Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Just Fine the Way They Are...

One of the books I picked up at NCTE is Just Fine the Way They Are by Connie Wooldridge.  It was one of the books that caught my eye... first the subtitle From Dirt Road to Rail Road to Interstates.  Then I was struck by the last page, which reads
     "And then what do we get but a pack of crazy thinkers coming up with ideas about how to make cars run on things like electricity and fuel cells and even corn.  Next thing they'll be saying is we don't even need cars or roads anymore because they've come up with something better.
     All of which is plain nonsense.  Because things are just fine they way they are..."
This book focuses on the question, "Change. Who needs it?" It begins with a tavern keeper who has a business along a rutted dirt road and it moves to the stage coach era of the mid-1800s then to the railroads... model T automobiles... and so on.  It's really a book about movement... movement through the changes in the transportation system in our country.
     And here we are today... moving briskly along super highways throughout the United States... and beyond.  The author has captured the historical perspective of transportation and its role in our history, and she's done it beautifully.  I love the illustrations by Richard Walz... whimsical, fitting, and inviting.
     This book is going in the "Endurance and Stamina" basket in my classroom!  I think students will love reading this enjoyable "history" of transportation and the role its changes have played in America!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Cousin Texts - Old and New

I love using "cousin" texts... for writing instruction, thinking strategy work, read aloud, craft study, etc.
Last night at The Tattered Cover, I ran across Sammy in the Sky by Barbara Walsh (another winner by our friends at Candlewick Press).  What a beautifully written book!  As I read it to my students, we were struck not only by the story line, but by the craft itself.  Afterward, I told my kids I thought we could use this book to learn a lot about the "tools" we need as writers... complex sentences, unique punctuation, etc.  Of course, it's the kind of book that you have to let "drift into your heart and mind."  The story of Sammy is touching and heartwarming... and serves as a launch for incredible notebook writing.  I had to have it when I read it in the children's section... tears streaming down my face!  By the way, it's illustrated by Jamie Wyeth, Andrew's son.
A cousin?  Another book we shared this week Saying Goodbye to Lulu.  Written in the same vain as Sammy in the Sky, it's an equally touching book written by Corinne Demas and illustrated by Ard Hoyt.  We used it as a launch for a memory write and for many of my students, it unlocked that "saying goodbye" theme.  Not all sadness by the way.  I think sometimes a text likes this leads to writing that is poignant, but based in happy memories.  This book tugs at heart strings, but influences young writers in a special way.
And another cousin?  I'll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm is another book that I loved; it's an older book, but it's always been a favorite.  It was one of the first picture books in my collection and one I rely on often.  Do I always use a "cousin" as a writing launch... no.  This one is often a book I slip into a child's hands after he/she shares the pain of losing a pet with us.  It's a wonderful book that helps young people realize that "it will be okay."

It was my friend, Colleen Buddy, who introduced me to the idea of "cousin texts" and it's a lesson I've never forgotten.  But, what defines a cousin?  Perhaps it's a cluster of books similar themes (like in this case), perhaps it's a cluster of books that follow the same structure, perhaps it's a cluster of books that share certain punctuation techniques, perhaps it's a cluster of books that share a specific content (ala text sets)... but however you define a "cousin," you can't go wrong when you invite your students to look for and notice how texts can become the best of companions... to enhance their reading, writing, and thinking!

I've linked all these authors on this entry, be sure to check their websites out!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


What if you could have a star?
They shine like little silver eggs
you could gather in a basket.

What if you could find another brilliant book written by Mary Lyn Ray?  What if it was illustrated by Marla Frazee?  Well... Some days you feel shiny as a star.  If you've done something important, people may call you a star.  And that must be exactly how Mary Lyn Ray and Marla Frazee felt when they first say there collaboration in print.  It's definitely a star!

I found this book at The Tattered Cover and is mysteriously found its way into my shopping basket.  I felt in love with it.  When I turned to the page that says Blow a ball of dandelion and you blow a thousand stars into the sky, I was sold!  I know I say it all the time, but this could become one of my favorites!  It's beautifully illustrated and beautifully written.  

To me it speaks as a metaphor of stopping to observe, stopping to breath, stopping to take in the beauty around you... your child's smile, your dog's nudge, your wife's hand in yours.  In this case, stars.  

Put it on you list!  It's a must have...

Monday, November 7, 2011

11 Experiments That Failed by Jenny Offill & Nancy Carpenter is another whimsical book to add to your collection!  I picked it up at The Tattered Cover on Friday night.  What a fun book!  Like 17 Things I'm Not Allowed to Do Anymore, it is just a joy to read.  I know, I know... the main character is a bit naughty.  But her curiosity, innocence, and sincerity far outweigh the little things that make you cringe a bit when you read about some of her unconventional interactions with others.  And, the beaver is back!  The illustrations are absolutely amazing and make me smile!
     I love the question/hypothesis format of the text.  Based on a series of "experiments," with questions like Would gerbils like a bigger wheels?  Can a live beaver be ordered through the mail?  Is there a way to make stinky cheese smell better?  the character explores unique ways to answer her questions.  My favorite?  When she sprinkles the dog with glitter... no, when she tests the aerodynamics of bologna in the lunchroom... no, when she washes dishes in the washing machine!  Throughout this book, I found myself laughing out loud.
     I found this book just in time for our study of How do wise readers use asking questions to enhance understanding?  Jenny Offill writes with incredible insight and coupled with Nancy Carpenter's illustrations, this book is a great one to add to your shelf.  I can't wait to share it with my students (Of course, my 7th grader took it off my pile while I was blogging and my wife read it aloud to her while cuddling on the sofa... which could be the cutest thing ever... I love that my 7th grader daughter still loves reading my new picture books).  

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A letter found in my files

A few weeks ago, I was looking through a few of my files and ran across another brilliant piece of writing by my friend Lois.  

I've blogged about her before... she was a mentor, friend, and fellow teacher for many years.  Lois died on June 23, 2008 after a lengthy battle with breast cancer.  I wrote about her strength and endurance in Conferring:  The Keystone of Reader's Workshop.  And, not a day goes by that I don't think of my teaching days with Lois, Judy, and Randi (under the incomparable leadership of Laura)... those were the days... thinkers and learners, together!  We mentored one another and asked big questions and children were always at the heart of our work and conversations and inquiry into "What can we do next?"  I yearn for the professional discourse we shared... "all for one and one for all!"

Lois had a masters degree in Gifted Education and an amazing knack of meeting the needs of all children--those who were "dormant" and those who were "highly-abled."  She looked at children as individuals (including her own three children).  She was always reflecting on her teaching.  She was always reflecting on the needs of her students.  She was a writer, artist, mathematician... a teacher's teacher... and constantly honed her craft.  Yet, she was one of the most humble and nonjudgmental people I've ever met... she was shy, until it was time to stand up for a child.  She was not afraid to take a stand.  I admired her courage.

In 1999, she wrote a letter to our "Student Support Team" (at that time part of the pre-referral process) after referring a child for "support" and she shared a copy with me.  In kind, I thought I'd share it with you.  Why?  I find it apropos.  I think it speaks to our need to support the learners in our care.  I find it thought provoking.  I think it's intriguing.  I think Lois was a thinker before her time.  

I'm using this letter as a bookmark in my current professional read.  I've read this letter at least ten times in the last few weeks.  Like Donald Graves, Lois was a teacher whose work will always remain current... the words of great thinkers continue to inspire me.  Please enjoy her words, they speak for themselves!

I think Lois wouldn't mind my sharing it (I removed names and pronouns to make it generic):

January 31, 1999
Dear Members of the Student Support Team:

Even though many of the members are my close friends and respected colleagues, I have found taking a student to this committee a frustrating experience.  In my opinion, issues of timeliness, purpose and respect are important for us all to examine. 
First of all, dealing with this committee has caused extreme delays in getting help for my students.  I submitted three names to the committee two months ago.  You just got around to the first of my students this week.  Now we have another six weeks of "interventions" before the follow up meeting on March 11.  In my opinion, twelve weeks of delay is unacceptable and unnecessary.  Who knows when you plan to begin my other two students?

Secondly, the purpose of my referral was misunderstood.  The student I referred is not failing.  ___ is not failing because of the many interventions (which apparently you do not count as interventions) put in place my myself, by specials teachers, by previous teachers, and by very concerned and conscientious parents.  My point, as stated on the pre-referral form, was that all these interventions should not be necessary for a student who appears to be competent in many ways.  I believe there is something wrong with ___ processing of information and am concerned that the middle school staff will not be as diligent as we have been.  This ___ with so much potential is in danger of getting lost in the system and may give up.  More interventions, while welcome in many situations, were not appropriate in this case. 

Finally, there is the issue of respect.  Brainstorming, in front of parents, such solutions as preferential seating and presentation of directions auditorally and visually was insulting and demeaning to me as a classroom teacher.  If this is necessary for some teachers, parents do not need to be present to hear it. 
In conclusion, the present system for S.S.T. is cumbersome, ineffective and insulting.  Please withdraw the names of my other two students, ___ and ___ from future consideration.  I will find other ways to deal with their problems.  With all the criticism of public education today, we do not need to do this to each other.