Review Exploration at Expedition

Serendipity seemed in full force when Jena Kaizen and I met to arrange scheduling for a review writing residency at Expedition School in Hillsborough, NC (

I had wanted to work at Expedition ever since I heard of their emphasis on project-based learning.  It seemed a perfect place to find partnership for my teaching style–writing that is driven by exploration to find understanding rather than curriculum mandates.


I’d been craving another opportunity to work with Jena.  We worked together for a brief afternoon two years ago.  It didn’t take me long to see how she emphasized and promoted deep thought. I read aloud Jaqueline Woodson’s Each Kindness (Dial, ages 8 and up) and her students, obviously encouraged by Jena’s teaching style, responded with considered, candid responses that thrilled both of us.

Thanks to the dedication of talented grant-writing parents, the parents of the 5th and 6th grade Expedition parents and the generous supportive of the Orange County Arts Commission, this dream became a reality.  And as plans proceeded the residency seemed supported in other ways —a like-minded school environment, the matched teaching styles Jena and I used and the fact that both our schedules were clear for the next five weeks.

But Mother Nature had another plan.   The first Tuesday I showed up, so did snowfall. We were only half-way into a lesson when school cancelled.  Cancellations and spring break interceded, but finally yesterday we finished five weeks of fun writing with delightful, engaged students.


Kids listening to readaloud


One of the things I adored about our work was Jena’s willingness to leap into collaboration and suggestions based in years of teaching experience and knowing her students’ styles.  We began by compiling review criteria and Jena composed a marvelous charting of all we uncovered.


6th Grade

Criteria for Book Review


About the Book About the Reviewer (& his/her thinking) Reviewer’s Writing Style
  • summary (tell enough, but not too much – no spoiling!)
  • title
  • author
  • characters
  • setting
  • description
  • short (2 paragraphs)
  • picture of the book
  • genre(s)
  • sequel or series
  • author’s writing style
  • how the character changes
  • opinion of the book (favorite part)
  • reasoning for liking it (or not)
  • opinion of the characters
  • predictions
  • opinions (feelings)
  • why you should read it
  • powerful words
  • pose questions (to make readers think more and want to read the book)
  • be descriptive
  • short
  • grab attention
  • 1st person perspective
  • picture of reviewer


We read several books to the 5th and 6th grade classes.

They chose a favorite to review.

We decided which criteria fit these books best.

We organized these in order.  (I refer to this as “the Muhammad Ali method”—you start punch with your first reason, “float like a butterfly” with the second reason, and then “sting like a bee” with your strongest point).

The students came up with supporting specifics for each point. (I used the word “specifics” so often that Jena and I thought it a more apt expression than supporting details which has become a rote term to so many students.)

Then we revised, edited in a series of drafts.  Below are the most current drafts.



The Promise by Nicole Davies

A Collaborative Review by Fifth Graders at Expedition School

Draft 7

In Nicola Davies’ imaginative book, The Promise, people and places come alive with descriptions and illustrations.   The Promise will make you feel as if you’ve leaped into a rainbow of feelings.

The powerful language allows you to imagine what the main character, an unnamed young girl, is feeling.  She is mean and nasty like her city until a wise old woman opens her eyes to a world of kindness.

The book’s illustrations by Laura Carlin show a dark and gloomy city.  Silhouettes help you experience the cruel, soulless people who live there.  The book’s illustrations remain dull until the girl keeps her promise to the old woman by planting an entire bag of acorns that bring color into her world.

The theme of change is expressed well in this book.  It thoroughly describes, in words and pictures, how harsh, broken cities and towns can become lush and magnificent.   As the illustrations transform, it becomes clear how everyone can make a difference. The more that people get involved, the greater that change will be.

The Promise  takes readers on a heart-felt journey from despair to joy.  We promise you that this inspiring book will open your eyes and leave you knowing how kindness can grow in your life.


And here’s a glorious student watercolor that perfectly captures the tone of this picture book:


Watercolor by Raina

Watercolor by Raina



Ruth and the Green Book by Calvin Alexander

A Collaborative Review by Sixth Graders at Expedition School

Draft 8

In Calvin Alexander’s Ruth and the Green Book, an innocent black girl shows you how hard life was during the times of segregation.  Floyd Cooper’s realistic illustrations record her struggle to discover where she belongs.

Ruth, the heroine, is excited about traveling from Chicago to her grandmother’s house in Alabama.   She quickly sees the challenges an African-American family faces in the 1950’s when she isn’t allowed to use the public bathroom at a gas station.  Along the way people show Ruth and her family safer ways to avoid obstacles by giving them The Green Book.  This book, written by Victor Green, was a guide to restaurants, gas stations, and hotels that welcomed African-American travelers.

The realistic illustrations give a sense of the period as Cooper represents the style of the 1950’s with its cars, clothing, and buildings.  Even more important, his artwork captures the emotions of the characters.  The darkness of the sepia colors add to the sense of Ruth’s confusion when she encounters the Jim Crow laws.

The strongest element in this book is the symbols.  For example, Ruth’s brown teddy bear is not just a stuffed animal, it’s a symbol of comfort.  The Green Book not only guides the family, but represents the trust they find and a sense of community.

Ruth and the Green Book takes readers on an emotional journey through history as it teaches how African-Americans found solutions to the many hardships of segregation in the South. This book will really touch your heart.


Every day we read aloud, had contests for review writing words, and talked about writing and books.  When I told them about all the drafts I’d done of my picture book, Extraordinary Chester, they begged for a reading.  I consented and the class chose a great actor to represent Chester!


Susie Reading, Sam as Chester

2 thoughts on “Review Exploration at Expedition

  1. Sharon Wyman on said:

    This seems to me to be what education should be about, kids being partners in learning. Loved hearing about the process and witnessing some of the elements of the results. In the interest of full disclosure, I am Jena’s mom. I have witnessed her in her role as teacher/education coach a few times and love that her classroom is always an exciting place. Not necessarily quiet! How wonderful that you and she could collaborate in this way. Sorry about the weather interruptions, but it was just a taste of what we New Englanders experience – especially this past winter. Thank you for offering enrichment to her class.

    • Susie Wilde on said:

      Thank you for the gift of Jena–her enthusiasm and classroom elegance are so lovely to be around-both for fellow teachers, and her students!

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