Friday, June 7, 2019

Internment by Samira Ahmed

Internment by Samira Ahmed is a work of activism.  Seventeen-year-old Layla Amin lives in a United States "fifteen minutes into the future" where Islamophobia has become so rampant that there are burning of books by Muslim authors and curfews are imposed.  Layla's college professor father has been removed from his job and her chiropractor mother's clinic has fewer and fewer clients.

And then the relocation authority comes for Layla and her parents.  Their only crime is that they professed their faith on the census. So they are being sent to a camp,  can pack only what they can carry and, of course, have to give up their phones.  

Soon, they are on a train that will take them to the Owens Valley.  From there, they board buses that take them farther into the desert.  

The beginning of this story will feel uncomfortably familiar.  Not only is it referencing our current political climate, but it also follows the path traveled by the Japanese-American families living on the Pacific coast in World War II.  Right down to the fact that Layla and her family drive past Manzanar, which was the first Japanese internment camp to open during the war, on their way to their new camp.  

I am very familiar with this event in history because my small community has the distinction of being the first place where the Japanese-Americans were removed from their homes.  Layla and her family recreate their journey in many ways, including just how established the infrastructure of their removal to the camps is.  There's a special train, buses, guards, numbers that identify your family and... at the end... there is a camp with "Mercury Homes"-- RVs-- instead of tar paper shacks but still organized into blocks around a mess hall.  

And, just like the camps from 50 years ago, there is dust.  Always dust.  

There is no familiar historical script for Amin to follow once she has her characters at the camp, which is yet another uncomfortable place for the reader to be.  We will not be watching our characters live in a camp until the war is over, because there is no declared war that we are dealing with here and we have no idea what the resolution will be.  

The cover art has Layla wearing a baseball cap with the word "RESIST" on it and that is what she does, in spite of her parent's surprising hope that she will go along with camp administration's plans and goals.  She is aided by an unlikely partner, one of the guards who's interest in helping her demonstrates that there are many others outside of the camp that are working to destroy the system from within, 

There are many reasons why I think that this novel is going to be popular with my students.  Layla is a strong heroine, the action is fast-paced and there is much to talk about in terms of comparing with history and with today as well.  

Sunday, April 28, 2019

I Should Have Honor by Khalida Brohi - Review

I Should Have Honor by Khalida Brohi. 

This is a slim book with a great amount of power.  Khalida Brohi is a Pakistani woman who grew up in a tribal village where family and tradition are valued and a family's honor is upheld above all, even to the point of death.  While still a young girl, she discovers that her favorite cousin is killed after she disgraces the family by running away with the boy that she loves. 

It is a called an honor killing.  

Khalida's entire life is changed by this event.  As she grows older, stopping this practice will become her one defining goal.  But she realizes that trying to attack this challenge directly won't work in her male-dominated society so she has to adopt a much more nuanced approach.  

Her strategy is inspired by her father, who was an early supporter of her access to education and has held the role of journalist as well as community organizer.  It involves a great deal of talking and finding ways to empower women so that they are seen as valuable and essential.  She succeeds in building programs that seem to carry on well without her direct oversight and you can see her evolving into a inspiring entrepreneur who helps indigenous women capitalize on their cultural traditions.  The embroidery on the cover celebrates this.  

But eliminating the practice of honor killings remains the focus of her work and doing that is quite dangerous.  Her family rightly fears for her life as well as their own and there is definitely a moment where her father becomes less supportive of her work.  After some times, she realizes that it is protective gesture.  

What Khalida Brohi does well in telling her story is to help the reader understand the extreme societal pressures that she and her family are under.  It is also abundantly clear just how much pride she has in her Pakistani culture.  There are times when the story gets bogged down with the many acronyms that represent the NGO (non-governmental organization) world in Pakistan but that is also a reality that Brohi has to work with.  

I bought one copy for my library when the book first came out and I am the third reader that it has had.  The cover and Brohi's compelling story sold itself from my table of new book reads.  The bright yellow cover helps it stand out.  Readers who enjoyed I Am Malala will definitely find this I Should Have Honor an engaging and valuable read.  

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Great transgender reads for 2019!

Here are two excellent new young adult novels with transgender characters.  

Birthday by Meredith Russo.  

Birthdays!  They're a time to feel celebrated and loved, especially if you share your birthday day with one of your besties from childhood.  And that's the way it is for Morgan and Eric.  

Here are two kids who have been a part of each other’s childhoods ever since their parents gave birth to them on the same day and at the same hospital during a freak September blizzard.  Their friendship gets even more solid during years of learning to play football together and also through family tragedies like the death of Morgan’s mom. 

On the birthday day right before they start middle school, Morgan considers letting Eric know a deeply held secret.  Morgan is questioning his gender.  

The reader gets to check in with during their next birthdays, which is a great way to allow time to move quickly.  We will get to see Morgan and Eric all the way through high school and beyond. Their years are filled with major changes that test their friendship.  But they always seem to find a way to spend at least a part of their birthday day together.  

I read this in one evening because Morgan’s story is so compelling. Morgan’s father and community make it very difficult to live her truth. There is one chapter closer to the end that is particularly heartbreaking as Morgan attempts to live up to community and family expectations.  

This is Meredith Russo's next novel after her excellent If I Was Your Girl.  

And She Was by Jessica Verdi 

Dara's life after high school plan is to play professional tennis and she has the skill and the coaching to achieve this goal.  What she doesn't have is a mother who believes in her life path and the money to support her while she does this. 

She also does not have a passport to get her to the Canadian tournament that she needs to start getting noticed for her abilities.  So she asks her mom for her birth certificate.  Her mom insists that it has been lost and refuses to talk about it any further. 

So Dara does what any thwarted 18-year-old would do.  She tears the house apart, eventually finding the lock box under her mom's bed, the key to the lock box, and--finally-the certificate. 

Which does not have her actual name on it.  More intriguingly, it also doesn't have the right parent names either. 
Dara spends a few hours thinking that she was abducted at birth before her mom comes home.  When confronted, she tells the truth.  Her mom is actually her biological father.  She transitioned after Dara was born.  

Dara is rocked to the core by this news.  When she learns that she also has a set of grandparents that she has never known, she decides that she is going on a road trip to find them.  She takes along her childhood best friend and neighbor. 

At some point in time, her mom starts to send her emails explaining the whole story from the very beginning.  These two story lines start to link up as Dara finds her lost family and starts to realize what they may be able to do for her. 

Dara's identity struggles and anger towards her mother is honest and riveting. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

Groundhog Day - Interview with a Groundhog -- Just how accurate are their predictions? Get the scoop!

A chat with one of  America’s best known rodents!

February 2nd is rolling around again and the Groundhog is getting ready to wake up and give us his yearly prediction on how much longer winter will last!   But why do Americans look to a Groundhog for such a special message? We went to the best source to find out -- a groundhog!


Forecast: To estimate something that will happen in the future.

Hibernate: When an animal spends the winter in a sleeping state so that they can conserve their energy.

Meteorologist: A scientist who studies the weather.

Predict: To estimate something that will happen in the future.

Prognosticate: To predict or forecast that an event will happen in the future.

Rodent: A group of mammals that are known for chewing and have big incisors. The rodent group includes rats, mice, squirrels and hamsters.

Q: Hello Mr. Groundhog! May I call you Mr. Groundhog?

A: Of course!  Although we do answer to many other names including woodchuck, groundpig, monax, Canada marmot and even whistlepig.  We are called whistle pigs because we sometimes make a whistling sound to warn other groundhogs of danger.

Q:So, how did you get the job of yearly weather predictor? You have to admit that most of our other weather forecasters are humans, not groundhogs.

A: This is true, but groundhogs like myself have been predicting when spring will arrive for hundreds of years.  In fact, groundhogs first started predicting the weather in Europe.
Germans who immigrated to the United States brought their tradition of watching groundhog behavior with them.

And England has a poem that says that if the sun comes out on February 2nd, there will be six more weeks of winter.   

Q: Just how do you predict whether we are going to get six more weeks of winter or an early spring?

A: It is quite simple!  I just walk outside of my burrow!  If it is a really sunny day, I will see my shadow and I will run back inside to hide.  That means we will all have six more weeks of winter.  If it is a cloudy day, I won’t see my shadow and I will stay outside.  This means that we will have an early spring!

Q: Why is Groundhog Day on February 2nd?

A: February 2nd is a perfect day to predict the change of seasons because it is the halfway point between the day winter starts on December 21st and the day that spring begins on March 20th.   
In fact, farmers from New England had a saying: “Groundhog day, half your hay!” meaning that you had better still have over half of your hay in the barn or you won’t have anything to feed your animals during the winter.

Q: You mentioned that there are other groundhogs like you that also predict when winter will come to an end?
A: I have many groundhog cousins around the country who predict the weather.  Our most famous cousin is a groundhog named
“Punxsutawney Phil” who predicts the weather in a small town in Pennsylvania.  The people of his town really celebrate Groundhog Day!  He even has an “Inner Circle” of humans who take care of him and dress up with top hats on  February 2nd.

Some of my other cousins are: Chattanooga Chuck in Tennessee, Jimmy the Groundhog in Wisconsin, Staten Island Charlotte (or sometimes Chuck) in New York and Nibbles in North Carolina.  

Q: If you don’t mind us asking, how often are your predictions correct?

A: It depends on who you ask.  I believe that I’m right 100% of the time!  The meteorologists with the United States government have a different way of figuring out whether the groundhog weather predictors get it right.  They compare our yearly forecast with whether the average temperatures for the months of February and March are above average or below average.   
Here’s a chart of what they thought of Punxsutawney Phil’s record for the last five years when they compare his forecast with the United States average temperatures.

Feb. Temp.
Mar. Temp
Mixed result
Mixed result

Q: And what is it that you do on the other 364 days of the year? Is it true that you hibernate in the winter?

A: Why yes, we are known for taking a long sleep during the winter.  Some of my cousins who live in northern areas with colder winters are known for sleeping in their burrows from October to March.  My cousins who live in southern areas with warmer winters may hibernate for less than three months.   

Q: Can you tell us more about your burrow?

A: We woodchucks are excellent diggers!  We create a tunnels in the dirt where we can stay warm.  We often line these tunnels with dried leaves.  We also definitely make certain that there are at least two ways out of our burrows.  We don’t want to be caught without a way to escape from a predator!

Q: And what’s a typical meal like for you?

A: In the summer, I love to eat green grasses and plants.  As you can see, I love eating clover as well as dandelions.  I also have been known to eat nuts and even insects.  

Q: Thanks for talking to us and good luck on February 2nd!

A: You’re welcome!  And for further information, check out these Web sources!

“Groundhog Day History” (
from  This site is the official one for Punxsutawney Phil’s fans.

Groundhog Day” ( from the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI).  

NOTE: I wrote this because my third grade son kept on asking me questions that I couldn't answer!  And there isn't really that much that is readable about Groundhog's Day on the Web.  The above links are the best two that I could find.  If you are a teacher or a parent who is homeschooling their family, I have a three-page activity worksheet that goes along with this groundhog interview.  It includes a cultural tie-in and even some science.  Take a look at it on my Teachers Pay Teachers Web store -- Interview with a Groundhog - Student Activity Worksheet

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Happy New Year - Character education resolutions for students!

Happy 2017!  I have revised one of my favorite New Year´s Resolutions lesson plans that I first created way back in 2012.  It is called ¨My Best Year¨ and it gives students in grades 5 through 8 a chance to reflect upon 2016 and consider the person that they want to become in 2017.   It is available for download from my Teachers Pay Teachers store.

Promoting Literature in the Library with Shelf Talkers

My high school library is in a very modern and new building.  Most of our walls are made of glass.  The ones that aren't made of glass are made of exposed concrete.  It is gorgeous and also the students find it comfortable but I often have trouble figuring out ways to make the look a little less basic. I find it challenging to figure out ways to decorate that don't look out of place and actually harmonize with the space. 

This year,  I´m using these shelf talkers to give me and my students a chance to share book reviews with the students who walk around my library.  It is called TALKING SHELVES. They are easy to print out and use!  You can download them from my Teachers Pay Teachers store. 

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Salt to the Sea -- A Novel Study

Thirty-three years after the sinking of the Titanic, which claimed over 1,500 lives, came the loss of another passenger ship.  This one may have claimed over 9,000 lives.  Yet we never hear about this significant tragedy with its loss of life.

It was the Wilhelm Gustloff, which went down in the Baltic Sea on January 30, 1945.  On board were German soldiers as well as civilians who were escaping from the Soviet Army as they marched across Lithuania and East Prussia.  

Ruta Sepetys has created a novel that will bring this event out of relative obscurity.  It is called Salt to the Sea.  In this novel, there are four main characters and their stories are told together in alternating short chapters.  Joana is a Lithuanian woman who has been trained as a nurse.  She has a family connection to the characters in Sepetys other historical fiction story, which is called Between Shades of Gray.  Florian is East Prussian and has been working as a apprentice to the art conservator in Konigsberg and is carrying something in his pack that he will not let out of his sight.  Emilia is a young Polish girl with a secret of her own.  And Alfred is a German youth who has been drafted very late in the war to serve as a sailor in the Kriegsmarine. He dreams of glory that is unlikely to come his way.  

This is such an important and interesting book and it deserves to be studied and enjoyed.  So I've created a novel study that might help teachers and homeschoolers to work with this book.  

Salt to the Sea - A novel study has a lot of content, including: 

-- A character tracker that invites students to reflect upon the three different types of literary conflict and potentially write an essay sharing their findings, 
-- An information skills lesson that helps students to identify an author's purpose in publishing Web information, 
-- Discussion or essay questions
-- And a comprehension quiz,

It also has a Google Earth Tour Builder lesson that brings to life the journey of these four characters.  You can access this Tour Builder for free. 

And because it is so much easier to teach something when students have a something to help them orient their learning, I have created a FREE Google Doc lesson with a location chart as well as an answer key. Feel free to view, make a copy, and use.