June 27, 2016

On My Bookshelf: Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl

Tender at the Bone, a memoir by Ruth Reichl, centers around food and mother daughter relationships because for the author, the two are very much intertwined. The book is full of Ruth's adventures and humor. Read on for more of my review and ideas for classroom use.
The basic plot: This memoir centers around food and mother daughter relationships because for the author, Ruth, the two are very much intertwined. From an early age, Ruth was aware that her mother was a disaster in the kitchen, serving unusual concoctions, or even worse, food past its expiration date. As a result, though unknowingly at first, Ruth seeks out and enjoys the company of those who can cook and appreciate food. Ruth grows up in New York City, summers in Connecticut, travels with her well to do parents, and spends her middle school years in a boarding school in Quebec because she makes an offhand comment to get mother about wanting to learn French. She attends college in Michigan, far away from her mother and her food, but returns to New York after, where she meets her future husband. Throughout her travels, Ruth becomes an experienced cook, learning any recipe from anyone she can. Her book is sprinkled with these recipes, from brownies to wiener schnitzel to fried chicken.

Why I liked it: I love a good memoir, and this one is good. The author has great adventures, is funny, and her descriptions bring to life all of the figures in her life without slowing down any of the action, which some authors seem to struggle with. I sometimes find myself skimming description, thinking "when is something going to happen?" But not in Tender at the Bone. Ruth's characterization makes you feel like you know these people, or wish you did. 
Tender at the Bone, a memoir by Ruth Reichl, centers around food and mother daughter relationships because for the author, the two are very much intertwined. The book is full of Ruth's adventures and humor. Read on for more of my review and ideas for classroom use.

The author's treatment of the issue of mental health is also well done. She is kind, but does not romanticize or sugar coat what it is like to live with someone who is manic depressive.

Classroom application: This would be a perfect central text or student selected text for a unit on memoir. The author labels the book as a "food memoir" if you are planning on using excerpts from different types of memoir, but could also fall into the "coming of age" category. Your students who love food, want to be the next Top Chef, or those good girls who wish they could be bad will love this book.

If you use mentor texts for student writing in your classroom, you could also use selections from this text. As I noted above, the author has great character development and description without interfering with the plot. Students (even more so than professional authors) struggle to balance and blend the two so this would be a model text for practicing.

If you are interested in purchasing a copy of Tender at the Bone for yourself, you can find it on Amazon here.

For more reading suggestions for students and teachers:



Note: The Literary Maven is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.

June 20, 2016

On My Bookshelf: Thunderstruck by Erik Larson

The literary nonfiction Thunderstruck by Erik Larson follows Guglielmo Marconi's experimentation with, and invention of, the wireless telegraph. This invention is tested and gains worldwide attention when it leads to the apprehension of two fugitives. Read on for more of my review and ideas for classroom use.
The basic plot: There are two major plot lines in the text. One centers around Guglielmo Marconi and his experimentation with, and invention of, the wireless telegraph. The other follows the unhappy marriage of Dr. Crippen and his wife Belle Elmore.

Marconi is in his twenties when he begins to play around with electromagnetic waves, not really understanding the science behind it, much to the anger of other scientists focused on the same discovery. He faces challenges from his competitors as well as setbacks in the development of his invention.

Meanwhile, Dr. Crippen is practicing medicine in a time when homeopathic remedies are popular and science plays little part in doctoring. His wife seeks fame, but does not find it and spends most of her time spending her husband's money. Both husband and wife eventually find other relationships. The two plot lines merge when murder is suspected and the fugitives escape by boat, but cannot escape Marconi's technology.

Why I liked it: I like historical fiction so the writing style in Thunderstruck was right up my alley, non-fiction written as a narrative. I found the conflict of science versus belief in the supernatural interesting. It is crazy to think that a little more than one hundred years ago people's beliefs were so different. The detective work and chase of the murder suspects at the end of the book was fast paced and kept you turning the page (some of the science heavy parts dragged for me).

The literary nonfiction Thunderstruck by Erik Larson follows Guglielmo Marconi's experimentation with, and invention of, the wireless telegraph. This invention is tested and gains worldwide attention when it leads to the apprehension of two fugitives. Read on for more of my review and ideas for classroom use.
Classroom application: As the Common Core emphasizes literacy across the subject areas (students shouldn't just be reading in their ELA class), this would be a great read for a science class. As one half of the book follows Marconi's invention, you could read with a focus on his chapters, examining how his success relies on experimentation, largely trial and error and sometimes just luck. If you teach physics, your students could analyze the understanding of and misconceptions about electromagnetic waves.

This book could also be utilized in a history classroom as census-like information is given about the settings in the book, primarily London and the areas surrounding it.

Because the text is literary non-fiction, it is also a great text for use in an ELA classroom. You could use it to teach or review both fiction and/or nonfiction skills.

If you are interested in purchasing a copy of Thunderstruck for yourself, you can find it on Amazon here.

For more reading suggestions for students and teachers:



Note: The Literary Maven is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.

June 17, 2016

Using Stations to Engage Secondary Students: 3 Ways to Incorporate Movement Into Learning

Learning centers, also known as stations at the secondary level, are ideal activities to use to bring movement into your middle school or high school classroom. Find out how to implement stations on your first day of school, as you review key ideas or terms, and as a way to preview texts.
Stations, otherwise known as centers or rotations, are a great way to increase engagement in your classroom. Research has proven the connection between movement and the retention of knowledge. If that alone isn't enough to convince you to use stations in your classroom, try to imagine what it is like to be a typical middle school or high school student.

For about seven hours straight, you sit at a desk, pen or pencil in hand or in front of a computer screen. No moving except for your walk from one class to the next and little talking except at lunch time. Feeling bored yet? Fidgety? Maybe a little sleepy?

Stations: The Basics
Stations not only allow students to move around the classroom, channeling their energy into a productive purpose, stations also encourage academic conversations and collaboration among students.

Stations can be used to spice up just about any activity. Think about the last worksheet you handed out to students. How could you divide that up into five or six parts that could be placed around the room? For example, instead of using a handout to review a grammar concept, you could have one station where students take notes, another where they write sentences demonstrating their knowledge of the concept, and another where students correct errors from real world examples.

Skill-Based Stations
Learning centers, also known as stations at the secondary level, are ideal activities to use to bring movement into your middle school or high school classroom. Find out how to implement stations on your first day of school, as you review key ideas or terms, and as a way to preview texts.
One way I use stations in my classroom is to reinforce and review skills such as plot and setting, conflict and characterization, figurative language, point of view, and nonfiction. I find that my students have had exposure to these literary elements, but do not have the definitions committed to memory and lack a deeper understanding of the terms. Instead of just taking notes or practicing with a drill and kill worksheet, using stations allows students to move around and engage in purposeful academic conversation with their peers. They become the teachers, helping and correcting each other, and sometimes even explaining terms in a new and helpful way to their classmates.

For these types of stations, I often use matching, sorting, and ordering activities because I can quickly and easily check them, eliminating lag time and off topic conversation between stations. When checking, I can also eliminate manipulatives that students matched, sorted, or ordered correctly and just have them focus on the ones with which they are struggling.

Stations for Previewing Texts
Another way I use stations in my classroom is to preview novels or other texts we will be reading as a class, especially if it is helpful to have background information or prior knowledge of an issue or historical time period in the text.

Learning centers, also known as stations at the secondary level, are ideal activities to use to bring movement into your middle school or high school classroom. Find out how to implement stations on your first day of school, as you review key ideas or terms, and as a way to preview texts.
For example, when teaching Night by Elie Wiesel, a piece of literary nonfiction centered around the Holocaust, I use a set of stations to help students begin to grapple with this almost unbelievable event. Some of the station activities relate to the Holocaust as a whole, such as matching caption descriptions with images from the time period and then selecting one image to analyze. Other station activities connect directly to the novel, such as placing the events of Night author, Elie Wiesel's life in chronological order.

Some of the stations require students to work as a group, while at others, students will work independently or do a mix of both. Based on indicated student interests from a previous lesson, I may add a media station where students watch and respond to a short video on a topic such as Adolf Hitler or the Nuremberg Laws. You can find all of my resources for teaching Night and the Holocaust here.

Stations on the First Day of School
Finally, I have also used stations as an activity on the first day of school. I've never liked standing at the front of the classroom, giving the same speech over and over, class period after class period. And if it is boring for me, I can only imagine how boring it is for my students.

Learning centers, also known as stations at the secondary level, are ideal activities to use to bring movement into your middle school or high school classroom. Find out how to implement stations on your first day of school, as you review key ideas or terms, and as a way to preview texts.Last year I decided to change things up a bit and designed station activities that would accomplish everything I wanted to get done on the first day of school: review my syllabus, introduce the novel choices for literature circles, hand out necessary materials, and have students set goals and begin getting to know each other.

The six station activities I created, some of which included group tasks while others included independent tasks, were intended to be completed within a 45 minute period. There were some activities that students didn't completely finish before the timer went off every seven and a half minutes, but this created an urgency for students to get done as much as possible.

While students were working at stations, I was free to walk around the room and interact with groups and individual students, a much better alternative to being tied to a PowerPoint presentation at the front of the room staring out at a sea of faces.

If you are interested in starting your school year off similarly, you can find my first day of school stations, which are fully editable, here.

For more engaging resources for your English Language Arts classroom:

June 13, 2016

On My Bookshelf: An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

In An Abundance of Katherines by John Green, Colin has been just been dumped by his 19th Katherine when his best friend decides to take him on a road trip to help him forget his woes. Bromance and romance full of mathematical problems, historical references, word puzzles, and footnotes ensues. Read on for more of my review and ideas for classroom use.
The basic plot: Colin has two things going on, or going wrong in his life. He has been dumped by another Katherine and as a child prodigy, hasn't done anything to take him to the genius level.

To cheer him up, Colin's best friend Hassan takes him on a road trip to Kentucky where they meet Lindsey, who is dating The Other Colin, and her mother Hollis, who owns a factory, the town's main source of employment.

Hollis hires the two to help Lindsey with interviewing the town's natives and as Colin tries to create an equation predicting the length of relationships, sparks fly in all directions.

Why I liked it: An Abundance of Katherines is the third John Green book I have read, and is my least favorite so far (The Fault in Our Stars and Looking for Alaska were better).

That said, I do like the portrayal of Colin and Hassan's friendship. The two are intelligent, nerdy, funny, and kind to each other. You don't see that so often in male friendships.

In An Abundance of Katherines by John Green, Colin has been just been dumped by his 19th Katherine when his best friend decides to take him on a road trip to help him forget his woes. Bromance and romance full of mathematical problems, historical references, word puzzles, and footnotes ensues. Read on for more of my review and ideas for classroom use.
Classroom application: Your female students, hopeless romantics, and nerdy boys will like it. The main character is a fountain of knowledge of math, history, science, etc.

As with most novels, it could be used to teach plot, characterization, theme, etc.

If you are interested in purchasing a copy of An Abundance of Katherines for yourself, you can find it on Amazon here.

For more reading suggestions for students and teachers:



Note: The Literary Maven is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.

June 6, 2016

On My Bookshelf: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, a nonfiction biography, reads like a great narrative. Louis Zamperini survives unbelievable odds as a POW during WWII. Read on for more of my review and ideas for classroom use.
The basic plot: Louis Zamperini is born in New York City and his family, Italian, moves to California when he is young. He is a hell raiser as a kid, causing trouble where ever he goes, worrying his family, and not making many friends. Finally his older brother Pete gets him to settle down by introducing him to running, which takes Louie all the way to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. But then WWII starts and Louie gets drafted as an airman. After he and his crew crash at sea, he is captured by the Japanese and held in a series of POW camps, one worse than the next. He barely survives, but makes it back home where he struggles with PTSD, ends up married with kids, finds God, and finally has his life back together.

Why I liked it: I love historical fiction, and while this is a nonfiction biography, based on the author's extensive research and interviews, it reads like a great story. The author seamlessly blended historical facts with the narrative of one man's life.

I am also biased because the book is set in the era of my grandparents who I think were wonderful and lived through such interesting times. My grandfather, like Louie, was a WWII veteran, but served on the European front rather than the Pacific front.
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, a nonfiction biography, reads like a great narrative. Louis Zamperini survives unbelievable odds as a POW during WWII. Read on for more of my review and ideas for classroom use.

Classroom application:
There are some books you have to read all of to "get it." This is not one of them. You could use chapters as short stories on a variety of themes such as survival, perseverance, determination, and heroism.

The book is filed with excellent examples of conflict. While Louie is stranded out at sea, he has conflict with one of the men stranded with him (the other guy eats all the food, person versus person). He also struggles to persevere mentally and spiritually (person versus self). Sharks surround his raft, the sea provides no fresh drinking water, and occasionally a storm blows through to really shake things up (person versus nature).

You could also bring chapters into a history classroom to supplement the textbook on topics such as the Great Depression, assimilation of immigrants, the Olympics, World War II, prisoners of war, post traumatic stress, aviation, and cultural differences/ethnocentrism.

Though I haven't seen it yet, the movie was recently released so you could also do some film/text comparisons (CCSS 7) and/or analyze for historical accuracy.

If you are interested in purchasing a copy of Unbroken for yourself, you can find it on Amazon here.

For more reading suggestions for students and teachers:



Note: The Literary Maven is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.

May 30, 2016

On My Bookshelf: Hollow City by Ransom Riggs

In Hollow City by Ransom Riggs Jacob must lead Miss Peregrine's peculiar children to safety while fending off zombie-like creatures with which only he can communicate. The mix of genres in this young adult novel will hook readers with varying interests. Read on for more of my review and ideas for classroom application.
Basic plot from Amazon: September 3, 1940. Ten peculiar children flee an army of deadly monsters. And only one person can help them—but she’s trapped in the body of a bird. The extraordinary journey that began in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children continues as Jacob Portman and his newfound friends journey to London, the peculiar capital of the world. There, they hope to find a cure for their beloved headmistress, Miss Peregrine. But in this war-torn city, hideous surprises lurk around every corner. And before Jacob can deliver the peculiar children to safety, he must make an important decision about his love for Emma Bloom. Like its predecessor, this second novel in the Peculiar Children series blends thrilling fantasy with vintage photography to create a one-of-a-kind reading experience.

Why I liked it: Hollow City by Ransom Riggs is the second novel of this series and I would definitely recommend reading the first one so you understand what is going on (cause there are some weird things going on).

In Hollow City by Ransom Riggs Jacob must lead Miss Peregrine's peculiar children to safety while fending off zombie-like creatures with which only he can communicate. The mix of genres in this young adult novel will hook readers with varying interests. Read on for more of my review and ideas for classroom application.
"Peculiar children" have talents like breathing bees, expanding like a balloon, becoming invisible, and bringing inanimate objects to life. They live together in homes with their protectors, like Miss Peregrine, in protective bubbles/time warps because they are hunted by zombie like creatures called wights.

The main character, Jacob, is not outwardly peculiar like the other children, his talent is sensing these monsters and as he realizes in the second book, speaking to them. He is originally from present day Florida but has traveled back in time to 1940s London to help Miss Peregrine and her peculiar children.

The book is filled with one dangerous adventure after another that the peculiar children just barely escape by utilizing their unusual talents, sometimes even to the surprise of the other children. 

Classroom application: Hollow City is an action/thriller with a little bit of history, science fiction, and fantasy all mixed in, and would appeal to a wide range of reading interests in your classroom (even grown ups like me!). Its ending it set up for at least one more "Peculiar" book in the series, so keep your eyes open for more by Ransom Riggs.

If you are interested in purchasing a copy of Hollow City for yourself, you can find it on Amazon here.

For more book suggestions for students and teachers:



Note: The Literary Maven is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.

May 27, 2016

13 Short Stories for Engaging Secondary Students & Teaching Literary Elements

Don't let your literature anthology dictate the short stories you read with your middle school and high school students. There are so many wonderful short stories out there, many of which can be used to teach a variety of literary elements and paired with other texts. Read on for 13 of my favorites, which literary terms and skills they lend themselves to teaching, plus suggested text pairings and activities.
Don't let your literature anthology dictate the short stories you read with your middle school and high school students. There are so many wonderful short stories out there, many of which can be used to teach a variety of literary elements and paired with other texts. Here's 13 of my favorites.

1. The Sniper by Liam O'Flaherty
I’m always looking for texts that will draw in my reluctant male readers. Anything with war, guns, or a little violence ups the appealing factor immediately. “The Sniper” is set in the 1920s during the Irish revolution. A sniper is stationed on a rooftop contemplating how he will get down before the light of dawn exposes him. I often use this text when teaching irony because of its unexpected ending. It is also a great piece to use for reviewing plot as the climax appears at the very end of the story; students sometimes struggle to correctly identify the climax when it happens so late in a story. The story’s theme emphasizes the senselessness of war, making it perfect for pairing with other short stories or novels with a similar theme such as The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, or The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.

This short story is one that I like to read just before the holidays because of its message about giving and thinking of others. Like “The Sniper,” it’s a great piece for teaching irony and reviewing plot. I also like to focus on how the setting dictates many of the details in the plot. After reading, I challenge students to write a modern retelling of the story, paying careful attention to how an updated setting affects the plot. The story’s connection to the holidays and it’s message about what we should value most make it perfect for pairing with A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

“The Interlopers” is a short story that is sure to hook reluctant readers. It is set at night and focuses on a long-standing turf war. The two main characters are out in the forest, the disputed territory, hunting each other, but as the two men meet, a tree falls and traps both of them beneath it. The twist at the end of the story makes it another great text to use for teaching irony and reviewing plot. The text’s focus on a long lasting conflict between two families connect it with works like William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (the Grangerfords versus the Shepherdsons), and the real life conflict between the Hatfields and the McCoys.

Don't let your literature anthology dictate the short stories you read with your middle school and high school students. There are so many wonderful short stories out there, many of which can be used to teach a variety of literary elements and paired with other texts. Read on for 13 of my favorites (including this one), which literary terms and skills they lend themselves to teaching, plus suggested text pairings and activities.
4. The Lady, or The Tiger? by Frank Stockton
This is one of my absolute favorite short stories to dig into. “The Lady, or The Tiger?” centers around a justice system in which the accused determine their own fate by choosing between two doors in an arena, behind one is a lady (marriage is the reward for innocence) and behind the other is a tiger (death is the punishment for guilt). The plot intensifies when the king of the arena discovers that his daughter is in love with a commoner and puts that man on trial. To help my students understand the king’s system of justice, I created a simulation in which each student is assigned a crime and gets to choose a door to determine their innocence or guilt. Later students reveal whether they actually committed the crime of which they were accused. This leads to discussion about the fairness of this justice system and comparison to the fairness of our own. This short story would be a great lead in to any text centered around a court case like To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee or Inherit The Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee. There is often something current in the media related to the justice system that can be connected to the story as well.

Literary criticism can be a complex idea to introduce to students. I always start with the most basic two approaches: historical and biographical, using this short story, which is focused on the day of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The united feelings of Americans and even the global community, are contrasted by the racial and socio-economic discrimination faced by the main character. The short story could be paired with news articles and other nonfiction readings about this event. To bring things into the 21st century, you could use a novel like Love is the Higher Law by David Levithan, which centers around the events of September 11th.

This short story is full of imagery and symbolism, and also great for teaching the different types of conflict. The main character struggles against himself, his mother, other boys, and forces of nature. Like most young people, the main character wrestles with being viewed as a child when he wants to be treated like a young adult. Another short story that pits child against parent and incorporates many of the different types of conflict is “The White Umbrella” by Gish Jen.

“Geraldo No Name” is one vignette from The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. It does not include the novel’s main character Esperanza, but instead focuses on Marin, an older girl Esperanza idolizes, and Geraldo, a young man Marin meets at a dance. Like “American History,” the short story centers around issues of race and class. Geraldo is hit by a car and Marin believes that if he were treated differently at the hospital, his life might have been saved. This short story could be paired with the film Fruitvale Station or any current news articles about the Black/Brown Lives Matter movement.

The idea behind this short story has always fascinated me. If we could travel back in time, how would it affect the future? In Ray Bradbury’s text, time travel takes the characters to the prehistoric age of dinosaurs and one misstep has innumerable effects on the future. It’s a perfect illustration of the butterfly effect. You probably can’t show your students the Ashton Kutcher film of the same title, A Butterfly Effect, but the movie Groundhog’s Day is a much lighter treatment of the same idea as are the films Frequency and Big.

“The Scarlet Ibis is probably my all time favorite short story. I remember reading it as a ninth grade student and was delighted to find it in the literature anthology I used as a ninth grade teacher. The story is full of beautiful imagery that contrasts the heartbreaking end to the relationship between the two brothers. It’s a great text for examining foreshadowing, the author’s use of symbolism is clear, yet multi-layered, and the story can also be used to introduce allegory by discussing the author’s attitude toward war. The power dynamics between the older and younger brother could be compared to George and Lennie's relationship in Of Mice and Men.

Edgar Allan Poe is known for his creepy tales and “The Black Cat" does not disappoint. The narrator, a crazy drunk, takes drastic measures to get back at his cat, which he believes is ignoring him. This is an excellent short story to use for analyzing first person point of view and unreliable narrator. After reading, challenge students to rewrite the story, still using first person point of view, but from another character’s perspective.

“The Stolen Party” is another great short story for teaching point of view, specifically third person limited point of view. Because the character that the narrator focuses in on is a young girl, her thoughts and feelings are unreliable and may skew students’ understanding of the story until the final event. Like with “The Black Cat,” after reading, you can challenge students to rewrite the story still using third person limited point of view, but focusing in on another character’s thoughts and feelings.

Don't let your literature anthology dictate the short stories you read with your middle school and high school students. There are so many wonderful short stories out there, many of which can be used to teach a variety of literary elements and paired with other texts. Read on for 13 of my favorites (including this one), which literary terms and skills they lend themselves to teaching, plus suggested text pairings and activities.
12. Thank You M’am by Langston Hughes
While reader’s theater is traditionally used in primary classrooms, “Thank You M’am” is the perfect short story to act out or at least read aloud. Mrs. Jones is a tough elderly woman who is full of sass, while Roger is a shaken young man who quickly regrets his attempt to steal Mrs. Jones’s purse. It is also a great text for teaching conflict and characterization.

13. The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell
“The Most Dangerous Game" is another excellent short story if your students like suspense. The tension in the story begins as the main character sails past an island with a terrible reputation and builds when he lands on the island by mistake and meets the man living there. At the start of the story, you can focus on how the details of the setting help to create mood. It’s also an excellent text for introducing and having student complete a plot diagram.

You can find all of my resources for teaching short stories here.

For more ideas for teaching short stories & literature: