English Language Arts, Mentor Text for Personal Narratives

Picture Books in Middle School Part 2

One of the hills I will die on is the fact that students love picture books in the middle school classroom. They are just big kids that love to relax and listen to a good story. I think it must remind them of their elementary years, among other reasons.

Every time I meet someone and they ask me what I do for a living, I always receive shocked faces when I admit I’m a middle school teacher. I say “admit,” because when I tell people this, they think I’m a weird breed of alien. Truthfully, I love this age! I taught elementary, and I taught high school, and this is the perfect middle ground. I love life in the middle!

As teachers, we know that listening to books IS reading, so having middle schoolers listen to picture books helps with reading skills and fluency. Research has shown that many picture books contain extensive and varied vocabulary. So many picture books contain concepts, themes, and topics that fit nicely with many types of lessons.

I talk all about the wonderful reasons to incorporate picture books in Part 1 of this series. Check it out here.

5 Picture Books to Read and Use in the Middle School Classroom

For Part 2, I have three more picture books to show you that are perfect for middle school.

For these three books, I have chosen to highlight one of my favorite author/illustrators: Patricia Polacco.

Her books are perfect for middle school as they are longer in length and contain wonderful and serious themes. Polacco is also a talented illustrator, and her beautiful and unique artwork really captures the essence of the stories she is conveying. For a video interview and biography, please visit Reading Rockets Video Interview with Patricia Polacco.

The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco

The Keeping Quilt is the story of a generational, well-loved quilt that is passed down in Polacco’s family. She details the true story of how it was crafted in her family, how the quilt was used in weddings, as a tablecloth, for picnics, and to warm babies. Polacco weaves in elements of her Jewish and Russian heritage throughout.

The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco

I utilize this book to teach about oral histories and culture. Through four generations, just like the quilt itself, the oral retelling of how the quilt was created and its uses has been passed down, until Polacco decides to write a book about it. The Keeping Quilt is such a heartwarming tale, as the reader learns the author wraps her own baby daughter in the quilt. This picture book is also the perfect beginning example to show students how our personal oral histories can be written down too. It inspires me to think of stories that have been passed down that I could write about myself. This is also the perfect read that exemplifies the importance of culture and oral history.

Aunt Chip and the Great Triple Creek Dam Affair by Patricia Polacco

This book is kooky in the best way. I love to read it during the first month of school as a way to promote the importance of reading. Aunt Chip, the town’s former librarian, cautioned Triple Creek on the perils of erecting a TV tower. Then she promptly became bedridden for fifty years over the travesty. She was right! Since the TV tower had been put up, fifty years has passed, and the townspeople either never learned to read or don’t remember how. They spend their hours watching television, but oh, they do use books! They use books as door stoppers, to fix falling walls, and even as the town’s dam. Once Aunt Chip learns her nephew and his friends don’t even know how to read, she hops out of bed and makes it her mission to teach them. Her passion for books spreads and spreads and leads to a child plucking a book from the dam, causing the book wall to crash down and unleashing a fury of water into the town that may or may not destroy the TV tower.

Aunt Chip and the Great Triple Creek Dam Affair by Patricia Polacco

With its amusing and interesting characters, whimsical illustrations, and unexpected events, this story is entertaining and informative. This picture book can be used to teach theme, connections, character traits, sequencing, and so much more. It is also a wonderful example of how to teach students to create and write multi-faceted characters. This book can be used to teach citizenship as the townsfolk sacrifice their freedom of the press and expression since they no longer can read and therefore cannot write.

Lastly, it’s just plain perfect to imagine a sad world in which reading is nonexistent, television reigns, and to warn students not to go down that path of screen addiction. Reading addiction is even more fun and opens us up to whole new worlds, just like Polacco opens her readers to the kooky town of Triple Creek.

Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco

Pink and Say is my final Polacco book on this list, and it is the most serious one. This thought-provoking picture book is absolutely perfect for middle schoolers with its significant and profound themes. Set during the Civil War, Pinkus, an African-American Union soldier finds a wounded Sheldon (Say), a White Union soldier in a field.

Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco

Pink rushes Say to his home to his welcoming and warm mama, Moe Moe Bay. Yet, Pink’s home happens to be in Confederate territory.

While home, Moe Moe Bay nurses Say back to health. They learn that Say doesn’t know how to read, and Pink teaches him. Their friendship blossoms beautifully. Isolated in Pink’s home, these two can be best friends. However, they know once they’re back on the battlefield, though fighting on the same side, they cannot speak to one another or interact. Before they are able to leave the comfort of Pink’s home, the book takes an ugly turn. Because of its content, middle schoolers are mature enough to handle that Moe Moe Bay is killed by marauders for housing Union soldiers and both boys are dragged to jail. Then, Pink and Say are separated with Pink suffering the same fate as his mother.

This book highlights the sorrow of the Civil War and racial injustice. The poignant illustration at the end is deeply moving as Pink and Say reach out to touch hands before they are separated. Say had previously shaken hands with President Lincoln. They are able to touch briefly as Pink states, “Let me touch the hand that touched Mr. Lincoln, Say, just one last time.” This is a central theme and driving force behind the whole story.

Say is, in fact, Polacco’s great-great-grandfather who passed down this story through her family. Not only could this book teach about oral history, but it would be the perfect addition to a Civil War unit. It can be used to teach English students symbolism as the illustration of the touching hands represents so much. This symbolic representation could then be compared to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Students can learn all about word choice and how to weave together those perfectly chosen words in well-crafted sentences that evoke emotion in their writing. The themes of unlikely friendship, loyalty, courage, honor, kindness, and duty can be explored as well.

Conclusion

If you’re a middle school ELA teacher wanting to dive into the endless possibilities of picture books, start with Patricia Polacco. Not only do her stories encompass a wide variety of concepts and lessons, but they’re also wonderful examples of how to write well. There are a wide variety of teachable moments in her books and you won’t be disappointed.

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English Language Arts

Folk Tales, Fairy Tales, and Other Legends

Bibbidi, Boppidi, Boo! With damsels in distress, villains, magic, and happy endings, fairy tales tend to capture and hold the attention of younger students. However, did you know folk tales and fairy tales are perfect for the middle school ELA classroom as well?

Before I tell you how, we should first discuss the difference between a fairy tale and a folk tale.

Fairy tales are a subset of the folk tale genre. Folk tales originated as oral stories passed from one generation to the next. They are based in reality or history. Fairy tales are actually folk tales. The only difference is fairy tales consists of lots of gnomes, goblins, wizards, and the like.

Many middle school students are familiar with fairy tales thanks to Disney. Most Disney movies took these fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm.

Want more information about this book,
please click the link below.

An Illustrated Treasury of Grimm’s Fairy Tales: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel and many more classic stories

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm wrote Grimm’s Fairy Tales. During the 1800’s, hundreds of their stories were published and read by many. Most of these stories are a bit darker than the Disney versions, which further intrigues middle schoolers.

I first taught Brothers Grimm fairy tales to seventh graders completely virtually in the spring of 2020.

When I first taught this, I started off with Snow White. It’s a personal favorite of mine. (Peep the time I dressed up as her when I taught elementary!) Also, I chose it because I thought many students would be familiar with the basic premise of this fairy tale.

Before students read this story, we learned all the criteria that a fairy tale normally encompasses. Students were on the lookout to determine if Grimm’s Snow White had all of the following elements.

Fairy Tale Criteria:

  • Oftentimes begins with “Once upon a time” and ends with “And they lived happily ever after.”
  • Contains magical creatures or imaginative characters.
  • Things occur in threes or sevens (Three wishes or Seven dwarves).
  • Usually takes place in a faraway land.
  • Royalty is present.
  • Contains motifs relating to sleep or something reoccurring.
  • Good is always victorious over evil.

After learning the common fairy tale elements, I held an online discussion question of what they knew already about Snow White. Some of the students really knew the story whereas some only knew the basics. We created a list of most known facts concerning the fairy tale. We reviewed the basic storyline from the Disney movie of Snow White.

Snow White: Comparison and Contrast

Then students read the Brothers Grimm’s Snow White, which is the very first and original version.

The first activity we did was to simply compare and contrast the Disney version to the original. Some vast differences include:

  • Snow White was 7 years old in Grimm’s’ fairy tale and 14 in the Disney version.
  • The Queen asked the huntsman to bring her some more gruesome aspects to prove Snow White’s death in the original.
  • The Queen’s death is much different in the original.
  • Each time the Queen visits Snow White’s home at the dwarves’ house, she tries to kill her and each time it looks like she has succeeded, but actually she hasn’t.
  • The dwarves don’t have individual, comic personalities in the original story.

*There are many more differences. These are just a few.

After comparing and contrasting, we analyzed some of the differences and tried to provide justification for them in questions.

For instance, why would the queen’s death include wearing hot iron shoes and dancing until she died? What did this mean?

Furthermore, the students analyzed why Disney changed the way Snow White came back to life. In the movie, Snow White wakes when the prince kisses her. In Grimm’s Fairy Tales, she wakes when the dwarves drop her body. Then, a piece of apple dislodges from her throat, causing her to wake up. Our class analyzed why Disney changed this.

We also read the Grimm’s’ original stories of Rumpelstiltskin and Rapunzel. Our class followed the same consistent pattern of background information, learning the popular basics of the story, then reading, comparing and contrasting, analyzing the differences and choices made by the Brothers Grimm or by Disney, and then determining if it met the fairy tale criteria.

Twisted Fairy Tales

Next, we continued with our fairy tale unit by exploring twisted fairy tales. These fairy tales are considered twisted because the fairy tales have been rewrote from the villain’s point of view or the setting was changed to modern or futuristic times.

One of the most popular twisted fairy tales is The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by Jon Scieszk in which the wolf tells the story from his point of view. Watch the video below to see and listen as the author reads this intriguing version.

The Other Side of the Story, by Jessica S. Gunderson and Nancy Loewin, is a collection of twisted fairy tales. I highly recommend these books for any age of elementary to middle school kiddos. Their twisted fairy tales are too cute.

Want more information about these books,
please click the link below.

The Other Side of the Story: Fairy Tales with a Twist

After reading examples of twisted fairy tales, students completed a culminating writing assignment. They wrote their own twisted fairy tales. We went through the writing process and peer editing. Their stories turned out wonderfully.

I would definitely recommend exploring Brothers Grimm fairy tales at the middle school or higher age level. Because they tend to have darker and deeper themes, it is just mature enough to capture the older students’ attention and intrigue them.

Folk Tales, Fairy Tales, and Other Legends Lesson Plan

If you teach upper elementary to middle school and are considering teaching folk tales, fairy tales, myths, and legends, we have an awesome informative and interactive PowerPoint or Google Slides Lesson Plan Activity to share with your students. Our lesson plan includes a graphic organizer and writing papers for students to write their own twisted fairy tales. In addition, it contains a quick ten question assessment to see how well students learned the information from the unit.

We also have these adorable posters that show the differences between many genres of tales such as myths, folklore, and legends.

If you would like to grab both products, the bundle is below!

Conclusion

Teaching folktales and fairy tales is a great way to begin the school year as there are many opportunities to teach reading and writing standards, as well as to assess where students are in their abilities and levels.

It is also a fun unit to complete around Halloween, in the fall, or as a way to wrap up the year in a lighthearted way. We hope you are able to incorporate some of these ideas and to consider adding this topic to your lesson plans this year.

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English Language Arts

5 Picture Books to Read and Use in the Middle School Classroom

Pictures books are amazing to read in the middle school classroom. When I was in college, my favorite education professor, who taught literacy, read picture books to us. When she first read us picture books, she said something that made a profound impact on me.

She basically asked if we enjoyed hearing the picture books. We all nodded eagerly. It was a nice break to sit back and listen to a book being read aloud, to look at the pretty pictures, and to relax for a few moments. Then she said, “If you, as a college student enjoyed it, why wouldn’t big kids as well?”

Wow. That hit me. Ever since then, I’ve been a teacher that tries to incorporate picture books at whatever level I’ve taught, which has been from 3rd-12th grade. (I know! That is an odd range of grades, but that is another blog post in itself!)

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When I taught high school English, I incorporated such books as The Sneetches by Dr. Seuss to explore the Holocaust before teaching Night by Elie Wiesel.

I read aloud folktales to teach allegory. I read The Day the Crayons Quit to teach diversity. I was the weird high school teacher who seemed like I had forgotten I had left the elementary classroom.

I knew fine and well what I was doing. Reading aloud picture books is a must for any grade level, even in middle school.

Here are some reasons why I read pictures books to older students:

Picture books are a quick and easy way to teach focused mini-lessons.
They demonstrate strategies you are trying to teach in a concise, concrete way.

You can use picture books to teach writing. Explore the story structure, character descriptions, plot, setting, and any other elements to learn how to write a story.

Picture books are just short stories with pictures added. You can teach a variety of concepts such as figurative language, grammatical structure, and so much more.

Students are still reading when teachers read picture books out loud. Think of it as an audiobook.

It gives students a chance to relax for a couple of minutes and reminds the big kids of the simpler days of childhood.

Middle schoolers can also benefit from the timeless moral and social-emotional lessons in picture books.

After teaching middle school for four years now, I find that this age especially loves a good picture book.

Middle schoolers are that fun, yet awkward age of trying to be very grown-up like, but also being sweet and lovable.

Middle schoolers are that fun, yet awkward age of trying to be very grown-up like, but also being sweet and lovable.

Here are some picture books I have incorporated while teaching 6th-8th English and some concepts you can teach alongside them.

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De La Pena

1. Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De La Pena

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De La Pena is about a young boy and his grandmother enjoying the scenery of their neighborhood and the people in it, while on the bus.

Educators can teach imagery from this book and students can explore ideas for their own descriptive writing pieces.

“He saw sunset colors swirling over crashing waves. Saw a family of hawks slicing through the sky. Saw the old woman’s butterflies dancing free in the light of the moon.”

De La Pena uses wonderful word choices to highlight imagery. Students can learn all about the importance of word choice in their writing with Last Stop on Market Street.

This sweet picture book highlights the theme of looking for beauty in the mundane and that it is important to celebrate all the diverse neighborhood inhabitants.

The Dark by Lemony Snicket

2. The Dark by Lemony Snicket

The Dark by Lemony Snicket is a picture book I normally save for around October, but it can be taught at any point in the year.

A young boy, Lazlo, is scared of the dark, but the dark talks back to him. I used this book to teach personification. As the dark starts to communicate with the boy and take on actions, readers get a great idea of how to write and recognize personification.

I also like to explore theme with this book as students inevitably find out not to fear and that the big things we are scared of are not always as they seem. This could be a first day of middle school book as students may have fear of starting middle school.

The Name Jar by Yanksook Choi

3. The Name Jar by Yanksook Choi


Speaking of the first day of school, The Name Jar by Yanksook Choi is our third book on the list. I always read this picture book the first week of school to my sixth graders.

It is a longer picture book, so I like to break it up over a couple of days. It is about a young girl, Unhei, who has just moved from Korea to America. She decides to choose an American name for her classmates to call her. Her peers help her out by putting their name ideas in a jar. Unhei also means Grace and Unhei explores her Korean identity with the choice of another name.

I use this book for several lessons. I ask students to explore their name meanings and to ask their parents how they received their names. We explore how names shape identity.

After the Fall by Dan Santat

4. After the Fall by Dan Santat

After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again by Dan Santat is a sweet continuation of the original nursery rhyme. Readers learn that Humpty Dumpty becomes afraid of heights because of his fall and must overcome this fear. The themes of perseverance, courage, and facing fears is present in this wonderful book. It is a perfect choice for social-emotional health that any middle schooler needs. It has a growth mindset as Humpty Dumpty overcomes his biggest challenge.

Some ideas you can teach with this book include having students write their own epilogue to a popular nursery rhyme.

Students can compare and contrast this version to the original nursery rhyme and explore how Humpty Dumpty becomes a dynamic character who changes and has varied depths to him. Dynamic and static characters can be a mini-lesson taught with this particular picture book. There are so many things you can do with After the Fall. An author study would be particularly interesting as Santat wrote and illustrated the book himself.

You can teach the concept that even if a picture book is on a lower reading level than we are accustomed to, writers, particularly Santat, went to college and needed great knowledge to write a book like this. Writing a picture book is in and of itself a science.

Spaghetti in a Hot Dog Bun by Maria Dismondy

5. Spaghetti in a Hot Dog Bun by Maria Dismondy

Spaghetti in a Hot Dog Bun by Maria Dismondy is a great first week of school picture book. With its focus on social-emotional health and anti-bullying, we see how the protagonist deals with an unkind peer who makes fun of her hair and what she eats for lunch. We see how she overcomes this conflict in a wise way. The reader learns that it’s wonderful to be yourself and not to change due to peer pressure, which is a central point many middle schoolers struggle with. We have so many activities that can be completed with this picture book, that we made a whole unit on it. Please go check it out!

Conclusion

Middle school students benefit from picture books read to them in a variety of ways. From learning writing skills, comprehension strategies, ELA objectives, and morals and life lessons, picture books can and should be used frequently in the middle school classroom.

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