Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A skeleton I can dance with

I came up with an outline for an essay that I think will be instructive and inspiring and fun to write--the essay I'll use as a model as I'm moving with my students through the process of crafting their first essays. It's going to be about my 4 siblings. When I finally worked out a thesis and some subordinate ideas, I wrote, "Now there's a skeleton I can dance with." A skeleton's all I need for now, I'm gonna wait to flesh it out as I'm working alongside my students in October.

And now a quick story for a mini-lesson on crafting catchy titles:

There was this handyman who was having trouble drumming up business. So he changed the name of his company to "Rent-A-Husband." Nothing about his company changed except what it was called. What do you think happened? Yup, he had more calls than he could handle.
(adapted from Writing Through Childhood, by Shelley Harwayne)

Monday, July 30, 2007

Tag, I'm It!

I love to relish momentous occasions with a bit of fanfare and hype. Megan, at Read, Read, Read tagged me with a meme. So here it is, thwump, my first, official meme catch:

I am a good teacher because...
There's nothing else I'd rather be doing. I love teaching and don't ever fantasize about other professions or regret my decision to become a teacher. My heart is very much in my teaching work.

If I weren't a teacher I'd be a/an...
An anthropologist, a librarian, a scientist, a writer, a web designer, a circus clown, or a mathematician. Oh wait, I already am all these things. See? Teachers get to dabble in many interesting jobs.

My teaching style is...
Responsive, flexible, and creative.

My classroom is...
Exactly 900 square feet.

My lesson plans...
Start taking shape the second I wake-up.

One of my teaching goals is...
To sustain a strong writing workshop throughout the year.

The toughest part of teaching is...
It takes a helluva lot of stamina to keep my physical, emotional, and mental systems fully engaged day after day, week after week, month after month. Keeping enough energy pumped into all three of those critical realms is often quite tough.

The thing I love most about teaching is...
My relationships with so many spectacular children, and teaching math.

A common misconception about teaching is...
That all teachers can be lumped into one, easy-to-criticize, label, and "fix" group.

The most important thing I've learned since I've started teaching is...
That doing the job well is much, much harder than it appears.

And to celebrate this occasion I'm gonna indulge in a tiny fiesta. Fresh salsa and avocados for dinner tonight.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Writing Through Childhood, by Shelley Harwayne

I have been marinating so happily this summer in Lucy Calkins' model of teaching children to write. I've basked in her warm, supportive tone. I've relished the power of her very particular strategies, both in my own notebook entries and in my girls' writing efforts. And I've nurtured a vision of a classroom writing workshop informed by her poetic descriptions and practical tools.

When I first started Writing Through Childhood, I felt a bit jarred. I didn't want the assumptions of Lucy's writing model, that I haven't even put into practice in my classroom yet, to be called into question. But the more I read, the more I feel that the two authors, both of whom I admire greatly, are simply in the midst of a delightful, important conversation. Like this, maybe:

Lucy: We need to teach kids the tools real writers use.
Shelley: Yup, but we mustn't forget to value and recognize that our students are, in fact, children.
Lucy: A powerful focus of the units is on how writers structure completed pieces of writing.
Shelley: Of course, that's a very important focus. But don't guide kids there at the expense of playful, imaginative, self-directed entries that will convert them to writing for life.

I'm no longer frustrated that the two authors have different stances, or that they zoom in on different ingredients of a strong writing workshop. In fact, exploring the tensions in such a nuanced conversation will give my teaching a thoughtful and rich leavening. A question I scribbled in my own writer's notebook, while reading through Lucy's first three units was: "Where's the poetry!!??" Well, I think Shelley gives a precise and encouraging answer to that question: trust yourself. I know my kids and know they're going to benefit enormously from many of the mini-lessons, read-alouds, and poetry selections that Shelley suggests as ways to warmly welcome students to writing and to help them step out onto the shaky ice where they must trust their own ways of seeing and must learn to believe in their own incredible voices.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

My Five, Reconsidered

Perhaps my 5 most important values change depending on the context. The ones I would pick as most vital for my marriage, for example, would be different than the 5 most important values I'd like to cultivate as a teacher. Is this sort of flexibility acceptable? Well, probably not in Kohlberg's original model. But Kohlberg was harshly critiqued for many good reasons. If I value flexibility and responsiveness, my guiding lights can shift, as needed. The 5 qualities I consider essential for maintaining the health of my particular marriage are: patience, clarity, trust, compassion, and solitude.

The Book of Qualities was a rec I pulled out of the kidlitosphere a few months back. I can't remember from which blog. At first I simply enjoyed the poetic personifications of various states of being. But they've taken on a whole new meaning with my recent musings about moral reasoning and my efforts to define my own set(s) of important values. Not only is there a long list of many different values and qualities, but each one has a unique, carefully rendered character sketch to help a searcher remember and consider its particular quirks and hues.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Moral Reasoning

Rafe Esquith has a new book out called Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire. I read his first book, There Are No Shortcuts, last summer and both hated and loved it. The guy is a fifth grade teacher who works thirteen hour days. He's super passionate and articulate. Although I agree with a lot of what he's about, the reason I dislike both books can be summed up by the NYT review blurb on the back of the latest book: "Rafe Esquith is a genuis and a saint. The American Education System would do well to imitate him. These children's lives have been changed by their year with this man." What I hate is the way his story is held up as a beacon of how things could be better if only more teachers would be like him. Regardless of the number of hours I put into my job, and I have the tendency to put in way too many hours, I'm never going to say that I think my underpaid and overworked colleagues should also work for free. People deserve to be paid for every hour of their work. Lauding Esquith's insanity turns teaching into some kinda holy work, rather than a respectable profession.

But just like the last book, the one I just finished had some gems that made me grateful to the man's brilliant teaching, if not the ways his writings and practices might be misused. "WORK HARD. BE NICE." was our classroom motto last year, straight from his book. And this year I'm gonna add something new, related to the motto. Rafe teaches his students Kohlberg's model of moral development and helps them think about their motives for making choices. I modified the model, to include a feminist and cultural critique, but I'm also going to teach moral reasoning to my students.

Here's my kid-friendly version:

Why We Make the Choices We Make
LEVEL 1: Fear. I'm afraid of being punished or hurt.
LEVEL 2: I want a reward.
LEVEL 3: I want approval. I hope somebody else will like my choices.
LEVEL 4: Rules. I understand rules are good and important and I choose to follow them.
LEVEL 5: Love and Commitment. I care about other people and I am a thoughtful member of a community. This love leads me to develop a personal code of ethics, and I follow it.

It's powerful to have clarity about a personal code of ethics. I believe in being compassionate and forgiving. But until those values get kneaded into the very center of my selfness, it's rather helpful to be consciously committed to them. "This is who I am," I have to remind myself--until I really am. I noticed myself being more patient on the road and more able to connect with other people today, after meditating just a tiny bit on these levels and on my desire to truly live up to my values.

Here is a related study of middle-schoolers who kept "gratitude lists" for two weeks. The act of counting their blessings helped these kids become more grateful (and happy) people. Qualifying the short duration of the journaling project, the writer of the study supposes that "becoming a grateful person takes a prolonged consistent effort." But, he goes on, "the time to start practicing gratitude is when you’re young, and I think schools can play a vital role."

If YOU had to choose 5 values, your top 5, to list in a personal code of ethics, what would they be? My husband would list hospitality in his top 5. Hey, this is a great way to twist that catchy "My Five" phrase. Who's in your five? Patience? Justice? Peace? Loyalty? Honesty? Kindness? Gratitude? Well?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Bintou's Braids, by Sylvianne Diouf

My daughter Easter, a nine-year-old immigrant from Sudan, loves this book. She strongly relates to little Bintou. Like Easter, Bintou has an overwhelming desire to have her hair braided. Like Easter, she wants to be admired as a beautiful young woman, instead of seen as a silly little girl.

Based on my experiences, the portrayals in this book of a contemporary African village are very authentic. The whole story surrounds the celebration and blessing of a newborn baby. Not only are the land, clothing, and traditions very similar to those of the Sudanese people I know and love, but this book also depicts a uniquely African way of esteeming the wisdom of elders, and it also highlights the practice of using oral fables as tools that entertain as well as instruct. What I like most about this book, though, is the way these values and ways of being aren't foregrounded or played up. They're just part of the landscape. Having traditional African beliefs and values is simply a natural and lovely way to be.

I so wish there were more books like this to feed all three of my girls' emerging, fragile identities.

Table Rock

Table Rock

by Easter

“Keep on going! You are so close!” Uncle Jared said. After going up the boulders, I finally got to the top of Table Rock Mountain. I did not want to look down because I thought I might fall. Far off I saw a city. I was so high it was like I was on an airplane. Behind Table Rock was a beautiful mountain called Teton. It had snow. If you are climbing it, you need hooks and ropes. It took 6 hours to get to the top of Table Rock Mountain. We went through a deep forest and across a little river. Up on top of Table Rock I felt like I was dreaming. It was so hard, I was going to quit. BUT I DID IT!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Down Girl and Sit; Smarter Than Squirrels, by Lucy Nolan

Sometimes an author writes a story from the point-of-view of a character who very obviously doesn't know everything that the readers know. As I read the first chapter of this book, keep in mind that the dog who is telling the story understands things from a dog's point-of-view. Pick out some examples of things that we, the readers, understand better than the narrator.

Read Chapter 1

Discuss. One result of this POV: humor.

Some of my kids who are bilingual will need this extra explicit support to understand the tongue in cheek humor of this deceptively simple book. But once they finish this book and its sequel, On the Road, they will be well on their way towards understanding the narrative structure of Huck Finn. Do kids still read Huck Finn in high school? I hope so.

BTW: that's my 13th original booktalk. Only seven more to go to reach my summer goal. And I've linked to several, as well. I should have enough ready to go that I won't have any excuse not to do at least two a day until October. And by then my students ought to be able to contribute to the effort as well. A fact I'd rather not admit: this will be my first year that I am planning to earnestly engage in the difficult art of effective booktalking.

The Time I Gave Duncan a Shower

The Time I Gave Ducan a Shower
By Harriet

It was a hot summer sunny day. I was giving Ducan a walk. I was saying to myself, Ducan looks so dry and dirty. I should give him a bath.

When I got home, I tied him up and I put on my swim suit. I got the garden hose and started splashing. The most important thing about Ducan is he hates baths. I started spraying him. He started to bark really loud and I yelled at him. “Ducan shut-up,” I said.

I washed him with the dog shampoo and put on some conditioner. After, I dried him with a towel. I styled his fur with hair gel. Hee hee. I thought it was only for humans. Guess not in my world. Just joking.

I gave him another walk and lots of people wanted to pet him. He smelled good and his fur sparkled in the sun. I was proud of myself. I love Ducan he’s like my brother. He always smiles just like me.

Hip-hip-hooray for Lucy Calkins' Units of Study for Teaching Writing Books. I sure love this model for teaching writing. I hope it goes as well with a class of students as it has been going with my three daughters during the summer.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Doubt; a history, by Jennifer Michael Hecht

This is a history book that tells the story of doubt, beginning with ancient Greek philosophers who doubted the existence of the gods of Olympus and ending with many thinkers of modernity, including Einstein, Woody Allen, and Elizabeth Cady Staton. It was a whirlwind journey, to be sure. The book could also have been called "a brief history of philosophy..." I skimmed through some of the stories that didn't interest me, but I also read carefully and reveled in the humor and beauty of many splendid tales--including vignettes from the life and writings of Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Paine, and Emma Goldman. The over-arching theme of this book was a brash privileging of all minds that doubt, question, search, and rebel.

I found myself nodding adamantly when Hecht took on multi-cultural relativism in regards to Islam. Pointing to the work of the doubter Ibn Warraq she writes, "Diffusing the present global threat should be understood as dragging Islam through the same process that her older sisters have undergone: separation of church and state, an increase in gender equity, recognition of other religions as partaking in the same truths and a willingness to have secular standards of conduct applied within their ranks." Like the free-thinkers she admires and describes, she demonstrates an ability to voice an unpopular truth. Harshly critiquing not just "fundamentalist" Islam, but the religion in general, is, I believe an admirable act of courage.

In one of her departing paragraphs, Hecht sums up the lessons of doubt thus:

From doubt's beginnings, it has advised that if you create your own desires and model them after what you actually experience, you can be happy. Accept that we are animals, but ones with special problems, and that the world is natural, but natural is just an idea that we animals have in our heads. Devote yourself to wisdom, self-knowledge, friends, family, and give some attention to community, politics, money, and pleasure. Know that none of it brings happiness all that consistently. It's best to stay agile, to keep an open mind. Anyway, if you live long enough, you'll find yourself believing something that you'd never believe today. Or disbelieve. In a funny way, the one thing you can really count on is doubt. Expect change. Accept death. Enjoy life. As Marcus Aurelius explained, the brains that got you through the troubles you have had so far, will get you through any troubles yet to come.

Nice, huh? Anyway-books lead to new books and new questions and new interests. The teachings and practices of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus are a new interest of mine. And I'm also gonna reread The Tao of Pooh.

Gilda Joyce; Psychic Investigator, by Jennifer Allison

Gilda Joyce is a precocious, imaginative, unforgettable 13-year-old who spends her summer figuring out the paranormal secrets of her Uncle Lester's mysterious mansion. I'm gonna be lazy, again, and link to a decent summary, one which think I will be able to effortlessly morph into a great booktalk.

Stevie and I listened to this on CD while driving to and from Teton National Park this week. It was a lucky find.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

One Word Meme

Here's a meme I found floating around cyberspace. The challenge is to answer all the questions with one word.

1. Where is your mobile phone?
2. Relationship? intact
3. Your hair? frizzy
4. Work? craving
5. Family? plenty
6. Your favourite thing? reading
7. Your dream last night? Washington
8. Your favourite drink? coffee
9. Your dream car? toyota
10. The room you’re in? cozy
11. Your shoes? on
12. Your fears? crowds
13. What do you want to be in 10 years? published
14. Who did you hang out with this weekend? Peskers
15. What are you not good at? art
16. Muffin? poppyseed
17. Wish list item? software
18. Where you grew up? UT
19. The last thing you did? lurk
20. What are you wearing? jeans
21. What are you not wearing? gloves
22. Your pet? Duncan
23. Your computer? Mac
24. Your life? ticking
25. Your mood? bored
26. Missing? teaching
27. What are you thinking about? camping
28. Your car? maroon
29. Your kitchen? clean
30. Your summer? long
31. Your favourite color? green
32. Last time you laughed? today
33. Last time you cried? months?
34. School? finished
35. Love? plenty

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Secret of Terror Castle, by Robert Arthur

This books is about three boys who form a detective agency and call themselves The Three Investigators. Their motto is "We investigate anything", and their trademark is a question mark. Jupiter Jones is the "first" investigator. Jupe, as he is sometims known, has an immense vocabulary and a very high I.Q. He is constantly puzzling things out and thinking about clues. Bob Anderews works part-time at a library and is the agency's top researcher. Pete Crenshaw is the "second" investigator and is in much better physical shape than Jupiter.

For their first case as official detectives, the boys volunteer to find a haunted castle for a movie director. Terror Castle is a huge house located in a canyon not far from their homes. It was built over fifty years ago by an old movie star. But is the house really haunted? Why have people never been able to stay inside the house for a whole night? Are the rumors of ghosts and murders true? This book is a mystery that will keep you guessing and also keep you scared. And if you enjoy this first suspenseful story, you're in luck because The Three Investigators is a series, filled with many other entertaining mysteries and adventures.

What I like about this book: I love Jupiter Jones. I like how he's not embarrassed about how he's so smart and I think it's very cool how he sees clues and puts things together in ways that are unexpected, yet fitting.

What I think you'll like: the suspense and the scenes when the boys visit Terror Castle. (maybe read page 39, their first visit to TC.)

There. Another booktalk done. Talk about nostalgia. This series of books was my favorite series between the time I was ten and twelve. I have a distinct memory of puzzling out how my elementary school's library shelving system worked, just so that I could find more of them. I forget the plots and characters in many books, but when I reread this book recently I could still remember the climax, the resolution, and the descriptive phrase "sheer terror". That, believe it or not, is a twenty-one year old memory. This series, and the one page mini-mysteries in my mom's Woman's World magazines, were such powerful hooks that I am an avid mystery reader, to this day. I like many different types of books, but there isn't another genre that I've read as constantly or as broadly, throughout my many years as a reader.

It will be cool and satisfying if a few kids get into The Three Investigators, but I'm not counting on it. Even with newer, updated covers, the stories and characters are clearly dated. I think they were already a bit dated when I read them twenty years ago. And they are not easy books for elementary readers to zip right through. The whole book, not just Jupiter's dialogue, is interspersed with middle-school level vocabulary words. But maybe a kid or two will surprise me. That's part of the fun of teaching, you just never know.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Some Declarations

There are four girls that I have dancing across the stage of my mind as I write today's blog. Easter, Harriet, and Clara, my three daughters, and Marylina. She was in my class for a few months as a fifth grader but I really hope she'll be back in my class as a sixth grader next month. And if she is, I'm sure we'll come to have a strong and lasting bond. She's a book-lover, a skilled mathematician, and a very academically oriented student. An amazing kid whose mom had heard good things about Washington and so decided to trust us with her valuable little treasure.

Lisa, my weirdly supportive sister, calls the dimension of my personality which I am about to perform "total emo-ness". An adequate label, I admit, for my proclivity to constantly self-reflect and get all dramatic about my journeys inward. Whatever. I am what I am. As a result of two such recent journeys, I need to make two more I-am-what-I-am declarations. Which I hope will be kinda like swords that will cut through some layers of negativity and guilt. I'm hoping this deep pruning will free up lots of energy and mental space that can be better spent on Easter, Clara, Harriet, and my students. (I know, she's right, I am sooo emo.)

Okay, here goes. I gained 10 pounds between January and May this year and I've been considering dieting all summer. And then my foot got all sore and so I've been very inactive and postponing it. But I haven't been able to stop thinking about the need for a diet. Then I read this book Rethinking Thin, which totally rejuvenated my fat pride. And so what I want to declare is this: I'm not going to go on a diet. In fact, I am never, for the rest of my life, going to diet. If I say I'm thinking about going on a diet, stop me. Please. Diets are boring, frustrating, and highly ineffective. And there's very little hard scientific evidence that they're even good for your health. When my foot starts feeling better I'd like to get in some exercise, a few times per week. But no more dieting or even thinking about dieting.

Okay, that was hard, but I have momentum so I'm going to finish. My second declaration is that I have abnormally weak "casual" social skills. I hate talking to people on the phone. I hate baby showers. I hate small talk. And I hate parties. I'm not sayin' that I'm not going to ever engage socially with people who aren't my close friends or family. But I am going to stop hating and stop trying to change this particular part of my personality. One thing I've learned from the hundreds of kids I've worked with is that people are packaged in a huge variety of personality types. I'm very accepting of all this variety in kids, and even in other adults. What I want is the gumption to cut myself a little slack and accept the fact that it's almost a physical aversion I have to most "adult" social situations. I can spend the rest of my life dwelling on this as a problem, or I can just say thanks, Dad, for my many inheritances, and accept that this is a permanent part of my psyche. This personality trait of mine made it super hard when my brother and his family moved across the country; filling the gaping hole they left in my social network has been neither quick nor easy for me. And this reality doesn't mean there's something "wrong" with me.

My hopes: that I can learn to better accept my body and my shyness, that this acceptance stretches open my heart, and that with this heart I can continue to love my kids and students well.

And, yes, no matter how much I'm dreading it, I will attend my friend's baby shower tomorrow and I will stay and be social, for a while. But I'm not gonna feel bad if I don't have fun. And as soon as I'm done I will get to see my brother and his wife and their baby girl for the first time since they moved. Which won't only be fun, it will be heaven.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Nobody Don't Love Nobody, by Stacey Bess

This is a memoir of a teacher who worked at the elementary school housed in the Salt Lake City homeless shelter over a decade ago. That site has since been closed and the kids at the shelter now attend Washington Elementary, where I am a full-time upper grade teacher. At times I cringed at this woman's naivete and at her severe case of the Missionary Syndrome. "Saving" these kids was a theme of the whole book. Such arrogance. And yet. Many of the homeless students I've known need strong advocates and really do need to see more possibilities and alternative life pathways.

Some of the particular stories were so familiar that I could see my own students' eyes shining through her words. It was comforting to read about another teacher with such passion and unguarded love for these very innocent and beautiful kids. The next time I cross the arbitrary and senseless lines at Washington and wash a load of clothes or speak-up for a rough-edged kid's inner-goodness, I will defend my revolutionary actions with a line like "at least I don't take them home with me for months at a time, like Stacey Bess." (Not that I haven't been tempted, and not that I'd really share this vulnerable and illogical line of reasoning w/ my boss.)

Although there were lots of moments in her narrative where I wished she'd shown more humility and wisdom, I still admire her heart and courage. She employed a very compassionate tone when describing her students' parents and other homeless adults. I try to be compassionate but am far less patient when I watch adults repeatedly hurt their own kids. She explored the cliche "I learned more than the kids I was supposed to teach" with many heart-plucking stories. A question she asked in the middle of a particular situation, but which I want to pick-up and hold constantly is "How do we act humanely when working in the midst of extreme poverty?" Maybe by living openly with that question, my students and I will continue to create our own stories and Washington's population of homeless kids will find a safe refuge, if not salvation, within our sturdy red-brick walls.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Looking for Alaska, by John Green

I start many young adult books, give them five or ten pages, and then abandon them, because I quickly come across mature language or content that guarantees they are not ever going to become part of my elementary school classroom library. There are other YA books that keep the language and content in the PG-13 zone, which means I feel comfortable having them available to my 11- and 12-year-old kids. And there are still other YA books which I'll never shelve in my classroom library, again because of the mature language and/or content, but they are soooo good, that I finish and enjoy them anyway. Usually in less than 24 hours from the time I start them. Looking for Alaska falls in this final category.

Warning: spoilers to follow. You'll probably enjoy it more without knowing too much, so stop here if you wanna give it a go.

I was completely hooked and really enjoyed the whole book, but there were a couple things that bothered me. First, I wasn't surprised at all when Alaska died. I saw it coming from a long ways off. And I had the whole thing about the anniversary of her mother's death figured out too. So the plot, at times, was too predictable. Also, I know that part of the point of the whole story was that Alaska was this very complicated person that couldn't be easily understood, but I still felt like I needed, as a reader, not as a teenager in love, to know her a bit better. I was far more moved by Pudge's and the Colonel's grieving than by any sense that a girl I cared for was dead. I really enjoyed Pudge's voice and character, (which I recognize was the limiting factor in giving us a fuller development of Alaska's character), and that boy-boy bond between Pudge and the Colonel was so awkward and tender and excellent. Yes, I definitely enjoyed the book, and certainly recommend it.

And, for the record, I think all these YA books, this one included, ought to be available in all middle school libraries. One of the first YA books I read and loved, after Catcher in the Rye, was The Perks of Being a Wallflower. This wonderful little gem is making news today, in The New York Times, no less, for being challenged by parents after being added to a summer reading list. I know our first response is supposed to be abhorrence when we hear that great books are being challenged, but I was pretty excited to see all these teachers and administrators all being so quick to defend their decision. They all read it, they all recognized it's value, and they all refused to back down. It's nice to see education professionals with such strong spines. I requested Perks from the library because it's been a long while since I read it.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Extreme Animals; The Toughest Creatures on Earth, by Nicola Davies

This is an incredible non-fiction book about some of the toughest animals in the world. How much tougher are these animals than humans? Well, let me read you the introduction: "We humans are such a bunch of wimps! We can't stand the cold, we can't stand the heat, we can't live without food, or water, and just a few minutes without air is enough to finish us off. Luckily, not all life is so fragile. All over the planet there are animals (and plants) that relish the sort of conditions that would kill a human quicker than you could say coffin."

This book starts in the Arctic, describing several animals that have adapted to survive extreme cold. It then goes on to tell about animals that have adapted to survive the extreme conditions of deserts and oceans. You even get to read about a certain creature that can survive a blender--after being cut to smithereens, this amazing creature can reassemble itself!

Read this book if you like animals and want to learn about some of the most amazing and toughest creatures on earth.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Rules, by Cynthia Lord

Yawn. Music Playin: Cindi Lauper, Time After Time.

I'm starting to really hate my summer "goal" to write 20 original booktalks. It's making my summer feel shaped less like a vacation and more like an example of the cruel expectation imposed on all public school teachers: "summer is the time in which you must perform hours upon hours of unpaid labor." I don't mind spending my vacation days reading tons and tons of kids books. And I really love doing all the work I need to do to get ready to teach my two math classes next year. I even had a nightmare that a new teacher was hired, just to teach math, and I was so ANGRY and devastated. Those classes are mine, mine, mine! Just today, while reading some of the wonderful new sixth grade materials, I was stunned to learn about this amazing conjecture, yet to be proved or disproved!

But for some reason, coming up with great "hooks" and really captivating ways of introducing all these fabulous books is much harder than I predicted. I think it's partially because I'm so passionate about the whole enterprise: about the books, and about encouraging kids to read them, so I end up feeling frozen by the self-imposed pressure. But here's the thing: there's this librarian woman named Nancy Keane who has already compiled heaps of booktalks, and they're pretty good ones. So I'm going to keep linking to them, even for books that I really liked.

Rules is a book that takes up complicated themes and I'm grateful for an author that had the courage and grace to take it on and do it justice. Catherine, the main character, loves her younger brother David, who is autistic. She loves him, but she resents him, sometimes, and is embarrassed by him, sometimes, and wishes he were different, sometimes. I can see why lots of folks thought it would win the Newbery.

Stormbreaker is the first book in the Alex Rider, super spy series. I've enjoyed all of the Alex Rider books I've read and can think of a few kids for whom this series might be their breakthrough, wow-reading-can-really-be-cool set of titles. There have been some fairly harsh criticisms of this book and series, though. My reply: if it gets these certain kids reading, I don't care about the fact that the villains aren't Brits. What's a good spy thriller without a two-dimensional bad guy? It's the genre--it's like saying that orcs, goblins, and trolls are unfairly represented in fantasy books. C'mon.

I'm probably going to label all my beloved Baby Mouse books as "holiday" books this year, but I'm going to allow, in fact encourage, my students to take a nice holiday every fourth book or so. And what better way to introduce Baby Mouse than with this sweet little booktalk.

And finally, here's the booktalk for The Two Princesses of Bamarre, which is my favorite Levine princess book because it doesn't recreate a classic fairytale, but instead gives us an original, unlikely heroine.

Whew! I feel better already. The only problem I can see with this particular way of preparing booktalks is that there's always the possibility that Nancy Keane's site will vanish, one day. But for now, I'm feeling satisfied. I'll keep working on writing a few of my own, maybe even the 11 more I need to reach that blasted 20. I'll especially work on ones that Nancy doesn't have up yet.

Friday, July 06, 2007


Originally uploaded by amysimbe
I'm messing around with posting pics via flickr. This was Easter starting out her half mile race. She was way nervous, but also brimming with determination. She had to get up before seven, which isn't easy for her. It was the 7-9 year-old age bracket so she is taller than most those other kids. I wish I'd got a cleaner shot. No, she didn't win, or place, but she finished!

How bout that Venus Williams, again? I'm enjoying her matches even more than NBA games.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

On boys, book bargains, and bullying back the blues

For $1.88 I purchased a hard back copy of Alex Rider; The Gadgets. This highly confidential book contains the blueprints for super-spy Alex Rider's various spy tools and spy weapons. I haven't introduced Alex to my blog audience yet, but hold onto your hats, when I finally get around to writing a booktalk for Stormbreaker you're going to run, not walk, to your nearest web portal and order the series faster than a counter spy's bullet. The Gadgets has fold-out pages with cross-section diagrams of Alex's high tech contraptions, including a "multi-function game console", a "high tensile yo-yo", and a "cutter CD player". On the same clearance table at the U of U bookstore I found a hard back copy of Amazing Grace and John Green's Looking For Alaska.

On the whole books for boys and books for girls debate I have two, fairly contradictory positions. First, I don't think we ought to be constantly and overtly classifying books as "good for girls" or "good for boys." Individual kids have preferences and personalities that are way too complex and slippery for such rigidity. And almost all good books are also too interesting for such clean classifications. However, I think it's important to keep both our boy students and our girl students in mind as we build classroom libraries and as we select books to read and promote. My last few booktalks, for example, have represented an effort to make sure there's a broad variety of books in my booktalking repertoire. One of my strengths in this realm is that I've always been such a voracious reader that my personal tastes encompass territories that are more boyish and also territories that are more girlish. I can honestly say, about lots and lots and lots of books: I read this and I liked it. And (depending on the kid) I think you'll like it too.

Since I've been back home for a while now, I think it's safe to say I weathered the storm of being at my in-law's for two weeks pretty well. I'm sticking to my whole theory, regarding my mental wellness, which is based on the book Stumbling on Happiness: Finding ways to avoid getting depressed in the first place are way more effective than finding ways out, once I'm there. Thanks to everyone who contributed to those prevention efforts: through twitters, phone calls, email, and happy thought waves. Now I just want to become more skilled at predicting situations where I need to be extra vigilant about taking care of my mental health.

Here Be Mosters, by Alan Snow

Ok. Ok. Ok. I admit it. I admit that there's a tragic reality that I don't like thinking about. Some of you, my dear students, don't love books. Just because I don't acknowledge this fact often, doesn't mean that I'm unaware of it. Many of you'd much rather be watching cartoons. Or playing video games. I know. And while I can't change the rules of school to allow these forms of entertainment during our hours together, I can give you a similar, highly entertaining experience by introducing you to Here Be Monsters. Seriously, the whole entire time I was reading this book I kept thinking, wow, this is just like watching a really funny cartoon. I can't believe I'm going to allow my students to have this much fun in school. Am I losing my mind?

To give you a taste of this fun, let me share a little passage that starts on page 259. At this point in the story Arthur is trying to help a bunch of underlings (boxtrolls and cabbageheads) escape from Snatcher, the leader of the evil Cheese Guild. (Read 259-265)

Like all good cartoons, this story has lots of good characters: Arthur, the lawyer named Willbury, the boxtrolls and cabbageheads, and the rats and pirates who run the Nautical Laundry ship. There are also some nasty villains, including Snatcher, his side-kick Gristle, the rest of the Cheese Guild and a rat that is bigger than an elephant. Will Arthur and his friends expose the Cheese Guild's sinister plans? Or will the Cheese Guild take over the whole city of Ratbridge?

I can see some of you looking at this book and asking in your mind, "How many pages is that book?" Well, let me answer your question. It's 528 pages. And if you're not up for at least one whole week of fun, I wouldn't suggest you even try it. But ask yourself this: would you be happy if your favorite cartoon was only one or two episodes? No, of course not. You're happy that Kim Possilbe has lots and lots of adventures. Well, once you get to know Arthur and get sucked into this crazy world, you'll be glad that this is a long book, cuz you won't want it to end.

Monday, July 02, 2007

More Links

Artemis Fowl

Spiderwick Chronicles

Among the Hidden

All of which I've read. None of which I feel compelled to write about. All of which I want to booktalk cuz I think at least a few students will enjoy them.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, by Jack Gantos

"Can I get back to you on that?" Is Joey Pigza's favorite line. Joey is the kind of kid who absolutely can not sit still. He is constantly moving and describes himself as a ball let loose in a pinball machine. This high level of hyperness causes problems for Joey, his classmates, his mother, and his teacher. After already surviving several hard days, Joey goes with his class on a field trip. Listen to what happens at the Amish farm: (READ 58-62). Things are bad, now, but believe it or not they get worse, much worse.

Joey knows other kids are always making fun of him. But he simply can't control himself. Even if you've never felt yourself getting so hyper that you can't think straight, you'll still enjoy spending some time getting to know Joey and learning what it's like to be WIRED.


I've now finished writing 8 booktalks.

Hey, it's a good start. I know. I know. August isn't a whole vacation month, so I've only got about one and a half months left. I know. I'll still finish 20. Give me a chance.

The Reading Zone, by Nancie Atwell

This short, concise book details the components of a reading workshop model for middle schoolers. After reading this intimate portrait of a classroom full of engaged, critical, habitual readers, my goals for my own reading workshop have been elevated higher than ever. This is what I want for all of my kids: pathways that lead them to dive deep and spend substantial swaths of time in The Reading Zone, daily.

An interesting argument, that I'm still wrestling with, is Nancie's dismissal of the "strategy instruction" approach to reading workshop. The authors of Strategies That Work argue that kids need explicit instruction on the specific strategies that readers use as they understand texts. Expert readers make connections, predictions, and inferences, proponents of strategy instruction note. They are constantly asking questions and visualizing the story. Why not empower students with these strategic stances that will strengthen their ability to comprehend? Well, says Nancie, forcing ourselves to apply these strategies while reading does nothing but bump us right out of The Zone. Engaged readers, including children, do these things subconsciously and forcing them to become metacognitive doesn't improve comprehension, it hampers it. And struggling readers aren't going to magically arrive in The Zone, just because they're assigned these extra cognitive tasks; in fact, they're probably going to end up even further away.

I tend to agree with Nancie, on this point, as far as the assignment of sticky-noting up narrative texts goes. That task is nothing but disruptive and annoying. And this whole conversation is pushing me toward a serious rethinking of Soar to Success, and its accompanying "reciprocal teaching" model.

But---I do think the vocabulary derived from learning about comprehension strategies is quite helpful when communicating with others about our reading journeys. The actual Reading Zone is a fairly mysterious, indescribable place, and having some language to connect with one another about our visits to this incredible planet is not only convenient, but also motivating. "Oh my gosh," Jessami thinks to herself as she reads Marylina's description of the movie that was created in her mind when Percy, Annabeth, and Grover floated in their magic, transparent bubbles through the rocky cave-ceiling of Hades and up into the Pacific Ocean. "That is sooo cool. I can't wait to have that experience, too." And isn't prompting readers to have meaningful connections and moral inferences the very stuff of great literature? I don't think it hurts at all to reflect back on our reading with the intent of remembering our various types of thinking. And the strategy language can also be used to push ourselves, post-reading, to new insights and ideas. I think the real problem is when we force kids to do this "mid-stream". And, as Nancie pointed out, even "mid-stream", comprehension strategies are helpful when engaging with demanding, non-fiction texts.

I'm also puzzling over the space for small group instruction in the model as Nancie outlines it here. Are there guided reading groups? Literature groups? I can see the latter, especially, becoming far less formal, but the social dimension of reading has got to be more than just passing around recommendations. And I'm not sure if I'm ready to admit that the only thing a teacher can do for the kids at the bottom is to help them find perfect independent reading books. Hmmmm.

Lotsa interesting new questions to ponder and around which to develop experiments next year.