Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Random thoughts on balancing choice and challenge

As is obvious from a few of my previous posts, I am a huge advocate of allowing children to make free reading choices:

Not only is this a proven strategy for improving reading ability, it also develops a positive association with reading, which is more likely to lead someone to identify as a reader than if it becomes a source of anxiety because adults decide that the books you like are not "the right ones."

These lines from Jacqueline Woodson's gorgeous memoir, the National Book Award winner Brown Girl Dreaming, poignantly speak to this:

"Every Monday, my mother takes us
to the library around the corner. We are allowed
to take out seven books each. On those days,
no one complains
that all I want are picture books.

Those days, no one tells me to read faster
to read harder books
to read like Dell.

No one is there to say, Not that book,
when I stop in front of the small paperback
with a brown boy on the cover.

Challenge is a great thing, but it's different when you choose a challenging book because it excites you. And of course "challenge" can mean many different things. We all pick up books for many reasons - relaxation, escape, nostalgia, to learn about a subject that excites us, to be able to talk with peers, to appreciate beautiful art, to laugh, to cry - and it's crucial that we let children explore all these types of reading.

Still, there are times when readers of all ages can get stuck in a rut - and there are ways to make stepping outside your usual comfort zone fun and engaging. Lately much of my kid and teen reading list has come from two sources:
I was thrilled to be given a spot in the Bill Morris Seminar, and my desire to participate is motivation enough for me to engage even with the titles I might not have picked up on my own, some of which are turning out to be new favorites!

The same goes for the book club, whose members include authors, school librarians and children's booksellers. Each month's host chooses the book we'll read, so I'm discovering new books there as well.

I have a few ways of offering kids choices and nudging them to challenge themselves with something different. One is the Battle of the Books, which our Middle School is trying for the first time this year in a competition against Overlake School in February. Students select most of the titles on the list, and must read at least 4 of the 12 to participate.

Book clubs, which I run during lunch and recess or breaks for grades 3 and up, also expose students to a variety of books and genres they might not otherwise try - but the fun of sharing with peers is encouragement enough.

If you're concerned about your child's limited reading choices, instead of saying "no" to the ones they're choosing, try to find fun ways to help them say "yes" to other books too:
  • play audiobooks in the car or at home
  • read together (you don't stop eating together when your child can feed herself, so don't stop reading aloud once they can read independently!)
  • spend more leisurely time browsing in a library or bookstore
  • join or start a parent-child book club
  • start reading some of these other books yourself and share your excitement in a dinner table conversation

Monday, November 2, 2015

Rufus Reads: reading our way around the world!


The Geography Bee is a big deal at our school. One of our students made it to the national level for the state of Washington, and another represented our school at the state finals! Reading is also a huge passion of among our students. 

Inspired by London writer Ann Morgan's blog "A year of reading the world," I'm setting a challenge for our students and staff. Those who choose to participate will:

  • Read a book set on each continent or by an author from each continent (Antarctica is optional)
  • Track their progress on the maps hanging up in the Library Learning Commons (we'll draw a line from place to place so you can see where your journey takes you!)
  • Let the LLC staff know which books they read, so we can update our ongoing list
Other guidelines:
  • Fiction and nonfiction are fine
  • Everyone will choose a book that's "just right" for their reading level
  • Listening to audiobooks definitely counts!
Between all of us, let's see how many different countries we can visit! Feel free to comment here with your favorite books from around the world.

Happy reading and armchair traveling!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Food literacy month + haikus = mouth-watering fun!

Governor Jay Inslee proclaimed September Food Literacy Month here in Washington state. The objectives are to "promote food education, inspire food choices that are good for people and good for the planet, encourage parental involvement, and motivate communitywide support." 

We honored this proclamation by using books to spark conversation in Kindergarten through 3rd grade about the impact of food choices, awareness of where our food comes from, appreciation for those who help bring food to our tables, and the importance of being open to trying new foods.

An especially inspirational and informative book was Jacqueline Briggs Martin's Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table from local publisher and food literacy advocates, Readers to Eaters. It tells the true story of a professional basketball player who saw a need in the community and worked tirelessly, using his expertise and drawing people together, to make tremendous things happen. This story connected well with our own school garden and composting initiative.

In 2nd and 3rd grades we used the lively and colorful Yum! MmMm! QuĂ© Rico! Americas' Sproutings by Pat Mora to create our own food haiku, accompanied by Tagxedo word clouds. Here are a few for you to enjoy!

Party in your mouth
A burst of herbs on my tongue
It says, “Eat me now!”
- Audrey

Sweet burst in your mouth
Happy passion, bumpy seeds
Red and white makes pink.
- Kyson

Yummy cheesy bits
Shredded bits of parmesan
Bubbling cheese bread

- Nathan

Monday, June 8, 2015

Improving Wikipedia, one article at a time

After dabbling a bit with OneNote, I decided to give it a try with our second Simple English Wikipedia project which challenges fifth grade students to counteract the pervasive geographical and gender bias in this popular resource. 

I chose Simple English Wikipedia (SEW) because it serves young readers and English language learners so the expectations for the complexity of the work was more realistic for a group of 10- and 11-year-olds.

Working in their table groups, students compared the treatment of a single topic in regular and SEW and recorded their comments in a Venn diagram:
Next, they brainstormed the likely audiences for each version so they would have their readers in mind as they wrote. Working in pairs or individually, students selected topics that would help rectify the imbalances they had learned about.

Another aspect of this project was improving their research skills by requiring them to use the wonderful databases from the public library to gather information:
The final step was writing their articles in OneNote. Here is what part of one team's work looked like:  
It was an interesting experience moving this unit to the OneNote environment! This change made it a lot easier for the students to collaborate in a meaningful and efficient way. I'm sure I can find ways to take this even further next year. 

Want to see what they produced? Keep in mind that due to the nature of a wiki, what you read now has likely been edited by other users (which builds in another information literacy lesson for the students!) but I am delighted that this site that is accessed by millions worldwide is now broader and more inclusive.

The joys of storytelling!

Storytelling is experiencing a revival these days, from exposure on podcasts such as The Moth to the thousands of attendees at the National Storytelling Festival to local guilds and events, such as our own PowellsWood Storytelling Festival every July.
I bring one or two storytellers to campus every year to expose students to this wonderful art, and also engage students as active tellers through games and activities.
The National Storytelling Network's position paper on the importance of storytelling in education, says that "Storytelling helps students be active not only in presenting but also in focused listening and reacting, enhancing the vital skills of communication. Storytelling is an ancient art that strengthens and enhances skills that children need to acquire to function in today’s world." Of course, it is also a great deal of fun!
Fourth graders spent a couple of weeks playing storytelling games in pairs and circles. Finally they each learned and performed - in one class session - a Russian folktale from one of Martha Hamilton and Mitch Weiss' books. First they practiced telling the story to the wall, then to a partner (see above). Next, some volunteers shared their versions with the whole class. Check out these wonderful examples:

Monday, June 1, 2015

The Case of the Missing Carrot Cake.. and the OWS kids who were hot on its trail!

The Case of the Missing Carrot Cake by Robin Newman is a new beginning chapter book that introduces a pair of intrepid mouse detectives hot on the trail of a dastardly cake thief! In Kindergarten and First Grade we spent several fun weeks on this story which is full of clever puns and word play. Readers also have to pay close attention to the clues to figure out who might be guilty...

First we discussed the mystery genre and some specialized vocabulary words. To test students' skills as witnesses, I asked them what Ms. Bishop, our LLC Assistant, was wearing as they'd walked past her just a few minutes before. Here is a typical set of answers and a shot of what Ms. Bishop was actually wearing that day:

Next, we started reading the book, taking notes about the various suspects in our detective notebooks:

We discussed our suspicions with classmates and wrote down our conclusions before reading the final chapter and discovering whodunit... (You'll have to read the book yourself to see if this guess is correct!)

The real icing on the cake was our video chat with the author! Students were full of great questions and Robin gave us an interesting glimpse behind the scenes.

Here they react with stunned surprise upon discovering that the process of writing and publishing the book took 8 years! (Not the "couple of months" they had guessed!)

Not only did we have a lot of fun with The Case of the Missing Carrot Cake, but students learned the importance of paying close attention to information in texts and making predictions, as well as a better understanding of all the hard work that goes into being an author!

Friday, April 24, 2015

Hands-on fun: Roald Dahl meets the makerspace!

It seems like no coincidence that even as advances in technology make many aspects of life more intangible, deeply satisfying traditional pursuits such as oral storytelling and handicrafts are gaining tremendous popularity and respect. Very often this results in an intriguing fusion of old and new: listening to personal stories not around a campfire or on a neighbor's porch, but via a podcast that brings you voices of people you'd never otherwise cross paths with. Similarly, makerspaces meld remarkable new materials with time-honored skills.

In 3rd grade we combined literature appreciation (my personal favorite Roald Dahl novel, Danny the Champion of the World) with Design Thinking and a big dose of makerspace fun.

I don't want to spoil the end of the book for anyone who is unlucky enough not to have read it, but the challenge we took on was designing a better mouse pheasant trap!

Step one: researching and taking notes about pheasants. Danny's father is a poacher, which means he has a deep understanding of the animals he hunts and the environment they inhabit.

Step two: collaborate with your partner to design a trap that will foil greedy Mr. Hazell's plans but not do excess damage to the pheasants or their habitat.

Step three: receive constructive criticism from another team. Offer the same in return. Does your trap show creative use of limited resources? Does it exhibit knowledge of pheasant biology? Respect for the earth? Is it likely to work? Consider the feedback and make improvements!

Step four: build, test, tweak, repeat!

Some of our young makers will be exhibiting their traps at the NWAIS Makerfest next month. Several teams are already hard at work creating extensions to their projects--programming simulations, using 3D printers, and more!

Friday, April 3, 2015

Brendan Buckley's Book Club & Everything in It

Multiracial people represented the fastest growing group in the 2010 census, showing how far we've come since Loving v. Virginia, which in 1967 made interracial marriages legal everywhere in the US! My own parents' interracial marriage took place two years before this date - and Sundee Frazier's parents' one year after it. Her writing is rooted in a deep understanding of identity and shifting social values.

I was excited to bring Sundee to one of our faculty meetings a few years ago, to discuss how we can create the most welcoming and supportive environment for our multiracial students. And it was a thrill to bring her back to meet some of our kids!

Our second 3rd/4th grade book club focused on her book Brendan Buckley's Universe and Everything in It, a funny and moving middle grade novel that is all about curiosity and discovery.

Imagining a different personal history - one in which her interracial family had a less harmonious relationship - Sundee wrote about Brendan, a biracial boy growing up in Tacoma. His passion for rocks and minerals forges a bond with the grandfather he'd never met and in the process helps to heal old family wounds.

This book sparked some thought-provoking discussions among the students on prejudice, learning from mistakes, blame and forgiveness. We also had the thrill of welcoming Sundee to our final meeting. She showed up with a rock and mineral collection and was even wearing a necklace made from the famous Ellensburg blue agate! Sundee described her path to fulfilling her dream of becoming an author, and shared some of her early work from childhood and grad school. The conversation was lively!

During an earlier book club meeting, students were inspired by Brendan's own "Book of Big Questions about Life, the Universe and Everything in It" (in which he wrote down all the questions he was musing about). Here are some of the ones they came up with for their own books:

  • How long have people been reading books?
  • What is the area of the earth?
  • How do people make hot chocolate powder mix?
  • How many languages are there in the world?
  • Why do people act differently to please others?
  • Why do people do mean things?
  • Why do some people hate math?
  • Why isn't there school on Saturday?
Brendan's story is a reminder to all of us to remain curious and open-hearted as we go through life.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Reading and empathy: seeing the world from another's shoes

"Empathy" is a popular buzzword of late. Articles explaining how reading fiction develops empathy pop up regularly in the news. That said, other voices remind us that empathy is not a magic cure-all:

"Empathy is biased; we are more prone
to feel empathy for attractive people
and for those who look like us or share
our ethnic or national background."

All of which is complex and intriguing, especially when you encounter a book that has huge kid appeal and exemplifies the sort of empathy that helps us connect across differences as Steven Arntson's The Wrap-Up List does.

My new article, "Growing Empathic Readers," appears in the spring issue of The Medium, pp. 22-23. In it, I describe a conversation with Steven in which he describes, among other things, how he successfully bridges gaps and how he's challenged students to question their own beliefs. His insights offer something for all of us to ponder!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Middle school videos support K-3 contest!

A highlight of the year for Kindergarten through 3rd grade students is the Washington Children's Choice Picture Book Award, which allows students to select from 20 nominees. Over 100,000 students across the state take part, and everyone waits with great anticipation to see whether their favorite will emerge victorious!
Adding to the excitement, 5th graders created video book trailers to promote each title. In the process they practiced important information literacy skills, such as:

  • Respecting copyright by using images licensed by Creative Commons
  • Effectively conveying the essence of a book (using "hooks," revealing just enough of the plot, and choosing images and music that fit the story)
  • Keeping your intended audience in mind when crafting a promotional item (how much text to use and how quickly should it scroll by?)
  • Proofreading your own work and offering constructive criticism to others
The results were very impressive! I wish I had room to share all 33 video trailers with you, but since I don't, here are just a couple for you to enjoy!

Friday, February 27, 2015

What should I read next?!

You know that sinking feeling that sets in when you've caught up with your favorite author's works and have to wait impatiently for the next one to come out? Or, even worse, your favorite author is no longer living? What to do? 

I spend a fair amount of my readers' advisory time comforting and coaxing die-hard fans of into trying something different. 

But if you need more reading suggestions and aren't able to rush to the nearest library for in-person help, here are some things you can do instead:

  • Do a web search for the author, title or series plus "readalikes" or "read alikes." Very likely you'll get a number of results.
  • Check out the database Novelist through the public library. It's full of fabulous suggestions!
  • Take advantage of Seattle Public Library's Your Next 5 Books service. You describe what you like; their librarians generously suggest more reading matter!
  • Goodreads is a social networking site for readers. Use it to keep track of your reading wish list, rate books you've read, and find more titles. I have an account where I put books on virtual shelves by genre and age level.
  • There are also a number of websites designed to fill this role, such as YourNextRead, What Should I Read Next? and Whichbook.
Happy reading!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The best middle school fiction of 2014!

It's been a tremendous pleasure to serve on VOYA magazine's Top Shelf Fiction for Middle School Readers selection committees for 2013 & 2014! We four librarians, plus one teacher, read over one hundred books and devoted many hours of time online and in person to discussing, sorting and ranking them. 

Our goal was to come up with at most 30 books that we could put forward as the best of the year for ages 11-14, bearing in mind literary merit, appeal to kids, relevance to curriculum, and the diversity of North American readers.

Apart from getting to read these books, another source of fun was recruiting student volunteers to review them for us! Without their honest feedback the list would have been sorely lacking.

Check out this year's list and last year's too, if you missed it! There's a bit of something in there for everyone. Some titles are appropriate for middle grade elementary readers, while those on the older end overlap with high school.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Each Little Bird That Sings: Our global studies book club selection!

Our first 3rd and 4th grade lunch recess book club selection for 2015 is Deborah Wiles' delightful, award-winning Each Little Bird That Sings which is set in Mississippi. During the last few years I've been lucky enough to make multiple trips to the South for personal and professional reasons, and have fallen in love with this sometimes misunderstood region. Many of our students have little or no experience with this part of the country, making it a perfect focus for our book club. And Little Bird, with its vivid sense of place, was an ideal selection. It's a book about love and loss, honesty and trust, resilience and compassion.

During our first meeting today, students paired off and role-played an awkward conversation between Comfort and Declaration, best friends who are going through a bumpy readjustment period. Here are some of them sitting on "Listening Rock" (role-played by our red beanbag chair)! We talked about smart ways to handle situations like this one.

On a lighter note, we were inspired by Comfort's "Top Ten Tips for First-Rate Funeral Behavior" to make up some lists of our own. Here are a few of my favorite selections! As you can see, most of them took the approach of giving advice in a tongue-in-cheek manner.

Top Ten Tips for First-Rate Math Class Behavior

1. If your teacher calls on you, say "I forget."
2. Stand on your chair and yell, "I'm the king of the world and I hate math, so no more math!"

Top Ten Tips for First-Rate Wedding Behavior

1. Always say the bride and groom aren't meant for each other.
2. Say in a loud whisper that the bride's dress is ugly.

Top Ten Tips for First-Rate Art Class Behavior

1. Do NOT limit yourself to the piece of paper.
2. When your teacher says to wash your hands, wipe them on your neighbor's clothes.

Top Ten Tips for First-Rate Sleepover Behavior

1. Drink lots of sugary drinks without your mom knowing.
2. Always jump on your mom's bed, not your own bed.