Thematic Thursday: Historical Fiction

It's Thursday, so I'm linking up with Comprehension Connection for Thematic Thursday. This week, we are discussing historical fiction in the classroom.

I have to say, I always hated historical fiction. Well, except for the old Royal Diaries series from my childhood.  Besides those, I am more of a science fiction gal.

But historical fiction is starting to grow on me.  I even regularly teach a historical fiction novel in my room. Gasp!  

Historical Fiction in My Classroom:

Every third quarter, our class reads Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai.  It's a beautiful verse novel about a girl escaping Vietnam at the end of the Vietnamese War, and her subsequent settlement in the United States.  If you plan on teaching this book, make sure you check out my teaching materials for this novel in my store.  I've found that enjoying historical fiction is all about connecting with the historical time period, and I think the Vietnam War is fascinating, and not so far removed that it feels like ancient history to the kids.  During the quarter, I also have students read a historical fiction novel independently.  I always have my librarian pull the newest, best historical fiction novels, and I create a book list organized by time period to help the kids make their selection. We also, of course, read and learn about the culture of Vietnam and the history of the Vietnam War prior to reading the book.

Here are some Vietnam War era resources that pair well with the novel (or just for the era in general):
  • New York Times Photo Set - This photo set shows poignant images of the Fall of Saigon.  These photos would be great used to draw inferences from in gallery walk, as writing prompt images, or just as an anticipatory set.
  • "Panic Rises in Saigon, But Exits Are Few" - A New York Times article documenting the panic in Saigon in the last days of the war.  This a a great nonfiction connection, and I have my students compare and contrast this to Ha's experience escaping in the novel.
  •'s Vietnam War section - Tons of resources here! Of particular interest is this Fall of Saigon video clip, which is a great visual to show the panic of this event. I use it to introduce the above nonfiction article.
  • Vietnam War protest music - There are SO many protest songs from the era! The following link takes you to a small playlist of some of them, no YouTube access required.  The lyrics of Vietnam era songs could be analyzed and interpreted with a close reading.

Here of some historical fiction novels on my to-read list:


What historical fiction novels do you love, teach, or can't wait to read?

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Products That Save the Day

In honor of tomorrow's TPT "Teachers Are Heroes" sale, I'm linking up with Fifth in the Middle and to showcase products that have saved the day!

One of the most amazing things about TPT is that my resources are benefiting real students in real classroom all across the country - the world even! I recently had feedback that a teacher in the Netherlands used one of my products successfully in her classroom.  How cool is that?!

So which of my products has saved the day for teachers?  I was blessed to have my Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe 8-day Common Core Aligned Short Story Unit featured in the TPT newsletter, so it was able to reach many teachers and I am amazed by the positive feedback it received.

As a teacher who went through my undergraduate coursework as Common Core was coming into existence, I have always viewed teaching a short story through a Common Core lens.  For me, I don't believe in your basic unit of comprehension questions, vocabulary, and a comprehension test. I make my short story units cohesive, with higher-order text dependent questions, a focus on inferring and citing evidence, inferring vocabulary through context clues, and a short related research project.

 Check out how my unit has helped save the day for other teachers:

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Swing on by to Fifth in the Middle and find other products that have saved the day!

TPT Teachers Are Heroes SALE!

In case you haven't heard the news, TeachersPayTeachers will be having a one-day Teachers Are Heroes sale on Wednesday, February 25th to honor all teachers do! My entire store will be discounted by 20%, and use the code HEROES for additional savings off your entire cart. Spread the word by pinning the image featured (Thanks Tessa for the image!) on this post to Pinterest!

Movie Clip Monday - Dead Poet's Society

I love a good movie clip.  It can introduce a lesson, reinforce a concept, motivate students, or show students how their learning applies to real life.  So I've joined up with Techie Turtle Teacher's link-up to promote great movie clips to use in the classroom.

Today's movie clip is a scene from the movie Dead Poet's Society with the late and great Robin Williams where Mr. Keating introduces poetry to his class.  He has a student read from an awful prologue in their textbooks about how to judge the merit of poetry, and then promptly instructs them to tear it out.  After, he quotes Walt Whitman, which is just amazing. I found this was the perfect anticipatory set for starting a unit on poetry. I showed the clip (which the students found quite funny), and then had a quick discussion about how students think poetry is awful, and how it doesn't have to be. We also discuss our purpose for studying poetry in the class is that we want to learn to appreciate it as an art form, and do what the textbook author in the clip wanted us to do.  I found my students were a little less resistant to studying poetry (and reading our class novel, which is in verse) after seeing this clip and having a little discussion.

Below is the clip.  Unfortunately, the clip gets split and isn't shown in its entirety on YouTube (that I can find). The first video is the introduction to poetry clip, and the second is the second part where he quotes Whitman. Enjoy!

The New Middle School Novel: Part 1

We teach books for a variety of reasons - because they are sitting there in tubs in the library, because it's what the other teachers teach, because it's what we read in middle school.  And that's fine.  But there are no hard and fast rules saying we have to keep teaching certain books because of tradition.  Just because the teacher next door has been teaching Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry for twenty years doesn't mean you have to as well.

If you're bored with teaching the same novels year after year, afraid the class sets in the library aren't complex enough to meet Common Core Standards, or simply have students protesting your novel choices, you're in luck. I've got the scoop on the new middle school novels to teach.

Here are five modern middle grade / young adult fiction novels you can use next year (or right now!) to switch things up and delight your students all while meeting the complexity requirements of Common Core.

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park
Recommended Grades 5-8 - 128 pgs. - 720L

What it's about: This New York Times bestseller is a juxtaposition of two stories, told in alternating sections, about two young children living in Sudan: a girl in 2008 who walks for hours each day to fetch water for her family to survive, and a "Lost Boy" in 1985 who walks across the African continent to escape the Sudanese Civil War.

Why it's Common Core worthy: While the Lexile level is on the low end and the writing style fairly simplistic, the novel is high on qualitative measures.  It requires extensive background knowledge of the Sudanese Civil War and the issues related to it, and the dual narrative voices also adds complexity.  Makes excellent cross-curricular connections to science and social studies issues such as war, water shortages, water-borne illnesses, and immigration/refugees.

Why kids like it:  It's short, so it's not overwhelming.  Students love the two narratives and how they come together in the end. Connects very well with EL and immigrant/refugee populations.  It's also based on a true story, and kids love learning about the real person behind the character.  I have used it for two years in a row and my kids just devoured this book.

Teaching Tips: Show one of two documentaries about the Lost Boys of Sudan before starting the novel: God Grew Tired of Us or The Lost Boys of Sudan.  I have film guides for each documentary in my store! Also, check out my A Long Walk to Water novel unit on TPT!

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai
Recommended Grades 5-8 - 272 pgs. - 800L

What it's about: In this New York Times bestseller and National Book Award winner, ten-year-old Ha must flee her beloved city of Saigon as the Communists take over in the final days of the Vietnam War.  After a grueling escape via navy ship, Ha's family is sponsored to Alabama, where they must start a new life in a very strange country.  Written in verse, this beautiful coming-of-age novel chronicles one year in Ha's life, and is based on the real experiences of the author.

Why it's Common Core worthy: This novel is written in verse, making for a highly complex narrative.  There is an abundance of figurative language, symbolism, and rich imagery throughout the poems, and students must be able to see how the poems connect to tell a cohesive story.  The vocabulary is challenging due to its use of Vietnamese and cultural words, and the story connects well with cross-curricular studies of war and immigration/refugees.  Requires background knowledge of the Vietnam War.

Why kids like it: Although many students scoff at the poetry at first, they find that this novel reads extremely fast and tells a great story.  It's also perfect for EL/immigrant populations who can relate to the feeling of learning a new language and starting over in a new country.

Teaching Tip: There is a fabulous audiobook version of this novel.  I always do in-class reading with the audiobook read aloud of this novel, because I think it's important for the students to hear the poetry.  Also, the narrator correctly pronounces all the Vietnamese words, which I certainly can't do! You can find the audiobook at a local library, on iTunes or Amazon, or through a free trial subscription of Audible to play through your iPhone.  View my Inside Out & Back Again teaching products here.

Trash by Andy Mulligan
Recommended Grades 7-8 - 240 pgs. - 850L

What it's about: Raphael, Gordo, and Rat, three "dumpsite" boys survive by scavenging through trash day after day, looking for anything of value to sell.  One day, the boys come across a very mysterious and special package that the police comes looking for. Deciding to secretly keep the package, the boys are then launched into a dangerous and terrifying mystery.

Why it's Common Core worthy: The story is complex due to the weaving of the narrative from multiple first-person perspectives and the mystery that must be unraveled.  Connects well to studies of trash, waste, and environmentalism in science and impoverished areas in social studies.

Why kids like it:  Kids will love the mystery, action, and suspense of the novel and also find the idea of children living and working on a garbage dump fascinating.  They also love hearing the story come together from the perspective of multiple narrators.

Teaching Tip: The author never discloses the location of novel's setting - we only know that it is an unknown third world country. This is a great opportunity for inferring - have students log clues to the setting's location (such as geographical features, cultural words, city names) and do some research about third world countries and make an inference about where the book is located.

Note: The book is written in British English (the spelling can throw some students off if it is not discussed in advance), and if I remember correctly, I think there was maybe one inappropriate word in the book.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Recommended Grades 7-10 - 378 pgs. - 810L

What it's about: In this New York Times bestselling dystopian future, the districts of Panem must send young tributes every year to compete in The Hunger Games, a televised yearly fight to the death, as penance for a long-ago rebellion.  When Katniss Everdeen's younger sister is chosen as tribute, she volunteers in her place to represent her district in the games.  (Does anyone these days NOT know what The Hunger Games is about?!)

Why it's Common Core worthy: Symbolism abound! Almost everything, including character names, is heavily symbolic and open to interpretation.  This novel is rich with deep issues ripe for analysis and discussion: reality tv, violence on television, sacrifice, and governmental control.  Don't be turned off because it is a pop culture phenomenon - it is a deep novel just ready for literary analysis.  I tell my kids that you might have already read or watched The Hunger Games... but have you analyzed it from a literary perspective yet? Nope!

Why kids like it: It's The Hunger Games!!! Duh!! :) For my students, this was the best part of my entire class.

Teaching Tip: Before reading the novel, read the short story "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson. It pairs perfectly and sets the stage for a nice compare/contrast lesson between The Lottery and The Reaping. I also love to do an entire dystopian thematic unit, having students create their own dystopian societies in an essay, and reading dystopian fiction for their independent reading assignments.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Recommended Grades 5-7 - 315 pgs. - 790L

What it's about: All August Pullman wants is to be considered a normal kid, but since he was born with a severe facial deformity, all he seems to do is stand out. About to attend school for the first time after years of homeschool, August must learn to accept and embrace his differences and all that makes him special.  Wonder has quickly become a #1 New York Times bestseller and beloved by teachers and students across the country.

Why it's Common Core worthy: The story is told from a multitude of different perspectives that weave the narrative together and expose many different sides of the novel's characters. It contains many flashbacks and addresses significant themes that are ripe for discussion.

Why kids like it: It's an uplifting book that deals with issues of bullying, friendship, and beauty, and students will find themselves rooting for Auggie's success.  The author has a great sense of humor and students will fall in love with all the different characters.

Teaching Tip: Randomhouse has a "Choose Kind" campaign inspired by the books.  Check it out, and have your students pledge to choose kindness! This would be a great opportunity to bring in an anti-bullying and kindness service-learning project at your school.

Any successes teaching these novels? Please leave a comment! And stay tuned for The New Middle School Novel: Part 2 - Five more book suggestions for novels to teach! 

Free eBooks for Middle & High School Teachers!

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My free resource is a Common Core-aligned article analysis that can be used with ANY short nonfiction text. Print and use with a news article or leave with a sub for a stress-free sub plan.  This resource can be downloaded directly from my store.

Check out all four free eBooks by clicking on the covers below:


Thanks to Literary Sherri, Brain Waves Instruction, Lindsay Perro, and Getting Nerdy with Mel and Gerdy for their hard work in compiling the eBooks!

Jasper Roberts Consulting - Widget