There are numerous days during a school year when as educators we feel joy bursting out of every fiber of our being. One of the best of these days is the first day of school. Expectations and anticipation are running high in everyone's mind. This day is brimming with potential for every single person who walks in the door regardless of their grade level or years as an educator.
As educators we have the good fortune with our students to create lasting memories; they will most likely dictate future choices. Thinking and viewpoints will be rearranged. Operation Frog Effect (Random House, February 26, 2019) written by Sarah Scheerger follows a remarkable group of eight fifth grade students and their equally remarkable teacher.
LUCKY (frog happily leaping in a pond)
UNLUCKY (said frog being attacked by a bird)
LUCKY! (frog is saved by a human who sticks him in his pocket)
UNLUCKY! (student, Blake, is heading to school)
This first entry in the first chapter is done as a page in a graphic novel. This is how Blake presents his voice to readers throughout the book. The frog he smuggles into the classroom becomes a focus very quickly. Another student, Henry, portrays his viewpoint as if he is writing a script for a movie scene. A third student, Sharron, writes in free verse poems.
We are privy to their story through their reflections for a reason revealed on the first day of school. Their teacher, Ms. Graham, has requested they keep journals. The journals will be never read by her, by anyone. (This does not remain entirely true. Who breaks this rule?)
Through their writing their distinct personalities emerge. Emily has named her journal Hope. Each of her pages begin by addressing Hope. Kayley writes directly to Ms. Graham. Kai decides to make Frog (who is eventually named Kermit) the recipient of his literary revelations. Cecilia forms letters to her Abuelita, her grandmother living in Mexico. She concludes with English words for her grandmother to practice. Aviva, shy and concerned, dates her words, more like a formal diary.
One of these students is living in a garage with their mother, one has over-protective parents who give them no choice in any decisions, another student is always the class comedian, one is living with a distant, sad mother and a father who is never around and a fifth student is so intelligent they finish their work and devour a novel in the same day. There is a student free with their opinions believing they are always right, another student sees the world with uncanny wisdom (usually), and the eighth classmate has moved repeatedly for reasons they can never share.
As the year begins, they are told the tables with groups of four, where they seated when they entered the room, will remain. Of the students, on which this story centers, there are a variety of emotions at this news. They are eight very particular people. Through a series of class exercises (an egg drop challenge) and projects (an endeavor illustrating inequality and injustice), their differences become strengths as they evolve into two teams of four and an extraordinary group of eight.
The largest of the assignments highlights current social issues. The discussions around the themes further present personalities but we begin to see shifts in thinking. When Ms. Graham directs them to immerse themselves in their topic, one group makes a bad decision. This decision leads to consequences they could never have imagined but it also gives our eight protagonists the chance to put what their teacher believes into real-life practice. Tension escalates as each team member works at what they do best, but will it be enough to reverse earlier repercussions.
No matter your age (we've all or will be fifth grade students), you will find Sarah Scheerger speaks with clarity and knowledge of the hearts of these girls and boys. She does not alternate equally between the eight voices, but each entry flows naturally from one to the other. This style takes us directly, with realism, into their individual and collective lives.
By choosing to have the eight students use a specific approach in their journals, more readers can identify with them. (We all have various ways to express our thoughts.) Blake's pictures reveal those things not easily considered verbally. Sharon's poems condense events with astounding insight. Henry's scenes present conversations. Sarah Scheerger also, when applicable, inserts the names of other well-known books titles. Here are two passages of many, many marked in my copy of this book.
I work alone.
Sure, I sit in a table group.
Sure, we talk.
But they all think I'm weird.
I am weird.
I don't have three eyes
Or purple polka dots,
But there's something about me
Different means strange.
Mom says it's because I don't care
About what other people think.
But she's wrong.
I do care about what people think.
I find it fascinating.
But I don't care to change ME in order to make them like me.
There's an old picture book called Harold and the Purple Crayon. The kid walks around all over the place, drawing things. It's like he's making up his own story as he goes. If he's falling, he draws a parachute. If he hits an obstacle, he draws an escape route. Too bad life's not really like that. Because right now, I need a purple crayon.
Authentic fifth-grade student voices from a variety of backgrounds and situations alter their opinions under the direction of one vibrant teacher who urges them to work together for a common goal. Readers will find Operation Frog Effect written by Sarah Scheerger captivating from beginning to end. They will find themselves nodding knowingly, cheering, laughing and maybe getting a bit teary at times. This is read-aloud gold. You will certainly want a copy in your collections.
To learn more about Sarah Scheerger and her other work, please follow the link attached to her name to access her website. She has many extra reference materials relative to this book there. At the publisher's website you can read several chapters. Here is a link to a clip from the audiobook. Here are clips of the various readers for the characters in the audiobook. This book is part of an educator's guide on school stories. You can find classroom extension activities here. Sarah Scheerger writes a guest post at the Nerdy Book Club. Sarah Scheerger is interviewed at MG Book Village, From The Mixed-Up Files . . . and YAYOMG! Sarah Scheerger has an account on Twitter.