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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Gods and Heroes

In a previous post I raved about Candlewick's awesome new pop-up book Encyclopedia Mythologica: Gods and Heroes. If you check out the video preview provided at the Candlewick site (be sure to go full screen), I think you'll agree that creators Matthew Reinhart and Robert Sabuda have put together one impressive book!

I was therefore honored when Candlewick approached me to write a teachers' guide for using this book in the classroom. (I've said it before and I'll say it again, I love a publishing company that provides those extra perks for teachers and parents to get the most from their picture books). And in case that teacher's guide doesn't give you enough ideas for putting this book to work for you, I've compiled a list of over a dozen must-see books, sites, and activities that further supplement and extend this book.

Below I recommend some extensions for exploring and teaching with Gods and Heroes.

Related Titles

A perfect companion book to Gods and Heroes is World Myths and Legends: 25 Projects You Can Build Yourself (Nomad Press). Author Kathy Ceceri includes myths from all around the world, grouping them by continents and cultures, and providing all the cool components that I've come to love in the Nomad titles:
  • integrated timelines and maps,
  • Words to Know vocabulary boxes,
  • Did You Know? fact boxes,
  • plentiful tables and lists,
  • a comprehensive glossary and index, and
  • easy-to-pull-off projects using commonly found objects and tools.
Shawn Braley's illustrations bring life to the myths that Ceceri retells, while providing helpful diagrams and templates for the included projects. Check out some madly enthusiastic reviews, related web sites, and a sample project from the book.

If you're looking to get serious about Greek mythology, Scholastic's All in the Family: A Look-It-Up Guide to the In-Laws, Outlaws, and Offspring of Mythology is an indispensable resource for the classroom (trust me; I had students fighting over this thing!). It's simply a fabulous volume of personal profiles and family, flings, friends, and foes. Illustrated with classic art, cartoons, and photos, it's visually appealing, and the humorous, engaging text will keep students reading. A family tree, glossary, and a constellation map complete this title. Seriously, if your students are doing any kind of research on Greek gods, goddesses, and heroes, one copy of this book is not enough.

And of course, don't forget to check out Candlewick's own Mythology by Lady Hestia Evans. This book is part of the Ologies series, which features its very own site.

From the publisher's site you can download an activity kit with craft and writing ideas, easily adaptable to any myth or grade level, and a teachers' guide of related curriculum activities.

Hands-On Activities

As mentioned in the previous post, a great extension activity for students is creating their own pop-ups. Not as easy as it sounds, unless, of course, you have a resource such as Robert Sabuda's own web site which features printable templates for over two dozen pop-ups. These can serve as great presentation formats for seasonal poetry, short stories, or book reports, or for creating cards for a special occasion. (Candlewick has also posted a simple pop-up template on their site).

Roman Shields
My students saw this simple Roman shield idea some time ago and they thought it was pretty cool. I suppose students could each create designs that had some relevance to a particular god or hero.

Mythology in Reading and Language Arts

Writing with Writers: Myth Writing

At Scholastic's wonderful Writing with Writers site, students are guided through the writing process by a famous children's author who writes in a given genre (hence the site's name). The genres, hosted by such writers as Jack Prelutsky and Virginia Hamilton, include Biography, Descriptive, Folktale, Mystery, News, Poetry, Speech, Book Review, and, of course, Myth. The incomparable Jane Yolen begins the process with the telling of an original myth, and then provides step-by-step guidance as children create their own stories.

Scholastic has additional features including Myths from Around the World and an interactive Myth Brainstorming Machine. The Myth Brainstorming Machine is pretty amazing in that it allows students to create a story using pictures and effects, and then translates the chosen visuals into key words and character names, which would then be used to write the tale (note the Idea Outline tab on the image above, at the lower right corner).

Greek Myths: Understanding Word Roots and Meanings

At the US Department of Education's Doing What Works site, you can view an upper grade teacher's take on Greek Myths: Understanding Word Roots and Meanings. If you see what you like, you can download some sample lesson plans.

It's All Greek to Me

If you're interested in teaching students vocabulary through Greek and Latin roots, you'll find some good links to explore on a previous post (at my Teaching that Sticks site) titled It's All Greek to Me.

Recommended Mythology and Ancient Cultures Sites
Tops on my list is Winged Sandals, a fun and colorful site focusing on Greek mythology. Here students can hear stories of gods and heroes, play games, create crafts, learn more about Greek history and daily life, and even ask the Oracle to tell their future. A very thorough Who's Who link provides biographies of gods, monsters, and mortals, along with key "stats" and anecdotes. (Your students will also discover cool wallpapers and e-cards in the goodies section). Highly recommended.

Windows to the Universe: Mythology
Windows to the Universe is an original site which describes how the stars, sun, and other celestial bodies have been linked to mythology throughout the ages. Yes, we all know that constellations were named for Greek and Roman gods, but how did Celts, Egyptians, Inca, Navajo, and other cultures tell their stories through the skies? A fascinating site to explore, with many possibilities for research.

Myth Web
Myth Web is a fun place to read about the traditional Roman heroes, since the tales are told with cartoons and the writing's pretty lively. But this site also has an extensive research base, plus some tips and resources for teachers.

Encyclopedia Mythica
Encyclopedia Mythica is an astounding collection of mythology and folklore from every culture imaginable. While it isn't designed to be fun, it's certainly complete!

Men, Myths, and Minds
Men, Myths, and Minds not only tells about some of the more common Greek gods, but also describes how they were archetypes of behaviors, from which listeners of the ancient tales were to learn. Another good site for student research.

Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery
Fun stuff to do online, related to the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. Dress a Roman soldier, design a Greek Pot, print out timelines, etc.

Adventures in Ancient Greece

Although not a lot here about mythology, this site provides an interactive way for students to learn about Greek culture. Cartoon-based and kid-friendly.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Building a Passion for Poetry

No, I haven't misread my calendar; I do know that April, not May, is National Poetry Month. But now that standardized testing is over for most of us, what better way to explore words and language than through some picture books?

While I'm a huge fan of Prelutsky, Viorst, Silverstein, and the other "giants" of poetry, I'd like to share some authors, titles, and series which might be new to you. These are guaranteed to get kids excited about reading and writing poetry!

A great place to start is with the Graphic Poetry series from Brightpoint Literacy. The sixteen books in the series provide a number of components which help students and teachers alike enjoy and analyze the poems with confidence and understanding. In Pat Mora's Same Song/Maestro, for example, each poem is preceded by an introduction which points out important aspects of the poem students are about to read. The poems are first presented line by line with illustrations, and then as a whole. At book's end, both poems and their common theme (in this case, characterization) are discussed in detail, and some questions for discussion are included. A short feature autobiography of the poet rounds out the book.

In this format, poetry is visual, nonintimidating, and comprehensible (finally!). In other words, the graphic format combats all the complaints I've heard from students who claim that they hate poetry.

If you're seeking a resource for older students, I'd suggest Enslow's Poetry Rocks! series, aimed at middle school and up crowd. You can check out an interactive version of Not the End, But the Beginning at Enslow's site. These volumes are specially designed to get older students in touch with the emotion and meaning of classic poems. Discussion questions, author bios, and selected poem titles are included.

Other great poetry resources? The Words Are Categorical series from First Avenue Editions (Lerner Publishing) teaches students about parts of speech through clever, funny, rhyming verse, as well as some cool cat cartoons. In Lazily, Crazily, Just a Bit Nasally, for example, students learn about adverbs through such lines as
Adverbs sometimes
tell us where,
Like these are here
and those are there.
Often they
will tell us when,
Like this is now and
that was then.
Adverbs sometimes
tell us how,
Like, "Carefully remove this cow."
They let us know
how often too
As in the phrase,
"I seldom chew."

Author Brian Cleary, whose website contains related games and activities, makes parts of speech fun and memorable.

If you're seeking a good teacher-oriented resource for teaching poetry writing, Ralph Fletcher's Poetry Matters: Writing a Poem From the Inside Out helps students move beyond the Humpty-Dumpty rhymes of simple poetry to creating poems that express emotions and capture moments. Although I said it's a resource for teachers, it's actually written in the first person, speaking directly to older students. Some writing clubs and schools have purchased this inexpensive paperback as a student resource. Fletcher's anecdotes, similes for writing, and short exercises make it an enjoyable read. (For a terrific book of poetry models, based on writing topics, check out Fletcher's A Writing Kind Of Day: Poems For Young Poets. Fletcher speaks in a young writer's voice, reflecting upon metaphors, battling writer's block, or connecting one entry to the next).

If you're like me, you love to give students some historical context when teaching literature. The Poetry Basics by Creative Education is a series of hard bound, picture book size titles which provide the history of a specific poetry form. Valerie Bodden's Limericks, for example, traces the form and rhyme scheme all the way back to the 1600s, although the term "limerick" wasn't used until the 1800s. And of course, its most famous proponent, Edward Leer, is given a good bit of ink. The remainder of the book is dedicated to the "how" of the poem, helping students to understand what makes it work. Important literary devices (such as portmanteaus and nonce words) are also discussed. All around, an important series for getting kids into poetry. (Other titles in this series, all written by Valerie Bodden, include Haiku, Concrete Poetry, and Nursery Rhymes).

Recommended Sites

While there are tons of sites about poetry, I'm limiting my recommendations to those which assist students in their own writing.

My top pick is Instant Poetry Forms, which allows students to enter prompted words and verses in order to form (you guessed it!) instant poetry. Some of the forms are purely creative and student-centered, while others allow students to enter researched information (such as data on an early explorer) to create nonfiction verse. An excellent way to encourage your poetry-phobic students (usually the boys!). Each prompt generator includes an example of a finished poem in that style, so students can get a good idea of how the finished poem might sound.

Once students have entered their responses in the prompts, the push of a button publishes the poem. This poem can then be copied and pasted into a word document and further edited, or combined with a free online illustration program such as Sumo Paint.

Another interesting poetry site, although not nearly as diverse and robust, is Scholastic's Poetry Machine which walks students through four poems types: limerick, haiku, cinquain, and free verse.

ReadWriteThink, a fantastic site created by IRA and NCTE, has a number of poetry creators (writing machines) which walk students through the process step-by-step. Teachers can find fully detailed lesson plans for poetry as well, adapted to several grade levels. Students can choose acrostic, diamante, riddle, and shape poems.

Bruce Lansky and Meadowbrook Press have teamed up to create Giggle Poetry, a site not to be missed! Plenty of chances to read, write, and even rate poetry. PoetryTeachers is the sister site, created just for teachers, tutors, and parents. Tons of ideas!

For more lesson plans, check out Ken Nesbitt's poetry lessons at his Poetry4Kids. At the home page you'll find plenty of other resources including a rhyming dictionary and poetry contests.

Need more ideas? Check out this set of Interactive Poetry Tools and Lesson Plans. Why reinvent the wheel?

Have more poetry sites and books you'd recommend? Leave a comment below, or email me directly.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Combating Summer Slump

Over at the We Are Teachers blog you'll find a nice set of suggestions for combating "summer slump," that period of time in which children's brain revert to primordial ooze due to lack of use. 

Equally cool and instantly available to all at this site are some suggestions from LeapFrog Literacy Expert Carolyn Jaynes, PhD., who shares her tips on how to get kids hooked into reading over the summer.

In addition to her tips, I'd offer three tips of my own for combating summer cerebral slumber, gleaned from my students' parents over the years, and certainly worth suggesting to your students' parents as well:
  • Book Clubs - Boys and girls alike love the idea of getting together with their friends, and choosing a common book to read and discuss together creates a fantastic experience. The mother who shared this idea explained that both the moms and their boys read a couple chapters of the book together ahead of time, and would attend the club together. There'd be a time of discussion, perhaps an activity or trivia quiz, and then food. Afterwards, the boys would play while the moms chatted. The boys in this group got through three novels in a summer! For boys, sure-fire hits include sports novels such as Mike Lupica's Summer Ball, and survivalist science fiction such as Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games (as well as sequels Catching Fire and Mockingjay).
  • Picture Books - Some kids won't slog through a novel during the summer, but love a pile of high-interest, vocabulary-rich picture books about a favorite topic, be it magic, motorcycles, seals, soldiers, fashion, or food. Picture books are just more inviting for a browse or a quick read. Nonfiction books, especially, with their text boxes, captions, and nonsequential format, make for quick reads.
  • Bedtime Books - A third mom "tricked" her daughter into reading by putting her "in charge" of read-alouds at night for a younger sibling. The elder daughter earned a later bedtime provided the stories took place nightly. Trips to the library and lots of reading aloud, explaining, and discussing kept the daughter's mind sharp all summer. The experience also helped the younger daughter appreciate literature as well, and made a memory that can't be surpassed! (A book like Laurie Halse Anderson's The Hair of Zoe Fleefenbacher Goes to School is not only a colorful and silly read, but it helps alleviate those back-to-school-anxieties which sometimes come creeping in late August).
What are your ideas for keeping kids reading during the summer? 

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Exploring Invention with Picture Books

Recently my sixth graders began researching ancient civilizations, and one topic which seemed to excite them was the inventions created thousands of years ago that we still use today. That's not surprising; children, after all, are born creators. So what better way to end the school year than by giving students opportunities to be artists and inventors?

Recommended Books

The best way to get students excited about invention is to provide loads of fabulously illustrated books on the topic. One of my new favorites is A Native American Thought of It: Amazing Inventions and Innovations, by Rocky Landon and David MacDonald (Annick Press). By now we all know that moccasins, canoes, and snow shoes were invented by Native Americans, but how many of us knew that these amazingly adaptive people also created syringes, diapers, and hockey? This inviting book contains lots of awesome pictures and just enough information to get students hooked.

Equally exciting is the companion book The Inuit Thought of It: Amazing Arctic Innovations by Alootook Ipellie and David MacDonald (Annick Press). In a land where it rarely gets above freezing, and much of each apart of the year is spent in either 24 hour darkness or light, you need to be pretty clever in order to survive with the limited resources nature provides. In addition to being fantastic reads for an invention theme, both of these picture books fit in well with the theme of survival.

Invention, of course, goes beyond rudimentary survival. Later scientists and inventors would seek to improve upon the ways that people live and work. Alfred Nobel: The Man Behind the Peace Prize, for example, is a short yet intriguing account of the man who invented dynamite. From the inside cover:
Alfred Nobel was born in Sweden in 1833. A quick and curious mind, combined with a love of science and chemistry, drove him to invent numerous technological devices throughout his long life. But he is perhaps most well known for his invention of dynamite.

Intending it to help safely advance road and bridge construction, Nobel saw his most famous invention used in the development of military weaponry. After reading a newspaper headline mistakenly announcing his death, Nobel was inspired to leave a legacy of another sort.
Even middle school students will appreciate how author Kathy-Jo Wargin and illustrator Zachary Pullen capture Nobel's life story in concise picture book format. As an extension activity, students might research a winner of the Peace Prize (all listed in the back of the book) and create a similar picture book format biography. (For other extension ideas, visit the Sleeping Bear Press site for the free, downloadable teaching guide to accompany the book).

Closer to the heart of many children (certainly my own!) would be The Boy Who Invented TV: The Story of Philo Farnsworth, written by Kathleen Krull and illustrated by Greg Couch (Knopf Books for Young Readers). For many years Farnsworth's innovations and discoveries went unheralded, and yet he was truly a pioneer in his field (there's an inside joke there if you've read the book).

In addition to the supplemental materials at the book's end, be sure to check out the teacher's guide for this book, which includes an interview with the author. You might recall that Kathleen Krull is the talented author of Lincoln Tells a Joke: How Laughter Saved the President (and the Country); I recommended that title in a post about persuasive writing. She's also the author of four fab titles in the Giants of Science Series: Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, and Sigmund Freud. Yes, we've seen all of these folks written up before, but Krull's approach is a fresh one that makes these "old, dead scientists" come to life for today's students.

Recommended Sites and Activities for Observing and Researching

(Stuff to Read and Discuss)

History of Invention

The History of Invention shows students just how old some of our innovations are! What invention, not pictured at the site, will your students investigate?

PBS Technology at Home

Take an interactive tour through the 20th century to see how technology changed the American home.

Inventive Kids
Cool interactive games to learn about inventors and inventions (lots of women inventors!).

PBS Kids Wayback

At Wayback, Students learn about tech circa 1900. Many fascinating innovations came about at this time!

The Secret Life of Scientists

I recently blogged on The Secret Life of Scientists at my Teaching that Sticks site. Kids will dig learning how modern, real-life scientists are putting their passions to work in the field. By way of example, check out scientist Nate Ball.

New Scientist Video

New Scientist video channel at Youtube features short video features of the latest in scientific advances.

Franklin's Interactive Lifetime

An interactive timeline about Benjamin Franklin's amazing life and inventions. Lots to see and do here!

Franklin Institute

Online and off-line activities for science learning from the Franklin Institute.

Kid Inventors' Day

Kid Inventors' Day is January 17 each year (mark that on your calendar!). This site features some ways to observe it. You can find more neat videos and ideas for this annual event at the Meet Me at the Corner site.

Recommended Sites and Activities for Playing and Learning

(Stuff to Do Online)


At Launchball, students learn about the common properties of objects as well as electronics as they attempt to meet the challenge of each level in this addicting, physics based game.


Addicting to say the least, Bloxorz requires that students manipulate various elements of a levitating path to move a block to its destination. Easier said than done, and twice as fun.


Edheads features cool, interactive, online explorations with simple machines (and some other neat experiments as well).

Invention Playhouse

The Invention Playhouse features cool ideas to explore online.

Recommended Sites and Activities for Doing and Learning

(Stuff to Do Hands-On, Off-Line!)

Instructables are easy-to-do, fun experiments, explained through whole-page, full-color cartoons. (Check out the cool Underwater Viewer pictured here).


Whelmers are really cool science activities which require minimum materials to achieve maximum wow effect.

Hunkin's Experiments

Hunkin's Experiments is a one-stop shop for some really cool experiments. Simple cartoons (as fun as the experiments themselves) walk you through the steps.

ADDED 5/24/10:

Surfing Scientist
Surfing Scientist is a popular show and site in Australia, but not as well known here in U.S. Really cool experiments to be done with easy-to-find objects, with full explanations of the scientific principles.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Signed Stories and Online Read-Alouds

Signed Stories is a colorful, interactive site which allows children to enjoy dozens of high quality picture books online. What makes it special is that in addition to narration, music, and images, all stories are accompanied by British Sign Language.

While its home page allows readers to select a story by theme (by choosing a window or door of the house), stories can also be searched and selected by title, age level, or topic.

Some stories, in addition to the written text, provide questions and comments by the narrator (indicated by red text in the passage) to guide the reading of the book. For example, in Noah’s Ark the narrator makes reference to the food and animals in the ark, and in Chimp and Zee children answer some of the questions posed in the text. This is similar to the questions and think-alouds employed by storytellers, teachers, librarians, and parents as they share books aloud with children, and is a pretty cool addition which I've not seen in other online renditions.

What I particularly love (apart from the fact that this site is free, supported by publishers such as MacMillan, Walker, and Scholastic) is that these stories are "real literature," not simplistic, contrived narratives. Some of my personal favorites on this site include Mr. Wolf's Pancakes, Amazing Grace, Farmer Duck, and Suddenly: A Preston Pig Story.

Note two things: One, British Sign Language differs from American Sign Language. But students will still enjoy seeing that many signs naturally match instinctive actions (for example, rubbing the tummy shows hunger, or "yummy." Two, many stories have British spellings which differ slightly from American spellings (for example, favourite rather than favorite). Again, in no way a problem, but instead an opportunity to discuss similarities and differences between two cultures.

Looking for other online read-alouds? Don't forget the Screen Actors Guild Foundation's superb Storyline Online, which features television and movie stars reading aloud picture books.
Another read-aloud site you may not have seen yet is Mrs. P., which features actress Kathy Kinney reading classic children's literature aloud. While the Magic Library is quite cool, you may experience trouble viewing on slow connections, so you may wish to access only the videos of the books directly from a list. For a behind-the-scenes overview, use the home page.