Most of my fifth graders say Donald Zinkoff is their favorite character of any book they read all year! We have incredible discussions while reading Loser because my students like Donald so much. I wanted to share some discussion topics that will impact the way your students act when they see kids being picked on.
Author Jerry Spinelli describes Donald’s life from a young boy through middle school. Donald is very different from his classmates. He has zero social skills. He has terrible handwriting. He doesn’t get good grades. He is incredibly clumsy. It’s easy for anyone to pick on him. When he gets to 4th grade, classmates begin calling him “loser.”
But Donald is one of the kindest, most tender-hearted characters your students will ever read about. He cares about everyone. He assumes everyone has good intentions. He doesn’t hide his emotions. His family doesn’t have much money, but Donald never cares about that.
I hope you read this book to your class because once your students fall in love with Donald, they will be forced to think about how they treat kids who act like him. By fifth grade, everyone has been around someone like Donald. Everyone has seen a kid get picked on because they’re different. We have incredible discussions about this while we read Loser.
“We all agree that Donald is an incredible person. We are all sad when he gets teased. So what will you do next time you see someone like Donald getting picked on?”
Students NEED to realize that kids like Donald deserve respect. Students NEED to understand it’s wrong to tease a person, even if everyone else is doing. It is so powerful for students to feel sad for Donald as he is being teased by all of his classmates. Reading about Donald is far more effective than me saying, “Don’t pick on others.” This is big in helping kids understand why treating people respectfully is so important.
One time, a student asked me, “Why doesn’t everyone else (in the book) realize what a nice person Donald is?”
This is exactly what I want my kids to ask while they’re reading Loser because I want them to think about this next time they see a kid being teased because he/she acts differently than everyone else.
“What would happen if these kids got to know Donald instead of teasing him? Do you think they would enjoy being around him?”
There is not ONE classmate who tries to get to know Donald during the book. He even has a few teachers who are annoyed with the way he acts. His fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Yalowitz, treats Donald more respectfully than any teacher he’s ever had. My students like the way Mr. Yalowitz accepts Donald for who he is. Then we talk about how good we would feel if a classmate made an effort to get to know Donald.
One year I read this book with a guided reading group instead of the whole class. The five kids in my guided reading group loved Donald so much that they told their classmates about him. The other kids asked to read Loser when I wasn’t using the books in guided reading. I eventually ended up reading the book to the whole class because EVERY STUDENT was dying to read about Donald.
I hope you will find time to read Loser with your class this year. I’ve developed a 50-page novel study unit to help your students respond to the text. Or this can simply to give you more ideas of things to discuss while you read this during a read-aloud time.
Students can learn so much more from novels than test-prep passages. I know you’re under a ton of pressure to get students to pass multiple-choice reading tests. But I hope you will find time this year to read awesome novels, like Esperanza Rising. In addition to teaching reading skills, your students can learn to face challenging situations instead of giving up.
Esperanza Rising is a wonderful story of a young girl whose life changes dramatically after a terrible tragedy. The author, Pam Munoz Ryan, does a beautiful job of developing characters that students feel an immediate connection with. This can really help your students develop a growth mindset. I’ve taught so many students whose first instinct is to quit when faced with a challenging situation. I hope you teach your students that challenging school assignments can help them grow academically. Facing difficult situations in life can help them grow as a person. We all know students are far more likely to remember these ideas from characters they connect with during a story as opposed to us lecturing them. So here are three ways you can use the characters and events of Esperanza Rising to foster a growth mindset with your students.
1. You can learn a lot about yourself during difficult situations
Chapter one paints Esperanza as a nice, but spoiled, rich girl. Her father is a wealthy land-owner. Esperanza spends time with her father in the fields but never has to actually do any of the work. She has servants attending to her every need. She lives in a beautiful home and has very nice things. Esperanza has a wonderful, loving family. But that all changes when her father is murdered. Esperanza and her mother are forced to leave everything behind and flee to the United States.
Esperanza’s new home in California is tiny and dirty. She is thrust into a new life where she has to do many chores that servants had always done for her. Esperanza is miserable. Her father has just died. She is living in a strange place. She is going to have to work in a way that she’s never worked before. It would be really easy for Esperanza to quit.
Things get worse for Esperanza before they get better. One of her first chores is to sweep, and she fails because she’s never had to sweep before. Other girls laugh at Esperanza’s inability to perform such a simple task. She refuses to leave the house for a day because she is so humiliated. Later, she has to take care of babies. She feeds them plums, not knowing this would give the babies an upset stomach. She also burns food that she cooks. She has given these tasks an honest effort, but has failed. Again, it would be really easy for Esperanza to quit.
But Esperanza decides to ignore the taunts of others and continue cleaning. She continues looking after the babies. She continues cooking. Day, after day, after day. SLOWLY, Esperanza learns how to accomplish these tasks. I emphasize the word SLOWLY with my students to help them realize success does not happen overnight, as Esperanza finds out.
Later, Esperanza’s mother gets really sick. She has to stay in the hospital for several months. Now, Esperanza is forced to work in the fields. Esperanza promises her mom to take care of the family. I tell my students that Esperanza is probably not the best field worker, but she does well enough to keep her job and provide a little bit of money that her family needs to survive while her mother is sick.
The book ends one year after her father died. During that year, Esperanza has done things she never thought she could do. I have the students reread chapter one and think, “Would Esperanza have ever dreamed she could accomplish these things (cooking, cleaning, babysitting, farming, etc.) just a year earlier?”
Also, kids need to realize that there are times when life will be challenging. But it is possible to come out of these challenging situations a stronger person. Emphasize to your students that Esperanza went from a spoiled, helpless girl to a strong, determined woman who provided for her family – all in one year.
This is awesome for students who are adapting to a new school, city, or country. You can say:
“I know it’s hard adjusting to life in this new school/city/country. Remember Esperanza. She fought through lots of challenging situations and after a year, she started to feel better about her new home.”
2. Accept help
When Esperanza arrived in California, a young girl named Isabel greeted her. Isabel was in awe of Esperanza. Isabel had heard all about Esperanza’s extravagant life in Mexico before her father died. Esperanza, on the other hand, looked down on Isabel for being poor. Esperanza saw Isabel’s meager home and possessions. She wondered how Isabel could be so happy with so little.
SLOWLY, Esperanza realizes that Isabel is a kind girl. Esperanza also realizes that Isabel knows how to do things like clean and babysit. So Esperanza drops her ego and asks Isabel to teach her how to sweep and take care of babies, even though she thought Isabel was beneath her. Isabel is a huge help as Esperanza starts to learn how to tackle the day-to-day chores of her new life. Esperanza eventually becomes friends with Isabella.
This is an outstanding reminder to students that everyone needs to accept help. It’s also a good reminder that the people we look down upon may be the ones who can help us the most.
Tell a student:
“I know you’re struggling to learn this science vocabulary. And I know you’re not getting along with (insert name or names of students), but I think the two of you could help each other learn this vocabulary and do well on your quiz. Remember how Esperanza accepted help from Isabel. I think (name of student) could help you just like Isabel helped Esperanza.”
3. Remember the things you have to be thankful for
Esperanza hears her mother singing a few hours after they arrive at their new home in California. Esperanza is furious. How can her mother possibly be singing during such a terrible time? They have gone from living in luxury to living in poverty in a very short time. But Mama tells Esperanza to focus on what they do have. They have each other. They have a place to live. They have people there who can help them. And Mama has a job. Mama reminds Esperanza that Abuelita would want her to make the best of her new life instead of dwelling on all the negatives. Mama is not saying their new life is going to be easy. But she reminds her daughter they still have a lot to be thankful for.
In my 14 years of teaching, I’ve taught many kids who have a difficult time focusing on the positives. This story of Mama singing is great for students to think about during challenges they face. Students need to know that it’s ok to get discouraged during challenging times. Don’t tell students that they have to be positive, happy, cheerful people 24/7. But Mama’s attitude helps kids remember that it’s possible to find a little bit of joy even during the gloomiest of situations.
Tell a student:
“Sure you’re struggling with this math problem. It’s really hard and that’s no fun. But think about Esperanza’s mom when they first arrived in California. Remember you have people around you who are here to help. Look at this as a chance to grow and learn perseverance.”
I really hope you can read Esperanza Rising with your students. You can use the story’s characters and events to teach reading skills, but the life lessons your students can learn are even more powerful. These three ideas can start some discussions with your students, but there are many more ways this book can help your students develop a growth mindset. I have also developed several activities for each chapter so you don’t have to worry about planning activities. Click the image below for more info.
Enjoy this book with your students and remind them of these characters throughout the year.
Steph Curry is doing things that no other basketball player has ever done. More importantly, Steph is an excellent role model for young people to look up to. Lots of kids wear his #30 jersey, which is great that they look up to an outstanding person. But whenever I see a kid wearing a Steph Curry jersey, I want to ask, “Did you know Steph worked so hard on his shooting in middle school that he sometimes cried?!” Or, “Do you realize Steph’s mother made him miss games if he forgot to do his chores?!” Also, “Isn’t cool that a player as talented as Steph always asked his coaches how he could improve?!” I have a feeling that these kids’ parents would not approve of a creepy stranger running up to their kid and asking these random questions. So instead, I’ll write about three of the many life lessons your students can learn by reading about Steph’s life.
Success requires an insane amount of work.
Steph’s father, Dell, was an excellent NBA player. When Steph was in middle school, Dell noticed his son’s shot was too easy to block. So he spent an entire summer teaching Steph new shooting techniques. And Dell didn’t teach him in a cozy NBA gym — Dell took Steph to the goal he shot at growing up. When Dell was a kid, his dad nailed a goal to a telephone pole in their yard. Dell’s father used a thick, steel rim. So you had to shoot the ball perfectly through the hoop to score — there were no forgiving bounces with that rim! And if you missed, you had to run far to retrieve the ball. Steph said, “It was make it or chase it out there.”
So Steph spent hours that summer relearning how to shoot. His grandmother remembers seeing Steph take lots of shots with tears in his eyes. It had to be an incredibly frustrating experience for Steph, who was already a good shooter. Imagine running after the ball every time your shot isn’t perfect. Imagine how tired he must have been! There must have been times when Steph doubted himself. There were probably a few times when Steph wanted to quit, especially since that was such an unfair goal to shoot on. But Steph always dragged himself to the goal every day to learn from his father.
What a powerful story to tell your students! Next time a kid feels like giving up, remind them that even Steph Curry felt so discouraged about his shooting skills in middle school that he cried. But no matter what, he didn’t give up.
I also think this story shows the importance of challenging yourself. I love that he spent an entire summer shooting on a goal that required a perfect shot to score. Steph said making shots during games was much easier after spending so much time shooting at his dad’s old goal.
Steph realized no one owed him anything
Steph’s father was a really good NBA player for 16 years. Steph was alive for most of his father’s NBA career. Steph got to attend lots of NBA games. He got to play basketball on fancy NBA practice courts. He met lots of famous players. It would have been easy for Steph to think that he was better than everyone else. But Steph realized that if he wanted to become an NBA player like his dad, he was going to have to put in a tremendous amount of work. He did not want to be automatically handed a spot on a basketball team just because of who his dad was. Steph always listened to his dad’s advice, but he wanted to earn success, not just be handed it.
Steph also worked hard in school. He tried his best to do what his parents and teachers told him to do. When he didn’t do his chores at home, Steph’s mom made him miss basketball games as punishment. Steph always loved basketball while he was growing up, but he realized that getting a good education was just as important. I love that even though Steph’s dad was famous, he remained humble, respectful, and hard-working.
Use your talents to make the world a better place
Steph is one of the best shooters in basketball history. He made 402 three-pointers during the 2015-2016 season. The next closest player had 276. Steph has always been a good shooter. When he was in college at Davidson, he started donating money to Nothing But Nets, which is a program that delivers bed nets to areas of Africa that have problems with malaria. Steph was sad when he read that a child in Africa dies from malaria every 60 seconds. He stepped up his giving when he got to the NBA, agreeing to donate enough money for three bed nets for every three-pointer he makes.
So, who will students most likely listen to: Me telling them why it’s important to work hard, or these stories about Steph Curry persevering? I’ve written a set of paired texts about Steph and Kobe Bryant that have more stories like these. I was very impressed with Steph and Kobe as I researched them. In addition to teaching reading skills with these paired texts, you can teach important life lessons as well!
Wonder is my favorite book to read with fifth graders! Students’ reactions during key moments are priceless. They pound their desks with frustration about Julian. They cheer when August wins an award at the end. Since students get so hooked on this book, my primary focus is to use the events in Wonder to teach important growth mindset principles. I teach many reading standards while we read this book, but I feel like those are secondary to the valuable life lessons kids can learn from the characters and events in Wonder.
1. Life is full of bad days, but I can get through them.
I’ve taught so many students who get extremely discouraged when tough things happen at school. I hate when students get a couple of assignments returned with low grades, then immediately want to stop working. I feel bad for kids who get teased and feel like they will never make friends. When these things happen, I remind students about August. He wanted to quit school several times during the story. August felt incredible pain when he overheard mean things said by his best friend, Jack. August’s classmates would not touch him because they said he had “the plague.” August experienced so many challenging days! But he bravely marched to school every day and tried his best. Slowly (important word there), August’s classmates realized he had a great sense of humor. They saw the amazing way he handled the hurtful things people did to him. By the end of the book, August earned the respect of his classmates and teachers. He won an incredible award. He had several good friends. For the first time in his life, he didn’t think about his appearance. It took an entire school year to reap these rewards, so it’s a good thing August continued going to Beecher Prep, even on days he didn’t feel like it.
2. I will have arguments with my friends. But I will work hard to resolve these differences. Friendships with good people are worth it.
I love the story of Via and Miranda. I also love how students clap when Via invites Miranda over to her house after the play. I know students have arguments with their friends. I also know that I am probably the last person they would talk to about these arguments. So I periodically remind students about Via and Miranda. These two drift apart once ninth grade starts without ever having a big fight. Via feels awkward around her old friend because Miranda looks different and talks about different things. Miranda feels awkward around Via because she feels like Via is judging her. The girls never discuss these things, and as a result, they spend most of the school year avoiding each other. But during the school play, Miranda makes a huge sacrifice for Via and her family. After the play, Via realizes what Miranda has done and invites her over. Both girls realize how much they have missed each other. So I remind students that good friends are worth fighting for. Don’t allow unresolved issues to allow you to drift apart from a good friend.
3. I will think about the way I treat others.
Even the most reserved students show anger at the way Julian treats August. They can’t believe that Julian says rude things to August the very first time they meet. Kids can’t believe Julian would treat such a kind, funny boy like August so terribly. All kids realize that August’s appearance is no reason for Julian to say such horrible things to him. I remind students of their realization throughout the book. But eventually, I make the kids accept the harsh fact that they have probably treated someone badly at some point in their life. I ask them to reflect on that memory, and on Julian’s actions toward August. As fifth graders prepare for middle school, I remind them not to join a crowd of people who are teasing someone who is different. I remind them of their outrage over Julian as to why.
If you haven’t read Wonder with your students, I hope you will find a way to work it into your lesson plans. I know it’s challenging teaching novels because there are not always a lot of materials to use. So I hope these ideas have given you a few things to work with. There are MANY more events in Wonder that teach your students growth mindset. I’ve put together over 100 pages of activities that will help your kids connect with the incredible characters in Wonder.