A Scritch and a Scratch make for an entertaining middle grade book

I was fortunate enough to receive an ARC of this book from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. I wanted to read this for quite a while and was very excited for the next book by this dynamic author. I loved Peculiar Incident on Shady Street.

Currie uses Chicago lore once again to craft another story of family entangled with the tales of tragic local history. In Scritch Scratch, Claire Koster is a typical seventh grader whose love of science makes her skeptical, but scared of her dad’s business as a ghost tour conductor. When dad needs her help to complete the tour one fateful evening, someone or something follows Claire home.
In a series of scares and chilling encounters, Claire seeks to help this restless spirit.
I thought the ghostly occurrences were frightening, but accessible to younger age groups. The interwoven history of events of past Chicago will, I believe, light a spark in kids to do their own research. The author describes tragic fires and ill-fated ship voyages that would make readers question if such a horrific thing could have really occurred.
Lindsey Currie’s research and passion for the macabre is clear and she does a fantastic job of piecing it together with the fictional story of Claire. I think a book by this author just about the spooky legends of Chicago or different cities would be well sought after for non-fiction collections. One can only hope that eventually, Currie makes this a goal.
That being said, I love this author and her previous book, so I wanted to love this book as well, but the main character made this nearly impossible. Claire didn’t reach out for help as she should have. There were also the undercurrents of 7th grade drama, but the book is for children and this is to be expected. However, what I really didn’t love was the reasoning behind the spirit’s hauntings. I understand the use of water, without giving too much away, but I really wanted there to be this creepy underlying reasoning for the scritch-scratching that made its way into the title. If the spirit had more to communicate or unfinished business, it would have made the story come together a bit better.
However, it was a quick and compelling read that ultimately made me turn pages. I would recommend to students in class, because I could think of many that would enjoy this. Scary stories are always a big hit with my fifth graders, and I could still see this being a popular choice.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Amari and the Night Brothers: An engaging ride for middle grade readers

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I was fortunate enough to have received an ARC of Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston through the Net Galley service. Many would compare this book to the Harry Potter or Men in Black franchises. In fact, Amari and the Night Brothers, as I understand, has been optioned for film rights before the release of this first text in January 2021, but I do believe this has all the potential to be the next big thing in the minds and imaginations of children.

As we meet the main character, Amari Peters, she lives with her hard-working mom and is coping with the disappearance of her brother. Police are giving up on ever finding Quinton Peters who they presume dead via illegal activities without the slightest bit of evidence. Amari is soon to find out that Quinton had a most dangerous job indeed working as an agent with Supernatural Affairs chasing down the mysterious Night Brothers, criminal masterminds and magicians when she herself is invited into the Bureau. Protecting the world and erasing memories as they go, the Bureau ensures average people and the supernaturally inclined don’t collide. They also run a summer camp for young people invited into the Bureau like Amari.

Amari is determined to follow in her brother’s footsteps and become a Junior Agent, but will she be able to discover the truth when there is a bigger secret about to be uncovered about herself?

This story is an epic fantasy with parts of Harry Potter, Men in Black and Percy Jackson all coming together in a glorious new story that I never knew how much my students needed. Teachers can’t go wrong buying this one for their classrooms and I am sure will sell itself right into student hands. The character’s are complex and multifaceted like anyone you would meet in life. I always say if a side character does more than move a plot, it is a story that must be read; and Amari is no exception. You have Elise, a were-dragon and Amari’s roommate, Magnus and Fiona agents and trainers, and even Jayden–once taught by Quinton in tutoring soon follows a life of crime in the absence of his friend.

There is truly so much to love about this text. Rich themes about systematic racism and the need for everyone to be loved and understood run throughout the text and it is clear that Alston is a gifted writer.

As I read this, as a teacher of fifth grade, I was thinking about a beginning of the year activity in which the students enhance their own talents as the characters in the Bureau do by touching the crystal ball. There is so much you can do–regardless of the content area. I teach ELA, so I was thinking of tying in gamified units based on texts like Amari.

Even if you are a student or parent looking for a text that is fun and engaging, look no further than this highly recommended middle grade fiction that will be enjoyed by tweens and early teens alike.


Coolest Way to Start the New School Year (And It Has Nothing to do with Reading my Students the Syllabus)

We all know that research shows that building positive relationships with our students creates a better classroom environment, but what can you do to start the building on day one? It is a simple technique that I learned two years ago when I read Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess. This book is chock full of ideas and very much worth owning and rereading whenever you feel your creativity draining. I also saw it again recently as part of the text Make Learning Magical by Tisha Richmond under the Burgess Consulting Publishing brand.

A simple tool like play-doh can help you build positive relationships with all students.

So, what do you do that first day?

When students find their seats in your classroom, you will also tell them to choose their favorite color of playdoh that will be organized on a back table. The second instruction is that they do not open it–yet. This builds an excitement in the students, wondering what you may be up to. When everyone has joined you and you’ve done the important things like take attendance and make sure everyone is where they are supposed to be–then tell them to open their color and create a symbol that represents something about them.

As they create, the teacher will circulate the room and ask about the symbols they create. I even take notes of what everyone creates. Why? In Language Arts, it is paramount to know what a particular child will have an interest in reading. If I know they like the New York Jets, I can offer a book on Joe Namath or a fictional story about a kid that loves football. I also write it down for Back to School Night. I make it into a fun game where parents match what each child made to their child’s interest.

Don’t feel as though this cannot be used in the content areas, because this is not the only question I ask. I also ask how the student feels about my subject. Asking them about themselves comes first, however, because you want them to know this is where you place the most importance. Listening to them when they come to you helps cement these feelings. Let them know that they are valued!

When I ask them next about my subject, I have them create an emoji with the clay that represents this feeling. If they have negative feelings, it often tips me off that students didn’t perform as well in the subject in the past, so this is often a student to keep an eye on. I take note of that negativity as well. I ask about reading, writing, listening, and speaking separately.

Make each day of the first week of school something engaging for students. Do you tell them expectations and let them know about non-negotiable rules in your room? Of course, but avoid doing this all at once. It will take practice to learn about how the room works no matter how old your students are. Climate and respect are the main ideas here. Below is a list of some other engaging activities I do during that week:

*Book pass/Book tasting: This helps the students get used to the classroom library and previews some great titles they may not otherwise have found. It also helps them to make a “To be read list” in their reader’s notebooks. When they are looking for a good book later–this is where they should look. How can a content area teacher change this up? How about a book walk through your text and ask students what looks exciting to learn about or difficult?

*Listing important rules they want in their classroom: Giving students a voice in the matter of rules, helps them be a part of the environment. They are not guests in my room, but active participants in creating the culture. This can work in any classroom, but would need to be modified for very young students.

*”I wish my teacher knew” notes: I begin this with what I feel about my students each year, and I give them my own list of “I wish my students knew.” For example, I wish my students knew that when they misbehave, I don’t like the behavior, but I still like them. Yes, some students will be silly with these notes that are just between you and the student, but I have gotten pertinent information about a particular student, that I may have never known.

*Classroom Scavenger Hunt/Inventory of Interests: This just helps them to know where things are, and what certain areas are used for. Depending on your level, you could make this more in depth, where they create the clues for another class. I go all out for this–play the Indiana Jones theme song over the class speakers and dress up like an adventurer.

I just want them to want to be in school in the next day, even if it is to answer “What is in my mystery bag? Find out tomorrow, folks.” I love to keep them guessing, because it keeps them paying attention to important things. However, I certainly don’t have all the answers.

Comment with your tips and tricks for the first day/week of school!


A Review of LAUNCH: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in All Students by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani

John Spencer and A.J. Juliani base this teaching resource around the STEAM related LAUNCH cycle, but promise throughout that any content area can use its teachings.

The expectation of an unruly class coming to meet me on September 3rd, made me pick up this text which seems at first glance not to be an ELA teacher’s required summer reading. Although most of the text is geared toward the mindset of science exploration or the hands-on projects of Gifted and Talented groups.

However, during orientation night I heard many members of my new fifth grade say, “I hate Language Arts.” So my natural next question is– “Well, what do you like?” I think I took them off guard with the question that many ignored, but some told me how exciting science is. One told me he wanted to be an engineer. Approaching Language Arts instruction as a logical method may be exactly what the class needs.

I have to admit that the structure of the text turns less academic and more about how we as teachers should be weaving problem solving into our daily lessons. The authors themselves tell the reader that it is difficult to think about the launch cycle in terms of math. I also find it difficult to do this with Language Arts. I found myself thinking that Science and STEM classes were lucky without having to worry about the testing mandates that stress so many in the math and ELA departments. It would be interesting for an administrator to allow this application in a testing subject, however. In my building, this doesn’t seem like a distinct possibility.

That is not to say that nothing can be gleaned from having read the text as an ELA teacher. Many of the steps lend themselves to comparison of the writing process. Such as research in fun interesting ways such as immersing yourself in a topic until you are an expert. Or creating a “prototype” of a first draft.

The reading and speaking requirements of ELA, however become a more difficult fit to this. It is all about the creation of something. In reading class, I want students to be aware of their thought processes and use strategies if they do not understand more difficult text. Although a book talk or TED talk could be created based on the understanding of a text or strategy, it doesn’t lend itself to not creating.

There were plenty of times, inspiration struck me throughout reading, that did not make it a loss of time or resource for me. One such time was seeing the standards-based assessment grid. I liked their evidence-based and less grade focused approach. I felt this could be something that students use to reflect on their process and if they truly grasp the standards of learning.

Another source of inspiration springing from the text was the fact that we should all consider ourselves creative. For teachers, this is so important. It keeps us growing and changing and learning how to be better for our students. Making the bracket of 64 interests comes to mind in particular. Using our passions in the classroom shows students to embrace theirs. Especially in middle school, students are so unsure of who they are as people. If they know their teachers are human and maybe share some interests with them, it can make relationships that lead to better learning.

Overall, even though it is primarily a resource for ELA teachers, it did not disappoint me in its approaches. I agreed with the authors’ values and beliefs of how a classroom should run. Choice and voice are paramount. In reading choice novels and no mandated texts, my reading students can explore an topics that interest them. I did hope it would have more innovation in the process of gamification, but I was not disappointed. Three out of five stars.

The Ghost with the Most: How I fell in love with Ghosted by Michael Fry

I was fortunate to receive this ARC as part of my new book sharing group, #BookAllies! My students are already chomping at the bit for Ghosted by Michael Fry as I used the book in my book talk example lesson for my fifth graders. They could feel how much I genuinely loved this book. So much so that I have recently purchased the first of the How to be a Supervillain series by the same author.
Although many people may compare this to a Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Captain Underpants, I suggest that this book is in a league of its own. It is just the right mixture of laugh out loud comedy and heartfelt emotion. I really mean this–I was modeling good independent reading for my class–ok, ok, I just could not stop reading–and I actually laughed out loud disturbing a very quiet and engaged fifth graders.
Larry and Grimm are memorable and realistic characters in this funny and beautiful work coupled with the illustrations of this talented writer.
The wait until January will be unbearable thanks to fantastic reads like this! I have two already on pre-order!

Don’t Turn Off the Lights: A Short Story Collection for Everyone

I was fortunate enough to obtain a copy of the ARC of this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. As with any book of short stories, there will be those that you love, want to read to your students year after year at that spooky time of year and there were others I didn’t feel that way about.
Jonathan Mayberry does an excellent job overall paying homage to the great Alvin Schwartz with this compilation of frightening tales. I felt that the stories could have been fewer and truly the amazing ones that will live on in my memory should have been allowed to shine a bit more. Tales like “Lint Trap” and “The Open Window” and “Brain Spiders” I believe could be read to upper elementary/middle school level students like my 5th graders, but there are some I wouldn’t recommend for that age group.
The true purpose of the book, I believe is for teachers to carefully curate passages and read aloud stories to students especially at this particularly frightening time of year. If you are a teacher, I would not hesitate to recommend, using it in the classroom multiple times this year myself. At the end of “Lint Trap,” the students in my class looked at me wide eyed and silent unbelieving what they just heard. It allows for inferences and mysteries with the abrupt endings that imply the worst. “Copy and Paste/Kill” was a particular good one for introducing inferences.
Recommending to students, however, I am less hesitant to do as the themes of some stories are upper middle school/high school in nature. Overall, a great quick read that had me pulling from it multiple times.

Whale of the “Wildly Entertaining”

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I was fortunate enough to receive an ARC of this book from NetGalley and HarperCollins Publishers in exchange for an honest review of A Whale of the Wild by Rosanne Perry.
I was drawn to this book after having loved Parry’s book, A Wolf Called Wander, the nearly true story of a wolf that loses it pack and finds a place in the world. A Whale of the Wild is much in this same vein of middle grade ecological fiction that focuses around an orca whale pod, and most especially the young wayfinder in training named Vega.

I really love how Rosanne Perry used facts and incredible research to build these stories that I can see middle grade readers scooping up. Vega makes mistakes, and runs on emotions, and learns how to be a young adult while caring for her younger brother Deneeb. I loved the interactions with people throughout and how Parry builds the whale’s eye view of the world, while opening the minds of young readers by presenting environmental factors like pollution in a way that is accessible to readers as young as 4th grade.
Teachers will love this book for the ties to non-fiction and persuasive articles about caring for our world’s ocean creatures. Middle grade readers will love the short engaging text and the beautiful illustrations by Lindsey Moore.

Available now to purchase from your local bookstore.

A “Strong” Pageturner: A Review of Tristan Strong Destroys the World

I was fortunate enough to receive an ARC of this book from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. If you read the reviews for the previous Tristan Strong, you will see it was right up my alley for middle grade fantasy literature that I cultivate for my fifth grade students. Especially those students that enjoy Percy Jackson or Harry Potter.

Teachers if recommending the series, do so for those Rick Riordan fans of mythology, but even those students without a background in the stories reimagined by the author, will thoroughly enjoy this second installment.

On the part of author Kwame Mbalia once again, he shows mastery in exploring new ways for Tristan and other characters we love to change over the course of the novel. For example, in this time of pandemic, how much do school-aged children need to hear the message of perseverance? Nana’s simple, but strong words to Tristan ring in my mind even after finishing the book. “Get up.”
Many times this book had me laughing out loud with it’s short and page-turning chapters. I really enjoyed the strong female representation that was amped up in this book with characters like Mami Wata, Keelboat Annie and Lady Night. I do hope another of these books is in the works as middle grade readers need a voice like Mbalia.

This title is released on October 6th. Pre-order here.

Worth exploring this Universe: Li’s Clues to the Universe worth the wait

I was lucky enough to receive a requested ARC of this book. Clues the Universe by gifted author Christina Li really surprised me with its warmth and engaging story centered around two seventh graders, Ro (Rosalind Ling Geraghty) and Benji (Benjamin Burns).

We meet science-minded Ro when she is trying to cope with her beloved and like-minded dad being killed by a drunk driver. Benji is an artist and the very opposite of Ro’s orderly list making. He is also missing his dad which walked out on his mom and brother when he was very young. When these two join forces to help the other, they discover the friendship they both needed.
The story is told in page-turning alternating voice chapters between Ro and Benji. I loved the relatable and realistic characters that were so easy to see in my head. It didn’t hurt that it took places in the early 1980s as well which harkened back to thoughts of my own childhood. The best books are ones that have unforgettable side characters and this book checked that box for me. Mr. Voltz was a great example of this.
The wait for my pre-order will be excruciating, but I cannot wait to recommend this realistic fiction to my students in 5th grade, but I would highly recommend for high level 4-5th graders up reluctant 8th graders. A speedy and well worth the wait read.

Review of Tristan Strong: Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky

Realistic flawed characters meet African folktales take center stage in this middle grade action-adventure story. Tristan Strong is a young man that has recently lost his friend Eddie in a tragic accident that has left him feeling powerless and guilty. When he visits his grandparents in Alabama, he brings along Eddie’s journal full of tales crafted by the two friends based partly on folktales of the African continent.

When one night an unexpected visitor tries to take off with Eddie’s journal in hand, Tristan accidentally lets loose an evil into a magical world. It is up to him to make it right. Kwame Mbalia paints such a realistic picture of Tristan throughout, really showing his struggle to self actualize and overcome the survivor’s guilt.

His use of the Gods like Anansi and folktale heroes such as John Henry and Brer Rabbit mesh together in Alke well and the reader simple sees the story with his expert words. The symbolism and deeper connections can be found by adults and students alike.

In short, this is not a short text, but grabs the audience in such a way that demands the reader come along for the ride. I would recommend as a read aloud to those struggling and younger readers in 5th grade and below. The sweet spot for readers of this book would be approximately 6th or 7th grade. However, readers as old as 7th and 8th grade could get pulled into this tale and series alike. There is a clear good vs. evil that can be compared to such works as Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, but there is no need of a comparison. This text stands alone in its representation of characters of color as well as providing its own rich world within the text.

I must also note the fabulous representation of female characters. My favorite was definitely Gum Baby, but Ayanna turns the damsel in distress stereotype on its head from the very beginning.

This fantasy tale earns a five star rating from me and will be introduced to my 5th grade classroom as a read aloud and lesson starter. I cannot wait to find the next in the series.

Building a Classroom Library: One ELA Teacher’s Journey

When I came into my new classroom, I inherited just 127 usable books. I did not count the numerous reference texts such as dictionaries, or the full class sets of completely off level books from the 1970s, or ones that were falling apart at the seams, or the ones that accumulated a fair amount of dust from the students not choosing this book for what looked like many years. This number may seem decent in comparison to the International Reading Association’s recommendation for 6 books for every student in the classroom. However, how do you know you will have the books that will challenge, engage and invite young readers into a world of reading? It’s not just about the numbers, but the quality of the texts themselves.

The before image of my classroom library as I walked into it on day one.

It was August and I was to start teaching 5th graders with choice novels in just a few weeks. i also found out that my new school had also ripped out its library and replaced it with a state-of-the-art media center. Although completely picked over by my soon-to-be colleagues, there were some great books destined for the dumpster that helped me as well. I was lucky enough to have an extensive collection of graphic novels and comics to share as well. Beyond that? I wasn’t sure what to do.

Tips for your classroom library:

*Keep a sharp eye out for free or nearly free books of great quality. Library sales, thrift stores or flea markets are all great options. I also found whole collections of series books from Facebook sale groups. Put the word out what you’re looking for and that you’re a teacher. People may give you some great deals to clean out their attics. Look to represent all different genres and interests.

*Keep the students in mind. Your book collection should represent them as best you can. Not everything should be on grade level represent only a few genres. Choose texts that are 2 levels below and 2 levels above your grade level as well as books recommended for your teaching grade level. This ensures challenges for gifted children and accessible books for struggling readers. This is personal preference, but I don’t level books. Levels of books are for you as the teacher, not to keep the student in a small box with little choice or interest level. Also–have students create wishlists and this will guide your choices as the school year begins.

*Don’t be afraid to recruit some parents to help. They may be willing to donate books to the classroom that their older kids are done with or you can apply for a PTO grant. Tell them what you are looking for, or give them the students’ wishlists. They may surprise you and purchase great books for your students to treasure.

*Scholastic Points are your friend. This is another way to fulfill student wishes for books for those kids that can’t afford to order. Every student or teacher order in the system gives you points towards new books. They also have specials for free books with a small order amount.

*At the end of each school year–cull books. Just like a real library some things that aren’t checked out should be ditched. I have the fifth graders help with inventory updates each year and they make a pile of books that they don’t believe another fifth grader would want to read. Always be sure to have room for those new and exciting books that are coming out each year. Visit a JLG conference and find out what those books on the rise are, and you may be able to buy a few to replace the worn out texts.

*Have a lot of copies of one great book? I have First Chapter Friday when I read aloud the first chapter of a text to garner some excitement about the books I have multiple copies of. It promotes book conversations and eventually clubs where they can discuss a text together.

My class library after the start of the school year. The bulletin board above shows with dry erase tape what each student is currently reading.

What are some ways you get students interested in your classroom library? Even if you teach in the content areas, is it important to have a small class library?