Thursday, June 28, 2012

Summertime Mock Newbery Club 2013

     In January of 2012, I started a Mock Newbery 2013 Club in my school that consisted of about 20 kids, along with our librarian and my teaching partner.  Our assistant principal also attended regularly  and read along with us.  The club started as an idea from, where there is a similar online club formed in order to read  intermediate grade books that could be contenders for the Newbery Award.  Our first month or so as a club, we read previous Newbery Award winners in order to come up with a list of characteristics that we thought constituted an award winner.  I gave a booklet to each club member.

     We met in our school library during intervention time for 40 minutes every other week.  The first meeting was all about setting up the club and checking out former Newbery Award winners.  Two weeks later, we started brainstorming the characteristics and adding them to the first page of the booklet.  The next month, we started reading newly published 2012 books that were getting some buzz.

     Each meeting talked about what we were reading, shared reviews, chatted about life,  and checked out more books.  I checked out a lot of titles from local libraries to lend to the kids, and our school librarian bought some titles through Scholastic Book Fair money.  We also asked our principal to donate some money to the club through the building fund, and he generously agreed to do so, so I bought some books at Barnes & Noble. Our discussions were informal but lively, and some pretty sophisticated conversations started happening.  I tried providing some generic discussion questions, but that didn't go over well.  The most enthusiastic talks were when the kids chatted spontaneously and informally.  We didn't have any trouble getting them to participate.  Our biggest challenge was ending the meeting on time!  Kids would say things like, "I thought this book was entertaining, and I would recommend it to my friends, but there wasn't a deep enough theme to make it a Newbery contender."  Today, we met at the Lebanon Public Library where there is a beautiful little park in the back with a great gazebo and charming sculptures of readers.  It was hot, but there was a delightful breeze that blew through the gazebo while we ate sack lunches and talked books and summer activities.  We met for an hour.  Then the kids went into the library to continue their Summer Reading Program and check out books.  Great day!  We're going to try to meet one more time before school starts, and then the club will continue through December (our school is fifth and sixth grade, so the kids in this club started as fifth graders, and will still be in the same building as sixth graders).  In December, the club will vote on their choices for the award. 

     In January, my hope is that the club will be able to gather in the library and watch the ALA awards live and cheer on their favorites.  Then a new group can form.  Unfortunately, I will not be able to follow this particular group of kids in the fall since I'm leaving the school district, but I hope to keep in touch with them through the teachers who will take over.  I will definitely try to start a similar club in my new school.  Today, I gave each club member a handout that included many titles that are being talked about, many of which the kids have already read.  Here are our favorites so far:

     There are a lot more titles we liked, and there a lot more to read between now and December, so I'll keep posting ones that we come across that we love! 

Monday, June 25, 2012


     I just read The Elephant Scientist by Caitlin O'Connell and Donna M. Jackson.  It's a nonfiction book about O'Connell's scientific research on elephants.  Specifically, she was hired to help solve the problem of elephants eating farmers' crops in Namibia.  Sometimes, they'll eat a whole year's worth of a family's food in a single night.  There was a major clash between local farmers and the elephants.  O'Connell and her husband not only helped solve that problem, but observed and studied many aspects of elephant life.  There is a brief biography of Caitlin O'Connell in the beginning which describes how she got interested in studying animals.  I thought it was fascinating that her father is a psychiatrist and her mother is an artist, and Caitlin credits them with introducing her to the natural world.  Her parents and teachers encouraged her from a very young age, and she was inspired to take every science course she could.  The photographs in the book are gorgeous, and the whole thing made me think of gifted girls in school, and how we as teachers and parents of gifted girls can make all the difference in whether or not they pursue their talents and dreams.  We need to recognize their passions, help them pursue them, and provide the emotional and social support they need.  They also need mentors, and books like this can inspire them.  Thank you, Caitlin O'Connor, for writing this book to show girls science is cool!

     Other books by Caitlin O'Connor:

Thursday, June 21, 2012

40 Book Challenge

     That's too many books.  They can't do it.  It's too much pressure.  Parents will be mad.  These are the excuses I made to avoid Donalyn Miller's idea in  The Book Whisperer  to challenge students to read 40 books during the school year, even when some of my colleagues were saying it was successful.  Finally, and I don't really know why, I decided to take the risk.  I proposed the challenge at the beginning of the year, and we glued in the list template into reader notebooks with the various genre categories.  I saw some stressed faces on some of the kids, while others wore expressions of eagerness to get started.  I decided to focus on the eager reactions so I wouldn't get stressed myself.  I let the kids count audio books, classroom read aloud novels, magazines if read cover to cover, and some picture books that covered the informational and traditional literature genres. 

     At first, I won't lie, I graded their progress.  I know Donalyn discourages that practice, but I just couldn't help myself.  I still felt like I needed to control and assess the process in a traditional way.  Giving grades seemed to be the only way I thought I could keep the kids accountable and make the kids and parents who need that kind of feedback happy.  I could see that strategy backfiring, however. Surprise, surprise.   It started to turn into a job, a homework requirement, and frankly, a drag - for them AND for me.  I started to get e-mails from parents who were anxious about it, and I realized this was turning into a traditional assignment instead of an exciting way to invite kids to read all kinds of books.  So I quit grading it.

     Lo and behold, it worked.  My students were reading tons and loving it.  They discovered new genres and authors.  I got to know tthe kids as readers in ways I never had before.  Some made it a competition with others, but I didn't consider that necessarily a bad thing.  I also began a Mock Newbery Club 2013 to further encourage the reading of quality books and to teach them how to evaluate the characteristics that make a book a Newbery contender.  That helped put more books into the hands of eager readers.  During the last week of school, we added up the total number of books we read (thinking back, I should've added MY books into the total - oh well - that's what next year is for).  The grand total between two classes was over 2,000 books.  Not all the kids made it to 40 books, and not all the kids read all the genres, but I realized that wasn't the point.  Most of them read more books that 5th grade school year than any other school year.  A lot of them had read their new favorite books, their new favorite authors, or discovered they enjoyed a new genre.  The Newbery Club members had sophisticated conversations about writing and reading, and they were recommending books to each other.  We celebrated using one of Donalyn's ideas.  The kids decorated signs with the number of books they read and their favorite titles.  We went outside on a beautiful, sunny day, took pictures, and ate a chocolate chip cookie cake a parent made in honor of the challenge.  Next year, I'm going to tweak it a little, of course (I may re-name it 40 Book Invitation), because that's what we do as teachers...make a colleague's great idea a little more of our own, get to know our new students and what works for them, and say a little prayer that they end the year better than when they started.