I started reading a new book this morning at about 8 am. I finished it by 11 am. Three hours to read a 200-page book. That doesn’t happen very often for me. It has from time to time, but most books take me at least a week or so. I get distracted or hungry or tired or I just have other things to do.
I didn’t have anything to do this morning. So instead of turning on the TV and watching episodes of Parks and Recreation on Netflix while meandering through Facebook and Twitter, I decided to read. This book was recommended by my wife, who first read it several years ago but decided to read it again. Even before she finished, she told me yesterday that I needed to read it. I have a personal rule about book recommendations: when my wife says I need to read a book, I will stop whatever else I am doing and read it.
I’m glad I did.
This is not a book for fourth graders or fifth graders. It probably isn’t even a book for middle schoolers, although I could see using it with eighth graders. It is a book for every parent, every teacher, every administrator, every counselor, every aunt, every uncle, every older sibling who knows a child and knows that she or he will be going into high school. It is a book for those who notice that some children, especially when they enter high school, seem to inexplicably change and the adults who love them and want them best for them don’t know what happened or why.
It is a book for teenagers who are afraid to speak, to talk about what has happened. It is a book for those who feel trapped and don’t know how to get out. It is a book for those who don’t think anyone else understands. It is that kind of book.
Speak is the story of Melinda Sordino, a freshman at a school in Syracuse, New York, who experienced a traumatic experience a few weeks before school started. Instead of talking to her parents, her friends, anyone, she withdrew, which happens to many who experience such experiences. Her friends feel betrayed and abandon her. Her teachers are upset by her poor grades. Her parents don’t know what is going on and take their frustration out on their daughter. Melinda is as alone as you can possibly be in a building with 1,500 people. It is a tragic story, but it ends with a ray of hope.
As a teacher, this story touched me deeply. I see my young students go through wild mood swings and often never know why. I ask them, and they usually don’t say anything, not because they don’t want to, but because they don’t know what to say. In my three years of full-time teaching, I have students experience the death of a parent, homelessness, abject poverty, past abuse, bullying, the loss of a best friend over a silly argument, even struggles with school work because of something so simple as poor vision. Not everything is a tragedy that will leave scars, but it is a Big Deal to them and therefore it needs to be a Big Deal to me. No judgement, no anger, no blame. Just listening, compassion, kindness, help.
I spend most of my day talking. This book is a reminder that I need to spend time listening, too. So that my students can actually speak.
Way back when I first began teaching at Wiley, I was introduced to a peer conflict resolution tool called “Stop, Walk, Talk.” I felt that it was a wonderful way for students to solve minor problems on their own and to build their own confidence in being able to respond appropriately to slight annoyances and other aggravations.
I still feel this way, but over the years I and several of my colleagues have felt that we needed to tweak the system a bit. For example, the original SWT model instructed students to tell a classmate to stop doing something and to use a universal hand gesture when doing so. Much to our consternation, this hand gesture, the American Sign Language sign for “stop”, has been used as a way to heighten conflict, rather than decrease it. My fourth grade partner and I talked about it and came up with a modification that we wanted to try with our classes this year. The building PBIS team (of which I am a part) supported this change, and so we have been piloting it in fourth grade. The process is similar, but with some key differences:
- Stop -When you are feeling angry, frustrated, annoyed, or know someone is pushing your “anger buttons,” stop yourself and take three deep breaths.
- Walk – Walk away from the situation or the person. If you are in the classroom and there is a designated space, go there. If you are in the hall, go to the end of the line. If you are on the playground, just go somewhere else. The goal is to simply remove yourself from the situation.
- Talk – Once you are calm and away from the situation/person, talk to yourself and make a plan to address the issue.
While these are the three formal steps of Stop, Walk, Talk, there is of course one fourth step that is crucial: Fix it! Follow your plan and ask yourself if the plan worked. If it didn’t, talk to a teacher or trusted adult and ask for help. We have told the students that they do not have to talk to a teacher or other trusted adult unless the problem persists but, of course, they are always welcome to share with us how they used their problem solving skills successfully!
As much as I appreciated the SWT model when we first started using it three years ago, I love our new version even more because it places the responsibility for dealing with minor issues on the student. I cannot make anyone else do anything. My students cannot make anyone else do anything. But I can control what I do and they can control what they do. This goes along very well with a common mantra in my room: you are responsible for you. So far this year, we have seen wonderful results from this updated version of Stop, Walk, Talk. The PBIS team will be sharing it with the rest of the staff soon and then we will most likely announce it to the entire school at our monthly Coyote College assembly before the end of the semester.
There are some books that I see at the library or a book store or on someone’s shelf and find myself thinking, “Hm, you know, I really ought to read that one.” I think this is especially true for the Newbery Medal and Newbery Honor books. I have quite a collection of them at home and lesser collection at school, and I encourage my students to read them and try to figure out what about the book merited being “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children” (or why someone thought it was worthy of it). I have not formally signed up for the Newbery Challenge, which is simply reading the full collection of Newbery Medal winners, but I have read quite a few of them.
Which is why I find myself surprised when I see a title that I’ve seen before but never read. Especially when it is a book that was published way back when I was still in middle school in 1995. One such book is The Midwife’s Apprentice” by Karen Cushman. Published in 1995, this book is a quick read that I picked up at the library a few weeks ago when I was looking for something completely different. It sat in my “To Read” pile for quite some time before I finally picked it up and started reading. Before I knew it, I had read the first third of the book in one sitting. I went to dinner at my in-laws’ last night and read more. Then I read before I went to sleep. I woke up this morning and realised that I had already read two-thirds of the book!
I have a book I keep at school to read at school, but I felt like I just had to finish The Midwife’s Apprentice first, so I tossed it in my backpack and finished reading this morning while my students were doing their own independent reading or writing. (I don’t always read when my class is, but every now and then I have the time available and I like to join with them in independent reading, especially when I don’t have to constantly remind students to get on task!)
All in all, I think it took me a total of six hours to read this book. Maybe. It could have been less. At just over 120 pages, that means I was averaging around 20 pages an hour. Not too shabby, eh?
The Midwife’s Apprentice is the story of a girl who grows up as an orphan in medieval England. She is called Brat by most people and Dung by others. Then a midwife finds her asleep in the dung heap in the barn and says she looks like a dung beetle, and so she is called Beetle. The midwife, Jane, is about to throw Beetle out of the village but Beetle offers to work in exchange for a morsel of food and a spot on the floor to sleep. And so she becomes an apprentice to the midwife.
The boys in the village taunt her and throw rocks at her, the midwife constantly belittles her and tells her she is stupid and good for nothing, and the girls in the village treat her unkindly. But then Beetle meets a man who mistakes her for a girl who could read named Alyce. Beetle is struck by the revelation that, to those who don’t know her, she looks like someone who could read. And someone who can read is not someone with a name like Brat, Dung, or Beetle. And so she takes on the name Alyce and insists on being called that by everyone.
Alyce is never allowed in the cottages when women are giving birth because Jane is afraid of her learning too much and taking away her customers, but she learns a lot about midwifery anyway. She saves a village boy from drowning and the two become friends. She helps him deliver his cows twin calves. And she suddenly finds herself helping to deliver a baby in the middle of the night while the midwife is away tending to another mother in labour.
Through a series of unfortunate events, Alyce finds herself running away from her apprenticeship with Jane and takes on a job at a local inn. She learns to read, to care for customers, to make bread and stew, and she helps shear sheep. Her self-worth increases and she finally starts to realise that she’s not as stupid as everyone always told her. My favourite part of this entire story is this one simple but profound statement: “Just because you don’t know everything don’t mean that you know nothing.”
How often are we put down by others? Friends, family, acquaintances, peers, teachers? As a teacher, it is my prime goal to follow the first rule of medicine: Do no harm. Alternatively, I feel that Isaac Asimov’s first law of robotics is easily adapted to education: A teacher may not injure a student or, through inaction, allow a student to come to harm. The Midwife’s Apprentice is a great story for middle grade students and older. I don’t know if I would recommend it to my fourth graders, because there are some themes that may be a bit more mature than they are ready to grapple with, but if one of my students wanted to read this book, I would not stand in his or her way.
Last year I read a book that I immediately fell in love with and determined I would read to my class every year for as long as I have a class to read it to. I will admit to having a bias in favour of it ahead of time because my teacher friends online had been raving about it non-stop for months. I first read it last year and then read it to my class as our very last read aloud. Several of my students commented that they absolutely loved the story and that I just had to read it to my next class at the very start of the next year.
And yet somehow I don’t actually own this book for myself or my classroom library. Yet. (Barnes & Noble is hosting an Educator Appreciation Week in October and I will be able to get some pretty awesome discounts on books. You can bet your bottom dollar that this book is going to be the top of my list to buy!) Fortunately, our school library has a copy and I was able to snatch it up before anyone else got to it this year.
Additionally, this book is a Battle of the Books selection for this year, which means that many of my students are going to be reading it again. (Awesome!)
So, what book is this that has made such an impact on me, my teaching, and my classroom? It is, of course, Wonder by R. J. Palacio. If you have somehow missed out on catching wind of this story, here’s the book trailer that was released by Random House last year:
August Pullman is a regular ten-year-old kid. He does the same things that other regular ten-year-old kids do. But there is one thing about Auggie that is different: he was born with a genetic disorder that essentially wreaked havoc on his face. Nothing is aligned, his mouth is misshapen, his ears look like cauliflower. As it says in the book, the universe was not kind to August Pullman.
The story is told in multiple voices, introducing us to August, his best friend Jack, his sister Via, his friend Summer, his sister’s friend Via, and even Via’s boyfriend Justin. We read about August attending a school for the first time in his life. He had been homeschooled through fourth grade due to the large number of surgeries he’d had to undergo as doctor’s worked to fix some of the major problems caused by his facial deformity. Throughout the story, there is one message that is repeated over and over again. It is my theme for my own classroom, which happens to go along very well with our school theme of being brave. The message is this: Choose kind.
It is a wonderfully simple message! Taken from a quote by Dr. Dwayne W. Dyer, we are told that “when given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” This quote is on the bulletin board outside my classroom, along with students personal thoughts on what it means to choose kind. Another quote shared in the book is by J.M. Barrie: “Shall we make a new rule of life from tonight: always to try to be a little kinder than is necessary?” And finally, one more quote that sums up what I hope each of my students will take away from this story this year and for the rest of their lives. It is known as John Wesley’s Rule:
I know that Wonder was a bit heavy for the start of the year, but I think it really set the tone for our class. My students actually cheered for Auggie at the end of the story! We will be reading a wide variety of other stories in the coming weeks and months, but I hope that each story will allow us to return to this message of kindness over and over again.
I am very fortunate to have a large number of nephews and nieces whose ages range from 16 years to a few months. Every time I visit them, I ask for book recommendations, especially from the older ones. All of my nephews and nieces who know how to read do read and quite a bit, actually. It is great when I can get a solid recommendation out of one of them!
About a week ago, I was visiting my parents and other family members, including some of my nephews and nieces. I asked my niece, who is going into sixth grade, what books she’s read recently that I should read. She gave me two suggestions: Between the Lines by Jodi Picoult and her daughter, Samantha van Leer, and How To Be Popular by Meg Cabot. I immediately checked with my library and found the latter available as an eBook, so I downloaded it and read it.
After I finished, I asked my niece if she’d be interested in writing a review that I could share here. She was eager to do so. Here is what she submitted to me, with no changes other than a few typographical correction:
How to Popular by Meg Cabot is about Steph Landry, Becca and Jason. Three teenagers who are all best friends. Main character Steph is trying to be popular because of her bad reputation. In the sixth grade she spilled a big red super gulp on mega popular girl Lauren Moffat. Read the book to find more. I really liked the book and I love Meg Cabot.
Here is what I have to say about How To Be Popular by Meg Cabot:
Steph Landry is a teenage girl, dealing with the typical struggles of a teenage girl: relationships with boys, relationships with her best friends, relationships with her family, and relationships with her classmates, particularly those in the “A Crowd.” When Steph was in 6th grade, she accidentally tripped and spilled her Big Red Super Gulp on the most popular girl in school, Lauren Moffat. Lauren, rather than accepting Steph’s apology (which included buying her a new skirt), targeted Steph with an ongoing cruel prank of coining the phrase “pull a Steph Landry,” used any time a person does something really bone-headed.
Steph discovers a book in her best friend’s grandmother’s attic that teaches how to be popular. The summer before 11th grade, she uses her personal savings to buy new clothes and seeks to remake her image by joining the “A Crowd” at school. What follows is a delightful tale of self-discovery, personal worth, friendship, love, and conquering your enemies without destroying them.
Now, this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, but I never experienced any of the things a typical teenage girl experiences, due to the fact that I was never a teenage girl. As such, I really enjoyed this book because it gave me insights into some of the struggles that girls in my classes experience. (Even though I don’t teach teenagers, many of these “girl problems” start to form in grade school.)
A huge thank you to my niece for recommending How To Be Popular! I can hardly wait to read Between the Lines. In fact, I may make a trip to the library today to pick up a copy! In the meantime, you should make a trip to the library to read Meg Cabot’s fantastic story!
One of the common sayings my students hear from me on any given day is this: “There is a secret to life that I want you all to know: You are the only person that you can control. You can’t make anyone else do anything. You can only make you do something.” I share this every time we talk about classroom relationships. Fourth graders are wonderful children, but they are still children. That means that there are going to be many times throughout the day that one student manages to annoy another student.
Another common saying in my classroom is this: “People are annoying. Accept it, deal with it, and ignore it!” As the end of the year swiftly approaches, my students and I have been talking a lot about how to appropriately ignore other people when they do something we don’t like. I decided to really focus on this during my social & emotional learning lesson this morning. I asked the students to think to themselves about what it means to actually ignore a person, then I had them talk with a partner before they shared with the entire class. (This simple procedure is known by the term “Think, Pair, Share,” incidentally.) I was really impressed by the maturity and depth of understanding the students showed in their comments. Some of the things they shared included the following:
- Ignoring others means that you stay focused on the task/assignment and not on the other “people” around you.
- Ignoring others means to avoid eye contact with the person trying to distract you.
- Ignoring others means that you walk away from a person who is trying to create drama. Walking away is not a sign of weakness or cowardice; it is a sign that you are in control of you.
- Ignoring others means to tell a person to stop and then don’t say anything else about it to them.
After sharing their thoughts, which I wrote on the board, we shared strategies for using these ideas as we wrap up the year. My hope is that we can end the year on a positive note!
Enjoy the weekend! I’ll be attending the 39th Annual Illinois Young Authors Conference in Bloomington!
For over a year, I have been following as teacher friends and colleagues online have raved about a new book by first-time author R. J. Palacio. The book is called Wonder. It is written in the voices of several different children, including the main character, August “Auggie” Pullman.
August is a regular ten-year-old boy by most accounts: he rides his bike, he likes ice cream, he plays video games, he loves Star Wars. There’s just one thing that sets him apart from everyone else: he was born with a severe facial deformity. As a result of the dozens of surgeries he had to undergo, he was homeschooled until fifth grade. Then his parents decided it was time to send him to school.
Wonder tells the story of August’s first year in school: his friendships, his challenges, his worries, his hopes. And it tells the oh-so-important message that kindness is the most important virtue.
I’ve been eager to get my hands on a copy of this book, and I finally got my wish about a month ago. Our school librarian had acquired a copy and she let me be the first to check it out. After reading it on my own, I knew that I would have to read it to my class, as well. We started last week and have been reading each day. Today we got to the part in the story where Auggie’s English teacher introduced “Mr. Browne’s Precepts” to his fifth graders. The first precept is this: “When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.”
I wrote this on the board and repeated it several times, asking the students to think about it. Mr. Browne has his students discuss the precept and then write a brief essay about what it means. I am going to have my class do the same thing. I wish I had been able to get this book at the start of the year so that we could have started off with the challenge to “choose kind“.
Most of my students seem to have already grasped the importance of this message. One of them came to me this afternoon and said, “Mr. Valencic, I know why you are reading us this book. It is because a lot of kids in our class say mean things about each other, especially about how they look.” I suppose that is part of the reason. The bigger part, though, is that I want my students to realise that just because something is true, that doesn’t always mean that it needs to be said. When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.”