Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Salt... And its Story

I picked up Mark Kurlansky's children's book The Story of Salt on the bargain shelves at The Boulder Bookstore.  It's the children's version of his bestseller Salt: A World History.  Why did I pick it up?  There was something intriguing about the illustrations by S. D. Schindler.  They caught my eye (he's the illustrator of Three Pebbles and a Song, Is This a House for Hermit Crab, Olive the Other Reindeer, Every Living Thing).  Schindler's illustrations are always exquisite, varied, and inviting.
     This book takes us through salt's important role in history.  Salt, one of the most common substances on earth, has often taken on a critical role--being traded, horded, and revered.  We take salt for granted (My big questions... Should I buy ionized or not?  Sea salt?  Kosher?), tossing it over our shoulders after a spill, but throughout history it's been as precious as gold in some cultures.  In the text, it says... Salt, or NaCl, as is it know chemically--has been the object of wars and revolutions!  One of my favorite pages in the book shows Gandi making salt in defiance of British law.
     This is a complicated text.  It's a great piece of nonfiction written in a narrative mode.  I think that students will enjoy learning a bit about something they, too, take for granted.  Salt and its amazing history in our past.  The last line... But the next time you pick up a saltshaker, remember that not only do you need salt to live, you are holding rocks that shaped the history of the world! says a lot.  
     I love when I find a crystal while perusing the shelves of the bargain books!

By the way, Mark Kurlansky has written a great book about Hank Greenberg for adults.  One of his essays "Where Champions Begin" appeared in Parade Magazine in 2007.  His writing is intriguing, sometimes a bit controversial, but always interesting.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Repent... At Reading Homework Taketh Another Look...

It’s Lent.   
     And, according to Lutheran tradition, our church takes on a more penitential mood throughout this season.  We use purple on the alter to signify the penitence we observe, we don’t sing a “Hymn of Praise” on Sundays, and there are no “Alleluias” uttered during the Lenten season… not until Easter.  Lent is a time for meditation and often serves as a time to reflect on our transgressions and shortcomings as we prepare for the Hope that comes on Easter, when all things are made new!
     So, it's somewhat ironic that Mary Lee and Franki at A Year of Reading have asked us to reflect on the issue of "reading homework."  Not to be mocking or insulting to my faith, but I think it's the perfect time to repent for some of the mundane, mindless, and frankly stupid, things I've asked children to do in the name of reading!  I admit it, over the years I've asked students to "prove" to me that they've read, rather than trusted that they'll read at home without my nudging!
     I have done a lot of thinking about this issue AND over the years I've asked my students to do some rather silly things to "prove" to me that they read at home.  In the past, I've required students to keep a log of minutes read, titles read, and genres read.  I've asked parents to sign the logs to further indicate that students are, indeed, reading at home.  I've asked students to respond in a response notebook and to keep accurate records of their "at-home" reading.  I've asked for book projects.  I've asked for lists.  I've asked for number of pages.  I've done everything but ask students to, well, READ!  Basically, I've eliminated all the things that matter in reading... choice, interest, pleasure... and to what end?  
     So, this year my homework requirement for reading is simple... try to read for 20 minutes a day!  That's it!  Read. 
     Now, I know what you're saying, "But how do you know..."  That's the beauty.  I do know.
     Rather than ask students (readers) to complete something that wasn't really for them (it was for parents and for me), I've asked them to simply spend some time reading each day.  And, I have to trust that they are doing it.  I've offered up the following suggestions this year:
     • Start a blog and include some of your favorite at-home reading
     • Join Shelfari and comment regularly
     • Bring in the books you're reading from home and share them
     • Write about your reading in your "Write-at-Home" notebook (their writer's notebook that they use at home each week)
     • Reflect on your reading on our classroom blog
     • Bring in a book from home and explain to us the strategies you are using to comprehend it
     • Invite your parents or siblings to read together with you
     At first I felt a little guilty, but then I realized, I'm asking my students to do the same things I like to do as a reader.  It's not rocket science.  Of course, we have discussions about the types of things we're reading at home.  Of course,  I have parents who want more specific tasks.  Of course, I don't have something I can hold in my hand... but I think that I have helped encourage kids to read at home more peacefully and thoughtfully.  How do I know?
     • Readers are bringing in more titles than ever before to share with their peers
     • Readers are talking more with language like, "Last night while I was reading, I..."  or "When I was trying ____ at home in my reading, I..."
     • Readers are talking about their at-home reading with more enthusiasm and purpose
     • Readers are seemingly more accountable for actually doing some at-home reading because they know I trust that they are reading
     • Readers are modeling their "at-home" habits during our morning greeting
     • Readers are reading books of interest and sharing their learning with their peers
     • Readers are talking about their at-home reading during reading conferences
     A few years ago I read a post by a frustrated parent and a frustrated mother and they stuck with me.  Alfie Kohn has also done a lot of writing about the myths of homework and the research behind it.  Articles like these made me wonder, "How many parents are feeling the same frustration?"  I know as a parent, I did.  I saw my own children reading and loving it, but every Monday morning (the day their "reading whales" were due) we were frantically stacking books in piles and trying to fill in their reading logs.  Trouble was, they WERE reading, not because they had to, but because they wanted.  Trouble was, they had to PROVE it!  As a parent, I started questioning the actual amount of reading my child was doing in school.  That's what their teacher was doing to me, right?
     Now, don't get me wrong.  Do I think reading at home is important?  Absolutely!  But it has to be individualized and worth a student's time!
     However, his year I've just decided to let my students read.  I don't need them to spend time filling in a reading log to prove it.  I trust that they are reading.  Reading homework is simple.  
It's time to repent!  And reconsider...

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Night Flight: Amelia Earhart Crosses the Atlantic

I just received a copy of Night Flight written by Robert Burleigh and illustrated by Wendell Minor.  It's a beautiful picture book published by Simon and Schuster.  Wendell Minor discussing the process of illustrating the book is definitely worth the watch (click on the title and his name).
     I've always been fascinated by Amelia Earhart's story and this book only adds to the magic!  It's written as a lyrical account of her most famous flight across the Atlantic in 1932.  She became the first woman to cross the Atlantic solo (and was the second person to do so) and her name has gone down in history as one our most famous aviators. 
     I was intrigued by the way the author captured every detail of the flight using such rich language, poetically and purposefully.  Written in mostly third person narrative mode, the text draws the reader into the flight with lines like, "Her stomach churns from the smell of leaking gas," and "Amelia Earhart leans back in the cockpit.  There is an unbelievable stillness inside her."  It's beautifully written.  
     And, Wendell Minor's illustrations are captivating.  Starting from the first page with Amelia's eyes gleaming through the windshield of her red Vega to the lightning that flashes across the sky in the middle of the ocean to the look of worry on her face partway through the flight to Amelia's victorius wave at the farmer at the end of the book, Minor uses color and light to create the perfect sense of what the flight must have been like for Amelia.  I found myself as captivated by the illustrations as I was by the author's words.
     Night Flight will be the perfect edition to my collection of books that show how important "endurance" and "stamina" are to become successful (especially as learners).  I can hardly wait to read it to my students.  Amelia's story is an amazing combination of courage and strength.  And, both author and illustrator captured her story in a unique and beautiful way!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Words With Friends ala Dublin

Look closely... what do you see?  I see a representation of the Dublin Reading Conference this past Saturday in Dublin, Ohio.  For those in attendance, you'll understand the connection... that each of us is only a small piece of the larger whole.  That when educators come together to learn, to laugh, to share... amazing things happen!  It was such a pleasure to spend a day with everyone involved in the conference.
   Since "Words with Friends" seemed to be a topic of conversation at dinner on Saturday, I thought I'd share some of the "words" and names I've been contemplating since I left...
     MNA - not to be confused with men.  The Irish must really get confused when they have to use the restroom in America.
    Pinkney - illustrator extraordinare.  Hats off to Brain's grace, creativity, humor... and sincere love of his art.  And for nudging us to explore the rhythm of his craft.  I wish we could say to our students, "I want you to just play..." as his parents said to him.
   Buckeye - not only an important moniker for many Ohioans, but also a delicious treat to leave in a gift bag at the hotel desk for a speaker - when chilled and accompanied by a cup of coffee, delicious!
   Comraudarie - amazing collaborations between learners.  I learned so much just by being in amazing company.
   Friendships - new and old!
   Readicide - Kelly Gallager is so thoughtful.  His words, "The only way for struggling readers and writers to survive is to do twice as much reading and writing..." stuck with me.  
   Word Poverty - Another of Kelly's nudges... to build the background knowledge and experience of all readers at the word level.
   Jr. Library Guild - $5.00 hardbacks.  No other words needed.
   Committee - Laura and her entire team - amazingly organized, thoughtfully planned, and extraordinarily gracious. 
   BalletMet - lest we forget that the gifts children share come in all forms.  How can we better nurture creativity?
   Oscar's - Saturday at Oscar's and Sunday with the Oscars.  Saturday was better!
   Chauffeur - Thanks Lisa (double-sided tape, Starbucks, brush... enough said).
   Allison and Miles - Never a better introduction!  Such darling children who will remember introducing the speaker when they were in fourth grade.
   Featured Speakers - Kelly, Troy, Christian, Loren, Wendy, Brian, Amy... such grand company.
   And the rest - An amazing list of "locals" to complete the program - Bill, Karen, Franki, Karen, Mary Lee, Scott, Julie, Tony, Max... and the rest.  What amazing gifts to share with your own colleagues
    Look closely... what do you see?  Too many words to mention.  Too many people to thank.  Like a field of clover the day was a mixture of color and richness!  Thanks for the invitation, Dublin!