A Review of Two of the ‘Kids of Polk Street School’ Books

The Kids of the Polk Street School series is written for young readers who are eagerly beginning to stretch their reading skills to chapter books.  This is quite an exciting time of new goals for children. Each book focuses on a student in Ms. Rooney’s second grade classroom.

The Beast in Ms. Rooney’s Room

“Make it a practice to judge persons and things in the most favorable light at all times, in all circumstances.”  – St. Vincent de Paul

Reading level

3.2        [Scholastic – reflects the grade level at which a student reading on grade could read the book independently]

2.1         [AR]

Interest level

Grades  3 – 5

Review and Comments

The Beast in Ms. Rooney’s Room, the first book in the series, introduces readers to several typical second grade students.  Richard “Beast” Best is one of the students beginning the new school year in Ms. Rooney’s class – for the second time.  Because of this, Richard has to deal with a lot of concerns before he feels comfortable in a class of younger children.  What will he tell his old classmates about why he was left back?  Why does he have to feel so big next to the other second graders?  Why does he still have baby teeth?  Why can he only read ten words? Why does he get in trouble so often? The reader understands more about Richard’s struggles through his relationships with other students who eventually support and accept him.  Inevitably, there is also an irritating student who attempts to upset Richard’s adjustment to the new school year with hurtful remarks.

The story reveals some interesting details about Richard that show he is not quite the Beast his nickname boasts. He is a very good artist.  He likes football. And he definitely hates spelling. Richard also has some preconceived impressions about some of his new classmates, especially Emily and Matthew.  These notions change when he begins to see them in a more sympathetic light and understands they have issues and struggles just like he does. He realizes Emily is a much tougher girl than he originally thought when she takes the blame for something he does and quietly accepts the consequences.  Matthew’s continuing story as the bed-wetter is somewhat resolved for Richard when he realizes Matthew just wants to be friends.  He also helps Richard with some pointers on tackling his spelling problem, which is a great lesson for the reader. He even learns some lessons, as distressing as they are, when a few of Richard’s old classmates continue to taunt him about being with younger children and going to a special reading class for babies every day.

Richard begins to settle in a bit when the he and Emily decide the class can win the blue banner, a weekly reward banner that is given to the class with the best behavior. They encourage everyone in their class to work as a team in order to win the banner.  It takes a few weeks, but the class is at last rewarded the banner in the last chapter.  That is not the end of Richard’s success story. By the end of the book his reading improves, and he has a loose baby tooth – finally!

The characters in Ms. Rooney’s classroom and the storyline are relatable.  Second and third graders will enjoy the appeal of the story.  I do have reservations about this story being offered to children younger than this because of the concerns I have noted.  It may not be the best first chapter book experience even if they are capable of reading the story.  On the other hand, if this book is read with a parent, many lessons can be taught about being kind and respecting others and how to handle those difficult situations that may occur.  I would recommend that parents read this book first in order to determine whether this is the perfect option.

Possible Concerns

  • A boy named Matthew is described as having “stick-out ears and a wet-the-bed smell”.

“Matthew grinned at Richard. But Richard didn’t smile back.  Who wanted to be friends with a boy with dirty ears?  Someone who still wet the bed.”

  • During the puppet show an old classmate taunts Richard after saying the second graders were babies and they just wanted to watch the show.

“Richard wants to watch Hansel and Gretel, don’t you?” Richard felt Drake giving him a little poke in the back.  “Right, Richard?” Drake asked. “Richard likes this baby puppet show.”

  • Richard’s sister and her friend explain who James K. Polk is to Richard.

His sister says, “I told you, Joanne.  He’s a dummy.” And later in the conversation she calls him dumb again.

  • Drake, Richard’s antagonist, meets Richard in the library.

“You can’t read that.  You have to go to remedial reading because you can’t read.  Baby. ….you go to baby reading.”

  • Richard confirmed Matthew’s spelling advice.

“Matthew was right.  That baby with the wet-the-bed smell was right.”   But then he adds, “He wasn’t such a baby.”

  • Richard thought a first grader looked like a midget.

Further Discussion

“The things that make me different are the things that make ME.” – A. A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh

Vocabulary: clamped, chow mein, Olympics, exception, thumbtack, remedial, gym, cranky, tacked up, squished, midget, assembly,

Art

  1. The blue banner is described in chapter1. Design a banner of good behavior you would like to earn.
  2. Draw a picture of the Witch’s house from Hansel and Gretel.

Ms. Rooney’s class goes to a performance of Hansel and Gretel.

  1. Read or reread the story of Hansel and Gretel.
  2. Use a reader’s theater for Hansel and Gretel.
  3. Make puppets to tell the story.

Discuss.

  1. Richard realizes that his first impressions of Emily and Matthew are wrong. What made Richard change his mind?
  2. Emily keeps a unicorn with her at all times. Why?
  3. An old classmate of Richard’s seems nicer when he meets him in the hallway without Drake present. What do you think changed his attitude?
  4. Drake repeatedly uses sarcasm to hurt Richard. Why do you think Drake does this?  How does this make Richard feel?
  5. What do Emily and Matthew do to show Richard they would make good friends? What are the qualities you want in a friend? How do you show others that you are a good friend?
  6. The word midget is used to describe a small first grade boy. It is offensive to most people who were born with dwarfism. The person’s name is the way to refer to a person with dwarfism. What word(s) can be used to describe the condition of someone with dwarfism correctly? [little person, dwarf, or LP are acceptable]

Write a letter to Richard…

  1. ….with advice about how to handle the first day of school.
  2. ….with encouragement or suggestions about his reading trouble.
  3. ….with advice about how to handle his confrontations with Drake.

One of the topics addressed in this book is self-esteem.  This is a very interesting article about self-esteem and self-worth.  “The Problem with Self-Esteem” by Paul C. Vitz 

 Catholic Resources

There are some well known saints who did not enjoy school or had difficulties learning.

  1. Augustine did not want to attend school.  He did become a teacher after a long period. (Feast day August 28)
  2. John Vianney (Cure` of Ars) was prevented from becoming a priest for a time because of his difficulties with learning. A tutor helped him, and he was ordained but “more for his holiness than for his achievements in school.” (Feast day August 4)
  3. Bernadette was considered a “slow student”. She wasn’t allowed to make her First Communion until she was 14 because of her difficulties. {April 16)
  4. Thomas Aquinas was called “the Dumb Ox” by his classmates because he never said anything, although he was really very intelligent. (Feast day January 28)
  5. Ignatius had to attend grammar school as a grown man because of a late start learning Latin. (Feast day July 31)

CCC 1931 Respect for the human person proceeds by way of respect for the principle that “everyone should look upon his neighbor (without any exception) as ‘another self,’ above all bearing in mind his life and the means necessary for living it with dignity.”

Fish Face

 “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” – John 8:31-32

Reading level    

Grades 3 – 5        [Scholastic – reflects the grade level at which a student reading on grade could read the book independently]

Grades 2 – 4

Grade   2              (AR)

Interest level:    

Grades 3 – 5

Review and Comments

Fish Face, the second book in the Polk Street series, tells the story of Emily Arrow (introduced in The Beast in Ms. Rooney’s Room) and Dawn Bosco, a new student.  Their relationship has a very rough beginning that continues throughout most of the story. By the end of the book however the girls resolve their issues and a new friendship blossoms.

Emily is a likeable character.  She is the fastest runner in the class.  She has trouble with reading but is good at math, subtraction in particular. She is enthusiastic about simple things like saving a worm’s life or noticing the smallest details about the class fish. She also carries her good luck charm Uni, her unicorn, with her at all times.

Things are really going well for Emily in Ms Rooney’s class.  Enter a new student, Dawn Tiffanie Bosco.  When Ms. Rooney assigns her the desk next to Emily the drama begins.  At first, Emily makes polite conversation while observing Dawn’s impeccable appearance and her perfect supplies. She even introduces Uni to Dawn and lets her hold it.  Then, a real crisis occurs when Uni turns up missing.  Emily is convinced Dawn took her precious Uni, and Dawn is adamant she returned it.  This dispute causes plenty of problems all week. Emily and her friend and ally, Richard “Beast” Best, make a plan to secretly search Dawn’s desk which in the end proves Dawn did indeed take Uni. But how to handle the situation now that they know for sure is not quite so easy.

Amid the Dawn and Emily crisis, the class is planning a surprise birthday party for Ms. Rooney.  The children decide what they will contribute to the celebration, but Emily wants to leave Dawn completely out of any plans. Her heart softens a bit when Dawn helps her during reading group, and Emily finally realizes how sad Dawn is at Polk School. She changes her mind and quickly tells Dawn about the plan. The day of the party arrives and the excitement of the celebration helps relieve some of the tension between the girls. Eventually, each one confesses their wrong doings to the other, and their apologies are accepted. Harmony prevails once more in the second grade, and the reader witnesses the beginning of a new friendship.

This story certainly illustrates the problems that can result from a lie. This lie has a life of its own and affects more people than just Emily and Dawn. It’s a good lesson. Dawn and Emily’s story also shows how first impressions are not always accurate and good things come from second chances.

Emily’s dad is a good solid character.  He adds some valuable adult perspective to the broad second grade impressions and attitudes.  It is refreshing to see a parent being portrayed as a role model.  At one point, Emily talks to her dad about Dawn stealing Uni.  He doesn’t automatically sympathize with Emily or condemn Dawn. He patiently suggests that maybe Uni isn’t her good luck charm and maybe she really doesn’t need it anymore to make good things happen.  He also advises her to try to make a new beginning with Dawn because she may be having a hard time as a new student.  Emily doesn’t argue against this advice but considers what her dad says and in the end she realizes her dad is correct on both points.

Second and third graders will be able to relate to this story.  I feel girls might identify more than boys, but Richard’s contributions to the plot might satisfy the boys.

Possible Concerns

Thoughts and comments expressed about Matthew:

  1. Matthew was a good kid. But he still wet the bed.  You had to try not to breathe when you sat near him.”
  2. “Boy, does that kid smell!” said Dawn

Emily’s thoughts about Dawn:

  1. “Emily stared at the radiator. She had picked off a big piece yesterday.  It looked like a picture of an ugly girl.  A girl with curly hair.  It looked like Dawn Tiffanie Bosco.”
  2. “At least there was one thing Dawn Tiffanie Bosco couldn’t do.”
  3. “That Dawn was a show-off.”
  4. “Dawn’s a baby,” Emily said.

“Who’s that?” Dawn asked.  ….“Where did he get that crazy name?”

Emily’s thought about the substitute teacher:

  1. “It was the one with the fat stomach and the little skinny legs. The one that yelled all the time.”
  2. “Suddenly the teacher’s name popped into Emily’s head. Miller.  Miller the killer, she told herself.” [The rhyming continues.]

Further Discussion

Vocabulary: sneakers, flicked, edged, dashed, ruffles, tassel, crouched, Fluffernutter, looseleaf, radiator, substitute, nonsense, columns, company, ball-point pen, gumdrops, , custodian, rusty taste, strictest, impatiently, double Dutch jump rope, crepe paper

Idioms: cross my heart, lump in her throat, popped into her head, good as gold

[The substitute teacher practiced clapping out word syllables with each reading group.] Recognizing the number of syllables in a word by clapping out the syllables is a strategy that helps a child understand word parts which increases fluency and even spelling.

The students sang, “Oh say can you see…”

  1. This is one of many websites with the words to the Star Spangled Banner.
  2. “The Story Behind the Star Spangled Banner” 

Reader’s Theater – Christopher Columbus

Predict. When reading the book, take time to stop after certain passages in order to predict what will happen next.  Then continue reading to see if the prediction is accurate. The predictions can be written as a simple sentence.  Then the actual event can be added under the prediction.

  1. Examples:

Chapter 1 – Emily is late going to the classroom from recess.  What will the teacher say/do?

Chapter 2 – Uni is missing.  Where could it be?

Chapter 3 – There is a lot of discussion about who will win the race in gym class.  Do you think

Emily will win? Who will win?

Chapter 5 – Emily can’t stop laughing when she is mentally making up rhymes about the

substitute’s name.  What will happen to Emily? What will the teacher do?

Chapter 6 – Emily looks through Dawn’s desk for Uni.  Will she find Uni?

Chapter 9 – Emily picks paint off of the radiator.  Will anyone find out she is the one doing it?

Identify similarities (compare) and differences (contrast) between Emily and Dawn.

  1. Divide a large paper or poster into three columns. Draw a picture of Emily at the top of the left column, draw a picture of Dawn at the top of the right column, and draw a picture of both girls at the top of the center column.
  2. List all the ways Dawn and Emily are different under each girl’s picture. [Examples: Emily- straight hair, good at subtraction, Dawn – curly hair, good at reading, new girl]
  3. In the center column list all the ways the girls are similar. [Examples: second graders, good runners, tell lies]

Organize the story by putting events in the correct  sequence.

  1. Write 5 to 10 sentences about important events from the beginning, middle, and end of the story. Cut the sentences apart.  Put them in order. When the sentences are in the correct order, draw a picture for each sentence.

The Empty Pot by Demi is an excellent story to continue the lesson of honesty.  It is well suited for the suggested reading range.

Catholic Resources:

CCC 2464 The eighth commandment forbids misrepresenting the truth in our relations with others. This moral prescription flows from the vocation of the holy people to bear witness to their God who is the truth and wills the truth. Offenses against the truth express by word or deed a refusal to commit oneself to moral uprightness: they are fundamental infidelities to God and, in this sense, they undermine the foundations of the covenant.

CCC 2465 The Old Testament attests that God is the source of all truth. His Word is truth. His Law is truth. His “faithfulness endures to all generations.” Since God is “true,” the members of his people are called to live in the truth

CCC 2468 Truth as uprightness in human action and speech is called truthfulness, sincerity, or candor. Truth or truthfulness is the virtue which consists in showing oneself true in deeds and truthful in words, and in guarding against duplicity, dissimulation, and hypocrisy.

 

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