Monthly Archives: August 2009

In the Classroom: Reading Homework

“The only homework I assign is to read for at least 30 minutes a night.” (said I in yesterday’s post)

Had an interesting discussion w/ a friend on why I despise using the word homework for reading time. That fosters a hate in my opinion.”   (says @mawbooks)

No, no, no.  It doesn’t foster hate.  I mean, why should it?  It should foster joy.  Kids should go, “I’m reading the best book; I’m so lucky that my only homework tonight is to finish it! ”  In fact, I’ve had kids come to me and say, “I’m sorry, but I read more than 30 minutes last night. I just got to a great point where I couldn’t stop!”  (And then I make clear that the requirement is to read at least 30 minutes.)

I  feel very, very strongly about the importance of kids considering their nightly reading — homework.  To my mind it is the MOST important homework they do.  Fourth graders are just developing fluency, becoming independent readers,  learning what their tastes as readers are, etc.  They need to do it a lot more than in school. They need to do it on their own, away from the controlled classroom.  They need to figure out just where they read best (in bed, on the couch, cuddling a pet, under a tree, next to a parent?), whether they need silence, music, or something else.  They need to figure out just what sort of material they enjoy reading. What is their identity as a reader? And do they read in short bursts with little rests?  Or do they read in long gulps?  They need to do this in the classroom (where I can support them) and at home (where they will learn to do it alone, hopefully). I call it “independent reading” because they are learning to do just that.  Without teachers, parents, tutors, caregivers, grandmothers, friends, or anyone.  I want them to learn to be totally happy independent readers — anywhere.

While my nightly homework is that 30 minutes of reading, I should say that my students also get 30 minutes of math from their math teachers, weekly spelling from the associate teacher, and occasionally something else (like interviewing someone for our immigration oral history project).  While each of my fourth grade colleagues may tweak her homework policy a bit differently, we are all in basic agreement on what is done at home and what is done at school.

I often read that research indicates that homework doesn’t help elementary aged kids.  Not sure what sort of homework that would be, but I would pretty much agree for anything other than reading and a bit of math (mostly memorizing those math facts).  Our kids do a lot in school and need to do other things at home — stuff they enjoy (yes, television, computer games, shooting baskets, whatever is fun for them).  Of course that is the situation for the kids I teach; a different population might need a different homework policy.

Main thing is that homework does not have to be synonymous with drudgery.  It can be something kids look forward to doing or, at least, don’t dread.

Edited to add — thanks to @lbraun2000 I just saw  this timely piece in yesterday’s NYT’s about summer homework.  I don’t give it — our fourth graders have NO assigned book to read before they come in over the summer. Excellent points here about all sorts of homework.



Filed under In the Classroom, Reading

In the Classroom: Teaching Reading

In the past week I’ve read two completely oppositional articles on teaching.  The first was “Tyranny of the Test: One Year as a Kaplan Coach in the Public Schools” by Jeremy Miller.  It is a superb piece providing a disturbing, real, and moving view of the specifics of legislation that has made Kaplan such a player in the schools, the sad realities of testing, teaching, and more.  The second was “Students Get New Assignment: Pick Books You Like.”  This is a very different sort of article, Mokoto Rich is a reporter for the New York Times, not a teacher, and so she comes to this topic quite differently — following a teacher as she begins this “new” method in her classroom — children choosing their own reading material.

The method is one of choice — individual reading rather than the whole-class-reads-one book method.  It isn’t, for all Rich suggests it is, new.  It was around when I started teaching in the early 70s and was around even earlier among those with a progressive mindset.  Choice is at the heart of Montessori, open classroom, whole language, constructivism, and many other pedagogies that have waxed and waned in popularity over the years.  I’m glad Rich featured Nancie Atwell, someone who inspired me twenty years ago with her seminal book, In the Middle.  She, along with others, gave me some  excellent tools that helped me to fine-tune a method I already had been using — now known as readers’ workshop.

A few years after that I spent a summer at Princeton studying classical children’s literature. I came back to my classroom determined to bring some of that magic into my teaching.  Since then other experiences have helped me to continually refine how I teach reading.  At the moment, in broad sweeps (leaving out the specific lessons that I do), here’s an overview:

  • Independent Reading.  My students are all expected to always have a book they’ve chosen to read.  The only homework I assign is to read for at least 30 minutes a night. I monitor the reading by having the children write the book title and the pages read.  I can easily determine how their reading is going by those pages.  If a child is only reading ten pages in 30 minutes night after night, for example, something is wrong and I will investigate.  I encourage them to drop books they don’t like and work hard to help them find ones they do.  Periodically I invite them to prepare readings from these books for the class for our weekly Literary Salons.   I have private conversations with them about their readings. They write about the books in response journals (and on blogs).  All the stuff mentioned in Rich’s article and many other places.
  • Reading Aloud. I always am reading aloud a book, ideally one the kids can’t get themselves yet. Last year I read The Graveyard Book and When You Reach Me before they were published, for example.  I’m still mulling over the first book for this year.
  • One Book for the Whole Class.  I do believe in occasionally reading a book together. I think that there can be a very special experience when a group comes together over a book.  And I have to say, I don’t get the vehemence some have against doing this. While I understand how it has been done badly, it can also be wonderful.  I mean, what about those communities that read books together?  Book groups?  Book clubs? Why can’t teachers orchestrate something similar in their classrooms?  Certainly, I hope I do.  We begin the year with Charlotte’s Web and end it with The Wizard of Oz. Both are wonderful experiences.
  • Group Books.  We do a study of historical fiction prior to the kids writing their own.  As part of the preparations I have the kids read books in small groups.
  • Research. Sometimes I think people are so invested in getting kids to love reading that they forget that there is all kinds of reading.  Sometimes it is to get information.  My students read widely when working on their historical fiction stories about Mayflower passengers. They read primary sources, secondary sources, all sorts of stuff.

Okay. I could go on, but I won’t.  Reading is so many different things to so many different people so it stands to reason there would be many different ways to teach it and many different ways to learn it.


Filed under Historical Fiction, In the Classroom, Reading, Reading Aloud, Teaching

Hayley Mills, the Miley Cyrus of My Tweendom

It is all Roger Sutton‘s fault.

This morning I saw his tweet: “Re Little Princess: does anyone else love the Shirley Temple movie? Chick was INTENSE.”  After a second on youtube, I quickly found my favorite bit from the movie and tweeted back, “@HornBook Me. I loved Shirley as Sara Crewe. Remember “Old Kent Road“?

After indulging in a few additional pouty Shirley clips  I thought — what about Hayley Mills?  Now yes, her Parent Trap is on television often.   But what about some of her other movies?   Say, the one I would have watched over and over and over if I’d been able to, the 1963  “Summer Magic“?  Yep, there it is.  So here’s my favorite song from that movie, one that I still know by heart.  (Yes, it is impossibly lame, but Hannah Montana is bound to look equally lame forty-six years from now, right?)


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Maria Kalman is Happy to Be Here

And I’m happy she is here too.  You will be too after seeing her latest, “I Lift My Lamp Beside the Gold.”

via @ReadingRants

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And What About Beatrice, Mr. Snicket?

Snicket said: “I can neither confirm nor deny that I have begun research into a new case and I can neither confirm nor deny that the results are as dreadful and unnerving as A Series Of Unfortunate Events. However, I can confirm that Egmont will be publishing these findings.”

A new series from Lemony Snicket to be published by Egmont!  Reported here, here, and here.

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In the Classroom: Chris Raschka

I’ve been a longtime fan of the children’s book creator, Chris Raschka, and so was completely delighted to see the interview he gave over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. This reminded me of the ways I’ve used his books in our weekly Literary Salons when the children bring in baked treats, I provide juice, and we do something “literary.”  Sometimes it is a bunch of prepared readings from recent books the kids have read.  Sometimes it is choral poetryOr original poetry. Sometimes it is readers’ theater.  Or something Newberyish. And sometimes it is Chris Raschka.

If I think the particular group of kids are right for it I read  Arlene Sardine, arguably his most controversial book.  I love it. Sometimes the kids do and sometimes they don’t get it at all.  Years ago I wrote “Pets and Other Fishy Books”  for Horn Book, mulling over kid responses to it and other unconventional books.  The kids I wrote about in the article didn’t get it, but later groups have.

Then there are the wonderful jazz books.  I’ve used Charlie Parker Played Be Bop, John Coltrane’s Big Steps, and Mysterious Thelonious playing the music before, after, or even during.  I’m afraid, not being musical myself, I can’t do the readings the justice that Chris does, but I try and the kids help me.  Often I conclude this salon with a completely different sort of music book, Simple Gifts.   The kids always participate in that reading.  Lovely.

If you are not familiar with the work of Chris Raschka, do check him out. There are many other wonderful books of his I’ve used elsewhere in the classroom — poetry books, music books, word books, and story books of all sorts.  Absolutely lovely.


Filed under Art, In the Classroom

Katrina Never Forgotten

In my experience as the daughter of Holocaust survivors, as time goes on there can be a tendency for the historical record of horrible events to become simplified — for certain iconic images and stories to take on the burden of representing all of it. So far I am heartened to see that hasn’t happened with Katrina. For example, two recent high-profile books have come out and everything I’ve seen about them gives me the imrpression that their creators have done things right. One of them is Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun and the other is Josh Newfeld’s graphic novel A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge which is featured in today’s New York Times and can be read in its original web version here.  Reading about them caused me to remember vividly sitting here that August and following what was happening in New Orleans, following the horrible aftermath, hearing from a friend who lost everything, and then being shown it firsthand by her when I visited New Orleans for the ALA convention less than a year later.  And because I want to be sure her story is remembered, here is what I wrote (and posted last year too) about that.

I got back early this AM and I cannot write about the convention
without first writing about New Orleans, a city I’d know before as a
tourist and convention-attendee. A place I know now as so sad, so
harrowing, so disturbing, and so full of the most remarkable and
courageous people I’ve ever met.

People like Pat Austin of the University of New Orleans who spent
three days after Katrina in a Baton Rouge motel parking lot in a tiny
Toyota with her sister and eleven cats. Pat who lost her house to a
levee breach, but who is totally and utterly and passionately
committed to her home — New Orleans. Pat, who wanting me to bear
witness, spend most of yesterday touring me in that same Toyota
through her beloved city. 9/11 made a New Yorker out of me just as
Katrina has made Pat more devoted to her hometown than ever.

Pat had shown me photos when I saw her at NCTE in November and again
when she stayed with me in March, but I have to say they and news
coverage had not prepare me for the magnitude of what I saw yesterday.
I think it is not possible to appreciate it unless one is in it. The
unsettled feeling I had around the convention center and the Quarter
(with so many places still closed and boarded up) was nothing compared
to the feeling I had yesterday on my tour with Pat.

She began by pointing out to me the miles and miles of destroyed cars
under the highway we drove along. They were being brought there from
all over, a dreadful Katrina automobile graveyard. I’d probably seen
them on my way in from the airport, but hadn’t known what I was
looking at.

She next took me through the Lower Ninth Ward and the adjoining
neighborhoods. Pat had taught there years ago and had been there many
times since Katrina and so was able to point out specific landmarks
to me. We drove around there for hours. The only analogy I could come
up with was being at Nazi concentration camps — that is, how the
vastness of the devastation really hits home when you are physically
seeing it rather than experiencing it in photos or film or in words.*
And seeing, so many months later, lace curtains in a window of a
collapsed home, a tricycle atop of pile of destroyed home stuff, the
official markings (which Pat translate for me) indicating the death of
people and pets, the ironic communications (”Baghdad”) and the
heartrending pleading ones (”donations needed for rebuilding”), the
signs (for lawyers doing claims, for people needing evidence, for
businesses specializing in demolition and rebuilding), the workers
(say a group having a lunch break in a playground), empty businesses
with signs as if they were open (strips of fast food places and other
familiar businesses) — all destroyed.

Worst of all was the horrible eeriness of emptiness. The sense of the
thousands who lived there, the ghosts of a vibrant and busy community,
of people who had worked to buy these homes, now uninhabitable. Mile
after mile after mile after desolate mile.

We then went to Pat’s neighborhood, to her house. She’d shown me the
photos back in November, but again there is no comparison to the
experience of being there. Of standing in her living room and seeing
the remains of her library stuck on the floor. Seeing the beautiful
chandelier which feels like the only thing the water missed as it
stopped a foot or so short of the ceiling. The sodden scratching
post. The waterlogged copy of Pat’s own children’s book (THE CAT WHO
) placed by her in the newspaper holder in front to remind
those who came of those who lived there.**

After that inexpressibly sad experience Pat took me to her new home.
What a joy to see that she has a lovely new place that she is making
beautiful with new and old. (For example, she showed me a photo of a
plush toy Babar in the midst of her old home’s destruction and then
showed me a washed Babar on the new bookshelf next to his book.)

But I’m not done for then she took me to the wealthy areas near the
lake that were as destroyed as those in the poorer communities we’d
already been to. She took me by the infamous levee break, by the
university run out of trailers, by homes being raised on pilings as
now required by the local government, by churches being restored, by
well tended gardens in front of gutted houses, by a remarkable
Vietnamese temple all bright and restored among desolation, by FEMA
trailers and storage units in front of elegantly expensive homes, and
by more and more and more. She explained, she pointed things out, she
kept apologizing for overwhelming me. Yes, I was overwhelmed, but it
was important that I saw. I still feel that I don’t have the right
words to express all of what I saw.

As for the convention itself, it was sad too. As much as everyone
wanted it to be normal, it wasn’t. The exhibitions were quiet, much
more than other times. Maybe it was just me, but there was a subdued
quality to many of the events and receptions. Remembering New Orleans
before, it was hard for me not to notice the difference and so walking
from place to place, to event or reception, it was difficult to forget
what had happened there only months before.

Yes, there were happy moments, of course. Watching Shannon Hale in a
red dress dance in bare feet up to the dais to receive her Newbery
Honor was joyous as was Chris Raschka’s homage to Karen Breen as was
Lynne Rae Perkins beaming face. Oh, and Chris’s duet with Norton
Juster was great fun too. I (usually a curmudgeon about this sort of
thing) proudly wore my “I LIKE MIMI” button (done in the style of the
old “I LIKE IKE” button) to honor Mimi Kayden who received a life-time
achievement award. Bill Joyce had to rescind his invitation to enjoy
absinthe (evidently the W Hotel wasn’t willing to host something still
illegal), but the mint juleps weren’t bad.

But what I’m coming home with and still processing clearly is not the
ALA convention, but New Orleans. I sure hope they can come back; I
really really really really do.

* When I told this to my father he said it sounded even more liked the bombed-out cities he saw at the end of World War II, cities like his home of Frankfurt.

** The house was eventually razed (Pat showed me photos of that too) and, last I knew, Pat was gardening the land.


Filed under History

Lev Grossman’s The Magicians


I read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians a while ago and have been eagerly awaiting publication so I could see what others thought.  Now that it is out here’s my goodreads review for those who want to know what I thought!

This novel begins with a disaffected teen, the sad and unhappy Quentin Coldwater, off to a college interview. But the interview never happens; instead Quentin ends up at Brakebills, an upstate New York Bard-Vassar-like college of magic. There he learns much about sorcery and eventually becomes part of the Physical Kids, hanging out in their clubhouse, the antithesis of the Gryffindor common room. Sex, drugs, alcohol are copious in this book’s world and the Physical Kids’ intensity reminded me of the tight collegiate group in Donna Tartt’s Secret History.

After graduation they end up dissolute in NYC and the feeling now becomes much like Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City or some other volume full of unhappy, drunk twenty-somethings. But unlike those books, the young unhappy adults in this one are magicians. As for Quentin, even as he two (or possibly three)-times his girlfriend and drinks himself repeatedly into oblivion, there is still a yearning for something bigger, something more. And when that something happens the book gets mighty dark. For it turns out that Fillory, a Narnia-like world from a beloved series of children’s books, is real. All too real. What happens once Quentin and the other Physical Kids end up there is disturbing, moving, and kept me completely engaged to the last page.


Filed under Fantasy

Truth and/or Fiction

Very interesting post by Guy Gavriel Kay asking “Are Novelists Entitled to Use Real-Life Characters?”

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Dave Egger’s Max at Sea

So I went into the novelization thinking it would be a place to put all these passages and scenes that wouldn’t fit into the movie. And I did end up using a few of those scenes. But while I was working on the book, it was funny, because I started going in new directions, different from any of the screenplay versions, pushing it into some territory that was personal to me. So in a way the movie is more Spike’s version of Maurice’s book, and this novel is more my version.

From an interesting interview with Dave Eggers at the New Yorker in which he talks about more than just the Where the Wild Things Are movie.  To really get a sense of him and the direction he took for the movie, I suggest reading “Max at Sea,” an excerpt from the novelization.

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