Using The Distance to Home in the Classroom

Last year, I connected via Skype with two schools that used The Distance to Home in a grade-wide capacity. I was delighted to interview the teachers who spearheaded this project in their respective middle schools, Angie Hull from Dublin, OH, and Tiffany Hathaway from Folsom, NJ.

JB: When I wrote this book, I always hoped it could be used in classrooms someday. How did you select The Distance to Home to be used in this way? What was it about the title that appealed to you, and that you thought would appeal to students?

Tiffany Hathaway (TH): I attended a workshop called “What’s New in Young Adult Literature” and learned about The Distance to Home. Our middle school team was looking for a title for our One Book initiative—students entering grades 6-8 read one book over the summer and we discuss the book in September. We were committed to choosing a book that had a strong female protagonist. We also felt the topic would appeal to a wide variety of readers. As an ELA teacher, I liked the play on words of the title with the double meaning of the word ‘home.’

Angie Hull (AH): When we consider read aloud books for our sixth graders, we have about 300 students to consider. We have to consider books that will hold interest, appeal to a large audience, and are somewhat new. We have students who read at least 100 books in a year [JB: Wow – 100 books!] and we want all students to get books read aloud that they have not read. So we pick books that students may not know about.

When I first read The Distance to Home, I knew it was a book that sixth graders would love. It is written in such a way that you just have to know more, which is the best part of a read aloud. When you stop a read aloud, my favorite moment is the groan that happens when the students realize they will have to wait a day for the next piece and in your book, I found myself doing that when I was forced to stop reading for whatever reason.

At the time, we were looking for a book that would be a good fit for the end of the year (hello, baseball). We were also looking for a book to:

  1. build further understanding of plot and the idea of unique plots
  2. review Kylene Beers and Bob Probst’s fiction signposts
  3. understand how character’s change due to the plot.

Your book could not have been a better fit for our purpose. It held it all. How your book shifts from last summer to this summer creating a duel plot as you were there living those moments with the character. Furthermore, as the reader you saw intense character changes.

Overall, when our team chooses books, we think of our purpose, time of year, and books we have recently read.

JB: What are the activities that you used to complement the text? How did you come up with them?

AH: Considering our purpose of understanding plot and character change, we had students chart notes in their notebooks while reading. Then, we grouped students and had the groups create a plot diagram (or in this case a double plot diagram) based on their notes and understanding of the text. It was an amazing couple of days of discussion, processing, and really thinking about the author’s craft on how this book was created. It was also unique to see how they would design how the plots were happening.

TH: As a middle school team, we meet in the summer to brainstorm activities for our One Book initiative. We kicked off the book with an assembly in Ju

ne, playing some baseball trivia, introducing the novel, and having student readers read the first chapter. The reading was broken into parts with each student taking on a character and reading his/her parts of the chapter. We did a gallery walk of pictures of images that fit into the book. Students

were given two post-it notes and asked to reflect on two images that stood out to them; they were to explain how this image fit in the book and make a connection to the image. Some classes wrote continuations/alternative endings to the text. Others focused on the climax of the novel- choosing what they felt was the turning point, explaining why they felt this was a shift in the storyline, and locating text to support their ideas. In science, students studied reaction time and the science behind specific pitches in baseball. In math, teachers worked with batting averages. In personal/social development

and health, teachers dealt with the topic of loss.

JB: I’m so impressed with the range of cross-curricular connections you were able to make, Tiffany. It’s way beyond anything I could have imagined.

Now, I have to say, my favorite Skype visits are the ones with classes that have read my books. It’s so fascinating to see what the students take away from a text and what questions (and scenes from the book) linger with them. What was the response from students? Was their takeaway what you had anticipated, or were there surprises along the way?

TH: The response to the book was surprising. Students were very drawn in to the story and uncertainty along the way of how Haley died. We thought they would connect more with the sports aspect, and some did but most were very focused on the relationship between the sisters.

AH: Our students love the opportunity to ask questions and learn from authors. They also love the fact that I know you personally and that you are connected to Ohio. I know our Skype was huge last year as it was multiple classes coming together at once. We had it set up where students submitted questions to us first and we called up students based on what they asked so that all classes could be represented and that you weren’t getting completely off the topic questions. In my opinion, it went very smoothly – and hopefully we will be setting up another Skype with you this coming May.

JB: I would love that! I’m always impressed by the various entry points kids find into a story. One thing I remember from the thank you letters from the Dublin, OH students was how many of the kids commented on relating to Quinnen or Haley—they finished with a greater understanding of the challenge of being an older sibling, or, alternately, a younger sibling.

Thank you so much, Tiffany and Angie! None of what I do would be possible without hard-working and creative teachers like yourselves on the other end, fostering a love of reading and writing, and connecting students with the right books at the right time.

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