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Saturday, February 28, 2009

The World According to Ben Hillman

How Big Is It?
by Ben Hillman

Universal Themes:
Comparisons, Juxtaposition, Magnitude
Slam dunks are no problem for this guy.
Polar bears are the largest carnivores on Earth. And when they stand on their hind legs, they’re the tallest. The biggest polar bear anyone ever saw stood at astounding 12 feet tall (3.7 m.). That’s two feet higher than the rim of a basketball net.
from How Big is It?
Before Reading Questions
  • How big is a slice of bread? Who can show me? (Students will typically use hands to illustrate the dimensions, and some students will even use two fingers to show how skinny it is).
  • How big is a school bus? (Students will now either try to guesstimate its true length in feet, yards, or meters, or will try to compare it to the room they're sitting in, or against the size of a car of other vehicle). Can you show me how big it is?
  • How tall is a polar bear? Is he were standing on his hind legs, would he be as tall as me?

Ben Hillman has created four wonderful books which illustrate the magnitude of real life objects by comparing them with more common phenomenon with which students are familiar. How Big Is It?, How Strong Is It?, How Fast Is It?, and How Weird Is It? have quickly become nonfiction must-reads for the upper primary and intermediate school set.

As shown above from How Big Is It?, the largest polar bear on record is a whopping 12 feet! Yes, students will be surprised to hear that a polar bear is taller than their classroom ceiling, but the surprising juxtapositions created by Ben Hillman drive home each book's concepts in a really powerful, fun way.

Have some reluctant readers? They will devour these books! The text is as wonderful as the pictures, and is in no way dumbed down for the young audience for which it is intended. In speaking about the Akula (Shark) Submarine, for example, Hillman writes
This leviathan of the deep is one of the most dangerous submarines imaginable –
a giant submersible weapon of mass destruction.
Many of the contextual clues needed for comprehension are provided by the illustrations. Some words, however, are not made clear by the pictures alone, and the reader's curiosity will promote an interest in word study.
As seen in this description of our polar bear from How Big Is It?, the text, like the illustrations, uses similes, metaphors, and hard data to create memorable juxtapositions,
For short distances, a polar bear can charge along at 25 miles per hour (40
km/h) – almost as fast as the fastest Olympic sprinter.

From How Strong Is It?, a description of human hair's amazing strength:
The average human hair can support 2 to 3.5 ounces without breaking. That doesn't sound like much, but the average human head has more than 100,000 hairs.
And blondes have more than most. About 140,000 hairs per blonde... So how many princes can Rapunzel handle? Do the math. Her two golden braids can hold at the
very least 17,500 pounds of princes!
All four books are a blast! They make excellent nonfiction read-alouds due to their brevity and brilliance, and the individual topics need not be read in any particular order. How Strong Is It?, for example, features twenty-two two-page spreads, with a full color picture on the left (running onto the right page),
and an article-length text appearing on the right.

Visit the author's site for an up-close preview of these books. Students especially enjoy the cool roll-over feature used to illustrate the sample pages provided.

After Reading Questions
  • What do you think of the illustrations? Why are they so startling?
  • Which topic was your favorite? Why?
  • Who heard a simile that the author used to make a comparison? What other methods did he employ that helped us to understand how big (strong, fast) things were?
Extension Ideas: Math
  • Many of the topics are backed with mathematical data. When this data is actually used, the author explains it well, but stops short of showing us "the math." Have students work in pairs to "show the work" that the author left on certain pages. In the above example of Rapunzel, for example, is the math correct? Does 140,000 blonde hairs equal a strength of 17, 500 pounds?
  • Extend the math. Use the facts given and ask additional questions. For example, "If princes weigh 200 pounds each, then how many princes can climb Rapunzel's hair at once?"
Extension Ideas: Language Arts
  • After reading a selection, show students a number of words which you've selected from the text. Have students sort them into categories of Explained by the Picture, Explained by Context, Not Explained. Use this exercise to begin a discussion of what good readers do when they encounter unknown words.
  • Have students research a word whose meaning is unclear (for example, the word leviathan above). Does it have a base word that helps to define it? Does it have a Greek or Latin root? Why did the author choose this word instead on another? (a leviathan is not just a monster, it is a huge mythical sea monster)
Extension Ideas: Science
  • As students learn about their own science concepts, encourage them to create Hillman-like images and texts. Students studying animal adaptations, for example, might be asked to juxtapose a feature of their animal with a comparable (yet different) every object. A turtle's shell is as hard as what man-made material? An iguana's tongue is as long as, or as sticky as, what common objects?
  • Have students use collage or cut and paste on the computer to create visual juxtapositions of phenomena not shown in Hillman's books.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Wilfrid Gordon MacDonald Partridge

Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge
by Mem Fox

Universal Themes:
Change, Connections, Discovery, Generations, Identity, Loss, Memory, Relationships

Before Reading Questions
  • What do you think of when I say the word "warm"? How about the word "sweet"? How about the word "fun"?
  • Why didn't we all share the same ideas for those words? Who heard someone else share an idea that you've never heard of, or never experienced?
  • Why can we remember some things that happened to us when we were just three years old, but we can't remember what we had for lunch two weeks ago?

Wilfrid Gordon MacDonald Partridge lives next to an old folks' home, and he knows and loves each person there. That is why he is dismayed upon learning that his "favourite person of all" (note the Australian spelling of favorite) has lost her memory.

Wilfrid wonders what a memory is, and begins asking each of the residents of the home. One answers, "Something warm, my child, something warm," while another answers, "Something from long ago, me lad, something from long ago," and so on.

Intent upon giving Miss Nancy her memory back, Wilfrid collects items which he feels match the description of memory shared by his friends. (Something warm, for example, is a freshly laid egg).
When he shares his collection of gathered treasures with Miss Nancy, she remarks, "What a dear, strange child to bring me all these wonderful things." Then she starts to remember.

Each object retrieves from her memory a long forgotten pleasure, such as days at the beach, eggs found in nests, and a farewell to a brother off to war, whom she never saw again. And the final object helps her to recall the day she had first met this sweet little boy, and all the secrets they had shared.

After Reading Questions
  • Why did each person tell Wilfrid a different answer when he asked, "What's a memory?"
  • What other object could he have collected for something warm? Something that makes you cry? Something that makes you laugh?
  • Why does Wilfrid like Miss Nancy the most? (She has four names, just like him). How else are Wilfrid and Miss Nancy alike?
Extension Ideas: Language Arts
  • A day or two before sharing the book, ask each child to bring in a small object that holds a special memory for them. Have students write a short paragraph describing that memory. These can be shared aloud, or all of the objects can be displayed, and the teacher can read each description aloud (omitting the name of the object) and students can guess which object matches each description.
  • Students can create simile poems describing favorite places. The ocean might be described as "salty as a pretzel," and the sand as "blinding as a light bulb." Or , the simile poems can deal with opposite sides of each student's personality. A student might write, "At school I am as quiet as a mouse, At home I am as loud as a tornado."
  • Students can interview parents, grandparents, older uncles and aunts, or residents of a senior citizen's home. They can ask standard questions about favorite memories, or, keeping more in line with the book's theme, students can ask, "What was something warm you remember from when you were a child? What was something that made you laugh?" and so on.
Extension Ideas: Science

Conduct a memory experiment using Kim's Game.
  • First, gather 30-40 common objects from home and the classroom. Arrange these objects on a table in the classroom and cover them with a tablecloth or blanket. Have students gather around and make some hypotheses about what might be under the blanket. What are some likely items? (kickball, scissors, rulers) What are some unlikely items? (the teacher's car, a classmate)
  • Second, inform students that once the cloth is lifted they will have thirty seconds to look at (but not touch) all of the items on the table. They are to then go back to their desks and individually create a list from memory (and the tablecloth is again placed over the objects). Younger students might be paired with upper grade students or parents who can record their items quickly (and help recall them as well, if desired).
  • Third, take a quick survey of how many items each child could recall. If the lists seem especially short, the teacher might provide memory-prompting questions such as, "Were there any items that were silver? Did any of the items have numbers on them?" These prompts can later lead to a conversation of how and why scientists categorize things into groups (reptiles, birds, mammals, etc.) based upon common criteria.
  • Fourth, (and this is important!) have students draw a thick, dark line under the last object on their list. Then, tell students that they will now be placed into groups. Each group can share ideas, and students can add to their lists if they agree.
  • Fifth, after some time sharing in groups, get together and debrief: "How many total objects could your group list? There were actually ___. Raise your hand if your group got at least ___. Great! Raise your hand if your group helped you to add some items which you couldn't remember. What does that tell us about working together? Now, let's see if we can recall what was under that blanket. Let's start with those objects I mentioned earlier, that had numbers on them. Who can tell me what they were? (watch, ruler, playing card) How about objects that were black and white, with no other colors? (domino, dice, Oreo cookie) And so on.
  • Sixth, ask, "If we did this activity again, what could we possibly do so that we could remember more of the objects once they're covered up again?" What's fantastic about this activity is that it introduces, in a very concrete manner, scientific behaviors including hypothesizing, observing, recording, communicating, classifying, confirming, evaluating, and drawing conclusions.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Picture Books as Mentor Texts

Corbett Harrison is a master teacher of writing, and one of my new heroes. On his Always Write Homepage you'll find what he calls his “Mentor Texts” for teaching good writing, and sure enough, most are picture books!

Lots to see here; highly recommended if you are using picture books as writing models or story starters.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Ruby the Copycat

Ruby The Copycat
by Peggy Rathman

Universal Themes:
Change, Identity, Uniqueness

Before Reading Questions

  • What does the term "copycat" mean?
  • Is it considered good or bad to be a copycat? When might copying someone be a good thing? (Some students may notice the step-by-step drawing of the cat on the back cover, which is a good example of how copycatting might be a good thing).
  • Look at the front cover. Which character do you think is Ruby? How do you know? (Note that Ruby's flowers are really pinned on, and she is copying Angela's answer, oblivious to the fact that she is solving an entirely different math problem).

Class newcomer Ruby admires Angela's bow. After skipping home to lunch, Ruby returns to class wearing a similar bow in her hair.

Another day Ruby admires Angela's handpainted T-shirt and sneakers. Coincidentally enough, Ruby returns after lunch with a hand-painted T-shirt and sneakers. "Don't touch," she warns, "I'm a little bit wet."

This continues until Angela, who had been flattered at first, grows tired of Ruby's replications, which are stealing the thunder from Angela.

Finally Miss Hart, the girls' teacher, asks Ruby to stay after school for a talk. I what seems like the final scene, Miss Hart encourages Ruby to be herself, to be the best Ruby she can be. Miss Hart smiles at Ruby. Ruby smiles at Miss Hart's long, painted fingernails. (A great scene to revisit for a discussion of foreshadowing).

When Ruby returns after the weekend with long, painted (fake) fingernails, and continues to copy what her classmates say, an exasperated Miss Hart asks, "And what else did you do this weekend?" Ruby responds, "I hopped." She then demonstrates her unique hopping skills for the class, and the teacher, seizing upon the moment, turns on some music and has everyone copy Rudy.

Thus dignified for her own unique gifts, Ruby hops home with Angela in a satisfying happy ending.

After Reading Questions
  • Why do you think Ruby felt it was necessary to copy Angela?
  • Why did Angela enjoy it at first and then become upset?
  • What clues gave Ruby away? For example, how did the teacher know that Ruby hadn't been a flower girl?
  • What advice do you think Ruby would give another child who came into this class as a brand new student?
  • When might there be times that it's hard to be ourselves?
Extension Ideas: Math
  • Extending patterns is an excellent math concept that connects the idea of pattern and repetition with copying. Many books offer examples of both numerical and graphic patterns.
Extension Ideas: Language Arts
  • Create a class poem titled "Sometimes." The lead-in phrase would be "Sometimes I wish I could..." and each student offers a talent which they feel is uniquely their own. So the poem might read: "Sometimes I wish I could /Swim like Ronald/ Cook like Margaret/ Build with Legos like Anthony/ etc." The final line of the poem might be "But most of the time I'm happy just to be me."
  • Play the drama game called "Mirror." One student is the actor, and she slowly changes her hands, body, or face. Her partner must mirror, or copy, the movements. Let students practice this for some time, and you'll find that it becomes difficult to tell who is the actor and who is the mirror.
Ruby the Copycat is an excellent beginning of the year book, and also a wonderful common-culture-creator for an introduction to other books (especially novels) related to the theme of Identity.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Empty Pot

The Empty Pot
by Demi

Universal Themes:
Choices, Consequences, Honesty, Integrity, Virtue

Before Reading Questions
  • Who has ever heard the expression that “honesty is the best policy”? What does that mean?
  • How many of you have chores that you’re expected to do at home? How many of you complete those chores on your own, without nagging from your parents?
  • Today’s tale is from China. Who can locate China on our map? What do you know about China?

The ancient Chinese emperor has decided that it is time for him to choose a successor to the throne. The flower-loving ruler decides that this shall be accomplished through a contest. Each child will be given a seed and told to do their best.

Ping, a young boy who also loves to grow lovely things, has great hope that he will be successful. Imagine his dismay, then, when he discovers that, despite the success of his friends, his own seed yields not even a single leaf.

Disappointed and ashamed, he approaches his father and asks for advice. His father tells him that he has done the best that he can, and that he has nothing to be ashamed of.

As the emperor examines the beautiful flowers brought before him on the final day, his face expresses nothing but disapproval. Finally, approaching Ping, he asks why the pot is empty. Ping explains that he did his best, but to no avail. The emperor then reveals that the seeds were cooked, and therefore could not grow. The contest was to find not the greatest gardener in the land, but the leader with the greatest integrity.

After Reading Questions
  • Did the emperor ask each child to grow a beautiful flower? (He actually asked each child to do his/her best).
  • What do you think the word integrity means? (Note: Integrity is often defined as “Doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.” How is that definition exemplified in this story?)
  • What other stories have we read that show a character acting with integrity?
  • What advice did Ping’s Father give him? Has anyone ever given you advice like that?
  • Can you think of a time when it would be hard to tell the truth? Why is it still a good idea to tell the truth in these situations?
Extension Ideas: Math
  • Tangrams are Chinese puzzle pieces used to create both simple and complex pictures. Grandfather Tang’s Story by Ann Tombert is an excellent picture book which tells a simple story in both tangrams and conventional watercolor illustrations. (Also check out Tangram Magicianby Ernst). After sharing this story together, allow children to create pictures using paper tangram pieces. You may also wish to let them explore online tangrams.
Extension Ideas: Language Arts
  • Create a class chart titled “Integrity is…” and allow each student to complete the sentence with a concrete example of integrity in action.
  • Older students can make individual posters with that same theme, or write stories or poems which illustrate integrity at work.
  • Have students research words that come from the same base word as integrity (integer, integral, integrate). How are all of these words related?
Extension Ideas: Science
  • Encourage students to collect seeds from various foods at home and then plant them in class.
  • As a class, remove the seeds a bell pepper. Cook half of them and then plant the cooked seeds in one container, and the uncooked seeds in another. Is it true that cooked seeds won’t grow? Older students can research to learn about some special seeds which actually require fire in order to grow.
Extension Ideas: Social Studies
  • China has given the world an immense number of innovations including paper, noodles, and gunpowder. Have students research these and other Chinese firsts.
  • Why was the Great Wall of China built? Was it effective? What lessons did the Chinese learn from this wall?
  • Who are some famous Chinese Americans? How can we learn about others?