In the Classroom: Teaching Hacks

I frequently see tweets, links, and more to articles or videos celebrating methods to make something easier. In the “100 Life Hacks That Make Life Easier” you can learn how to waterproof your shoes, use newspaper to absorb fruit juices and more. So I figured I’d offer three that I’ve found helpful in my 4th grade classroom. Love to learn of more in the comments!

  1. Lamps. I find low lighting in my classroom soothing, calming, and a great help to keep my students focused during work periods. Unfortunately, I have no way to dim the glaring overhead lights. And so, a few years back, I found these little portable lamps for kids to use (turning off the overhead ones). The price has gone down and so I’ve now managed to get enough to have for every child. They need batteries, but over three years I’ve not needed to replace them yet. I wish I could show them in my classroom, but can’t (due to privacy requirements). 
  2. Tiny notebooks for our BoB (Book of Books) periods. This is a weekly time when my students read (using those lamps), fill out their BoBs with what they’ve read in the past week, and confer with me. I started this a few years ago when I decided to drop kids having to log their nightly reading. (See this post for more information.) I found some blank ones here so kids could decorate covers as they wished. They’ve got cheaper ones too. 
  3. “Offices.” I am not a fan of cardboard cubbies like the one below as I like to see my students at work. So instead I give them “offices,” These are spots they move their desks to so they are all away from each other, not facing one another (usually their desks are in groups of six), and able to focus on their writing. My room is small and in order to have a rug I have to put those groups of desks fairly close together around it. It isn’t practical to have them permanently in offices — messy, hard to get around, and I want them to work in groups too! — but it is great to use when needed. I’ve a post about this here

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A Book Chat with the One and Only Patrick McDonnell

Doing an ABC book was me trying to bring my childhood drawings back.

I’m quite the Patrick McDonnell fan so was delighted when invited to highlight the book chat video he did for Little Brown Books for Young Readers. Below he speaks with Victoria Stapleton about his latest, the charming and witty The Little Red Cat Who Ran Away and Learned His ABC’s (the Hard Way). Patrick talks about the challenge off telling a story with minimal text, the pleasure of indicating movement in just a few images, and way more. Enjoy!

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Paul Mosier’s Train I Ride

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As I’ve written here before, I’m extremely wary of books that are described as heartbreaking, poignant, tender, et al. Too often I feel that I’m being manipulated into tears as regularly happens in the movies with music. Happily, there are books thus described that DO work for me. Such a one is Paul Mosier’s Train I Ride. The structure is that of a girl with a very sad past traveling on Amtrak to a new life. Over several days on the train she meets people, builds relationships. has a romance, and slowly reveals her complicated history. What makes this book work so well for me firstly is the lovely character development. There is, of course, Ryder, but — as the book moves back and forth in time — also her recently departed grandmother, Amtrak employee Dorothea who is looking out for her on the train, Neal at the train cafe, a caring school counselor, some scouts, and a kind crossword puzzler fellow-rider. I’d read that Allen Ginsberg’s Howl featured in the story and was very skeptical, but it works beautifully and in a way that is necessary. Best of all is the sentence level writing which is a delight. Here’s a taste: “It was comfortably dreadful.”  Glad to see this getting some Newbery buzz and hope this little post helps.

 

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La Belle Sauvage Swag

One fun aspect of being a so-called “Big Mouth” in this teeny tiny world of children’s books is the occasional swag that comes my way. Yesterday I received a small package that was meant to have arrived a few weeks ago, but got a bit lost. Here’s what was inside. You will need to read Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage to appreciate it. So go do so — the book is propulsive, gorgeous, and unique.

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Lyra in America

“Pan, where are they all going?” The canyon-like streets of Nieuwe York were filled with determined and dashing people, their daemons flitting and scampering along with them. Now a hawk, Pantalaimon swooped above Lyra as she attempted to evade the flood of adults swarming by. Agile as the girl was, the density of the crowd was such that she was unable to avoid collisions earning her glares, snaps of irritation, and even in one case a frustrated slap. Finally, the exhausted and bewildered child, Pan now a mouse on her shoulder, leaned against a wall and looked up at the massive building in front of her — all glittering gold glass — puzzling at the huge TRIUMPH sign at the top.

Apologies to Philip Pullman for the above teeny bit of fan fiction, but I couldn’t resist. It is just that I’ve been mulling over the response on this side of the pond to his fabulous return to Lyra’s universe in La Belle Sauvage. (Here’s my ecstatic review.) I wasn’t surprised to read Bookseller Kenny Brechner’s observations in “Dust in My Eyes” as, while there are Pullman fans galore here, he has never had the same exalted stature in America as in the UK and elsewhere.

One reason, I’m starting to consider, is due to religion. For recently, I was startled when a librarian, to whom I was waxing excitedly about the new book, spoke of her discomfort with the earlier series due to religious reasons. Way back when those conservative Catholics fussed about the movie, I had scoffed, but I have to now wonder if they left a more damaging impression than was evident then in our still religiously conservative land.

Another is that fantasy does not get the attention it deserves here. Those obsessed viewers of HBO’s Game of Thrones series are less and less likely to have read any of the books. Looking at the responses to the Nerdy Book Club’s request for people’s favorites of 2017 and I see almost no fantasy titles. No mentions of La Belle Sauvage (other than mine:),  Laini Taylor’s superb Strange the Dreamer, or the clever and witty works of Rick Riordan, two of which are out this year.

Finally, I think that time is a factor. Those American children who adored His Dark Materials as it came out are adults now, say Rebecca Munro who describes her experiences with this series in her review:

I want to start this review by saying that this is easily one of the most emotional pieces I have ever written. I first discovered Philip Pullman’s work when I was only 10-years-old and I raced through the entire His Dark Materials series in a single summer. The books were with me in the pool, in the car and in bed, and I have reread them every winter since. In other words, I have literally been waiting 17 years for THE BOOK OF DUST and now that it is here, I am practically speechless.

For young people today, in America, the books seem not particularly to be on their radar. Partly, no doubt, because the gatekeepers —as seems indicated by the Nerdy Book Club omission — don’t recommend it. While many, many British kids probably still read it with pleasure, I don’t think that as many American children do. It isn’t as much a part of their bookish world as is that other British series of the same time period, Harry Potter.

I should say this is all quite speculative — I haven’t firm data at all and I’d love to be proved wrong. What do you all think?

 

 

 

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Bank Street College’s Book Fest 2017

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I had a great time Saturday at Bank Street’s Book Fest, a day-long conference. My small part was to lead a discussion on the following inventive informational books:

Giant Squid by Candace Fleming and illustrated by Eric Rohmann
The Hello Atlas by Ben Handicott and illustrated by Kenard Pak
How to Build a Museum: Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture by Tonya Bolden
Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Eric Velasquez
Some Writer!: The Story of E. B. White by Melissa Sweet
Strong as Sandow: How Eugen Sandow Became the Strongest Man on Earth by Don Tate

All the presentations and panels were terrific, but I have to say Carmen Agra Deedy, with her closing keynote, knocked it out of the park.

Happily KidLitTV livestreamed the whole day and it is archived here.

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Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust Vol. 1: La Belle Sauvage

There will be many paths into this book. Some will come to it cold having not read His Dark Materials, curious about what the fuss is all about. Others will come to it having read His Dark Materials long ago and so with a vague sense of the world they are re-entering. Some may read it because of an encounter with The Golden Compass movie. Others may have had the early books read to them when young.  And some will come to it with a deep love and appreciation of the previous books, having read and reread them many times.

I’m definitely one of the latter. I came across The Golden Compass shortly after publication and fell madly in love with it, a feeling that only solidified when I read The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Since then I’ve read the books and listened to the full-cast audio recordings many, many times. It is a comfort experience, one of solace, one that has me admiring the trilogy more and more with each encounter. When the play was put on at London’s National Theater I went. With heart in my throat I followed the controversies around the movie and finally went to see it — yes, reader, I was disappointed. And now I wait eagerly for the forthcoming BBC series.

All this is to say that I entered La Belle Sauvage with high hopes, with high fears, and with a deep knowledge and appreciation of the previous books and their world, characters, and themes. And so my response to the book is predicated on all of this. Someone on a different path will likely have a different response.

I began with some anxiety — it had been seventeen years after all–but it was like dropping into a scented warm bath surrounded by flickering candles — in other words, a delight. The world was that of His Dark Materials, the characters multi-faceted whether major or secondary. the pacing tense and urgent, the ideas demanding and true. Best of all is the writing — Pullman is a wordsmith like few others. Again and again I just stopped to reread a gorgeous sentence, to admire a word or phrase, a clever construction, or the elegant weaving of information. Just look at this very first sentence:

Three miles up the river Thames from the center of Oxford, some distance from where the great colleges of Jordan, Gabriel, Balliol, and two dozen others contended for mastery in the boat races, out where the city was only a collection of towers and spires in the distance over the misty levels of Port Meadow, there stood the Priory of Godstow, where the gentle nuns went about their holy business; and on the opposite bank from the priory there was an inn called the Trout.

Taking us from the great colleges to mastery of boat races to  misty levels to gentle nuns he lands us at the unadorned (no adjectives for it) Trout. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. As a writer I aspire to create anything even remotely close to that opening.

Moving into the story proper we meet eleven-year-old Malcolm (and his daemon Asta) whose parents run the inn and so he works there too. As good in his own way as Lyra and Will, but a person distinctly all his own, this is a boy who is inquisitive, loves to make things, supremely sensible while also able to dream, honest (but able, in dire circumstances to lie effectively),  solid (with adults and peers), and with a heart that is as big as the flood that comes midway in the story.

In the first half, Pullman chillingly evokes a time when the country is still nominally free, but the various ecclesiastical dark forces that figure so prominently in His Dark Materials (set around a decade later) are rearing their ugly heads. Familiar characters appear or are referred to, notably Mrs. Colter and Lord Asriel. But most of all there is Lyra, a beautifully realized baby of six months old. Pullman’s development of her character at this age is masterful — I mean, it isn’t easy to show personality with a child who doesn’t have words yet. I suspect it is his remarkable invention of daemons that makes this possible as he describes wondrous moments throughout the book of baby Lyra and baby Pantalaimon.  At one point there is a description of the tiny daemon trying to change into another creature, but unable to because he doesn’t know it yet. At another point an adult points out that their babbling to each other (made me think of the private language that sometimes exists between twins) is a way of learning how to speak.

The plot involves saving the baby Lyra from the various nefarious people and organizations who are after her. Among them is an absolutely chilling villain (or malefactor as Malcolm might well call him), George Bonneville, who proves in horrific ways to be completely mad. Pullman sets things up in the first half of the book —- showing Malcolm’s cosy home life with his sensible parents, his enjoyment in helping out the nuns at the priory across the street (where he meets baby Lyra), his stolid firmness with friends and at school (where a creepy Hitler-Youth-like organization takes hold), and his handiness, especially with his beloved canoe, the eponymous La Belle Sauvage. And then things take off literally — there is flood of Biblical proportions and Malcolm along with Alice, a somewhat older and sulky worker in his parents’ inn, are off in the canoe to save Lyra. They are chased, they have narrow escapes, harrowing experiences, and otherworldly encounters.

I enjoyed every moment of the book which I both listened to and read on my Kindle (so as to avail myself of the highlighting option). I attempted to savor it, but it was impossible to slow down during the second half any more than could the children in the canoe as it was born away in the raging flood. Now I’m planning to go back and listen to it again. (I am such a speedy readers that I love listening, especially when the writing is gorgeous, as it is much slower.) And again — in preparation for the next in The Book of Dust, set evidently some twenty years later. I waited seventeen years for this one so I think I can wait a bit longer for the next one.

Thank you, Philip Pullman, for giving all of us, so completely and wonderfully, this chance to be lost again in your remarkable literary world.

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