Category Archives: In the Classroom

In the Classroom: Authors and Kids

I just saw something from author/teacher Andrew Smith about how he answered a letter from a kid asking him to explain his book to him. Smith replied that the book stood on its own and that that the kid should trust himself to figure it out for himself. Here’s what I wrote in response (slightly edited for clarity and such).

Thank you, teacher Andrew Smith. And I hope somehow you can keep teaching as there aren’t too many high-visibility authors like you who can also speak from the POV of a currently practicing teacher. I’m one for much younger kids (private school 4th grade) and I think some of what happens at these younger grades can create the sort of older readers such as the one who wrote you.

First of all, I think there can be a tendency to broaden our already over-fixated celebrity culture to authors. Teachers are often eager for kids to know that books are written, that authors go through the same trials that they do when writing. But by doing that they can sometimes make the focus be on the creator more than on the thing created.

Secondly, I think teachers at the younger grades such as mine can be so worried about kids’ “getting it” (comprehending on a basic level) that they can be rigid about the “correct” interpretation and aren’t always as open to varied ones as would be preferable.

Thirdly,  not all teachers have had positive experiences themselves in being honored for their own interpretation of a book and so if  they don’t truly believe themselves in this approach (having found it challenging for one reason or another themselves when they were students) it is hard for them to trust the wide range of what kids say. No doubt many kids who write these sorts of letters to authors are just lazy, but some may be legitimately terrified of being wrong for good reason.

Then, there are those teachers that encourage kids to write authors. I do get that this is to encourage the kids to be inspired, etc. But it also relates to our current focus on celebrities in general and the ease of online fan culture these days (as evidenced by Michael’s post). In my experience (admittedly with high end learners, by and large) the most intense readers tend to care very little about the author, it is the book that matters to them. Those that are curious about the author tend to be those who are passionate writers themselves.

Finally, I just have to voice a personal grip — the generalizing about teachers and students that I often see. We teachers are not all the same nor are our students. A bad experience with one shouldn’t tar all. (PS In addition to being a teacher, I’m a blogger and reviewer and last year became a published author myself of a book for kids so I’ve been on many sides of this situation.)

 

 

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In the Classroom: Parents and Teachers and Children and Homework

I have never been much for homework. Nothing I’ve read indicates it does anything to improve student learning for the 4th graders I teach.  I do require that my students read a minimum of 30 minutes a night, but I try to keep their accountability for that as simple as possible so that the reading doesn’t become a chore.  We also give them a small amount of math to reinforce what they did in school, a bit of word study, and that is pretty much it. What I hope they do away from school is whatever they wish — read more, Legos, soccer, fantasy play (which, I’ve noticed, every year seems to be more vestigial for this age group), video games (they aren’t all bad:), drawing, or just hanging out.

When I do give homework I’m pretty fanatic about the kids doing it on their own. That is, no adults should be involved. I’m not a fan of arty projects where some parents get so involved that the projects look professional while others look exactly like what you would expect a non-dexterous kid’s to look like. And some parents, in my experience, find it impossible not to get involved in a piece of writing. Some kids end up leaning on them for this while others hate it.  The bottom line for me is that any work done at home should be the kid’s 100%. Where the parent CAN help in is encouraging them to do it, find a good/quiet place for it, and otherwise help develop their child’s independence and good study habits.

I was provoked to write this after reading Judith Newman’s New York Times piece,  “But I Want to Do Your Homework: Helping Kids With Homework.”  While what she writes isn’t new, she does it in a wry self-deprecating way. With helicoptering parents finding it hard as hell to stay back, I think there can’t be too many articles like these supporting them in doing so.

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In the Classroom: Rush Limbaugh’s Rush Revere and Other Books About the Pilgrims

My 4th graders culminate a year of immigration studies with a close look at the story of the Mayflower passengers, aka the Pilgrims. I began teaching the unit years ago and  have enjoyed finding new material for the children every year. We have a great time reading primary sources like Mourt’s Relation  and end with a visit to the wonderful recreation of both the ship and settlement, Plimoth Plantation.  So I was curious when one of my students brought in Rush Limbaugh’s Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims for me to see. After all, I had heard that the author was a finalist for the Children’s Book Week Author of the Year Award due to the book’s high status on the best seller list (and this week was dubbed the winner).  And so I wondered — was the book any good?

Sadly, I have to concur with both the Kirkus review and editor Vicky Smith’s closer look at it (and its sequel);  the book is not good. The history offered is a fictional form of the Pilgrim story, the one most of us of a certain age grew up with and not unexpected given the author’s known conservative stance.  But it is the writing itself that really makes it such a dreadful book;  it is incredibly poor, cringe-inducing in spots.  Unfortunately, it isn’t helped by the digital illustrations which are cartoony in the worst way. There are a few older-looking images scattered throughout with citations at the end; unfortunately, these are muddled without proper identification. The whole package simply looks  and reads as something very unprofessional. The bottom line is that it would not be something I’d want to add to my curriculum, that is for sure.

And so, for those who may want to know of some alternatives here are some of the books I use in my teaching of this topic:

Connie and Peter Roop’s Pilgrim Voices: Our First Year in the New World. This is my favorite book to use with my class. The Roops have carefully combined the two main primary sources about the Pilgrims (Bradford’s journal and Mourt) to create an accessible and highly engaging book that is almost a primary source as they use only the original language. Add to that outstanding, carefully researched illustrations, and excellent back matter and you have a winning book. Please bring it back in print!

Kate Water’s Sarah Morton’s Day, Samuel Eaton’s Day, Tapenum’s Day, and others about the settlement are useful for my students who create imaginary characters who may have traveled on the Mayflower and write their stories. These books help them imagine their characters’ lives.

Lucille Recht Penner’s Eating the Plates: A Pilgrim Book of Food and Manners nicely weaves in elements of both social and political history and ends with some yummy-looking recipes!

Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Mayflower and the Pilgrim’s New World which is a reworking of his adult title.  This is really for older children than my 4th graders and is not flawless  (there have been criticisms of the Native American aspects), but definitely is heads and tails above Limbaugh’s book for those looking for something for young people on this time in American history.  If I were teaching older children and using this I’d be sure to have them read and discuss the criticism and the author’s response to them.

Kenneth C. Davis’s Don’t Know Much About the Pilgrims.  Light, but nicely presented for a young audience.

Penny Colman’s Thanksgiving: The True Story focuses on the history behind our national holiday.

Cheryl Harness’s The Adventurous Life of Myles Standish and the Amazing-but-True Story of Plymouth Colony is a very nicely presented version of the Pilgrim story through the vantage point of the settlement’s militia leader.

Catherine O’Neil Grace’s 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving is a National Geographic title that provides a more nuanced view of this history than does Limbaugh.

 

 

 

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In the Classroom: A New Teaching Tool

TeachingBooks.net has just announced a new app, Author Morph, that works on a wide variety of platforms used in classrooms. With it you can really get insight as to what it is like to be in an illustrator’s studio by….going right to one! For real!  Cool, right? You can learn more about it here:

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In the Classroom: Rum is for Funerals

As part of a year-long exploration of immigration, I’m currently teaching a unit on African Immigration at the time of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.  And thanks to Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos’s Sugar Changed the World, I’m much more informed about sugar’s place in all of this,  notably in the West Indies, today better known as the Caribbean. Thus, my wary interest in “On the Caribbean Rum Trail” in today’s Travel Section of the New York Times. At first there seemed to be next to nothing about the hideous history behind rum’s creation in this part of the world, but then as the article goes on, the reporter shifts gears, focusing more on history.

Nearby Saint-James [a Martinique distillery], the biggest, was overrun by French tourists lining up for rides through the cane fields on a Disneyesque “sugar train.” In its museum in a 19th-century Creole house, I pondered rum’s iconography: old ads depicting happy plantations with cheerful slaves, women with madras headwraps and seductive smiles.

My musings led to a dialogue with Michel Fayad, distillery manager and former history teacher. “Our whole history is wrapped up in this alcohol,” he said. “But what is it? Depends who you ask, yes? For the European visitors, it’s holiday. To the bekes” — white Martinicans, colonial descendants who still run the bulk of the island’s economy and all but one of its distilleries — “rum is pride. To blacks, locals, it’s also colonialism, slavery, alcoholism, sadness. We drink Champagne at weddings. Rum is for funerals.”

And powerfully ends it with this:

But during an audio tour that thoroughly covered rum history and production — maps, diagrams, photo exhibits, French-accented voice-overs — I decided that here lay the educational apex of distillery-hopping. I wandered through the plantation’s sculpture garden and, reflecting on the legacy of the liquid I’d been trailing, spotted something remarkable: blood on the leaves. A massive red statue of the word “Blood,” poised before a picture-perfect cane field. It evoked, of course, the Billie Holiday song “Strange Fruit,” about lynchings in a pastoral Southern landscape: “Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,” she sang. This scene, stunning yet haunted by perennial pain, struck me as perfect homage: Behold a spirit whose legacy contains all the paradoxes and complexity of the wistfully beautiful region that gave birth to it so long ago.

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In the Classroom: Some Questions About Some Common Core Lessons

As a teacher in a private school I am not currently required to follow the Common Core State Standards. That said, because I am a teacher, I am following closely the discussion about them, their implementation, issues, and so forth. One resource I’ve come across is the Achieve the Core website created by Student Achievement Partners, who describe themselves as  “….a non-profit organization working to support teachers across the country in their efforts to realize the promise of the Common Core State Standards for all students.”  As for the site, they state the following:

This website is full of free content designed to help educators understand and implement the Common Core State Standards. It includes practical tools designed to help students and teachers see their hard work deliver results. achievethecore.org was created in the spirit of collaboration. Please steal these tools and share them with others.

So I decided to check out a few of the ELA/Literacy “Common Core-aligned sample lessons with explanations and supporting resources.” And the ones I looked at were so full of problems that it made me wonder who is vetting them as worthy of teacher use.

One  that I looked at particularly closely is on Charlotte’s Web. (I came across it by looking through their lessons for fourth grade. I can’t link to it directly, I’m afraid, as it takes you to a word document of the lesson.) Because I feel I’m pretty expert at the teaching of  Charlotte’s Web, I was curious about the lesson they had on the book.  And I found it very problematic. The questions seem to suggest it is a play version of the book, but no reference for it is cited. No edition of the book or play is given although there are page numbers given for various questions.  The level of questioning is simplistic, surprising given the desire of the Common Core creators to make experiences with reading more complex and rigorous.  Since I feel White’s book is a wonderful one to use with children as an entry into close reading, the lack of it and very low-level engagement recommended in this particular lesson was something I found despiriting. It looked similar to the many poor lessons about the book I have seen over the years.

The final task is to “Write an essay explaining what makes Charlotte ‘no ordinary spider’.  How do these special qualities help Wilbur? Use evidence from the story to support your answer.”  That makes me so sad — there is so much more to this book. The major themes of the book (say that of life and death) that fourth graders are completely capable of discussing are completely missing from this incredibly muddled lesson plan.

I then also looked at a lesson focused on a single chapter from the book, “Escape.”  It is evidently  to be taught in five sessions over five days, 45 minutes each. I can only say that I’d curl up and die if I had to spend that much time with that particular chapter. Sure, it is a fun one, but it barely even gets to the serious themes of the book. While I could perhaps see spending more than a period on “The Cool of the Evening,” or “The Last Day,” even then I  couldn’t see spending five periods on them or on any one chapter of any book. Further, in these five lessons there is little about the wonderful opening that was White’s original beginning of the book or anything much on the glorious writing itself, say White’s extraordinary use of language to convey sensory details. Now THAT I could and do spend quite a bit of time on (but still probably not a full period, much less five).

At the end, students are asked “Describe what lesson(s) Wilbur learns at the end of the story. What in the text helps you to know this?” The answer provided is:

Wilbur learns that sometimes we aren’t ready to accept the consequences for our actions/decisions. He also found out that he was too young to go out into the world alone.

Hmm…I don’t think that the first sentence is the point of the chapter at all. (I’m guessing it is more likely something the writer of the lesson wanted to emphasize for his or her own reasons.) The second is closer to what I think White had in mind, relating it more to the theme of growing-up that runs through the book.  Yet to take five days to study this one chapter in isolation from the whole book — I can’t even imagine it.

Then there is the culminating task that is again about the moral lesson:

Wilbur has second thoughts about his choice to escape. First, describe what it means to have second thoughts about something. Then, use evidence from the text to explain how Wilbur’s second thoughts show that sometimes we are not ready to accept the consequences of our actions.

Nothing against moral lessons, but again, I don’t believe that is the main point White wanted to make.

I looked at a few more lessons and none of them seemed any better.  So just be wary, folks, of some of the lessons being touted for Common Core.

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In the Classroom: Close Reading

I’ve been curious about the attention now being paid to the skill of close reading, something I began doing with my 4th graders decades ago. Judiciously. By that, I mean I only do it enough for the children to see how much pleasure they can take in the experience, but not enough for it to become a chore. Frankly, some of the current suggestions I see for close reading concern me because they seem utilitarian in the extreme and leave out the joy that the experience can be.

Joy?  Yes indeed. Many years ago I was fortunate enough to spend a summer studying children’s literature in a scholarly manner and one of my favorite aspects of it was doing some close readings of parts of the books we were exploring. I wanted to see if I could help my 4th graders have the same experience and so returned to my classroom that fall and gave it a try with E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. It turned out to be a fantastic experience, one I now do every fall. I’ve written about it in books and articles, talked about it in presentations, and have been thrilled that other teachers have taken the idea and run with it. Now with close reading being so on everyone’s radar I hope some do read about how I do it and perhaps use some of those methods in their own classrooms.

Here are some posts about my teaching of close reading with Charlotte’s Web:

I also do it with a few pages of Mourt’s Relation, a primary source of the Pilgrims and have written about that lesson as well in articles, books and in various posts including this one:

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In the Classroom: The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp Come Alive (sort of).

My 4th graders enjoyed my reading aloud Kathi Appelt’s latest, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp (my take on it is here) and so when some of them were at loose ends, having finished a big project their peers were still working on, I suggested they make a mural of the book.  (I love making book murals! See the one we did of The Graveyard Book and this one of When You Reach Me.) After talking through a few ideas, I left them to it. After a… er…redolent day when they used undiluted  mod podge to create  a swampy background, they drew and cut and researched (old cars) and just had fun sticking in their favorite elements of the book.  For a bit more about it and Kathi’s visit to our classroom, check out this post on our public 4th grade project blog.

truebluescotsmural

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In the Classroom: Middle School as Considered By Someone Who Just Finished It

There are many books out these days written by adults about social aggression — novels for children and teens and others, often nonfiction, for concerned adults. And sometimes there are firsthand accounts from children and teens themselves. Say by a former student of mine, Natasha Lerner, who has just started high school.  She is a blogger at Huffington Post Teen and has just written a remarkably insightful blog post about her just-completed and often painful middle school years: “Middle School.”  Highly recommended.

 

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In the Classroom: Authors as People

Two teachers in recent blog posts had some interesting points to make about meeting authors.

In “Fangirl” Donalyn Miller writes about often feeling starstruck when coming into contact with her favorite book creators.

Meeting authors isn’t like meeting Cameron Diaz to me—it’s like meeting Picasso. Writing is an art. Authors are artists—painting images with words, sculpting worlds to explore, evoking emotions that make me feel more alive. When you are a fan, reading is art appreciation.

In “Authors Demystified” Katherine Sokolowski writes movingly about how and why her meetings with Katherine Paterson were so special and distinctive from meeting other authors.

I think that when I was a kid authors were removed from us. I never for one moment believed that I could be one – that was something revered and special reserved for a chosen few. I didn’t know how you got to be that lucky, but knew that would never be in the cards for me.I didn’t know any authors. None ever came to the cornfields of Illinois so I assumed authors lived in magical worlds – or at least not rural towns like mine.
My entire goal as a teacher is to change this for my students. I want them to know authors, and illustrators, as I do. To demystify this profession. To make them cherish their words – and beautiful illustrations, but also see them as people.

Like Katherine I too did not meet any authors growing up. But I have to say I wasn’t  interested in them, just in their books. Say Madeleine L’Engle. In 5th grade I desperately wanted my own copy of  her now-rather-forgotten  And Both Were Young.  I was besotted with this teen novel which involved a Swiss boarding school (I’d spent time in European schools), a shy protagonist in a new school (I so identified with her having moved a lot), and a sweet romance. And so, after taking the book out of the library over and over, wanting to own it I started copying it out into a notebook, giving up after three chapters. (I don’t believe there was a bookstore in East Lansing with children’s books at that time, certainly the idea of buying it never occurred to me.) Yet for all my love of the book I never thought about its creator. Not once. Never thought to write a fan letter or find out anything about her.  

Things are different and the same today.  Different in that the Internet has made virtual connections between readers and book creators much more likely. As a result of my online connections I’ve met a number of book creators in real life and consider many of them friends. And so while I admire what they do I also think of them as regular people who have ups and downs in life as we all do. I want my own students who have access to information about authors in a way I never did to appreciate them as artists in the way Donalyn describes, but also to know that they are just real people as Katherine notes.

But what makes me happiest is what is still the same for my students — falling as deeply in love with a particular book as I did at their age. While they can easily get a copy and don’t have to resort to my crazy attempt to have my own, they still love books to tattered shreds, read them over and over just as I did.  Sometimes I’ll suggest to such a kid that they might want to write to the author, but generally they aren’t interested. They just care about the book.

 

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