Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Another Best Books of 2013 List

It’s list season again. Best songs. Best movies. Best vacation destinations. Best new restaurants. And of course, best books. Every year I’m thrilled to be reminded of the amazing creativity and focused discipline that results in more worthy books than I’ll ever be able to read.

These are my top 5 books of 2013. Each one captivated me from start to finish, and I couldn’t choose a favorite if someone forced me. I hope they inspire you to reflect on your best reads of 2013.

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
(review from the National Book Award web site)

"Greedily" is the best way to describe how I read the historical novel The Good Lord Bird. I knew I should slow down and savor McBride’s phenomenal storytelling, but I couldn’t. The book starts with the sentence “I was born a colored man and don't you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years,” and only gets better. The narrator, Henry Shackleford, is a child slave rescued/kidnapped (there’s a fine line between the two in this story) by famed abolitionist John Brown after his father dies in a shootout. Dressed in an old sack that Brown assumes is a dress, Henry is too frightened to correct Brown when he thinks Henry is a girl. Thus begins Henry's——who is nicknamed Little Onion——new life as he accompanies the zealous, near lunatic Brown and his band of followers on Brown’s quest to end slavery. Funny, endearing, and often painful to read, The Good Lord Bird deserves all of the praise it has received.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
(review from the Guardian )

Characters who contentedly live outside of the norm appeal to me, and that’s probably why this book made my list. The Rosie Project won’t lead to meaty discussions or hours of reflection, but it’s funny and sweet and sometimes that is exactly what I want from a book. Don Tillman is a brilliant, logical genetics professor who lacks basic social skills and who is constantly perplexed by the behavior of others. Although he doesn’t acknowledge it, it’s obvious to all who know him that Don has a form of autism that limits his ability to engage in perceived normal ways. He’s never had much luck with the opposite sex, but when a neighbor casually comments that he’d make a good husband he embarks on what he calls the Wife Project to find a suitable spouse. In the midst of his search—which includes a questionnaire for prospective mates—Don meets Rosie, his behavioral opposite, who is looking for her biological father. Shifting from the Wife Project to help with her Father Project, Don is surprised by how much Rosie brings to his life, and the results are delightful to witness.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
(review from the New York Times Sunday Book Review)

In this slim, fairy-tale-like novel, a nameless middle-aged artist returns to where he grew up in Sussex to attend a funeral. Driving to the end of a once familiar lane unleashes memories of frightening and fantastical events from his seventh year—a lonely time when no one came to his birthday party and a boarder in his family’s home accidentally kills his beloved kitten. When the boarder is found dead in the family car, he’s shuffled away to a nearby farmhouse where he meets a mysterious group of women, including Lettie, a girl just a few years older, who strangely knew about what happened and why. The Hempstock women are guardians against terrible forces that threaten all things and the young protagonist gets caught in the battle to stop these forces. My favorite character is Lettie, who tells the narrator: "I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.” Gaiman writes about the darkness of childhood—merging imagination, memory, and magic—like no other contemporary writer.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
(review from the Man Booker Prize site)

When I read about this book—an 800+ page complex murder mystery set in the gold mines of 19th-century New Zealand—my first thought was that it was probably 300 pages too long. But reading the book proved me wrong—Eleanor Catton didn’t need a better editor and she’s in full control of the book’s many tightly constructed plots. Walter Moody arrives in Hokitika, New Zealand from Edinburgh to make his fortune in gold. Not long off the ship he encounters twelve men (characters woven around signs of the Zodiac) convened in a hotel lobby discussing disturbing local events——their stories, secrets, and motivations unveil and intertwine in endlessly entertaining and unpredictable ways. The Victorian sensationalism, the astrological overlay, and the spiraling form would be too gimmicky with lesser writers, but with Catton’s skill it all works. A rich, atmospheric writer, Catton vividly depicts the locales and lives of gold seekers, prostitutes, power holders, and eccentric townspeople so engagingly that I missed them as soon as I closed the back cover.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

(review from the New York Times Sunday Book Review)
I eagerly awaited Donna Tartt’s third novel and as trite as it sounds, it was worth the wait. Thirteen-year-old Theo survives a Metropolitan Musuem bombing that kills his beloved mother. In the rubble, a dying man insists that Theo take his signet ring and a small Dutch masterpiece that was blown out of its frame—The Goldfinch. His grief and the items connected to it form the trajectory of his life. Theo goes to live with the Barbours, the wealthy family of a school friend, where his alienation and loss of identity grow. Following the dying man’s instructions on what to do with his ring, Theo is drawn into the world of the pretty red-haired girl who drew him away from his mother’s side at the museum that fateful day. His unreliable father eventually shows up and takes him to an isolated Las Vegas subdivision where he meets another motherless teen, the wild and captivating Boris, who becomes Theo’s strongest ally. Tartt masterfully conveys the voice and perspective of youth and I cheered for sorrowful Theo throughout this heartbreaking book.

Sharon Crowley works in K–12 marketing at the Great Books Foundation. She has a well-worn library card, but still spends too much money on books.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Parkway Elementary School Principal Credits Junior Great Books for Vast Student Gains

In spring 2012, fifth-grade students at Parkway Elementary School in Virginia Beach achieved an unprecedented level of success on the reading portion of their Virginia Standards of Learning test: 100 percent received passing grades. To put this achievement into perspective, just under 80 percent passed the previous year.

What changed at Parkway to make such a leap possible? Principal Nanocie “Toni” Diggs gave credit to the school’s widespread implementation of Junior Great Books in 2011-2012.

“Absolutely,” she said. “I do give a lot of credit to Junior Great Books for our success last year.” Diggs noted that the use of Junior Great Books has changed the learning and teaching culture at Parkway. Where students once would have given “yes” or “no” answers, they now dig into texts to give reasons for the answers they provide. "The students can’t just give a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response anymore . . . There has to be a ‘because,’ ” said Lisa Marler, a second-grade teacher at Parkway. Diggs also noted that this habit of probing more deeply for answers fits well with general problem solving and critical thinking—twenty-first century skills that students need to develop.

Junior Great Books has been used throughout the nation since it was first developed in 1962. The program is no stranger to Virginia Beach School District, having been used as a gifted resource for many years. Junior Great Books is well known for its outstanding literature and its unique method of learning, Shared Inquiry™—a Socratic discussion method in which teachers ask students questions about a text that are central to the text’s meaning, and that have more than one defensible answer.

After years of its use in gifted classrooms, however, reading specialist Grier Crosby proved that Junior Great Books could be valuable to other students as well when she teamed with the teacher of a fifth-grade inclusion class to bring the program to special-needs and regular-ability students. According to Diggs, “special-needs students who never passed a state assessment” passed in reading because of their involvement with Junior Great Books. “Their confidence rose, and these students were able to perform better in other subject areas because of the ‘I can do it’ attitude they developed,” she said.

The success in the inclusion class inspired Diggs to implement Junior Great Books for all students in grades 2–5. Students and teachers are excited that the program has become a permanent part of their curriculum. Diggs asked one fifth-grade girl if she likes Junior Great Books. “Oh yes,” the girl replied. “Why?” Diggs asked. “Because we all get to talk, and we get to talk to each other.” The student even volunteered, “We get to go back into the text and prove our answers.”

When students learn the habit of going back to texts to provide evidence for answers in Junior Great Books, they naturally transfer it to their studies in other subjects. “Students are proving their answers in social studies and science as well,” Diggs said. And teachers who have become accustomed to the deeper questioning used in Junior Great Books find themselves asking further questions in other subjects. “They might be studying the Civil War or Virginia history,” Diggs said. “Teachers will ask an initial question, get an answer from a student, and then probe deeper, asking ‘What makes you think that?’ And students are ready to go back to their books and find proof for their answers.”

Teachers at Parkway have discovered many benefits of the Junior Great Books program. Fifth-grade teacher Kimberly Alvers lauded the program because it “gives the quiet ones a voice.” Teachers qualify to implement Junior Great Books by taking the Foundation's core professional learning course which gives them a solid grounding in the Shared Inquiry method of learning. One thing they learn is how to help children who are normally reserved feel safe venturing their own opinions about the story everyone in the class has read. Over time, as the fifth-grade girl observed, students soon become involved in a conversation with each other, not just a question-and-answer session with the teacher.

Alvers also noted that Junior Great Books’ interpretive activities address the needs of different types of learners. “For example, the diverse writing prompts give students different approaches to express their opinions,” she said. Students are given the chance to practice expository and creative writing as they complete a Junior Great Books unit, and they are introduced to a variety of writing concepts and structures, including paragraphs, essays, letters, poems, and stories.

Junior Great Books can even “give teachers a bit of a help in coping with their busy schedules,” Marler said. Alvers added, “The lesson plans are already there . . . All the techniques that we need to address—main idea, problem solving, critical thinking—are techniques already covered in the program’s lesson plans.” Indeed, every Junior Great Books unit includes detailed instructions for carrying out prereading, note-taking, vocabulary, discussion, and writing activities, as well as curriculum connections to other subjects.

Teachers can also continue to hone their Great Books skills as they implement the program. Kriko Michaels, a staff trainer for the Great Books Foundation, has been helping Parkway teachers master Shared Inquiry discussion and the directed note activity since they began their implementation. As Diggs put it, teachers “need praises and polishing, just as students do.” Michaels has been on hand to meet with teachers, model exemplary Shared Inquiry skills, and team-teach with Parkway faculty. “Kriko has a passion for the program, and it is evident in how he trains our teachers,” said Mackenzie Robinson, another fifth-grade teacher at Parkway.

The improvements in scores are a testament to the level of commitment from both the administration and the teachers,” Micheals said. “Like any skill, the facilitation of Shared Inquiry discussion must be honed by a committed practice. The test scores are proof that the teachers were able to impart the habits of mind of great critical thinkers. Students at Parkway are able to clearly articulate their thinking, cite evidence, and respond nimbly to counterarguments.”

It seems clear that Junior Great Books will be a fixture at Parkway Elementary School. Principal Diggs noted that this year at “literacy night,” dedicated to literacy practices in the classroom, teachers were given a choice of what to present to parents who attended. “Fifth-, fourth-, and third-grade teachers all chose to discuss and model several components of Junior Great Books,” she said. Teachers were happy to tell parents about the program that has served them and their students so well.