Friday, December 27, 2013

"Wonder" by R.J. Palacio: A Book that is Making the World a Better Place

In the 1800's, British historian, James Bryce, said, "The worth of a book is to be measured by what you can carry away from it." Almost two hundred years later, I tell my students the same thing. When I choose read aloud titles, I always look for books that will push my students out of their comfort zone and challenge the way they think. I want the books I read to them to leave them asking questions about the way they view the world and the way they interact with others. I know it's a lofty aspiration, but I want them to grow in their understanding of human nature and the world around them as a result of what I read to them.

For this reason, I love reading Wonder by R.J. Palacio to my students. In summary, Wonder is the story of ten-year-old Auggie who is a normal kid on the inside, but not on the outside. August was born with a life-threatening facial abnormality, and has had to be homeschooled his whole life. His life changes forever when enters fifth grade at a private school in Manhattan. Wonder is the transformative story of Auggie's fifth grade year at Beecher Prep.

Though this plot summary is accurate, it does not do Wonder justice. The power of this book lies in its message, not in its story line. When asked why she wrote the book, R.J. Palacio said, she intended the book to be a "meditation on kindness".  She said she wanted to impress upon her readers the power of words. In an interview, she said, "You all have the power to change lives. Remember the power of words, and think about how you want to be remembered."

I've read this book to my last two classes and both groups were prfoundly impacted by the book. Their empathy for others increased, and it changed the way they interacted with their peers. I find it interesting that both classes were especially affected by the same quote from the main character. When Auggie goes to see his older sister in a play, she gets a standing ovation at the end of her performance. Auggie is impressed by the crowd's reaction to her performance and says, “I think there should be a rule that everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their lives." Later in the story, Auggie receives an award at graduation and gets a standing ovation from the audience. The kids totally got the significance of the standing ovation for Auggie. They recognized that the applause for Auggie symbolized how far he had come in just one year, and what a profound impact the love and acceptance of the Beecher Prep school community has had on his life. 

I have to admit, it warmed my heart and brought a tear to my eye, when I finished the book both times and my classes gave ME a standing ovation. And I am not the only one lucky enough to be on the receiving end of such a spontaneous display of love and appreciation from these kids. Last year's class, started a standing ovation for the retiring teachers at an assembly at the end of school, and this year's class gave the autistic support classes a standing ovation after their performance of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" at our annual Holiday Show. It is powerful to be in their presence and see the kids look at one another tentatively and slowly rise out of their seats because they feel moved by someone or something, and they want to express their feelings.

There was another standing ovation at school last week that everybody's been talking about. I wasn't there to witness it personally, but it melted my heart just to hear about it. When a soldier returning from deployment oversees came to visit one of our teachers and her class that adopted his unit last year, the teacher took him on a tour of the building. The tour included the lunchroom, and our fourth and fifth graders happened to be eating at the time. When Lt. Nicholas Parisi from the U.S. Army walked into the cafeteria, my students actually started a spontaneous standing ovation for him. No adult TOLD them to do it. They just felt moved to show their respect and appreciation for our military and all the brave men and women who protect our freedoms and keep us safe, so they got up out of their seats and showed Lt. Parisi some love

I wonder if R.J. Palacio has any idea how far-reaching the impact of her novel actually is. Does she even know that ordinary people are choosing to be "kinder than necessary" because of Auggie's story? At the end of Wonder, Mr. Tushman, the school principal, gives a speech at graduation. In the address he says, "If every person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary - the world really would be a better place." From what I heard from the adults who were in the lunchroom when Lt. Parisi  got his standing ovation the other day, it was a beautiful moment. The world got a little brighter for a minute, and everyone who was there carried a ray of that light away with them in their hearts.

The world needs more moments like this, and I just want to thank R.J. Palacio for writing a book that gives teachers a beautiful platform for having conversations about kindness, love, and compassion with our students. The world is a better place because of her book.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Figurative Language at Its Finest

Whether you're looking at it from the national, state, or local level, if you're a fifth grade teacher you are destined to come across a standard that requires your students to interpret figurative language. For Philadelphia Public School teachers like me, the hierarchy of figurative language standards is as follows:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative language such as metaphors and similes. ( Common Core State Standards from

Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in grade level text, including interpretation of
figurative language. (PA Common Core Standards from

E05.A-V.4.1.2: Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings. a. Interpret figurative language (e.g., simile, metaphor, personification) in context. b. Recognize and explain the meaning of common idioms, adages, and proverbs. (Grade 5 Scope and Sequence from the School District of Philadelphia Planning and Scheduling Timeline)

In reality, interpreting figurative language makes up 40% of the eligible content for fifth grade vocabulary. As a result, we work on identifying literary devices and interpreting figurative language all year long in Room 202. At the beginning of the year, we defined the terms, put the definitions and examples in a flip book, and interpreted examples from our independent reading on, but it's been a few weeks since we focused directly on figurative language in our lessons.

I decided to revisit figurative language two weeks ago. First, we watched a great YouTube video clip from The Amanda Show called Meet the Literals ( The video reinforces the difference between the literal and figurative meaning of words and phrases using a highly entertaining series of mistakes a young girl and her family make because they take everything literally. The Amelia Bedelia-like escapades of the Literal family stem mostly from their misinterpretation of idiomatic expressions, but I used the clip to remind the kids that not everything an author says can be taken literally. THE KIDS LOVED IT!

For a more in depth review of each individual literary device, I used a PowerPoint presentation I've been working on for quite some time. The PowerPoint is available in my TpT Store for just $3.00. I love it because, the students are given an opportunity to read a short passage from a famous children's novel and discuss its meaning before having to identify what type of figurative language is being used to convey the author's message. There are also opportunities in the PowerPoint for the children to practice writing original examples for each type of literary device. The PowerPoint ends with slides of the lyrics from some pop songs the children are familiar with. They are asked to find the figurative language on each lyrics slide and explain what the songwriter was actually trying to say. If you need to revisit figurative language, I highly recommend a lesson centered around this PowerPoint.

Right before Thanksgiving, we followed the Figurative Language PowerPoint up with a gratitude writing project with a twist. Instead of simply having the children make a list of the things they are thankful for, I asked them to describe five things they are grateful for using similes, metaphors, personification, hyperbole, and idioms. We put the gratitude statements on the feathers of a turkey to tie in the holiday theme. The children loved coloring the turkeys, and I loved the statements they came up with. Here are some examples:

Makayla: I am thankful for my phone, because without it I would die. (hyberbole)

Molly: I am thankful for my home, because it holds its arms out to welcome me when I come home. (personification)

Enrique: I am thankful for outdoor recess, and I want to have it for a hundred years. (hyperbole)

Arianna: I am thankful for my friends, because they are like clowns in a circus who cheer me up when I am feeling down. (simile)

Gabby: I am thankful for the books I read, because they take me on adventures. (personification)

Briana: I am thankful for my family, because when I am sad like a lost puppy, they are there for me. (simile)

Delrick: I am thankful for my phone, and if it had arms I would hug it all the time. (personification)

Ashley: I am thankful for books, because they wrap their arms around me and tell me their adventurous stories. (personification)

Ehsan: I am thankful for my family, because it is a nest filled with warmth and love.

Trevor: I am thankful for my weekends, because it feels to me that I can fly when I have free time. (hyperbole)

Kylie: I am thankful for my family, because they are the tree whose branches will always be there to catch me when I am under pressure. (metaphor)

Jake: I am thankful for the woods, because they are my playground. (metaphor)

Gia: I am thankful for my friendships, because my friends are a mailbox that is always open if I need to drop off my problems. (metaphor)

Kayla V: I am thankful for school and education, because without it I would not know a thing. (hyperbole)

Taylan: I am thankful that my mom is not a giant ogre. (metaphor)

Kevin: I am thankful for my dad, because he makes the piano sing. (personification)

Kayla K: I am thankful for my teacher, because my brain would be mushed up like melted ice cream without her. (metaphor)

Allie: I am thankful for my best friend Emily who is a human calculator. (metaphor)

Eli: I am thankful for my house, because I do not have to live under a rock. (metaphor)

Patrick: I am thankful for police officers, firefighters, paramedics, and the military, because they protect us like a watchdog. (simile)

Mark: I am thankful for my pets, because they are funny little clowns that make me laugh. (metaphor)

Nick D: I am thankful for food, because without it there would be no reason for my tastebuds to dance. (personification)

Nick P: I am thankful for my brothers. Without them there would be a hole in my life. (metaphor)

The Thanksgiving project was such a huge success that I immediately started thinking of how it could be adapted for Christmas. What I came up with was a "Christmas List" project. Students make a list of what they want for Christmas, and each item on the list must be described with a simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole, or idiom. (A more altruistic version of the project could be done by asking students to write about five gifts they'd like to give to other people.) These three links are my early Christmas present to you. They take you to a rubric, a Christmas list template, and a Christmas Presents coloring sheet. 

Don't forget to use the Figurative Language PowerPoint from my TpT Store as a review before you start the project.

Merry Everything and Happy Always,