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Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, by Laura Shovan. Wendy Lamb Books, Random House. 2016. $21.00 ages 9 and up

"Our teacher's all dressed up
as this Emerson dude
who wrote about nature
and the things that he viewed.
He was walking in the sunshine.
He was swimming in the sea.
He was drinking up fresh air
and writing poetry.
Ralph Waldo was a poet.
Never heard of his before,
but his name's right there ... "

When the announcement is made that this year will be the last for Emerson Elementary, it is both a surprise and a shock. Yes, it is part of urban renewal for their area of the city. The school is a wreck and in need of major renovations. There are fewer children enrolled each year, and test scores are not good. Their community needs a supermarket, as they have no place to buy affordable and nutritious food for its ethnically diverse families. Solution: bulldoze the school and make way for a supermarket ... a sure sign of progress.

What about the school community? The announcement is the catalyst for Ms. Hill to announce that this year will be her last year of teaching. She has been there for a long time, and cannot imagine
teaching elsewhere. A time capsule is to be buried at the site. As they will be the last graduating class, Ms. Hill tasks her students with keeping a poetry journal through their fifth grade year to give voice to their thoughts and feelings.

Each poem, written in varied form, introduces readers to the 18 fifth graders, their opinions about the closing and many of their experiences at school, in the community and at home. We travel right along side them as they navigate the joys and sorrows of friendship, their worries for the future, the school events that make their year memorable, and the emotion as they face their final day. They will discover voices they didn't know they had, a camaraderie that comes from sharing a final year together. They will go on to middle school, they will 'move up', they will be changed.

Laura Shovan might just be a fifth grader herself, don't you think? The voices are authentic and the students are so worth knowing. They are funny, emotional, individual, honest. Yes, they struggle. They also stand together to put up a fight for their school and its future, informing themselves (with help) in how to best present their case. I like each one of them.

The author provides a 'closer look' at the persona poetry that makes up this collection, inviting her audience to be sure to read poetry. She then lists the poetic forms favored by the students, including suggestions for trying to create a poem for each. By suggesting a title from the text as model to accompany her suggestions, she invites readers to take an even closer look. A glossary is also useful.

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