Middle Grade Fantasy

For many around the country, schools are coming to a close, teachers are packing up their classrooms, and custodial and maintenance staff are prepping for a long hot summer. In my area, schools are in session until about mid to late June. That means for my school, it’s our Fantasy Unit time. The current 5th graders that I teach love this unit, including the few students who have never read fantasy. Personally, I’m a sucker for a good intermediate or young adult fantasy novel.

This year the students are in book clubs, currently reading Things Not Seen, by Andrew Clements; Inkheart by Caroline Funke; Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine; The Girl Who Could Fly, by Victoria Forester; and more. These are all great books illustrating that there are many types of fantasy stories available for the intermediate reader. For example Inkheart is a more complex fantasy with multiple settings, story lines and numerous characters. It’s a lengthy novel, with over 500 pages and each chapter is also quite long. This is the kind of novel for a reader who can derive meaning from a complex plot filled with unique characters and who has the reading stamina to face the bulky chapters. On the other hand, Andrew Clements’ novel, Things not Seen is a good choice for someone new to fantasy reading. Generally, speaking there is a smaller number of characters and the plot is rather straight forward. In addition the elements of fantasy included in the novel are easy to keep track of.

I think I love fantasy stories so much because anything can happen in them… that is where magic lives. Below is a list of some of my favorite titles for upper elementary/middle students. I’ve categorized them as such not because of their readability, but more because of their content.

Elementary/Middle School Fantasy Recommendations:

πŸ§šβ€β™€οΈThe Percy Jackson series: This is fantasy/mythological. A great series for any student who loves fantasy and is particularly interested in mythology.

πŸ§šβ€β™€οΈThe Harry Potter series: My favorite and classic fantasy with magic, witches, and wizards. The series is seven novels long and requires readers to hold meaning across all seven books, as elements from the last book link back to the first in the series. This leads to a lot of “aha” moments.

πŸ§šβ€β™€οΈ The Ember series, by Jeanne DePrau: Some say fantasy, some say Sci-fi, either way this is a great entry level fantasy for those who want to get their feet wet.

πŸ§šβ€β™€οΈ Fablehaven series by Brandon: Play while at 1st glance the fable haven series may appear to be a book for older readers in terms of fantasy fable haven is also a good introduction to the genre. Some may call this a low fantasy novel because it takes place within a magical world inside of our own the characters are generally young young people along with the fantasy characters. Again, I think fablehaven is a good place to start for someone who wants to learn more about the genre and enjoy it without having to keep track of so many characters so many magical elements and complexity of plot structure.

πŸ§šβ€β™€οΈ Redwall series, by Jacques The red wall series, on the other hand, can be described in the opposit way that I described fable haven. Red wall could be called high fantasy. It’s the epitome a fantasy in that there are talking animals magic excitement and the story takes place in another world in a magical place. The Redwall books are epic, complex, highly descriptive, and a real treat for the experienced fantasy reader.

πŸ§šβ€β™€οΈThe Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien: in my opinion most of the time books should remain books and movies should be made from screen plays strictly written for the movies. That is the case with The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien is an amazing writer who creates vivid fantasy worlds and writes them so that you feel like you’ve lived there all your life. His stories have action, adventure, and fantasy rolled into one. For the experienced fantasy reader The Lord of the Rings will deliver.

Other titles you might want to explore include:

Tuck everlasting, Aragon, the girl who drank the moon, the alchymist, the graveyard book Mrs. Peregrine’s home for peculiar children, the series of unfortunate events And the Warrior series.

While this isn’t an exhaustive list of fantasy novels for upper elementary and middle school readers, it is definitely a good place to start. Keep in mind, many of these books can be read as read-alouds with younger readers who aren’t quite ready to read them independently.

Happy reading to you and your students.

Tips for Parent Teacher Conferences

It’s getting to be that time a year when parent teacher conferences come around. Sometimes they’re quite easy and sometimes they are more difficult. Perhaps students have been struggling, or maybe parents or students are nervous about the transition into the next grade, or perhaps there’s been some friction. In any case, here are some tips that you can use for any parent teacher conference.

Be. Prepared. It’s a simple idea, but it should never be skipped. As teachers, we plan and prepare for almost everything we do. For me, being prepared means that I have all the student work, assessments, etc. that I want show the parents. I have notes for each student so I don’t miss anything that I want tell parents. I have pen and paper for parents in case they want to take some notes of their own. After teaching for 20 years I still rehearse, lol . even just quickly, each of my conferences in my head: where I’m going to greet them, where each parent is going to sit, and how I’m going to start the conversation. Finally, before the first conference, I start my diffuser and diffuse something that fits the mood. This year I think I’m going to use something uplifing like wild orange.

Anticipate Questions. Just like during a well-planned lesson we always try to anticipate the questions that students are going ask, try to anticipate the questions that parents are going to ask and then have my answers ready. In my case, parents ask about the transition to middle school, what can the student work on over the summer, and they ask if I think their student should have a summer tutor.

Stay on Time. In my district we only have 15 minutes for each conference and I’ve learned that it is very difficult to have a parent-teacher conference in 15 minutes. I developed the habit of having a timer to help us stay on time and posting my schedule outside the door. At first, I felt like the timer seemed rude, but I set it for two minutes before the end of each conference. When it goes off, I let the parents know that I’m more than happy to meet again at another time. Parents appreciate the respect that you have for their schedules as well, especially when they have back-to-conferences for several children.

Keep the Meeting Positive. I have always believed that I am not in this alone. Parents want to know that you are interested in what is best for their child, even when your methods don’t match with theirs. Keep your tone and choice of words positive and growth oriented. Ask the parents for their input…They are the experts on their children even if you are the expert on education.

Report What You Can Support. I have always been a big believer in supporting what I say to parents. I veer away from personal judgements and communicate with them about observations, performance, work samples, grades, etc, without drawing all encompassing conclusions. I try to name the behavior rather than labeling the student. For example, if a student stops doing homework, I will let the parents know just that fact rather than adding to with general judgements like ‘he’s going to struggle next year’.

Avoid Teacher Talk. I sometimes forget that just because I’m speaking with an adult (thank goodness) they don’t necessarily understand all of the jargon we use. During parent teacher conferences, use layman’s terms to explain what’s going on with their child.

Listen. Finally, this isn’t all about what you have to say. Be a good listener. Ask the parents questions that will help you improve how you teach their child.

While this is not an exhaustive list, it’s been helpful for me over the years. I hope it is also helpful for you. If you have additional thoughts, please send them to me in the comments. Good luck during end of year conferences, teacher friends.

Big Hugs.

Impromptu Discussions Provide Teacher and Student Satisfaction

Yesterday, in class, my group of 5th graders had an impromptu discussion about survival, mostly brought on by our recent storms resulting in “long-term” loss of electricity for many of them. “Long-term” for these youngsters is anything that interferes with their wi-fi connection or ability to charge their devices or play on their gaming systems. Much of my class was without electricity for a week or better. Fortunately, I teach in an area where generators are aplenty.

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One of my students mentioned survival and phone in the same sentence and that led to a whole new discussion. What is the difference between surviving and living? I’d guess that some people think they are one in the same, and much of the class did too until we started to define our terms a little more. We decided that Survive meant a living, breathing, thinking person. Living, on the other hand, involved deriving some form of enjoyment out of life.

With that under our belts, we had a brainstorming discussion, during which students threw out ideas and soon they began to categorize their thoughts. Students felt that to survive meant that they simply needed basic food, water, shelter of some kind, and some heat (depending). To live meant something completely different. Students believed that to live they would need those things to survive, but they would also need proper medical care (they said medicine), love and attention, they’re devices (several said books), a job in order to have many of those things. They admitted that “those things” did not have to be the newest, best, or most, but they did see that they needed a job in order to supply the things that made a difference between surviving and living.

It’s not always the curriculum that leaves me satisfied at the end f the day. In fact, it’s rarely the curriculum. It’s often the moments between the curriculum, the ad hoc discussions, the quick exchanges beside the desk. That’s when I feel the most satisfaction about the impact I have on students.