Friday, May 31, 2019

What it is to start Middle School

In May I was fortunate to spend the day with Ms. Strohman’s seventh graders at Marsteller Middle School. I was there to facilitate their discussion of the Giver by Lois Lowry. I am currently thinking about writing a book about the first week of middle school so instead of 'thank yous' I asked them if they would share with me some of the good and bad experiences from starting middle school the previous year. I received almost a hundred shares from them.

According to these students about one-third of older siblings are nice and tell you the truth about what to expect in middle school. The other two-thirds tell you about the mean teachers and all the homework and that even if you can remember your locker combinations it will usually jam on you anyway. None of this ended up being true.

The three biggest fears about starting middle school seem to be the locker, changing classes, and making it to class on time. I picture opening the book with a musical dream scene where our hero and heroine have lockers on either side of the hall from each other, they have not yet met, and neither can open their locker.

The rest of the students sing “Lock, Unlock. Lock, Unlock. Lock, Unlock. Lock, Unlock. Lock, Unlock. Lock, Unlock.” While opening and closing their lockers.  Interspersed in the song are singers calling out multiple locker combinations. And because it’s a dream sequence, students can dance into lockers and then come out another locker further down the hall. “Stack your books, check your books, get your books.” Finally, the hall clears. Our hero and heroine are still standing in front of their unopened lockers, but they see each other and smile. We know it’s going to be love.

One boy reported that he got written up several times a day for being late to class and was given notices he was supposed to sign and return to the teacher. When she didn’t ask for them back, he threw them away. Another boy who thought the whole idea of changing clothes for gym was disgusting accidently put his pants in another boy’s locker and closed it. He had to ask around to find out who now ‘owned’ his pants. Another boy reported that on the first day of school there was no bus assigned to his neighborhood so he was a half hour late.

There was also a fear of not knowing anyone. This came strongly of course from people who had just moved to town but also from kids whose elementary school friends went to a different middle school. I think they should invent speed friending so those who wanted to, could meet a bunch a people and maybe find a friend.

My thanks to all the kids who shared.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Visit to Marsteller Middle School

May 16 I had the fun of spending the day with Ms. Strohman’s 7th-grade classes at Marsteller Middle School. We talked about The Giver bye Lois Lowry. It was the basis for a great discussion about what are utopian ideas for society and how they easily become dystopian ideas. There were very few defenders for any of the rules, in The Giver, that gave shape to the society. We also did some grammar exercises.
What I liked most was that I had been with them for a day last fall when they were practically brand knew seventh graders. Wow, they have grown so much. At least a third of them are taller than there teacher. And a couple of the boys are about to look me straight in the eyes. More importantly, though they have matured in themselves and in their thinking. They had a much greater ability to state and defend their thoughts and increased confidence in their positions.
One of the things I do is include incorrect words in my PowerPoint slides. And I tell them up front that I might lie to them, after all, I write fiction and it’s all maid up. I have small prizes if they challenge me and if they can give clear evidence about why what I am saying is not true. More of them were quick to call me out and made good arguments for why my claims weren’t true.
It was a great day.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

The Honest Truth by Dan Gemeinhart a 2 and a half hour read

The Honest Truth by Dan Gemeinhart                          a 2 and a half hour read

Okay this book made me cry, not constantly but several times. It is another story about a youth who stages a successful runaway aided by the silence of a friend, his devoted dog,  and one adult at the very end of the journey. There are others who might have helped him but he wouldn’t have it, he was determined to make it on his own.  The fact that the one adult at the end doesn’t intervene is a little hard to believe, but it makes the story. The story makes me think that sometimes we are certain we have to do things on our own, but maybe we are wrong, and maybe we should let people help us.

One of us is Lying by Karen McManus a four hour read

One of us is Lying by Karen McManus                     a four hour read

Five high school students end up in detention and one dies. Everyone including them thinks one of them committed murder. The four tell us the story. It is a good mystery and a look at what happens when suddenly your friends are not your friends anymore. A little talk about who is hooking up, who has hooked up and who has not;  other than that not much high school material.

Nightmares by Jason Siegel and Kirsten Miller a three hour read

Nightmares by Jason Siegel and Kirsten Miller                a three hour read

Charlie Laird is certain his stepmother is a witch. She is not only the spell casting, potion brewing type, but also the kind that catches children in their nightmares and threatens to eat them. In fact, every day the evidence grows, unfortunately not even his best friends believe him. They think she is rather nice. This is a fun and at time scary read. The thing about nightmares is that if we don’t face the underlying fears that feed them we will never escape them. Will you go back into the darkness to confront your fears?

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie a five hour read

And Then There Were None  by Agatha Christie          a five hour read

Agatha Christie is the premier mystery writer and this is no disappointment. Her stories are not scary but intriguing as the reader and the character both seek to figure out what is going on. I think there is a legitimate question as to whether she gives the reader enough information to actually solve the mystery or does she keep the truth so hidden we don’t stand a chance. I did not see the solution to this one coming. One of the things she does do very well is set scenes of large numbers of people, in this case ten, and you are able to track them all. This book doe include some older vocabulary and uses some prejudicial terms that would not be used in current writing. These did not distract from the story and helps us understand the time period in which it was written.

A Mango Shaped Space by Wendy Mass a three hour read

A Mango Shaped Space by Wendy Mass                        a three hour read

Mia has a secret she hasn’t told anyone. When she was eight she started to tell everyone but then heard “Freak.” And pulled it back in so even her parents don’t know she sees colors. Yes, letters, words, and numbers have colors. Somehow it is very helpful in history and language arts but not so much in math and foreign languages.  Now, like me, you are probably thinking why doesn’t she just search ‘I see colors?’ and discover it is a thing called synesthesia. Well, there are two reasons; one is we wouldn’t have a story and the other is the family is not very computer oriented. This is a good story about losing friends and making up. It’s about family being there for each other and it’s about assumptions being wrong. There is a lot of healing in this story. There is also a cat named Mango who is very important.

Escape From Mr. Lemoncell’s Library by Chris Gabenstein

An eccentric billionaire has spent five years building the most amazing Library in his home town which also happens to be Kyle’s home town. Because the town has been without a library for twelve years twelve twelve-year-olds will get to spend the night in the library before it is opened to the public. Kyle will be one of them. The wonderful adventure of this story is the children must seek clues to enable them to escape from the library. This is kind of a curious game because up until now everyone wanted to get into the library. And really after getting in it was so wonderful I would have like to stay, but sometimes the prize is so great it overrides all logic.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Ungifted by Gordon Korman

Ungifted by Gordon Korman

Donovan is anything but high achieving. He is energetic, exciting and fascinating or as a teacher would say he is challenging, disruptive and unmotivated. Yet he ends up at the school for gifted students. Some people love Donovan at the new school because he is a great addition to the robotic team and he is essential to winning the upcoming competition. Some people love Donovan because he breathes normalcy into this rather un-normal middle school. And some people can’t stand him. Donovan is confronted with many hurdles in this story. Personally I could never leap a hurdle.

The Lying Game By Sara Shepherd

The Lying Game By Sara Shepherd

Emma has a hard life in foster care and a harassing foster brother who is pointing the finger of accusation at her. His ultimate act is to show his mother a video of Emma playing at some dangerous game where she is strangled, only it is not Emma. Emma sets out to find the origin of the video and the other girl. She ends up becoming the other girl as she tries to discover what has happened and who did it. Even if you were identical how hard would it be to pretend to be someone you never met.

The Diary of a Sixth Grade Ninja by Marcus Emerson a one hour read

The Diary of a Sixth Grade Ninja by Marcus Emerson      a one hour read

This is the story of Chase Cooper who has moved across town and now goes to a new school. Fortunately, his cousin also attends the school and she is willing to help him fit in. So they have the laziest coach who takes them outside for gym and then he stretches out in a lawn chair for a nap. Chase and his cousin discover a band of ninjas hiding in the wood just beyond the playing fields. The ninjas are students who apparently slip away from gym class change into ninja outfits and hang out in the woods until the bell rings. The issue is, are they good ninjas or bad ninjas.

The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer a 5 hour read

The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer     a 5 hour read

This is a dense but beautifully written book. Dense books are meant to be savored and not hurried.
Carmel’s parents have divorced and she lives with her mother. At least in the beginning, she does. She is kidnapped by an old man who uses a clever ruse. He manages to convince her that her mother is dead and her dad doesn’t want her. The old man wants her because he believes she has the gift of healing. He smuggles her to America where he travels the circuit collecting money from the believers. It is five years before Carmel is reunited with her family. If your loved one was missing how long could you go on believing or hoping they would ever come back?

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas A 4 hour Read

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas  A 4 hour Read

Starr’s family lives in a poor neighborhood where they own a small grocery store. They live there by choice. They choose to try to stay and make things better. Yet Starr goes to a private school forty-five minutes away. After a party that ended with gunshots Starr is with her friend Kahill when they get pulled over by the police. Kahill is shot by the police. There is a lot of hate and loyalty and some love in this story. This story is a reminder of how difficult life is for some people in some neighborhoods. We often say make good choices and make a better life. I’m not sure what choices the people in this story could have made to make things better.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Half a Chance by Cynthia Lord

Half a Chance by Cynthia Lord

Lucy and her family have just moved to a cottage on a lake in New Hampshire. Just to be clear both the cottage and the lake are in New Hampshire. There are kids next door who are visiting their grandmother for the summer. This is a story about a dad who is gone a lot for his job, a grandmother who is getting older, secrets, and the loons. Everyone deserves half a chance.

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen                              A three hour read

Brian is having a rough time. His parents have split up. He knows his mother is having an affair but he doesn’t tell his dad and if all that isn’t bad enough he is in a two-person plane flying over the endless forest of Canada with a non-talking farting pilot. Oh, it does get worse, the pilot dies. Brian will spend fifty-four days alone in the wilderness before the end. The plane crashes and sinks in a lake. Brian escapes with little more than the clothes on his back and his hatchet.  How would you do in such a situation? Do you know enough to survive? Could you learn enough to survive? Would you want to survive?

Capture the Flag by Kate Messner

Capture the Flag by Kate Messner

The flag in this story is the one Betsy Ross made during the Revolutionary War which happened even before I was born. Anna, Jose, and Henry don’t know each other at the beginning of the story. They are in seventh grade and too young to leave home alone and too old for a babysitter so they have to go to the fancy party at the Smithsonian Museum. It’s at that party where the flag is stolen. And it will be the three of them who expose the real criminals. They also learn about the Jaguar society.

The Last Grand Adventure by Rebecca Behrens

The Last Grand Adventure by Rebecca Behrens

Beatrice is having trouble blending in with her father’s new family. It just doesn’t work for her to have a little sister. When the option comes for her to stay two weeks with a grandmother, she hardly knows in a retirement village in Arizona her dad and stepmom don’t seem sad to see her go. Anyway, her grandmother is Amelia Earhart’s sister. Amelia Earhart was an aviation adventurer who disappeared forty years before this story started. But the grandmother claims to have letters from Amelia and has plans for her and Beatrice to travel to Kansas to meet up with her.  They don’t plan to tell anyone, and they don't intend to let their lack of money or grandmother’s lack of mental clarity get in their way.

Friday, March 22, 2019

The Last Grand Adventure by Rebecca Behrens

Beatrice is having trouble blending in with her father’s new family. It just doesn’t work for her to have a little sister. When the option comes for her to stay two weeks with a grandmother she hardly knows in a retirement village in Arizona her dad and stepmom don’t seem sad to see her go. Anyway, her grandmother is Amelia Earhart’s sister. Amelia Earhart was an aviation adventurer who disappeared forty years before this story started. But the grandmother claims to have letters from Amelia and has plans for her and Beatrice to travel to Kansas to meet up with her.  They don’t plan to tell anyone and they don't intend to let their lack of money or grandmother’s lack of mental clarity get in their way. 

The Missing Book 1 – Found by Margaret Peterson Haddix

This is a complex and exciting story. What if you knew you were adopted, but then you got a strange letter in the mail and then you went snooping in your parents’ papers and you found there was a mystery. And then another letter seemed to be threatening, would you tell your parents. Jonah doesn’t. And it just gets stranger and stranger after that. Did I tell you it all started with a plane full of babies?

The Land of Stories The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer

If you aren’t quite ready to leave behind Goldilocks, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and the never named Prince Charmings and if in fact you want to know more about them this is the book for you. Goldilocks’ is a fugitive and Jack is unhappily betrothed and we finally find out who is the man in the mirror. And we learn a lot more.  It is a very fun retelling and more importantly addition to these great tales. These stories are a bit more intriguing than the fairy tails of your youth.

Fuzzy Mud By Louis Sachar

This is a story about Tamaya who is in fifth grade and Marshall and Chad who are in seventh grade. Chad is a new kid at school and his arrival has displaced Marshal in the seventh-grade friend circles.  Marshall and Chad are to fight after school, but Marshall doesn’t want to. The only way to avoid the fight is to go through the forbidden woods. Tamaya is a rule abider and the rule is she is supposed to walk home with Marshal. Her choice is to walk their prescribed path along the road or to follow Marshall into the woods. The thing is the school myth told by boys who claim to have seen him is that there is a deranged hermit who attacks kids living in the woods. The truth is something far more dangerous lurks in the woods, Fuzzy Mud. What happens when only your enemy can save you and only you can save your enemy?

Sit! Stay! Speak! By Annie England Noblin

This is a romance novel. Adelaide Andrews, trying to escape her painful memories, moves to the house her aunt left to her. She is leaving Chicago and going to a small town in the Arkansas Delta. She hasn’t been there since she was twelve and she doesn’t know anyone. Walking in what is now an unsafe part of town she discovers a badly wounded dog. She takes the dog to the vet where she becomes friends with the receptionist and meets the man who will be her love interest. Small towns have secrets and most people are happy for them to stay a secret. Unfortunately, her newly found pet will lead her to discover and expose one of this town's worst, but best kept secrets. 

Thursday, March 21, 2019

The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen Book 1 of 3

Three orphan boys get caught up in a life or death talent show.  To win all you have to do is be able to look like, act like, talk like, and be like the long lost prince of a kingdom on the verge of civil war. This is the predicament Sage, the main character, finds himself in.  Death is what happens if you are not chosen. Sage truly has the character to rise to the occasion and there are wonderful twists and turns until we finally find the real prince.  There is also the possibility you might die even if you win, after all your country is on the verge of a civil war. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The Explorer Academy - The Nebula Secret by Trudi Trueit

Even before Cruz leaves Hawaii for the Explorer Academy there is an attempt to drown or kidnap him. His mother died in a fire at the Academy and he wants to know more. He leaves behind his dear friend Lani who is going to be a bit jealous about his new Academy friend Sailor. At the Academy there are numerous threats to Cruz and it is unclear who are the bad guys and who are the good guys. But what could Cruz have that they want and who is it who wants it? The Explorer Academy The Nebula Secret by Trudi Trueit. And then Cruz gets kicked out of the academy.

Not if I Save You First by Ally Carter

Maddie is best friends with Logan, the president’s son. When they are around twelve they witness an attempted kidnapping of the First Lady, Logan’s Mom. Maddie’s dad, who is a secret service agent, is wounded while foiling the attack. When his wound has healed, he and Maddie move to a remote cabin in Alaska that can only be accessed by small planes. None of his explanations really explain why. Maddie faithfully writes Logan but he never, I mean never, writes back. Meanwhile, Logan has problems acting out in school and running away from his secret service agents. The solution is to send Logan to live in Alaska with Maddie and her dad.  When she sees Logan step off the plane at their cabin she loves him but more strongly abhors him. He never wrote. Things get even more complicated when Russian mobsters show up to kidnap Logan.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Took, A Ghost Story by Mary Downing Hahn


The story is primarily told by seventh grader Daniel with just the occasional chapter by a third person narrator. It is at time intense and scary but not gory except for the description of Bloody Bones a bizarre ghost creature that is primarily a wild boar who can walk upright on his rear legs and rip you apart with panther like claws, but who believes in that stuff anyway. After their dad loses his job and can’t find another one Daniel and his sister Erica are moved from the wonderful suburbs to the back woods of West Virginia. The house is more like a shack and all the other kids think they are stuck up snobs. When Erica gets Took by the scary haunt Auntie only Daniel believes what really happened to her and if she is to be saved only Daniel can do it.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Rain Dragon Rescue By Suzanne Selfors

This is the third in this series. I usually go back and read book one but I decided this time to start with the recommended book. The story is told in third person and takes place all in one day. Yes, there is a dragon, actually two dragons. Pearl and Ben who are only ten have to pick up dragon poop. Well, fortunately, they don’t have to pick it up. They have a shovel and can scoop it up but then they are faced with the challenge of what do you do with a bucket full of dragon poop? This is a funny and fun read. It poses the challenging dilemma of what do you do when different adults give you conflicting instructions such as; You absolutely must not go through the portal to the land of imaginary creatures without watching the training video. Vs. You must absolutely go through the portal because the rain dragon is dying.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Booked by Kwame Alexander

Booked is written in verse so if you can get it to count for a required poetry read go for it. It is more akin to rap and rhythm than it is to poetry and rhyme. Also if you like words this is a great book because the main kid's dad makes him read the dictionary of odd words that his dad has written. Some friends feel sorry for him one girl thinks it is great. He comes out with a lot of words that were totally new to me.

What I appreciated most was that the author was able to adapt his verse style to the message of the particular chapter. So the nature of the verse was always changing and helping to move the story along.

If current plans continue on track I will be presenting at a conference Mr.' Alexander is headlining at in the fall of 2019.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Phinneas Gage By John Fleischman

This is required seventh-grade reading in our area. In 1848 Phinneas was a construction foreman building a railroad in Vermont, his specialty was explosives. At that time you bore a hole in the rock and poured in gun powder. Using a tamping rod you packed the powder and the fuse into the hole. Then sand was put in so the blast would be forced down into the rock.

On one such job, Phineas' tamping rod slipped into the hole prior to the sand, causing a spark, igniting the gunpowder, and shooting out the tamping rod. The rod passed through Phinneas's cheek, temporal lobe, and skull, completely exiting his head.

Phinneas lived. In fact, immediately after the accident he could talk and walk. His crew insisted on taking him to town to see the doctor. For the thirty minutes, it took to find the doctor he sat in a chair on the porch of the hotel he lived in. He conversed freely with the people around him.

Following this gruesome beginning, the story explores the history of brain science and how it was possible that Phinneas lived a functional life, showing only a few personality changes. He died eleven years after the accident.

My drawing.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

January 2019

I was very thrilled to win the Prince William School Districts Local Hero Award for my work with the seventh-grade students at Marsteller Middle School. I was nominated by the school administration and by Rachel Strohman the head of the English department.