Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A Visit from Kate Feiffer

For a children's book author the true test of success (or failure) of your 'baby' is to read it to a group of children. Young children will let you know right off the bat and in no uncertain terms if they are interested in what you have to offer. If they are bored there is no stern look, reprimand or promise that will make them pay attention. They are a tough crowd but very honest. I can confidently compare this to amateur night at The Apollo, only without the hook.

Kate Feiffer took on this challenge today as she braved an audience of preschool and first grade students for a reading of Double Pink. And before I keep you in suspense any longer, yes, she pulled it off.

I am always aware of how adults speak with children. Not only the words they choose, but their tone and body language as well. Do they get a kick out of the small ones or do they lose patience easily? Kate Feiffer clearly enjoys interacting with young children and it only seems natural that she would use her talents to pen a book for them. To begin, she asked if they had heard the phrase "write what you know". She said that she never really understood this phrase until she wrote Double Pink. Previously she always assumed that if she knew something, then everyone must know it. However, this is not true is it? (I am finding this out for myself more and more.) Her words mirrored perfectly our current class investigations in poetry writing and gave me an authentic tie-in for student conferences.

Double pink was inspired by Kate Feiffer's daughter who took a shine to the color pink early on and never looked back. While Kate read the children laughed, commented (loudly, as only children can do), asked questions and LISTENED. That is a great complement. Judging from audience reaction, a favorite part seemed to be when the main character, Madison, became lost in her pink surroundings and her mother's efforts to find her proved fruitless.

Overall, this is an engaging story with mesmerizing illustrations by Bruce Ingman. The ending promotes discussion amongst the students because there is a neat hint towards a possible sequel or at least a new obsession for Madison.

Student reaction was so positive and Kate was enjoying herself so much that she shared with us her soon to be published book Henry the Dog with No Tail. This book is a collaboration with her father Jules Feiffer who is an illustrator and author. He has created numerous children's books including the adorable Bark, George in addition to authoring plays. (My BFF Joy recently did a production of Grown Ups in which she played Kate's grandmother. How's that for six degrees of separation?)

Henry is a fantastic book. As a dog lover I was immediately taken with the story. This book can be enjoyed on several levels. Children enjoy it for the tale that unfolds while "big people" will appreciate the play on words and clever use of language. This will certainly be on my wish list (well, it is on my Amazon wish list as of today).

After the readings and questions Sara (our industrious librarian) brought out pink fruit salad as Kate engaged the children in one last activity. She selected a crayon at random and began a story based on the color (peach). Each child then added bits and pieces to the story until it found a natural resolution. Children certainly take a story on some seemingly odd tangents but find a way to bring it all together in the end.

If you are looking for a book about pink, and let's face it, who isn't, then Double Pink is for you.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Tips From My Mom #1

Every morning before school for as far back as I can remember my mom would quietly enter my bedroom in the morning and bring me a cup of hot tea. She would gently place it on my nightstand, then sit on the edge of my bed. In a soothing voice she would whisper "Gary, it's time to get up. Drink your tea before it gets cold." While she said this she would sweetly touch my hair and I would look up at her through blurry eyes. I'd mutter something to acknowledge that I heard her and then she would leave to go and wake up my two brothers.

Because I didn't want my tea to get cold and out of respect for the fact that she went through the trouble to bring me hot tea in the first place I would force myself through a sleepy haze to sit up in bed. With my feet planted firmly on the floor I'd reach for the tea, cupping it in both hands, then take a sip. Most of the time I would sit there for a while staring off into nothing, devoid of any thought other than perhaps catching a few more winks.

But the tea felt warm in my hands and I didn't want to spill any of it. So slowly, oh so very slowly I entered the land of lucid thought and left behind my comfortable bed filled with a vivid array of dreams and magical adventures. In a few minutes mom would come back to check on me, ever kind, never rushed or frazzled (I am sure she was but never seemed to be) and she'd take a moment to chat with me before heading off again to check on the rest of the family. She'd ask if the tea was okay - it always was, sugar, no milk - and I'd begin to stir and get ready for school.

It's an art raising children. You find ways of getting what you want and doing the things that need to get done in ways that never let on your true plan. My mom had three boys to get ready for school and a baby daughter but she never showed us that it was too much. Mom found a way to wake us up without shouting and threats. It's so simple, bring a mug of hot tea and tell your child to wake up before it gets cold. Genius.

Thanks mom for your gentle touch, your amazing love and the belief you have in all of us. Not a day goes by that I am not grateful that you are my mom and my friend.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Metacognition and Reading

Tenured teachers in New York City can choose one of two options when it comes to evaluating their skills and performance each year. Option A is a straight forward formal observation of a lesson including a pre and post interview. Option B is to conduct a year long action research study of their choosing that highlights one aspect of teaching and connects with current research in the field. Although Option A is the easier of the two, Lauren and I always opt for the second choice.

This year we chose to address the role of metacognition (thinking about thinking) in the reading process. Below is a snippet from our initial proposal...

Researchers consistently posit that metacognition plays an important role in reading. Metacognition has been defined as “having knowledge (cognition) and having understanding, control over and appropriate use of that knowledge” (Tei & Stewart, 1985). A study by Michael Pressley detailed the active comprehension strategies employed by good readers as they make sense of written text (Metacognition and Self-Regulated Comprehension, 2002). Successful readers are described as active learners who engage in metacognitive activities such as planning before reading, monitoring understanding during reading and checking outcomes after reading. This interaction with the text determines one’s level of comprehension. It is concluded that metacognitively sophisticated reading teachers can teach children to become metacognitively skilled, self regulated readers through modeling strategies and scaffolding student practice of comprehension strategies during reading.

We were very interested in getting to know our students views not only on the reading process but also in gaining insight into how they felt about themselves as readers. Did they consider themselves to be part of the 'literacy club' or outsiders? It sounds like heady stuff for five-and six-year-olds but I find children to be surprisingly articulate when it comes to speaking about themselves. It starts young folks.

To begin we used a modified version of The Burke Reading Interview. We included questions about favorite books or types of books in addition to rewording some of the existing questions. All of the interviews were videotaped in our school library with Lauren and I taking turns in front of and behind the camera. We used these initial interviews as a baseline with a two-fold purpose; to monitor growth or change in perception over the school year and to view alongside videotaped running records to see if the strategies the children said they used while reading matched the strategies they actually employed as they read.

The second stage of our research was to videotape individual children as they read and conduct a Running Record of the reading. Running records track everything a child does as they read. The teacher notes if the child omits a word, goes back to the beginning of the sentence, self corrects, inserts another word, says a word other than what is written, etc. This is followed by an in-depth analysis that can be broken into three categories; semantic, syntactic and grapho-phonic. From this, one can determine which strategies a child is using while they read. Are they are reading for meaning, focusing on how the word looks (and which part of the word), using the structure of the sentence or a combination of the three? Many educators use running records without following through on the analysis. This makes me nuts. Many also engage in selective notation, usually not marking when the child goes back to self correct, which also makes me crazy.

Running records present a challenge when assessing Deaf readers because of the differences between manual and oral/written forms of communication. American Sign Language does not have a written component and cannot be measured according to one to one correspondence between text and spoken word. This is an area that I am interested in addressing for my doctoral research. However, in various pilot studies I have seen advantages that signing the text affords assessment that are not available while speaking a text out loud. This fascinates me.

The reason for addressing metacognition in the first place is so that students are aware of what they do as they read and to help promote the engagement of other strategies when they get stuck. The theory behind our research is that once a child knows this explicitly they are better equipped to meet the challenges of more difficult texts.

As the school year draws to a close Lauren and I are busy gathering our findings and creating a presentation to share with our colleagues. We are finishing up the final round of videos, asking the children the same questions we asked at the beginning of the year to see if perspectives have changed. Our students have grown and changed so much this year and that is clearly documented on the videotapes.

It has been a fantastic, exhausting school year. I am very sad to see another year, my 11th, fade away. I don't know how parents do it. I just want to hold on to the kids and protect them from everything, including second grade and any teacher they have who may not treasure them as I have. I go through this every year. Crazy.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Blue's Clues

Congratulations! A student of ours was asked to join Blue and his friends for an episode of 'Blue's Clues' which will air some time in 2008. He filmed his part on Wednesday and came back to school full of stories about the events of the day. I had always thought that Blue was an animated dog but he insists that he was there. He may be pulling my leg, but as of today has yet to change his story.

He performed his role in American Sign Language (ASL) and helps Blue catch some bad guys, followed by a satisfied wink. We are looking forward to seeing this on TV.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Run That By Me Again

Teaching first grade can be a lot of fun especially if you have a good sense of humor and get a kick out of interacting with children. I've got that in spades. Every day I am in awe of the fresh perspective my students hold regarding the simplest things. They have not yet learned to box themselves into 'standardized' ways of thinking so anything goes as far as creating unique utterances and ways of expressing themselves. This means that I am constantly supplied with fresh stories to share with my nearest and dearest. However this week there were three things that made me laugh (in varying degrees) and I feel compelled to share them in this forum.

Yesterday Lauren and I explored symmetry with the class. In order to clearly demonstrate this we modeled taking a piece of paper, folding it in half and cutting a curved line along the folded edge. When the paper was opened it revealed a heart. Thus: symmetrical. The kids gave it a go by cutting their own papers into various designs and afterwards we all examined the shapes. During this time Lauren started to cut out letters for our students whose first names began with letters that could be cut out in this way and remain symmetrical. One girl brought her letter "A" home and decorated it with shiny red circle stickers. She showed it to me early this morning and I was duly impressed. Me likes the shiny!

While the students put away their book bags and went about performing their morning jobs she taped the giant A to her shirt. It was about this time that I heard:

"Super A-hole to the rescue!"

She was 'flying' around the room like a super hero repeating over and over...

"Super A-hole to the rescue!".

As you can imagine I stopped in my tracks and gave a closer listen. Yep, that's what she was saying. Only by now some of the other children were joining in the chorus by saying that this child was a "Super A-hole" and they were calling out her super hero name so she could save them from some terrible danger. Huh? I slowly walked over and asked her where she had heard that. She told me she made it up because 'A' has a big hole in it and her pink shirt was showing through.

I quietly informed her that she might want to rethink her super hero name, perhaps adopting George O'Connor's KAPOW! character "American Eagle" since they both start with the letter A. One can only try to steer them in the right direction. The choice is theirs. Super A-hole spent the day saving others and spreading good will to all.

Another amusing bit came earlier this week and like the "I Spilled Myself" story it also involves a bit of bathroom humor. Anyway...I was walking a boy to the bathroom yesterday and he was explaining to me that he had to go to the bathroom the night before but 'saved' it until the morning. He also 'saved' it that morning on the bus. Of course he meant that he held it but really is there such a difference? They both mean the same thing after all, and how did 'holding it' take off?

Finally on Monday the class was involved in our morning meeting, sharing news and discussing various upcoming events. One topic was an upcoming birthday on Friday. One boy stood up, walked to the calendar and said the birthday was tomorrow - again, again, again. He was saying that the birthday was four days from now but chose to express himself in a novel way. I like it. It reminds me of how children count when they are first learning. Instead of counting 38, 39, 40, many children will say 38. 39, 30 10. It makes sense. I was told that that is how the Chinese learn to count - not in arbitrary numbers but in concepts and grouping. Interesting no?

I have two days left of the week. I wonder what fresh perspectives await.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

A Visit from George O'Connor

The other day I stepped into our school library and was greeted by our wonderful librarian, Sara, and my new favorite children's author/illustrator (well, he shares that honor with HA Rey and Todd Parr) George O'Connor.

George had visited us a few weeks ago to share his fantastic books with the students and returned again on Thursday to sign books that were back ordered, thus arriving too late for him to sign the first time. Each book was not only autographed but included a drawing - he was signing books for quite a while. Nice guy.

George's books include KAPOW!, KER-SPLASH!, Sally and the Some-Thing and Journey Into Mohawk Country in addition to illustrating several others. It was through KAPOW! that I was first introduced to his work because during our weekly library visits my students would race to be the first to check out our copy. KAPOW! and its companion KER-SPLASH! were inspired by and have the feel of comic books, which are of great interest to some of my students. It is also very motivating for them, with high interest level and readability.

So when I heard George O'Connor was visiting I was very excited to have my students meet him. I am never quite sure what to expect when an author visits but I was especially hopeful this time that he would understand that his KAPOW! brought an interest in reading to some of my boys who were not usually entertained or engaged in this way. I was hoping that he would honor and respect that in some way. He did.

The plan for his visit was well orchestrated as Sara scheduled classes, giving special priority to first grade since she was well aware of the connection our children had made with his books. In preparation for his arrival Lauren and I invited our students to create a list of questions to ask. They brought their insightful, thoughtful questions with them to the library the day of his visit. Many of them were too shy to ask when the time came but others used their written questions as a support and asked away. George (he was informal, not insisting on Mr. O'Connor) answered all of their questions and encouraged more. He also read from KAPOW! and Sally and the Some-Thing, providing insider information about the background of their development and sharing personal connections with the texts.

He set up his easel and drew characters from his books for us; American Eagle, Sally, and even taught the kids how to draw Bug Lady in a step by step fashion. Afterwards he signed each and every drawing with "Taught by George!". Excellent.

Sara had arranged for several students throughout the school to join George for lunch that afternoon. A few of our students were lucky enough to go (which meant that I was lucky enough to go) and share pizza and salad together. Sara also made a cake resembling the "Some-Thing" that seemed to impress George and tasted delicious.

He tells me that he has another book in the works and I look forward to reading it and sharing it with my students. It is nice to know that the man himself is as bright and animated as his books. If you have not yet done so, check them out.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

An Understanding Heart

"An understanding heart is everything in a teacher, and cannot be esteemed highly enough. One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feeling. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child."

--Carl Gustav Jung

Friday, May 18, 2007


Lauren and I have a six-year old student in our class who was diagnosed as 'borderline' or 'mildly' autistic. Autism and Asperger's Syndrome are not something that I know too much about although I continue to learn more all the time. My feeling is that no one knows too much about it, but I could be wrong. This boy is extremely sensitive, very emotional, funny, endearing, frustrating, artistic, surprising, gentle and sweet. When he smiles and his face lights up you cannot help but smile yourself.

Yesterday I asked the students to write about something they know a lot about. As I conferenced with the children I noticed many of them writing pages and pages detailing facts about their families, Greek Mythology, pets, shopping, non-fiction and pizza. However, one student (the one mentioned above) was frustrated because he was having difficulty understanding the task. He knew he wanted to write about Spider-Man but could not verbalize his thoughts to me. I gave him encouragement to write something, anything about Spider-Man. Then I left him and went to meet with other students. About 10 or 15 minutes later he brought me an 11 page story. It's sequential, beautifully drawn and shows that he knows a lot about Spider-Man. Not bad for such a short span of time. Lauren and I were both impressed. He was proud of himself.

There is a line in Tennessee Williams "A Streetcar Named Desire" that is spoken by Blanche while she is out with Mitch. She says "Sometimes, there's God so quickly". My interpretation of this is that in an instant we can be struck by amazement such as when a secret is revealed and we are suddenly happy. That is what I felt when I read this story. And while I read it his face lit up..."God, so quickly".

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Looking Towards Our Future

While Lisa Burman was engaging in quality conversations with groups of students in preparation for ‘the book’ (and as an extension of her love for ongoing research) she uncovered an interesting phenomenon. Lisa became involved with uncovering the underlying schema surrounding children’s views on intelligence. She believes that children are capable of expressing insights about these ‘big ideas’ but are not often asked to do so. In an informal setting she met with small groups of three or four students and asked “What do you think smart means?” and “How do you know that someone is smart?” Student response to the open ended questions prompted quite differing feedback from the students in kindergarten and first grade.

The young ones in kindergarten responded by detailing events and skills associated with the home and their lives outside of school. The things they considered ‘smart’ and deemed worthy of mentioning seemed to be inspired by motivation, curiosity and drive. The responses were 'from the heart' and not formulated to match any preconceived ideals of 'right' answers or predicting what Lisa wanted to hear and supplying it.

The first grade students (many in my class) replied to the same questions by listing academic skills; “smart means being a good reader", "Sally is smart because she is good at math" etc. There was no mention of who they are outside of the school environment.

Lisa brought this news to me and of course I was perplexed. In our conversation we began to wonder if schools are narrowing children’s perspectives on what it means to be smart. Does this narrowing perspective increase the longer the student stays in school? What happens to children as they transition from one grade to another? Why do they start to view themselves as ‘student's’ first without considering themselves as well rounded individuals capable of what Howard Gardner describes as multiple intelligences? Why is it considered smart to calculate the answer to a mathematical question but not to figure out a winning strategy in basketball?

I think back to my own education and the archaic design of schedules and structure that continues to pervade education as a whole. Schools still operate under a factory model reflective of the industrial revolution. Classes are regulated by bells, children are taught to sit in rows and raise their hands as they progress through stratified grades. It has the feel of an assembly line. In my most recent class (Ethnographic Studies) we spent some time grappling with this issue. America is so ingrained with this way of thinking about education that we cannot fathom breaking the mold and reformulating things to fit with the information age of today’s world. We are still operating under the one room school house mentality in many respects.

I am not sure how to address all of this. I am certainly not in a position of power to introduce changes even if I knew what they might be. I simply find it a shame that as children shuffle along in the system a bit of their personality, individualism and motivation is eroded and replaced by conformity and standardization.

Is this what we want for our future?

Saturday, May 12, 2007


Since I was a wee lad I have known that one day I would use my 'grown-up' power to aid and respect young children. I clearly remember two instances that foreshadowed and shaped the general direction and timbre of my adult life.

Picture it... McDonald's sometime in the early 70s, a small dark haired boy is seated with his family enjoying a hamburger and fries when he suddenly realizes that there is a serious lack of ketchup packets to go 'round. He takes it upon himself to supply his loved ones with this much in-demand condiment and slides out of the booth. As he approaches the counter, where tired voices mumbling "Can I help you?" are heard and long lines trickle back to the entrance, he places himself near a cashier to make his request. Although he makes eye contact with several folks behind the counter and even opens his mouth to speak several times, no one acknowledges him long enough to listen. Being rather shy and unassertive the child waits while 15 feet away his hamburger grows cold. This continues until finally a nice older woman with large purse and kind eyes, points out to the worker that this patient boy has been standing there and perhaps should go first. Finally the boy gets his ketchup and returns to his family, who by now have finished eating, and are no longer in need of ketchup.

Well, that boy was me. And I vowed then and there that I when I grew up I would always pay attention to the child at the proverbial counter. I remember thinking this so clearly and am happy to say that I have followed through on that long ago promise.

Second instance... I am watching the 1976 made for TV movie "Sybil" starring Sally Field. This is a tale of extreme abuse and the devastating affects it has on a child. In a flashback scene a young Sybil is brought to see a doctor who is puzzled by the condition of this little girl. It seems to slowly dawn on him that not all is right in the Dorsett household but he decides to keep his mouth shut and not get involved. The truly heartbreaking moment comes when the little girl looks up at the doctor (both knowing the other knows what horrors have been taking place) as she is being led away by her mother – the inflicter of all this pain. Their eyes meet and the last shred of hope in her young life is shattered when he breaks eye contact and looks away. This killed me. It was another moment when I thought…”boy when I grow up I will be the one to save that little girl”.

These are small moments that changed my future. It is my intention to respect children and listen to what they have to say. I have a great love of the young ones, their enthusiasm, their joy, their worries, their moods. All of it. And I am happy to witness when others show children respect.

So, I was enthralled yesterday when I went down to our lunch room to find that all of the old metal ‘picnic bench’ type seating had been removed and replaced with round tables and individual chairs, all light wood and inviting. However, the touch that really moved me was that each table had flowers as a centerpiece.

The children gasped when they saw it – a mixture of confusion and joy. The normally chaotic atmosphere of students arriving for lunch was replaced with a palpable wonder. In a most dignified manner students selected tables and began conversing. What happened to the running around, the yelling, and the noise? My theory is that they felt respected and in turn dignified that respect.

This change of environment is in keeping with the philosophy of our school and the beliefs of those practitioners of the Reggio Emilia approach to education. After some of my colleagues returned from Italy to visit these schools they came back espousing the wonderful sense of community and respect everyone had for the students. Meals were lovingly prepared with fresh ingredients, tables were set using real silverware and dishes, and children were seated at low circular tables conducive to conversation. That is a far cry from the way things are done in a New York City Department of Education School.

But, in our school things are shifting. Children are respected. I applaud everyone there who had a hand in making this possible and in making me proud to be a part of it all.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Please Stand by...

Well, it has happened. My doctoral studies have impeded my blogging. I have one more paper on hypothesis generating research to complete by Thursday that demands attention. I am examining a transcription, I painstakingly created, using James Paul Gee's Seven Building Tasks of Discourse Analysis. This in-depth analysis is going well but I SO want to finish, therefore I will be avoiding the blogging temptation.

I should be up and running again by the weekend. Wish me luck!

Friday, May 4, 2007

Free Comic Book Day - May 5, 2007

If you are a parent to a reluctant reader...

If your little boy grabs spare moments here and there immersed in Superman comics...

If your daughter reads through all of her comic books and asks for more...

If you are a teacher looking to 'hook' students on reading...

Get thee to a comic book store tomorrow for Free Comic Book Day, where participating retailers annually promote readership by giving away a selection of interesting titles.

Comic books offer a multitude of features to allow diverse readers (at all levels) to feel successful. Emerging readers can gain an understanding that pictures tell a story as well as developing concepts of print; how to handle a book, turning pages from front to back, reading left to right. Developing readers learn how to navigate texts, make predictions and revise those predictions as they read, learn about genre, make connections with self and other texts and form an understanding of character.

I have baskets of comic books in my classroom that the students gravitate towards during free time. They also bring them with them to lunch/recess and pack them up when we take class trips to read on the bus.

I am a firm believer that with the proper motivation any child can feel confident about their abilities and dig into reading. Comic books may be one way to inspire OR to be enjoyed simply as a good yarn.

Remember to grab a few copies of Casper for me! (Do they still make those?)

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Soothing Background Music

Creating a welcoming classroom environment is an aspect of teaching that many educators agonize over. The demands of a practical space that is also aesthetically pleasing tends to create frustration in even the most seasoned professionals.

Luckily, through trial and error and 'living in the space' a while we master this challenge. We find the right balance for a specific group of children as they maneuver their way around art materials, classroom libraries, storage units, book bins, blocks, computers and various centers. With so much focus on the physical environment we often overlook the importance of setting the tone in auditory terms.

Although many of the children I teach are Deaf or hard-of-hearing I do think it is worthwhile to invest some energy into finding soothing background music to help set the energy in the class. The music is not on constantly but when I do play it, very quietly, it appears to affect the mood of the children. Every so often there will emerge a tinkling piano or a deep bass note, barely audible but lingering in the subconscious to edify the learning.

At the moment I have three favorite CDs that I recommend to anyone who may want to give it a shot.

Visual: An Ambient Experience by Oystein Sevag & Lakki Patey

I was first introduced to this by my friend Mark who recommended that I listen to it as a companion piece while reading Smilla's Sense of Snow.

It has been part of my teaching life for several years now and I never
get tired of its soothing, hypnotic tones.

Buddhattitude: Freedom from George V Records

Any of the Buddha Bar music would be a good choice but this is my favorite. It does not demand attention as it gently allows your mind to soar. A wonderful mix of sounds to provide the right atmosphere and wonderfully conducive to learning.

Pachelbel Canon and Other Baroque Hits by Tomaso Albinoni, Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, Jean-Joseph Mouret, and Johann Pachelbel

Classical music is always a good choice and this blend of music hits the spot. Ever notice that the action in cartoons is accompanied by the classics? This is a great way to exposure children to the classics before they realize they are too cool to like it.


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