April 06

The Joys (and pains) of Book Talks with Upper Elementary by Carrie Rodusky

Teaching upper elementary in a pre-k to eighth grade school with one class per grade is no easy feat. If you are a teacher of fourth and fifth graders, or a parent of a child around this age, you know that some days are better than others. I won’t go into the developmental characteristics of 9-12 year olds, but suffice it to say that by this point in the school year there are a lot of “too cool for school” looks, attitudes and dramatic situations that teachers end up moderating. So, with all of this growing and changing and maturing, how in the world am I supposed to keep their interest with reading and writing? I try to stay on top of new book releases, topics that interest my individual classes and students, and projects that help them see the bigger picture. I also do book talks as much as I can. As I wrote in a previous post, I take recommendations from wherever and whomever I can ( side note: Pernille Ripp, you have been such an inspiration and life saver for a reading teacher with a tiny school library but the desire to open reading worlds) and I hunt my local library for anything that looks like a winner. The easy part is finding the books, the harder part can be convincing these technology driven, social media, YouTube addicted kids that reading the book is worth it. Enter Small Spaces by Katherine Arden.

I came across this book while researching potential reads for my students and actually forgot about it until I recently went through my photos on my phone. I remembered I had a screenshot of the cover to add to my “must read” list. I am so glad I found that picture, as this book is a perfect read for these finicky fifth graders. It is mystery meets horror, meets real- life issues as the main character deals with the death of her mother while experiencing some very strange events in her small town in Vermont. Without giving too much away, the main character, Olivia, accidentally stumbles upon a hysterical woman trying to rid herself of a book by throwing it in a river in the woods. Ollie cannot make sense of both the woman and the act of wanting to ruin a book, so she takes it. The book, as it turns out, was written long ago about the exact farm in which Ollie’s sixth grade class is about to visit and, let’s just say that scary stuff happens. Like, really scary. With scarecrows that move. And a smiling man. And mist. What?! The further I read, the more I realized how much it loosely resembles the “upside down” in one of my favorite shows, Stranger Things. Later in the book, Ollie and two of her classmates who escape the weirdness, find similarities to “Bad Narnia.” This was my hook for my book talk to fifth grade.

I actually read Narnia with last year ‘s fifth grade because they were so visual and able to connect to the magic of both the setting and all that came with it. My current class has no background knowledge with Narnia. Still, I knew they would love this book. I started my talk and true to form, a few looked up and showed interest, but the majority looked bored. Then I remembered; this group loves Netflix. I mean loves it. They recommend shows to me everyday. “So, who here could see their classmates as scarecrows in a shadow world?” That did it. “You mean like Stranger Things?” Yep, yes I do. This group needs to connect to something they know and appreciate. I guess we all do, but this group really needs to know that what they are reading is “cool”. They got out of their seats to check out the cover, asked more questions, and many wrote down the title and author. (The best part was that later that day I ran into my former fifth graders, now sixth graders and told them I had a great read for them and they jumped at the chance to get the name of the book. I hope they will read it!)

It is not easy getting kids to read in today’s world. As educators and parents we have to battle streaming sites, smartphones and devices. However, this makes the need and drive to read even more important. It is a challenge, but I accept it. Even with the distractions and ever growing bored looks, so far I am still able to hook the majority of my students into reading. I hope this always stays true. And it is all the better when you have a great book like Small Spaces to book talk. Upper elementary kids need engaging books, and this is definitely one of them.

Carrie Rodusky has been teaching since 1996. She is currently the fourth and fifth grade language arts teacher and 4th grade social studies in a Catholic school outside of Cleveland, Ohio. She loves all things reading and can be found out under the trees on a summer day with book in hand. She hopes all kids will identify themselves as readers and still tries with her own teenagers. She will read Wild and The Secret Life of Bees every year without fail.