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    Putting Books to Work: Fish in a Tree

    by Laren Hammonds
     | Oct 13, 2015

    Fish in a Tree. Lynda Mullaly Hunt. 2015. Penguin.

    Note: Fish in a Tree is the 2015 Global Read Aloud selection.

    Grades: 4–6


    Fish in a Tree“Seven schools in seven years, and they’re all the same.”

    Sixth grader Ally works very hard to keep a secret, even landing herself in the principal’s office repeatedly rather than explaining what she’d rather hide. At the start of the novel, Ally doesn’t know that she has dyslexia. All she knows is that letters dance on the page, dark words on white paper make her head ache, and even a simple homework assignment takes hours to complete. Certain that no one can help her, Ally remains silent about her struggle and believes the words she hears from her classmates: “Freak. Dumb. Loser.”    

    When Ally’s teacher Mrs. Hall goes on maternity leave, Mr. Daniels steps in. Dubbing his students “Fantasticos,” Mr. Daniels soon demonstrates his knack for seeing each student’s unique gifts. Though the road is sometimes rocky, Ally begins to trust her new teacher and his offer of help.

    Mr. Daniels shows Ally that she has value in their classroom community, and her confidence increases. Armed with skills to begin coping with her dyslexia, and joined by friends Keisha and Albert, Ally learns that she can not only survive sixth grade but also thrive as she starts to find happiness and “a special Ally-shaped place in the world.”

    Cross-Curricular Connections

    English/language arts, social studies/history, science

    Ideas for Classroom Use

    “My very educated mother just served us nachos.”

    Many of us grew up learning the planets via a mother who served “nine pizzas,” not “nachos.” Pluto may no longer be a planet, but the recent New Horizons fly-by has proven that—like Ally—it may be different but it certainly not less than. Explore this rockstar dwarf planet to gain insight into the fascinating diversity that exists within our solar system.

    “And remember: Great minds don’t think alike.”

    Walt Disney, Albert Einstein, Jennifer Aniston, Henry Ford, Leonardo Da Vinci, Whoopi Goldberg. Mr. Daniels discusses these figures from history with his students and reveals to them that many believed that they had dyslexia. Research the contributions of these and other great minds who thought differently.

    “How are things? More silver dollar days or wooden nickels?”

    Analyze the use of symbols, comparisons, and allusions. Coins play an important role in Ally’s thinking about each day and connect her to both her brother and grandfather. Alice in Wonderland references abound, and Ally uses frequent “like” comparisons to describe her state of mind. Trace these writer’s moves and their effects throughout the novel.

    “...open up those notebooks now and add your first entry. And make it… you.”

    Mr. Daniels offers his Fantasticos a safe space to write with very few rules and requirements, and these journals also serve as a way for him to communicate with and support his students. Get students started with their own journal writing (or blogging) with some of the following prompts:

    • “Everyone has their own blocks to drag around. And they all feel heavy.”
    • Different isn’t necessarily better or worse.
    • Great minds don’t think alike.
    • What’s your passion? What are your strengths?
    • Albert sees Ally. Who sees you?

    “I see a mind movie of me…”

    We experience this story from Ally’s point of view, with insights into her thoughts, understanding of what she conceals from others, and glimpses at the mind movies that play out in her head. Explore how the story might change if the point of view shifts. Rewrite a scene from another character’s perspective to see how things play out from Keisha’s, Albert’s, Mr. Daniels’s, or even Shay’s point of view.

    Additional Resources and Activities

    Lynda Mullally Hunt’s Official Webpage: The site includes an author bio in addition to an excerpt from Fish in a Tree and information about author Skype sessions and visits.

    The Global Read Aloud Website: “One book to connect the world.” The Global Read Aloud aims to connect students all over the world through the common ground of a shared text, and Fish in a Tree is one of this year’s selections. Platforms for connection include Twitter, Skype, Google Hangouts, Kidblog, Edmodo, and TodaysMeet. Visit the site to learn more about Global Read Aloud activities, and use the Connections Wanted form to find other teachers and classes with whom to connect.

    Overcoming Dyslexia, Finding Passion: Piper Otterbein at TEDxYouth: Like the novel’s main character, Piper Otterbein struggled in elementary school and was diagnosed with dyslexia in middle school. Desiring to move past her frustrations and struggles, Piper focused instead on her strengths, including the arts.

    Thrively: Every student has unique strengths and passions. Online tool Thrively can help students (and us) discover what those strengths and passions are and offer ideas for helping them to thrive. The site’s Strength Assessment is particularly helpful, and the resulting Strength Profile offers guidance for unlocking each child’s potential.

    Laren Hammonds has been a classroom teacher since 2004, working with students in grades 7–12. She currently spends her workdays with eighth graders at Rock Quarry Middle School in Tuscaloosa, AL, and every other moment reading books and seeking out adventures with her preschool son Matthew and husband Erik. A two-time graduate of the University of Alabama, she holds a master’s degree in instructional technology and is currently pursuing National Board Certification. Her professional interests include the intersection of video games and literacy, cross-curricular collaboration in secondary schools, preservice teacher support, and the impact of classroom design on student learning. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.  

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  • El Deafo is a graphic novel with heart. Aimee Rogers breaks down classroom activities to use with the book.
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    Putting Books to Work: El Deafo

    by Aimee Rogers
     | Mar 17, 2015

    Bell, Cece. (2014). El Deafo. New York, NY: Amulet.

    Ages: 9–14


    El Deafo is the 2015 Newbery Honor–winning graphic memoir of author and illustrator Cece Bell. As a result of a case of meningitis at the age of 4, Bell lost most of her hearing. She describes herself as “severely to profoundly deaf.” Although Bell is true to her memories of her childhood in El Deafo, she presents herself and all of the other characters as rabbits. This artistic choice works perfectly in El Deafo.

    As a result of her hearing loss, Bell must wear hearing aids at home and a device called the Phonic Ear at school. Much of El Deafo focuses on how Bell feels like she sticks out. But she discovers that her Phonic Ear gives her “superpowers” in that she is able to hear her teacher not only in the classroom, but also when the teacher is anywhere else in the school. This brings sometimes hilarious results, as Bell can her hear teacher in the teachers’ lounge and even in the bathroom! Bell quickly embraces this ability and christens herself El Deafo, the superhero.

    In addition to the challenges of growing up while feeling different, El Deafo explores other common challenges of growing up. The book follows El Deafo through fifth grade. We experience, with Bell, the struggle to make friends, the loss of friends, trying to find the right friend, and the work it takes to keep that friend. We watch her blush as she develops her first crush, Mike Miller, and stammers to put together coherent sentences in his presence. We feel Bell’s frustration with the people who treat her differently—the ones who talk too slow or too loud and even those who treat her like a baby.

    Cross-Curricular Connections: English, social studies/history, art, health/character education

    Ideas for Classroom Use

    “Our differences are our superpowers.”

    In her author’s note, Bell states, “Our differences are our superpowers.” What does she mean by this? How do differences equate to superpowers? If this statement is true, what are some of the superpowers in your classroom? What is something that makes you different? How is this your superpower?

    The Connection to Animals

    It is not uncommon for characters in books to be animals, nor is it uncommon for people to be represented by animals. Have students explore this connection to animals in an essay or a poster. Why do people feel so connected to animals? Why use animals to represent people? To make this activity more focused on El Deafo, why do you think that Bell selected rabbits? Is there a symbolism in Bell’s use of rabbits?

    Animal Counterpart

    If you had to represent yourself as an animal, which animal would it be and why? Draw a picture of yourself as this animal. If you had to represent the entire human race as an animal, which animal would you select and why?


    If you could pick any superpower, what would you pick and why? How would you use this superpower? Bell calls herself “El Deafo” and has designed a costume for herself. What would be your superhero name? Design a costume for yourself.

    Additional Resources and Activities

    Author Cece Bell Talks About Her New Book, El Deafo: In this 3-minute video, Bell provides an introduction to El Deafo. She also shows the Phonic Ear, which is what gave her the “superpower” of hearing her teacher everywhere she was in the school.

    El Deafo: How a Girl Turned Her Disability Into a Superpower: This NPR article and interview goes into further detail about El Deafo and Bell’s experiences as a child.

    El Deafo Extras: What Did El Deafo First Look Like?: This is a blog post from Bell’s website. In the post, Bell discusses that she didn’t have any experience writing a graphic novel prior to writing and illustrating El Deafo. She includes some of her initial pages from Chapter 4. An interesting activity would be to compare these initial versions of Chapter 4 to the final versions in the published El Deafo. Students could discuss the changes, identify those they found most effective, and talk about which version they prefer.

    The rest of Bell’s blog is worth checking out as well, especially El Deafo Extras: From Outline to Finished Product: This is another blog post in which Bell takes readers through the process of developing Chapter 15 from her first outlines to her sketches to the final product.

    Aimee Rogers is an assistant professor at the University of North Dakota. She is a member of the reading faculty and teaches children’s literature courses. Her research interests include how readers make meaning with graphic novels as well as representation in children’s and young adult literature. She can be reached at aimee.rogers@UND.edu.

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    Putting Books to Work: I'm My Own Dog

    by Kathy Prater
     | Feb 23, 2015

    I'm My Own Dog (Candlewick Press, 2014) 
    Written by David Ezra Stein
    Pre-K through Grade 6 

    I’m My Own Dog” is a playful introduction to both the world of having a best friend and the world of irony. The story begins with a pup that can do everything himself. He can throw his own stick, scratch himself, lick himself in the mirror and tell himself that he is good. All of these things are good and wonderful until he finds that spot, right in the middle of his back, where his scratching will not reach.  The dog decides he will train a human to do the scratching for him. He also trains the human to throw the stick, cleans up after him, and complains about his incessant yapping. Stein uses a reverse story to show the connection between man and dog as best friends.

    The illustrations add an enlightening character to the story.

    Cross-Curricular Connections: Art, Social Studies, English, Math

    Ideas for Classroom Use

    By Myself I Can…
    This activity fosters a discussion about working alone and working with a friend. After reading, I’m My Own Dog, ask students what things they can do alone. Then brainstorm with a T-chart to figure out an activity that match these but would be more fun with a friend. For example, I can swing by myself but I can swinger higher with a friend to push me.

    Have students illustrate a friendship poster to be placed the common areas of the school to encourage other students to think about friendship as well.

    Cooperation Races
    This activity evaluates how working as a team can make activities go faster—or not. Using some of the ideas in the “By Myself” activity of things that can be done either as a single person or a team, have students complete an activity independently and record how long it took. For example, have a student build a block tower with 20 blocks. (Depending on the age of the students, they can record their own times, or the teacher can.) Have the students use the same number of blocks with two builders. Time and record. Compare the times to see how much faster or slower the team works. Try different combinations of groups and or block numbers to see which works the best (has the fast completion rate for the most blocks). Graph all numbers and see how changing the number of people or blocks affected the resulting time.

    Discuss the way working together can be beneficial or can hurt. Have students talk about ways the team could have gotten even faster with communication and cooperation. Switch partners and see if the time increases or decreases. Close the activity by discussing finding friends who are the best fit because they can help us to do better.

    Ironic Stories
    This activity encourages students to begin or extend their knowledge of irony. Most children at a young age can understand the irony in hyperboles and sarcasm. Before reading I’m My Own Dog, talk about examples of how something should be a certain way but people get confused. Amelia Bedelia would offer a quick look at the world of irony. Talk about exaggeration and saying the opposite of what is meant. Ask students to watch for examples of something happening that is not typically expected while reading the story. After reading, ask students to explain how the story uses irony to show that some things are better with friends.

    As a closing activity, have students work independently or in small groups to create an example of irony. Have students illustrate an ironic phrase or event, such as a polar bear who likes the beach or a penguin that is allergic to ice cubes. For young students, this illustration can be done as a group with a teacher to facilitate and scribe as the children dictate. Have students read their story or phrase without showing the illustration and see if classmates can identify the irony. Show the illustrations to determine if the irony was found in each idea.

    Additional Resources and Activities

    Get Close to Think Deeply!
    This strategy guide and video helps to guide teachers through the task of exploring complex text at a young age. The guide uses Amelia Bedelia stories to help explain how words do not always mean what a person thinks. The presenter leads students through a 4 part plan of dissecting the text and the meanings.

    Online Graphing
    This page allows teachers and students to edit and enter values to create a line graph. All data is customizable and printable. The site also gives links to other types of graphs.

    Doodle Splash
    This link from Read*Write*Think is an interactive tool that lets students create doodles online and add text to the sides explaining the doodle. This tool can be used in the Ironic Stories as an option for illustrating and writing the stories.

    Kathy Prater is a reading specialist working with students with dyslexia, and a full time pre-kindergarten teacher at Starkville Academy in Starkville, MS. Her passions include reading, writing, tending her flock of chickens, and helping students at all levels to find motivation for lifelong reading and learning. She believes every child can become a successful reader if given the right tools and encouragement.

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  • The Civil Rights Movement is a treasure trove for work in the classroom.

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    Putting Books to Work: New Takes on the Civil Rights Movement

    by Judith A. Hayn, Karina R. Clemmons, and Heather A. Olvey
     | Jan 14, 2015

    Just when we, as a society, begin to think we are making headway with social justice and tolerance, we are reminded of how much more there is to do. Young adult authors take this challenge seriously and continue writing thought-provoking fiction and nonfiction to offer contemporary adolescents a view of past struggles. The National Book Awards provided the impetus for this project when the 2014 Longlist for Young People’s Literature included Steve Sheinkin’s The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights and Deborah Wiles’ Revolution: The Sixties Trilogy, Book Two while Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming won the award. We wondered what choices teachers have from recently published works to help them blend civil rights into literacy instruction. Here are the texts and ideas we came up with.

    Stella by Starlight (Simon & Schuster, 2015)
    by Sharon M. Draper
    Ages 9-12  
    Historical Fiction

    Young Stella chronicles her dreams of reading in a library, improving her writing, and living in an equitable world when she sneaks out of the house to write in her journal under the starlight. For a young African-American girl in rural, segregated South Carolina in 1932, these simple dreams sometimes seemed out of reach. Stella chronicles experiences and challenges of growing up, racism, and prejudice. She is profoundly impacted by her community’s encounters with the Ku Klux Klan and segregated classrooms that only receiv out-of-date worn books the white schools no longer want. In Stella by Starlight, Stella’s indomitable spirit and optimism shine through, taking the reader beyond challenges to a place of hope.

    Teaching Ideas

    Discussion: When Stella’s father asks her to come with him on the day he goes to vote in the presidential election, he indicates that Stella is his “standing stone.” What does her father mean by this reference? What does his reference indicate about Stella’s character and about her relationship with her father? What does her father’s reference to the need for a “standing stone” indicate about the situation he is likely to encounter as he goes to vote?

    Writing project: Direct students to consider supportive people in their own lives. Identify one of those people they would consider a “standing stone.” Have students write several specific reasons why they consider that person a standing stone. Direct students to include a detailed narrative about a situation in which the selected person offered support and gave strength through a difficult situation. If a student feels as though s/he does not have a person to depend on, have the student write some of the qualities s/he would look for in a standing stone. All students should then write about how they can be a standing stone for another person in a difficult situation.

    The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights (Roaring Brook Press, 2014)
    by Steve Sheinkin
    Ages 10-14

    The story of 50 courageous men who stood on the frontline of the civil rights movement is chronicled in The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights. Only the African-American service members in the highly segregated U.S. Navy during World War II were required to load deadly ammunition and live bombs onto cramped ships at the Port Chicago base. After a deadly explosion that killed 320 servicemen and injured many more, the African American sailors demanded safer working conditions before they would load the ships with explosives again. The Navy classified this resistance as mutiny, and threatened the African-American sailors with death by firing squad if they did not comply with orders. Some of the men backed down, but 50 did not. This historical narrative recounts the painful Port Chicago disaster and ensuing controversial court-martial of 50 African American service members after the incident. The book is built on painstaking research of the facts, and is made richer still with the narrative of many of the men who experienced the incident. Images of original photos and documents throughout the book make this non-fiction text extraordinarily insightful and approachable for adolescent readers.

    Teaching Ideas:

    The epilogue offers an excerpt from the Navy’s official 1994 report of the Port Chicago incident stated although racial discrimination was institutionalized by segregated working and living conditions, “…racial prejudice and discrimination played no part in the court-martial convictions or sentences, and that there was nothing unfair or unjust in the final outcome of any of the Port Chicago court-martials.” Instruct students to consider the following question: Do you agree or disagree with this statement, and why? As students write their answers, they should include at least five references to evidence in the text to support their opinion. This writing activity could be used as an informal planning session to organize for a thoughtful classroom debate or as a planning activity prior to writing an essay after reading The Port Chicago 50.

    Ask students to research a contemporary issue that involves civil rights issues. Each student will then compose a persuasive letter to a newspaper editorial page or blog like The Huffington Post stating a stance on the issue. The op-ed piece must be supported by the research.

    Brown Girl Dreaming (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014)
    by Jacqueline Woodson
    Ages 10+
    Non-Fiction Novel-in-Verse

    Jacqueline Woodson does not disappoint in her National Book Award-winning novel-in-verse Brown Girl Dreaming. She eloquently weaves a story of how who she was has made her into the woman she is today. Memories paint a picture of what her family means to her as well as her idea of home, which while it changes its physical location several times, stays the same in her heart. Through Woodson’s words we can see a child’s understanding of history as she moves from Ohio where being colored does not define her, to South Carolina where she must quickly learn to sit at the back of the bus and refrain from making eye contact with white people during the Civil Rights movement. Adolescent readers will benefit not only from the historical context in which the book is set, but also by the author’s examination of home, family, freedom, and sense of self. Teens are on a journey of self-discovery, and this novel poetically shows them someone else’s moments of impact as well as their effects.

    Teaching Ideas

    Free verse is a form that allows more freedom than other types of writing, so it is hopefully one that adolescents will be comfortable using. The last two poems, “what i believe,” and “each world” sum up what Woodson has learned through the parts of her life that she shared with us in the novel. Students could be asked to produce a free verse poem that sums up what they believe after they are guided through the process of examining important things in their lives. As the students read the novel, have them journal on certain selected poems from the book making sure that it is a reflection on their own lives. For example, “other people’s memory” on page 17 would require them to talk to different members of their family about their birth and construct their own story of their birth to tell. In “as a child, I smelled the air” on page 95, students would have to examine sights, smells, and sounds of important places in their lives. Page 131 offers a poem entitled “sometimes, no words are needed,” which would guide students to think about such a moment in their own lives. Woodson demonstrates how she modeled a poem off of a Langston Hughes poem in “learning from langston” on page 245. Instruct students to pick one of their favorite poems and following the style of that poet, write their own stanza about the same subject from their own perspective. As their assessment for this unit, have them write their own free verse poem about what they currently believe about themselves and life.

    The Fog Machine (Lucky Sky Press, 2014)
    by Susan Follett
    General Audience
    Historical Fiction

    Joan from Follett’s The Fog Machine examines a bookcase in one of the freedom summer schools that was set up in Mississippi in 1964. “Reading would be no fun at all, she thought, if you couldn’t imagine yourself into the story.” Follett manages in this beautiful tale to not only pull readers in and imagine themselves in the story, but she also forces them to question how they would behave during interactions that occur throughout the novel. The Fog Machine is a poignant tale of a search for equality and justice by different people during the time of the Civil Rights movement. Told from the points of view of C.J. who is a colored girl of 12 years old at the beginning of the novel, as well as sometimes from Joan, the little white girl that C.J. cared for at one point in her life, and Zach, a white boy C.J.’s age who impacts her in ways she could never have predicted, we see the varying perspectives of both races during the tumultuous times in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. We watch the characters grow up separately and interact with people that will help them to shape their own beliefs of what is right and how people should be treated. All of them will be forced to leave their comfort zones as they ultimately decide how hard they are willing to fight for freedom and whether or not the price is worth it. Lives separate and then intersect again throughout the novel leaving the reader with a sense of connectedness between the characters that the time in which they live attempts to destroy. It is a realistic story that breaks the reader’s heart at times with its truth, leaving one to ponder how things could have turned out differently for the characters at a later time in history.

    Teaching Ideas

    There is a historic timeline in the front of the book that is helpful for students to cross-reference events as they happen in the story, but also serves as a topic list for potential group projects. Have students pick an event from the list and ask them to research more about that particular topic. Students can have control over how they present the information they learn to the class, but they must be sure to also reference how the characters in the book felt, or what they did in reaction to the event or topic that the group has researched. They must also individually write a reflection on how they personally feel about the event or person now, and what they imagine they would have done if they were living in those times. As groups present their topics, all students should take notes so that at the end of the presentations each individual will turn in a completed timeline of events that were discussed, with three main points about each thing included.

    The Freedom Summer Murders (Scholastic, 2014)
    by Don Mitchell
    Ages 14+

    Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney, and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner were household names in Freedom Summer 1964 because of their gruesome deaths that were covered up by law enforcement in Neshoba County, Mississippi. The Freedom Summer Murders is a non-fiction look at these three gentlemen; who they were and what they stood for, as well as the story of their brutal murders followed by a look at the investigation into first finding their bodies, and then attempting to prosecute the guilty parties. The black and white pictures serve to enhance the story, and many highlight the racial tensions of the time. Students who read this book will come away with a better understanding of what was at stake for African Americans during this tumultuous time, as well as the risks that the freedom workers –black and white- took together in an effort to fight for civil rights. This book would work well paired with The Fog Machine, since the disappearance of these three young men was discussed in that work of fiction. There were some volunteers in that book who knew one or more of the men, and it was certainly an event that overshadowed the work of the characters during Freedom Summer.

    Teaching Ideas

    As a pre-reading activity, display a few of the pictures found in The Freedom Summer Murders without the captions on an Elmo, such as the ones on page 105, 109, and pg. 145. Instruct the students to journal about what they think is going on in these pictures. Tell them that they will see these photos again as they read the book.  As they come across each picture while reading, have them journal about each photo again now that they understand the context of the photo. Break the students into small groups and assign each group one of the pictures. Instruct them to create a t-chart of their reaction to the photo when it was taken out of context, and then their reaction as they came across it while reading and understood what was really going on in the pictures. Have each group share with the class and ask them to discuss how their reactions changed to the photos once the background on each was discovered.

    Countdown (Scholastic, 2013) and
    Revolution (Scholastic, 2014)
    by Deborah Wiles
    Ages 8-12
    Historical Fiction

    These companion texts are part of a trilogy set in the turbulent Sixties; each features a young teen girl growing up amid a tumultuous and changing world, one she often does not understand. In Countdown, Franny Chapman is 11 and living with her family near Washington, DC, in Camp Springs, Maryland, during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The threat of nuclear war is not just for world leaders, but becomes very real for Franny and her family. Her younger brother annoys her since he always behaves himself. Her older sister Jo Ellen gets caught up in mysterious, secret meetings on campus at the University of Maryland. Her dad is in the Air Force and gets calls to report to base more frequently than he should while her mother tries to hold it all together. Uncle Otts, a World War I veteran, is determined to build a bomb shelter in their front yard. Amidst this turmoil, Franny is losing her best friend and perhaps gaining a boyfriend and trying her best to grow up no matter what is going on.

    What makes both of these books remarkable, however, is Wiles’ documentary novel approach. Pop songs of the era, along with Red Scare reminders, overlay powerful images from that time period. Interspersed with the narrative are accounts of those who influenced our society. In Revolution, protest songs and poems are also embedded with the disturbing photos and memorabilia.

    In the second book, the scene shifts to Greenwood, Mississippi, and the summer of 1964. Sunny Fairchild is 12, and she and her family, along with the community, prepare for the “invaders.” Freedom Summer is coming bringing the outsiders who will try to register Negroes to vote. As the tension builds in the community, Sunny tries to cope with a new family now that her father has remarried. Annabelle, who is pregnant, her son Gillette and little sister Audrey hope to fit into Sunny’s life, but she resists with everything she has. The tie-in between the two storylines is Jo Ellen Chapman who comes to Greenwood with SNCC, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, to help register voters.

    Teaching Ideas

    Have students select a song that reflects the times they live in. Prepare a collage using the lyrics of the song along with pictures from magazines and the Internet to explain the theme of the song. Each student should write a brief explanation of how the lyrics and photos suggest the theme the student has chosen. Alternatively, students could work in pairs for a team approach.

    The author David Levithan, who used bleak photographs as the backdrop for his book Every You, Every Me (2011), advised Deborah Wiles on the juxtaposition of images and words when writing a novel. Students can create their own documentary novels by using original photographs and tying them together with a story line. Sharing can be done via PowerPoint, Prezi, and even easel paper storyboards.

    Do these work for you? Do you have your own methods of including this type of historical fiction or nonfiction? Share your stories at social@reading or on Twitter at

    Judith A. Hayn, is professor of Secondary Education at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She is a member and past chair of SIGNAL, the Special Interest Group Network on Adolescent Literature of IRA which focuses on using young adult literature in the classroom. Karina Clemmons, associate professor of Secondary Education, and students in the Masters in Secondary English Education program and Heather A. Olvey is a graduate assistant.

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  • Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins can be used in any classroom, regardless of age or faith.

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    Putting Books to Work: Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins

    by Aimee Rogers
     | Dec 17, 2014

    Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins (25th Anniversary Edition).
    Written by Eric A. Kimmel. Illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. New York: Holiday House.
    Grades: PreK – 12

    Full disclosure: I am not Jewish. My knowledge of Hanukkah is basic. In addition, I am a strong believer in the idea of avoiding the heroes and holidays approach that is often used to integrate different cultures into our classroom. However, the 25th anniversary of Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins is worthy of notice as is the book itself. The author, Eric A. Kimmel, himself remarks his stories of Hanukkah are not meant to teach about the holiday. “They’re Hanukkah tales that make no effort to teach about Hanukkah,” he has said. His assertion allowed me to feel comfortable writing about this book.

    On the first night of Hanukkah, Hershel of Ostropol is looking for a warm place to stay for the night and some delicious Hanukkah food. However, when he approaches the next village there are none of the bright lights and celebrations that he was expecting. The townspeople meet him outside to explain that the village has been tormented by goblins that don’t allow them to celebrate Hanukkah. Hershel quickly exclaims he is not afraid of goblins. The Rabbi tells him what must be done to break the curse. Hershel must spend eight nights in the village synagogu and the Hanukkah candles must be lit every night. However, on the eighth, and final night of Hanukkah, the king of the goblins himself must light the Hanukkah candles.

    Readers of Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins are treated to a description of how Hershel outwits the first three goblins. Each of the goblins is larger and fiercer than the one before and requires more to outwit. Hershel defeats each of the six goblins until the seventh night when the goblin king visits him from afar and gives him a reprieve, but warns him about his visit the following evening.

    Although it takes all his strength, Hershel is able to outsmart the goblin king as well, which is difficult as the king himself needs to light the eight Hanukkah candles. However, Kimmel, using what he knows about bullies, relies on the goblin king taking great pride in his ability to scare. Hershel asks the goblin king to light the candles so he can see him better and fully appreciate the terror. The king, unaware he is actually lighting the Hanukkah candles, complies so that he may scare Hershel more completely. Needless to say, he is quite upset when he realizes he, too, has been outsmarted by Hershel. Hershel, through his quick thinking, is able to bring Hanukkah back to the village by defeating each of the goblin visitors.

    The story of Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins originally appeared in Cricket magazine Dec. 1985 and a few color illustrations from Trina Schart Hyman accompanied it. Kimmel had had no luck trying to publish the story previous to this, but once it appeared in Cricket there was no shortage of publishers interested in the story, particularly with more illustrations by Hyman.

    In writing about Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, Kimmel reveals two interesting, but perhaps contrasting, inspirations for the story. He wrote in The Lion and the Unicorn, “My sources were not Jewish at all. The story comes from a Russian tale, ‘Ivonko, the Bear’s Son,’ in Aleksandr Afanasiev’s classic collection of Russian fairy tales.

    Kimmel also found inspiration in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. “I wasn’t interested in explaining or defending the holiday. I wanted to find its spirit. My model was Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, which ignores the religious trappings of Christmas to focus on a universal message of compassion, joy, and goodwill,” Kimmel wrote. I believe readers will agree Kimmel certainly represented the spirit of Hanukkah in Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins.

    The beauty of this book and the following activities is that they work for all ages with some slight adjustments.

    Cross-Curricular Connections: English/Language arts, art, and social studies/history

    Ideas for Classroom Use

    Goblins 4, 5, 6 and 7

    Readers of Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins are not told how Hershel outwits the fourth, fifth and sixth goblins. And no goblin visits Hershel on the seventh night of Hanukkah. In this activity, students write about the visits of one of these “missing” goblins. Make sure to remind students the goblins get fiercer and smarter as the nights progress so their story for their selected goblin should reflect this progression. This is an activity any age student can complete as the expectations of the story (and the possible accompanying illustrations) can be modified accordingly.

    Goblins as a metaphor

    In this activity, which can be modified for a wide variety of grade levels and purposes, the goblins are viewed as metaphors. The goblins in Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins can certainly be considered metaphors for Hershel’s—and our own—fears. However, the goblins could also be considered metaphors for the considerable hardships faced by those of the Jewish faith. Younger students can write about their own fears or the possible fears the goblins represent. Older students can conduct research on the many instances of persecution faced by Jews, for example the Holocaust, and compare these to the goblins faced by Hershel.


    Kimmel writes that Hershel is a luftmensch, which is “a character with no visible means of support who lives by his wits.” Children’s literature, particularly folklore, is filled with luftmensch or tricksters. In this activity, have students find other examples of luftmenschs in literature and compare them to Hershel.

    Additional Resources and Activities:

    9 Legendary Monsters of Christmas: Goblins are not the only evil creatures associated with the holiday season. This article from Mental Floss includes a short description of nine evil creatures from a variety of cultures that appear around the winter holidays. The nine creatures are: Krampus, Jolakotturinn, Frau Perchta, Belsnickel, Hans Trapp, Pere Fouettard, Zwarte Piet, Yule Lads and Gryla.

    Eric A. Kimmel’s Webpage: Kimmel’s webpage is full of resources and interesting information about him and his books. Visitors to the website can even hear Kimmel himself read some of his books. His website includes a link to an interview he did on the 25th anniversary of Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins.

    A Haunting Anniversary: ‘Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins’ Turns 25: This is a short article from Publisher’s Weekly on the 25th anniversary of Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins.

    Aimee Rogers is an assistant professor at the University of North Dakota where she is a member of the reading faculty and teaches children’s literature courses. Aimee’s research interests include how readers make meaning with graphic novels as well as representation in children’s and young adult literature. She can be reached at aimee.rogers@UND.edu.

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