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Liz Brizzi
The Day the Worms Moved In

Nothing scares Maddie more than worms. Will she be able to deal with 1,500 of these creepy creatures in her house? 

By Marlane Kennedy | Art by Liz Brizzi
From the March/April 2021 Issue

Students will identify the parts of a story’s plot in order to understand how the story’s events affect the main character.

Lexile: 500L-600L, 600L-700L
Guided Reading Level: P
DRA Level: 36
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Think and Read: Plot

The plot of a story is what happens in it. As you read, look for events in the beginning, middle, and end that affect Maddie. 

“Worms! You’re going to raise worms in the garage?”

“Yes, Maddie.” Mom nods and asks me to pass the cheese.

“Cool,” says my older brother, Carter, as he spins spaghetti around his fork.

Cool is not the word I would use. Some people have a fear of flying. Or freak out at the sight of blood. With me, seeing even a single worm makes me . . . well, imagine being in the path of an oncoming train. That’s the feeling I get when I see a worm. Total panic.

I have a huge worm phobia. But it’s a secret. You know how brothers and other kids are. Once they find out your weakness, you’re done for. So I’m not about to say anything now.

“I’m going to use the worms in a composting bin,” Mom continues. “It’s a special type of box for composting.”

“What’s composting?” I ask.

“It’s a way to recycle. The worms will eat our leftover food and leave worm poop,” Mom explains. “Then we’ll add it to our garden to help plants grow.”

Ew. I can’t believe my mom is talking about worm poop at the dinner table. I stare at my spaghetti noodles. They look like worms. I feel sick. 

Worms! You’re going to raise worms in the garage?”

“Yes, Maddie.” Mom nods and asks me to pass the Parmesan cheese.

“Cool,” says my 6-year-old brother, Avery, his face smeared with spaghetti sauce.

Cool is not the word I would use.

Some people have a fear of flying or freak out at the sight of blood. With me, seeing even a single worm makes me . . . well, imagine being in the path of an oncoming train. That’s the feeling I get when I see a worm. Total panic.

I blame Billy Peppercorn. In kindergarten, he told me to hold out my hands and close my eyes. I knew Billy liked me. So I did as he said, expecting something truly wonderful. Into my hands he plopped his prized possession: a 9-inch night crawler named Buddy that he had been keeping for months in a dirt-filled jar. I screamed and threw Buddy high in the air. Where he landed nobody knows, though Billy spent an hour crying and looking for him. In the end, Billy decided to find someone else to like, and I ended up with a severe worm phobia.

Which is a shame, because Billy Peppercorn is now in my fifth-grade class, and he turned out really cute.

My worm phobia is a secret. You know how kids and brothers are. Once they find out your weakness, you’re done for. So I’m not about to mention it now.

I look over at Dad, hoping he’ll do something, but he just calmly takes a bite of garlic bread.

“I’m going to use the worms in a composting bin,” Mom says. “They’ll eat leftovers, leave castings, and create lovely garden soil for me.”

“What are castings?” asks Avery.

“Worm poop,” Mom answers.

I can’t believe my mom is talking about worm poop at the dinner table.

“Will there be enough room in the garage for my car?” my brother Carter asks.

Carter is 16, and his car is rusty and dented, but it’s his prized possession. Sort of like Buddy was to Billy Peppercorn.

“The bin won’t take up much space. Your car will be fine,” Mom says.

I stare at my spaghetti noodles tinged pink with tomato sauce. They look like worms.

I feel sick.

Liz Brizzi

"Enjoy Your Breakfast!"


The worms arrived three days ago— all 1,500 of them. When Mom opened the box, she held up a few and called them beauties. Beauties? By the way my mom is acting around the worms, you’d think they were our pets!

The worm-filled box stayed in the living room while Mom prepared their new home. Mom explained that she couldn’t just dump the worms into the composting bin. She had to prepare it first and make sure the temperature was just right.

Now she is all excited because we’re about to use the composting bin for the first time. The entire family marches out to the garage after breakfast. The bin itself is a wooden box with a mesh lid. It sits on top of two racks. There are tiny holes drilled in the bottom and sides of the bin for air.

We all gather around the bin. Mom lifts the lid. “Enjoy your breakfast!” she says, as if the worms can hear and understand her. Then we tip our cereal bowls so the leftovers spill out.

I turn my head away. I know I’d faint if I caught even a glimpse of the worms. Once the lid is closed, I notice some straw against the garage wall.

“What’s with the straw?” I ask.

“It’s for the winter,” Mom says. “When  it gets cold, I’ll put straw in the bin. It will protect the worms from the cold.”

Can’t be too hot. Can’t be too cold. These worms sure are delicate. 

〰〰〰〰〰〰〰〰〰〰〰

The worms arrived three days ago—all 1,500 of them. Who knew you could order earthworms online and have them delivered right to your door? When Mom opened the box, she held up a few, cooed to them, and called them beauties. Beauties? My heart jumped out of my chest and fled the room. I quickly followed. 

For several days, the worm-filled box stayed in the living room while Mom prepared their new home. I almost died. But Mom explained that she couldn’t just dump them in the composting bin. First, she had to make bedding for them by combining newspaper, soil, manure, and peat moss. Then, she had to wait a few days to make sure the bacteria in the mixture didn’t heat things up too much. Temperatures above 85 degrees can kill worms.

We don’t have a dog or a cat, but by the way Mom’s been fussing and worrying over the worms, you’d think they were our pets! Weird.

Right now, she is all excited and fluttering around the breakfast table because we’ll be using the composting bin for the first time.

The entire family marches out to the garage. The composting bin consists of a wooden frame with a hinged mesh lid. There are tiny holes drilled in the bottom and sides for drainage and air. The bin sits atop two sawhorses.  

Mom lifts the lid. “Bon appétit!” she says, as if the worms can hear and understand her.

Everyone clusters around the bin, tipping cereal bowls so the leftovers spill out. I turn my head away, knowing I’d faint if I caught even a glimpse of pink in the dirt.

Once the lid is safely closed, I notice a couple of bales of straw against the garage wall.

“What’s with that?” I point my spoon.

“It’s for the winter,” Mom says. “Eventually, I’m going to use the straw to protect the worms from the cold.”

Worms sure are delicate, I think. Can’t be too hot. Can’t be too cold.

My mind turns to trickery. A heating pad shoved into the worm bedding. Or ice cubes. Ice cubes would be better, I decide. The evidence would melt, and I’d be in the clear.

Except for one problem.

There’s no way I’d be able to stick my hand in that bin to shove anything down. Dribbling food from a foot above is bad enough.

Living in a Nightmare 

Two months later, I’m still creeped out. You’d think I’d get used to the idea of worms in the garage by now. I try to finish every bit of food on my plate so I can avoid going near that bin. But the worms are always on my mind.

My bedroom is above the garage. Sometimes I lie awake in the middle of the night. I worry that the floor will collapse and I’ll fall into a pile of worms. Or I’ll suddenly feel slimy and gross for no reason at all. Sharing my home with those things is like living in a nightmare!

Today Mom is visiting my aunt. Carter is still sleeping, and I’m eating breakfast. I have a few bits of toast I can’t finish. I consider putting what’s left in the trash. But then I think about Mom and her worms, and I feel guilty. I decide to go feed the worms.

I open the door, and it takes a moment to fully understand what is in front of me: hundreds of worms wiggling around under the composting bin and across the floor. 

〰〰〰〰〰〰〰〰〰〰〰

You’d think that after two months I’d get used to the idea of worms in the garage. But I’m still creeped out. Most of the time, I manage to finish every sliver of food on my plate, just so I can avoid being in the presence of that bin. The worms are always on my mind anyway, though. My bedroom is above the garage, and sometimes I lie awake in the middle of the night worried that the floor will collapse and I’ll fall into oodles of worms. Or out of the blue, I’ll feel slimy and gross for no reason at all. Sharing my home with those things is a living nightmare!

It’s a Saturday morning, and Mom is out of town visiting my aunt. Dad woke up early to take Avery to an indoor soccer tournament. Carter is still sleeping, and I’m eating breakfast. I look out the kitchen window and see a light dusting of first snow. Two days ago it was in the 60s! Midwest weather. Go figure.

I have a few tidbits of toast I am unable to finish. I consider putting what’s left down the garbage disposal, but thinking about Mom makes me feel guilty, so I go ahead and brave the garage. If I don’t actually see the worms, I can handle it. Sort of.

I open the door, and it takes a moment to fully comprehend what is before me: hundreds of worms writhing around under the composting bin and across the floor.  

I scream a top-of-my-lungs scream, hoping Carter will come to rescue me. I continue screaming until I realize Carter isn’t coming. I also realize some of the worms are no longer wiggling.

They’re dead.

Liz Brizzi

Act Fast 

I scream at the top of my lungs, hoping Carter will come to rescue me. I continue screaming until I realize that Carter isn’t coming. I also realize some of the worms are no longer wiggling. 

They’re dead.

I watch as worms drop from the holes at the bottom of the bin onto the floor below. Maybe I should close the door and not tell anyone. Maybe the worms will all die.

But what if most of them don’t? What if they find their way inside? To wherever I am? Like in some kind of scary movie?

I run inside and call Mom. “The worms! They’re dropping onto the floor,” I yell into the phone.

Mom sounds upset. She hadn’t thought it would get that cold overnight. She explains that when it turns cold, worms burrow into the ground to find warmth. But these worms weren’t in the ground. So they burrowed themselves right out of the holes in the bottom of the bin.

“You have to act fast,” she says. 

I watch helplessly as worms drop from the holes at the bottom of the bin onto the floor below

Maybe I should close the door and not tell anyone. Maybe the worms will all die. But what if most of them don’t? What if they find their way inside? To wherever I am? Like in some kind of horror movie?

I tear upstairs to Carter’s room and shake him. “The worms escaped!”

“What?” he says, yawning.

“There are worms all over the garage floor! What are we going to do?” 

“How am I supposed to know? Call Mom on her cell phone.” Carter covers his head with his blanket.

I tumble downstairs and call Mom. “The worms! They’re dropping onto the floor,” I yell into the phone.

Mom sounds upset. She explains that when it turns cold, worms burrow into the ground to find warmth. Since these guys weren’t in the ground, they burrowed themselves right out of the drainage holes in the bottom of the bin. She didn’t think it would get that cold overnight. 

“You have to act fast,” she says. “Round up the worms that are still alive and put them back in the bin. Take the bin off the sawhorses and move it closer to the ground. Prop it up on a few bricks—there are some near Dad’s workbench. Once straw is placed on top of the bin and around it, the worms should be better protected from the cold. Hurry!”

Liz Brizzi

Facing My Fear


“Pick up the worms that are still alive and put them back in the bin. Then you’ll have to move the bin to the floor,” Mom explains. “Place some straw on top of the bin and all around it. The worms need to be protected from the cold. And hurry!”

I run back out to the garage. Then I flip open the lid to the bin and take a deep breath. I kneel down and begin pushing the worms into a pile. I gently scoop up about 15 of them and carry them back to their home.

I try not to think about how cold and disgusting they feel. And I avoid looking down. If I do, I might panic and toss the worms into the air.

I carry pile after pile of worms to the bin. Then I hurry upstairs to wake my brother. “Carter! Mom says we have to move the composting bin. Now!”

Carter walks sleepily down the stairs after me. We move the bin to the floor. Then we move straw onto the bin and around it. I gather up a few more worms. Then I take a deep breath and study the floor.

Estimated number of dead worms: about 30. Not enough to ruin Mom’s composting plans. That should make her happy.

I go into the house and wash my hands, using hot water and plenty of soap. I feel good about saving the worms.

Actually, I’m pretty proud of myself. I faced my fear. And I survived. 

I scramble back out to the garage, flip open the lid to the bin, and take a deep breath. Kneeling down, I begin pushing the worms into a pile. I cradle about 15 between my hands and carry them back to their home. I try not to think about how cold and disgusting they feel. I avoid looking down, fearful I’ll toss them into the air in a fit of fright, and carry pile after pile to the bin. When the floor is finally clear, I scurry upstairs to wake Carter. “Mom says we have to move the bin. Now!”

He stumbles sleepily down the stairs after me.

Carter and I move the bin to the ground, shaking straw around it. I round up a few more worms, take a deep breath, and study the floor. Estimated death toll: about 30 worms. Not enough to put a kink in Mom’s composting plans, which should make her happy. 

I go into the house and scrub my hands, using hot water and plenty of soap. I feel good about saving the worms.

Billy Peppercorn would be proud of me, I’m sure.

Actually, I’m pretty proud of myself. I faced my fear. And I survived. 

THINK AND WRITE

Imagine you are Maddie. Write a journal entry about the day the worms moved in. Include what it was like to face your fear and how you felt afterward. 

THINK AND WRITE

Imagine you are Maddie. Write a journal entry about the day the worms moved in. Include what it was like to face your fear and how you felt afterward. 

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Can't Miss Teaching Extras
Try This

 After reading this story, are your students ready to try worm composting with their families? Here are step-by-step instructions from the EPA website.

Watch This

Let your students see what really happens inside a composting bin with this fascinating time-lapse video, in which worms compost sawdust over a period of 20 days. Before playing it, let them predict what the layers of sawdust and compost will look like by the end.

Read This

Are students up for another worm story? Check out the kid-favorite How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell, about a boy who takes a dare to eat 15 worms in 15 days.

Meet the Author

Invite students to meet Marlane Kennedy, the author of “The Day the Worms Moved In,” on her website. They can find out what she was like as a kid and how she became an author, plus explore her books.

More About the Article

Content-Area Connections

Science: composting

Social-Emotional Learning: self-awareness (identifying emotions, self-efficacy, growth mindset); self-management (managing emotions, taking initiative); social awareness (concern for others); responsible decision-making (consequences of actions, evaluating impacts)

Key Skills

plot, text features, vocabulary, problem and solution, inference, character, supporting details, predicting, theme, narrative writing

Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

1. PREPARING TO READ

Preview Text Features

(10 minutes)

  • Ask students to look at pages 16-17. Direct their attention to the title, subtitle, and illustration. How does the main character, Maddie, look in the drawing? Based on her facial expression, how do you think she feels? Have students make a prediction about what she might be alarmed by.

  • Then direct students to study the illustration on page 21 and describe what they see. Ask them to compare this illustration of Maddie with the one on page 17.
    How has her facial expression changed? What is she holding in the illustration on page 21?

  • Explain that this story focuses on a process called composting, which is a way to turn food waste into soil instead of throwing it away. Direct students to the photograph and caption on page 18. Ask them how worms help turn unwanted food into compost.

  • Inform students that an estimated 30-40 percent of the food supply in the U.S. ends up getting thrown away. Composting this food is much better for the environment than throwing it away.

Introduce Vocabulary

(15 minutes)

  • We have highlighted in bold six words that may be challenging and defined them on the page: phobia, delicate, collapse, guilty, wiggling, and burrow.

  • Preview these terms by projecting or distributing our Vocabulary Skill Builder (available in your Resources tab) and completing it as a class. You may also play our Vocabulary Slideshow, in which audio and images help students with pronunciation and comprehension.

 

Set a Purpose for Reading

(5 minutes)

  • Call on volunteers to read aloud the Think and Read and Think and Write boxes. These prompts and the Skill Builders support the story’s featured skill, plot.

  • Remind students to look for clues as they read that help them identify how the events in the beginning, middle, and end of the story affect Maddie.

2. CLOSE READING

Reading and Unpacking the Text

  • First read: Read the story as a class or have students follow along as they listen to the Editor Read-Aloud (available in your Resources tab).

  • Have students identify story details and vocabulary they don’t understand. 

  • Second read: Project, distribute, or assign the Close-Reading and Critical-Thinking Questions (available in your Resources tab). Discuss them as a class, rereading sentences or passages as necessary. (Alternatively, assign all or part of the Learning Journey Slide Deck, which contains the questions as well as other activities from this lesson plan and a link to the story.)

  • Pair each student with a partner to discuss the Critical-Thinking Questions. Then ask pairs to share their answers with the class.

Close-Reading Questions (30 minutes)

  1. Read the first section. What problem is Maddie facing? (plot/identifying a problem)  Maddie’s problem is that she’s afraid of worms, and her mother is going to raise worms in the family’s garage to use in composting.
  2. Why do you think Maddie keeps her fear of worms a secret? (inference/character’s motivation) Maddie probably keeps her fear of worms a secret because she doesn’t want her brother or any other kids to tease her about it.
  3. Read “ ‘Enjoy Your Breakfast!’ ” What part of the story does the picture on pages 18-19 illustrate? (text features/plot) The picture shows the part of the story when Maddie’s family uses the composting bin for the first time. Maddie turns her head away so she doesn’t have to see the worms when she dumps her leftovers into the bin.
  4. Read “Living in a Nightmare.” This part of the story takes place two months later. Find two details in this section that show you that Maddie’s feelings about the worms haven’t changed. (supporting details) Answers will vary and should include two of the following: Maddie is still “creeped out” by the worms. She tries to avoid going to the composting bin by eating all the food on her plate. The worms are always on her mind. She can’t sleep because she worries that her bedroom floor might collapse and she’ll fall onto the worms. At times, Maddie feels slimy for no reason, as if the worms are touching her body. Maddie thinks that having the worms in her house is “like living in a nightmare.” 
  5. Maddie thinks about throwing her leftover toast in the trash. Instead she decides to put it into the composting bin. What does this tell you about what kind of person Maddie is? (inference/character) This tells you that Maddie is thoughtful and cares about what her mother wants. She chooses to go along with her mother’s composting project even though she’s afraid of the worms. 
  6. Read “Act Fast.” How does Maddie react to seeing the worms on the garage floor? (plot) At first, Maddie screams. She thinks about closing the garage door and not telling anyone. Finally, she decides to call her mother to tell her what is happening with the worms. 
  7.  Read “Facing My Fear.” What problem does Maddie face in this part of the story? How does she solve it? (problem and solution) Maddie has to face her fear of the worms so she can save them. She needs to pick up the worms that are still alive and put them back into the bin. Maddie solves her problem by overcoming her fear and picking up the worms. .

Critical-Thinking Question (10 minutes)

  1. At the end of the story, Maddie says, “Actually, I’m pretty proud of myself. I faced my fear. And I survived.” How do you think Maddie’s experience with the worms will affect how she deals with other scary situations in the future? (inference/predicting) Answers will vary. Sample answer: I think that Maddie is more self-confident because of her experience with the worms. In the future, she will probably be able to more easily face other things that frighten her. Also, she knows that she is able to act fast and handle a difficult situation, like she had to do when she saved the worms.
  2. What message do you think the author wants you to take from the story? (theme) Answers will vary. Students might suggest that the author wants readers to realize that it’s possible to face your fears and overcome them. They might say that people can rise to challenges they didn’t think possible, especially when they want to help someone they care about..

3. SEL FOCUS

Overcoming Fears

If it feels emotionally safe to do so, have a discussion about different strategies for facing and overcoming fears. Emphasize that having a phobia is nothing to be ashamed of and that you should never tease anyone about their fears. You might even choose to share a former fear of yours (for example, snakes or public speaking) and what you did to overcome it. Invite students to think about characters they know from books or movies who have faced their fears. Ask: What was your character’s fear? What did they do to overcome it? Do you think that strategy could be used by people in real life? [Note: The Child Mind Institute has some tips here for helping children manage fears.]

4. SKILL BUILDING AND WRITING

Featured Skill: Plot

  • Distribute or digitally assign the Plot Skill Builder (available in your Resources tab) and have students complete it in class or for homework.  

  • Ask students to write a response to the prompt in the Think and Write box. Remind them to use the pronoun I since the journal entry is written from Maddie’s point of view.

GREAT IDEAS FOR REMOTE LEARNING

  • Our Learning Journey Slide Deck (available in your Resources tab) is designed to make your life easier. Have students move through at their own pace or assign smaller chunks for different days. You can also customize the Slide Deck to your liking.

  • Have students complete the Close-Reading and Critical-Thinking Questions (available in your Resources tab) together in a video chat or on a shared Google Doc.
Differentiate and Customize
For Struggling Readers

To help struggling readers understand the plot, play the audio of the story as students follow along in their magazines. Pause at the end of each section to discuss what happened, and together write a one- or two-sentence summary. Remote-learning tip: When students read the articles online in Presentation View, they can use the highlighter tool to mark the text. 

For ELL Students

This story has many contractions, providing a good opportunity for English learners to get familiar with them in context. Guide a small group to do a scavenger hunt for contractions, and ask students to figure out the two words that make up each one.

For Advanced Readers

Invite students to imagine what happens next in the story. (Do the worms survive the cold? Does Maddie still avoid them? Or does she become enthusiastic about worm composting, like her mother?) Students should write at least two paragraphs that continue Maddie’s story. Remind them to write from Maddie’s point of view, as the author did.

For School or at Home

Maddie’s thoughts contain many hyperboles. Point out a few examples and explain that these exaggerated statements emphasize what Maddie is thinking and feeling—and often add humor to the story. Have students practice writing their own examples of hyperbole. Instruct them to think about something they feel strongly about. They should then write a very exaggerated description of what they chose.