Novel Study: My Experience with THE GIVER

Every year I revisit the novels I want to read with the 7th and 8th grade classes I teach. There are so many new novels out there that middle school students can relate to that cover topics that they are dealing with right now in their lives: bullying, relationships, family dysfunction (or their perception of it). All of these are legitimate in their lives, and allow for great text-to-self connections. But somehow I always gravitate back to THE GIVER by Lois Lowry.  Decades old now, but still a winner with the students once they realize how wonderful it is.

I admit, it's sometimes a hard sell as they make their way through the first few chapters. They don't get the idea of a community with so many rules and expectations. I point out to them, jokingly, that they think they have it bad in school with the rules we enforce, but the students can't seem to get past the idea that Jonas stays there. "Why doesn't he just leave?" "Why don't the people fight for more rights and choices?"  Because they can't. They don't know any better. And that in itself is a great lesson.

THE GIVER is a great kickoff to so many discussions about human rights, and current events. Why don't victims of domestic abuse flee? Why don't people move out of Communist countries? Why do women not leave Saudi Arabia and marry whom they choose? Why? Why?  Wow, once they get going, I wish I had more than 40 minutes a day with them to spend on the questions and comments they have about the world we live in.

By the time they get to the point in the book when Father decides that the smaller of the two identical twins is "no longer needed" in the community, they are so involved in the story that they complain when class is over and they need to move on. As a teacher of Language Arts, I live for those moments, and they are often few and far between. But every year when the next class reads THE GIVER, I am almost assured that I'll hear the same comments again from a different group of students.

We read the book as a class, and we jot down notes in our journals after each chapter. Capturing the nuances of what the characters are feeling and experiencing is key later when we write about our connections and understanding of what this community goes through. And then, we get to the ending. Or what the students refer to as the "lack of ending."

"What? That's it? Did he die? Did he find Elsewhere? Is Elsewhere Heaven? Is Gabriel dead?"  The questions come hard and fast, and I wish I could capture their faces as they look up from the page in disbelief that there are no hard and fast answers. It's up to interpretation, and they feel as it they've been duped. But we work on it, together, to establish different scenarios and possibilities to what might have happened. Another life lesson: experiences are not always cut and dried.

I applaud Lois Lowry for writing a book for Young Adults that covers topics such as Euthanasia, Corporal Punishment, Human Rights, Diversity, and everything else that appears in those pages. The book allows me to pull out some current news articles on the same topics, and the students get to have a taste of how close fiction can mimic real life. One of the themes that resonate with my students is "sacrificing for the greater good". I laugh when a student points out a school rule and explains it by saying "we sacrificed for the greater good." I hope they remember that when they become parents.
I think it's a good motto for today's kids to have. Something that we as adults should be teaching to our kids more often. And, at a younger age.


Using a Journal in Middle School Language Arts

I'm often asked to explain how I use an interactive journal in the Middle School Language Arts classroom. I'll attempt to give my best overview of how I use it with my students, and give some tips as to how to set up the journal. I have used them in class for the past 4 years, and will never do without one again. I absolutely love using it.

First of all, if I had to define what it is, I'd have to call it a mix between a notebook, interactive notebook, personal journal, reading response journal, scrapbook and mixed medium journal. It's the only notebook we use in class, and no two students will have the same. The journals are completely personalized by the student so that it works best for them.

It starts with a marble composition notebook, the kind you can get at the back to school sale. While smaller than a spiral notebook, it is more sturdy, and the pages are more secure. The only other supplies needed are simply a glue stick, colored pencils or colored Flair felt-tip pens, and a black ink pen. Optional supplies include photos, colored scrap paper, paper punches, washi tape (if you haven't yet discovered washi tape, you haven't yet lived!), and anything else you can think of to decorate the journal with.

The journal will be home to a student's in-class notes, reading responses, background information, writing pieces, opinion writing, and pre-writing organization, among other things.  Any type of full size paper handout can easily fit into the marble sized notebook by folding it in half, and gluing the back of one half onto a notebook page. The sheet will be securely stored, and easily read by unfolding the sheet. Another way, which I prefer, is to use a copier to shrink the 8.5x11 inch handout to 80% of its original size. This is easily done, and then just trim the excess to fit the size of the journal, which is about 9.5 x 7 inches. The page can then be glued into the notebook onto a sheet using the stick glue. (Some people prefer white liquid glue, but I find it's very messy, causes bumps, and students get too carried away with it, not understanding that a little goes a long way.)

Organization is key with the journal, which is one of the reasons I love to use it.  Everything can be easily found by utilizing a table of contents, or index.

So, first day - make sure every student has a marble composition book, including yourself. Have them take a few minutes either in class, or for homework, to number the bottom outside corner of each page. Begin with the first sheet when you open the book.  In class, this can usually be done in about 10-15 minutes.  If you want to speed things up, have them only number the odd number pages, which would be each sheet on the right side of the book. Either way, they'll be able to flip through to find what they are looking for.

On the top of pages 1 through 5, have the student write "Table of Contents" as a header.  You'll be using the margin on the page for the "page number" column, the middle of the line for a "description" of each item, and the far right of the page for a "date". In my photo, instead of the date, I listed whether the item was a 7th or 8th grade activity. I made sure to do each activity as a sample when it was assigned the first time to show the students how it could be done, however, it was a guideline only. Part of the beauty of the journal will be that each student will interpret the activity and it's overall usage differently. I'll touch more on this later.

The first assignment for the journal will begin on page 6 of the journal. After this, all of your students will always be working on different page numbers. What I mean by this is that if Johnny writes only one page in his first assignment and Sally writes two pages, they will both be doing their second assignments on different page numbers. DON'T PANIC! That is exactly the way it should be. You should record somewhere the assignment and date assigned to keep track for grading purposes, and not worry about what page they did it on. That's why they have a Table of Contents.

One of the best activities of the journal is the first activity. You can have them decorate the cover to reflect themselves using pictures from magazines, duct tape, markers, whatever, and assign a writing prompt as a "getting to know you" writing activity, such as "Where do you see yourself in 5 years?" or "What aspect of Language Arts do you find most challenging? What would you like to improve on this year?"  The prompt can be a way of getting to know them as a student and a person, and it serves an even more important purpose: it personalizes their journal from the start, and shows them that being self-reflective is an important part of writing in your classroom.

Once you have the Table of Contents and first writing assignment completed (and you've reminded them to record that first assignment in their Table of Contents along with page number (should be on page 6!), assignment title and date, then you are free to take it wherever you want it to go.  Here are some ideas:

For Novel Studies: Begin with an Introduction Page, which includes a photo of the book cover (I usually print a sheet of 16 photos of the covers and cut them out for the students), and research the book a bit. Setting, genre, published date, author... the page introduces the novel study and familiarizes the student with the genre. To explore the setting further, I have a set of student atlas books in the classroom, so we always include a map of the state/country where the story is set. For example, when my 7th graders read Voyage of the Frog by Gary Paulsen which was set off the coast of California and Mexico in the Pacific Ocean, we drew a map of that area of the country in order to better understand where the voyage took place, and throughout the story we drew lines to map the progress. Then, dig deeper, by having the students look up the background information on the author. I call this an Author Page. What types of work does this author generally write? How many books has he/she published? Usually by researching the author, students will better understand the author's writing style. For example, Gary Paulsen has been a nature lover his whole life - his bio reflects that. Reading about his hardships growing up, the student sees why Paulsen often writes books set around nature. Connecting the author to his writing helps the student comprehend the story a bit more. Next, tackle any vocabulary words that you'll be using that are specific to the book. For example, when reading the The Giver, defining words such as Utopian and Dystopian Society might be helpful. Don't forget about Dynamic Characters and Static Characters, Protagonist, Antagonist, etc...  Next, set aside a Quote Page for the students to use as they read. When they come across a quote that is important to the story, have them add it to the page, along with page number and who said it. They will refer to this later in their written assignments, for example.  Also, have them title a Character List on one page, where they can jot down characters from the story, identifying later if they are dynamic or static, major or minor, and what their relationship is to the protagonist.  All of this helps them in better understanding the story. Finally, a simple Plot Chart can be drawn in this section so students can jot down key events that take them to the conflict, climax and resolution of the story. Remember that some students will simply want to write down their notes - others may want to sketch note their pages with doodles or drawings, or color code their notes. Whatever works for them should be encouraged. The goal here is to let them explore ways that will help them to best retain the information based on their own learning styles.

Quickwrites are one page writing assignments that can be used in conjunction with a novel ("Should Jonas have left Gabriel behind when he ran away to find Elsewhere? Why or why not?") or just to get some opinion writing practice into class ("Should all toys be marketed to boys or girls or should they be gender-neutral? Should toy stores continue to have "pink" and "blue" aisles?). After assigning something like this, you can leave time in class for sharing, which some students usually love to do.

Creative Writing assignments are great in journals because the journal lends itself to being a perfect place to map out a story using a grid or a timeline, or to create character profiles by cutting out pictures from magazines and gluing them into the journal and then writing around the picture all of the traits of the character. Mr. Tall Dark and Handsome maybe has a secret life as a bank robber, but loves kittens and is married with 3 kids...

Steps to Structured Writing can be graphically represented in the journal. Samples of an opening paragraph for an essay and a thesis can be drawn out or highlighted in a writing passage and notes can be written in the outline to help with identifying key words, punctuation, structure. For each type of structured writing we do, I always draw out a diagram that students can refer to, whether for responding to a quote, writing a compare/contrast essay, an argument, etc.  Visual representation helps them to understand the structure before they even put any words on the paper.

Vocabulary Words can be tackled using foldables that allow students to study on their own. Taping index cards in their journal by only taping a small area at the top or side of the card allows the card to be flipped to reveal a definition or example.

Common Themes of stories can be included and examples can be given of stories or movies that have those themes so students can understand them. "Courage and Bravery" can easily relate to books (The Fault in our Stars) as well as Movies (Batman vs. Superman, Dawn of Justice").  Once they understand this, they can easily do the same to books they read in class.

How to grade journals? Well, I just check that the activity was completed. I told them up front that how they do it is up to them, but the information that should be included, needs to be included in order to get credit. And I grade them only once a month or so. They can use them on any of their writing assessments or tests. I want them to learn to take good, usable notes. Knowing they can use them on a test or writing assignment makes them take the time to be sure the information they include is useful to them.

These are just a few of the ways that journals can be used in class. We use them almost daily. I've included some photos below with some writing assignments we've done in class, and some that show how each student can make the journal their own through personalization and adding photos or poetry or whatever. The only rule is that everything has to be listed in the table of contents. I hope you try using the journal in your own classroom. If you do, let me know if you and your students enjoyed using them, and tell me about your favorite lesson or activity. If you want some other ideas, or have any questions, please feel free to contact me! I've included some other activities in other blog posts, so feel free to browse.

Click on any of the pictures below to enlarge.


covertable of contents   anne conflict schema

themes thankful reference quickpublic speaking

dialogue dialogue 2 holocaust giver jack

plot chart  quick 2












Using Interactive Reading Journals for "In the Heart of the Sea"

Reading Nathaniel Philbrick's "In the Heart of the Sea" was one of the most painful, yet satisfying experiences I've had in teaching 8th grade.  How can that be?  Well, it was a challenging book, for sure. My eighth graders aren't all avid readers, so the vocabulary at times had them stumped, but nothing we couldn't work through. It also was set in the 1800's, and gave us a lot of history on the early whaling industry, more than my eighth graders really cared to know. But it was necessary to understand what drove these men to the sea for months or years at a time. And then, there was the cannibalism. No surprise, but they actually enjoyed reading about that part. But like giving birth, the pain and suffering involved in the process is all forgotten when the students finally get to the end and tell you they enjoyed the story. That's when I exhaled that proverbial breath I'd been holding in since the day we started the pre-work on the novel study.  Makes it all worth it.  And knowing there's a Ron Howard movie coming out on the novel as well? Cherry on top.

In case you are looking for something different to do with your students, I'll fill you in on how I presented this book.

Introduce the novel, setting, author, genre, topic

Introduce the novel, setting, author, genre, topic

We always begin a new novel with a little background on the book itself.  In our interactive reading journals (my journal of choice is the marble notebook with pages that don't easily tear out, and a cover that won't rip off), we included a picture of the book cover, and listed our main characters so we could get to know them a bit. We also drew a picture, and included some origami.  We listed genre, author and publishing date. So far, so good.

Then, we included a map of the setting of the story. Easy for this book, since the whalers are from Nantucket.  We gave our colored pencils a workout and pulled out our Student Atlas books (thank you, PTA!), and when this happens, I always allow the students to take extra time to flip through the atlas to explore a bit.   Since many of my students rarely leave the state, it's a great way to introduce them to the huge world we have out there.  Strike up a conversation or two as they work. Talk about whales, global warming, the lines on the map and what they mean, and where Tanzania is.  So what if it doesn't have anything to do with the story.

Map out the setting so students know where the story takes place. Geography lesson!

Map out the setting so students know where the story takes place. Geography lesson!

Next, we looked at the history of the whaling industry. What was a whale used for? How did the whalers process huge whales while out at sea?  We drew pictures and flow charts, and jotted down facts as to what people did with whale oil.  What did whales have to do with ladies' corsets? Well, you need to go look that up.

With about a week of background work under our belts, and some very colorful pages in our interactive journals, we finally picked up our books and began to read.  We wrote chapter summaries after each chapter as we discussed what had occurred, what we learned about the characters, and what we thought might happen next.  We glued a picture of the map from the book that mapped out the ship's voyage, and we marked chapter numbers on the map to show how the story took us through their journey. We learned sailing terms, looked up Cape Horn, and how whales mate. Yup, we covered everything.

Hand-drawn pictures to explain some of the details of the process were key. I had some of my better artists in class assigned to draw. I then copied the drawings and shrunk them down to fit in our marble notebook journals. (Shrink an 8.5 x 11 sheet to 80%, and once trimmed, it fits perfectly!) Once glued in, the kids used colored pencils to doodle and color them while we discussed what the pictures were.

Have the students draw out pictures, then copy them for the class.

Have the students draw out pictures, then copy them for the class.

Keeping track of which characters were in each of the smaller whale boats required some doodling as well.  Especially as certain people began dying from starvation.  There's one point in the book where students will learn all there is to know about a body shutting down from lack of food and water. Great health lesson and discussion.

To break things up, I bought some cotton cloth at the fabric store, needles and colored embroidery thread. Since sailors often embroidered to record scenery they'd see on their trips, or to remember a sweetheart left at home, we all spent a class period learning how to embroider.  The masterpieces were hung proudly in the hallway when they were completed. (See them below)

The cannibalism resulted in some great side conversations on eating raw meat and sushi.  As horrible as the event was to read about, the thoughtful discussions that it prompted were really quite entertaining!

Encourage students to draw maps in their notebook to understand what's happening in the story.

Encourage students to draw maps in their notebook to understand what's happening in the story.


Looking back at the experience, I can honestly say there were times I vowed not to use the book the following year. In fact, at one point, I was ready to scrap it halfway through because the students in one particular class were having a hard time connecting to it. It was at that point I thought about introducing the embroidery activity, and it turned out to be a hit.  It was just what was needed to help the students connect with the characters in the book.

So some final advice when doing a novel study: step out of the box and away from the literature circle with the assigned "jobs".  Use an interactive reading journal to not just write in, but to draw in, and map, and glue, and research in, and then take pictures of the students drawing and creating, and embroidering, and sewing, and give them copies of the pictures to glue into their journals. They will enjoy the novel as they "live" in the moment while reading it. Take time to do the pre-work to introduce the topic, setting and timeframe.  You and your students will get so much more out of the novel experience.heart 9

Embroidery cloths that students made, just as sailors did.

Embroidery cloths that students made, just as sailors did.

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Student's embroidery