Thursday, December 1, 2011

Why We Teach!

Last year I was lucky enough to have Milo as a student.  He is a wonderful young man full of curiosity, and a great sense of humor.  He comes from a home filled with love.  This morning his father, Ross, sent me an email that was a tribute to his elementary school teacher.  He has given me permission to post it here.  Yesterday I spent the day with Sharon Taberski and today this letter.  Two extremes that demonstrate why I am a teacher.  Thank you Ross.  You, Milo and every other kid is why we do what we do.



TO ALL THE TEACHERS OF THE WORLD:


I just got word that my elementary school teacher passed away on Saturday night. Flowers are not enough. Donations are not enough. The only tribute I can even remotely imagine great enough is to reach out to the teachers of the world and encourage you to be Mrs. Koontz for your students, as Deleta Koontz was for me.

I had the life-enriching privilege of spending three years in the classroom of Mrs. Koontz. No, I didn’t have to take fourth grade over three times. You see, in the small Lutheran school in the Missouri prairie town of Lockwood where I grew up, our classrooms were divided into grades 1–3, 4–6, and 7–8.

Those three September-to-May voyages in Mrs. Koontz’s classroom shaped my destiny more than any other time in my life. I didn’t learn a thing. I DISCOVERED everything.

When we read the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, we dressed the part, built a real log cabin with our dads over chilly autumn weekends, and spent a whole day at Mrs. Koontz’s farm around a cast-iron pot, waiting for the miracle of apple butter to occur. To this day, a simple spoonful of that gooey apple goodness transports me back to that day of butter-churning, apple-peeling, fire-stoking magic.

And let’s not forget the Boston Tea Party Day when we pushed all the chairs against the wall and set up a mom-staffed tavern that served spiced tea to a mad band of grade-schoolers fed up with taxation without representation.

There were annual Sadie Hawkins day races, teepees erected on the school lawn, and commemorative trees planted to mark our nation’s bicentennial. Speaking of celebrating 1976, Mrs. Koontz spent most of 1975 assembling a red, white, and blue wardrobe so she could wear our nation’s colors EVERY SINGLE DAY OF THE BICENTENNIAL.

She was a patriot for sure. A Christian. And an angel at the right time in my life. When I transitioned mid-semester to this small Lutheran school from the local public K-8, I struggled to fit in. She created opportunities that allowed me to stand out, as she did for all her students. She identified our gifts and allowed each of us to give them back to the world.

I always loved to make stuff. I still do. So creating bulletin boards for the classroom was a task she handed over to me. Sometimes, I chose to forgo recess in order to bring her classroom’s cork boards to life.

Every two years, the Lutheran school staged amazing youth theatrical productions. Jack and the Beanstalk was my first. When I, cast as the giant, proposed a pair of shoes made from stacked 2x4s to make me taller, she immediately shared my vision. When I suggested an extension ladder wrapped in painted paper with oversized leaves as the beanstalk, she knew exactly how it could work. And her greatest theatrical accomplishment was an all-community production of The Sound of Music. It had been her dream forever to bring this alpine blockbuster to our predominantly German farm town. To create the abbey bells that beckoned Maria down from the hills, Mrs. Koontz once again pulled sheer genius from her bag of tricks. A coat rack of suspended cake pans and skillets created the perfect auditory illusion of the echoing bells she remembered from her European travels.

Mrs. Koontz’s German heritage lay just beneath the surface in so many things she did. We practiced Christkindl-giving in her class every Christmas, a tradition many know as Secret Santa. She taught us to sing Christmas carols in German. She fully embraced the town’s annual Strassenfest weekend festival every year. And when she retired from teaching, she picked up the accordion and formed a polka band that toured and performed at German folk festivals.

After returning from a trip to Europe and enchanting us with vivid anecdotes of all the wonders she had experienced, she told us that one day we would all most likely get to Europe. I thought she was crazy. She was right. I have been six times. And in all those travels, nothing has given me more joy than a sprawling Alpine meadow or strolling through a quaint, half-timbered town marked by crooked doors and window boxes overflowing with scarlet geraniums. Without a doubt, the joy, I feel, is directly linked to that love for storybook European nostalgia she instilled in me.

I live in Colorado now, where I’m a Creative Director for an advertising agency, a job that allows me to channel Mrs. Koontz just about every day. And every September, as the aspens begin to turn, my wife and I take our sons up into the hills to experience as many Octoberfests as we can. And I don’t see a pair of lederhosen, dance a polka, or devour a giant pretzel without sharing in some quiet personal communion with Mrs. Koontz. I think to myself, “She would LOVE this.”

Dear teachers everywhere, as you stand in front of your classrooms tomorrow, and every day after, look into the eyes of your students and wonder: thirty-seven years from now, which one of these brilliant little souls will write a tribute like this about me? Am I making eyes sparkle, hearts sing, minds wonder? Not wander. Toss convention into the wind. Think about the imaginative ways in which you can encourage those future-shapers entrusted to you to savor the wonders in the world that lie outside your classroom window–all that’s come before them and all that lies ahead of them.  Ask yourself, “What can I do so my legacy of discovery and learning will outlive me one day?” How can I be… like Mrs. Koontz? The greatest teacher that ever lived. Next to you, of course.

Auf Wiedersehen,

Ross Snodgrass

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Another year of Guys Read


The afternoon was filled the roar of boy voices, clamping of feet up the stairs, faces filled with excitement, food (no spilled juice!), laughter, visiting, a little discussion of Rewind by William Seator, more goofiness, voting on the December book (Belly Up by Stuart Gibbs was the easy winner), and getting the next book (Guys Read Thriller).  That was how my first Guys Read Book Club started.  I missed the first one because I was home with a high fever, a lovely UTI and kidney infection.  Since kids read this blog I won’t get into the details. 

Anyway back to the boys.  At one point I had a flash back to five years ago and the eight little third graders that made up that first book club.  (Yes, you were little!)  I am fortunate to work in a school with so many male teachers.  Yep, I’m not alone with the 30 monsters that make up this years Guys Read Book Club.  I figure that about 25% of the boys in grades 3-5 attend the book club. (In five years we have read only ONE non-fiction book.) It is exciting and overwhelming to think about what long-term effect the book club will have on these young readers.

Due to the shear number of boys we split them up into three groups.  It is very scientific.  I count the number of boys and make little slips with numbers, and they draw.  Well, that part is going to change for next month because a few fifth graders figured out what group I was going to have and sorted through the numbers to find the #1.  Nicholas, another fifth grader, was more blunt he said, “I didn’t even pick a number I was going in group no matter what!”

Yet, again the discussion was not deep, but it was a fun time. Teachers are expected to do many things, most of choose to do even more.  As I begin another year with these boys all I can think about is that no matter what, spending time with this ever growing group of knuckleheads makes my job as a teacher even more special.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

I just finished Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick! My mind is racing, and all of my thoughts are not in order over this spectacular book.  However, I am afraid if I don’t write right now I will never put down those thoughts in writing.  Awestruck comes first.  Through out the book I constantly stopped and re-read sections to take in the beauty of Mr. Selznick’s prose and illustrations.  I know my writing will not do justice to this book.

Wonderstruck is a story told in text and illustration.  It is a hybrid novel, picture book and graphic novel.  Unfortunately, these labels do not do truly fit this book.  There are two principle characters in the story. The section on Ben is done in text and takes place in 1977, and the section on Rose is done in illustrations and is set in 1927.  Eventually the two stories collide. 

The inside flap says,  “both children set out alone on desperate quests to find what they are missing.”  We the readers are fortunate to travel with them on their quests.  At the end we are get as much out of the journey as Ben and Rose.

I use Hugo Cabret in my higher guided book clubs because Mr. Selznick ability as a storyteller makes students slow down and REALLY think about what they are reading, and everything is not always as it seems.  I will use this book the same way.  It will be easy to challenge students to find the clues of how the characters are connected.  What type of items would they put in their own wonder cabinet?  What will I put in my wonder cabinet?

Sorry for jumping all over the place, but I am excited about this book because I have a new student that is severely hearing impaired and I can’t wait to share this book with M and her mom.

To stop my ramblings I will end with just a couple more thoughts about Wonderstruck.  First, one of the reasons I am passionate about getting children to read is, so they can experience books like this.  Second, this book is for people 8 and above. (YES adults must read this book.)  Finally, Brian Selznick should come to the CCIRA Conference!

Wonderstruck is nominated for the CYBILS in the graphic novel.  I did not receive a copy from the publisher, but it is worth the $30.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man by Michalel Chabon


The other day I was reading The New York Times Book Review, and on the list of bestseller picture books was a new book by Michael Chabon.  How did I miss the fact that my favorite author had a new kids book?  The beginning of the school year, a kidney infection, and a new puppy played a major part of being out of the loop; but missing this geez!
 
The very first author I saw speak ok was Michael Chabon.  He was read from The Mysteries of Pittsburg.  I remember sitting at the Tattered Cover, mesmerized by an author discussing the writing process. Over the years I have read his books and seen him speak a few more times.  Can you say groupie?  The Amazing Adventure of Kavalier and Clay is one of my favorite novels, even if I spent a lot of time looking up words in the dictionary.  I do use this example to show my students that all readers have to use different strategies to be successful.

The other day I had a dentist appointment, so I had a little extra time between when my guest teacher showed up and the hygienist mutilated my gums.  What does one do with an extra hour in the middle of the day?  Easy!  Spend the time loading up with books at The Bookies.  My copy of The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man was one of the many books in my box. 

I instantly fell in love with this book.  From the beginning the reader gets to know that Awesome Man is very special.  Throughout the book Awesome Man demonstrates his many talents.  He is so totally awesome that he can hug mutant Jell-O from Beyond the Stars.  Awesome Man shares his secret identity with the reader, or does he? 

When he reveals his secret identity half my class guessed incorrectly.  Do not worry there will be no spoiler alert.  Awesome Man is an enjoyable read aloud.  Kids laughed at his abilities and understood the importance of the ginormous Awesome Power Grip.

I have waited years for Chabon to write a picture book.  It is exciting that I finally get to share his writing with my students.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

CYBILS

I am so excited to be a judge again this year.  The last two years I was a first round judge for Middle Grade Fiction.  This year I am honored to judge Graphic Novels. There are positive changes in this years nominating process, so make sure to read them.  Check it out here CYBILS 2011 LET THE READING COMMENCE!!!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Alex Van Helsing Voice of the Undead by Jason Henderson

The other day I was going through my stack of books figuring out what to read next when I pulled out Alex Van Helsing Voice of the Undead by Jason Henderson.  A couple of items caught my eye.  First, the publicity firm is in Marblehead, so I figured wow another Mass connection.  Secondly, the back made me laugh “NO SPARKLY VAMPIRES HERE!”  As I read the press release and back I thought why not give it a try?   Normally I don’t read the second book in a series if I haven’t read the first one.  It is hard enough keeping up with books, so unless a student recommends it I tend to shy away from them.  But like I said this one perked my interest. 

Truth be told I enjoy watching mindless TV.  I find it reduces the brain waves during a hectic week, so I must admit that I enjoy True Blood and a few shows on USA Network.  Now before I continue I want to be perfectly clear.  I REALLY enjoyed Alex Van Helsing. I quickly became engrossed in the story, and plan on reading the first one.  It is better written than White Collar or shows on SyFy, but I couldn’t help comparing it to some shows.  Mr. Henderson please understand what I am about to write I mean as a good thing.  Picture Buffy the Vampire Slayer (change the name to Alex) meets Nakita (without Section being evil, and change the name to Alex) meets Covert Affairs and you have a fun read; andpossible Guys Read Book Club book.

The story is about Alex Van Helsing.  A young man sent to a boarding school in Austria.  During his first month he finds out he can fight vampires.  The vampires have their hideout under Lake Geneva.  How cool is that?

The story is fast paced.  Great vocabulary.  I needed to look up a couple of words.  Focus on world issues, and it takes place in Europe.  The press release and book says that it is for ages 12 and up.  I would say 10 and up.  There are some intense scenes and possible questions on why on earth parents would send their kids to a boarding school.  I know a few guys that will be excited to read this book.

Thanks harper Collins for the ARC.  Book to be released today!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Cheesie Mack Is Not A Genius or Anything by Steve Cotler, Wicked Good

Fried Clams and Lobster

For some reason most of the books I have read this summer have a New England setting.  It has been way too many years since I have been there.  Recently I even read that Anchovies is still a great neighborhood place.  I remember when that was our big night out!  So, Cheesie Mack is Not a Genius or Anything by Steve Cotler didn’t help with the homesick.  If anything it made it worst because the setting is Gloucester Mass.  I lived in Boston, but it so close to Crane’s Beach and Essex, home
of the world’s best-fried fish.  The story had me so close to Woodman’s yet so far!

Two best friends, Ronald “Cheesie” Mack and Georgie Sinkoff, are approaching the end of an era and the beginning of a frightening one.  Yes, the end of elementary school and the upcoming entrance to middle school.  As any normal fifth grade boy they plan the perfect event to make sure their “graduation” is memorable. The principal makes sure it is normal like all the ones before. 

Luckily the boys have summer camp to look forward. Unfortunately, Georgie finds out his dad can’t afford it.  In solidarity Cheesie declares he will not go if Georgie cannot go.  On the way to figuring out what to do for the summer, they make a new friend and discover the true meaning of integrity.

I really enjoyed this book.  It was wicked funny.  I liked the voice and the first person narration.  The drifting off topic made me laugh.  The first time I had to re-read the previous page before I figured out that at times Cheesie would insert an idea for another story.  It will be a great book to put in the hands of kids this fall.


Monday, July 11, 2011

Me, a Writer?


I am a writer.  For the last 48 years, I have not considered myself a writer.  Yes, I can write an email, a letter, a thank you card, report card comments, and even a blog.  But writing and being a writer are totally different.  I think back to my writing instruction growing up, and I don’t remember any teacher teaching me how to write.  I know I did worksheets. How can I forget the cold feel of new dittos? And the smell?  I remember writing my first “term paper” on Norman Rockwell.  I worked really hard on it, and I was so proud of my work.  When I saw the “C” on the cover I was devastated. The teacher’s comments were “Your notecards are incomplete, we’ve talked about your poor penmanship, and why are there words printed on the back of the pages?” However, the most painful memory of writing happened in sixth grade.  I turned in my “How to Essay.” I can still picture the harsh look on my teacher’s face, and her voice when she told me she didn’t understand anything I had written.  When I asked her to explain she replied, “You are such a spoiled brat!”

Being that, historically, I was a non-writer, teaching writing is a struggle.  As a third grade teacher, teaching students to write is paramount.  So year after year, I have lied and faked my way through the Writer’s Workshop. I dreaded that they could sense my fear, and one day, my young students would realize I was a fraud. They would look up at me and say,  “You want us to consider ourselves writers; you are not even a writer!”

Given my relationship with writing, it is ironic that I ended up applying to the Denver Writing Project.  Last February at the state reading conference, I was visiting with Mark Overmeyer, a respected writer/educator who has published two books on Writer’s Workshop.  As we discussed the conference, he brought up the Denver Writing Project and encouraged me to participate.  While he talked my stomach started turning flips, and my heart started beating faster.  I thought he must have me confused with someone else. All I could think about was that I was not a writer.  Why would I even contemplate doing a writing project?  I listened politely, looked at him; finally confessed that I was terrified to write.  That night I received two emails from Mark.  The first was information about the Denver Writing Project, and the second was about my blog.  “I just read your blog.  You can write!”  Mark is very polite, so I took it as a nice gesture.  Remember, I was not a writer.

Always the curious one, I clicked on the link and read about the Denver Writing Project.  The more I read the more I thought: I need to do this.

I need to do this. 

I was tired of the anxious feeling I had every day before writing.  I took the next step and applied.  I filled out the application and wrote the brief essay.

As you can guess, I made it into the Summer Institute.  On the morning of June 13, 2011 I timidly made my way into the classroom on the University of Colorado at Denver campus.  This was to be my home, away from home, six hours a day for the next 20 days.

 I learned how to use SLAM poetry to engage students. 

I wrote.

I learned how to use low-risk activities so students can experiment with different leads for stories.  

I wrote. 

I shared MY WRITING with my colleagues.

I wrote. 

I was inspired by a peer that demonstrated the importance of not just showing our students our writing; but writing with them so they can see the process. 

I wrote. 

I learned ways to bring writing to life in my class.

I wrote.  

I learned not to reel from horror at having to be a writing teacher. 

I wrote.

My confidence grew and slowly I began to change the way I looked at writing. I know writing will never be easy, and I realize that it will always be a slow process.  I will still struggle with spelling and misuse words like than and then. I will never write like Michael Chabon or Federico García Lorca, but I will write.

This I believe is why the Denver Writing Project helped me find the writer inside me.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Mostly True Story of Jack by Kelly Barnhill


When I was a kid there was a commercial with the tagline “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!”  Ironically it was for margarine, which is totally messing with nature.  That’s a whole different topic.  The Mostly True Story of Jack by Kelly Barnhill has a different take on what happens when one tries to fool with Mother Nature.

Jack is delivered to the house of his aunt and uncle.  They live in Hazelwood, Iowa.  Jack’s life in San Francisco was lonely.  He had no friends and his parents rarely paid any attention to him.  He wasn’t in any family pictures.  Jack was invisible.  Once he moves in with his aunt and uncle everything starts to change.  Jack is noticed, he learns how to have friends and the town bully sets his sights on him.  He thinks things might start to become normal.  WRONG!!! 

While Jack is getting accustom to his new life magical and spiritual happenings are making his life anything but normal.  Mother Nature was split in half.  The Good and The Bad.  Greed took the lives of many innocent children.  As Jack’s friendships strength he learns that he must make a huge sacrifice for the ones he loves.

I am not doing justice to The Mostly True Story of Jack  by Kelly Barnhill. I don’t want to give too much away from this wonderful, creepy story.  Just like in the story where children are sucked in, Ms. Barnhill’s storytelling sucked me in.  I had trouble putting this delightful book down.  The twists and turns made it exciting and emotional. 

The press release and the info on the back of the book say’s that is for ages 8-12.  NOPE.  The content is too mature for 8 year olds.   My best bet is 9 ½ to 12.  There will be a fourth grade or fifth grade class that will be excited to get my copy.

Copy courtesy of the publisher.  On sale August 2011.


Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Book Talk Tuesday


Summer is in full swing.  Which means spending some afternoons reading at the neighborhood pool, dinner on the patio, farmer’s market, mosquito bites and annoyance that a couple of tomato plants still have no blossoms. This summer there has been less reading because of the Denver Writing Project.  I am in the trenches right now and loving it, so expect a non book related post in a couple of weeks about my time as a Fellow.

My reading so far this summer has been some major misses (The Tragedy of Arthur), but mostly incredible hits.  One of the latter is my first read aloud of the new school year.  I initially entered the blog world of kid lit to find titles for new books to share with my students.  In six weeks I am excited that I get to share Noah Barleywater Runs Away by John Boyne with a new group of third graders.

Noah is an eight year old that runs away from home.  It is not an abusive home just a sad home.  He ends up in a very odd small village.  There is a magical tree, a talking donkey and dachshund, and an old man that shares his incredible life’s tale with the young Noah.  As the old man tells Noah his story, young Noah starts to realize that running away might not be the best thing to do.

The story takes place in England.  There are humorous references to the Irish and Scots.  Mr. Boyne points out that the Scots are the second smartest people in the world right after the Irish.  Kids in Southie will get this, but it is truly in the story for the adult reader.  At times the setting seems to take place in the “olden days” but then there is a reference to a mobile phone.  This will make for interesting conversations about the setting in stories. 

When I get to the end of some books I am sad that I don’t get to spend more time with my new friends, there are endings when I say “you’ve got to be kidding that’s it?” and in the words of Goldilocks there are ending that are just right.  This book is that.  Don’t worry there is no spoiler, but I enjoyed the ending.  It left me with the feeling that I knew the whole story.  Luckily, though I get to spend more time with Noah, the Old Man, Donkey and Dachshund.

(Thank you Random House for the copy of the book, but I also purchased one at The Bookies.  That one is being passed around by former students.)


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

My Most Excellent Year A Novel of Love, Mary Poppins, & Fenway Park by Steve Kluger


Whenever I travel I am not allowed to bring schoolbooks along.  The directive from above is that I need to read adult books, “NO, kid books!”  Anyhow, while I was figuring out what to take to read on vacation in Spain I found a YA book I snuck in my bag.  I don’t follow rules well, which is why I often get called to the principal’s office.  (That’s another story!)  The book was My Most Excellent Year A Novel of Love, Mary Poppins, & Fenway Park by Steve Kluger. 

Recently, I have started to read YA books differently because so many of my former students still come to me for recommendations.  My Most Excellent Year A Novel of Love, Mary Poppins, & Fenway Park it is a tale of the friendship between three unique teenagers, two best friends and the new girl at school.  The book begins with an 11th grade writing assignment.  The students must write about their most excellent year.  Our three protagonists write about their freshman year.  The first is TC Keller aka Anthony or Tick.  He is a very special young man whose mother died when he was six.  Next is Augie Hwong, Tick’s gay Chinese-American “brother”.  Finally, is Alejandra Perez aka Alé a daughter of a Mexican diplomat and love interest of Tick.  Funny thing though tick is not the smoothest with the girls and says very corny things to Alé.  After his first line she asks him “Do girls really fall for that?”  The three friends tell the story, so the voice changes with each chapter.  Tick meets Augie after he returns to school following the death of his mother.  When Tick returned to school the other kids didn’t know how to interact with him, or were afraid that the cancer that killed his mom might be contagious and thus their mom’s catching it. Augie wasn’t afraid of him and joined him for lunch and asked a very casual question.  The two boys quickly become friends and soon “brothers”.  Their parents set up the boys bedrooms to make life easier because of all the time they spend at each others house. 

Tick is a very caring person that passionate about baseball.  His parents met at a Red Sox game. He started a web site to “Free Buck Weaver” one of the baseball players banned fro baseball after the White Sox cheating.  Buck Weaver was banned even though he didn’t participate in the cheating.  Once Alé  arrives at his school Tick’s starts his hilarious quixotic quest for her heart.  Teenage boys are dorks!  Tick’s passion through the book is what makes him so lovable.  He wants the best for those around him.  Augie is a gay teen whose “brother” and folks know he is gay before he admits it.  His coming out is more an opening night then quiet letting everyone accept the news.  His family and friends see his sexuality as just another part of Augie.  The newest addition to the boy’s life is Alé Perez.  Her parents and brother are diplomats that end up in Brookline Mass.  It was always expected that Alé would end up in the family business.  She is a blunt young lady who insults heads of states and doesn’t realize that others think she is snobby when she talks about having dinner at Madonna’s house.  Augie strong arms her into helping with the talent show and a funny thing happened on the way to the stage she found out she is an awesome singer and dancer.

I truly, enjoyed  My Most Excellent Year A Novel of Love, Mary Poppins, & Fenway Park.  I like the chapters with the different voice and how emails and texting also are tools to drive the story.  There is teenage angst, but not to the point of total despair and melancholy.   I laughed throughout the book, but also felt sadness when the characters were hurting.  In other words if I was a high school teacher (And thank god I’m not. WAY TOO HARD!!!) I would want students like these three kids.  Most importantly and the reason I think it is appropriate for 6th graders is the issues of relationships are honest and innocent.

PS Thank you to my Denver Writing Project writing group.  

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Squish Super Amoeba by Jennifer L. Holm & Matthew Holm


The more kids books I read the more I think, “Why wasn’t this around when I was a kid?” and I don’t mean color TV.  This morning I read Super Amoeba by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm.  A little background about Squish:  it is a spin off of Babymouse.  I have tried to get boys to read Babymouse.  Even though it is a graphic novel it is PINK, so very few boys will touch it.  Thankfully, brother and sister graphic novel team Jennifer and Matthew Holm have introduced a new graphic novel that will appeal to boy humor.  The main character is a dork like most of us.  He gets suckered into giving his best friend his lunch money, ending up it trouble, reading comics (OH NO!!!), and saving the world from the bully. 

The shapeless illustrations (come on the characters are amoebas), the simple colors and great lines, “Dude, don’t eat it!” right before Squish eats the tuna fish sandwich will make this graphic novel a hit in my class.  With so few days left in the school year it will be fun to bring in a fantastic new book.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

An Interview with Pam Allyn


There are many books out there on boys and reading.  They are filled with crucial data about how boys flounder in literacy and what we as a society must do to increase boys interest in literacy.  I recently received an advance reader’s copy of Pam Allyn’s new book titled Best Books for Boys.  It will be a great book to add to your collection.  The first 30 some pages discuss why we should focus on boys, and key questions.  The rest of the book is filled with fantastic lists of books for boys. I had an opportunity to do a cyber interview with Ms. Allyn.  Thank you for taking your time to answer my questions.  Here it is:

Ms. Allyn thanks you for taking the time to answer my questions.  I enjoyed your new book Best Books for Boys.  It is very user friendly and points out why we as teachers must focus on boys and reading.

·      There are so many ways and methods for labeling books.  Your list is thoughtful and varied. I was excited to see many books on the list that my boys have in their hands. You use Emerging for younger boys, Developing for middle grade boys and Maturing for middle school boys.  I noticed that there are books you labeled as developing that I would classify as maturing and vice versa.  What are some of the criteria that go into grouping a book?
IDENTIFYING BOOKS BY LEVEL IS VERY CHALLENGING! THERE WILL ALWAYS BE HEALTHY DIFFERENCES OF OPINION, AND I WELCOME THESE. THE MAIN CRITERIA I LOOK FOR IS READABILITY AND EMOTIONAL PREPAREDNESS. I TRY TO USE THIS FORMULA PLUS MY OWN TEACHING EXPERIENCE TO CUE PARENTS AND TEACHERS IN TO APPROXIMATELY WHAT DEVELOPMENTAL RANGE WE ARE TALKING ABOUT. SOMETIMES THE BOOK MAY APPEAR EASY BUT THE EMOTIONAL THEMES IN THE BOOK ARE AT A HIGHER LEVEL. SOMETIMES THE BOOK MAY REQUIRE SOME WORK IN TERMS OF DECODING, BUT ACTUALLY CAN APPEAL TO A LESS EXPERIENCED READER THANKS TO ITS COMPELLING THEMES OR WONDERFUL GRAPHICS. BUT I DO UNDERSTAND THAT WE MIGHT SOMETIMES FEEL DIFFERENTLY; I ENCOURAGE YOU TO USE YOUR BEST JUDGMENT FOR YOUR CHILD AND OTHERS YOU KNOW WELL RATHER THAN RELY TOO LITERALLY ON ANY ONE PERSON’S ASSESSMENT. THE VERY BEST WAY TO MATCH KIDS WITH BOOKS IS TO GET TO KNOW THE CHILD AS WELL AS POSSIBLE AS A READER. THEN THE MATCH FEELS NATURAL.
·      The iPad and eBooks are a new tool.  What impact do you think these will have on boys and literacy?
I LOVE TECHNOLOGY! WHAT I ALREADY SEE IS THAT THESE TWO TECHNOLOGIES ARE HAVING ENORMOUS IMPACT ON THE READERSHIP OF ALL PEOPLE, NOT JUST BOYS. WHAT I AM INTERESTED IN IS BUILDING LIFELONG READERS AND WRITERS. THE TOOLS WE USE TO ACHIEVE THAT GOAL ARE JUST THAT, TOOLS, NOTHING MORE. I WANT ALL BOYS AND GIRLS TO FALL IN LOVE WITH STORIES, POEMS AND INFORMATIONAL TEXT IN WAYS THAT WILL CHANGE THEIR LIVES. TECHNOLOGY ALLOWS US TO RE-INVENT WHAT IT MEANS TO READ, AND IT THRILLS ME FOR THIS REASON. THE IPAD ALSO ALLOWS FOR CHOICE WITH PRIVACY. FOR EXAMPLE, A STRUGGLING READER CAN PUT EASIER READS ON HIS IPAD WITHOUT THE WORLD SEEING WHAT HE’S READING. IN THIS WAY, HE CAN PRACTICE HIS READING IN A SAFE SPACE. THIS IS JUST ONE EXAMPLE OF WHAT BENEFITS THERE ARE TO TECHNOLOGY IN READING.
·      The number of male elementary teachers is so low what do you think we can do as a nation to get more male role models into elementary classroom? THIS IS A VERY SERIOUS PROBLEM. THINK OF THE MESSAGE THIS SENDS! UNTIL WE BEGIN TO CONSIDER TEACHING AS A PROFESSIONAL CAREER PATHWAY (WITH BENEFITS THAT INCLUDE SALARY SCALES THAT REWARD EXCELLENCE AND WAYS TO ADVANCE A PROFESSIONAL LADDER WITHIN THE CLASSROOM) WE ARE NOT GOING TO GET TO FIFTY PERCENT ON THIS, AS IT SHOULD BE. PEOPLE THINK IT’S ALL ABOUT SALARY BUT IT’S NOT. IT’S ALSO ABOUT PERCEPTION. WOMEN ARE LESS VALUED IN OUR SOCIETY, AND SO IS TEACHING. IT STANDS TO REASON THEN THAT THEY ARE MATCHED UP IN THIS UNIVERSE. THE ISSUE IS BOTH ABOUT GENDER EQUITY AND ABOUT VALUING THE TEACHING PROFESSION. I LOVE WHAT TEACH FOR AMERICA HAS DONE TO BRING YOUNG MOTIVATED PEOPLE INTO THE PROFESSION, BUT I’D LIKE TO SEE THEM CONSIDER TEACHING LESS AS A TWO YEAR PEACE CORPS KIND OF STINT AND MORE AS A CAREER FOR LIFE.
·      There is much written about reluctant boy readers and how to get them engaged in reading.  What are your suggestions to teachers and parents that have boys that aren’t reluctant readers, but may become so?
BOYS OFTEN BECOME RELUCTANT AT MAJOR TURNING POINTS IN SCHOOL, THIRD AND SEVENTH GRADE ARE TWO EXAMPLES. WHEN THE WORKLOAD INCREASES AND READING BECOMES A CHORE, BOYS WILL QUICKLY TURN OFF TO READING. MAKE SURE YOUR HOME IS RICH WITH ENJOYABLE OPPORTUNITIES AND SELECTIONS FOR READING. ALWAYS BE THE KIND OF PARENT WHO DEMONSTRATES HOW PLEASURABLE READING CAN BE, AND MAKE YOUR HOME A PLACE WHERE YOUR CHILD CAN ALWAYS FIND A READING REFUGE AND THE KINDS OF READING THAT HE IS GOING TO WANT TO DELVE INTO. DON’T JUDGE YOUR BOYS’ READING SELECTIONS. IF HE WANTS TO BROWSE A VIDEO GAME MANUAL OR SCAN THE INTERNET ON THE IPAD, CELEBRATE ALL THESE FORMS OF READING. THEY WILL TURN HIM INTO A LIFELONG LOVER OF WORDS.
·      I have a boy’s book club with about 25 third to fifth graders.  The reading level ranges from grade level to
about 10th grade reading level.  It is a challenge to find books that meet all the needs.  Do you have any suggestions?
I SUGGEST SHORT TEXTS, SUCH AS SHORT STORIES AND POEMS FOR CLUBS OF MIXED LEVELS. I ALSO SUGGEST FRAMING THE CLUB AROUND A READ ALOUD RATHER THAN ESTABLISHING AN EXPECTATION THAT THE BOYS CAN ALL READ ONE BOOK AT THE SAME TIME AND AT THE SAME PACE. THESE SUGGESTIONS SEEM TO BOUNCE UP AGAINST OUR ROMANTIC IDEA OF EVERY CHILD WITH A CHAPTER BOOK IN HAND HAVING LONG CHATS ABOUT THAT ONE BOOK, BUT THE TRUTH IS THAT BOOK CLUBS CAN BE AMAZING IF THEY FOCUS ON ONE GOAL: HELPING READERS LEARN TO TALK ABOUT BOOKS, STORIES AND POEMS AND COLLABORATE TO NEW IDEAS ABOUT THEM. ANOTHER WAY TO THINK ABOUT THIS IS TO SELECT THEMES ACROSS THE YEAR FOR THE CLUBS, SUCH AS COURAGE. THEN USE ONE SHORT TEXT FOR THE READING IN THE GROUP AND BETWEEN SESSIONS ASK EACH BOY TO SELECT A BOOK AT HIS LEVEL THAT REFLECTS THIS THEME AND THEN RESERVE TEN MINUTES OR TWENTY EACH BOOK CLUB SESSION FOR THE BOYS TO CONNECT THEIR OWN READING SELECTION WITH YOUR READ ALOUD TEXT OR SHORT TEXT. IN THIS WAY, ALL READERS CAN READ COMFORTABLY AT THEIR LEVELS BUT YOU ARE UNITING THEM THROUGH THE BIG OVERARCHING THEMES.
  

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Finally, 10 iPads Arrive in My Classroom


Last autumn I applied for a technology grant through my district to introduce 10 iPad’s into my classroom.  The primary objective is to increase student achievement in literacy.  While I was writing the grant the question or main idea that was in the front of my mind was how can I prepare my readers for the 21st century?  I love books.  I get excited opening a new book, looking at the side to see how much further I needed to go to finish, and nosily looking at what others are reading.  I didn’t own an e-reader (that has changed) and wasn’t sure whether the e-reader is just an expensive toy.  I do know that my reservations could not get in the way of preparing my students for the future.

Fast forward to Friday. (Actually given how long it took to get the iPad’s slow forward!)  The iPad’s arrived in my classroom.  Excitement was in the air and there was giddy anticipation of what was to come.  I had sent home an agreement form stating “I (student’s name) will…. Basically use the iPad correctly and not look for games. I spent all day Sunday setting up the iPad’s and getting them ready to use. When I walked in to school not one of them connected with the schools system, so I spent yesterday afternoon redoing most of what I did on Sunday. 

The iPad is such a new tool in education that our tech department hasn’t planned for questions that are going to come up.  At first I was REALLY annoyed!  I mean how could they not have thought through how students were going to connect to the Internet, or how to easily download apps from iTunes?  Well, a funny thing happened on the way to annoyance, I realized I hadn’t even planned what books I was going to download first!!! Yes, you read it right.  An expensive tool for literacy I don’t have a list prepared of books to download. 

I basically need to build a classroom library from the bottom up.  If you have any ideas let me know!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Age Appropriate Books


I am a little slow on the uptake.  The buzz about The Hunger Games series has been going strong for awhile, but I just recently finished reading all three.  It made me really think about age appropriate books.  My hope is that this post won’t be too rambling.  To begin with I teach third grade and a big chunk of my class read at a high fourth grade or higher reading level.  I push the envelop in the books I read aloud, do in guided group and have on the shelves of the class library.  I believe censorship is one the most damaging acts done to democracy.  I don’t understand why as a society it is alright for there to be very violent shows on TV and at the movies, but The King’s Speech is given an R rating because one bad word is repeated numerous times.

With that said I DO NOT think every book should be put in any hand of a kid wanting to read it.  The Hunger Games series, The Strange Case of Origami Yoda and the last few books of the Harry Potter series are just a small of example of what I mean.  (I won’t mention the Twilight series because my kids aren’t even talking about them. Thank god!)  I will start with the Strange Case of Origami Yoda.  I love this book.  I love the way it is written.  I love the characters.  I love the message is sends.  I love it.  I love it for mature fourth graders and for an entire class of fifth graders.  In my opinion it is not for third grade boys.  It is not a challenging book and because of this the publisher is marketing it for boys.  I have talked to a few boys walking around with Origami Yoda finger puppets about the book.  I have asked them what they liked about the book.  They respond, “It is so funny. Do you like my finger puppet?”  “What did you think of the end with the dance?”  I ask.  “Oh, I didn’t like that so I didn’t finish it.”  UM that’s what the book is about, boys liking girls and girls liking boys.    

My first read aloud of the year was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.  I realized that many of these kids had never heard the first book or even read it.  Many students in class were so engaged that they went on to read more of the series.  From the beginning I told them that if it was an appropriate reading level they could read it in class.  A couple of my highest readers want to read the last two books.  I do not have copies of them in class because they aren’t appropriate for third graders.  JK Rowling wrote the books fro kids to grow up with not for third graders to read all seven in one year.  There have been many days where nine year olds are mad at me.  I have told them and their parents that if the parents want to get them for their kids it is their choice, but I would need a note saying it was ok for them to read it at school.  To date no parent has done this.  I tell D “dude just wait until your older.  You will enjoy them even more because you will understand everything that is happening in the book.”  He still thinks I’m being a mean teacher.  He’ll get over it.

I devoured The Hunger Game series.  I downloaded all three when I got my iPad and read them non-stop.  They were interesting and have a social commentary that is important for adults to read and understand.  I had a student last year that in third grade read at a high school level and could easily done 6th grade mathematics.  He is a very smart kid.  He is funny, but not always socially in tune to what is happening around him.   The other day he was reading Mockingjay.  I said “N do you think that is a good book?  Is it appropriate for you?”  “Oh yea.  I loved the first two.”  “I don’t think those are appropriate for you.  Does MS. T know you are reading them?  Do your parents?”  I ask.  He replies that they all know.  This blog post is about my opinion on books kids should read not on the fact that his fourth grade teacher doesn’t read kids literature.  She says she doesn’t have time.  Enough said.  However, N’s parents are usually more involved in what he is reading.  I saw his mom the next day and I asked her if N spoke to her about what I said about his reading choice.  She said no.  We talked about why I felt the way I did.  That night she and N talked about the books.  N is not very mature and I still believe he doesn’t truly understand what he read.

The reason books are challenged or banned is because they are powerful.  As teachers we need to use this power for good and as important learning tools. I stride to keep an open dialog with my students about appropriate books. I look for books that will push them academically and socially.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Jarrett J. Krosoczka and The Lunch Lady


A few weeks ago Denver was visited by a great kids author and overall really nice guy.  We welcomed Jarrett Krosoczka to the Mile High City.  He was in town doing a few days of school visits.  While in town he made a stop by the Tattered Cover on Colfax.  I still have a hard time going to this Tattered Cover.  It has nothing to do with them as a bookseller.  The space is well merchandised and truthfully it is very close to my home and I drive by it daily on the way to school and from school.  I just missed what used to happen in the building.  I don’t think I will ever get over the fact that Denver didn’t support the Bonfil’s Theatre.  As a teen and 20 something I spent a lot of time watching my friends preform there. 

OK, sorry back to Jarrett.  I met Jarrett a couple of years ago at the CCIRA conference when I was lucky enough to be his host for the day.  He still thinks I accidently lost him, little does he know….  It was right before the first Lunch Lady book came out.  I received an ARC at the ALA Mid-Winter conference, which he signed.  He let me read the galley of the second Lunch Lady.  I spent the day laughing.  It was a wonderful day.  Over the years we have kept in contact through the blog world, Facebook and Twitter.  So when I saw he was coming I planned my schedule around seeing him.  He really knows how to pull in an audience.  He has a group of preschool and kinder girls singing and acting out the Lunch Lady.  My friend Lauren and I got there early and were able to visit with Jarrett for a while before his talk.

In the classroom Jarrett is in much demand.  The Lunch Lady series makes a constant round of book boxes.  It is a graphic novel series that is popular with both boys and girls.  For a reward for good behavior I showed them the video for Punk Farm.  For a week kids walked around singing the punk version of Old McDonald.

Thanks Random House for the free copy.

The new REM album is quite good.  I am listening to it this morning while writing this. (Nothing to do with this blog!)

Monday, March 28, 2011

I.Q. By Roland Smith and the Book Fair


Our most recent book for Guys Read was I.Q.  Book One:  Independence Hall by Roland Smith.  Most of the guys read the book and really enjoyed it, as a matter of fact I had a copy of Book Two I received for the Cybil’s Award; so I raffled off first reader.  The book is somewhere at school in the hands of a boy.  Last week was our Scholastic Book Fair and there were a limited number of copies of I.Q. Book Two.  Needless to say they went very quickly.  I went in to get one, but no luck.  It was funny because a parent volunteer said to me “Why is that books so popular?  You’re the third person to ask for it in the last five minutes.”  I explained that the first one in the series had been a Guys Read book.  An odd look appeared on her face.  She does not have a son in Guys Read, so she didn’t quite understand how 26 boys can get about a book they like.

To be honest Guys Read Book Club has been a challenge lately.  During the first three years there was always at least one guy in each grade that was a reading leader.  He motivated his peers to read.  Unfortunately, this year there is no true reading leader in the third grade class.  Most show up without even reading the first chapter.  The older boys are getting frustrated and so am I.  I have decided that when we get back from spring break I am going to meet with the third graders and lay it on the line.  Hopefully, the directness and honesty will get them to take the club seriously. 

What is hard about all of this is that the whole mission on the club is to have fun.  I have always told the boys that they are welcome even if they haven’t finished the book.  The third grade cohort interpreted that to mean that they don’t need to try, but still come and be goofy.  Hopefully this works.

I.Q. Book Two was sent by the publisher.  

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Midnight Palace by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

I recently started receiving galleys from NetGalley. A fun and interesting way to get advance reader copies. There is a list and I pick what looks interesting. I click a button to request a copy and wait for a response. If they say yes I down load it to my iPad. There is a wide range of books to choose from. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I say a listing for The Midnight Palace by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. I quickly clicked the button and patiently waited (not really I couldn’t stand the wait!). Once the email came I was on my way to reading another fantastically scary book.


I don’t normally do scary. I am what is commonly referred to as a chicken. Covered eyes and all, so it is interesting that I am so taken by Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s young adult books. I guess it is easy to figure out why. His books they are engrossing and beautifully written. This new book is no different. The book was written in 1994, but because of legal issues (Carlos Ruiz Zafón mentions this on his site.) was not translated until this year. It was worth the wait.

The Midnight Palace takes place in Calcutta in 1932. The beginning of the book starts with a first person narrative of events that happened that year. The Midnight Palace is a place where a group of orphans from the orphanage have secret meetings to discuss wonderful dreams and goals. One of the orphans is Ben. When the orphans turn 16 they must leave the orphanage. The story opens on the eve of the departures. It is that night that Ben discovers he has a twin named Sheere. They have been hidden from evil reincarnated their entire lives. Evil goes by the name Jawahal. He is driven to destroy these two teenagers no matter who or what gets in his way. Jawahal is the name of the orphan’s father spelled backwards, Lahawaj. Ben and Sheere’s father was an architect that built a fabulous train station in Calcutta, but a horrific event happens that kills hundreds of children and destroys the station. Once the twins turn 16 Jawahal want to … I can’t tell you because there is NO WAY THERE WILL BE SPOILER here!

Carlos Ruiz Zafón is a master of prose. After finishing The Midnight Palace I wish there was another I could read today. Alas, I will have to wait.