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    • The Engaging Classroom

    Books About Everyone, for Everyone, in NEA’s Read Across America

    Sharyl Kay Lawson
     | Mar 03, 2020

    Children reading books on floorThe world is filled with many different kinds of people. Getting to know them is interesting, exciting, and fun. The same can be said about the world’s books. Cracking open a good book is to understand that the world is far richer than just our own individual experiences.

    As a special education teacher at Kemp Elementary School in Commerce City, CO, students are at the center of everything I do. I strive to connect with all students, to discover their passions, and to unlock their potential. Introducing new books to my students inspires their natural curiosity, imagination, and love of learning.

    That’s why I’m excited my school will soon benefit from a Read Across America grant from the National Education Association (NEA) that will bring 1,000 books into the school districts of Adams County, north of Denver and a rural school district outside Colorado Springs.

    Receiving a portion of this generous grant will help my school overcome two barriers that hold educators back from providing the rich literary experiences that help every student thrive. First, new, quality reading materials can be hard to come by in Colorado, a state that currently lags about $2,700 behind the national average in per-pupil funding. We struggle mightily providing the resources our students need to become successful readers in and, in turn, successful contributors to our communities. Even a modest, one-time infusion of new literary resources will create countless learning opportunities for today’s students and the ones to come to us in future years.

    So, yes, I’m excited about the things money can buy for my classroom, but I’m also very impressed by the focus in diversity NEA took in awarding Read Across America grants to Colorado and other state affiliates. There’s a growing need for schools and libraries in my district and across the United States to include and promote diverse books. Students need books that capture their life experiences if we are going to create more readers, writers, and people who feel included and recognized in our multicultural society.

    Readers who feel included, recognized, and a part of the world are engaged readers. In the variety of NEA-recommended titles we’ll receive, students will see their experiences mirrored by characters in some books, making them feel valued and welcome in school. In other books, students will see a world or a character that will be much different from their own experience, challenging them to learn about and build empathy for the lives other people lead, perhaps even their own classmates.

    Aligning the largest celebration of reading in the U.S. with a fresh take on celebrating a diverse nation of readers is masterful. NEA launched Read Across America in 1998 to motivate kids to read and bring the joys of reading to students of all ages, offering limitless opportunities to get communities involved in our children’s reading throughout the year. Most students and parents have associated Read Across America with the big celebrations of reading on March 2, Dr. Seuss’s birthday, and throughout National Reading Month in March. Dr. Seuss reading parties are fun and engaging; they’ll no doubt continue in our schools. My hope for Read Across America, though, is that it grows in our national conscious as something bigger than a single-day event paying homage to a certain set of classic books. Read Across America is a year-round program that can fit reading fun and discovery into daily, weekly, and monthly calendars with older and newer books about everyone, for everyone.

    Educators, families, and the community at large can celebrate Read Across America with students anytime with these activities:

    • Share NEA’s recommended early grade picture books, middle grade stories, and young adult titles in your school and community. Read these books with kids and use Read Across America’s resources daily to promote the message that there is room in our community for all readers.
    • Use Read Across America to help kids relate what they read to other experiences in their lives and on the school year calendar (e.g., Hispanic Heritage Month, a school science fair, Memorial Day). Include guest readers, activities, and conversation about reading as you raise awareness about the importance, value, and fun of reading throughout the year.
    • Make your community the place where Read Across America is on everyone’s calendar. When all people—teenagers to parents to grandparents—make the time to read with children, children get the message that reading is important. Governors, mayors, and other elected officials can recognize the role reading plays in their communities with proclamations and floor statements. Athletes, actors, and local celebrities can issue reading challenges to young readers. Any person can participate in Read Across America to help motivate kids to read, celebrate the diversity in our communities, and bring reading excitement to children of all ages.
    • Visit NEA’s tools and resources to get the help you need to rock Read Across America and bring a reading celebration to your community. Contact your local school, education association, library, or bookstore about planning an event or participating in one.
    • Sign up on the NEA page on the First Book Marketplace to find NEA-recommended diverse book titles. First Book makes these titles available at affordable prices to educators serving students in need.

    School is a place where discovery happens. When educators nurture the love of learning in students today, we are growing tomorrow’s inventors, thinkers, artists, and leaders. Celebrating a nation of diverse readers is an important way to become our very best community and country.

    Sharyl Kay Lawson is a special education teacher at Kemp Elementary School in Adams County School District 14 in Colorado.

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  • Books Blog
    • Putting Books to Work

    Battle of the Books: How 25 Books Can Help Shape Students

    Julie Scullen
     | Feb 21, 2020

    Each year, our district middle schools participate in the Battle of the Books. If you are unfamiliar with the Battle of the Books, it is a massive book trivia contest in which participants battle in teams of three to answer questions about a list of 25 books everyone has read. It’s a shared reading experience of epic proportions. About 10 years ago, we started Battle of the Books merely to get kids reading and talking about books they might not normally choose. In hindsight, we recognize these battles have impacted our students far beyond that initial goal. The following are four areas in which these battles of the books have had an impact on our students far beyond our initial goal.

    1. Exposure. We select our books for our yearly list with an eye toward ”something for everyone.” Our list starts with the Minnesota Maud Hart Lovelace Award nominees to ensure books are available and likely to have been read by many other educators. This list always offers a wide variety of genres and styles of writing. To that list, we choose a few books that represent the first in a series (hoping to get kids hooked), a few graphic novels, a couple of sports books, and a nonfiction title or two. Every year, we add at least one book to the list our students’ parents were likely to have read in middle school, hoping to spark nostalgia and conversation at home. We seek out books representing multiple perspectives to ensure all students both see themselves and gain insight into the experience of others. Finally, we ensure that our list has books representing a range of difficulty so that everyone can participate and be challenged.
    2. Teamwork. In their teams of three, students attend monthly strategy meetings. They talk about the books and recommend ones they have read to others. Although most teams start by splitting the number of books to be read evenly, students learn to accommodate and shift responsibility for particular titles as life happens over those six months. Students learn to accept and honor the reading styles and preferences of their teammates. Those who participate for multiple years recognize the value of having more than one team member read each book. The teams come up with their own team names each year; names that represent them. One of the most memorable teams named themselves “My Favorite Students of All Time,” so that each time I read them a question I had to say, “And the next question goes to My Favorite Students of All Time.”
    3. Background knowledge. We know that one of the best ways to become smarter is to read. Students participating read as many as 25 books between September and February. Not only does this make students better, stronger readers, but also it introduces them to topics and perspectives we just don’t always have time to teach deeply in our harried classrooms.
    4. Insight. An entirely unforeseen benefit of the Battle of the Books has been the impact on staff. Our teachers and media specialists write our Battle of the Books questions (we don't purchase them through outside sources), which means our teachers read from a wide variety of middle grade literature each and every year. This enhances staff’s ability to recommend books to their students and allows them to say the most incredible thing to students: “When I read this, I thought of you.”. Our conversations about books are richer. Conferring with readers becomes more targeted. Inspired by this reading, several of our teachers have become Maud Hart Lovelace readers.

    Before the final battle for the district trophy every February, I provide students and families with a reminder of what reading does for them: The books we read help shape who we are

    Prior to last year’s battle, I read aloud the following list to students, staff, and families: 

    “Readers, this year in your wide reading for this battle, you learned:

    • What it’s like to be on a relay team in track
    • What it feels like to live in a theme park as well as all the work that goes on behind the scenes to keep animals safe and happy
    • What obsessive compulsive disorder feels like
    • What it feels like to have cerebral palsy, and how you’d like people to treat you if you have it
    • The ins and outs of our legal system
    • That butterflies drink their own pee
    • That it’s never too late to change
    • How to teach dragons to fly
    • How to deal with the death of a friend
    • How to dissect an earthworm
    • What life was like in the Old South
    • The impact of mental illness on families
    • How the culture of India is both the same as and different from ours
    • What is involved in climbing Mount Everest
    • The backstory and history of famous artists and authors
    • The training and responsibilities of the Secret Service
    • What important works are found in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art
    • The problems faced and sacrifices one makes when forced into witness protection
    • What it’s like to be a major league baseball player
    • What war is like for those directly involved
    • What it’s like when someone in your family is a veteran
    • What it means to live and survive in refugee camps in Africa
    • The impact of heart transplants
    • What it would have been like to attend segregated schools

    ….and about 25 ways to deal with a bully.” 

    This year’s list will have another long list of things our students learned without worksheets or quizzes, but simply enjoying books. Reading is about more than fluency, reading rates, and test scores. Reading shapes who we are and makes us better humans.

    Julie Scullen is a former member of the ILA Board of Directors. She taught most of her career in secondary reading intervention classrooms and now serves as Teaching and Learning Specialist for Secondary Reading in Anoka-Hennepin schools in Minnesota, working with teachers of all content areas to foster literacy achievement. She is currently a doctoral candidate at Judson University.

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  • Reflections NovDec19 LT
    • Putting Books to Work

    Reading the World

     | Nov 19, 2019

    Offering stories that reflect our contemporary communities is important for our children. “Let’s read the world” is a goal to champion! As a classroom and special education teacher, and now a university professor in curriculum, I’m interested in the opportunities we have in schools and libraries to teach so much more than literacy when we’re teaching the language arts. 

    In my role as a researcher in children’s literature, I’ve been exploring patterns and trends that should be concerning to educators. How many of the titles we share in our classrooms reflect people with exceptionalities? Are we representing gender in diverse, nonstereotypical ways? Could we do better in messages that help save our planet, that inspire children to care for each other and themselves, that break down barriers?

    I think of some amazing teachers I had in my own classroom contexts. Mrs. Gaston read aloud from Meindert deJong’s House of Sixty Fathers (HarperCollins) and—even today, almost 50 years later—I can recall everything about the way this exceptional story motivated discussions that we would not have initiated on our own. Mrs. Nichols shared Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (Macmillan) and Paul Zindel’s The Pigman (HarperTeen), two books I occasionally reread today for the courage they bring. But these teachers were the exception rather than the rule, and I continue to see classrooms where reading to students is not a key activity.

    Some titles I share with my undergraduate students that bring currency and engagement to their preservice teaching experiences are Kai Cheng Thom’s From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea (Arsenal Pulp Press), Sara Leach’s Penguin Days (Pajama Press), Sara Cassidy’s A Boy Named Queen (Groundwood Books), Beth Goobie’s Jason’s Why (Red Deer Press), Pamela Porter’s The Crazy Man (Groundwood Books), Kate DiCamillo’s The Tiger Rising (Candlewick), Cynthia Lord’s Rules (Scholastic), Kenneth Oppel’s Darkwing (HarperCollins), Arthur Slade’s Dust (Random House), Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s Skim (Groundwood Books), and Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse (Douglas &McIntyre).

    If you are a teacher who shares great literature with your students, or a teacher educator who models readalouds, I am grateful. You truly make a difference!

    Beverley Brenna (, an ILA member since 2009, is a professor in Curriculum Studies at the College of Education, University of Saskatchewan, Canada. She has published more than a dozen books for young people including the Wild Orchid trilogy (Red Deer Press) about a teen with autism (winner of a Printz Honor Book Award, a Dolly Gray Award, shortlisted for a Canadian Governor General’s Award, and listed on CBC’s “Young Adult Books That Make You Proud To Be Canadian”). She aims through her artistic work to address the gaps that she sees in literature for young people. Her most recent middle grade novels are examples: Fox Magic (Red Deer Press) explores mental health and suicide prevention and Sapphire the Great and the Meaning of Life (Pajama Press) invites discussions of diversity through LGBTQ+ characters.

    This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.

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    • The Engaging Classroom
    • Putting Books to Work

    Blast Off! Space Exploration and Literacy

    By Suzanne Slade
     | Mar 05, 2019

    computer-called-katherineWith the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing on July 20, many students will be curious about the brave astronauts who visited the moon and more recent space explorations. To help feed your students’ curiosity about space and inspire STEM reading and writing, here are several free NASA resources along with suggested activities. Select one activity, or combine several to create an in-depth unit on this timely, high-interest topic.

    Apollo moon missions

    The Apollo missions landed 12 astronauts on the moon. These explorers spent approximately 80 hours studying the moon and made many fascinating discoveries. 

    Activity 1: In Their Own Words

    Have you ever wondered what the astronauts talked about while they were soaring through space or walking on the moon for the first time? Fortunately, most of their conversations are available on the Apollo Flight Journal and Apollo Lunar Surface Journal.

    • Read: Visit the Apollo 11 Surface Journal (timestamp: 109:23:38 to 109:24:48), read the famous sentence Neil Armstrong said when he took his first step on the moon, and read how he described the surface of the moon to eager listeners back on Earth.
    • Write: How do you think Neil Armstrong might have felt when he took that first step off the lunar module onto the mysterious surface of the moon? Scared? Proud? Nervous? Brave? Tired? How would you feel if you were the first person to explore a place where no one had ever been before? What thoughts would go through your mind?

    Activity 2: Discoveries on the Moon

    • Choose one of the discoveries made by the Apollo missions from the Air and Space Museum’s list of “Top Ten” Apollo discoveries.
    • In your own words, write a short summary of the discovery and why it’s important.

    Book connections:

    • Countdown: 2979 Days to the Moon (Peachtree)
    • Daring Dozen: The Twelve Who Walked on the Moon (Charlesbridge)
    • A Computer Called Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Helped Put America on the Moon (Little, Brown)

    Exploring astronauts

    Students are fascinated by brave space explorers. Becoming an astronaut requires a lot of education, training, and hard work.

    Activity 3: Astronaut Project

    • Invite students to research various astronauts using books and/or reliable internet websites (see NASA video resource below), or provide the class with a collection of level-appropriate books on various astronauts.
      • Modification option: For younger grades, provide students with a short list of four or five astronauts to read about.
    • Ask students to select an astronaut they admire or want to learn more about.
    • Invite students to write a nonfiction narrative which shares the childhood experiences, struggles, and accomplishments of his or her astronaut.
      • Modification option: Invite students to display their astronaut research on a bulletin board or poster boards, or share projects through short oral presentations.
      • Share a few presentations each day of a week as part of a “Space Week” celebration.

    NASA video resource: Hear an astronaut describe his or her career journey in NASA’s astronaut video interviews (3–4 minutes long). Below are a few great interviews to inspire students:

    International Space Station

    The International Space Station (ISS) is a large spacecraft where astronauts live and study space. Constantly circling Earth, the ISS weighs approximately one million pounds and is the size of a football field. Since it first opened in 2000, more than 200 astronauts have lived on the International Space Station.

    Activity 4: Life on the Space Station

    • Watch a live transmission of astronauts living and working on the International Space Station via NASA TV, including “NASA TV Programming,” which is generally livestreamed video of the astronauts, and “Earth Views,” which is a live view of Earth from the ISS.
    • Find out who’s currently living on the Space Station by going to NASA Kids’ Club and following the “Find Out Who Is on the Space Station” link.
    • Write a paper about a few tasks that the astronauts living on the Space Station perform. Or, select one of the astronauts living on the ISS and write a summary of how he or she became an astronaut and what his or her role is on the ISS.
    • Project option: Find out when the ISS will be passing over your town and plan a special outing where your class can watch the Space Station soar over your school. Go to the Spot the Station website, input your location, and it will provide “ISS sighting” times (and an approximate location to help you find it) for the next couple of weeks. You can also receive alerts of future ISS sighting times and dates.

    Story Time from Space

    Story Time from Space features videos of astronauts reading books aloud from the International Space Station. This is a unique, out-of-this-world reading experience.

    Activity 5: Story Time Book Summary

    • Listen to a book read by an astronaut, then invite students to write a short summary of the book they just heard.
    • Project option 1: Students may listen to one story and write a report about the same book, or they may listen to the story of their choice outside of class and write a book summary of teacher-specified length.
    • Project option 2: Students may record their observations of the astronaut while reading. Why didn’t the astronaut sit in a chair? What types of equipment did you see in the ISS? Did you see any clues that there is little gravity in the ISS? What was your favorite part of the story? The report may also include an illustration of the astronaut reading the book from space.

    More space-themed resources

    • Challenger Centers are great places for students to participate in hands-on activities and explore. These not-for-profit learning centers are located in 27 states and four countries. Their “Center Missions” allow middle school students to experience “space-themed simulation-based experiences” led by trained flight directors.
    • NASA Kids’ Club is a NASA-sponsored website with exciting activities for students, such as test driving a rover on Mars, as well as other games and craft ideas.

    Suzanne Slade is the award-winning author of more than 100 children’s books. A mechanical engineer by degree who worked on Delta rockets, she often writes about science and space topics. Some her recent titles include Countdown: 2979 Days to the Moon, Daring Dozen: The Twelve Who Walked on the Moon, A Computer Called Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Helped Put America on the Moon, Astronaut Annie (will be read by an astronaut on the Space Station for Story Time From Space), The Inventor’s Secret, and Dangerous Jane. Find free Teacher’s Guides for these books at Find her on Twitter at @AuthorSSlade.

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    Putting Books to Work: Jordan Sonnenblick’s Notes From the Midnight Driver

    By Julie D. Ramsay
     | Jun 30, 2017

    Notes From the Midnight DriverLike many of our middle school students, Alex’s life is in turmoil. His parents are in the midst of a very expensive divorce and his college fund is quickly depleting as lawyers battle over his time. Compounding that, Alex’s dad has moved in with his third-grade teacher and his mom has started dating. He has had enough. So Alex gets drunk, takes the keys to his mom’s car, and heads out to give his dad a piece of his mind.

    Of course, things do not go as planned. Alex finds himself in police custody having decapitated a neighbor’s garden gnome. His actions land him with a strict grounding at home, teasing at school, and assigned community service at a local nursing home with a notoriously cantankerous patient.

    The beautifully composed story perfectly blends poignant moments with the humor that typically follows the lives of early adolescent students. Readers easily connect with Alex’s plight while seeing his character develop as he becomes less self-centered and learns how to serve others.

    Cross-curricular Connections: English language arts, social studies/history

    Ideas for Classroom Use:

    This book lends itself to several different types of activities to support all of our diverse learners.

    Cause and Effect

    Notes From The Midnight Driver provides students with many opportunities to evaluate cause and effect relationships. Students can discuss and reflect on Alex’s choices and answer questions like What could have been done differently? What would have been a different outcome? In addition to having large and small group discussions, blogging is a great platform for students to share their thoughts. Unlike oral discussions, blogging gives students more time to contemplate, form their own ideas, and then share them with their peers. Through blog commenting, students can hold ongoing conversations outside of the classroom

    Character development

    In our classroom, we will use a “plot mountain” graphic organizer to study how Alex’s character develops and to analyze how Sonnenblick creates a character that the audience can identify with. Students will use that as a model and create a character for their own narratives.

    Letter writing

    Although we live in the age where digital mediums reign our interpersonal communication, Alex uses letters to communicate with the judge on his progress. This lends itself to a discussion about communication mediums, audience, and impact. Students can select a topic, such as the dress code or the equitable use of physical education equipment, and determine how that would be communicated to a friend, a kindergartner, a parent, a grandparent, or a superintendent. Students can then compose their message for different audiences using different tools. They have to ask themselves, Would I text message, e-mail, Tweet, or write a letter explaining my argument? This is an authentic opportunity for students to practice communicating their message across different mediums for different audiences.

    Living history

    This book inspires readers to learn from the wisdom and experiences of older generations in their communities. Students can interview persons of interest, record their stories and then publish them to share with future generations. Some of my students favorite ways to publish are through video (iMovie or We Video), digital picture books (Mystorybook or Storyjumper), graphic novels, blog posts (KidBlog), and animation (StikBots or PowToon).

    Service learning projects

    Students want to know that what they are learning in school is relevant to their lives and empowering them to make a difference in the world. Although Alex is assigned community service, he eventually becomes invested in providing the residents at the nursing home, especially his assigned patient, with a jazz concert. This sets an example for students to really examine their communities, identify an area that may be underserved, and use their own talents to provide a service that positively impact the lives of others.

    Through many of these learning experiences, students will develop empathy for others while promoting social justice in their own communities.

    Additional Resources:

    Jordan Sonnenblick's official website links to Sonnenblick’s full list of books, his calendar, blog, and other resources.

    "Service-Learning: The Time is Now" is an article explaining why service learning projects are powerful for our students. The article provides several examples of successful projects as well as steps for classroom implementation.

    Julie D. Ramsay is a National Board Certified Teacher and the author of Can We Skip Lunch and Keep Writing? She teaches ELA to sixth graders at Rock Quarry Middle School in Tuscaloosa, AL. She also travels the country to speak, present, and facilitate workshops in applying technology to support authentic learning. Read her blog, eduflections.

    Julie D. Ramsay will facilitate a workshop titled Putting Books to Work Mid-Level (featuring authors Jordan Sonnenblick, Pablo Cartaya, and George O’Connor) at the ILA 2017 Conference & Exhibits, held in Orlando, FL, July 15–17.
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