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Saturday, March 16, 2013

Failure IS an Option; A Really Funny One

Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made by Pearls Before Swine strip creator Stephan Pastis is a hilarious new title guaranteed to win big with fans of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Dear Dumb Diary.

I read it with much amusement and delight, but thought that perhaps my own immaturity and snarkiness prevented me from qualifying as an unbiased judge of its greatness. I therefore turned to an expert on books of this type: my third grade daughter Mackenzie.

I decided Mackenzie could serve as an impartial judge due to the following qualifications:
  1. Timmy Failure is aimed at her demographic, 
  2. She's a voracious reader of this genre,
  3. She regularly discusses and swaps books with her third grade posse, and 
  4. She stole the advance review copy the day it arrived at our house before I even had the chance to open the cover.
I also felt I owed it to her after she scoured the shelves of our public library looking for Number Two in the series. I believe Mackenzie suffered intense emotional damage upon learning that the follow-up wouldn't be available for quite some time. Nonetheless, she graciously agreed to be interviewed.

Me:  So what's Timmy Failure all about?

Kenzie:  It's about this boy who's really bad in school that decides to open up a detective agency. The problem is, he's really bad at being a detective and he misses lots of obvious clues. And he owns a fifteen hundred pound polar bear named Total.

Me:  Is the polar bear real, or stuffed?

Kenzie:  It's real! (She shrugs her shoulders and lifts her hands up, palms to the ceiling  as if to say. "Duh!").

Me:  You're sure it's real?

Kenzie:  What does it matter?

Me:  Good point. So apart from this polar bear, does Timmy have any friends?

Kenzie:  He has one friend name Rollo, but Timmy thinks he's not that smart, which is crazy, because Rollo studies all the time and gets really good grades, and Timmy doesn't.

Me:  Any other friends?

Kenzie:  Well, he has an archenemy (speaking with increased enthusiasm now) and her name is Corinna Corinna, and what's funny is that at first he won't name her or even let you see her face. She has her own detective agency and Timmy thinks she's reeeeeally annoying.

Me:  Any favorite parts?

Kenzie:  I like when he tries to solve cases, because he always ignores really obvious clues. This one time a boy named Gunnar hires him to find out who ate all his candy. On Timmy's way out, he peeks in the room and sees Gabe, Gunnar's brother, his face all covered with chocolate, sitting on his bed surrounded by candy wrappers. You think he's solved the crime, but all Timmy does is write in his notebook, "Gabe: Not tidy."

Me:  Any other favorite parts?

Kenzie:  Well, I think it's funny that the librarian is really, really tough, and he has "Dewey" on a tattoo...

Me:  You mean like, the Dewey decimal system?

Kenzie:  Yeah. You don't really expect a librarian to look like that.

Me:  (picking up the book) I noticed some pretty hard words in here. Did you understand them all?

Kenzie: Yeah. If you read the book, you can tell what the words mean.

Me:  Really? All of them?

Kenzie:  Well, most of them. But you don't have to understand every word to get the story. Plus, I think that sometimes even Timmy doesn't know what the words mean. He names his detective agency Total Failure, Inc. because the polar bear's name is Total, but he doesn't even get why that's a really bad name for a company.

Me:  So who would enjoy this book?

Kenzie:  Anyone who likes funny stories. Every day I show funny parts to my friend, so she wants to borrow it next. And then her friend wants to borrow it... yeah. You might not get it back.

Me:  So is Timmy a failure?

Kenzie: Yes. Actually, no. He's not a failure. He's just clueless. Are we done yet?

# # #

There you have it: the insightful and thought provoking reflections of a third grader.

One point on which we both agree is the vocabulary. Stephan Pastis intersperses fantastic vocabulary throughout the book, purposefully heavier at times to indicate moments of importance. Check out how in the following short excerpt he combines specific vocabulary, repetition, sentence variety, and even sentence fragments, in a wonderful way:

But that greatness did not prepare me for what I would see at the Weber residence.

For today it is the scene of total devastation. All marred by the remnants of someone inhumane. Someone determined. Someone whose weapon of choice comes in packs of six, twelve, and twenty. If you are squeamish, look away.

Toilet paper. It is everywhere.

And this isn't one isolated and out-of-the-ordinary passage; this is how he writes the entire book. For that reason, I would definitely recommend this book for middle schoolers, and certainly reluctant and struggling readers. I could even see myself using several portions as mentor texts to teach sentence and paragraph structure, understatement, satire, and word choice.

So pick up a copy of Timmy Failure for yourself, or visit the official Timmy Failure site for fun extras such as wallpapers, interviews, and videos.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Teaching That Makes Sense: An Uncommonly Good Resource

Years ago I first posted on Teaching That Makes Sense, founded by Steve Peha, an impressive web site full of well-organized, original resources on reading and writing.

They're all in pdf format and they're all free. And since the time that I first posted, Steve has added a ton of more stuff, again all free! He's added some fantastic new Common Core stuff (and love it or hate it, we've gotta face it) and according to the site's splash page, it's about to get bigger and better!

Is this guy insane? It would be easy to understand his generosity if the stuff was mediocre. But Steve has put together hundreds of pages of strategies, structures, checklists, and posters for teachers that are high quality, practical, and immediately usable.

Getting started in Reader's or Writer's Workshop? Looking for authentic student writing samples or mentor texts? Seeking sound ideas for writing across the curriculum? Need a writing lesson to use tomorrow? Want some posters for Writing Traits? It's all there. And if that's not enough, Steve and his crew are continually adding articles on the teaching profession that are truly worth a read.

And it's incredibly useful stuff, because the ideas are concrete (yet not closed-ended) and simple (yet not dumbed down).

So visit the site. Read the articles. Download the pdfs. Before Steve comes to his senses.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Prairie Chicken Little: The Sky is Falling! Again!

Contest closed. Sorry!
In a funny and frenetic remake of the traditional tale, Prairie Chicken Little by Jackie Mims Hopkins chronicles the over-reaction of one prairie chicken who thinks the sky is falling, or more accurately, a stampede is coming!

Listen to this text's unique voice as the story begins:

Out on the grasslands where bison roam, Mary McBlicken the prairie chicken was scritch-scratching for her breakfast, when all of a sudden she heard a rumbling and a grumbling and a tumbling.

"Oh, no!" she exclaimed. "A stampede's a comin'! I need to hightail it back to the ranch to tell Cowboy Stan and Red Dog Dan. They'll know what to do."

So away Mary ran, lickety-splickety, as fast as her little prairie chicken legs could carry her.

The onomatopoeia, the rhymes, and the word choice (such as "hightail it") combine to create a voice that matches both the book's setting and its levity. 

The book's fun is well supported by Henry Cole's splendid pictures. You might recall seeing his handiwork in Three Hens and a Peacock, mentioned here in a previous post. To me, Henry Coles' work is Audubon meets Looney Tunes. His animals are faithfully rendered in the physical sense, but with a personality and pluck that embodies them with all-too-human emotions. I particularly love that he gets us up close and personal with each animal, making the images seem larger than the book itself.

  • In the event that your students are studying other ecosystems such as as rain forests or polar regions, you could adapt this idea, challenging students to create a crisis or calamity, as well as appropriate creatures who would help spread the word. It's a pretty cool way to synthesize students' collection of random facts from a unit into a creative response. Can't you just see a penguin or a toucan as the main character? The book Loony Little: An Environmental Tale by Dianna Hutts Aston does just that for the Arctic region.
  • Fractured Fairy Tales are an all time favorite for kids to read, and they're fun to write as well. A recent post at the Peachtree Publishing blog provides some great titles to get you started.
  • Contrast Prairie Chicken Little with other books of this genre such as Chicken Little by Rebecca and Ed Emberly, Chachalaca Chiquita by Melanie Chrismer, Earthquack by Margie Palatini, and The Rumor: A Jataka Tale by Jan Thornhill.  
  • Try some other fun animal activities! Lots to choose from in my previous Animal Attraction post.
  • Have students research any of the animals from Prairie Chicken Little. Some of the real-life critters who populate this book sport some pretty amazing features. A good place to start? The Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Holocaust Picture Books: An Annotated List

After many requests, I've finished compiling an annotated list of Holocaust books. I resisted the urge to categorize them by grade level, as I feel they can be used effectively in both upper elementary and middle grades.

First, however, I wanted to make special mention of one of the newer Holocaust picture books available. Irena's Jars of Secrets by Marcia Vaughan, illustrated by Ron Mazellan, is a wonderful and important addition to the canon of children's literature on the Holocaust (see the full list below), and certainly one worth adding to your own library.

In Irena's Jars of Secrets, Irena Sendler learns compassion at an early age from her father, a Catholic physician who treated Jewish patients at a time when most Christian doctors would not.When her father contracts typhus treating these same patients, he tells Irena on his death bed to "help someone who is drowning, even if you cannot swim."

Irena takes this advice to heart, and begins administering to the Jews imprisoned within the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto by occupying Nazi forces. Beginning in 1940 and continuing for the next two years, Irena smuggles in food, clothing, and medicine. She realizes, however, that this isn't enough. As the Nazis begin transporting the Ghetto inhabitants to concentration camps, Irena joins a secret organization called Zegota, and makes plans to smuggle Jewish children to safety.

But what parent will give up their child? Only after Irena swears to provide new identities and preserve the real names of their children do the Jewish parents reluctantly release them to her. The book chronicles the close calls of the smuggling operation, as well as the capture and near execution of Irena.

After the war's end, Irena unearths her buried jars which contain the real identities of the children that were saved. Most of the children's parents have been killed in the camps, but the lists allow the Jewish National Committee to locate living relatives for many of the children. An afterword provides additional information about Irena Sendler, who never considered herself a hero. Instead, she said this in a letter to the Polish Senate in 2007:

Every child saved with my help and the help of all the wonderful secret messengers, who today are no longer living, is the justification of my existence on this earth, and not a title to glory.

Rich, wonderful paintings by Ron Mazellan (who also illustrated the Holocaust title The Harmonica) help to capture both the tragic and triumphant moments of this book. His subjects and scenes are dramatically lit, and in his own words "moody and mysterious," putting the absolute perfect finishing touches on this title.

  • Why are names so important? Ask students to interview their parents and find out how their names came to be. 
  • Pair Irena's Jars of Secrets with Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto. What information do both books share? What information is provided by one book but not the other? Why might we want to consult multiple sources when conducting research?
  • Check out Discussing Historical Fiction and the Definition of Courage with Marcia Vaughan and Ron Mazellan at Lee and Low's website. Both creators discuss how this topic relates to their own experiences, and the processes they underwent to bring this story to life.
  • At this same site you'll also find some wonderful discussion questions in Lee and Low's collection of Teacher's Guides
  • For this particular picture book, as well as any that mentions the Warsaw Ghetto, I'd recommend Children in the Ghetto, an interactive site which describes itself as
    "...A website about children, written for children. It portrays life during the Holocaust from the viewpoint of children who lived in the ghetto, while attempting to make the complex experience of life in the ghetto as accessible as possible to today’s children.

    Along with the description of the hardships of ghetto life, it also presents the courage, steadfastness and creativity involved in the children’s lives. One of the most important messages to be learned is that despite the hardships, there were those who struggled to maintain humanitarian and philanthropic values, care for one another, and continue a cultural and spiritual life."
    By examining artifacts, writings, and first hand interviews, students gain an understanding of the "anything-to-survive" mentality which the ghetto created and demanded of its inhabitants. Students can either explore freely, taking advantage of the interactive elements, or additionally respond in writing using the printable handouts. I chose to download the handouts, available in Word format, and tweaked them according to my students' strengths and needs..

    Once they've completed this exercise, students will have a mental bank of sites, sounds, stories, and symbols from which to draw upon, greatly increasing their understanding of this period in history.
Annotated List of Holocaust Picture Books

Embedded below you'll find an annotated list of Holocaust Picture Books.Using the provided controls, you can share, download, print, or enlarge this pdf. I hope you'll find this useful when searching out the best books for your own studies. Feel free to leave a comment to let me know which books I missed!


Saturday, March 2, 2013

Five Ways to Share Picture Books More Effectively

In my workshops, teachers often express the desire to use picture books in their classroom but wonder how to do it most effectively. The answer to that question depends entirely upon what we want to accomplish.

Below I've provided a few thoughts on this topic, as well as some recommendations.

1) Teacher to Class Sharing

This strategy is probably as old as reading itself, and most closely mimics the read-together experiences shared by many children at home with family. The close proximity, the intimacy of this approach, explains why reading picture books online or on a tablet feels so much less satisfying. I would recommend this approach the majority of the time, no matter what the age group. When I read a picture book to my sixth graders, I still ask them to "come join me on the rug."

Before you choose this method, however, you might want to define your purpose. Why this picture book, and why now? Below are some thoughts which might help you clarify or find a purpose for sharing a picture book aloud.

  • Picture books activate not only prior knowledge, but also attitudes, beliefs, and misconceptions. Picture books create a bridge between the student’s prior knowledge and newly introduced learning. In a Social Studies lesson, for example, you might read aloud the picture book The Honest to Goodness Truth (see summary and lesson suggestions). After reading, you say, “I thought we all agreed yesterday in our discussion about elections that ‘Honesty is the best policy.’ Yet this book seems to say almost the exact opposite! So who’s right? Is there a time when honesty isn't the best policy?”
  • Pictures books construct schema. A teacher wishing to introduce a fantasy genre might share a picture book which exemplifies six traits of that genre. Upon completion of the reading, the teacher asks her students to list the traits they noticed. How best to confirm or disqualify these traits? Have the students read additional fairy tales in small groups or stations (see below). Discovering the critical attributes of any genre could be done in this same way (see ideas on exploring Fables)
  • Picture books create common ground. Before reading a novel set in the Depression, you might read aloud or show images from several picture books which deal with that topic. One might be illustrated with photographs and eyewitness reports, one with period art works sponsored by the WPA, and one with illustrations and a narrative by a contemporary author. In just a few minutes time, students would construct a shared set of images, feelings, and understandings on a single topic. Recently, my own students were challenged to address the topic "Is Winning Everything?" in an argumentative essay. In addition to a number of videos and discussions, our principal visited as a guest reader and shared :Let Them Play by Margot Theis Raven and Chris Ellison (see summary). When finished, he asked, "What would these boys have to say about winning? Was that all they wanted?" (See the video prompts at my How to Teach a Novel blog).
  • Picture books can make abstract concepts (such as life skills) concrete. As teachers we are often expected to teach “fuzzy” character concepts such as cooperation, responsibility, and integrity. Where are those lessons in our textbooks? Here is where picture books can play a large role. Through picture books, universal themes such as patience, empathy, teamwork, cooperation, forgiveness, fairness, and responsibility are captured in just sixteen or twenty-four pages, creating a memorable model for children who still think and generalize in very concrete terms. An idea such as integrity becomes very real to students through a shared reading and discussion of a book such as Demi's The Empty Pot.
2) Paired Readings

This type of reading usually occurs with a specific outcome in mind. In lower grades, paired readings allow readers to practice fluency and clarity. It also demands that readers are “attentive” at least 50% of the time. However, many students suffer in comprehension when required to read aloud. They are so concerned with the demands of meeting the needs of an audience that they “check out” from comprehending. It’s not uncommon for a student to read aloud an entire paragraph or page, and then have no clue what was read. 

Possible solutions? You might provide students with assigned portions and require that they silently read their selections first, seek help with unknown words, and then read aloud only after they've previewed the text in this way. You might also create “checkpoints” for discussion, which require reading pairs to stop and discuss what they've read, and only continue if they've understood the text.
3) Group Readings or Station Readings

In this format, students are grouped in threes or fours, and rotate to various stations. At each station is a single title (perhaps multiple copies of that title), and students read together with a set purpose. One purpose, for example, might be to establish common knowledge about a topic through its presentation in a number of diverse picture books. Students might read from a number of baseball picture books, for example, and then report back to the group on the author's purpose in each. Then, the teacher might read a newer title from that same topic, such as Matt Tavares' Becoming Babe Ruth, and ask students to discuss how this author's purpose may compare and contrast with those of other authors they had experienced. (See the cover image at the top of the post, and see an inside image here).

In order to ensure attentiveness to specific ideas from books within a theme, teachers might provide handouts with questions for each title. An essential question might be repeatedly asked of each and every book in the stations to gauge awareness of the "big idea," with a more title-specific question included to assess reading comprehension of each text. I've done this in the past with Holocaust Picture Books such as Irena's Jars of Secrets with great success; key to the success of this experience, however, is having many diverse titles and plenty of copies, since some picture books are much longer than others. Students might also read a number of picture books containing the same print content (The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere) with different visual interpretations by the various illustrators.

4) Independent Reading

Students read independently for a number of reasons, pleasure being the foremost. But as students mature, they should also read picture books as models for their own writing. This makes perfect sense, as picture books are typically the length of student stories in the upper elementary and middle grades, and the length of writing tasks expected on standardized tests. Sixth grade students such as my own might be seeking creative ways to include opposing viewpoints in their argumentative writing. A book like George Bellows: Painter with a Punch does that masterfully. 

Students may also read picture books as sources of reference. A student seeking background on the Sioux tribe, for example, might express reluctance to wade through a difficult nonfiction text, encyclopedia entry, or web site meant for more mature readers. This same student, however, could access similar information through three or four picture books whose illustrations would aid in deciphering and extending difficult terms and concepts. Now armed with a general understanding of the topic, he might now be more willing to check out that difficult nonfiction text, encyclopedia entry, or web site which seemed so onerous earlier. 

When my students were researching predators for their HOWL Museum essays, many chose to use trade books versus the Internet to gather facts and supporting details to prove that their creature was a predator worthy of the Hunters of the Wild Lands Museum (see Peerless Predators at my Animal Attraction post).

5. Independent Choice Reading

This one I can't emphasize enough. Having a library full of enticing titles, attractively displayed, is one of the best methods for getting students to read. And I'm not asking you to break the bank and spend all of your personal money on books! 

When I started out as a teacher a million years ago, I tried to build my classroom library as quickly as possible through garage sales, thrift shops, and Scholastic Book Club bonus points. But additionally, I would visit my public library and sign out twenty-five to fifty different picture books each week. These rotating titles offered my students plenty of variety and in turn encouraged them to visit the public library as well (our small private school didn't have a library). I continued to do this even when I began teaching at a public school, and in 25 years of teaching, only two books ever went missing. A small price to pay for encouraging the love of reading!

How do you share picture books in your classroom? We'd love to hear from you in the Comments section below.