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Putting Books to Work
  • 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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    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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    5 Books About New Beginnings

    By Clare Maloney
     | May 02, 2017

    The Thing About JellyfishStudents are constantly learning and growing, embarking on new endeavors and overcoming challenges all throughout their schooling. Here are five books about new beginnings that will help inspire students of all ages who may be hesitant to pursue a new opportunity, who are forced to start over after an unexpected loss, or who are simply looking to begin anew.

    Putting Books to Work: Bear and Bird

    Putting Books to Work: Fish in a Tree

    Putting Books to Work: Wonder

    Putting Books to Work: The Thing About Jellyfish

    Putting Books to Work: Transgender Pioneers

    Clare Maloney is an intern at the International Literacy Association. She is currently seeking a BA in English from the University of Delaware.

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    Putting Books to Work: Wonder

    by Suzanne Cline
     | Mar 01, 2017

    Wonder. R.J. Palacio. 2012. Alfred A. Knopf.

    Ages: 8–12


    is a story about a 10-year-old-boy born with a craniofacial abnormality who has undergone countless surgeries in his young life. After being homeschooled all of his life, Auggie faces the reality of attending school for the first time. His parents, while knowing that he is scared, are also aware that Auggie needs a more well-rounded education than what they can provide for him at home. As he begins fifth grade at Beecher Prep Middle School, Auggie maneuvers the many social challenges he encounters including making friends, fitting in, and dealing with betrayal. Although he has the unwavering support of his family, faculty, and friends, he also faces some mean-spirited behavior from peers and their parents. Throughout all of Auggie’s many trials and tribulations, he shows the people around him the real meaning of courage, compassion, and understanding.

    There are countless themes that could describe Wonder: family, friendship, coming of age, kindness, isolation, empathy. For my particular group of fourth-grade students, I focus on the theme of identity. Who are we? Do we act differently at home as opposed to at school? What masks do we wear to protect our insecurities? Does a disability, deformity, or diagnosis change who we are? Are we the best versions of ourselves? Are we open to change? Here are a few supporting activities for promoting the theme of identity.

    Cross-Curricular Connections: language arts, science, fine arts, social studies

    Ideas for Classroom Use

    Precept Wall

    In the story, Mr. Browne, Auggie’s teacher, uses precepts or quotes to teach his students about life. An interesting classroom activity is to set up a wall or space in your classroom dedicated to a weekly or monthly precept. Include a stack of sticky notes nearby so that students can add a brief reflection about the precept or make a personal/world connection to it. Initially, you can use Mr. Browne’s precepts, but students who are inspired by the process may want to start adding their own.

    Journal Writing

    The characters in the story are complex, each struggling to deal with Auggie’s deformity in the best way they know. Students can choose a character from the story and create journal entries on the basis of a particular conflict that character experiences. Students should include adequate text support for each journal entry.


    Break the class into partners or small groups and have the students research Treacher Collins syndrome. The research should include information about causes, treatments, difficulties, genetic makeup, and life expectancy. Students can showcase their research in a variety of ways such as posters, media presentations, and informational brochures. Students can present these projects to other classrooms, at PTA meetings, and at Science Fair/STEM nights to start an open discussion about this syndrome and other childhood diseases.

    Character Traits

    The illustrations in Wonder are minimal yet thought-provoking silhouettes of the characters. Most of the pictures include only one eye, leading readers to ponder whether this is meant to show people’s reactions to Auggie. What parts of Auggie do they really see? Are they seeing only his deformity?

    In this activity, have students reflect upon their own positive and negative character and physical traits. They can then input these traits into Wordle (a web-based tool) and create a graphic similar to the silhouettes in the novel. Filling in their silhouettes with the word cloud made from both their positive and negative traits shows how we are all a juxtaposition of emotions, much like the characters in Wonder. Have a gallery wall in the classroom dedicated to hanging students’ works of art.

    Internet Resources

    Treacher Collins Syndrome Guide: This website provides detailed information on genetic conditions, including diagnosis and management, and offers additional resources. This website provides one-stop access to U.S. Government information on bullying topics.


    Suzanne Cline is an advanced academics teacher at McVey and Jones Elementary Schools in Newark, DE, and Christiana, DE.

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