Tuesday, June 26, 2012


Veronesi, T. (2012). Soul ground photo essay (Kindle edition). United States: Amazon Digital Services.
(After many searches I could not find an original publisher listed, except for the author)

Grade/Ages: 10th Grade and Up

Genre: Nonfiction/Informational (Photo Essay)

Summary: This photo essay is a reflection of the Normandy Invasion during World War II.  The text includes photographs of historical, war landmarks of that region and are accompanied by quotes by famous people, mostly Americans, such as Abraham Lincoln concerning the sad and terrifying truth about war.


The term photo essay is used within the title of this text. In reflection of the attributes that describe a photo essay I found that there were equal amounts of photographs and written text, also the text was condensed in order to provoke thoughts and emotions within the reader. Yet, I believe  this book is only appropriate for young adults who have prior knowledge of war and the results of war in order for the symbolism utilized in the quotations to be understood.  In addition, the topic of war would indicate that this book could be categorized as “social science”, in that it discusses interpersonal relationships of soldiers during a time of war or after.  Our class text also discusses bibliotherapy, which I feel is the purpose this book, not only for the reader yet for the author as well.  I feel this way because the author uses quotes that would evoke empathy from the reader for soldiers and would help those who have not served in the Armed Forces to understand the terrors that service people see, yet they are committed to doing what is needed to preserve the rights of Americans. Throughout the balance of this blog I will discuss the negative and positive aspects of this photo essay.

Negative Attributes

When I searched for photo essays on my Kindle, I looked for books that I could draw information from and possibly use in future instruction. Then I found Soul Ground, upon reading the summary I thought that this book would tell a story about soldiers who landed in Normandy during the invasion. I knew this book would not be suitable for younger children; however I was hoping that it may prove useful in middle and high school grades. Once I began reading the book, I became confused. The story did not have a plot or any type of sequence, instead the structure of the story was that it offered a description of war.  When considering the authors style of writing, most of the writing was concise and if the reader had a prior knowledge of the results of war, the writing was also clear.  Yet, I knew various types of dictions were used as if the author were switching from one voice to another.  As well, it seemed that the text was written in free verse, being isolated, unrhymed thoughts that were philosophical.  An example would be, “Every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguishes one man from another.” Then, I realized why!  When I came to the back matter, and credits were listed I found that the writing in the book was actually quotes from famous historical figures. There were not any photography credits or quote credits listed on the pages.  I found this very confusing, because in the Kindle format none of the page numbers corresponded, so I was not even sure who wrote this quote until I did a Google search and found that this quote was said by Ernest Hemmingway. In summary, the quotes in isolation were clear however there were no text features, such as credits or picture captions, to allow the reader to understand why those quotes were used and how they corresponded with the pictures.

I also found this photo essay to be factually inaccurate. My reason being that a few of the quotes used personification, specifically speaking of war as if it were a person or tangible object. I understand the theme of the book; the author wanted the reader to learn that war is savage and cruel especially to those fighting on the front lines.  However, the use of personification made obvious that this was not a book of factual information, just opinions. One example, of personification would be, “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.” This quote was said by Dwight D. Eisenhower.  I feel that this author missed a chance to give his book validity, by using quotes that included personification making it historically inaccurate.

Positive Attributes

One of the indicators of quality informational texts is being able to distinguish between fact, opinion or theory. Once I read the book and figured out that the text was comprised of quotes, I distinguished easily that this book presented opinions. The back matter served its purpose effectively in allowing the reader to see that all of these opinions, in the form of quotes, came from varied individuals.  In fact, since the author chose to use quotes from so many; I feel that he did present a variety of perspectives of war.  Furthermore, he chose valid people in which to quote from that had experience with war and philosophy. In addition to the three figures I have mentioned, he also included quotes from war heroes such as General Douglas MacArthur, political figures like former President Ronald Reagan and Sir Winston Churchill and philosophers such as Cicero.  In total, he utilized quotes from 18 different figures in history.  The positive being that he offered thoughts on war from many different perspectives and the fact that he chose historically famous people, gave the opinions offered in his photo essay validity.

The photographs used were also accurate, all being historical landmarks of the Normandy Invasion.  Moreover, he utilized a variety of photographs from landscapes to photos of artillery and even portraits of soldiers. Even though the photographs were not captioned, they did serve as a visual of the brutality that happens during war. The photos even portrayed a mood of sadness and loneliness. In many of the pictures there was one subject alone in a field. An example would be the second photograph in the text.  It is a picture of one army tank against a clouded sky.  The army tank has the appearance of coming toward the viewer, instilling a feeling of fear and anticipation.  I feel that since the quotes shared opinions in a philosophical manner, the use of photographs drove home the theme of the book through the mood they portrayed to the reader.

In general, I was not enthused about this book.  Not just because it was unsuitable for readers below the tenth grade, yet also the organization.  Even though the quotes delivered the theme of the book, text features, in the form of captions and quote credits, were needed so that the reader would understand what he or she was viewing before reaching the back matter.

Comprehension Strategy:
 Since the photo essay that I chose did not include bolded words, I have chosen one of the quotes that evoked emotion within me to consider more deeply.  As a result, please see the “So What” strategy presented in a diagram below. I have also included my BIG questions within this diagram.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Elijah of Buxton

Curtis, C. P. (2007). Elijah of Buxton. New York: Scholastic.

Ages: 11-14 years

Genre: Historical Fiction


I’ma  gunn let ya’ll hear freedom ring! My name is Elijah Freeman and I was the first freeborn child in the Buxton Settlement, in Canada West. I belong to my Ma and Pa, no one else. That part a be’in free.  I get to go to school too. Mr. Travis, my Sabbath and school teacher tells me I need to do better conjugate’n my Latin verbs. I knowed I’s lucky, many black folk are still slaves. Every time new-free slaves come to Buxton we talk to ‘em real gentle. We figure they been runnin’ so hard and so long, they’d run away if we’d start hoopn’ and hollern’ to celebrate when they got here. So we’s send Emma Collins to greet ‘em.  Emma even more fra-gile then me, she start cryn’ if you ax her what’s two and two. “She ain’t never got over that I was the first child born free in Buxton. Ma and Emma’s ma were in a race to see who was gonna be firstborn and Emma didn’t come out till six days after me. Since me and Ma won the race, Emma’s always let the sin of envy choke her heart.”

I do love chunkin’ rocks though, and I good at it!  I can get ten fish on a stringer in jus a few minutes. Preacher even tried to get me joined up with the circus ‘cuz of it. Preacher does a lot of excitn’ stuff you’ll see if you read my story.  You read all about how life is here in Buxton and how we try to help slaves over ‘yon, in America. Sum people like my story ‘cuz it give ‘em hope, hope a be’in free. Others like my story ‘cuz I do lot a thinking about what growed ups mean when they be talkn’. Ya’ll read my story though an you’ll be surprised at me, I may even bring a little “Hope” to Buxton.

I promised ya’ll I was gunn let you here freedom ring though, and I make good on my promises.  There will be 20 rings to celebrate you be’in free, free to read my story.  Now, I want to do this right, like Pa with the new-free slaves, “Looky there, look at that land! Look at those trees! Have you ever seen anything that precious? It’s the land of the free!” You choosed the most perfectest day to read my story! You free!

Please also see the video of this booktalk at https://www.dropbox.com/s/lldkf3e924x0fxn/Elijah%20of%20Buxton.wmv

Comprehension Strategy of the Week:
I utilized the Marking Time comprehension strategy largely to record setting changes. Specifically, location is integral to this story since the Buxton Settlement represented a place where slaves could live a life of freedom.  They were afforded this freedom because they were in Canada, which had different laws and government.  However, even citizens of Buxton that were of African descent had to be extremely careful when traveling, especially into America. As well, since most of the story took place in Buxton, it was important to remember when the characters traveled to other places. When the characters traveled it meant a major story event would take place. As a result, I used post-its to record the main character's travels, which cued me to remember the cause for the travel and the sequence of the story. Please see the below pictures of my Marking Time recordings. 

I used the Marking Time strategy to track
the main character's travels to alert
me to major story events

Friday, June 15, 2012

Chasing Vermeer

Balliet, B. (2005). Chasing Vermeer. New York: Scholastic

Ages: 9-14 years

Genre: Realistic Fiction (Mystery)


Chasing Vermeer is a mystery that is solved by paying attention to the little coincidences in we all experience in everyday life, which is also the theme of the story. The characters are realistic everyday people that come together to form an engaging, action-filled plot that uncovers a missing part of history and a public appreciation for art.  The book, published by Scholastic, includes puzzles and little side mysteries for the reader to use his or her own sleuthing strategies to figure out and decode secret messages. In addition, there is a resource page available, featuring a teacher’s guide and activities associated with the story.  This web page can be found at http://www.scholastic.com/blueballiett/.


This story fits within the descriptors of realistic fiction through the characters and plot. The main characters, “Petra” and “Calder” are 11 years old children.  They attend school, have siblings, parents that work at the University of Chicago and live in an actual suburb of Chicago, Hyde Park. The plot takes the form of situational realism by being a mystery about a famous piece of art that is stolen. The art is an actual portrait entitled A LADY WRITING, 1665 by Johannes Vermeer. I use the term situational realism because our world does include art thieves; in fact the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) estimates that about six billion dollars of art is stolen each year (PBS, 2007). Additionally, the story takes place in a neighborhood that surrounds the University of Chicago and many young adult readers could easily identify with the sixth grade main characters.

However, being able to identify with the main characters is just one reason why this novel is engaging for young adults. The novel includes many suspense sequences such as, “Petra had to do it. Propping the shovel against the tree, she began to climb. One foot, one hand, next foot, other hand… Petra counted as she climbed. As she grabbed the twelfth board, she tried to steady the pounding in her throat.” Moreover, there are hidden pictures within the illustrations that equate to a hidden message given throughout the book.  Plus, puzzles in the form of pentominoes, which is a math tool that consists of twelve pieces that are used to explore geometry and numbers. The pentominoes are also used by Calder and Petra in the story to figure out little challenges and next steps in their detective work. The answers to these side puzzles in the story can be found at the book’s website listed in the summary of this blog. I, for one, always studied the realistic illustrations just to find the hidden pictures and clues.  Yet, another side puzzle included in the story were coded messages between Calder and his friend Tommy. One had to use the pentominoes key to decode these letters, which is another story activity that I thoroughly enjoyed, as seen in my post-it notes in the picture to the right. Young adult readers and older readers would be engaged by all of these story attributes.  In fact, I particularly enjoyed these activities because they added to the mystery story line and allowed me to interact with the story.  A feature not usually included in mysteries written for older adult readers. Still, my BIG question has to do with the occurrence of the number “12” in this story.  The use of the number “12” was persistent throughout the story; the number was even used to solve the mystery.  My question is why “12”?  Is it because of the pentominoes and their base of 12? Or is this an actual part of the painting, A LADY WRITING as suggested in the story?

I can also see this novel used as a read aloud for instructional purposes because of the obvious math, social studies and critical thinking connections made in the text.  The math connections could be based on pentominoes puzzles, developing geometric shapes using translations (slides), reflections (flips) and rotations (turns). The social studies connection could be presented through the history of specific art pieces and famous art heists.  Furthermore, Ms. Hussey the sixth grade teacher in the story encourages students to practice independent critical thinking.  This critical thinking could take the form of predicting how Petra and Calder solve the mystery, figuring out the use of “12” and its relevance to the story, discussing how the art thief used writing to transform how an entire culture looked at art and artistic features in every tangible items or finding other common mysteries in their lives that could be solved by focusing on little coincidences that occur. Students could even study the use of elements of prose included in the story.

The elements of prose utilized in this story, make it unique. Specifically, how the author tells the story and how the story is organized. The story is told from a third-person-omniscient perspective, meaning that the story is told by a narrator that also has a view into the main characters’ thoughts.  An example would be, “At that moment, there were just the three of them in the world: the Lady, who was almost 350 years old, and the two children, who were almost twelve.” This perspective made the story unique because not only did the author allow the reader to peer into the thoughts of the characters, she also described content related concepts (like the pentominoes) to fold in many layers of clues in this mystery.  This is the kind of book that I want to re-read just to find the clues and foreshadows that I missed the first time I read. One foreshadow, or clue that I neglected and realized when re-reading to prepare this blog was that the steps to the tree house included at the end of the story had twelve boards in the ladder.  The author even stated that Petra counted the boards to make sure she was headed in the right direction and I totally missed it the first time! Even though, one of my thoughts while reading was, how did Petra know where to go? I also found the organization of the story to be unique in the paragraphs and transitions.  The novel included 24 named chapters; however within the chapters the author organized the text in not just paragraphs, yet also by story events.  The author separated each new story event with three X’s. An example would be “The third key turned easily. Pulling open the basement door, she clicked on the switch and slipped inside. /XXX ‘Calder! Calder!’ she whispered at the foot of the stairs.” I believe that the author did this to alert the reader that something new was about to happen.  When I first began reading the book, I thought this use of X’s was strange. Yet, I began to rely on them to understand all of the action in the story. The X’s began to alert me to read carefully. I would even make a text-to-dramatic theatre connection, in that these X’s seemed to alert a scene change in the story, as scenes in a play signal a new occurrence in the story, so do the X’s.  I felt that this organizational feature helped me understand the action and even organize the sequence of events, which is important in reflecting on the clues that were used to solve the mystery.


Frankly, I love mysteries, which is one reason that I chose this story.  Still, I found this mystery even more enjoyable than others I have read because of all of the interactive features.  Between the suspense, critical thinking math and art history connections I was constantly thinking about what I missed and where I needed to go to find the answers to my questions while I was reading.  Most importantly, I had fun reading this story. I believe that any young adult reader would also enjoy the plot, puzzles, hidden messages and hidden pictures in the illustrations as I did.  I can envision using this as a read aloud even with younger students and then discussing the clues. I believe this book could even serve as a classroom community builder as the students work together to solve the mystery using the clues that Petra and Calder discovered. Not to mention the many content connections that I discussed earlier in this blog.  As, I move into the next school year I am seriously considering using this piece of literature in my instruction, and to just develop a love a reading with my students.

Comprehension Strategy of the Week:

I heavily used the “post-it” strategy with the “active reading symbols” to remember all of the details of this mystery. Two examples, also seen in the pictures below, would be using the plus sign (new information) to note events of foreshadowing and the letter “A” (I agree) when the author included a list of the coincidences that Calder and Petra had noticed up until that point in the story.  The specific event of foreshadowing started me thinking about the painter Vermeer and prompted me to do a little research of my own on this painter to understand his plight in the story, nobody knowing him or his life details until 100 years after his death. The particular list that I noted with an “A” was an organizational feature that assisted me in remembering all of the coincidences that had occurred and alerted me to the strong theme of the story being little coincidences in life that we all sometimes miss. This comprehension strategy perfectly fit with reading a mystery.
Plus Sign to denote "new information"

The letter "A" to denote "I agree" with the use of a list to organize the ideas.


PBS. (2007). Independent Lens: A film festival in your living room. Retrieved June 15, 2012 from http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/stolen/index.html

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Pass It On: African-American Poetry for Children

Hudson, W. (1993). Pass it on: African-American poetry for children. New York: Scholastic.

Age: 4 and up

Genre: Poetry


This is an anthology of poetry, as classified by our class text.  All of the poems included in this collection reflect special attributes of the African-American historical experience through the words and different forms that they take.  These meanings are reiterated through the illustrations specifically created for each poem by Floyd Cooper.  The purpose of the selection, as titled, is for these poems to be appreciated, shared and passed on to others.

Reflection of the Poetry:

I have selected two of my favorite poems from the selection to discuss poetic elements.

1)      “African Lullaby”

Someone would like to have you for her child
but you are mine.
Someone would like to rear you on a costly mat
but you are mine.
Someone would like to place you on a camel blanket
but you are mine.
I have you to rear on a torn old mat.
Someone would like to have you as her child
but you are mine.


This poem’s author is listed as “traditional” meaning that it has been handed down through oral tradition or told orally through many generations. The writing also takes the form of a lyric poem, in that it pinpoints the mother’s feeling in that moment in time. The meaning of this poem for me was a mother’s love for her child. The mother expresses that she does not have much in worldly possessions, but offers her unconditional, agape type love. I use the term agape, because that is the feeling the poem gave me, it means a selfless, spiritual type of love.  In fact, this poem is one of my favorites because I immediately connected with it through the love that I have for my children.  I often feel that I do not have many possessions to offer my children, yet I devote my agape love and time to them.

In addition, this poem consists of slow and then fast rhythms.  The first six lines are composed of couplets that begin with a line that has a slow rhythm and then a second line that has a fast rhythm.  The lines with slow rhythm contain more words that are multisyllabic words. As well, they include words that utilize the low vowel sound of “o” and the consonants “m” and “n”, which are indicative of a slow rhythm. These lines express sad feelings such as, “Someone would like to have you for her child”. The lines with a fast rhythm are short with one syllable words and include the sharp vowel sound of “i”, an attribute of a fast rhythm. These lines express a happy feeling like, “but you are mine”.

This poem also includes a sound pattern. The sound pattern is created through the use of repeated phrases such as, “but you are mine”. Moreover, the sentence construction includes a parallel structure in lines one, three, five and seven by beginning with the same words, “Someone would like to…”

I also see the use of an allegory in this poem.  The words “mat” and “blanket” are used as synonyms and refer to the possession that mother has to offer her child in comparison with others who would raise this child.  Specifically, the mother speaks of her “mat” as substandard while others’ mats or blankets are more fitting, being of a higher quality, in which to raise this special child.  Even though I believe that when this poem was created this may have been literal language in that the standard of living was that a person’s mat was his or her home, I believe in present day it is an allegory or a symbol.  I think the “mat” is a symbol for all of the materialistic resources that the mother has to offer the child. The BIG question I have is, why does this mother feel guilty about not having enough to offer her child? Is this a part of history where children were easily taken from their parents?

2)      “Time to Play”

Mama says to play outside.
Wish I had a bike to ride.
I’ll fly to the moon instead.
Steer the rocket in my head.
I’ll pretend to find a star
No one else has seen so far.
Then I’ll name it after me-
                Africa Lawanda Lee!
But for now I’ll grab some chalk,
Play hopscotch out on the walk.

                                                -Nikki Grimes

I found great meaning in this poem as a mother and a teacher. The meaning being a child with a successful future ahead of her because she has dreams of accomplishing great things such as flying a rocket. I believe my students would connect with this poem because of the figurative language used, where the girl wants to find a star, meaning that she endeavors to acquire a better life.  I feel that my students would relate to this because many of them come from homes where education and accomplishment are not valued yet, when inspired they all have hope of becoming people of distinguished achievement.  One example, would be a current fifth grader that I have worked with throughout her elementary career.  This past year she solidly reached her goal of being an on-level reader.  Before this time I had not heard her speak of her future, however since this accomplishment she told me that she wanted to become a veterinarian. She knows this will require additional education, but now has the confidence to aim toward achieving this goal.  She is like the girl in the poem. She knows she has challenges, but endeavors to be triumphant in a successful future. This work also takes the form of a lyric poem since it describes how “Africa Lawanda Lee” feels at that moment. Still, my BIG question is, I wonder if the meaning of this poem would not have been as strong if the figurative language used did not refer to an object that shot for the sky?  The idea of a rocket shooting upward is poignant . Would the use of another object such as a cloud with a graduate standing in a dream-like state, have connected with young readers as much as the image of a rocket?

This poem has a fast rhythm, each line possessing few words and utilizing the sharp vowel sounds of “a”, “e” and “i”, examples would be the words “play” and “bike”. Furthermore, the many of the words include abrupt consonant sounds “k”, “t”, “w” and “p”, instances of these phonemes can be found in the words “rocket”, “wish” and “pretend”. The fast rhythm carries forth the poet’s intention that this poem gives a joyful feeling- hope.

The sound pattern in this writing utilizes the element of rhyme. The poem is written using couplets, or two lines in a stanza about one topic, and the ending words of each line in the couplet rhyme.  An example would be, “But for now I’ll grab some chalk,/play hopscotch out on the walk.” I found this poem fun and enjoyable to read because of the rhymes used and I have experienced my younger students also connecting more to poems that use the element of rhyme.

Reflection of the Illustrations:

The illustrator, Floyd Cooper created each image specifically for each poem. All of the illustrations in this book are created using the artistic style of realistic art and the media used was oil paint on washboard, as stated on the copyright page in the front matter. Each picture shows a realistic scene without exaggeration.  However, I found the illustrations to be integral since they included details that emphasized different words in the poem. Particularly, in the illustration offered for “African Lullaby”, the mother is sitting on a mat with a small amount of food in baskets next to her, yet the baby is adoringly touching his mother on the chin.  In addition, there are camels in the background to emphasize the fact that others could rear the child on a camel blanket.  The power of this illustration comes from the composition. The items in the painting are placed specifically to enhance the meaning of the text.  For instance, the mother and baby are in the foreground, while the camels and other women with large amounts of food are in the background.  The composition shows the relationship between the mother and child is greater or more important than the other characters in the background. In the illustration for the second poem, “Time to Play”, the composition also plays an integral role. In this illustration, there is a rocket flying over the girl while she is playing hopscotch, giving realism to her dreams, that she could reach the stars. As well, the predominant use of cool colors, blues and gray with violet hues, in the painting lend themselves to a feeling of anticipation.  Possibly, an anticipation of what the future will hold for the little girl in the poem.


I would utilize this collection of African-American poems in my classroom for many reasons.  First, to highlight the human condition and experiences of African-Americans throughout history and to instruct on various elements of poetry.  In primary grades, I feel that these poems offer a great variation of conveyed feelings that students could identify with or for vocabulary instruction, in alignment with KCAS Standard Four. While in the intermediate grades, since the book includes poetry from a variety of poets students could practice identifying various elements and forms in alignment with KCAS Standard Five. In order to assist all students with determining meaning from poetry, I would use graphic organizers for students to record questions, comments or feelings they experience from the poems they read.  I have included a few examples of the type of graphic organizers I would utilize below.

http://schools.nyc.gov/documents/teachandlearn/poetryunit_2-24final.pdf - Starting on page 101, there are various graphic organizers to use when reading poetry, including one to pair questions about poetry with students’ schema. These graphic organizers were created for high school students; however they could be adjusted to be appropriate for upper elementary students.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Dragon's Gate

Yep, L. (1993). Dragon’s Gate. New York: Harper Collins.

Age: 12 Years and Over

Genre: Multicultural (Asian/Pacific American Literature)


Dragon’s Gate is a story about a young man in China that has led a privileged life.  After hearing stories from his father and uncle about America he finds himself wanting to visit.  Once in America, he joins the crews made up of mostly Chinese men working on the transcontinental railroad and specifically chiseling through the Sierra Nevada Mountains to make a tunnel for which the “fire wagons” or locomotives to travel.  Along the way, he endures the harsh winter in the mountains and learns lifelong lessons that lead him to manhood. Dragon’s Gate is part of the Golden Mountain Chronicles series and a 1994 Newbery Honor Book.


The story is told in from a first person point-of-view where the reader is privy to the thoughts of the young man along his journey and it seems to be told in the past tense, as if the whole story is a reflection or flashback. Additionally, the author utilized flashbacks throughout the book to offer the reader reasons for the characters’ actions. The story takes the form of a progressive plot, the main character “Otter”, begins in the first chapter by providing a background for the reader of the setting and class structure in China. He even asks the reader in the first chapter, “What do you do when your family is so powerful that you lead a charmed life and even your teacher won’t find fault with you?”  Furthermore, he uses flashbacks to give the reader a history of how the class structures formed.  An example would be, when Otter tells the reader about a conversation he had with his mother about why she adopted him.  She explains that she knew he would fit in with their family because his birthday determined him to be a rebel, which foreshadows Otter’s demeanor later in the story.  Otter then explained that his birth parents had been considered “Strangers”. “Strangers” were low on the class structure scale, therefore Otter explained that he was thankful to be raised a “Four Districts” boy, who held a higher placement on the social ladder. The introduction to the conflict arrives when Otter tries to persuade his father and Uncle Foxfire to speak to his mother about him returning with them to America.  The men do this for Otter, yet his mother refuses to let him go feeling that he is not grown up enough to survive, leaving Otter feeling that the village still sees him as a boy. The conflict develops as Otter visits the Dragon’s Gate.  The Dragon’s Gate is located at the top of a waterfall and Chinese mythology says that if a fish can swim upstream and triumphantly pass through the gate then it will turn into a dragon. The gate was also a cultural symbol in China for trials that a boy had to prevail over to become a man. At this point the conflict became clear. Otter wondered if he could overcome difficulties, so that he and others will see him as a man and not just a boy. However, Otter is soon thrust into his opportunity to go to America and prove himself after he accidentally kills a “Manchu”, the ruling dynasty at the time.  After Otter arrives in America he endures many hardships, however the climax of the story came with Otter volunteering to climb to the top of the mountain known as the “Tiger” to detonate explosives in order to send an avalanche of snow away from the railroad workers’ camp. Otter’s Uncle Foxfire volunteered to join him, however was injured on the way up. As a result, Otter completed the mission on his own. I originally thought it was the climax because if successful, Otter would have been allowed to leave the mountain (it was forbidden for any of the workers to leave until the railroad was complete).  However, I realized that it was the climax because all of the events that Otter had experienced culminated in this act of completing the mission on his own. The resolution materialized in Otter sacrificing what he wanted most in order to do what was “right”.  Without revealing the end of the story, Otter began to make decisions that were honorable instead of giving into his own fears and wants, which truly meant that he had passed through the Dragon’s Gate, or earned the right to be and be seen as a man, not a boy. I understood that this was the theme of the story, when he first arrived on the mountain he carelessly spoke harsh words to the “westerners”, garnering him unnecessary punishment and even to his Uncle Foxfire, which resulted in losing his uncle’s respect for a period of time.  Yet, these mistakes became lessons that allowed Otter to enter manhood. This is proven with Otter’s thought at the end of the story concerning he and a westerner friend he had made, named Sean. Otter thought, “We had both grown up building a path for the fire wagon.” The BIG question that came to my mind at the end of the story was, that after dreams and the “Great Work” were discussed throughout the book, the author did not offer any foreshadowing or explanation of what Otter was planning to do since the railroad was complete and he was a free man. Otter’s uncle wanted information from the experience to take back to China and improve the quality of life there, so now that Otter had this knowledge what were his plans? Or did he when Otter wrote in Chinese in the dirt, “I will never forget”?

While the main theme of the story was Otter’s journey to being considered a man, there was also another meaning and purpose of this story qualifying it for the multicultural genre. As stated in our class text about many Asian fiction and nonfiction books, they explain the “oppression that drove the people out of their homelands or the prejudice and adjustments that they faced as newcomers in this country.” This literary work provides all three. First, Otter was forced to leave China because of an accidental encounter where he killed a “Manchu”.  His mother knew that the Manchu would seek Otter and kill him for this act, since the Manchu held the most power in China at that time.  In America, Otter had to realize that even though he came from a predominant family in China and was placed high on the social class structure, in America he was at the bottom.  His realization came when his uncle said to him, “Get it through your head, boy, or you won’t live out a day. In the Middle Kingdom, you and I were on the top of the heap, but here we are on the bottom. Question the bosses or talk back, and they’ll kill you in a dozen different ways.” Otter continually received punishment  and ridicule  for talking back or going against the westerners since he would not adjust to his new class status, which exhibited the foreshadow his mother made about him being a rebel discussed earlier in this blog. As well, the Chinese railroad workers constantly faced prejudice.  Besides the westerners calling every Chinese man a “John”, they were also given the most dangerous jobs, such as hanging from the sides of cliffs to set dynamite and then hoping to be pulled up in time to not be blown up. In addition, their wages were considerably less than that of the white men.  This was exemplified in the text when Otter’s friend Sean, who had been transferred to railroad headquarters, reported to him that the white men made $35 a week and their food was provided, while the Chinese men were paid $30 a week and had to pay for food.  This information prompted Otter to encourage the Chinese workers to strike, ending when the westerners held their food supply.

When evaluating multicultural literature, it is important to authenticate the cultural elements and historical facts used in the text. Initially, I looked to the back matter and found an afterword and bibliography. The afterword explained the author’s process in how the book was written. He even detailed the historical information that was fact, such as the working conditions, avalanches and the strike attempted by the Chinese workers. This information was evidenced by a bibliography of 11 nonfiction sources he had consulted in constructing this novel. I also wanted to verify his facts myself, so I searched the Internet for the “involvement of Chinese workers in the construction of the transcontinental railroad.” Once I found and read information from reliable resources I found that many of the events he detailed in the story were based on historical fact, such as there actually being a Dragon’s Gate in China and it being a Chinese cultural symbol to the fact that the last spike driven into the railroad was made of pure gold.

As suggested in the book, I would recommend this novel for young adults ages 12 and up. Where the historical facts and information about the Chinese culture explained within its pages would be suitable for children below the age of 12, younger students would have difficulty understanding the description given of the human condition through the series of flashbacks and foreshadowing that this author utilized. Moreover, this novel lends itself to being valuable for older children to understand the great sacrifices and hard work of the Chinese in the development of America.  The transcontinental railroad connected the east to the west and made it affordable for each to benefit from each other’s resources, which impacted the American economy greatly during that time period. It is important for students to understand that it was not all done or even mostly done by Caucasian Americans; in this case this achievement should be mostly attributed to the Chinese workers. This is an important point because it would allow students to understand one reason for appreciating the Chinese culture and its people.

My real-life connection to this novel came from Otter.  Who had to endure many hardships to learn life lessons. I moved to Kentucky from my home of Maryland when I was 18 to go to the University of Kentucky.  I had never lived away from my parents and had to learn everything, since there was no one to fix my mistakes.  I had to learn not to be careless with money or take unnecessary risks just like Otter, and like Otter I became an adult because of the experience.  I feel that high school students would most likely make a text-to-self connection with Otter’s want to be treated fairly. This connection could be enforced through a lesson where students analyzed how they wanted to be treated fairly by completing a cause-and-effect chain (i.e. “I want to be treated fairly by getting to use my home computer when I want, because…).  Then students could complete the same graphic organizer for Otter. Last, they could compare and contrast the two to see if their idea of fairness aligns with Otter’s idea of fairness (this may even provide a life lesson for them). In researching this book and its factual validity I found the following sites that offer study guides and instructional units specific to Dragon’s Gate, please see below.

http://files.harpercollins.com/PDF/TeachingGuides/0064404897.pdf - Study Guides for All of the Books in Laurence Yep’s Golden Mountain Chronicles

http://www.novel-ties.com/samples/DDTr/tcr0814s.pdf - Dragon’s Gate Literature Unit

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Petite Rouge: A Cajun Red Riding Hood

Artell, M., & Harris, J. (2001). Petite Rouge: a Cajun Red Riding Hood. New York: Puffin Books.

Age: 5 and Up

Genre: Traditional Literature/Retold Tale


This story is a version of the classic folktale, Little Red Riding Hood, that features elements of the Cajun culture. The setting is in a Louisiana swamp instead of the woods, the diction used is Cajun, the protagonist is a little white duck (not a little girl) who is taking gumbo and etouffee to her sick granny instead of bread and the antagonist is an alligator instead of a wolf.  In addition, there is a pleasant surprise ending that is very appropriate even for young children.


The original folktale Little Red Riding Hood has many origins.  In checking, some resources said that it came from Europe during the middle ages and others say it originated in Asia. This version of the folktale is a retold tale, that was written with the Cajun culture in mind, in which the book could also be categorized in the multicultural genre. The Cajuns are a group of people (called French Acadians) that lived in the French Canada and then resettled in Louisiana after being required to pledge allegiance to the king of England while living in Canada.  The retold version is written in a style, using Cajun terms and dialect, that provides humor for the reader. The humor mostly comes from the diction used, an example would be “I gonna count tree… and if you still dere, dis pole gonna hit you where you part you hair”.  As well, the author stated that he dedicated this book in honor of the Cajun culture. Besides being a retold tale it is also a beast tale, which is a type of folktale, the animals talk such as the duck playing Petite Rouge and the alligator called Ol' Claude. Petite Rouge: A Cajun Red Riding Hood is an effective selection for story telling activities since it has few characters.  Specifically, besides the duck and the alligator, there is also a cat, grandmother and mother encompassed in the story.  In addition, the story is a quick read providing a clear conflict, constant action and quick conclusion that brings all parts of the story together, such as using the food that Petite Rouge’s mother sent with her to defeat the alligator at the end of the story.

The characters are flat or two-dimensional characters, especially if the reader is familiar with the original story, the reader would know that Petite Rouge is good and the alligator is evil. If the reader does not have prior knowledge of this story then these classifications could be made in the beginning of the story when Petite Rouge’s mother sends her to comfort her sick grandmother and tells her not to stop.  The alligator would then easily be seen as the evil character when he stops Petite Rouge and asks her to give him the food intended for her sick grandmother.  Even though these characters are flat and underdeveloped, they move the plot forward through their dialogue, for example when Petite Rouge refuses to give the alligator the food so that she can give it to her grandmother. The literary style provides a standard beginning in different words. Instead of saying “once upon a time” the author used the Cajun diction, “Back in de swamp where dat Spanish moss grow, I heard me a story happened long time ago”.  Moreover, the ending is standard by giving and telling what was learned by the characters from the tale. Additionally, the ending was happy as with most traditional literature. Yet, it did differ from the original folktale, which I thought was interesting since it made this tale appropriate to read to young children as opposed to the violent ending included in the original tale.  I feel that the author did this intentionally since in present times many people are concerned that some fairy tales have gruesome endings that could be harmful to young children or he may have wanted to continue the humor and light undertones that the story already possessed. The alligator is not cut into pieces, nor does he die in any way.  Instead, the author used a Cajun inspired weapon for Petite Rouge to defeat the evil alligator. Hence, my BIG question is how did Petite Rouge and her grandmother know that the alligator would not come back since he was not killed?

This book also fits the requirements of a picture book.  I believe that it bridges the categories of traditional literature and picture book because unlike traditional literature where the setting is not important, it is integral to this story. It is integral since the Cajun culture dominated the book through characters, food and language.  The reader needed to be clear that the setting was a swamp in Louisiana. In fact, in researching this story further I located Jim Harris, the illustrator’s web page where he discussed how he travelled to Louisiana to accurately depict traits of a Louisiana swamp, alligators and even the houses. This information can be found at http://www.jimharrisillustrator.com/ChildrensBooks/Books/PetiteRouge.html . Furthermore, the illustrator chose to utilize a cartoon artistic style to portray the setting and characters.  I feel that he made this artistic style choice to complement the hilarity of the text.  This effect is carried through the illustrations using the element of composition. As an example, on the book cover the alligator is seen as very large in comparison with the duck and he has a deceitful expression (half smile, chewing in a piece of grass). The alligator is tipping the boat which is seen as intimidating to the duck and cat who are perched at the top of the boat, far away from the alligator. This illustration describes alligator as devious, yet funny and a threat to Petite Rouge. I also feel that the illustrator carefully chose the colors he used. He selected pastel colors in the background and bright colors when drawing the characters to draw attention to the characters and their actions.  I feel this way because the action in this story is non-stop, the illustrator needed to emphasize the characters to enhance the action that was happening in the story. For instance, when Petite Rouge promises to hit the alligator (Ol’Claude) the props in the picture such as the boat and stick are drawn in vivid colors while the background colors are neutral.  This design emphasizes the action.

 I would recommend this book to teach the element of plot or since it is told in a diction not often heard in this area, to teach the comprehension strategy of questioning.  I recently used this book in a lesson and found the students to be totally engaged throughout the story because of the characters and their dialogue. Hence, the effectiveness of using this book during instruction comes from its ability to fully engage students. In addition, I believe that the real-life connection for my students and I would be fear, in having to overcome a vicious animal. Or the common occurrence of visiting a sick relative. As an extension of this connection, I would incorporate our weekly comprehension strategy of text-to-self by having the students create using Microsoft Word, PowerPoint or Publisher a Venn Diagram comparing them to Petite Rouge. Younger students could complete this activity as a whole group, while older students could complete it with a partner or independently. An interactive Venn Diagram can also be found at http://www.readwritethink.org/files/resources/interactives/venn/.  I also included additional resources to use with this story below.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p7uZDNxjRc0 – Part 1 of 5 clips of Mike Artell reading this story.

http://www.tips-for-teachers.com/questioning_mini_lessons.htm - Third Grade Lesson Plans utilizing this story.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Wind in the Willows

Grahame, K. (1969). The wind in the willows. New York: New American Library.

The Wind in the Willows is considered a classic and yet modern fantasy, because it can be attributed to one author in its original form. The novel focuses around the adventures of human-like animals.  The main characters, “Mole” and “Rat” begin by meeting after “Mole” decides to leave his underground life of constant cleaning and preparing to join “Rat” on day trips up the river.  Each chapter presents its own conflict, climax and most of the time a resolution. Yet, the overall structure of the story is in the form of an episodic plot, which I will discuss later in this blog. This work fits the genre of modern fantasy perfectly by containing all of its traits.  Among these traits are story events and settings that are not realistic, yet contain bits of realism.  The characters are developed through a stylistic device, of using a pattern of stories over a series of chapters to describe the characters, which allows the reader to connect with the characters by learning about them through descriptions and actions and stories told by other characters. As well, since this is an animal fantasy I found myself enthralled with how the author depicted the characters as very proper English gentlemen through their diction and appearance, yet allowed the animals to also maintain their natural qualities, such as “Mole” living underground.

This classic is written from the third person point-of-view and includes multiple types of conflict. “Mr. Toad” consistently exhibits a “person vs. self” conflict by being overly confident and creating mischief for himself (like stealing motor-cars) to feeling pity for himself when getting in trouble for what he has done wrong. As well, “Rat” and “Toad” faced a “person vs. nature” conflict when lost in the “Wild Wood” and not being able to find their way because of the heavy snow fall. In chapter 12, “Mole”, “Rat”, “Mr. Badger” and “Mr. Toad” took on the weasels and other devious animals to take back “Toad Hall” and creating a “person vs. person” conflict. However, I also feel that a “person vs. society” conflict prevails through the story by the animals having a society in which they have created class structures and work hard to live up to and fit in their respected class structure by exuding “animal-etiquette”.  An example of this would be, sending formal invitations to a celebratory banquet at the end of the story, because as “Mr. Badger” said to “Mr. Toad”, “It’s expected of you- in fact, it’s the rule.”

The plot is an episodic plot containing foreshadowing, flashbacks and suspense.  An example of foreshadowing that was used is when “Mr. Toad was trying to persuade “Rat” and “Mole” to travel the “open road” with him in a caravan.  “Mr. Toad” described how wonderful their lives would be by saying phrases such as “Here Today, up and off to somewhere else tomorrow”. Moreover, an example of a “flashback” used in the novel would be when “Mr. Badger” explained the background of his house by reflecting on how all of the passages were made in chapter four. “Mr. Badger” explained that there was a city full of people on top of his home; however the floods and weather made the passages in his home and drove the people out of the city.  Soon after a forest grew there and the passages were clogged to create the expansive home that he had and that “mole” was so impressed with.  When thinking of the fictional element of suspense, I noticed that in every chapter the author included a sequence of suspense to perpetuate a conflict that usually led to a resolution, and sometimes the solution came in later chapters.  Yet, this seemed to be the pattern created by the author to engage the reader. My favorite suspense sequence was when “Mr. Toad” escaped from jail dressed as a “washerwoman” and after pretending that he could wash to pay for his ride on a barge, the barge owner, a “fat” woman”, threw him into the water and then he stole her horse and ran away into the woods.  In fact, I felt that the way the author described each suspenseful event in such detail was what truly made the stories entertaining.

The author also used many literary elements; I will focus on the elements of imagery and diction.  I chose these two elements particularly because I believe that they made this book authentic to its author.  Mr. Kenneth Grahame, the author, was born in Scotland yet lived out his life in England. However, this novel was written based on his experiences with nature as a child and to entertain his son.  As a result, Mr. Grahame placed great detail into describing the various settings, experiences and the characters’ actions creating images in my mind as I read.  One specific account of imagery used would be when “Rat” and “Mole” boat down the river at night to find the baby otter in chapter seven.  The text read, “For a space they hung there, brushed by the purple loose-strife that fringed the bank: then the clear imperious summons that marched hand-in-hand with the intoxicating melody imposed its will on Mole, and mechanically he bent to his oars again.” Imagery is used throughout this book to draw in the reader’s imagination and to transport them into the story as Mr. Grahame was trying to do for his son, to amuse his son fully.  I also feel that diction played a large part in this novel; as well it leads to my BIG question. The animals speak using old English, which is speech that sounds very proper to readers’ who do not speak old English, like me.  This resulted in my belief that the characters could really be human and not just animals, staying true to the modern fantasy trait of making the unbelievable, very believable.  Yet, I wondered all the way through the book, do the animals live among the humans or hidden from the humans in their own society?  “Mr. Badger” spoke as if the city of humans was completely separate from his own.  Conversely, the reader was made to think that the warden’s daughter that helped “Mr. Toad” escape from jail was human and interacting with the toad.  

I would recommend that passages from this book be used with students in third to fifth grades, and using the novel as a whole with students above the fifth grade. I believe this because I think Mr. Grahame is wonderfully effective with his use of imagery and it could be used with younger children in parts. However, I think the whole novel would be overwhelming for students in fifth grade and below.  I also feel that this literary work fits nicely with our comprehension strategy of the week- Mark My Word. I, personally, used post-it notes throughout the book to record examples of elements and unknown words.  I could see passages from this book being used in vocabulary instruction.  Specifically, looking at the context of the word and then researching the word on the Internet to find synonyms and antonyms.  Last, posting the word in class for students to use in their dialogues with others.  I tried this with the word, “copse”. The context of the word spoke of stumps at the edge of the “copse”, next to the road.  I knew at that point in the story that “Rat” and “Mole” were in the woods, so I then thought that “copse” must be a synonym for “woods”. Upon further Internet research I found that a “copse” is a small growth of bushes.  If using this example in instruction, I would then create a concept map listing word relationships, then post it in the classroom and challenge students to use the word when writing and speaking. After considering the strategy I also began to think of instructional resources associated with The Wind and the Willows.  Please see these links below!