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Saturday, May 30, 2009

Okay Gals, Play Ball!

I received a couple enthusiastic emails about my Women in Baseball post, so when I ran across this little documentary of the Racine Belles, thought I'd drop it in here for my readers.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Explore the Wild Side with Sylvan Dell

I am not a lazy teacher; far from it. That's exactly why I appreciate a publisher like Sylvan Dell that has so much to offer students, teachers, and parents.

The award-winning science and nature books which define their niche are extremely colorful and well-designed. As a teacher who often reads books upside down (so that younger students can see the pictures more easily) I definitely appreciate the no-nonsense fonts!

What I especially like, however, is that each Sylvan Dell picture book features an educational section called For Creative Minds which features a number of teaching ideas and resources. For example, Sort it Out!(obviously intended for lower grades than this blog's target audience) features two pages of sorting cards which can be used for classification (a table is included for this) or Memory. But what teacher would want to cut apart such a beautiful book? Here's the good news. Each book's For Creative Minds is available for pdf download from the publisher's site. Check out the quality of the pages that accompany Sort it Out!.

How the Moon Regained Her Shape is an example more appropriate for fourth grade. It's a terrific Native American-influenced folktale which can be used to study that genre, or the phases of the moon, or even bullying. As you can see, the teaching materials for this book are a little more elaborate and mature. Turtle Summer: A Journal for my Daughter is on one level deceptively simple as a picture book, and yet on another level incredibly insightful as a journal of scientific observation of nature. Again, the For Creative Minds section provides parents and teachers with ideas which are as simple or involved as you choose. This kind of resource instantly increases the value of this book as an instructional tool in the classroom.

This, however, is just the beginning of what Sylvan Dell offers as educational supports for their books. At their site you'll also find Teaching Activities (30 or more pages!) for each title. These guides feature questions, cross-curricular activities, charts, vocabulary lists, games, glossaries, cloze activities, maps, and more. For the teacher who wants to take the picture book experience beyond the read-aloud, these Teaching Activities are priceless. Check out the Teaching Guide for Ocean Hide and Seek. Dozens of options (yes, options; don't try to do them all!) to support a simple, beautifully illustrated book which students will want to view over and over again.

Still need convincing? How about online, self-checking, interactive quizzes? Alignment to state standards? Online Ebook previews of each title?

I'm impressed. This is one publisher that definitely fulfills their end of the bargain. Go and see for yourself what an amazing website this young company has created, and explore some more titles while you're there.

I love it when my job is so easy!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Teacher Book Wizard

Scholastic's Teacher Book Wizard is a truly awesome resource for teachers. I highly recommend you check out the video tour of all the features.

At its simplest, the Book Wizard is a database of 50,000 books, available from different publishers. You can search by author, title, key word, reading level, or themed book lists. Book results contain author information, vocabulary lists, and age-appropriate extension activities. The Leveled Search option allows you to search by interest and reading levels, language, book type, and even genre.

Teachers who try Book Wizard seem most excited about the BookAlike feature which allows you to find books similar to one you've already read. For example, if a student loves The Magic Treehouse series, you can enter that title to see other books which may be appealing. The slide feature allows you to return results that are at, above, or below the original level. So for that fourth grader who picked out Shiloh but finds it too challenging, the BookAlike feature would recommend Ribsy or Stone Fox as more appropriate grade-level choices. In my experience I've had lots of parents ask for book suggestions at parent-teacher conferences. Having the BookAlike feature available makes such suggestions a breeze! Students could even be taught how to use this resource for themselves.

List Exchange allows teachers, authors, and celebrities to share lists of favorite books. These are searchable as well. See a list you like? You can save it and then customize it to make your own.

A final feature allows you to use search results or book lists to create online purchase orders. One click formats the book list as a purchase order, with all math done online. But truthfully, for the average classroom teacher, that's probably the least impressive function.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Lee & Low Books: Globally Aware Picture Books

Here in New Jersey and in many other states across the nation, educators are encouraged to focus on 21st Century Skills, and with them, global awareness.

Teachers often lament, "How can I teach students about the world when they barely know about themselves, their families, and their own community?" I think this is answered beautifully through multicultural picture books, and one of the preeminent publishers of multicultural titles is Lee and Low.

I've been a fan for a while now; Ken Mochizuki, author of Heroes, Baseball Saved Us, and Be Water, My Friend (a biography of young Bruce Lee) publishes with Lee and Low. I recommend those three titles highly, but a fourth, Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story, is especially recommended to those readers of this blog who wrote in to thank me for the Holocaust books featured in a recent post. In this little-known true tale, Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara makes the difficult decision to help thousands of Jews escape the Holocaust through Japan, against his government's orders. This books truly speaks to children about doing "the right thing" for others, no matter how little we seem to share in common with them.

What I didn't realize (until visiting their website and reviewing other titles) was that Lee and Low's specialty is multicultural children's books. Once again my job as a teacher and a blogger of picture books is made easy because the site features well-written, in-depth teaching guides for their titles. For the above-mentioned Passage to Freedom, for example, you'll find an Author Talk as well as a Teacher's Guide available either on the site or as a separate pdf download. The Guide features readability scales, themes, a summary, before and after reading questions, writing activities, ESL ideas, and extension lessons across the curriculum. So even if you're not studying the Holocaust or World War II, this Guide would help you understand how to use in the book in several other meaningful ways with your class.

What else will you find at their site? Homeschoolers will find several project and fundraising ideas. Teachers and homeschoolers alike will discover ideas for teaching current events by visiting the Calendar page. And finally, unpublished writers of color can enter to win the New Voices Award, which recognizes promising new authors.

I look forward to including Lee and Low titles in my future posts, but for now, do yourself a favor and head to their site. You'll be impressed by the diversity of their titles, as well as the resources they offer teachers and parents.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Picture Book Previews

Originally created as book talks and mini-commercials for book fairs, the sixty-five book videos at Scholastic provide power previews and instant incentives for young readers.

I recently used the book trailer for Swindle by Gordon Korman to get my students excited about that novel. This video in particular plays out like a movie preview. Other videos, such as that for Chasing Vermeer, are traditional book talks with engaging questions for the reader, while others, such as Lily Brown's Paintings, provide students a peek behind the author's process of creating a book.

For whatever reason, these videos aren't easy to find on the site, and typically don't show up in the search results for the individual authors. But now you've got the link to explore them all, so off you go! See for yourself what great resources these videos can be.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Novel Approach to Teaching Novels

Since many of this blog's readers are upper elementary and middle school teachers (with a special shout out to my homeschoolers), I thought you'd like to know that I've launched a new blog.

How to Teach a Novel is aimed at teachers in grades 3-12 who are using this authentic literature in their classrooms. This blog will attempt to bring you the related web sites, effective and efficient practices, and most current and relevant articles related to the art and science of teaching the novel.

Now, if you haven't already checked it out, you might want to visit my older, static site over at Squidoo which bears the same name. The How to Teach a Novel "lens" (Squidoo's unique name for personal sites) presents a step-by-step approach for the teacher who holds a novel in hand but lacks the resources to teach it. It's the online companion to a popular workshop which I've presented several times over the past couple years. (As for the presumptuous titles? They make it much easier to find the sites when searching Google).

I'm a huge fan of novels, I love teaching them, and I feel that there's a right and a wrong way to go about it. I'd love to hear about your experiences as well. Drop me a line and share your favorite sites, favorite books, best practices, and your success and horror stories. After all, we're in this thing together!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

You Wouldn't Want to...

It's rare that I get excited about a series of picture books, but kudos to the small army of writers who produced the "You Wouldn't Want to..." series of nonfiction books. It seems that the series was started was British author David Salariya and has since been taken on by several other writers, although most of the titles are illustrated by the extremely talented David Antram.

The Manchester Evening News called this series "a fascinating full-on colour weapon in the battle to get kids to remember historical facts." I think they're even more important as tools to help kids even care about history. Antram's lively, hysterical cartoons (very reminiscent of Mad magazine) give the text a comic book feel, and every page is packed with well-researched facts, organized with headings, subheadings, and captions which will help students better understand the organizational conventions of traditional textbooks.

You Wouldn't Want to Be a Worker on the Statue of Liberty! was the first that I read, but not nearly the last. I also immensely enjoyed You Wouldn't Want to Be a Greek Athlete!, a humorous look at the rough and tumble world of Ancient Athens and the first Olympic games.

The title list that appears at the bottom of this post comes from, an incredible source of ideas and inspirations for homeschoolers, teachers, and anyone else looking to spark the imagination of children. It illustrates the wide scope of the series, and you should make the jump to FunSchooling where you can get an even better look at the titles (those titles below that are linked to Amazon are the books I've personally read; give me a week or two to get to the rest).

So how to use these in the classroom?
  • This series is simply excellent as a means to motivate reluctant readers, The vibrant, funny illustrations and the bite-sized chunks of text are certainly less intimidating than standard texts containing the same information. Boys especially seem to enjoy the humor and at times disgusting and gory historical factoids. Trust me, these are the books that cause all those whispers during Quiet Reading Time (and that's a good thing).
  • Teachers seeking to place short stories or novels into a historical context will appreciate these books as schema builders. Students who understand the cutoms and beliefs of a particular culture and time and naturally more likely to understand events that unfold in that time. Students may even discover historical inaccuracies in the fiction books they read!
  • Homeschooling parents in particular may wish to paint a broad picture of world history before drilling down deep in a particular era. An understanding of world history, both ancient and modern, will help students to make connections between the past and present.
You Wouldn't Want to Be a Mammoth Hunter!(c. 10,000BC)
You Wouldn't Want To Be A Sumerian Slave (c. 5000-2000BC)
You Wouldn't Want To Be An Egyptian Mummy! (c. 3000BC)
You Wouldn't Want To Be A Pyramid Builder! (c. 2500BC)
You Wouldn't Want To Be An Assyrian Soldier (c. 2000-600BC)
You Wouldn't Want To Be A Slave In Ancient Greece! (c. 1100 - 150BC)
You Wouldn't Want To Work On The Great Wall of China! (500-200BC)
You Wouldn't Want to Be a Roman Soldier!(400BC)
You Wouldn't Want To Be In Alexander The Great's Army! (336-323BC)
You Wouldn't Want To Be A Roman Gladiator! (c. 260BC)
You Wouldn't Want To Be Cleopatra (69-30BC)
You Wouldn't Want To Be A Viking Explorer! (c. 1000)
You Wouldn't Want To Be A Crusader! (1095-1099)
You Wouldn't Want To Live In A Medieval Castle! (c. 1200s?)
You Wouldn't Want to Be a Medieval Knight!(c. 1200s?)
You Wouldn't Want To Be In A Medieval Dungeon! (c. 1200s?)
You Wouldn't Want To Be In The Forbidden City! (built 1406-1420)
You Wouldn't Want To Be Married To Henry VIII! (1491 - 1547)
You Wouldn't Want To Be Ill In The 16th Century/ Tudor Times! (1500s)
You Wouldn't Want To Be Mary, Queen Of Scots! (1542-1587)
You Wouldn't Want To Sail In The Spanish Armada! (1588)
You Wouldn't Want To Be A Pirate's Prisoner! (1660s?)
You Wouldn't Want To Be An 18th-Century British Convict!
You Wouldn't Want To Travel With Captain Cook! (1760s)
You Wouldn't Want To Be An Aristocrat In The French
Revolution! (1789-1799)
You Wouldn't Want To Be A 19th-Century Coal Miner in England!
You Wouldn't Want To Sail On An Irish Famine Ship! (19th Century)
You Wouldn't Want to Be a Suffragist!(19th Century)
You Wouldn't Want To Be A Victorian Schoolchild! (1880s)
You Wouldn't Want To Be A Victorian Miner! (1880s)
You Wouldn't Want To Be A Victorian Servant! (1880s)
You Wouldn't Want to Be A Victorian Mill Worker! (1880s)
You Wouldn't Want To Live In Pompeii! (AD79)
You Wouldn't Want To Be A Mayan Soothsayer! (AD250-900)
You Wouldn't Want To Be An Aztec Sacrifice! (c. 1200s)
You Wouldn't Want To Be An Inca Mummy! (c. 1450)
You Wouldn't Want to Sail With Christopher Columbus!(1492)
You Wouldn't Want to Explore With Sir Francis Drake! (1570s)
You Wouldn't Want To Be An American Colonist! (1585)
You Wouldn't Want To Sail On The Mayflower! (1620)
You Wouldn't Want to Be at the Boston Tea Party!(1773)
You Wouldn't Want To Be An American Pioneer (18th Century)
You Wouldn't Want To Be In The First Submarine! (19th Century)
You Wouldn't Want Sail On A 19th-Century Whaling Ship!
You Wouldn't Want to Be a Civil War Soldier!(1861-1865)
You Wouldn't Want To Work On The Railroads! (1860s)
You Wouldn't Want To Live In A Wild West Town!
(c. mid 19th Century)
You Wouldn’t Want To Be A Worker On The Statue
Of Liberty! (1876-1886)
You Wouldn't Want to Sail on the Titanic!(April 1912)
You Wouldn't Want To Be A Polar Explorer!
(Ernest Shackleton: 1914-1917)
You Wouldn't Want To Be On Apollo 13! (April 1970)


Can you think of other ways to use this series in the classroom? Leave a comment or drop me a line.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Graphic Novels and New Literacies

Graphic Novels are not Picture Books. I know that. But since they are more alike than different, please allow me at least one post to win over the skeptics.

Who are the skeptics? Teachers who dismiss this literary form with a wave of the hand, saying any one of the following:
  • Kids can read comic books on their own time.
  • There's way too much violence in those books.
  • Most of those books are inappropriate for my age group.
  • I don't want kids reading dumbed-down versions of classic literature.
  • Aren't all those books just about superheroes on steroids, stuffed into spandex?
  • (add your own here)
The fact is, graphic novels are incredibly varied in genre. Sure, some graphic novels feature superheroes, but an even greater number concern themselves with history, historical fiction, biography, science, science fiction, and realistic fiction. In my fourth grade classroom, Jeff Smith's Bone is a big hit, as well as the hybrid Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Babymouse.

Ask about the origin of the graphic novel, and you're likely to start a feud equal to that of the Hatfields and McCoys. Its origins surely link back to traditional comic strips and dime store pulp novels. But most fans of the form will agree that it was Art Spiegelman's Maus which finally brought credibility to the art and its creators.

I can't even begin to scratch the surface of what's appeared out there since the time of Maus' publication, so I'll share just a few titles that I've recently read and enjoyed.

Capstone Press and Stone Arch publish short, colorful, highly engaging graphic novels depicting historical persons and events. Capstone's Graphic Biographies, for example, introduce students to Wilma Rudolph, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Cesar Chavez, and Matthew Henson. Stone Arch also publishes shorter books on historical events, such as Ropes of Revolution, a graphic interpretation of the Boston Tea Party.
Kids Can Press has recently released the Good Times Travel Agency series, featuring the adventures of Josh, Emma, and Libby Binkerton in Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt, Ancient China, and the Middle Ages. These books are a clever balance of traditional comic strip narrative and background information provided via the pages of Julian T. Pettigrew's Personal Travel Guides. For readers who have outgrown The Magic Tree House, this is the next step in their reading journey! Also an excellent introduction to any of these cultures.

One of the most well-rounded and highly regarded publishers in the business is First Second. Their books are extremely well designed and well constructed. My students, in fact, treat these book with great reverence because they just "feel" so different (read: "better") from the standard paperbacks put out by other publishers. One of First Second's most well-known books to date is Gene Luen Yang's excellent American Born Chinese, which was awarded numerous honors including the Michael L. Printz Award. In this book meant for older readers, three tales intertwine in what is at first an unlikely union. To look at the stories, so unlike in artistic style and handling, one would think that three different artists had collaborated on the project.

American Born Chinese is equally entertaining and powerful, and tackles some difficult to discuss topics in a way that is both unique and inviting. How to put it to use in the classroom? Glad you asked. The folks at First Second have created lesson plans for some of their graphic novels, including American Born Chinese. Gotta love it. (FYI, Gene's newest book, The Eternal Smile, has just been released).

Another First Second title I loved is Robot Dreams by Sara Varon. This is a wordless graphic novel, and is thus by definition simple, right? Wrong. This book challenges the reader to construct the story behind the pictures. I witnessed two students view the same six frames and take away entirely different perspectives. That's one of the powerful challenges to be found in comic books and graphic novels; the reader must supply the story between the frames (an important critical thinking skill). Depending upon students' schema and personal experiences, their story interpretations may vary widely.
Somewhere between American Born Chinese and Robot Dreams is Sardine in Outer Space, a colorful, traditional comic adventure created by France's Emmanuel Guibert and Joann Sfar. Kids in the 8-12 group will appreciate the slapstick humor and outrageous situations. The misleading simplicity of Sardine will also inspire children to think, "Hey, I could do something like that." (Lesson plans available for this title as well).

While there are still dozens more books I'd like to discuss, there's simply not time. But one more title that really stuck with me is Shawn Tan's The Arrival. This larger format wordless book is incredible in its illustrations, which seem so new and fantastic yet so familiar at the same time. The Arrival is an immigrant tale that echoes American immigration stories in so many ways. Rather than fail miserably at describing the book, I'll instead recommend that you get to the library or bookstore to see it for yourself.

Want more information about teaching graphic novels? Don't ask me. I'm in way over my head. Instead, start with Scott McCloud. His incredible tome titled Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art is a masterpiece which is required reading for anyone remotely interested in understanding the history, conventions, and future of comics in particular, and art and language in general.

One would expect NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) to blast graphic novels as pedestrian and unworthy of respect as literature. Quite the contrary! Search their site and you're rewarded with numerous articles and blog posts (166!) about how to use graphic novels in the classroom. (I would also suggest this site to find like-minded educators who can point you in the right direction on this topic).

The Graphic Classroom is a blog devoted to using comics in the classroom. Chris Wilson (aka Jack) and his staff really have their act together. You'll find recent reviews, lesson plans, and recommended lists by age level. I especially love Chris' disclaimer, to which all teachers should take heed: "Some comic literature is not appropriate for every classroom, or every community. Some are not appropriate for any classroom. You need to review any piece of comic literature for yourself and determine if it is appropriate for your grade, class, curriculum, goals, school and community." I can hear some teachers saying, "See, Keith? I told you some of these comics aren't acceptable!" Yeah, and some novels aren't acceptable for classroom use either. That's why we need to read them first, people!

New Lits has a decent wiki page on Graphic Novels in the Classroom which is worth a look. Lots of links including several graphic novels that can be read online. The New Lits site seems like pretty good reading overall: is a wiki space created to collaboratively develop a rich range of specialist resources for middle school language arts/literacy educators (typically Grades 5 to 8). These resources focus variously and broadly on new literacies and digital technologies.
If you're a fan of the form, or a teacher using graphic novels in the classroom already, please share additional sites and ideas by leaving a comment here!

Saturday, May 2, 2009

National Picture Book Writing Week

Yesterday marked the launch of National Picture Book Writing Week (or NaPiBoWriWee as it is affectionately called). As a lover of picture books, and one of the most ardent advocates for their use in the classroom, I should be on board with this, right?

I'm not.

In fact, at first, I hated the idea. But slowly I'm warming up to it.

Some of my initial thoughts:
  • I thought it denigrates picture books and belittles the process which creates them.
  • I thoughts it works in direct opposition to what I'm trying to do, which is to elevate the status of picture books.
  • I thought that those writers who truly have "stories within them" will find a way to let them out, without a contrived reason to do so.
  • I felt badly for writers who take the process more seriously, in that their submissions may now be lost in a tidal wave of "one day wonders," as thousands, if not tens of thousands, more manuscripts may find their way to publishers because of this project. Imagine you're a picture book author, riding in an elevator at a national conference. The person next to you asks, "What do you do for a living?" After you reply, "I create picture books," this person retorts, "Oh yeah, picture books. I wrote seven of those last week."
See my point of view? Fortunately, I was level-headed enough to reach out to some professional authors for their point of view. Mark Noble, author of Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman, pointed out that Goodnight Moon was allegedly written in one morning. I guess that counts as an "in-favor-of" vote. A couple other authors I queried weren't ready to commit either way (bawk, bawk!).

But the response from Daniel Kirk, author of Library Mouse, finally convinced me that perhaps I was really off-base with my criticisms (a rare occurrence, as my long time readers will attest). In his response to my tirade, Daniel made some good points:
Never heard of National Picture Book Writing Week. At first glance it seems a
bit contrived, but sometimes it takes contrivances to get people motivated.
Writing, or doing anything creative, requires monumental expenditures of energy,
hope, courage and perseverance. Few have what it takes. It's easy to get
frustrated in the process, and beyond writing, getting published is another
formidable hurdle.

What is successful in the marketplace is often something that panders to the
lowest common denominator, and financial rewards often have little to do with
the intrinsic value of a story. As you know, if you go into a Barnes and Noble
and look at the picture book shelf, it is pretty hard to find a good
book--ordinary people see what's out there and think, "Hey, I could do that!" I
get requests all the time from people who want to get their stories published,
and from my own experience it is VERY hard to get work published, though I've
done over thirty books. For every one that finds a home at a publishing house,
there are at least five or ten manuscripts I write that won't find an interested
So I find that I am motivated more by my own inner need to create than anything else...the striving for perfection, clarity, elegance and to bring
heart to what I conceive intellectually. I encourage kids to write, but not
necessarily with the goal of getting published. It's more about learning how to
think, plan, empathize, clarify and express feelings, etc.

There are times when I brainstorm ideas and come up with many projects in a
week, and I suppose that this is the kind of thing the sponsors of this
"National Picture Book Writing Week" are thinking of. When my "Library Mouse"
editor asked me to come up with five new Library Mouse stories, so he could pick
the one he liked best for us to work on, I carved a week out of my schedule to
do just that. And I guess it's good to prod the imagination into working at full
speed for a while, like sprinting on the track. If folks come up with seven
ideas, they can then go into editor mode and see which of their ideas have
promise. The hard part is the follow-through! Some people need a kick in the
pants to get started, and that's okay, but it's important to recognize all the
hurdles still to come.

I think that most people who give a shot to coming up with seven stories and
bringing them to completion are going to find it more difficult than they
imagined, and maybe that will teach them something about the process. Might be a
hard lesson, but certainly a worthwhile one. One can't look at Tiger Woods on
the golf course and say "it looks so easy, I can do that, too", then go out and
be a pro after an afternoon. It's part of the job of a professional to make
something very difficult look completely effortless. There are lots of
analogies--you can't run a marathon without building up speed and endurance for
months, you can't be Yo You Ma and play the cello without a lifetime of grueling
practice. But for some reason people look at picture books and don't get it.
Maybe it's good for some of them to give it a try, and see what happens!
Thanks, Daniel, for taking the time to respond with such insight.

While I still have some reservations, I can certainly see now how this project can be a good thing for fledgling and veteran writers alike. For those of you who take part in NaPiBoWriWee, I sincerely wish you the best, and I hope to be discussing your book in a couple of years.