Book Review Number Two: Finding Courage and Growth in the Classroom!

With this final post of 2021, Immersed returns to an idea from Gab Sussman, English Language Arts (ELA) teacher for upper elementary and middle school students at The New Century School. Ms. Sussman thought it would be nice to feature stand-out book reviews by her students, both to recognize their hard work as well as to encourage others to give these worthy assignments their all.

Immersed sees yet another advantage to this scheme: highlighting the exemplary ELA program at TNCS. Ms. Sussman has worked hand in hand with TNCS school counselor Daphnee Hope and TNCS Dean of Students Adriana DuPrau to integrate her core class subject with the important social and emotional learning that has been emphasized this year. Reading books and writing about them is a way to connect to our inner selves as well as to the world outside, a truth Ms. Sussman holds dear. And this book? It’s tailor-made for teens in tough situations.

A Book Review of Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes: By Dez Horvath

Bronx Masquerade is written by Nikki Grimes, and was awarded the Coretta Scott King Award, which is awarded annually by the Ethnic and Multicultural Information Exchange Round Table, and is only awarded for “the most distinguished portrayal of African American experience in literature for children or teens.” Nikki Grimes was also awarded the 2017 Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, the 2006 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, and the 2016 Virginia Hamilton Literary Award. Ms. Grimes also has published other books, such as What is Goodbye?, Garvey’s Choice, and Coretta Scott King Author Honor books Talkin’  About Bessie, Jazmin’s Notebook, The Road to Paris, Words with Wings, and Dark Sons. Ms. Grimes is also the author of Meet Danitra Brown, and lives in Corona, California. Fun fact, Ms. Grimes had the idea for this book for 5 years before starting to write it down, and it’s a good thing they did because this book had such an impact. It has such an impact, schools started their own “Open Mike Fridays.” With all these awards Ms. Grimes has gotten, Bronx Masquerade has GOT to be good.

All of Ms. Grimes awards are amazing, but the only way to get awards is to have a good story. Bronx Masquerade’s partly main character is Tyrone Bittings, and I say “partly” because they are the only one that speaks after everyone else’s chapters, and they are the character that introduces you to the story. Tyrone is currently in high school, along with pretty much all the other characters introduced in the story. Wesley Boone, Chankara Troupe, Raul Ramirez, Diondra Jordan, Devon Hope, Lupe Algarin, Gloria Martinez, Janelle Battle, Leslie Lucas, Julianne Alexander, Tanisha Scott, Sterling S. Hughes, Amy Moscowitz, Sheila Gamberoni, Steve Ericson, Raynard Patterson, and Porscha Johnson. All these characters are important because they all interact and impact each other’s lives, there is also one or more chapters written from their perspective. All these characters are in an English class together, and their teacher, Mr. Ward, starts an exercise called Open Mike Friday where students read their poems aloud to the class. At the start, everyone thought of everyone a certain way, that didn’t fit who they actually are and everyone started as not caring about everyone else, but then over time, all the poetry encouraged people to open up, show who they really are, and bring everyone together. Everyone respected each other and grew afterwards. Then came the end of the school year, and the book, and an assembly was organized, and it would be the final Open Mike Friday. Tyrone got up on stage and shared how Open Mike Friday made them feel, and what it resulted in. “I just wanted to say I’m really glad I got to do this poetry thing because I feel like, even though the people in our class are all different colors and some of you speak different language and everything, I feel like we connected.” Then some final poems were shared, and the book came to a close.

The two themes I have found in Bronx Masquerade are “courage” and “growth.” The reason I have found “courage” is because at the end of every single chapter, there was a poem. In the book, the students had to go up in front of the whole class, and read their poem, in high school. That takes some courage. And a lot of the characters’ chapters showing their perspective stated they were nervous (I would give an example, but I don’t remember the people that said they were nervous, and I don’t want to have to read through the whole book). The reason I found “growth” is because at the beginning of the book, people thought school was dumb, some people were bullies, etc. and then grew and matured from the Open Mike Fridays. An example is on page 160, “The first time he got up there, I rolled my eyes like half the sisters in class, certain he was going to spout something lame or nasty about girls and sex, or gangsters. I mean, that’s all we ever heard him talk about, right? But there was nothing lame about this poem, and none of it was about sex. It was about what’s going on in the world, and about trying to make sense of it. It was a poem by somebody who really thinks about things, and that somebody turned out to be Tyrone.” Open Mike Friday really had an impact on all the students.

The events of the book really had an impact on the characters, but what about the impact it had on readers? The point of Bronx Masquerade is to, “ignite dialogue and facilitate discussion in the classroom on a wide array of topics concerning, and affecting, teens.” When writing this book, Ms. Grimes wanted schools to think about what might be going on with a teenager, and take action. You never know what could be going on in someone’s life, especially a teen’s. Ms. Grimes doesn’t mean just sit down, and have a small discussion. They aren’t even just saying to ONLY discuss it. There are many ways to facilitate discussion concerning teens, like “Open Mike Friday.” Nikki Grimes’ hope to impact schools in the way they wanted worked amazingly, and I bet if certain readers read the book, they might realize what a teen could be going through, and do something. 

Only some people can be impacted by Bronx Masquerade, knowing its message, and do something. A kind of reader I would recommend this book to is some sort of school staff so they could help Nikki Grimes’ hope of getting schools concerned about teens. An employee of a school could orchestrate something with staff higher in ability, and help any teens in their school. Another kind of reader I would recommend this book to is someone who likes poetry, drama, and school settings in books because Bronx Masquerade has all of that. Whoever enjoyed the things I listed would love Bronx Masquerade. What a person would need to know to enjoy this book is that people can change in general, but also for the better. They would need to know that people aren’t perfect. People can be good, they just need a certain push to do so. Everyone in Bronx Masquerade start off in the book with some kind of flaw about them. At the end, they’ve all grown, and realized their past ways were wrong, or they can do something about what happened to them in the past, and move on. Bronx Masquerade is a great book, the goal it was written for was accomplished very well, and you should go read it (there’s a reason it has a big award).

Courage: A TNCS Core Value!

If this rings a bell, it’s because courage was also a primary theme of TNCS student Shonbeck Glazer’s book report. Let’s find out why Ms. Sussman chose this review as the next to spotlight:

Dez’s book review stood out to me immediately. His appreciation for Bronx Masquerade is crystal clear, and it was wonderful to hear him share his reflections, both in class with his reading buddy, and through his writing. I know that this book provided many windows for Dez, and he highlighted so many important nuances of Bronx Masquerade. I’m excited for his hard work to be featured in Immersed, and in turn, be celebrated by the TNCS community. We’re so proud of you, Dez, and are grateful for your insight!


And we are grateful to you, Ms. Sussman, for helping TNCS students find their own courage and growth and ending the year on such a high note. Here’s to an even better 2022 at TNCS . . . one that includes in-class poetry slams, perhaps? (Hint, hint.)

TNCS Student Book Review: An Immersed First!

At The New Century School, language-learning informs much of the spirit of the academic program . . . and English Language Arts is a core subject!

In the beginning of October, ELA teacher Gab Sussman assigned her middle school students the book Starfish by Lisa Fipps. Written in free verse, Starfish recounts the trials and tribulations (and triumphs!) of an 11-year-old girl bullied because of her weight. This theme tied in perfectly with the Q1 emphasis on stomping out bullying (see this post for more).

Ms. Sussman got a lot of mileage out of Starfish, weaving in lessons on metaphors, puns, proverbs, and idioms, and asking students to mark any use of such figurative language. After about a month, students were asked to complete a culminating book project comprising three components: a video assignment, a comic design, and a book review essay. “Would Immersed like to feature a stand-out book review,” asked Ms. Sussman? “Spotlight a TNCS student’s literary efforts? Yes, please!” answered Immersed, and so, without further ado, we give you . . .

A Book Review of Starfish by Lisa Fipps: By Schonbek Glazer

Lisa Fipps, the author of Starfish, grew up in a small city named Kokomo, located in Indiana. Lisa Fipps is an award-winning former journalist who graduated from Indiana’s Ball State University. She loves collecting rocks. She stated, “Everywhere I go, I find an interesting one and then bring it home to put in jars with all the others to remind myself of my travels.” Her favorite rock in her collection is a white rock from Nice, France.

The main character, Ellie, is what people may call “fat,” and she has been bullied about it. She is primarily bullied by her classmates Kortnee, Marrisa, as well as her brother Liam and her mother. The next obstacle she encounters is when her next-door neighbor/”bestie,” Viv, moves away to Indiana. She’s heartbroken, but a new neighbor named Catalina moves in. In the beginning, Ellie is skeptical of Catalina but then learns that she is an ally and doesn’t make fun of her. They both go on adventures together and overcome obstacles, she realizes that she can trust Catalina, and she makes Ellie feel better. Ellie spends most of her time in her house’s swimming pool where she feels “weightless”. Ellie then gets a therapist who she likes, she learns from her that she can let her emotions go and stick up for herself, and to love herself even more. Ellie knows that she and her body are beautiful and she stands up to her bullies.

Two themes in this book are self-love and courage. There are many aspects of self-love in the book. An example is on page 171 when she takes off all the articles her mother has hung up on the refrigerator about weight-loss and replaces them with very specific articles that are the opposite of what her mother thinks. Some titles include, “Studies show a family’s comments about an overweight child add to a negative self-image,” and “Studies show it’s not just kids and teachers at school who make fun of overweight kids; parents also bully them.” These headlines show that Ellie loves herself and worries about herself, and doesn’t agree with what her mom thinks. She tries to make the articles visible for her mother to see. She isn’t crying or anything, just sticking up for herself. An example of an act of courage is on page 226 where Ellie stands up to her bullies, Marisa and Kortnee, because they have held her dog hostage and will only give it back if Ellie eats a whale cake on camera. Ellie ends up tossing the cake at the bullies and steps up to them. Fipps writes, “I’m defending myself, I close in on Marissa. I said, ‘Give me my dog!’” This shows that she stood up against her bullies and it takes a lot of courage to do that.

The purpose of Starfish is to stand up for yourself, have self-respect, being fat is not bad, be proud of who you are, and many other things. Fipps does a lot by sharing essential details and writes from Ellie’s point-of-view. The reader feels like they are in her shoes. I think Fipps was trying to say that you never know how other people feel. She also tried to share details about herself and others suffering from fatphobia so that her readers could feel it for themselves and maybe understand a little more.

As a whole, I recommend this book to everyone. The author does an excellent job of hooking you into the book. I believe it’s a great book and has great life lessons. In my opinion, this book is for all those who like to read, who are bullied, or who don’t like their own appearance. Before you read the book, you should know that it does get shocking and a little bit sad at some parts. It demonstrates the problems we have in life but it has a valuable point of view. This also is good for people who experience fatphobia because you may be able to relate to it a lot  and have a great connection with the main character, Ellie.

Courage: A TNCS Core Value!

Although it can be no mystery why that excellent review was chosen, Ms. Sussman factored in more than just good writing, when she selected this 7th-grader’s work for special attention:

I was drawn to Schonbek’s report for many reasons. His writing is clear, honest, and it met the assignment requirements. However, the most important and poignant reason I chose to showcase his writing on Immersed is because even after only teaching him for 3 short months, I’ve seen him embody so much self-love and courage. I know that Starfish was a powerful mirror for him and he showed up to ELA class each day, bursting with connections, reflections, and deep insights. Thank you, Schonbek, for allowing us to read your work and celebrate you!


Want to learn more on how to avoid “fatphobia” and “fat-shaming”? After wrapping up their Starfish project, Ms. Sussman showed her students Kelli Jean Drinkwater’s Tedx Talk, “Enough with the fear of fat.” “[Students] answered comprehension, analytic, and reflection questions about what they learned. Her speech contextualizes and builds upon a major theme from Starfish, fatphobia, and explains how unfortunately common and harmful this problem is in our society. Many students shared how inspired they were by her words and the work she does,” said Ms. Sussman.

Thank you, Schonbeck for your inspirational work, and thank you Ms. Sussman, for giving your middle school students a space to flourish in. Finally, thanks to you both for helping make the world a more body-positive place.

Gab Sussman: Opening Windows to the World in ELA!

Middle school at The New Century School enters its fourth year with a fresh new face as homeroom teacher: Gab Sussman. The first thing that strikes anyone walking into Ms. Sussman’s classroom is her warmth. She positively radiates enthusiasm and kindness, and it’s obvious that she wants to be there.

Educational and Professional Background

Growing up in Putnam County, in New York, Ms. Sussman attended both public and private schools and has a broad understanding of what both types of school have to offer. She attended Loyola University Maryland here in Baltimore as an undergraduate in a pre-med program. She said that battling the physics and calculus courses was fine for a while until she heard a classmate talking about her elementary education classes. Something clicked, and just like that Ms. Sussman changed her major to elementary ed. “That’s where it all began,” she said. “After I graduated in 2012, I went back to New York City and began teaching in early elementary classrooms in independent schools.” She also pursued a master’s degree in educational leadership at Fordham University. “There I did a lot of professional development around integrating technology; about reading and designing curricula; as well as diversity, equity, and inclusion,” she explained.

After her time teaching and earning her graduate degree, she returned to Baltimore in 2019 to “close the gap,” as she puts it—she and her now-spouse had been maintaining a long-distance relationship and decided it was time to change that. “When I started working here in Baltimore, I had the opportunity to teach the upper elementary grades, and now I’m really excited to be teaching middle school,” she said. The impetus for her progression up through the grades came about during that professional development for coding and computer programming. Although she loved teaching early elementary, she and the school librarian started a coding club, and so she began interacting more with upper elementary school students. “What was also fun about that was, as my own students were getting older and advancing into older grades, I was able to keep in touch with them through the club and see how much they had changed. Our relationships grew and got deeper because they were older and experiencing a perspective shift. Through that after school program of coding, I realized that I really enjoy teaching older kids.”

So, when she was planning her move back to Baltimore, she had a good deal of flexibility as far as what grades she was comfortable teaching as well as what age groups she enjoys teaching. She got a position teaching in an upper elementary classroom in a Baltimore independent school. “This felt really familiar,” she said, “to be teaching 4th- and 5th-graders. It was new, but also at the same time I had the experience of teaching coding to that age, so it was a way to expand my career and my skills as a teacher.”

Her path to teaching middle school happened along a similar trajectory. At the school where she was teaching, an opportunity to coach middle school field hockey middle school presented itself. This happened during what she calls “the pandemic year” and turned out to involve more than just coaching field hockey. “I was getting to know the students and hearing what their days were like and supporting them social and emotionally. They had just done online school for a whole day, and now they’re showing up for a virtual practice. It was new, but again it was an opportunity for me to interact with this age group.”

Falling into Place at TNCS

TNCS 7th- and 8th-graders on a jaunt around Fell’s Point.

And now here she is at TNCS! She says she started wanting to teach middle schoolers in a more direct academic way, so when the position opened up here, she was quite excited about it. She has both the very familiar upper elementary–age students in her English Language Arts (ELA) classes as well as the fun new chance to teach her 7th- and 8th-graders as both homeroom teacher and ELA teacher as well as Global Studies teacher.

Things are falling into place in multiple ways for Ms. Sussman. “One of my favorite things about teaching upper elementary and now middle school are the amazing middle grade and young adult books. They are engaging and rich and complex, and I love being able to reach students through books,” she said.

Stories are really powerful, and being able to find that genre or find that one book that really turns the student into someone who loves reading feels really fulfilling. It takes the legwork to do the research and find those well-reviewed books and getting them in the hands of students, but those windows and mirrors are a really powerful way for young people to learn about the world and relate to the world outside of their own bubble of families and friends. It broadens their understanding of how the world works. I think that books teach lessons and can be opportunities for connecting with other people.

Gab Sussman being a good neighbor and helping out at Greedy Reads . . . and maybe doing a bit of research?

Ms. Sussman has ideas about how to reach those students who may not be independently grabbing a book to read or defaulting always to graphic novels.

What I love about ELA is helping kids make that bridge from graphic novels to really learning what kind of stories or what kind of characters appeal to them. There are all kinds of graphic novels; they’re not just fantasy. And the graphic novel genre and and format is very appealing to students of all ages and strengths and skill levels. Being able to help students understand that there’s something about the kind of stories that you enjoy, so let’s dig deeper into that. A lot of it has to do with just learning more about who you are. I really try to find those kinds of stories that kids need or are yearning for and and put them in their hands. ‘This is the story you’ve been wanting—once you start reading and you literally fall into the book, you’re not going to miss the pictures. The words will paint those pictures for you.’


In her second month at TNCS, Ms. Sussman says she already loves it. “I’ve always been drawn to smaller communities. As a kid, I was really lost in a large public school, and I felt like it was really hard to figure out who I was and figure out where I fit in the larger community.” She explains that this informed her university choices as well as where she felt most comfortable teaching. “The smaller structure in many ways is conducive to a stronger community feel,” she said. She also feels that TNCS is authentically diverse and multicultural:

It’s very tangible. It really affects how people interact with one another, and even in small communities, you can still feel isolated or you can still feel alone. So, it feels really wonderful to be part of a community that is intentional about representations of cultures and ways of life here. It affects the expectations that people have for each other, and it feels very vibrant in a unique way.

She says this carries over even into how some students are new to the school and some have been at TNCS for their entire academic careers. “There is really rich history in their relationships with each other. It feels natural, and, in a way, it mirrors society in terms of how people have history in a place and some people come and go.”

She’s right at home at TNCS and in her ELA classroom. And the answer is no, if you were wondering whether she experienced any regret about giving up medicine in favor of a career in education.

I would be a very, very different person if I had not gone into education. I think being an educator is part of my identity—from the the training that goes into teacher education to the experience of working with kids and partnering with families to staying up to date on child development and what literature to expose kids to. I can confidently say that I feel really proud and really happy with where I am. As I was growing up, I had an older sister go to medical school and seeing that and wanting to be like her, might’ve been a factor in why I thought I also wanted to be a doctor. But having that conversation with that one person majoring in elementary education allowed me to carve this path on my own and for myself.

That sister went on to become a child forensic psychiatrist, and so she and Ms. Sussman are both experts in different areas of child development and not only have interesting conversations but are also able to support each other in their respective work.

All in all, it’s pretty clear that, at least for this part of Ms. Sussman’s story, the ending is a happy one.

Gab Sussman and her homeroom students, just chillin’ on the TNCS campus.