Sunday, July 28, 2013

How To: Inspire a Love of Reading - Rick Riordan Style. Or, an Ode to the Percy Jackson Series

I have waxed poetic to many people about The Lightning Thief ever since I read it for pleasure in January 2011 on a cruise with my best friend. There are so many things about the Percy Jackson series that make it absolute perfection.  Even as an adult, I found myself transfixed with each book.  Everything about this book made it absolutely perfect for me.  It follows a similar formula to the one that made Harry Potter so amazing. Three young characters are off on whirlwind adventures based on prophecies and quests that have the Greek gods all heavily interwoven in them.

The Greek mythology angle is what caught my interest, actually.  Well, that, and probably the fact that the movie was coming out on DVD, I believe. I'm so mad at myself for not hearing about this series sooner.  Well, actually, maybe not. I hate waiting for new releases. Waiting until October for the new release is painful.

But I digress.  I remember around spring 2012, when one of my Reading Resource staff members gave us the list of books to order from for the 2012-2013. I was skimming through it like, "Hmm...never heard of this, that sounds hideously boring, oh, where are the lower level readers...OH MY GOD ARE YOU SERIOUS?!" I actually shouted out loud and double checked with her - The Lightning Thief was a county-approved core book?! IS THIS REAL LIFE? And I put down 10 for the order.

I bounced up and down with excitement at the thought, and when I finally saw 10 of those beautiful softcover suckers on her cart at the beginning of the school year, I was eager to get them on the shelves.  It didn't matter at the time anyway, because the first marking period is historical fiction, and I'd have to wait for the fantasy marking period (second).

But once that time approached, you could practically see me vibrate with excitement. I tried to encourage my two teammates to check out some books for their students, but it ended up being no dice. Their loss.  I knew exactly who I should give the books to in my class.  I had a group of five boys who were the struggling readers, but I thought this boy-centric adventure story would get them.  But the length and difficulty of the books made me nervous. I consulted with another Reading Resource staff member and ended up grabbing one of my own personal copies and sat down with my targets one by one. I gave them the speech - that this book was obviously long, and it would be hard, and it would require extra work.  It would be a challenge, but I thought it might be one worth engaging in, as this was one of my personal favorite books of allllll time. It was a huge deal for them, in fact, because my read-aloud for the class was Harry Potter, which I proclaimed as my favorite, but they got me to admit I might like PJ more...  They each read the back cover, and the first page. Of the five, four were immediately and without hesitation, in for the ride. The fifth hemmed and hawed until he learned the rest of the boys in his group were in, and then he said, "I guess..."

Rick Riordan is such a fantastic author and, quite frankly, human being. His Twitter account is fantastic - he updates regularly about his progress and often holds Q&A's.  I tried a few times to get noticed to thank him profusely for what he's done for those five boys. But, most importantly for us this man has an entire section of his website dedicated to teachers using his books for reading. It has resources uploaded by him and others. It's significantly more difficult to find now, actually. I worried it was gone. But I have found it! In case you missed the hidden link, here it is: Teacher's Guides

It goes all the way up to Titan's Curse if you somehow manage to get that far.  Obviously, I only used it for the first book.  Feel free to check out all the resources, of course, but I will tell you that I only used the first two. Rick Riordan released an outstanding guide filled with discussion questions, journal ideas, extra activities, chapter questions, extensions, and opportunities to learn more about the material in his books - complete with links and suggestions. Without question, this is way more than humanly possible to cover, but the variety is impressive. He has so many activities to reach all types of learners. The second resource I used for quizzes to check my friends and their understanding.  If you click on that image, it takes you to a section of his site that teaches you even more.  His website is an absolute treasure trove of anything and everything you could ever possibly need to read the books and understand. There's even maps of his settings! It's a great resource - especially the Camp Half-Blood one. One of the questions from his guide asked them to look at the map of the camp and pick the place they would spend the most time at if they were a character. It sparked a lively discussion about where and why it interested them. To explore the camp, click the picture a few paragraphs down.

Because the book is so heavily inundated with Greek mythology, I introduced the book with a PowerPoint that I put together from a few resources I got from TpT. The two that I remember are: The Gods & Goddesses and Intro to Greek Mythology. I made some edits - added things, took things out to align itself with all I knew/remembered came from the series. I think next year, before the time even comes, I'm going to have my group do some leg work with this project I really wanted to do, but didn't have time for. Making Greek Trading Cards would be an excellent way to go in-depth with some of the gods/myths discussed in the book that we didn't really get to discuss as much as I would've liked.  If they know about it ahead of time, it will definitely help ease the confusion during reading.

The PowerPoint was so intriguing, in fact, that I ended up stopping my entire class and we all went over it together.  I had intended on just showing my boys, but on the Promethean, it caught the attention of almost everyone else. So I decided to drop the pretense and just let them stop what they were doing to listen in. It was an exciting lesson - my students have probably never been so engaged.  The great thing about this series and the Gods & Goddesses portion was that each slide had both the Roman & the Greek for the purpose of The Lightning Thief, obviously only the Greek names are necessary.  But, Rick Riordan wrote a sequel series which centers around their Roman incarnations. More on that later.

Now, the actual process of reading the book took a longggggggggggg, long while. Our school system follows the guided reading levels with letters. I searched all over the web for accurate levels, and many were saying S, which is about where that group was. I didn't buy S for a second, but my Reading Resource teachers were telling me if I felt in my gut that they would like it, it could work.  I found out many months later that Fountas & Pinnell actually leveled it at W, which my county counts as the end of 5th grade. My boys are probably more accurately end of 4th/beginning of 5th.  After I found that out, I applauded my boys a million times over and made a huge deal over how they had conquered this book that was so difficult and beyond what they usually read. They were mightily proud of themselves. :)

Anyway, it took us probably 2-3 months to finish and discuss. Granted, this was also over the winter holidays, so that took out quite a bit of time. And one of the boys procrastinated on it for reasons unknown. They all loved it - devoured it, even.  Even the procrastinator loved it, which is why I couldn't understand what was taking him so long.  These boys went on to continue the series, checking each next book systematically until they had finished The Last Olympian.  The passion spread like wildfire around my classroom, and before I knew it, all but I think two of my 18 had at least read The Lightning Thief.

I actually ended up using the series as an incentive for one of my boys to complete his homework. It worked spectacularly! He showed such a voracious appetite for it, that I actually looked into the Heroes of Olympus series (the sequels). I hadn't paid them much mind because I don't care for "spin-offs" and the whole Roman aspect confused me. But I purchased The Lost Hero for him anyway. He was impatient though, and resorted to checking it out of the library (I order online to be cheap). He gave me the play-by-play as he read, and when it finally arrived, I decided to read it myself before I gave it to him. It ended up being amazing, and I don't know why I doubted it.  Let nothing put you off this! I was worried it wouldn't be the same because the originals weren't in it, but a) the new characters are just as compelling, and b) don't be deceived...the originals actually play quite the part in this new series. As an added bonus for this student, I managed to snag both him and myself autographed copies of The Son of Neptune. SO exciting!! :D

Now, to wrap up this exceedingly long entry: Do it. If this is an option, do it. I have not seen students this crazed to read in forever. There were actually fights in my room about who could read a certain book next, and who was taking too long.  This group of boys...three of them had told me they hated reading in the first week of school.  I gave them a good-natured hard time about that sentiment and how it had changed. They were quite bashful about it. <3 They adore reading this series, and it seemed to spark a new passion for reading - any book, really.  And while I can't say for certain it was this series, but.... all of them showed marked improvements on the reading tests our county gives. Strangely, they didn't do well on the chapter quizzes, but they showed incredible improvements in all other places. This book series, actually, was one of the main reasons I was upset I wasn't originally placed in 5th grade for next year. I got moved down to 4th, but then the planets aligned, people left, and I am back! Which is exciting for me...but I am really sad to see those people go. I was particularly looking forward to learning from one of them.

It was a struggle to get them to ignore the movie when they found it it had one - as you can imagine, they were super pumped. They're very visual. But my mantra was "Disregard the movie, it is literally nothing like the book. It ruins the entire premise." I like and enjoy the movie, don't get me wrong. As its own entity, it is fun. But compared to the book, I wanted to tear my hair out at them thinking they'd discovered some secret when they watched it. I was all, "I promise you, they are nothing alike." I was very pleased to get them to agree with me once they had actually finished. That said, the sequel, Sea of Monsters looks much more on track with the books and we are all very, very excited. You may be seeing all the commercials popping up...well...we had a screening party for the trailer when it came out.

As for October 2014...I know what I (and the handful who caught up) will be reading. Do you?

PS - my love of reading this series on a cruise ship did not end in 2011! Here's me reliving the uber-relaxing experience of reading the series from the comforts of my balcony.  This one is Mark of Athena. (The Heroes of Olympus series has the added bonus of me being able to teach my cherubs how Roman numerals work so that they remember their chapter.

So, what books do you love to use in your classroom and why? Let me know in the comments below! :)

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