Tag Archive | middle school

Two books for summer school

Every year for the past seven, I’ve transitioned from regular school to teaching a month of summer school. Why, you might very well ask? Mostly for the money – although this summer my paychecks hardly seemed like incentive enough.Obviously I can’t cover a year’s worth of curriculum in three and a half weeks, so it’s mostly trying to teach grade nine and ten students reading and writing skills that will help them be successful next year. We read some short stories and poetry and this year we read Lois Lowry’s The Giver (Grade 10) and Todd Strasser’s The Wave. I’d never read either of them, but I knew they were accessible, high interest and short enough to get through in the limited time we had.

the_giver_1.jpg.CROP.promovar-medium2The Giver takes place in a community that values Sameness. On the surface it might even appear like a Utopia. Eleven-year-old Jonas lives in a family unit lives with his younger sister, Lily, and his mother and father. None of them are biologically connected.  His life is structured around school and volunteering and ceremonies that mark the important moments in the lives of the citizens. He is apprehensively waiting the next ceremony. His mother tries to calm Jonas’s nerves by telling him

“Well, it’s the last of the ceremonies, as you know. After Twelve, age isn’t important. Most of us even lose track of how old we are as time passes, though the information is in the Hall of Open Records, and we could go and look it up if we wanted to. What’s important is the preparation for adult life, and the training you’ll receive in your Assignment.”

Feeling apprehensive is unusual for members of this community. Their lives are not complicated by hunger,  disease or even bad weather. Everyone has productive work to do. They share their feelings as part of a nightly ritual. They apologize immediately if they say something even remotely offensive to another member of the community. They start taking a pill as soon as they acknowledge “stirrings” of a sexual nature. The Elders make all the decisions and “Rules were very hard to change.” The very old, the very weak and those who commit crimes are “released.”

At the Ceremony of the Twelves, Jonas gets his assignment. He is to be the Receiver, which means he will work with The Giver, the community’s most important citizen. He alone holds all the memories and he will transfer them to Jonas. Suddenly the only home Jonas knows seems less like Utopia and more like a nightmare.

The Giver is a great book – suitable for all readers and filled with lots of opportunities to talk about what it is to be human, free-will and the value and importance of memory. I really enjoyed it and would definitely use it in the classroom again.

Todd Strasser’s novelization The Wave is less literary, but offers lots of opportunities to51MDeY-2CjL._SX302_BO1,204,203,200_ talk, too.  The book is based on the true story of  California history teacher Ron Jones’ social experiment. (He’s been renamed Ben Ross in this book.) The year was 1969 and Ross had just shown his senior class a film about the Holocaust. When one of his students asked how the Germans could have just sat back and let the Nazis do what they did, Ross tried to think of a way he could illustrate the power of a fascist movement. He came up with “The Wave” and began to teach his students about discipline, community and action. Although the experiment was meant to be short-lived, it grew to include a salute, slogans and even a secret police force before it was finally dismantled due to complaints from parents and colleagues.

Virtually every one of my grade nine students really enjoyed reading The Wave. It was easy to read, so it’s perfect for struggling readers, plus it offered a lot of food for thought.

 

Bystander – James Preller

bystanderJames Preller’s middle grade novel Bystander does a good job of illustrating the school-yard bully.  Wikipedia describes that bystander effect, or bystander apathy, as “a social psychological phenomenon that refers to cases in which individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim when other people are present.”

When thirteen-year-old Eric moves to a new town with his mother and younger brother Rudy, he meets Griffin, a boy with “soft features … thick lips and long eyelashes…pretty.”  Griffin travels with a pack and when the boys arrive at the basketball court where Eric is practicing foul shots, Eric wonders “if something bad was about to happen.” It doesn’t take him long to figure out that despite Griffin’s alluring charisma, there is something off about him, a fact reinforced when Griffin tells Eric “I’m a good guy to be friends with…but I’m a lousy enemy.”

Truer words. When Eric starts his new school he wants nothing more than to get along. He’s a decent kid, a little sheltered, perhaps (he doesn’t have a cell phone and his mother won’t let him use Instant Messenger). I’ve been the new kid and I know what it’s like to start a new school, so I felt for Eric as he surveyed the cafeteria that first day, wondering where to sit.

In a month, he assured himself, everything would be fine. He’d make new friends, sit with them, eat, joke, laugh. But right now, today, the first day of school, it all kind of sucked. But on another level, none of it really mattered. Eric could smell his meatball sub and he felt hungry. He wanted to eat.

When Griffin stops at his table, chagrined that Eric is alone and invites Eric to eat with him and his friends, Eric accepts. In some ways, it’s a bit like making a date with the devil and we all know what they say about the devil you know, right. It doesn’t take long for Eric, who is a smart kid, to figure out that Griffin just isn’t the kind of friend he wants to have, even if it means that he’s going to suffer for it.

Bystander is a straightforward novel about making choices. Bullying is a hot topic these days and something we talk about even at the high school level. Published in 2009, Bystander doesn’t really address the problem of cyber bullying; Griffin is a garden-variety thug (if you can actually be a thug at 13.) The thing about Griff, though,  is that he’s sort of sympathetic; Preller doesn’t paint him with a simple black stroke.

Despite the fact that the book is intended for a younger audience, I think I have some grade nine students who would enjoy this story. They are not so far removed from middle school that they won’t remember characters just like Griff and his ilk.

See You at Harry’s – Jo Knowles

seeyouh

I spend as much time reading about YA fiction as I do reading the books, it seems; I am always adding new titles to my list and often the same book will be recommended time and time again. That was the case with Jo Knowles’ book See You at Harry’s. It was waiting in my mailbox at school today – I’d ordered it from Scholastic before the March Break. I started reading it during my third period Grade Ten English class and just finished it a few minutes ago.

The happiest day of  Fern’s life was the day she “threw up four times and had a fever of 103 degrees.” It’s a day lodged in Fern’s (yes, she’s named after the little girl in Charlotte’s Web) memory because it’s the day she didn’t have to share her mother with her two older siblings Sarah and Holden (yes, he’s named after that Holden).

That day at home, my mom spent every minute with me. My older sister and brother were at school, and my dad was working at my parents’ restaurant. I was eight and had never been home alone with just my mom before, at least not all day and definitely not with her full attention.

Shortly after Fern’s recovery, her mom discovers she’s pregnant and instead of being the youngest, Fern suddenly has to contend with a new baby brother, Charlie.

When See You at Harry’s begins, Fern is twelve. Her sister is eighteen, Holden is fourteen and Charlie is three. Her world is chaotic because her family is chaotic…and while Fern might not always get the attention she craves, in that self-centered way all twelve-year-old’s crave attention, she is by no means neglected. She shares a close sibling bond with Holden and there is much to admire in their relationship. Things are little more complicated with Sarah and there’s Charlie.

“I wanna go to school,” he says.

“School is overrated.”

“Huh?”

“Look. All little kids want to go to school. And kindergarten is pretty great. But it just goes downhill from there.”

“Oh.”

“Enjoy your freedom, bud.”

Fern knows what she’s talking about, too. She’s just starting seventh grade and it starts to go downhill on day one. I think a lot of middle school kids will see themselves in Fern. She is, as her mother once told her, “a special soul.”

Fern’s parents run the family restaurant. Her mom is a little on the flaky side and her dad is always coming up with crazy  and embarrassing schemes to improve the business. In all the ways that matter, though,  this is a nuclear family. They aren’t perfect, but they are real. They’re distracted and selfish and  human and fragile.  It takes a  terrible  tragedy to  fill up their empty places.

While this book might not appeal to some of my  students (it is geared for middle school readers, after all), I think many of them will be quite moved by Fern’s family’s story. I was.