balzer & Bray
Publication Date: May 17, 2016

Awards & Accolades: Starred review from Kirkus Reviews

Bethany Bratney

Bethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and was the recipient of the 2015 Michigan School Librarian of the Year Award.  She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group.  She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education.  She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.

A Book to Spark a Conversation

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

all-american-boysI recently read a knock-out YA novel. It happens to be one of the choices for the Global Read Aloud, and it sent me into a recommending and discussing orbit through both my school and personal life.

With the media flooded with police shootings, attacks on officers, and Black Lives Matter events nationwide, All-American Boys, by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, offers parents, teachers, and teens a perfect opportunity to open the door to a difficult but hopefully fruitful conversation.

The Plot

Rashad and Quinn go to the same school. They know some of the same people, but they’re not really friends. They are both headed to the same Friday night party when everything changes.

Quinn sees Rashad lying on the ground outside a convenience store. He’s been accused of theft and beaten severely–by a police officer, who is a close friend of Quinn’s family.

Quinn hopes that the whole event will blow over and that he’ll be able to erase the horrible image of a beaten and bloody Rashad from his mind. But as the week goes on, the community starts to divide and a movement starts to build–#RashadIsAbsentAgainToday. Now Quinn has to make a big decision. Which side is he on?

Why It’s Worth Reading

Adults who spends time with teenagers find themselves needing to have difficult conversations about the world around us. The interactions among high school students raise plenty of questions, not to mention the frequently unsettling events of the world at large.

As a worry-worst parent of two boys under four, the possibility of these complicated queries already keeps me up at night. (Is “Dad wanted to talk to you about that” an acceptable response?) As a teacher, I struggle to find the right balance between acknowledging concerns and encouraging students to seek understanding for themselves.

Enter a well-written, thought-provoking book like All-American Boys. Such a book puts the topic into play, eliminating the onus for an awkward introduction, and allowing all who partake to feel engaged in the global conversation.

This book moved me. It helped me clarify some feelings and ideas that, even as an adult, were difficult for me to summarize and express. It reminded me that good books have power–power to start a conversation, power to inspire change, power to foster empathy. I may soon start to annoy people because I won’t stop talking about this book, but this is a conversation that is worth starting.

Book Details:
Reading Level: AR = 4.9, Lexile = HL770L
ISBN: 9781481463331
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Atheneum
Publication Date: September 29, 2015
Awards/Accolades: 5 starred reviews & Jason Reynolds won the Coretta Scott King Author award in January, shortly after this book was published.

Bethany Bratney

Bethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and was the recipient of the 2015 Michigan School Librarian of the Year Award.  She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group.  She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education.  She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.

A YA Novel Takes On Mental Health

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

highly-illogical-behaviorYoung adult (YA) literature often gets a bad rap. As a high school librarian, I hear the worst of the stereotypes often. One of the most common is that YA literature is too “dark” or “heavy” or “moody.” I find this perspective perplexing.

“Dark” murder mysteries and spy thrillers dominate adult best-seller lists. The independent novels that seem to thrive and become blockbuster films are often “heavy” (e.g., Roomby Emma Donoghue; Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline; and Me Before You, by JoJo Moyes). Many assume that teenagers want to read about serious, unappealing life issues like death, addiction, and mental health concerns because teenagers are “moody.” They don’t imagine that teenagers would search for literature featuring characters their age, dealing with legitimate life events in a realistic and not-always-happy way.

Over the summer, I read John Corey Whaley’s latest book, Highly Illogical Behavior, and found what might be the perfect book about a serious issue for both teenagers and the people who love them.

The Plot

High school senior Lisa desperately wants to get into a top psychology program and leave her former life in the past. But she is stumped by her entrance essay, which requires her to write about a “personal experience with mental health.”

Then she remembers Solomon, the boy from eighth grade who had a panic attack, jumped in a fountain on campus, and never came back to school. He’s the boy that she believes no longer leaves his house–ever. If she can find him, and “fix” him, she can write the perfect entrance essay, complete with a neat and tidy solution. But getting to know Solomon, and letting him into her life, changes them both in ways that neither could ever have predicted, which makes it pretty hard for Lisa to come clean about why she befriended him in the first place. Can their newfound friendship survive if it is based on a lie?

Why It’s Worth Reading

There is most definitely some hard-hitting reality in this book. Agoraphobia is not a frequently discussed mental health issue, especially as it pertains to teenagers. Lisa’s relationships with Solomon and her boyfriend, Clark, are incredibly complex and not always pretty.

But John Corey Whaley’s characteristic writing style is also filled with humor, sarcasm, and enough levity to make this book seem like less of a downer than some of its companions. I found myself chuckling at Solomon and Clark’s conversations, or at nearly everything that Solomon’s dad utters. It’s a “serious issue” book that teens can enjoy and adults can embrace.

And while the story was predictable at a few points, I found myself compelled to read it–while I was brushing my teeth every night, for example, because I just couldn’t wait two more minutes to get started. I think it’s because Whaley writes supremely believable, realistic, honest characters. They’re characters that remind you of people you know in real life. He makes you care about them and what’s going to happen to them, even if you think you probably already know where they are headed.

That’s what made this book appealing and kept me reading as I drooled toothpaste down my shirt. Grab a copy and spend a couple of minutes reading Highly Illogical Behavior while you brush your teeth. I guarantee you won’t want to stop.

Book Details

Reading Level: Lexile = HL700L
ISBN: 9780525428183
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Dial Books
Publication Date: May 10,2016
Awards/Accolades: Four starred reviews in four months. Watch this one during award season–Whaley has already won a Printz, a Moris, and been a National Book Award finalist.
Source: Penguin First To Read (I received a free e-galley in exchange for my honest opinion.)

pic of meBethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and was the recipient of the 2015 School Librarian of the Year Award. She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group. She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education. She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.

 

A Really Bad Day (Redeemed)

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_155402741I’d been experimenting with standards-based grading, gradually building trust with a group of seniors I’ve had for two years by “respecting their learning process.” I’d ask them to read something, negotiate a time frame, and I’d plan based on the assumption that they’d come prepared. I quit using reading quizzes for “accountability” in favor of Harkness-style discussions, and I thought it was working. 

Then came the really bad day.

Picture: The room is set for a Harkness discussion. I told my students, as always, that I’d be evaluating the quality of the group’s discussion. They’d all get the same pass/fail grade—and if they weren’t prepared, or had not completed the reading, they shouldn’t put their classmates’ grades at risk.

I knew a few would self-select out—but not all of them! Not one student finished the reading, apparently.

There went all the trust I thought we had. They’d never read anything I’d assigned, I thought. Not an essay, book, short story, not a poem. It had all been a sham and I’d been an utter fool!

Where would I go from here? Back to chapter quizzes, and kids memorizing plot points in the hallway before class, only to forget them seconds after the quiz?

Luckily, a few students came to me and said that they had read, but were afraid to join the discussion because the group was going to be too small. They might not be able to sustain a good conversation with so few others. Interestingly, most of the ones who had completed the assignment weren’t the ones with the highest grades in my class. These were the kids who usually read the books but maybe didn’t regularly complete assignments, so they didn’t always make straight A’s. They told me they liked the book, The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, and they wanted to talk about it.

The Response

It was time to differentiate my instruction. 

shutterstock_342973556I created two paths for students to demonstrate their skills. One was the Harkness option for students who’d read. Student’s who weren’t comfortable with that, for whatever reason, were assigned a series of dialectical journal entries which I’d read and grade.

The students who chose the Harkness method sat down and proceeded to discuss the book with great authority, great insight. They were passionate, original. Their conversation was so smart. I wanted to join in, but that’s one of the prime rules of a Harkness—I don’t participate. I did fill pages of my notebook with their ideas.

Watching these students set me thinking. They’d come prepared and they were demonstrating all the high-level skills we’d been working on. They used the text to lend authority to their arguments, extend them, and support claims. They might not be the ones who got A’s, but whose fault is that? Did the assignments and grades I’d been giving honestly reflect my students’ abilities?

The next class period was also interesting. I let the students who discussed the book continue their conversation by creating graphic representations of their ideas. I let them talk, tape ideas on the wall, and use yarn to connect them. I gave time to the rest of the class, so they could read or complete their assignment. But they could not join the discussion until those were completed.

No one lost points or got marked late. I let them learn from each other at their own pace. The students who hadn’t read, and who were working independently, worked very hard to get into the group, which was strange because so many of them complain about “group work.”  

The Takeaways

The whole experience left me thinking about my practice. 

Trust but verify. I understand the philosophy behind standards-based grading, but the sad truth seems to be that some students aren’t ready for this level of responsibility. I still need a system that “holds them accountable” (ick).

Points aren’t accountability. Based on what I saw, students want to be part of high-quality activities that allow them to demonstrate how smart they are, points be damned. Getting back into the circle wasn’t about points. They had ideas and things to say.

The process is important. When we started our next book, there were students who had to prove that they’d read the book by submitting dialectical journals. Most of these students admitted that doing the writing, and being true to the process, had spurred their thinking and anchored their ideas in the text.

Pay attention to the outsiders. I’m ashamed to admit that I was taken aback by the abilities and intelligence of “mid-level students,” who showed me again that grades and points aren’t a good indicator of ability, understanding, creativity, or anything that matters. What I really need to do—and this brings me back to the beginning—is to stay out of the way, and give them ways to be brilliant.

So, my horrible, terrible, really bad day turned out to be . . . horrible, sure, but instructive.

RICKRick Kreinbring teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include teaching AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project through the Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative partnered with the MSU Writing in Digital Environments Program, which concentrates on improving student writing and peer feedback. Rick has presented at the National Advanced Placement Convention and the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.

Historical Fiction—Hot off the Press

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

51UN6ZK2TYL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_-1I love historical fiction. Strangely, the reason I seem to love it most is that I find it humbling in two ways.

First, the characters of historical fiction are almost always experiencing horrendous events or struggling against impossible odds that I have never had to face. Second, though I consider myself to be reasonably well versed in U.S. and world history, historical fiction routinely smacks me in the face with some historical event, time period, or consequence that I somehow completely missed. How, before I read Orphan Traindid I never know about the organized movement of thousands of young children into middle America during the Great Depression?

And how was I naively unaware of the largest maritime disaster in history before I read Ruta Sepetys’ new novel, Salt to the Sea?

The Plot

This brand-new piece of historical fiction follows four narrators during World War II: three teenage Prussian (now the area containing countries like Latvia and Lithuania) refugees and one young German sailor. Each carries a troubling secret that he or she has never told anyone. The three refugees meet on the road, each coming from a very different background and set of circumstances. They are all headed for the Baltic Sea, hoping to escape an encroaching Russian army by boarding a German ship headed toward relative safety. Unfortunately, it seems that safety does not always come as advertised.

Why It’s Worth Reading

There is so much to this book and its characters that make it fascinating and exciting. But it is also a well-researched fictional account of what may have occurred leading up to and during the worst maritime disaster in history. We’re talking about nearly six times as many deaths as the Titanic, and yet I had never before heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff or its epic demise.

I initially picked up this book because I am a huge fan of the author, Michigan native Ruta Sepetys, and her works Between Shades of Grey and Out of the Easy. This book did not disappoint. I was immediately captured by the fascinating and mysterious cast of characters: a talented art restorationist mixed up in the Nazi art-thievery plot; a nurse-in-training who is compelled to step in as local doctor wherever she goes; a naive and self-important German boy, bound and determined to serve the Reich in any way that will garner praise. How can one not be drawn in by these varied tales that come together so seamlessly?

The fast, short chapters, which each character tells in succession, added a sense of suspense and action that really kept me turning pages as well. I regularly hear from history teachers that they are always on the lookout for World War II novels that aren’t necessarily focused on the Holocaust, and this one is sure to be a hit, particularly because of its high-interest content but relatively low reading level. It’s a great classroom-connection novel and a fantastic find for historical fiction lovers everywhere!

Book Details

Reading Levels: AR = unknown , Lexile = HL560L
ISBN: 9780399160301
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Philomel Books
Publication Date: February 2, 2016
Awards: None yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it received some eventually. It’s only been out for 3 weeks and it’s already got 4 starred reviews!
Source: NetGalley (I received an advanced copy in exchange for my honest review.)

pic of meBethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and is the recent recipient of the 2015 School Librarian of the Year Award.  She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group.  She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education.  She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.

A Great Graphic Novel to Engage Students

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

nimonaThe world can be separated into two groups—those who read graphic novels and those who don’t. Many adults still struggle with the value of a graphic novel. They wonder: Isn’t a graphic novel just a glorified comic book? How literary can a book full of pictures be?

Those of us who read and enjoy graphic novels know the truth—a good graphic novel can provide a reader with just as much literary merit as any other book. And when it comes to engaging reluctant or challenged readers, the possibilities inherent in a strong graphic novel only continue to grow.

So how does one target the good graphic novels? Follow a book blogger who reads them, of course! I just finished a fantastic graphic novel that has been nominated and/or won numerous awards (see Book Details below), and was even on the long list for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, amongst a cohort of standard prose novels. Read on to find out what makes Nimona, by Noelle Stevenson, so wonderful!

The Plot

Lord Ballister Blackheart is a villain. He has been one ever since he was kicked out of the The Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics, after being betrayed by his childhood friend, Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin. They are now sworn enemies.

When snarky, shape-shifting Nimona shows up to become his evil sidekick, Blackheart is unenthusiastic. He does not now nor has he ever needed a sidekick. But Nimona proves to be rather useful, turning into ferocious beasts when they are faced with danger, or masquerading as an innocent child when they are working undercover. He may have to keep her around after all.

To Blackheart’s great surprise, the open book he thinks he has found in Nimona has a mysterious past, the kind of legend that may be her downfall. Will they be able to overcome these new obstacles together?

​Why It’s Worth Reading

Graphic novels can cover so much ground and come in so many different packages. It is instantly clear that one reason to read Nimona is the artwork. Beautiful, full-color illustrations accompany the story from start to finish.

But the story itself should not be overlooked. What starts off reading as an obvious hero-vs.-villain comic book, complete with fight scenes and crazy weapons, becomes a more humorous and complex tale with every page. Nimona’s attitude and hilarious dialogue set her apart as a character to remember, and the conclusion is surprisingly heart warming, despite both Blackheart’s and Nimona’s attempts to stay disconnected and distant from the other characters.

Not to be too practical here, but if fantastic images and an exciting, yet touching, story aren’t enough, there’s also the time factor involved in reading a graphic novel. Though you can spend as much time as you’d like pouring over the art as well as the text, reading a story propelled by pictures is never going to take as long as one driven strictly by text. You might be able to make it through a graphic novel in less than half the time it would take you to read a prose novel. Plus, some interesting studies show that your brain will access this kind of story in a completely different way as a result of the visual component.

If you’ve been thinking about trying out a graphic novel, grab a copy of this one. It’s a fast, exciting, even slightly moving way to dip your toes into the graphic novel pool.

​Book Details

Reading Level: AR = 3.1, Lexile = GN350L
ISBN: 9780062278234
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Harper Teen
Publication Date: May 12, 2015
Awards: Tons! Long list for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, Slate Cartoonist Studio Prize for Best Web Comic, Harvey Award for Best Online Comics Work, Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards Nominee for Best Digital/Web Comic, Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Graphic Novels & Comics.

pic of me Bethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and is the recent recipient of the 2015 School Librarian of the Year Award.  She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group.  She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education.  She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.