Author: Eric M.

Lessons in Empathy and Proactivity: Two Great Summer Reads for Upper Elementary Students and Middle Schoolers

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For those of us parenting through these uncertain times, one thing has felt absolutely certain: our children have not been getting all the education they have needed or would normally receive. And now summer is here.  

Our children need to be outdoors—running, swimming, reestablishing connections to others and to the world that once was. But that learning loss? How can we overcome that? What can we do in these precious weeks before school begins in the fall and life no doubt gets a little uncertain again? 

The answers can’t always be found in electronic devices. The last things many kids need is more tablet time. Fortunately, a new answer doesn’t need to be found. It’s been here all along.

Novels are still a thing. Even with all the shining, flashing, beeping competition for their attention, many children still read and love books. Teachers, librarians, and parents all deserve credit for this. And so do authors. The first two decades of this young century have seen an explosion of children’s and young-adult (YA) literature worthy of your young readers’ attention.

These contemporary novels feature relatable characters, appealing genres, and engaging storylines. Many are as well written as the 20th century classics kids encounter in school, but these newer novels are of higher interest to today’s young readers.  

Two examples of 21st century novels your child will likely love are Out of My Mind and The City of Ember. Both are highly rated and recommended by teachers and parents. Each overwhelmingly receives 5-star customer reviews on book-selling websites.

Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper

Empathy is the ability to understand others’ emotions, and it is a skill that is gaining focus in our children’s education. And like many skills, the past year has not given our children enough of a chance to interact and develop in this area. Out of My Mind is a bigtime empathy builder. 

The novel’s narrator and main character is Melody, an extraordinarily bright and perceptive 11-year-old who also happens to have cerebral palsy. Her condition keeps her from walking, talking, and controlling her movements. She has a photographic memory and so many ideas to share, but she cannot easily communicate. She cannot get her thoughts “out of her mind.” Others can’t understand her, and they make assumptions about who she is. To hear her tell it, this really drives her out of her mind

But then two things happen: Melody’s school begins integrating special-needs students such as herself with the able-bodied students, and Melody gets a special computer that gives her a voice. The novel offers her perspective on how others treat her and how they struggle to transition from who they thought she was to who she really is.

Three Reasons Why Your Young Reader Might Love This Book

  • The main character is someone worth rooting for. Readers get to know her, they get to understand her challenges, and they want her to succeed.
  • Young readers may respond to the concept of having ideas that they can’t yet express and abilities that they aren’t yet able to show.
  • The school-age children are very authentic. They talk and act like actual fifth graders.

One Big Reason Why You Might Love that Your Young Reader Is Reading this Book

  • This book is full of social-emotional lessons. It can inspire great conversations about what we can learn about ourselves, how others may see us differently than we see ourselves, and how we can approach life’s challenges and learn from life’s setbacks.

The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

Proactivity is the ability to diagnose an issue and solve it before it becomes a problem. It’s self-initiated. No one tells you that something needs to be done: you figure it out yourself and you take the necessary steps. This is what the child characters in The City of Ember do.

The city of Ember was built long ago by the Builders. It is a city lit entirely by electricity; and its storerooms are stocked with all the vitamins, food, and supplies that its citizens need to survive. But lately, the ancient generator has been failing and supplies are running low. Everyone is terrified when the lights go out and the city is plunged into darkness, but they’ve never known a different life. What could even be done?

Lina and Doon know in their hearts that something is not right and that some other life must be out there. Fate gives them a clue and they follow it with all of their energy, intelligence, and intuition in an effort to save themselves and everyone else from a dark future.

Two Reasons Why Your Young Reader Might Love This Book

  • It is a story of action, adventure, and mystery. Though it’s not a short novel, the writing is exciting and fast-paced.
  • Even though the story is fantastical and fictional, the two main characters are realistic young people who recognize a problem and look for a solution. It is empowering in that the children believe in themselves and work toward solving the mysteries of their universe, even though they don’t always make the right choices or execute their plan as they intend to.

Three Reasons Why You Might Love that Your Young Reader Is Reading this Book

  • The young characters in this book are not superheroes. They do not have powers. They are just blessed with curiosity, energy, and awareness: traits that actual children in the real world can have.
  • The adults in this novel are not all mindless or villainous (though some are). For reasons integral to the plot, everyone who lives in the city of Ember has very little understanding of how nature and the world works. This levels the playing field in a way that is more realistic than most novels that feature children saving the day.
  • This novel can inspire conversations about environmental consciousness, doing what’s right for the common good, and why ignoring problems can have long-term consequences.
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Discussing These Novels With Your Young Reader

Finding a book your child will love and actually enjoy reading is a big win. But don’t stop there. Discuss the book with your child. Check in with them to see how much they are getting from the novel. If possible, do this in a way that does not feel like homework. It should feel like a conversation, not an assignment.

But wait, does that mean you have to read the book, too? Who has time for that? And how can you both be on the same page, literally or figuratively?

The good news is that there are parent guides out there for each of these novels. These guides will keep you in the loop and give you the questions to ask and ideas to explore. Our Novels at Home series features guides for Discussing Out of My Mind with Your Young Reader and Discussing The City of Ember with Your Young Reader.

And how about other novels? We’ve got you covered there, too. Check out 5 Parent Hacks for Discussing a Novel You Haven’t Read.

5 Parent Hacks for Discussing a Novel You Haven’t Read

Your child is reading a novel. That is a good thing! But you might actually like to know a bit more about the subject: What lessons or ideas does the novel have to offer? What is my child taking from it? How well is my child understanding it? Why this book? 

If you are like most parents, getting satisfying answers to these questions can be challenging. It can feel impossible if the novel is one you’ve never read.

Your next thought may be, “I will read the book myself!” After all, reading fiction is as much about connection as it is comprehension. “Sharing is caring” is an adage that applies perfectly to literature. Talking about a book can open a child’s eyes to ideas that come from outside themselves while allowing them to give voice to the thoughts that come from within. 

But you’ve got so many things pulling your attention in so many directions, and sitting down to read a 256-page novel is not realistically going to happen any time soon. Besides, your kid is into this book right now, not next week. 

So how can you talk to your young reader about a book you’ve never read? How can you be prepared in the moment to discuss something you really don’t know anything about? 

Here are some approaches, ideas, and questions to try. 

  1. Talk, don’t test. Have a conversation.

Keep it informal. No one should be reminded of schoolwork while this is happening. This will not be on the test. We’re just talking here!

  1. Ask specific questions. And then ask specific follow-up questions.

Avoid questions that are too general.  “What do you think of the book?” is probably going to get you an “It’s good” response. Ask “What’s it about?” and you are not likely to get much analysis or introspection. 

But how can you ask specific questions about an unfamiliar novel? That’s what #3–5 on this list are for. Use those prompts to guide your child’s focus and increase your chances of having an enlightening conversation. 

Choose the questions that make most sense to you. Adjust the wording as needed to make them comfortable and authentic. And be prepared to follow up your child’s answers with something along the lines of “Give me an example of that” or “I think I understand, but tell me more.” Don’t let the conversational momentum be stalled by a one-word answer.

  1. Ask questions about characters. Answers about plot will tag along for the ride.

In general, children’s and YA (Young Adult) literature is very character-driven. Adults may read novels about protagonists who are completely unlike them, but this is usually not the case for children. The authors of children’s and YA novels want their young readers to identify with the main character(s). 

So ask questions about the main character(s):

  • Who is the main character? Why are they in the world of this story?
  • What is something memorable that happens to the main character? Why was that memorable?
  • What is something memorable that the main character does? Why was that memorable?
  • Does the main character change at all as the story goes along? How?

And then include a few questions about the minor characters:

  • Which character most helps the main character? How?
  • Which character most hurts the main character? How?
  • Were there any characters who you felt one way about in the beginning of the story and then felt differently about by the end of the story?
  1. Ask questions about choices. Characters make choices, and authors do, too.

When we talk to our children about choices we can make in how we treat others, how we feel about ourselves, and just about anything else, the situations are often hypothetical and the concepts are often abstract. Lean on literature to explore these ideas in more concrete ways. Discuss the choices characters make and the consequences of those choices. 

While you’re at it, work in some thoughts about the choices the author makes. Artists make art that makes us feel stuff, right? How do they do that? Being aware of the author’s craft can help make your children become better readers, writers, and thinkers.

Ask questions about the characters’ choices:

  • What was one “bad” choice that a character made in this story? Why do you think they made that choice? Did they end up regretting that choice? (You may want to also talk about the word “bad.” Could a more accurate word be used to describe the choice that was made?)
  • What was one “good” choice a character made in the story? What was a different choice they could have made? What might have happened if they made that choice? (You may want to also talk about the word “good.” Could a more accurate word be used to describe the choice that was made?)

Ask questions about the author’s choices:

  • Where does the story mostly take place? Why does it need to take place there?
  • Do the chapters end in a way that makes you want to keep reading? Why do you think that is? 
  • What are one or two really memorable scenes in this book? Why are those scenes so memorable?
  1. Ask questions about empathy and experience.

We don’t just read one book in our lives or see one film. We experience all kinds of art, and the lessons we take from each artwork build upon one another. The same goes with our understanding of other people. Literature gives us a valuable perspective from which to observe characters’ actions and choices and to try to understand what they do and why they’ve done it.

  • Why do you think people like this book? 
  • Would you like being a character in the world of this book? Why or why not?
  • One year from now, what do you think you will most remember about this book? Why will that be the thing that most sticks with you?

Why Novels? Why Now?

The past 16 months have been tough on our children and on us parents. As we enter the second summer of these uncertain times, there are a lot of us who are worried that our children have suffered some amount of learning loss. But we don’t all feel prepared or qualified to fill in the gaps, and we don’t know where to begin. Reading novels at home this summer and discussing them is an organic way to infuse learning into an activity many children will do on their own.

The reason this works is because there are so many fantastic novels available to children in the upper elementary grades and middle school. These contemporary novels feature relatable characters, appealing genres, and engaging storylines. Many are as well written as the 20th century classics kids encounter in school, but these newer novels are of higher interest to today’s young readers.  

Two great examples of contemporary novels your child may enjoy are Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper and The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau. For guides to discussing these novels with your children, check out our Novels at Home series: Discussing Out of My Mind with Your Young Reader and Discussing The City of Ember with Your Young Reader. These guides will keep you in the loop and give you the questions to ask and ideas to explore.

Top 10 Reasons to Teach Project-Based Writing

Project Based Writing Teacher Created Resources

Project-based writing puts a spin on project-based learning, which is the act of learning through identifying a real-world problem and developing its solution. Project-based writing activities are differentiated and cross-curricular, and are totally different from essays which are bigger and more subject focus, although there are many people which have difficulty with essays, so they can just the best essay writing service reddit to get in in this area. It argues that any subject — be it language arts or STEM — can benefit from strong writing practice. Any genre of writing can support the other. And any engaging activity that links academic learning to the real world can be a 21st-century tool. Here are the top 10 reason to teach project-based writing in your classroom:

    1. It is an organic way to integrate all core subjects — math, science, history, and language arts.
    1. Project-based writing proves to students that imagination and creativity are connected to research and expository writing.
  1. It hits all the major elements of the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy: Analysis, Evaluation and Creation.
    1. By allowing students to choose their format of showing what they know, the buy-in for the quality of the final project is tremendous.
    1. Students develop projects that are individualized, unique, and specific from each other.
    1. Project-Based Writing is a powerful way to incorporate all multiple intelligences: visual, verbal, logical, musical, physical, social, solitary, and naturalistic.
    1. It desegregates nonfiction and fiction, blending the two.
  1. It integrates the core subjects with non-core subjects, potentially using technology, art, music, etc.
    1. Project-based writing is a rigorous assessment requiring high levels of thought and communication.
  1. It requires use of the entire writing process — from brainstorming to revising, editing, and completing the final draft — regardless of the genres picked and the topic chosen.

For more activities see Project-Based Writing

One Size Does Not Fit All (Grade Levels)

In a recent post, I wrote about my wife (“Mrs. M”), a substitute teacher who needed to be always prepared for the mysteries and challenges her day might present.  For Mrs. M., knowing the grade level and age range of the students she is about to teach is probably the most essential piece of the puzzle.  Which resources to use, which strategies to employ, even which clothes to wear—these are all influenced by the expectations she has of what a kindergarten-classroom experience will be versus what a day in sixth grade might bring.  (For example, Mrs. M. brings plenty of stickers and picture books for younger students, while she likes to assign writing prompts and read Louis Sachar’s Sideways Stories books to grades 3 and up.)  Sure, there is some commonality to the two experiences, but if you were to create a Venn diagram with “Teaching Kindergarteners” and “Teaching 6th Graders” as your labels, the center-circle overlap would not need to be nearly as large as the outer areas.

This is not so different from how we approach our work in the world of educational publishing.  One of the first questions to ask when reading a manuscript or beginning the editing process is, “What grade level is this for?”  Once this question is answered, several other answers fall into place:

•  Which point size to use:  12 pt. vs. 14 pt.  (The younger the audience, the bigger the letters should be.)

•  Which font style to use:  serif vs. sans serif.  (The younger the audience, the fewer frills and flourishes those letters should have.  And it even goes further than that:  a font may seem perfectly suitable but then have a strangely-shaped lowercase “a” or capital “Q,” for instance.  Young students have just learned their letters a certain way, so it wouldn’t be fair to ask them to recognize alternate versions.)

•  Which write-on lines to use:  regular vs. primary  (Primary write-on lines are those big, wide ones that have a dashed guide line going across the horizontal middle.  They take up a lot of space on the page, and many are needed for each question.  Young learners write with such large letters that they can only fit a few words on each of line.)

•  Which art style to use:  cartoon vs. realistic.  (A smiling, whimsical walrus would most likely be inappropriate for an upper-level science book.)

These are just a few of the cosmetic things we try to keep in mind when we design the layout of our pages.  Content, of course, must also be considered and tailored to the specific learning level we are aiming to reach.  In the end, we are hoping to create the perfect balance between what best helps teachers teach and students learn.

We do get occasional feedback about some of the finer points of page layout, and we would love to hear from as many teachers as possible.  Do you have any suggestions for ways we can make our books easier and more practical to use for the grade level that you teach?  Here’s a topic to get you started:  name lines.  Would you prefer to have a designated space on the page that says “Name:  __________,” or would you rather that space used for an extra question?