Monday, March 31, 2014

GONE FISHING in the Classroom Two Ways - March Theme by Tamera Will Wissinger

GONE FISHING is a father and son fishing adventure and sibling rivalry story told through a series of poems, and includes a section that describes the different poetic forms used in the story. To address both the story elements and the poetry elements of the book, I’m pleased to offer educators two options for using GONE FISHING in the classroom, one focused on reading, and the other focused on writing.

The first option is a Teacher's Guide developed by Rachele Alpine, National Board Certified English Teacher and author of Canary. This is a reading guide and includes discussion questions that focus on the story elements in GONE FISHING. It covers all components of CCSS ELA-Literacy Reading: Literature for grades 3, 4, and 5.

The second option is a Mentor Text Lesson Plan developed by teacher and poet, Marcie Flinchum Atkins. The lesson plan focuses on writing and revising several different poetry forms such as those found in GONE FISHING and includes CCSS ELA-Literacy elements of Writing, Reading: Literature, and Language for grades 3, 4, and 5.

Click on the GONE FISHING cover to link to the Guide and Lesson Plan.

National Poetry Month kicks off this week, and on Wednesday morning I’m visiting the 6th grade classes at a nearby school where we’ll be writing, revising, and reading poetry together using many of the elements from Marcie’s GONE FISHING Mentor Text Lesson Plan.

If you choose to use GONE FISHING in your classroom, I hope these resources will be helpful to you and your students.

Happy reading and writing!

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Stories are alive! Using Tortilla Sun in the Classroom by Jen Cervantes

Stories are alive!
But sometimes it takes a teacher or librarian or parent to flesh out the color, the smells, and the tastes of a book. Case in point, Alyson Beecher of look what she created. You’re going to be AMAZED!

Alyson is a stellar example of the teachers who are making a difference and creating worlds with their students in memorable ways.
And for a downloadable reading guide created by, click here.

You can also access these in one location on my website:

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

8th Grade Superzero in the Classroom: by Olugbemisola Rhuday Perkovich

My first hope is that readers of Superzero come to know and love (or hate!) the characters, are engaged in the story, and have ample opportunities to read in a comfy, quiet place with lots of access to snacks.

There are many ways that it can be used as a mentor text in the upper elementary or early middle school classroom, and fiction can continue to play an important role in ELA and Social Studies classrooms, along with the reading and writing of nonfiction.  Here's one example of a series of writing and reflection exercises for a Unit on 8th Grade Superzero. I've had loads of fun working with students and classes via Skype visits and extended workshops on assignments like these -- happy writing, and let me know how it goes!

A school election plays a big part in the story, and the main character, Reggie, makes a big campaign speech. In Social Studies and/or ELA, students can write opinion pieces, speeches, prepare for debates, or even a real-life class election with the novel, and be guided with questions such as:

• Why is Reggie running for President? Do his reasons change over time? How/why?
• Does he make a good argument for his election? Why/not? How might you rewrite his speech based on what you know about him and his community? 
•Compare the three main candidates: What are their strengths? Weaknesses? Who would you vote for, and why?
• Write the speeches of the other candidates in the Clarke election.
• What structures and/or personalities govern the election process at his school? How do they compare with the electoral process (particularly the campaign process) in the U.S.?

for Specific Common Core References:
5th Grade ELA-Literacy Standards
Grades 6-8 ELA-Literacy Standards

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


THE JUNCTION OF SUNSHINE AND LUCKY, a tale about a young girl's journey toward becoming a folk artist, is the perfect novel to use in an art class. 

I hope that young readers who pick up THE JUNCTION are inspired to try their own hand at repurposing items...maybe that old broken necklace at the bottom of their jewelry box, or the busted remote-controlled car under their bed. 

I would love to see any young reader's repurposed art...I'd also love to see their own drawings of what they think Auggie's house looks like!

If you've got a creative young reader in your life, shoot me artwork that's inspired by THE JUNCTION.  Email pics of their work to writehollyschindler (at) yahoo (dot) com; I'll feature it on my site for young readers: Holly Schindler's Middles.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Monthly Theme: Using The Marble Queen in the classroom

Stephanie J. Blake

There are several ways to use my middle grade historical, THE MARBLE QUEEN, in the classroom. It would probably work best for 4th, 5th and 6th grade. Some of the central themes in THE MARBLE QUEEN involve gender roles in the 1950's, alcoholism in a parent, and Anti-Communism--specifically mistrust of foreign neighbors. You could also shoot marbles together!

The book is set in the middle of 1959. Freedom Jane McKenzie has just turned 10 years old. Her mother has very specific ideas about what young ladies can do and what they cannot. Freedom wants to enter (and win) a marble-shooting competition. There is not a lot of money in the household and Freedom's father is an alcoholic who tends to get into trouble with Mama. In fact, the whole family gets in trouble, as Mama is a strong woman with strong opinions. The neighbor lady, Ms. Zierk is Polish. She is cranky and wars with the McKenzie family over the burning bush, beer cans in the yard, and balls flying over the shared fence. Mama thinks Mrs. Zierk is a Communist. Little brother Higgie adds to the frustrations Freedom feels. There's a baby on the way and Freedom is at odds with her formerly best friend, Daniel.

You can view the book trailer here:

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Smack Dab in the Classroom: PUPPET THEATER BOOK REVIEWS-- Dia Calhoun interviews Librarian Deb Marshall

I want to visit Deb Marshall's library--read what she did there!  

"I took some [shelves]out and created reading cubbies for the kids. Yes. They can sit on the bottom bookshelf and read, either side by side or stretched out and on their own."

Fantastic! Deb shares some more ideas on how to use middle grade novels in the classroom.

DIA CALHOUN: How do you engage a group of kids with the same book? Kids who might have different interests?

I do a lot of reading out loud. Pete the Cat, Elephant & Piggie, Minerva Louise, Splat the Cat are examples of characters that have a wide appeal that crosses gender and interests, characters that are so kid like in how they are that no matter the interest, they appeal to everyone. I think the same is true of middle grade books and talking about them to students. I focus on the character, the kid in the book and draw similarities the students may feel they have with the character while at the same time as well as highlighting the differences, what makes that character unique.

DIA CALHOUN: Have you ever done something "outside the box" that set kids imaginations on fire?

DEB MARSHALL: I am not sure how outside the box this is, but a few years ago I ran a book club for middle graders and I got them using puppets to do book reviews. Of course, they had to read the book first, then using the puppet they could share why they like, or didn't like the book. Another member of the group would video tape this. We called it Puppet Theatre Book Reviews. The best part about this is one of the boys who came who each week and who each week said he didn't really like to read, picked a book, read it and did a review! He wanted in on the Puppet Theatre Book Reviews.

On the boy who came each week, it was his brother who loved to to read, who he came with. And each week I told the non-reader that he was always welcome and that some week we would find a book he liked. He found the book (see above for why) and the rest is reading history! The book? Revenge of the Road Weenies by David Lubar.

DIA CALHOUN:  If you could give teachers/librarians one piece of advice for engaging kids with middle grade books, what would it be?

DEB MARSHALL: I would say book talk or share the book with enthusiasm, read your favorite parts out loud, tell them why you liked the book, why you think they might like it. Kids really do want to know what we think (whether they agree with us or not) and love knowing that we are reading the same books they are. And to that widely! We need to know the insides of the books!

Deb Marshall is the librarian at W.A. Elementary in Alberta, Canada.

Smack Dab in the Classroom by author Dia Calhoun runs on the 23rd of each month.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Boys of Wartime and the Common Core

When we first talked about using the month of March to blog about how our books can be used in the classroom, I had a moment of concern verging on panic.  How could I possibly tell a professional teacher or librarian what to do? Except for school visits, I haven’t set foot in a classroom in more years than I’d like to fess up to.

But then I calmed myself down and remembered that not only are my novels frequently used as grade-wide read alouds to supplement Social Studies lessons about the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II.  And I paid a professional to create teacher’s guides for many of my books, including all three BOYS OF WARTIME novels, back when they were first published.  You can find them here:

I admit that Common Core confuses the heck out of me, but I also have an educator friend who has become somewhat of an expert. Together we put together a list of Common-Core related activities for BOYS OF WARTIME.  Some are focused on Close Reading and Collaborative Conversations.  Others involve Writing and Researching.  My favorite is this one:

Imagine that you are in charge of the French Resistance efforts to smuggle downed aviators out of France, the head of the emergency committee formed to fight the Rebel invasion, or the head of a spy group in colonial Boston. Using examples from the books, create a top-secret manual with orders for everyone involved in the operation, including instructions on how to avoid getting caught and how to handle interrogations. Present your manual to the class with a Powerpoint presentation. (W.2, W.4, W.6, W.9)

You can download the whole list here:

I hope you and your students have fun with it!

Friday, March 21, 2014

BETWEEN WRITERS: A Conversation with Tommy Hays

WHAT I CAME TO TELL YOU is a moving, middle-grade novel, a starred-review novel, a novel that takes you into the underworld of shared grief, yet allows you to hold fast to hope.  It is exactly the kind of exquisitely written book I admire.  If you haven’t read it, I hope you will.  The author, Tommy Hays, writes fiction for both adults and young people, and I was eager to connect with him about the writing of this book, the lessons he’s learned along the way, and the joys of writing for middle-grade readers.     

First, congratulations on your beautiful book WHAT I CAME TO TELL YOU.  You’ve had a successful career writing novels for adults, what brought you to the middle-grade genre? 

Thank you very much!  Having children I think brought me to the genre.  We have two children.  A girl and a boy now both college age, but I used to read to them when they were little and read children’s books to them and I became interested in children’s books myself and then began to read them just for me.  I was attracted to their aura of innocence.  I don’t mean they were naïve but they just had this view of the world that in a way met my own way of looking at things more than adult novels.  Also I wanted to write something that I thought would engage my children. (There’s a brief essay on my web page about how the book sort of started with a comment by my son many years ago).  My second novel In the Family Way was told from the point of view of a ten year old boy, so I think I’ve always been more interested in the world of the child. 

Did you begin with a clear sense of a middle-grade novel?  Did you have a sense of how a book for that audience might be different? 

I did not begin with a clear sense of who this book was for other than I hoped it would be something that Max and Ruth would enjoy.  I don’t really ever think about audience, other than family, friends and my greater community.  I’d just come off writing The Pleasure Was Mine which was about a man who was caring for his wife who suffered from dementia and I was looking for a change of pace.  I also was a bit tired of the adult novelist’s world and decided to try to enter into the children’s writer’s world.  But the first draft I wrote of WHAT I CAME TO TELL YOU fell very flat, was shallow and probably written down to children.  It was only over time and over several drafts that I sort of gave in and wrote the book as I do my adult novels.  I mean I gave up being self-conscious about writing to children or for children and allowed bigger darker things to be at stake for Grover and Sudie.     

From the first chapter, the reader is aware of a carefully executed story, a story with insight and intelligence, and real truth about the emotional reality of a grieving family.  Was there ever any concern that the book was “too old” for middle-grade readers? 

As I say I didn’t know who this was for really.  Several adult novelists read it and said they felt it would make a great children’s novel but was as much a novel for adult readers.  Then several children writers read it and one in particular set out to me for various reasons that it was a middle grade novel not a YA novel.  I think she was basically saying it was too innocent and quiet to be otherwise.  Also Pat Scales, a noted children’s librarian and friend, read it and she said it would make a great middle grade novel.  It was all an education for me.  But I’ve met a couple of other writers who went through the same thing with their books. 

Part of the beauty of this book, is your exquisite use of subtext—especially in dialogue and detail.  Do you have any thoughts about the child reader’s ability to read between the lines?  Was that a concern at all in the revision process? 

I’ve always found children to be incredibly insightful and attentive, often more so than adults who are usually too busy to pay attention to much of anything.  So once I decided to write this book as I would any other I stopped worrying about the child reader not getting something I wrote, unless I just hadn’t done a very good job of embodying what I wanted to say.  And my wonderful editor Regina Griffin at Egmont USA never asked me to dumb down a thing.  She wanted to be true to the book and to Grover. 

After writing novels for adults, were there particular joys about writing for this age group? 

I did feel as if I entered into a different world.  As I said earlier, I entered into a world that has an aura of innocence and not in a sentimental or naïve way.  Just felt like I didn’t have to worry about engaging the cynical adult reader.  So that it felt like a more open kind of writing to me, more genuine maybe. 

And challenges?

I guess the main challenge was realizing that I had to give in to the process I always went through with my books, rather than trying to impose my ideas of what a children’s book should be on the material. I had to give my characters free reign.  That took several drafts and several years.    

Was the writing process different in any way—either generating or revising—than the books you’ve written for adults?     

The writing process wasn’t really any different.  However, I will say that the editing process was far more engaging.  Regina spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about the novel with me and looking at all aspects in a way that my editors of my adult novels never did.  Felt like a much more thorough and satisfying process.  I knew by the time we were done that it was the best I could make it. 

Do you have a reader in mind for this book?  A young reader?  A reader of any age? 

My children when they were children and then everybody else. 

Any other books for young people in your future? 

I’m finishing a novel for adults but will definitely follow up with another children’s book as soon I’m done with this. 

ABOUT TOMMY HAYS:  Tommy Hays’s first middle grade novel, What I Came to Tell You, published in September, was chosen as a Fall 2013 Okra Pick by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) as one of the books booksellers are most eager to sell. His novel, The Pleasure Was Mine, was a Finalist for the SIBA Fiction Award in 2006, and has been chosen for numerous community reads, including the One City, One Book program in Greensboro and the Amazing Read in Greenville, SC. The novel was read on National Public Radio’s “Radio Reader” and South Carolina ETVRadio’s “Southern Read”. His other novels are Sam’s Crossing, which has been recently re-released, and In the Family Way, winner of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award. He is Executive Director of the Great Smokies Writing Program and Lecturer in the Master of Liberal Arts program at UNC Asheville. He teaches in the MFA Creative Writing Program at Murray State University and was the Sara Lura Matthews Self Writer-in-Residence at Converse College in January. A member of the National Book Critics Circle, he received his BA in English from Furman University and graduated from the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. He lives in Asheville with his wife, Connie, and their two children, Max and Ruth.  WHAT I CAME TO TELL YOU, was chosen by the Atlanta Constitution as one of 12 books of 2013 it recommends for younger readers. For more information go to

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Characters by Kristin Levine

Character descriptions are really hard for me.  Sometimes, I can barely describe my own family and friends, much less an imaginary person I've made up!  So I love getting to see what students think my characters look like.  Here are some projects shared with me at a recent school visit to Drew Middle School in Fredericksburg, VA.

Dit from The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had

Emma from The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had
Marlee from The Lions of Little Rock
Sally from The Lions of Little Rock

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Linking Literature to Math (March theme) by Claudia Mills

           I was a girl who was good at writing. I was a girl who was bad at math. That makes me a typical female main character in a children’s book.  

For a delicious, but cringe-inducing list of clichés in children’s books, check out Joelle Anthony’s list of the 25 “most overused things” in middle grade fiction. “Main character who wants to write” is on the list as cliché number four. I thought I remembered “Main character who wants to write and who also hates math,” but apparently I was wrong there. But think of Anne of Green Gables. Think of Betsy Ray of Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books. Other examples are probably popping into your brain right now.

Not that girls are alone in hating math. Boys can hate math, too. My single most successful book, in terms of sales, has been my chapter book 7 x 9 = Trouble!, followed by its sequel, Fractions = Trouble!  Apparently lots of kids can relate to the story of a third grader who is struggling to master the times tables and who fears humiliation when his parents hire a tutor to help him with fractions. The books have become popular classroom read-alouds to sweeten the pain of arithmetic. While Wilson tussles with math, I provided him with classmate Laura, who excels in math (and helps teach Wilson that finger trick for learning the 9-facts) and Josh, who falls in the middle of the math bell curve. Kids write me saying, “I’m like Laura. I love math,” or “I’m like Josh, I’m pretty good at math.” And the Wilsons of the world can read the book and know that they aren’t alone.

But now I decided it was time to write a book about a girl who unabashedly adores math. Annika Riz, Math Whiz comes out in May, the follow-up to Kelsey Green, Reading Queen (Kelsey is another book-loving, math-hating girl, I must confess). Annika lives in a house with a math-patterned tablecloth; she sleeps between math-patterned sheets. Her dog is named Prime, for prime number. One of Annika’s goals in the book is to teach Prime to count; another is to win a Sudoku contest at the public library. (One ambition meets with considerably more success than the other). And it’s Annika’s love for math that saves the day during the class bake sale at the school carnival.
I’m hoping that teachers will share this one, too, so that girls who love math will say, “Yes! That’s me!” C. S. Lewis is quoted as saying, “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, “What? You, too? I thought I was the only one.” I’m hoping that just as Wilson comforts kids who struggle with math, Annika can cheer on kids who just happen to love math more than anything in the world.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Make Them Want to Read More by Ann Haywood Leal

"You have it!"  My daughter's friend pointed at the bookshelf in my living room.  "That book!  I hated to read until I read that book!"  

I followed her fingertip to the YA novel, 13 REASON WHY by my 2k sibling, Jay Asher.  "That's one of my favorites, too," I said.  

"I made all of my friends read it," she said.  "Especially the ones who hated to read."

As a teacher, I am all about the curriculum connections for books.  But what is really important isn't the Common Core or even the interdisciplinary weave-ins.  It's getting them TO READ.  My job is to get them excited about the written word--so much that they want to take the book home and finish it on the school bus.  They should come back to school asking for the next book by that author.  I want them asking to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, because they want to see what Claudia saw.  

We teachers have the power to kill the story for the kids, overanalyzing and tearing it apart until there's nothing left but the black and white. 

The challenge I put forth for myself this spring is to put reading joy in our classroom day.  As I read aloud to them, I want them to complain when I put the book down.  I want them to miss important directions, because they are completely mesmerized by the book at their desk.  I want them to love stories so much, that they might give a thought to putting one of their own down on paper.

I knew I was on the right track when one of my students raised his hand with a worried look on his face.  He held up his free writing journal.  "I don't have any pages left!  What do I do?"

I smiled and tried not to do my teacher dance ( like the kind football players aren't supposed to do in the end zone).  "You get another one, of course!" 

“Middleview” Interview with Debut Author Laura Marx Fitzgerald

Posted by Tamera Wissinger

Today, Laura Marx Fitzgerald is joining Smack Dab In The Middle Blog for a guest “middleview” interview. Laura’s debut middle grade novel UNDER THE EGG, Dial/Penguin, releases in just two days, on 03/18/2014! Congratulations, Laura!

Here is a bit about Laura in her own words:

Where are you from?
We moved around a lot growing up. I lived in Nashville, TN; Norman, OK; Oxford, MS; and ended up in Pensacola, FL. I had a Southern accent until college.

And where was that?
Harvard. I think they were looking for "geographical diversity". Later I got a Rotary Scholarship to study art history at Cambridge University.

Where do you live now?

My husband, two sweet kids, and probably a dog if the two sweet kids keep nagging.

Who's your agent?
The incomparable Sara Crowe (Harvey Klinger, Inc.)

What's your favorite middle-grade book?
A tie between The Westing Game and From the Mixed-Up Files . . . , of course

What's your favorite picture book?
Anything by David Wiesner

Ever been on a game show?
Yes, as a matter of fact, I have: Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (Not me, apparently.)

Here’s a description of UNDER THE EGG:

Only two people know about the masterpiece hidden in the Tenpenny home—and one of them is dead.

The other is Theodora Tenpenny. Theo is responsible for tending the family's two-hundred-year-old town house, caring for a flock of unwieldy chickens, and supporting her fragile mother, all on her grandfather’s legacy of $463. So, when Theo discovers a painting in the house that looks like a priceless masterpiece, she should be happy about it. But Theo’s late grandfather was a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and if the painting is as valuable as she thinks it is, then her grandfather wasn't who she thought he was.

With the help of some unusual new friends, Theo's search for answers takes her all over Manhattan and introduces her to a side of the city—and her grandfather—that she never knew. To solve the mystery, she'll have to abandon her hard-won self-reliance and build a community, one serendipitous friendship at a time.

Here are the links to Laura online: Website, Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads

Now it’s time to hear from our guest:

Smack Dab Middleview with UNDER THE EGG author Laura Marx Fitzgerald

1. In a nutshell, what does your main character, Theo, want? 

Theo wants to solve the mystery left to her by her grandfather. In his dying words, Jack told Theo to look "under the egg . . . for a letter . . . and a treasure." Theo is flat broke, so a "treasure" sounds promising. But the closer she looks, the more she sees that the real mystery is who her grandfather really was.

2. What is in her way? 

No money. No guidance. No technology. And a museum curator who wants whatever she's got.

3. Did you know right away that this was your story, or did you discover it as you wrote? How did the story evolve? 

I knew I wanted to solve some kind of historical mystery, where the clues lie in the past. An early version included time travel, and an editor friend very kindly (and rightly) told me to kill that aspect. I had another idea about art forgery at the time and was reading a wonderful book called The Forger's Spell. In it, the author notes that new oil paint (as in less than 100 years old) will smudge under rubbing alcohol, but old paint will stay intact. That sparked the idea of one composition painted over another--with the intention of its future removal. And that sparked UNDER THE EGG.

4. Was UNDER THE EGG always for middle grade readers or not? If so, why did you choose middle grade? If not, what had to change for it to be considered a middle grade novel? 

In my mind, Theo's literary soul mate was fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross from True Grit, so I made Theo fourteen too. My editor felt that the tone and feel of EGG was middle grade and suggested making Theo a bit younger to better resonate with my audience. Once I did that, I saw that Theo's real soul mate is Turtle from The Westing Game, one of my middle grade heroes.

5. What is the best part of writing for middle grade readers? 

I love writing in the genre that formed the happiest moments of my childhood. I can still pick up The Borrowers, or Anastasia Krupnik, or Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and laugh in the same parts, cry in the same parts, feel my heart beat faster as danger approaches. I can only dream my book inspires the same feelings in my readers. 

6. Is there any downside?  

Sometimes historical subjects can be too intense or upsetting for the younger reader--for example, UNDER THE EGG touches on the Holocaust. The challenge is to find an appropriate way into the topic that meets the reader where he or she is.

7. What's your favorite reading memory? 

When I was a kid, there was a two-foot space between my bed and the wall. On cold winter afternoons I would pile up all my pillows, bring my favorite doll and two or three books, and billow my blanket over the heater vent. Reading all afternoon in that cocoon of pillowy warmth -- heaven!

Thanks for joining us at Smack Dab in the Middle Blog, Laura. Again, congratulations on the release of UNDER THE EGG!