It’s time for another round of #tbt! (If you missed Part 1, here it is.)
This time, the throwback is to 5th grade . . . but not when I was a student. I’m looking back at some of the books that made a big impact on me when I taught elementary school in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
When I was teaching, my favorite time of day was the 20 minutes or so directly after recess in the early afternoon. The kids would come in from outside, breathless and full of energy (and a little stinky from being out in the Louisiana heat), but acting like angels. Without a peep, the 33 of them would file in and arrange themselves quietly on the reading rug.
When everyone was settled and perfectly quiet (no “shh-ing” necessary), I would sit on my chair in front of them, open a book, and start to read. For those 20 minutes, the only sounds you would hear from the kids were laughter and the occasional gasp of delight or surprise. They loved reading time.
Here are three of my favorite books that I read aloud to my kids and that you should read aloud to yours (if you don’t have kids, you should still read these books, but maybe not aloud):
Stargirl is a fantastic book about uniqueness, individualism, and acceptance. Stargirl Caraway is the new girl in her tenth-grade class, and she’s a little weird (she was homeschooled). She wears crazy outfits (like kimonos) to school, plays the ukulele, and cheers for the other school’s basketball team at games. She is always smiling and dancing. Despite her strangeness, narrator Leo falls head-over-heels in love with her. The rest of the school is intrigued by her and likes her at first . . . but her weirdness wears on them, and they turn on her. Leo doesn’t want to have to choose between Stargirl and everyone else, so he convinces her to try to act “normal.” Stargirl starts calling herself by her real name, Susan, and tries to fit in, but soon she realizes that she’s not normal and doesn’t want to be.
Of all the books I read to my kids, this book stands out most in my memory. I wish I could say it’s because it has such a great message (it does). But the real reason is far less upstanding:
One day, as I was reading Stargirl, I was interrupted. One of my kids, who (as it just so happened) was sitting smack-dab in center of the reading rug, farted. And it wasn’t a little fart. It was a big, long machine-gun fart. It was rapid-fire, loud, and lasted (I promise you I am not exaggerating) for at least three seconds.
It’s important to know that I ran a tight ship in my classroom. My kids knew that, during reading time, they had to abide by several rules. The two most important rules were: 1) no talking, and 2) you may not leave the reading rug. So, when that poor kid farted, the other 32 students rapidly (and silently) retreated to the very edges of the reading rug.
Some kids sat with their faces twisted in disgust. Others had their hands over their mouths, fighting not to laugh. One kid mouthed, “Ewww. That’s nasty!” and twenty others looked at him sternly and put a finger to their lips to make sure he didn’t speak (speaking during reading time ended reading time abruptly).
The poor little farter sat in the middle of the reading rug, blushing. His loyal “girlfriend” (they had been boyfriend/girlfriend since the second grade) was the only other student who remained quietly by his side, and she was blushing as brightly as he was.
The entire class looked at me expectantly.
Somehow (to this day, I honestly have absolutely no idea how), I had managed not to laugh. Until . . .
One of the kids (I called him “Pickle”), who had retreated right next to my chair at the front edge of the reading rug, leaned up to me and, breaking the silence, whispered in an extremely serious tone:
“Ms. Cassel, that sounded just like Wheel of Fortune.”
Well, friends, that was all it took . . . I lost it. Because, here’s the thing: it sounded exactly like the Wheel of Fortune wheel after someone has given it a good, hard spin. “Clack, clack, clack, clack, clack!”
And, of course, when I laughed, that gave the entire class license to laugh. Everyone, even the little farter, laughed like crazy.
I had to pull myself together quickly and give a silly, adult speech: “Ok, return to your spots. Calm down. I fart, you guys fart, we all fart. We try not to do it in public, but sometimes it slips out. When that happens, we say, ‘Excuse me,’ and we go on with our lives.” Etc., etc. The kids returned to their spots, we finished reading our chapter of Stargirl, and we went about the rest of our day. And, thankfully, no one ever made fun of the kid for his fart.
That remains one of my favorite moments of teaching. A situation that had the potential to be horrifyingly embarrassing for one of my kids turned into just another moment of hilarity in Ms. Cassel’s classroom. Thank goodness we were reading a book about acceptance.
I’ve never mentioned that moment to any of my kids since . . . . I wonder how many of them remember it (I guess we will soon see!).
Holes is about Stanley Yelnats (it’s a palindrome!), a kid who comes from a family that suffers from horrible luck. The bad luck stems from way back, when Stanley’s “no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather” was cursed by a one-legged Egyptian gypsy.
Due to this bad luck, Stanley is falsely accused of a crime and sent unjustly to Camp Green Lake, a juvenile correctional facility in the middle of nowhere. Camp Green Lake is a misnomer. It is the site of what used to be “the largest lake in Texas,” but, now, it is just a huge, dry desert wasteland.
At Camp Green Lake, Stanley and the other juvies are forced to spend all day, every day digging five-foot-deep and five-foot-wide holes (which, they are told, will build character).
Stanley soon realizes that there’s another reason for the digging. Sketchy Warden Walker is searching for something in that lakebed. Stanley and Zero, whom he befriends at Camp Green Lake, set out on a mission to figure out the mystery of the five-foot holes.
Holes is one of the first books I read to my class. Perhaps you remember the movie (with a very young Shia LaBeouf)?
The movie had been released a few months before I started teaching, and several of my students had seen it. Needless to say, they were very excited to read the book. The book has a lot of quirky characters and a pretty outrageous plot, but my kids loved it (and so did I).
The House of the Scorpion
Honors: National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, Newbery Honor Book, Michael L. Printz Honor Book, Mythopoeic Award (in the children’s category), Locus Award (YA category in the speculative fiction field)
The best books to read aloud to not-so-little kids (i.e., kids who already know how to read) are those that are slightly more difficult than they can manage on their own reading level. This introduces kids to new vocabulary and challenges them to more complex ideas and storylines, without intimidating them or turning them off with confusing, higher-level reading.
The House of the Scorpion, which is intended for grades 7 and up, was a great, but extremely challenging, choice for my kids. We read it as part of our science class, and it was perfect for interdisciplinary lessons.
The book is set in the future, in the country of Opium, which is a strip of land between Mexico and the U.S. Opium has one major export (any guesses?) and is controlled by Matteo Alacrán, whom everyone knows as El Patrón.
El Patrón is an evil, rich, and powerful 148-year-old drug lord. And Matt, the book’s protagonist, is El Patrón’s clone. Matt is being grown for his organs–when El Patrón’s organs fail, he will use Matt’s.
At first, Matt does not know that he is a clone. He doesn’t understand why he is treated like an animal by some, but loved and pampered by El Patrón.
When Matt discovers what he is and what is in store for him, he decides to escape Opium. But his life outside turns out to be no better.
Last year, one of my students told me that The House of the Scorpion remains his favorite book of all time. He borrowed it from the library when he was in high school and reread it. Not surprisingly, he said he understood it a lot better and got a lot more out of it the second time around. I was thrilled to hear that one of our read-aloud books had such a big impact.
* * * * *
It’s been many years since I’ve taught elementary school, but I’m still in touch with lots of my former students (yay for Facebook!), and they are still very, very special to me. Last year, my husband and I made a trip back to Baton Rouge to see my last class of 5th graders graduate from high school. We took a bunch of kids out to lunch, had a mini-reunion, and reminisced. They’ve grown up a little bit, but they’re still pretty much the same:
I have great memories of sharing some fantastic books with my students. I dedicate this post to all of them (Love y’all!!).