Saturday, November 30, 2013

Enchanted Hunters

The Academy for Teachers ushered me Into the Woods recently where I spent a magical afternoon getting to know Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty and Hansel and Gretel.

Our select group of elementary school teachers was guided by the brilliant Maria Tatar.

Maria teaches at Harvard University, where she chairs the Program in Folklore and Mythology.  She is also the author of Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood (she generously gave a copy to each of us and even signed mine!) and Off with Their Heads! Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood.  In addition, she is the editor and translator of annotated versions of Peter Pan, Hans Christian Andersen, Brothers Grimm and others.

The event was hosted by the New York Public Library at their main branch on 5th Avenue at 42nd Street.  It was a day to "honor and support" teachers and that mission was evident in every aspect of the day, starting with breakfast.  There were 17 of us, Academy Fellows, and after introductions one of us was chosen at random to receive a gorgeous copy of The Princess and the Goblin published by The Folio Society (with an introduction by Maria Tatar).  As luck would have it, I was selected!  The day was off to a good start - breakfast and two extraordinary books!

Sleeping Beauty by Edward Frederick Brewtnall
One aspect of the presentation I found particularity intriguing was the focus on the depiction of fairy tales in art.  In this time of "close reading" and "text-based evidence" it was refreshing to realize that it is possible to achieve those standards in creative ways.

Though art we explored Sleeping Beauty in various states, from slumbering tranquility to deathlike repose, studied variations on this theme with Sleeping Handsome (the male version), examined how Hansel loved and protected his sister and how clever Gretel ultimately saved the day and wondered about the sexual, and sexist, overtones in Little Red Riding Hood (actually we did that with all of them).

It was a brilliant day!

I thank The Academy for Teachers for reigniting my passion and reminding me that, somewhere out there, teachers are appreciated and respected.  I have been walking on sunshine ever since!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Hurry Up and Wait

Goldie knows!
I first heard the expression "hurry up and wait" when my mom used it to describe her experience in the United States Marine Corps.

My experience in the doctoral boot camp is similar.

I successfully defended my dissertation proposal in May on the very last day of the semester.  It was no easy feat to reach that deadline.  The proposal consists of the first three chapters of a five chapter dissertation.  It incorporates the research questions, theoretical framework, literature review and methodology.  It took me exactly nine months to write and revise--my baby--but the preparation that took place before I even sat down to write took almost a year (research, pilot study, etc).  It took me quite a while to understand how to even approach the task.  There is a very strict format with detailed specifications one must follow and learning to navigate them took some time.

It was a challenge to meet that May deadline.  I was so stressed out and felt so much pressure that as soon as I turned it in to my committee members, two weeks before I had to defend, I got sick. Ultimately, I persevered and passed.  I was allowed to open the next door and take another step towards the finish line.

That next step was obtaining approval from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) which monitors all studies to assure ethical treatment of human subjects.  However, in my case the review board was just then changing locations and undergoing staff changes.  I'd have to wait until they settled their internal affairs before my study could be reviewed.  So, I waited all summer.

I gained approval on September 26, 2013 and am now collecting data. My study examines the nature of reading assessment in K-5 classrooms in the Northeast with students who are deaf and hard of hearing.  I am doing this through an online survey and a series of teacher interviews.

The link to the survey is here.

I am certainly loving that the site I chose to house my survey is called Survey Monkey!  The Curious George connection is not lost on me.

If you fit the criteria (a K-5 teacher in the Northeast working with students who are deaf and hard of hearing) please take 10-15 minutes to complete the survey. Also, if you know of anyone who does fit the criteria please pass along the information to them.  The survey will be open for another 2 weeks.

In the meantime, I wait.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Alistair the Armadillo

There was a time, before advancements in technology allowed for high quality video recording, when American Sign Language existed only in face-to-face interactions.  It was a language that literally brought people together.  

Today it is possible to share and preserve this visual language in many contexts.  One thrilling manifestation of this is the outcropping of ASL and English bilingual eBooks.  You can read more about them here, here and here.  

I recently became aware of a new eBook entitled Alistair the Armadillo by Mike Brumby and Cipta Croft-Cusworth available for download by clicking here.  You can also learn more about Alistair and his creators by visiting here.  

My friend and former coteacher, Lauren, reviewed the book for me and her thoughts are below.

"Overall the story is a good read.  Its message wound up differently than I thought it would be. I thought it would be one of acceptance and tolerance, but it was about promoting health and physical activity among peers.  It's about an armadillo who is different from the rest of his fez (pack of armadillos) because he's happy, healthy, clean and active while the fez is lethargic, depressed and filthy. They stay indoors and do not venture outside.  Alistair has a vision in a dream and leads his fez to a mountain where they find bountiful, colorful food and a glimmering lake that bathes them clean.  The fez changes its outlook and all live happily ever after.

The writing is simple and straightforward.  The illustrations are pleasant and support the text well and add an ethnic, cultural feeling to the book.  After I finished the book I looked at the credits and realized the author and illustrator are based in Indonesia.  

That might explain the slight accent of the man who did the ASL translation.  His translation is super tight, really ON the text.  He does not add or take away anything.  I was really impressed with his precision.  His execution is crisp, clear and accurate.  His signing demeanor is gentle and pleasant. 

Even though the book isn't age appropriate for Levi, he loved the pictures and imitated the signer.  Levi could appreciate the book, so I think this book has good appeal.  I'd vouch for it."

It was also recently named a Silver winner in the 2013 Moonbeam Children's eBook Award contest in the Languages/Cultural category. Stay tuned for more Alistair books and watch for other bilingual eBooks combining ASL and English.   

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Academy for Teachers

It seems that my plan to become the Joseph Campbell of the Kinder set has gained some traction!

I was contacted recently by The Academy for Teachers to inform me that the "excellent work" I am doing with elementary school students in the realm of fairy tales and mythology has been recognized.

They invited me to attend (through a nomination process I knew nothing about) a Master class on fairy tales with Harvard professor Maria Tatar being held at The New York Public Library.

When I was first notified of this honor I did not know anything about The Academy for Teachers.  It turns out it is a "new organization that honors and supports strong teachers.  We bring prominent experts together with small groups of teachers led by Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners, academic superstars, major artists, and other leading lights".  A little Internet search brought me to their mission statement which reads...

Teaching is our most important profession but teacher morale is falling.  Our front-line educators are burdened by tests and isolated in their classrooms. They get discouraged.  At times, they feel maligned.  Fifty percent of new teachers leave the profession within five years, and the problem is worse in our most troubled schools.

Education can't only be about tests: Great teachers have passion and passion must be nurtured.  The Academy respects our educators as intellectuals in need of inspiration and support.  Our Master Classes reignite a teacher's own love of learning.  We are also building a community of like-minded teachers who support one another beyond participation in Master Classes.

We launch in New York City but our program sends a message to teachers everywhere: Your work is important and it's valued by our culture's best minds and institutions.


It is a though they read my sad little blog post and decided to bring back joy.  It's amazing how the universe takes care of us, isn't it?

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Nilson & Amelia Take Manhattan

I am so sorry that I will have to miss this (I have a show opening this week don't you know).  Zachariah OHora is an extraordinary artist, writer and storyteller.  I love his work.

And Books of Wonder is a magical land where the imagination is free to roam unfettered.

You won't want to miss either one!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Nothing With Joy

I have come to realize that my recent absence from this blog stems from the fact that I am in mourning for the state of education in America. Or at least for the loss of appreciation, respect and dignity for those of us who teach.

Once upon a time my school espoused the Reggio Emilia philosophy of "Nothing Without Joy" but these days the signs should read, "Nothing With Joy".  

Once upon a time we began the school year by asking children to share their hopes and dreams.  That respectful approach has been replaced by terms such as, pacing calendars, rigor and fidelity to the program.

Once upon a time it was "let me catch you doing something right" and now it is "let me catch you doing something wrong".

It is a monumental shift.

But it is happening all over.  Our happy, little school tried to remain above it all but resistance proved futile.

I find it interesting that the literacy and math curricula advocated by the New York City Department of Education was created by the very same folks who wrote the Common Core State Standards.  How is this not a conflict of interests? They create a list of standards that must be adopted by the schools and then conveniently offer up their programs to support it.  And in order for schools to get funding they must buy said programs.  Is that ethical?  

Teachers are continually threatened with the ominous "letter in your file".  It reminds me of my friend who went to Catholic school and was constantly warned by the nuns that the smallest infraction would leave a lasting mark on his permanent record.  He grew up terrified of this blemish on his permanent record until one day he thought, "Huh? What the hell does that mean?"

Maybe it is time for a change.

But then I think...I need to be there to keep some sense of balance between learning and enjoyment for these children. If I let them down that would be a stain that I cannot bear on the permanent record of my soul.

So, I soldier along finding moments of joy where I can and hoping all this too shall pass.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

I, Huckleberry, Me

Note the handshapes for the ASL alphabet
spelling Big River behind Huck and Jim
Big River recounts The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in glorious song and word.  It won the Tony Award for Best musical in 1985 and was successfully revived on Broadway in 2003.

The revival was unique in that it was a Deaf West Theater production and featured both deaf and hearing actors portraying Mark Twain's iconic characters. All of the dialogue and lyrics were signed and spoken in a creative interplay between the two communication modalities.

I fell in love with Big River when it was originally produced.  I would walk past the theater everyday on my way to work and wish I were playing Huck.  I'd sing along to the record with my friend Denise, using my bed as a raft whilst belting out the song Muddy Water.  It was the first Broadway show my sister ever saw and I was thrilled to take her. It's a brilliant and important show.

I had even played Huckleberry Finn when I was 19 years old in a children's theater production of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Playing Huck (bottom right) in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

So, when I heard that a local theater was holding auditions for the Deaf West version of Big River I couldn't resist the temptation to show up and give it a go.  In this production two actors share the role of Huck and I was pretty sure this would be the last opportunity I'd have to play the crafty 14-year-old.  I was auditioning to speak/sing the role for another actor who would be signing on stage. That other Huck would need to fit the character description, I did not.

It all worked out beautifully.  I was offered the role - something to cross off my bucket list!  I look forward to throwing myself into a creative endeavor that is outside the confines of formal education. And I couldn't ask for anything better than Big River and Huck!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Spotty Has a Dream

In 1945, long before Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the I Have a Dream speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Spotty had his own wonderful dream of togetherness, acceptance and love.

Margaret and H. A. Rey, creators of my favorite little monkey Curious George, tackled the issues of diversity and tolerance in their children's book Spotty by showing the pain and injustice that comes from being an outcast based simply on one's outward appearance.

Spotty is a young rabbit with "brown spots all over and blue eyes" born into a family of snow-white rabbits with pink eyes and pink ears.  A distressed Mother Bunny is afraid to bring Spotty to Grandpa's birthday party because Grandpa may not like the fact that Spotty is different.

I started reading this story to my kindergarten class and at that point I put the book down to have a discussion with them.  What were their thoughts?

One little girl said that the mom should bring Spotty to the party and let Grandpa meet him because "Once people start to know other people they start to like them".  The class agreed that it was best to get to know someone before you decided whether or not you liked them.

Then they started making comparisons amongst themselves.  Did we all look alike?  (No, but some of us looked more alike than others.) Did they all play together? (Yes, well mostly.)

They were quite certain that if Grandpa knew Spotty he would like him.

However, when I continued reading it was quickly discovered that after much handwringing Mother Bunny decided to leave Spotty home alone. After the family departs, a despondent Spotty realizes it would be best for everyone if he leaves, so he runs away.  As luck would have it, in the forest he meets the Brown family who look exactly like him!  Well, that is except for poor little Whitie.  She is snow-white with pink eyes and pink ears whilst the rest of the family has brown spots and blue eyes.  Like Spotty, her appearance makes her an outsider in her own family.

That night, trying to understand all that had happened to him, Spotty dreams "of an enormous table with carrots and carrots and carrots. And bunnies were sitting all around it, so many that he could not count them, spotties and white ones, big ones and small ones, and Spotty himself was sitting right in the middle of them and they were as happy as bunnies can be..."

In this book Spotty's dream of harmony comes to pass.  But, in life, there is always some battle to be won in the fight for equality, tolerance and acceptance.  Perhaps if we encourage children to think about these issues in terms they can understand we will move towards a world that embraces love and see it "transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice".

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Parental Relations

Huck delivers a line in the musical Big River that goes, "It seemed like ev'rybody in the whole blame town of St. Petersburg was tryin' to tell me who I should be!"

That's how I felt this year.  Critiqued, criticized and questioned at every turn (well, not every turn, but consider that this rant is tempered for dramatic flair) until I wanted to throw my hands up and shout, "All right, then, I'll go to hell".

Yet I persevered because, like Huck, I "turned over some considerable many ways in my mind"  to cope with the continual barrage of negativity and judgement.

One is to literally close the door on gossip and if you listen closely you can hear the soft click (or booming slam) of teachers doing just that.  The only problem with this solution is that bullshit always comes a-knockin' time and time again.

The latest issue involves the teacher/parent relationship.  The central question being, "Are there limits to how available a teacher is to a parent?"

In this regard I have always been fully accessible.  I give out my cell phone number and school email (which sends all messages immediately and directly to my iPhone).  I encourage and truly enjoy communicating with parents.

Other teachers prefer to keep contact within the confines of the school day.  Is one way more professional or better than the other?

I think not.  It seems to me that both approaches are acceptable and reflective of the various personalities, comfort levels and beliefs of the teachers involved.

I did a little research and only found research articles and opinion pieces that favored open, continual communication between parents and teachers. The only caution was a recommendation to avoid written communication around sensitive subjects.  In those instances, it is preferable to speak on the phone or have a face-to-face discussion.

I found nothing that supported limited interaction and communication.

So haters stop hating and let me do my thing!

Friday, June 28, 2013

Top Ten 2012 - 2013

Number One on our Top Ten list!
There are 180 days in the school year and we read about two books aloud to our students every day.  Those 360 books, which encompass multiple genres, serve as the foundation of our collectively shared literacy experiences.

However, this by no means solely represents the extent of the books that blanket our classroom.  We have book bins of favorite authors (Todd Parr, Dan Yaccarino, Nancy Carlson, Ezra Jack Keats, Mo Willems), favorite characters (Curious George, Rotten Ralph, Froggy, Clifford) and popular themes (holidays, planets, community workers, school, friendship, animals, etc).

Students bring books from home to share with the class and constantly create their own little books "in the style" of the books that surround them.  I love when they do that!

Number Two on our Top Ten!
Given the constant exposure to so many wonderful books I am always curious to know which titles really make an impact on the students.  So, at the end of each school year I ask my students to compile a list of their favorites.

This year they came up with a preliminary list of 25 books. From there they voted on the Top Ten.

It was a huge surprise for me to see that Five Little Ducks retold and illustrated by Ivan Bates came out on top.  This was just a cute, simple book I chose from the library one morning.  I suppose one should never underestimate the power of a catchy tune and the inherent appeal of waddling like a duckling.

The second most popular book was no surprise.  Clay Boy by Mirra Ginsburg and Jos. A. Smith has elements of The Gingerbread Boy (which was in the top 25) and The Three Billy Goats Gruff but ultimately stands on its own.  It is virtually impossible to resist the charm of Clay Boy even as he gobbles up everything and everyone in his path.

Number Three on our Top Ten!
Unlovable by Dan Yacarrino came in at Number Three. Interestingly, this book held the same position in the Top Ten for 2009 - 2010.  I was introduced to this engaging book when I observed another teacher sharing it with her class and immediately fell in love with sad, insecure Alfred.  SPOILER ALERT! - He is not unlovable at all!

I think this was also the first time that author/illustrator Dan Yaccarino entered my consciousness. Afterwards, I began to notice that he was responsible for many of the books I was reading to my students.

Once I realized this I invited him to visit our school and he graciously accepted!  In addition to that visit he also gave his time and talent to support the fundraising event held at the Children's Museum of the Arts for art education in our school.  His book Lawn to Lawn also made our Top Ten in the Number Eight position.

Number Four on our Top Ten!
Hooway for Wodney Wat by Helen Lester and Lynn Munsinger is the Number Four selection. At heart this is a story of the underdog triumphing over his loud, bossy oppressor.

But I think the reason our students voted for this book is because we have a student, Camilla, who shares a name with the know-it-all character in the book.  Our Camilla was not amused (and she is nothing like the character in the book) but it proved intriguing to everyone else.

Number Five on our Top Ten!
I am thrilled with the Number Five pick.

Washington Irving's The Headless Horseman is a story that I do not always read to my kindergarten students because it can be a little frightening (especially the way I tell it) although it is one of my favorites.  However, I gauged the bravery level of this group and went for it.

Their reaction was immediate and positive.  Instead of harping on the scary elements, the students focused on the humor in it.  I had kids throwing "pumpkin heads" at one another on the playground all week.  It was fantastic to listen as they excitedly recreated their playground dramatics using character names ("I'm Brom Bones and he is Ichabod Crane") and mounting their imaginary horses.

Their reaction gives me great hope that they will take most favorably to the stories from Greek Mythology I plan to teach them in first grade.  If they like headless horsemen, they'll love Medusa!

Number Six on our Top Ten!
Curious George by H. A. Rey made the list again this year. Yes, perhaps my influence is strongly felt in regard to this book and this character but I did have a few students (all girls) who told me they didn't like him.

Imagine that!

I have a limited edition pop-up book from Scholastic that amps up the interest in the story if needed.  And the classroom is heavily decorated with Curious George touches.  I'm glad he made the cut again this year!

Number Seven on our Top Ten!
Stop Snoring, Bernard! by Zachariah OHora proudly joins the Top Ten in the Number Seven position.

I discovered this book while browsing at the bookstore last summer and it thrilled me. Sometimes I wish that I could go back in time to hang with Margret and Hans Augusto Rey and feel the excitement of their literary journey as it unfolded.  When I held this book by this incredible illustrator I thought of them.

I contacted Zachariah about a school visit and last November he generously made time to do just that!  His latest book No Fits, Nilson! just came out this month. My sweet co teacher, Michelle, gave it to me as an end of the school year gift.  I wouldn't be surprised if it is on the Top Ten list next year.

Number Nine on our Top Ten!
The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister was a story some of the children performed during our American Sign Language Festival this year.  This week long celebration of ASL and Deaf culture concluded with a lively performance by Peter Cook with our students acting as his opening act.

The Rainbow Fish is a popular, award winning book that aims to instill good values, like sharing, in young children. Rainbow Fish comes to understand that friendship is more important than his superior beauty, a message that deserves to be told again and again.

Number Ten on our Top Ten!
How Rocket Learned to Read by Tad Hills rounds out the Top Ten. Tad is another brilliant storyteller who visited our school last year and also gave his time and talent to support art in our school during our fundraiser last fall.

The Rocket books are excellent for beginning and emergent readers and writers.

Initially our Top Ten had a five-way tie for tenth place which we had to have a special vote to resolve.  It was close but in the end, Rocket took the honors.

Still, honorable mention must go to the other four books that were edged out.  They are Otto Goes to School and Otto Has a Birthday Party by Todd Parr and We Are In a Book and There's a Bird on Your Head by Mo Willems.

Thank you to all of the talented authors and illustrators for providing me with superior material to share with my students.  And congratulations!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Tips From My Mom #16

Today one of the cutest little girls in the universe quietly asked me if I would read with her.  In addition to being ADORABLE she is also very soft spoken.  It is sometimes difficult to understand her speech so she'll often facilitate communication by signing.  I wasn't quite sure what she wanted at first but when she repeated it and her tiny hands signed book I realized her intention.

The fact that this quiet, undemanding child sought me out and asserted herself in this atypical way prompted me to drop everything I was doing.  I took the Berenstain Bears Bears in the Night book she offered and we walked hand in hand to the rug. We quietly read together amidst the noise and chaos in the room.

It was a nice moment.

The interesting part of this, for me, was that this exchange happened during lunch. Our kindergarten students eat lunch in the classroom instead of going down to the school cafeteria. Generally there is about ten or fifteen minutes of independent reading between the time the children finish eating and when they leave for recess. While the children read and mill about taking and returning books to the various book bins, I busy myself with wiping down the tables, sweeping the floor and putting food away.  It is not a particularly relaxing time for me as I endeavor to move quickly though these tasks in order to get the little ones out the door in time.

It was during my cleaning frenzy that this small girl looked up at me and asked me to read with her. It would have been so easy to say, "Not now" or "I'll be over in a minute" (and probably never end up going) but I thought of my mom and set aside the Clorox wipes.

Funny how long ago memories return in an instant to influence the decisions we make. I remembered all those times when my brothers and I were young and asked Ma to play a game with us. We'd ask her when she was in the middle of cooking dinner. We'd ask her as she passed us with a laundry basket full of clean clothes ready to be put away. We'd ask her as she attended to the bazillion chores she carried out to keep our home running smoothly. Sometimes she would say "no" but sometimes she would say "yes". And when she would say yes it felt like we were given the best gift there is. Mom was stopping to play a game with us!

Today I remembered that kid perspective.  I remembered what it felt like to have someone drop everything and take a moment to share something so simple, yet amazing, with me. Today I remembered my mom and that remembering made me a better teacher.

The dirty tables and messy floor could wait. But the moments to listen to a child pass too quickly.

Thank you mom for all the times you played Uno, Trouble and Monopoly with us.

Especially since I now know you hate Monopoly.

Monday, June 3, 2013

When Education Goes Wrong

The end of the school year is rapidly approaching.

This is the first time in memory that I am counting down the days and looking forward to walking away.  I love the children and their families but the state of education has deteriorated to the point of disbelief and I need to step aside for a moment.

I wonder, "How did we fall so far?"

It becomes difficult to remain optimistic and passionate about teaching when every day the chisel chips away at creativity and respect.  The Department of Education has placed value only on the most superficial and mechanical aspects of what it means to educate and to learn.

Teachers are given scripts to follow and judged on how well they comply with the robotic recitation.  Teaching artists who thoughtfully weave content and excitement with knowledge of the students and the material are looked down upon (or talked about behind their backs) for displaying a "rebel" nature.

Educators are now assessed on bulletin boards and charts instead of genuine student learning. Of course, that is hard to quantify isn't it?

It is happening all over the city, the state and the country.

And what is even more distressing is the rigid and misguided devaluing of the children we aim to teach.  Their natural curiosity and desire to figure things out becomes squelched in sacrifice to myriad high stakes tests.

A friend sent me this video of a TEDxTalk with Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Paige.  Her words reflect my frustration.

“All these amazing capacities that children bring to us in education are cut out when we drill and grill them. And when we take the natural and powerful capabilities that children have out of the education equation, we take the love out of learning.  We take the joy out of learning. And we take it out for children but we take it out for teachers too because the great craft of teaching involves knowing how to harness those amazing capabilities children have for the purpose of helping them learn in school” 

I suppose I can find some solace in the fact that I have a principal who believes in the work I do and has confidence in my abilities. That trust is certainly valuable but at the moment most teachers are the proverbial dog who gets kicked when daddy (or mommy) is stressed.

Teachers would appreciate a bone every once in a while or at least a pat on the head.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

What Kids REALLY Want to Read

I was invited by sweet Kirsten at HallwaysKirsten to be a guest blogger and write about the books kids read when the choice is totally up to them.  You can find the post on her blog by clicking here and I encourage you to read her insights and experiences with children's literature.  I reposted it below as well.

In Kid Lit there are three topics that never fail to get a child's attention; bodily functions, underwear and bare butts.

Even the most reluctant readers in my kindergarten class will seek out Alona Frankel's Once Upon a Potty, Robert Munsch's I Have To Go!  or The Underwear Book by Todd Parr.  And Maurice Sendak's illustrations for In the Night Kitchen remain a popular choice because "the main character loses his pajamas and is fully naked in some parts of the story".

But once the giggle-inducing pictures hook them it isn't long before they want someone to read the words. Once that happens the door to literacy swings wide open.

Throughout the day children constantly approach me with a book in hand asking, "Can you read this to me?" Sometimes they even want to read a favorite book to me.

Over the years I have taken notice of the books the children so tenderly shove in my direction and aside from the subjects listed above I have noticed some similarities in their selections.

The books children self select can be categorized into funny, familiar and/or informative.


The most popular books in this arena are without a doubt the Elephant & Piggie books by Mo Willems.  We have many of these titles in our author book bin and they are continually in heavy circulation.  And for good reason.  The books are a riot, so much DRAMA!  The text is also repetitive and simple enough to support young children in becoming more independent and confident readers.

Author/Illustrator Todd Parr strikes a funny bone with his OTTO books, particularly Otto Has a Birthday Party! What child can resist an exploding cake made with a cootie bug and covered in mud frosting?

Combining funny with a bit of superhero adventure is always a recipe for success.  Author and illustrator George O'Connor has riveted the five-year-old set over the years with the saga of an imaginative boy with a towel cape known (in his mind) as American Eagle.  The books Kapow! and Ker-Splash! are well loved.


Sometimes the books we want the kids to read are not always the books they choose to read, but sometimes they are.

Or at least they become the books they choose to read after repeated exposure.  I have a deep affection for Curious George and my affinity for this little monkey has certainly rubbed off on my students.  George is a popular choice during free reading and at the listening center.

It's the same with fairy tales.  Boys and girls alike gravitate towards these books which, for many, have been part of their bedtime ritual for years.  Authors Paul O. Zelinsky and Steven Kellogg do an amazing job of presenting the more traditional versions.  Fun twists on the classics can be found in the work of James Marshall and Jon Scieszka.

I suppose there is some comfort to be found in the pages of a familiar book or character.  We have a superhero book bin filled with the adventures of Spider-Man, Batman, etc. and the frayed edges and torn covers speak to the love poured out in their direction.

Oh, and of course princess books and pirate stories have mass appeal if they are well illustrated. Illustrations are key!  To read more on the connection between pictures and words click here.


The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) stress an equal balance of fiction and nonfiction texts in elementary classrooms.

There is a prevailing feeling that narratives in the early grades have overshadowed nonfiction books.  Although there is some truth to that I can attest to the fact that nonfiction books have always been an important part of the literate lives of my students.

Nonfiction books are topic driven according to student interest but sure fire bets can be placed on animals and insects.  Photographs range from the gruesome (close-up of a snake eating a rat) to the sublime (baby polar bears!).  Nonfiction books are a great way to promote discussion and increase interaction with books.

On the flip side let me highlight some gimmicks to approach with caution.  I certainly love me my children's books but unfortunately sometimes I come across one that'll make me furrow my brow.

Rhyming books can be hit or miss.  Dr. Seuss does it well because his books carry powerful messages and play with language in a free spirited manner.  However most rhyming books I have come across lack spark because the author seems to be constrained by the convention rather than relishing the creativity it can bring.

Kids also lose interest quickly with books that rework The Night Before Christmas into The Night Before...fill in the holiday blank.

Remember, all children love listening to a story but not all children love to read.  We can help children find the motivation for reading by providing them with books that are interesting to them.  If you kidwatch you'll discover those books soon enough.

Happy Reading!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Bonjour, Les Enfants

We had a spectacular treat this week with a visit from a kind-hearted mom brandishing loaves of fresh baguette!

She also brought cheese and chocolate and other home baked treats inspired by her beautiful homeland - France.

We invited Brigitte to come share a bit of French culture and history with our students as part of our kindergarten social studies curriculum.

She surprised us by preparing a beautiful lesson complete with music, vocabulary, photographs, art, hands-on materials, food and homework.

The children were throughly engaged as they located France on the globe (although one child kept bringing up Italy - another fantastic place, to be sure, but not the topic of the lesson).  We learned about Gustave Eiffel who designed both the breathtaking La Tour Eiffel and America's symbol of welcome, the Statue of Liberty.  And we even had an opportunity to put pencil to paper to create our own masterpieces.

Did you know that the French invented the bicycle (1864),  helicopter (1907), Concorde (1969), Scooter (1902), submarine (1863), parachute (18th Century), taxi (1640), dry cleaning (1855), hairdryer (1879), polo shirt (1926) and the first motion picture camera?  Not to mention champagne, baguette, ratatouille and neon lighting!  Oh, and of course Curious George was created there.

Before we said au revoir we enjoyed baguette torn off the loaf á la française while Brigitte read aloud from Bonjour, Le Jour!  by Grace Maccarone.  She used gestures to support our understanding as the language washed over us in a thrilling wave of fluidity.

Next year to celebrate my 50th birthday and the completion of my doctoral studies (fingers crossed) I plan to stroll along the picturesque Seine once again.  And if anyone wants a history lesson I'll be able to whisk them away towards Notre Dame while the gargoyles hang on my every word.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Pointy Three

I am proud to promote and celebrate Pointy Three The story first grew in the imagination of its author Adam Stone.  It was then refined with the support of the incomparable Lauren Ridloff.  Lauren is narrating the story in the video below along with illustrations by Joyce Hom.

Congratulations to my inspirational friends for being ASLized!

Sunday, March 24, 2013


Lo, it is quite challenging for my Type A, "I can do it all" Superman mentality to welcome the forced prioritizing  that comes with completing a dissertation.  It is difficult to gracefully accept that some of the multi-colored balls I try to juggle (or the plates I spin) must meet the pavement in sacrifice to the greater good.


There goes another social get-together (Happy belated Birthday dear friend!)


Hardwood floors gather dirt, dust and dog hair as I spend my weekends doing quick "sweeps" with my socks whilst walking through the dining room with a coffee cup trying to construct the perfect sentence to describe the way culture influences reading development.


The sorrowful tap of my wee little blog standing out in the rain looking in through a misty window waiting for an invitation to enter.

I hear you - all of you!

I suppose that's why vacations were invented.  To catch up on all of the things we neglected during our dawn to dusk ritual of daily living.

NYC teachers are just entering into spring break with seven school days off to pick up the discarded balls and cracked plates.  That amounts to one, large collective sigh of relief.

My plan is to complete the proposal for my dissertation which I have been writing, revising and editing since September.  It is a slow, arduous task but one that has been buoyed by the advice of my friend Nancy who told me to take it bird by bird.

Eventually I will reach my destination.  I wonder what I will find once I arrive.  I imagine I will continue walking towards yet another unexplored land.  But for a while it'll be nice to view my surroundings from a spotless home full of friends and family.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Five Boroughs: Manhattan

The five boroughs of New York City - Manhattan, Staten Island, Queens, Brooklyn and The Bronx.
My kindergarten students continue to enchant and delight me with their tenacity and joy.  They greet each challenge, which we present daily, with eagerness, determination and pride.  Each child puts forth his or her best effort to complete the task before them.

For the past month we have been engaged in a social studies unit focusing on the following areas; geography, maps and map reading skills and time, continuity and change.  We combined this with the Common Core writing objective requiring each child to "use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose opinion pieces in which they tell a reader the topic they are writing about and state an opinion".  In kindergarten the children are not required to provide a reason for their opinion (to state one is enough) but almost all of our students have successfully risen above this expectation.  Truly incredible.

We decided to approach the standards by examining the five boroughs of New York City.  This started with a look at the map and identifying which borough each student lives in.  Since we are not a neighborhood school we have students from each borough attending our school.  Although, oddly enough, our class does not have anyone from Queens.  We added this information to a large map and then began exploring New York City though children's literature.

We found several books that worked well as an introduction but I am particularly smitten with Larry Gets Lost in New York City by Michael Mullin and John Skewes.  This book is both fiction and nonfiction and chock full of New York City landmarks.

The first borough we decided to focus on was Manhattan because it has a plethora of attractions and because our school is located in Manhattan.  We are not far from the Empire State Building so we read Sky Boys: How They Built the Empire State Building by Deborah Hopkinson and James E. Ransome.

We also read the delicious visual treat Ankle Soup by Maureen Sullivan and Alison Josephs. In this book another dog, Carlos, explores popular NYC sites like Grand Central Station.

The books helped us create a semantic map of important Manhattan landmarks from which the students chose one to write about using opinion words such as "like" and "think".  They wrote about Central Park, Times Square, Rockefeller Center, the United Nations, Madison Square Garden, The Empire State Building, Grand Central Station, The Metropolitan Museum and The Museum of Natural History.

I think Museum of Natural History (is the best) because you could look at the stars.
We have started a binder filled with a collection of their opinion writing pieces and plan a big party when the unit is completed.

The children certainly give us so much to celebrate!

Sunday, March 3, 2013

100th Day Celebration

We celebrated the 100th day of school on February 25, 2013!

It was a fun filled morning with the kindergarten and first grade classes coming together to explore 100 through hands-on activities, movement and food.

It took some planning to coordinate the 2-hour event but the effort was well worth it.  We started the morning by gathering the children together to explain how the day would unfold.  Six stations were set up in three classrooms and the students had 20 minutes to play, move and gather treats at each one.

Here is what we did...

Can you count by 10s to 100?  Here is a little encouragement. 

Fruit Loops - 100 in a bag, divided into 4 equal parts to make a dazzling (and yummy) necklace with 25 "Loops"

Exercise!  Exercise!  C'mon everybody do your exercise!  Give me 10 sets of 10!

Making art with three simple numbers 1-0-0.   

What can you create with 100 Legos?  

Students worked collaboratively to make a paper chain with 100 links.

Sunday, January 27, 2013


On Friday I shared my fascination with The Arabian Nights: Tales from One Thousand and One Nights with my friend Maxine. The stories are basically ancient Middle Eastern fairy tales told by Scheherazade to her husband, the Sultan. The premise being that he has become so bitter by the betrayal of his first wife that henceforth he will wed a virgin one day and kill her the next.  In this manner he avenges his broken heart, takes revenge on womankind and remains impervious to the temptations of love.  Scheherazade is able to escape this fate because she tells him the most marvelous, interconnected stories and he must keep listening.

As I spoke I espoused the merits of going back to the source material by stating, "Fairy tales have become such a common point of reference in our society but I doubt many people have actually read the original stories collected by The Brothers Grimm. I mean, how many times do we make references to Scheherazade without ever having actually read the stories she is credited with telling?"

At this point Maxine gave me a puzzled, raised eyebrow kind of look and told me that most people never reference Scheherazade.


So, I guess it is only me and my good friend Joy who laugh when we imagine an unfortunate Scheherazade running out of stories after one thousand nights by simply announcing...

"I got nuthin!"

Perhaps.  But this got me thinking about the fact that we teach children fairy tales in kindergarten and how I teach my first grade students stories from Greek mythology and Homer's The Illiad and The Odyssey.

Could I supplement that with tales from the Arabian Nights?  Me thinks it can be done!

I also have a parent who is encouraging me to get into the Arthurian legends with my students.  This well-rounded exploration of myths and legends could be another step towards my becoming the Joseph Campbell of the kindergarten/first grade set by providing insights into tot-sized comparative mythology.

Hmmm..something to think about for next year in first grade.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

One Fish, Two Fish

In kindergarten we are always trying to lure children into magical worlds that reside within the pages of a book.  We endeavor to introduce our students, who are just beginning to step into their literate lives, to the thrill of getting lost in stories.

We encourage parents and caregivers to read books to their little ones so warm, fuzzy feelings of comfort and love surround the reading experience.  We draw children in with mesmerizing tales of Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood.  Parents give babies indestructible board books to bang around and plastic books to read at bath time.  Children are taught how to hold a book, how to turn the pages and how to "read" the pictures.

It's a fantastic, exciting time for adults because we stand at the edge of the future.  We are helping a child discover more than they could ever imagine.


They get a great deal of attention in school and in the homes of middle class American children.  In kindergarten it is not unusual to talk with our students about books; favorite books, who reads to/with them, who they read to/with, etc.  I've been at this for a while so I thought I heard all of the possible scenarios but one boy happily surprised me when he wrote this...

I like reading a book to fish.

He likes to read a book to his fish.  As he shared with me how this unfolds in a story full of honesty and innocence I was reminded once again why I love teaching. Children are brilliant!

Just like books.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Perfect Little Boy

The Twins - I am on the left and Larry is on the right
That described me as a child - affable, happy, studious, charming, a tad shy.  A lovely little boy. Practically perfect in every way.

At least that's how I remember it.

Funny how memories can color the truth and pooh-pooh the bits we don't like.

Today I was rummaging and reminiscing through a box of possessions from elementary school when I came upon my second grade report card.  It was situated in the midst of attendance awards, reading certificates, school pictures and letters.

How wonderful, thought I, as I picked it up.  What manner of praise did Ms. Groeger bestow upon me back in 1971?  Lets see...

Teacher Comment (February 4, 1971) - Gary has done satisfactory work this marking period, but his behavior has not been very good. He has been doing a lot of fooling around and he makes many trips to the bathroom.  He should concentrate more on doing his work carefully - especially math.

She must have me confused with my twin brother, Larry.

Teacher Comment (April 22, 1971) - Gary still seems to be having difficulty concentrating.  I have to reprimand him quite often during the day. He talks and fools around too much. I hope we will see an improvement in his behavior and attitude by next marking period.


Teacher Comment (June 25, 1971) - I hope Gary will do well next year in third grade. Try to have him do some reading this summer.  Have a nice vacation, Gary!

I have no idea who this woman is talking about.  And I honestly have no recollection of ever having a Ms. Groeger as a teacher.  I have no recollection of second grade at all.  I wonder what that means.

Still, if it is true that I was a chatty Cathy who couldn't focus it gives me insight into why I am drawn as a teacher to those children who struggle with those same issues.  It has been said (by me) that I am infinitely patient and that I am especially good with the students who present the biggest challenges.  Working with the children that others have lost patience with is an area in which I excel.

Hmmm...maybe being not so perfect turned out to be perfect after all.


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