Monday, April 28, 2008

Books for Young Readers

I am so excited right now that I simply cannot contain my happy, happy thoughts.  And it is not because I was staring at my previous post with the bright and colorful images from the days of auld lang syne. Oh no, it is because I have been shopping!

Shopping for books for young readers. 

This is a genre of literature that is, generally speaking, not that familiar to me.  There is the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell,  Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner and Holes by Louis Sachar, but since I teach first grade these titles represent the extent of my expertise in books for 'tweens'.

But today I was educated in some recent New York Times #1 Bestsellers.  

It all began when one of my favorite former students celebrated his 11th birthday.  I have known Michael since he was an adorable 3-year-old boy being ushered unwillingly into my preschool classroom.   He entered school with a knowledge of American Sign Language (ASL) because he is a Child of Deaf Adults (CODA) but his verbal English development was seriously delayed. I immediately fell in love with his pout, his little frustrations that caused him to act out and the fact the he really needed a teacher who could give him lots of extra care and attention.  For his 4th birthday he refused to have anyone say "Happy Birthday" and cried angrily when we attempted to sing the "Happy Birthday" song to him.  I thought "Boy, if he is this upset at 4 I can't imagine how he will react when he hits 30".  

Michael stayed in my preschool class for two years.  When he was ready for Kindergarten I moved up with him so I could remain his teacher.  I did the same thing when he was ready for first grade.  I told his mom, with whom I enjoy a fantastic relationship, that I simply adored him and her smiling response was "get your own".  I finally had to cut the cord and trust that someone else could educate him when he entered second grade.  

Our school has all kinds of celebrations to honor student learning and to acknowledge their achievements and through the years Michael has always invited me to his.  It was during a writing celebration the first week of April that he reminded me of his upcoming birthday.  I smiled and asked him if he would like anything special.  His response was "Can you get me the book Diary of a Wimpy Kid?"  

"Sure" says I "but I have to check it out first.  What kind of book is it?"

It turns out that it is a very popular 'novel in cartoons' by Jeff Kinney that Junk Thief wrote about in this recent post.  So I went this weekend and bought it for Michael.  I wrote a little note on the inside and wrapped it. 

When he opened it today he said "Oh, I read this one.  I wanted the blue one" (The sequel Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Roderick Rules)  He was very grateful but disappointed.

So, I went back to Barnes and Noble after work and bought him the sequel. I also bought both books for myself.  As this is Educator Appreciation Week with a 25% discount on all books, I thought I would take advantage of it.  

While I was there I also checked out another book called The Titan's Curse by Rick Riordan.  This is Book Three in a series about Percy Jackson & The Olympians.  I was instructed to check it out by another student who informed me that his birthday was on April 24th and "could I get him a book too?"

Imagine my thrill when I found his request on the Greek Mythology display case!  Check out the artwork on the cover! Gargoyles! Pegasus!  What?  

A quick gander at the first two books in the series sent me over the edge.  Book One is entitled The Lightning Thief and Book Two is The Sea of Monsters.

Below is a description of the first book and if you know me at all it is easy to see why I was drawn in with gusto.  

From School Library Journal

Grade 5-9 – An adventure-quest with a hip edge. At first glance, Perseus Jackson seems like a loser (readers meet him at a boarding school for troubled youth), but he's really the son of Poseidon and a mortal woman. As he discovers his heritage, he also loses that mother and falls into mortal danger. The gods (still very active in the 21st-century world) are about to go to war over a lost thunderbolt, so Percy and sidekicks Grover (a young satyr) and Annabeth (daughter of Athena) set out to retrieve it. 

Many close calls and monster-attacks later, they enter Hades's realm (via L.A.). A virtuoso description of the Underworld is matched by a later account of Olympus (hovering 600 floors above Manhattan). There's lots of zippy review of Greek myth and legend, and characters like Medusa, Procrustes, Charon, and the Eumenides get updates. Some of the Labors of Heracles or Odysseus's adventures are recycled, but nothing seems stale, and the breakneck pace keeps the action from being too predictable. Percy is an ADHD, wise-cracking, first-person narrator. Naturally, his real quest is for his own identity. Along the way, such topics as family, trust, war, the environment, dreams, and perceptions are raised. There is subtle social critique for sophisticated readers who can see it. Although the novel ends with a satisfying conclusion (and at least one surprise), it is clear that the story isn't over. The 12-year-old has matured and is ready for another quest, and the villain is at large. Readers will be eager to follow the young protagonist's next move.

– Patricia D. Lothrop, St. George's School, Newport, RI  Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

I bought Book Three for the second birthday boy and then proceeded to buy all three books in the series for myself while once again taking full advantage of that 25% discount.  Dropping a couple hundred for children's books that will bring a smile to several faces seems well worth the price.  In my excitement I actually bought two copies of The Sea of Monsters and didn't realize it until I got back home.  Perhaps I will hold onto it just in case someone else hits me up tomorrow.
I am really looking forward to diving into these books and perhaps sharing them with my first grade class.  It makes me very happy to be introduced to new literature by my students. They always choose the best stuff, like Kapow! by George O'Connor.  Their input also makes me feel like I am in the loop. 

Happy Birthday boys!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Happy Thoughts

To keep myself from writing a scathing, bitter post about the mind boggling incompetence of US Airways and American Airlines I have decided instead to find my happy place by sharing some of the simple things that made me happy as a child.  

Casper the Friendly Ghost


Curious George


Felix the Cat


Underdog


Books

There I am beginning to feel a little better. Bright, colorful, shiny images always work to cheer me up and distract my sometimes hummingbird like attention span from lingering in those negative places. I have a few adult distractions as well but perhaps those are better suited to another blog.

What were the iconic images from your childhood that still bring a smile to your face?

Monday, April 21, 2008

A is for Asia

As a child I had a great respect, or perhaps it was a fear, of anyone in authority. This respect/fear was heightened as those in power become further removed from my family. The trail could be routed as beginning with my parents, careening on past my teachers and finally arriving at the big scary beasts that were the almighty police officers. To my young self, adults were (generally) always right. They knew everything and should never be questioned. Imagining otherwise would have shattered the well ordered universe that I firmly believed existed.

In school I was an obedient, well mannered, quiet child who blindly accepted everything my teachers told me. America was the land of the free and home of the brave and we were exceedingly lucky to live in the best country in the world, Christopher Columbus was a great man who brought order to an ungodly land overrun with savages and the Big Bad Wolf deserved to end up in a pot of boiling water. No other perspectives need be considered, thank you very much.

It never occurred to me that adults could be mistaken, purposely misleading or simply wrong. As I grew up I became more independent in my thinking but the fundamental core of my belief was that those who were older than me were indeed wiser. I needed only to sit quietly and soak up the wisdom that they so graciously bestowed upon my young mind. In return I would one day earn the same respect through knowledge that had been given to those who came before me. And the cycle would repeat.

Amazingly, this prevailing attitude remained pretty much unshaken until I was a 30-year-old student working on my Master's degree at Columbia University. That experience changed my outlook on education forever. It was there that we were encouraged to question everything. My instructors welcomed, even demanded, that we look deeply into the viewpoints of a particular author. What were their biases? Did they skew the facts in stating their case? How were the statistics they provided presented to favor their argument? Are there other perspectives to consider?

This was a revelation for me. Misrepresentation? Bias? Agendas? Dishonesty? Oh, my!

With my eyes newly opened I embarked on my teaching career determined to create an environment of learning in my classroom where my young students felt comfortable challenging me to defend my teachings by asking for examples or clarification. I hoped that even the littlest ones would feel free to disagree with me if I misspoke or provided them with incorrect information. And it is a good thing too because I am sometimes wrong, as the following story will illustrate.

Picture the scene...a warm day in June and I am at the Prospect Park Zoo in Brooklyn with my preschool class. My BFF and official class 'mother' Joy has accompanied us on the trip where we are learning about the various types of wildlife. As we walk through the sandy paths 'oohing' and 'ahhing' over each fascinating creature, from capybaras to prairie dogs, we come upon a sign for this adorable fella.

The three-and-four-year-old children in my charge were eager to know the name of this cutie and I honestly admitted that I had no idea what it was called. So, I dutifully gathered the children around me and directed their attention to the well placed sign which would unlock the mystery. Gazing up at the words I suddenly became stumped. What was this creature? I stared blankly at the sign trying to decipher the strange combination of letters. And with sweat beginning to form on my brow I proceeded to sound out the name on the sign and inform those attentive little ones that the fuzzy little guy before them was called an 'OZ-EE-UH'. Yeah, that's right I assured myself 'an oz-ee-uh'. Whew!

I continued reading,

"This oz-ee-uh likes to eat..."

I am suddenly cut off by Joy who can stand it no longer. In her dry delivery that was fueled by stupefied exasperation she made it known that this was not the ever popular 'oz-ee-uh' but was in fact,

"A red panda from Asia."

Oh, Asia!

Not 'Oz-ee-uh'.

How embarrassing.

And how terribly funny.

I misread the sign thinking that Asia was the name of the animal and it must be pronounced in some exotic way. I began to laugh. Joy began to laugh as she told me she could see the wheels turning in my mind as I tried to figure out the name of the animal. She saw me struggle dumbfounded while I butchered the name and watched memorized as I continued to try to make sense of it all until she could no longer contain herself. I am glad she rescued me on this one. Props to Joy!

This story has made me giggle on countless occasions since then but also stands as a testament that adults/teachers can be wrong.

That Christmas as Joy and I exchanged gifts she kept this one for last. It was a children's alphabet book she was brilliant enough to find at The Metropolitan Museum of Art bookstore called...


Perfect!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Pure Imagination

Do you remember the deep satisfaction you felt as a child after a day spent playing with your friends? Or exploring the neighborhood on your own where every tree branch or ant hill could mesmerize you for hours? The days and the world around you held endless possibilities. 

I vividly remember becoming Godzilla and destroying the houses that I envisioned existed in the piles of snow that were created after the snowplows cleared the roads.  I would pick up these little snow cliff homes and "GRRR" smash them into the pavement.  Of course no one was actually hurt in my scenarios. The occupants were not at home as they were forewarned of my impending destruction and found shelter and safety with loved ones in another city.  

I have a clear memory of playing alone one evening at home, in the large upstairs family room just outside my bedroom.  As the sun set beyond the large pane-glass window and the light faded in the room, I invented a super-rocket using only my right shoe.  It was just the perfect size to fit my handmade ghost (which I made from a pair of old pajamas and still have by the way - see picture).  

Ghostie bravely took off from the carpeted launch pad and traveled to the pool table moon.  The billiard balls became moon rocks and the pockets, craters.  

Many times I would draw others into my make believe world and what better subject to 'direct' than my little sister.  She would eagerly obey all of my directions. Sometimes memorizing a script I had written, as she did with my horror story masterpiece "A Face in the Window" (which I also still have) or improvising a scene after I had given her and her friends the necessary framework.  

A popular piece was one I called "Golden Girls".  This was long before the television show that came later and stole my title.   Mine didn't detail the sex life and living situation of Dorothy, Sophia, Rose and Blanche.  The golden girls my sister and her two friends portrayed were named Gold, Silver and Bronze.  I must have been into the Olympics at the time.  Poor innocent Gold was always wandering off away from her sisters and subsequently being abducted by the alien, played by me.  She would be locked up and only rescued after the alien fell asleep.  Cue lots of running around and screaming when the alien woke up just as they were escaping.  

In the children's book Harold and the Purple Crayon, a little boy uses his imagination to create a unique world with the aid of one purple crayon.  He creates dangerous and potentially damaging circumstances but draws his way to safety.  Harold has a quick mind, inventive spirit and pure imagination.  

I think one of the reasons this book has retained its popularity is because children and adults recognize a bit of Harold in themselves.  Children live it.  Adults remember it.  

The imagination is never so evident as when children are at play. The developmental psychologist Jean Piaget is often quoted for writing "Play is child's work".  As I live with this notion I believe more and more that he is right.  

A new study I read recently explores the importance of play and cautions us on the changing landscape of it.  The article pinpoints 1955 as a turning point in all of this because that is when the first toys were marketed on television.  Howard Chdacoff, a cultural historian at Brown University says "It's interesting to me that when we talk about play today, the first thing that comes to mind are toys.  Whereas when I would think of play in the 19th century, I would think of activity rather than an object".  

How true!

The objects I used to play with as a child, like my shoe, held endless possibilities.  My right shoe could become a rocket, a boat, a cave or a person.  Today children are buying toys that directly represent what they are meant to be.  A light saber from Star Wars will be used only in that capacity.  So we are limiting the imagination. 

Psychologists today believe that this, along with the elimination of free play in the lower grades to make room for more academic pursuits and achievements is changing kids' cognitive and emotional development.  One study found that "Today's 5-year-olds were acting at the level of 3-year-olds 60 years ago, and todays 7-year-olds were barely approaching the level of a 5-year-olds 60 years ago".  

During play children must negotiate the rules.  If you have ever spent any time watching children play you would have noticed that they establish rules beforehand, such as roles each one will play (like "I am the mommy and you are the baby") and if those rules are broken someone gets yelled at.  Playing at make-believe has shown to foster children who are more responsible and demonstrate a willingness to assist others.

They also learn in games like "Simon Says" and "Red light, Green light, 1,2,3"  how to monitor their behavior.  They must decide when to hold back from acting and self regulate.  This is called the Executive Function.  Poorly developed executive function according to this article is "associated with high dropout rates, drug use and crime.  In fact, good executive function is a better predictor of success in school than a child's IQ!".

Perhaps we ought to lighten up a bit and let kids be kids.  They seem to know how to do it better than the "experts".  

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