In order to keep students engaged during those last few days of school before summer break, I was on the hunt for some short picture books that would lend themselves to paper craft activities while still having some meaningful content. I found one picture book called Snippets that incorporated paper scraps into an activity about accepting others. Snippets led to a book called Perfect Square, which led to a book called Beautiful Oops.
The list of picture books exploded. I discovered stacks of new picture books that have a STEAM/tinkering element to them. The central messages in most address either persevering through mistakes and developing resilience or appreciating individual qualities and embracing our unique gifts. One buzzword for all this in education right now is “growth mindset”.
Growth mindset is all about embracing a challenge and not giving up. It’s about recognizing that you might not be able to do something… yet. Or, you might be able to do something in a completely different way than your neighbor. It’s about having an attitude where you are willing to take risks and try. It’s about recovering from a set back in a positive way. It’s part of character education, and it’s becoming an essential lesson in classrooms today.
One student roadblock I see every year is the fear of completing an assignment the “wrong way”. Because students are scared of making a mistake (or an even worse fate– the dreaded start-over) they insist on checking with me for approval before completing each individual step. As a parent, I see how we train many children to be dependent on adults for permission before making choices. Kids don’t freely travel the neighborhood making up group games with rules that change and adapt depending on who joins the game, who leaves the game, who is too little or too big… Few kids sit in a room with no screen of any kind and must entertain themselves (i.e. activate their creative thinking skills) to fill the time. So, they need help to get themselves started on a task unless we build in some “let’s look at the problem and find a solution” practice.
How Can You Prompt Students to Trust their Abilities?
- Encourage them to self-solve. Don’t answer a question immediately.
- Ask them to think about what they might have in their possession that would help them complete the task. Do they have a handout with directions? Can they look at what a friend is doing? Can they look at the materials and remember the oral directions?
- Give them one step or hint only to get started and send them back to their work space to continue independently.
- Have the student list what he/she thinks should be happening. Often, saying the task aloud is confirmation for a child.
The activities I used at the end of the year involved changing one type of paper shape into something new. Not only did our class see the relationship between the characters in the pictures books and how it related to our classroom community, they also had the opportunity to alter the paper from a generic shape into something that reflected their personality and style.
I distributed ordinary white copy paper to my students as the background paper for our masterpieces, but you could print THESE TEMPLATES to use with your group’s paper tinkering. Any of the picture books in the list below would make great first week of school read alouds as you begin to set the tone for the year. If you need more specific activity ideas, click HERE and HERE to view and purchase my complete activities for Snippets and Perfect Square.
Crafty Picture Books (a starter list)
- Snippets: a story about paper shapes by Diane Alber (and others by this author)
- Perfect Square by Michael Hall
- Beautiful Oops! by Barney Saltzberg
- Perfect by Max Amato
- The Dot and Ish by Peter H. Reynolds (and others by this author)
- What Do You Do With an Idea? by Kobi Yamada (and others by this author)
- The Book with No Pictures by B.J. Novak
- You are Light by Aaron Becker
- The Color Monster by Anna Llenas
- I Can Only Draw Worms by Will Mabbitt
- I Have an Idea by Herve Tullet (and others by this author)
- The Book of Mistakes by Corinna Luyken
- Shape by Shape by Suse MacDonald
The dystopian book genre comprises the bulk of Mr. Star Wars’ 8th grade book stack (check out my other BLOG POST about middle school boy books). Dystopian books are a sub category of science fiction and are a favorite YA book genre. Science fiction books are generally geared to middle and high school students because the content is heavier. Themes and common story lines in science fiction stories deal with apocalyptic events, death, disease, dying, wars and typically have a dark tone.
In dystopian books, the protagonist or main character faces a big challenge that will possibly save the world, and he/she uses various skills and cunning to make that happen. I believe this is the appeal of the dystopian book. A character who is the same age as the reader takes on an important cause and succeeds in some way. It gives the reader a sense of empowerment.
How do you know a book is science fiction?
- The story answers a “what if” question. What if we could time travel? What if we lived on Mars? What if the temperatures on Earth rise significantly?
- The story incorporates the impact of scientific or technological changes on people.
- The setting is in the future or alternate universe.
How do you know a science fiction book is dystopian?
- Division of citizens into distinct groups or classes
- In the future
- War or apocalyptic event has happened in the past to change society
- Individuals have little power, information or free thought is restricted
- Illusions of a perfect society are maintained through corporate, bureaucratic, technological, moral, or totalitarian control
- The hero/protagonist sees the problem with society and wants to change the system
Many middle school classrooms will include a dystopian book as part of the reading curriculum this school year. Use THIS ACTIVITY PAGE to identify general science fiction characteristics in books, dystopian characteristics, and then compare to a specific book.
My Dystopian Book List… so far
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
- The Maze Runner by James Dashner
- Divergent by Veronica Roth
- Matched by Allie Condie
- Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
- City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau
- Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix (Teaching resources available HERE)
- Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
- The 100 by Kass Morgan
- Dry by Neal Shusterman
- Scythe by Neal Shusterman
- The Neptune Project by Polly Hollyoke
- Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer
- The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
- Empty by Suzann Weyn
- 1984 by George Orwell
- Lord of the Flies by William Golding
- The Giver by Lois Lowry (Teaching resources available HERE)
- Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
- Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
- Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
- The White Mountains by John Christopher (Teaching resources available HERE)
I am a sucker for inspirational teacher characters in literature. I love books that include a teacher (or coach or mentor) who provides quiet support for a main character at just the right moment. I just finished reading Towers Falling by Rhodes and cheered for Mrs. Garcia when she quietly helps Deja adjust to the new school and anticipates Deja’s frustrations. In Hate That Cat, by Creech, I want to be the character, Miss Stretchberry. Miss Stretchberry is that once-in-a-lifetime teacher who changes a child’s entire school career. She sees all of the hidden strengths in Jack, the narrator in the story, and spends time nurturing those qualities.
Characters such as Miss Stretchberry and Mrs. Garcia are some of my favorites. They are not the only teacher characters in literature who inspire me. I love the way Mr. Burton in No Talking embraces the students’ creativity in participating in class with as few words as possible. I have so much respect for Miss Harris in The Great Gilly Hopkins when she negotiates Gilly’s anger in a positive way. I learn something valuable for my teacher toolkit from every teacher character in these books.
My Favorite Inspirational Teacher Characters Book List
- Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
- Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea
- Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
- Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
- The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
- Hank Zipzer by Henry Winkler (pay attention to the music teacher)
- Homesick by Kate Klise
- Love That Dog and Hate That Cat by Sharon Creech
- Mrs. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson
- No Talking by Andrew Clements
- The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen, 7th grade+ (pay attention to the math teacher)
- The Secret School by Avi
- A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park
- Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes
- The View from Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg
- The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt
- Wonder by R. J. Palacio
- Word after Word after Word by Patricia MacLachlan
- The Year of Miss Agnes by Kirkpatrick Hill
For adults (and particularly teacher adults), try the book Educating Esme by Esme Raji Codell.
Need more book ideas? CLICK HERE for a list boys will love, and CLICK HERE for a list with strong girl characters.
Mr. Star Wars finishes 7th grade in two days. He has always been a voracious reader and reads at a high level. It has been a challenge this year to keep books in the pipeline that have (mostly) appropriate content for a middle school kid because he is at a place where he can read books intended for an adult audience. Since he is a boy, he gave the polite pass to some of my standby recommendations for middle and high school students (Celia Garth by Bristow and Life as We Knew It by Pfeffer).
I hesitate to classify books as “boy” or “girl”, but it is just a fact that boys typically read books with boy main characters, and girl readers tend to be less gender specific. We hit on some titles that were highly enjoyable. Most fall in the dystopian category because that is such a hot genre right now. We also found several that are spy/secret mission style books, which are en vogue right now too. All have boy central characters.
High Reading Level
- Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
- The House of the Scorpion and sequel by Nancy Farmer
- The Martian (some bad language) by Andy Weir
- Cherub series by Robert Muchamore
- When the Legends Die by Hal Borland
- Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
- Cloak of the Light series by Chuck Black
Average Reading Level
- Beneath and Above by Roland Smith
- Peak by Roland Smith
- The Bodyguard series by Chris Bradford
- Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz
- Crossover series by Kwame Alexander
- Things Not Seen series by Andrew Clements
- Loot series by Jude Watson
- Ranger’s Apprentice and Brotherband series by John Flanagan
- Conspiracy 365 series by Gabrielle Lord
- The False Prince trilogy by Jennifer Nielsen
- Knightley Academy series by Violet Haberdasher
On our middle school summer “to read” list
- Freakling and Psi Chronicles by Lana Krumwiede
- The Neptune Project by Polly Hollyoke (girl main character!)
- The Ability by M.M. Vaughan
- Ghost and companion books by Jason Reynolds
- The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton (need at least one classic)
I love getting to the end of a book and reading an author’s note that provides insight into the story’s inspiration. The story is classified as fiction, but there is a seed or small moment that the author used as a starting point to create a character or event. Most recently, Miss Priss and I read Curtain Up by Lisa Fiedler and Anya Wallach. At the end of the book, Wallach explains that, like the main character in the story, she too started a theatre company in her neighborhood as a teen. That real-life experience inspired the book.
After reading The Lemonade War by Jacqueline Davies, I found an article where Davies explained that her two children were arguing over who had the rights to the driveway for a lemonade stand, and the idea for a lemonade war was born.
Kate Klise, the author of Dying to Meet You, responded to a letter from my students and shared some background information on her book. She told us that she read a newspaper article about an elderly couple who were selling their house with all of the contents including the dog. From that article, Klise was inspired to write a story that would include a house for rent. If you rented the house, you agreed to “rent” the owners’ child as well.
Now that most authors have websites or author’s notes at the end of books, it can be easy to locate the answer to the question, “How did the author get the idea to write this book?” Hunting down the answer to the question is a great way to inspire interest in a book or author, and it has been a great way for me to motivate readers. It also shows students how writers gather ideas and encourages students to analyze small moments in their daily lives and use that as inspiration to start writing.
Here is a short list of books that have interesting backstories into why the author decided to write his/her story. Use THIS ACTIVITY PAGE to have your students complete an author inspiration scavenger hunt to learn how or why an author created a character or plot line in their novel.
- Curtain Up (Stagestruck series) by Lisa Fiedler and Anya Wallach
- The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
- Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
- Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
- In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Betty Bao Lord
- Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm
- Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan
- Frozen Fire by James Houston
- Blue Birds by Caroline Starr Rose
- Dying to Meet You by Kate Klise
- Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
- The Lemonade War by Jacqueline Davies
- Blood on the River: James Town, 1607 by Elisa Carbone
- Ruby on the Outside by Nora Raleigh Baskin
If you want to hear from the author directly, use this freebie CONTACTING BOOK AUTHORS ACTIVITY.