Pam Munoz Ryan: Using an Author Study in the Classroom

Pam Munoz Ryan is an author to be trusted. If you have ever read one of her stories, you know you’re bound to have a captivating and emotional experience when you pick up one of her books. Pam Munoz Ryan is the perfect writer to begin an author study within the classroom. Her books contain profound life lessons and deep themes.

Pam Munoz Ryan:
Using an Author Study in the Classroom

Pam Munoz Ryan is a winner of multiple awards. Two such are the Newberry Honor Medal and a NAPPA Gold award, among countless others. She is a New York Times Bestseller author. Her novels are perfect for upper elementary to middle school readers. Ryan is known for her multi-cultural literature, strong protagonists, and deep themes written in an age-appropriate way. 

I first found Pam Munoz Ryan when teaching elementary grades. I taught her novel, Esperanza Rising. It is a wonderful historical-fictional book based on true events surrounding her own grandmother Esperanza Ortega’s life and immigration to the United States.

In Esperanza Rising, we are taken on a journey of loss. Quickly into the story, the reader learns Esperanza’s loving and wealthy rancher father is killed at the hands of bandits. Esperanza, her mother, and their servants who are like family must move. This is due their beautiful Mexican ranch is burned down by Esperanza’s uncle. They leave behind her abuelita, whom she was very close with, in a convent. The death of her father, separation from her beloved grandmother, and a series of events causes Esperanza to grieve and grow so much within a year.

Pam Munoz Ryan weaves real history in her novel as detailed through the Mexican Revolution, the Dust Bowl, discrimination, immigration, Repatriation, migrant farms, the Great Depression, and labor strikes. During these major events, Esperanza must contend with losing all her material possessions, living extremely poorly, losing her father and possibly her mother, and growing up very quickly through the process. This novel is recommended for grades 4 and up.

If you are interested in teaching this novel, hop on over to our other blog post: 5 Activities for Teaching Esperanza Rising.

Becoming Naomi Leon

Another treasure of Pam Munoz Ryan’s is Becoming Naomi Leon. When I read this novel, I immediately noticed similar details to Esperanza Rising, but Becoming Naomi Leon had more modern elements. Similarities include the Mexican landscape, heritage, and food, as well as a journey of the female protagonist finding herself while dealing with trauma. 

Publisher Synopsis:

Naomi Soledad León Outlaw has had a lot to contend with in her young life, her name for one. Then there are her clothes (sewn in polyester by Gram), her difficulty speaking up, and her status at school as “nobody special.” But according to Gram’s self-prophecies, most problems can be overcome with positive thinking. Luckily, Naomi also has her carving to strengthen her spirit. And life with Gram and her little brother, Owen, is happy and peaceful. That is, until their mother reappears for the first time in seven years, stirring up all sorts of questions and challenging Naomi to discover who she really is.

Naomi, her great-grandmother Gram, and her little brother Owen all live in a small trailer/RV. Naomi and Owen are happy and cared for, enjoying evenings with pork-chops and Wheel of Fortune. Their mother, an alcoholic who abandoned Naomi and Owen seven years prior, shows up suddenly wanting to be part of their lives. Naomi and Owen’s trauma resurfaces from the neglect they had faced under her care and with the threat of her mother, Skyla, taking only Naomi to go live with her and her new boyfriend in Las Vegas.

There are deep themes such as child neglect, abandonment, alcoholism, inter-generational living, and custody hearings, so please choose this book wisely for your students. Nevertheless, Ryan has a way of making these topics age-appropriate without too much detail and just the right amount of discretion and subtlety. The reader is taken on a journey of Gram fighting for her great-grandkids, Naomi finding her father and her voice to be used for justice and redemption. 

I was drawn into this book immediately. The quirky characters, the desert backdrop, the Mexican landscape and food, the Spanish language and the warmth of family and friends all draw the reader in. With Naomi’s soap carvings and the big woodcarving event in Mexico they attend in which Naomi finds her gifts, will excite younger readers. This book has heart and soul, uniqueness, and strong characters. 

Paint the Wind

Ryan’s novel Paint the Wind has similarities to Esperanza Rising and Becoming Naomi Leon as well. The female protagonist, Maya, lives with her grandmother, but it is not a great situation. Her grandmother is an avid liar and has woven lies about Maya’s dead mother and her whole personal history. Maya, herself, tells lies in order to save face and impress. Through a series of events, Maya must move from California to Wyoming to live with her mother’s family, who are adamant against lying. They push her to find out the truth about who she really is and her mother’s horse helps her do this. Ryan has a knack for describing settings in her novels and the Wyoming wilderness is described beautifully, coupled with her description of the wild horse, Paint. 

Publisher’s Synopsis:

This epic horse story, in the tradition of BLACK STALLION, marks exciting new territory for one of our most treasured and celebrated novelists.

A puzzling photograph, a box filled with faded toy horses, and a single fractured memory are all that Maya has left of her mother. In her grandmother’s house, she lives like a captive, tethered by rules… until a shocking event changes everything. A world away, in the rugged Wyoming wilderness, a wild mustang called Artemisia runs free, belonging only to the stars. In a land where mountain lions pose an ever-present threat, she must vigilantly defend her foal… until a devastating act separates them from their band. Like a braided rein, Maya’s and Artemisia’s lives will ultimately intertwine. 

Paint the Wind left me gripping with emotion. As an adult, the story carried me through a roller coaster of sadness, grief, fear, and shock. You don’t have to be a horse person to enjoy this book. The book, Paint the Wind, has extensive vocabulary, exciting plot twists, so much heart, and the ever-present strong female lead that Ryan is known for.  

Author Study

Exposing students to a variety of authors is crucial for them to became diversified readers and writers, learning from many different writing styles and enjoying many genres of books; however, completely focusing on one writer and investigating author studies in the classroom has added benefits as well. Here are three ways to complete author studies in your classroom. 

Author Study

1. Read-Alouds

Completing a series of read-alouds from the same author opens the class up to great discussion on writing styles. They discuss comparing and contrasting, author’s craft, and so much more. Even by using book series as read-alouds, students can see similarities of how a particular author creates a story arc. The students can also see if it is similar or different from book to book within a series. Students will connect each novel naturally. They will make inferences about the author, and find consistency among different novels. 

For reasons to utilize a read-aloud in the Middle School Classroom, read our blog about it here!

2. Pair a Read-Aloud with a Novel Unit

As you teach a novel unit, simultaneously choose a read-aloud by the same author. I did this when we studied Mighty Miss Malone. I used Christopher Paul Curtis’s novel Bud, Not Buddy as our read-aloud at the same time. In fact, in Bud, Not Buddy, worlds collide when Deza from Mighty Miss Malone is featured. It was an awesome moment when students realized this. (I got bonus points for not revealing this meet-up until we came across it.) 

My students were able to compare and contrast Curtis’ books. They realized that Curtis loved to write about similar themes of poverty and real life history of the Great Depression. He also loved including riding the rails. Furthermore, he included many mentions of Michigan and similar places between both novels, and even humor. Curtis has a way of executing humor beautifully in normally sad topics. My students made so many connections as we studied both of his books. 

Students will be able to learn so much as they study two novels by the same author simultaneously. 

3. Independent Reading Projects

As a middle school English teacher, I assigned one independent reading project per quarter. One particular student had a penchant for reading Gary Paulsen books. So for each independent reading project he completed, he read a different Gary Paulsen book. For the last independent reading project, he compared and contrasted all four books he had read by him that year. He made deep connections throughout the novels, inferences about Paulsen’s personality, and formed a deep attachment to this author’s books.

By forming a deep bond with an author, this student developed a love of reading. He also could easily recognize the specific author’s craft. By reading an author’s work in a variety of books, students are able to learn and recognize different writing styles. Thus, in turn, become amazing writers too.  

As a teacher, you can assign an Independent Reading Project. Students will read two books by the same author, any writer of their choosing, and form connections between the two.

Here is a FREE project that does just that:  Author Study Independent Reading Project. 

If you’re interested in exploring Gary Paulsen projects for the classroom, take a look at our resource here.

Conclusion

Pam Munoz Ryan is an author you must add to your bookshelves if you have not done so. Her books are enthralling, contain profound life lessons and deep themes, and are always hopeful. By completing an author study in the classroom, students gain the benefit of learning a particular author’s writing style. They also form deep connections between books and attachments to an author. Consider using Pam Munoz Ryan as an author study in your classroom to begin!

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5 Ways to Incorporate Read-Aloud Books in Middle School

Some of my most fond childhood memories center around my teacher reading aloud a wonderful novel. Not every teacher of mine did this, but the ones who did, made reading come alive to me. Let’s dive into 5 ways to incorporate read-aloud books in middle school.

Memories of Read-Alouds

I remember fondly my Miss Frizzle-Esque fifth grade teacher reading aloud Boy by Roald Dahl. She had such intensity and drama in her voice as she read the “boil” scene. If you’ve read the book, you know. It was so scary and interesting and I thought to myself, “Wow! A book can tell the craziest stuff!” That same teacher made us laugh hysterically at The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, over the shenanigans of the Herdman siblings by Barbara Robinson.

I remember my third-grade teacher reading aloud a novel every day. I don’t quite remember the particular books, but I remember feeling warm, safe, and relaxed when she read them. It was a welcome break in the busy school day. 

I remember my own mom, who worked at my school, being a guest reader one day. She read a scary book for Halloween and the way she made the description of the squeaky floorboards come alive made all of us scared straight.

Teachers are Like Actors Putting on a Show

Teachers have a way of awakening reading in students. They are like actors, putting on a show of the author’s words to make the book jump off the page and play like a movie in a child’s imagination. From varying vocal pitch to emphasizing details with whispers or surprising students with a scream, your class can see how exciting reading is through your voice. By turning off the lights or creating a particular ambiance on your projector, students can see how reading can be enjoyable.  

As I entered middle school as a student, the read-aloud time just stopped. Now, as a middle school teacher, I can see why. Fitting writing, grammar, vocabulary, and literature into 45-minute to even 60-minute periods is a challenge. 

When I taught elementary school, I read aloud after lunch for 15 to 20 minutes. Sometimes it would stretch into 30-45 minutes if the kids were really into a particular scene or begged for me to keep reading. As an elementary teacher who was in charge of the whole day’s schedule, it was easier to squeeze it in. 

Over the years,  I noticed the kids’ favorites were book series. The Chronicles of Narnia, A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Mysterious Benedict Society, and Guardians of Ga’Hoole were just some we went through during my seven years in elementary.

The best part was waiting for the collective gasps from my class as they would scream, “Noooo,” after stopping the book at a cliff-hanging moment, or the “Please one more chapter!” begging I would receive.

Reading Aloud Creates Community

Reading aloud creates community in a class as they collectively become attached to characters and their conflicts. It creates camaraderie and awesome conversations as I would hear students ask each other, “What do you think will happen today?” Elementary teachers know the power of a read-aloud. It creates engaged students who learn to love books! 

As a middle school teacher, it’s been challenging to find the time for this daily magical read-aloud session. I really wanted middle schoolers, who are just big kids, to also experience that same wonder, safety, and excitement that books read aloud can awaken. I’ve come up with some ways to have this time, even if it’s not the traditional approach..

1. Use the First Few Weeks to Incorporate Read-Alouds

The first few weeks back-to-school are a wonderful time to read aloud a novel or the first chapters of several novels for kids to try out. As we ease into school with teaching procedures, routines, and rules, I found I didn’t want to quite jump into diligent work yet and would use this time to read aloud a shorter novel.  Sometimes, I would read excerpts from several novels over those first two weeks. I would then read the backs of the books and display them on my shelf or whiteboard for students to pick up if they liked what they heard. 

Reading aloud the first few weeks helps ease students into the new school year without overwhelming them. Utilizing ten to fifteen minutes of classroom instruction to just read helps to not overwhelm students with industrious work. I find this is especially helpful for those sixth graders who are completely new to the ins and outs of middle school.

Jason Reynolds reads a short excerpt from Ghost

Some shorter novels I’ve completed for read-aloud those first few weeks are Ghost by Jason Reynolds, Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick, and The Song of a Whale by Lynn Kelly. 

Lynne Kelly discusses her novel, Song for a Whale.

2. Listening to Read-Alouds IS Reading

During our English periods, when we are completing a novel study, students read with partners, independently, or as a whole group with me as the guide. Sometimes, I would tell students to not get out their novels at all. I would pass out a coloring sheet, and I would read aloud the chapter that day. 

Listening to reading IS reading and students love it. The first time I do this during the year, students frequently ask for it afterward. This is a wonderful time to hear words being read fluidly and with lots of expressions. I find the times after I read aloud a chapter, the students gain even more interest and excitement in our novel as we continue through the rest of the book. 

3. First-Chapter Friday Doesn’t Work, Try Wordy Wednesday

First-chapter Friday is a huge buzzword in education right now. The teacher reads the first chapter of a different book every Friday to end the week. Students respond to that chapter with writing or by filling out an organizer. It’s an awesome way for students to try out novels that they may want to read independently. I found that Friday was always a hard day for me to implement First-chapter reading as we had vocabulary and spelling quizzes on those days. 

So, I came up with Wordy Wednesday in which I would read an excerpt from a book or a first chapter aloud. Sometimes the excerpts would even correlate to what we were reading in class. For instance, while reading The Diary of Anne Frank, our Wordy Wednesdays would consist of me reading aloud excerpts from Night by Elie Wiesel. During Hispanic Heritage Month in October, I read aloud excerpts from House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. Wordy Wednesday or First-Chapter Friday can correspond to a Heritage month of some sort, be related to what you’re already reading, or even have nothing to do with what you’re reading in class already. The power is in the magic of words being read aloud.

4. Begin Class by Utilizing a Read-Aloud

At the beginning of class, some teachers have students complete bell-ringers, grammar work, or a writing assignment. I’ve done all three! Another neat way to start class is by utilizing a read-aloud, even for five minutes. The times I have done this make for a peaceful class. They are actively listening (or at least I hope they are!) during that time and they quiet themselves before class begins. It’s an excellent calming strategy. Sometimes this doesn’t work for particular class dynamics. Maybe you have a class that loves to chat and needs to do that for those first five minutes, but try completing a read-aloud once a week to start class. It would be something different and interesting for your students.

In the same way, you can end class with five minutes of reading aloud. It’s a great way to wrap up English class and send your students out who even may be discussing that book as they exit your room and bombard the hallways.

5. Teaches Students How to Read for Deeper Understanding

Here is a “novel” idea. (See what I did there?) Reading aloud a book can be a whole class period. Wait…what? Yes. Reading aloud hits so many standards for students. From fluency to stopping for metacognition moments such as having the teacher say aloud what they’re thinking as they read, guides students on how to question and interact with their reading. As you’re reading aloud to students, taking the time to pause to discuss unknown vocabulary, hard moments, and model questioning, wonderings, and clarifications can teach students how to read for deeper understanding.

Even More Activities for Read-Aloud Books in Middle School

Purposely engaging with the reading

Print off a page from your read-aloud novel. Then show your students how to annotate along with you. This helps to teach reading for understanding. Pausing to discuss alliteration or similes, or even the teacher writing on the board the particular sensory words used can enforce literary devices and writing techniques. Purposely engaging with the reading creates a whole class devoted to a read-aloud. 

Complete black-out poetry

Students can complete black-out poetry on a printed-out page of the read-aloud novel. Students can also journal about what they’ve read that day.

The awesome part about devoting more time to reading aloud is having those deep discussions that maybe would not have happened. Middle schoolers go through a lot of changes in their lives and are exposed to so much that they need time and space to process these issues.

Read-aloud novels are a safe way to elicit tough conversations

Read-aloud novels are a safe way to elicit tough conversations about topics our students are struggling with. Such topics range from bullying to divorce, from being offered drugs to academic and social pressures. Read-aloud books create the climate for these conversions. Students feel more connected to each other as they experience books together. This connectedness creates safety for these types of discussions. 

A read-aloud can take up a whole class period. There are numerous gains and so much enjoyment to come from it. 

Conclusion

There is power in utilizing read-aloud books in middle school. Creating community, connection, and safety benefits students, as well as teaching them important ELA standards. Finding ways to incorporate read-aloud time in your classroom will aid in so much. Read-aloud books hold power, magic, and excitement. It teaches students that books can be enjoyable and reading can be remarkable. 

If you would like to read more about books for middle school, please visit our blog post, 5 Picture Books to Read and Use in the Middle School Classroom.

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Summertime Descriptive Essay for Students

A Southern Summer

When I think back to my childhood summers, I think of magic. I grew up in North Carolina where it was sweltering and sticky, and the humidity was so thick you couldn’t breathe. Now that I’m a Pennsylvanian, I don’t know how I ever survived those fiery summers, but I did have a whole lot of fun doing so. From chasing fireflies barefoot to fishing in the cattail-lined backyard pond, from the joys of riding my purple bike through my yard to wading in a cheap blue kiddie pool filled with the dirt from my feet, I spent the majority of my childhood summers outdoors. 

I had barn kittens to play with and white and yellow chickens to feed. There were tall wildflowers to plant and cold vanilla ice cream with Hershey’s chocolate syrup to taste. I had fresh cucumbers and big ripe tomatoes for lunch. In addition, I had my mother’s cold sugary sweet tea to quench my thirst from playing basketball outside and big box fans in the windows to cool down my bedroom while the white frilly curtains billowed. 

One of my favorite summertime memories is simply reading outside. I have loved to read since first grade, and I devoured books like a kitten laps up milk. I would park myself under a large shade tree. With Niagara Falls-like sweat pouring off my forehead, I would get lost in the world of Matilda, Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Boxcar Children, and Nancy Drew. I’d undoubtedly come inside after a little while. Always eaten alive by mosquitos, and wanting some cherry Kool-Aid or iced sweet tea, and retreat to my lavender-painted bedroom. I feel like my love for reading was solidified in those summertime lazy and hypnotic days when I had the time to stretch out, not worry about anything else, and just enjoy a good book. 

Summertime meant my teacher-mother was free from school too. It meant freedom for all of us. No early 6 am wake-ups. No rushing around in the evening to do homework, no late after-school meetings and activities, and no stress. I think that’s why teachers and students alike love summer. It’s such a stark contrast to the endless busyness, task-filled long, exhausting days that fill up ten months of our lives. Being in school as a student and now as a teacher, is all-consuming. Summertime is the antithesis. It’s a time to do whatever we want. Perhaps, tackling the to-do list we can’t get to normally. It may be taking a nap, soaking in the pool, or enjoying an iced caramel coffee on the porch…summertime is pure freedom.

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Summertime Descriptive Essay Assignment

During the last couple of weeks, I had my students write their own summertime essays. They chose from a variety of prompts, similar to the one above. They had to utilize adjectives, sensory words, personification, similes, and metaphors.

Here is the assignment I gave them. Download it yourself! It contains the assignment sheet, a peer editing checklist, and a rubric. I read my own summertime essay to students. They needed to see what kind of descriptive writing I was looking for.

Hang in there! If you’re still in school, have a coffee on your porch this evening and dream about how close the end of school is. 

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