Category Archives: In the Classroom

In the Classroom: The Pushcart War Project

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I’m a big fan of whole class creative projects celebrating works of literature.  Some have come about due to my passion for a particular book, notably Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, while others are due to the kids’ excitement, say the murals we did for The Graveyard Book and When You Reach Me.  The latest of these is a digital storytelling project of Jean Merrill’s The Pushcart War.

It was upon learning of the death of its author, Jean Merrill, a couple of years ago that I was reminded of her fabulous book and the play I’d done of it with a class long ago. Having seen a colleague’s PuppetPals project, I thought it might be just right for digital storytelling of The Pushcart War.

I began by reading the book aloud while the kids followed along in books. Sometimes they participated in the reading, but often it was just me doing the reading. We talked about the book as we did so. And they loved it, eagerly look forward to the days when we continued the story.

This being the second year we’d done the project, we teachers realize the kids needed some experience with PuppetPals before diving in. And so we did a mini-practice-project first with a favor book of my class this year, Sam & Dave Dig a Hole.  They were put into groups of three and four and each assigned a few pages. We made the puppets (Sam, Dave, dog, cat, tree), the kids made the backgrounds, and then they made the little puppet shows. After that we all critiqued them together so they would see what worked for the bigger project.

We then brainstormed all the backgrounds needed for The Pushcart War and had the kids make them. My inspiration was Mo Willems’ Knuffle Bunny where the backgrounds were photos and the characters cartoons. For us, the backgrounds were collaged black and white photos. We had some that kids had taken and they searched for others in some copyright free data bases. Next came the characters. Again, we brainstormed all possible ones. Then the children made them, using brads for the limbs so they could be moved about. Lastly, the kids chose their favorite sections of the story from which I put them in small groups to create the actual movies. They came out so well!  You can see them all here.

 

 

 

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In the Classroom: Cultural Norms

Because we are living abroad, my kids have lots of inevitable small embarrassments during the day due to being international students and being out of linguistic and cultural step. Consequently, my husband and I are really conscious of making sure they have the “right” things with them when we can. The thing is, there are so many unarticulated things that cultural insiders just know and that no one thinks to tell you.

That is from Marika Seigel‘s  thoughtful article, “On Being the Mom of ‘the Foreign Kid.'” (Thanks to Pooja Makhijani for posting it on facebook.) It reminded me of situations I encountered during my time in various German schools as a child. (My father was a specialist in German politics as well as originally German and so we spent a couple of years there at different points in my youth.)  In one case, I was to sing a song with some others in my second grade class for a Christmas performance. I knew I was to wear a party dress, but it was only when I got there that I discovered that all the others were wearing white dresses while I was in blue. We were, I learned, meant to be snowflakes.

I think the article is something that we in the US should take to heart too. Those cultural norms are all over the place. For example, my school had Pajama Day this past Thursday. Most of the girls in my 4th grade class excitedly came to school all dressed up in pajamas. None of the boys opted to participate nor did one of the girls who prefers to hang out with the boys. One child at our morning meeting said something along the lines of being offended by those who decided not to participate. I firmly pointed out the problem with that statement and she got it. I’m actually glad she said it as it gave me a chance to point out why it was so important to not make anyone feel self-conscious about how they participated or if they did. And then I thought back to my childhood and how problematic it would have been for me. I wouldn’t have had the right sort of pajamas (my mother didn’t shop local), I’d have worried that they weren’t pretty/new/etc enough. In fact, I’d have been a wreck about this whole day. So being the foreign kid can be as simple as being not part of the dominant school culture, whatever it is.

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In the Classroom: My 4th Graders Read and Respond to El Deafo

Every year I choose a newly published book for my 4th grade class to read in literature circles. It is fun to do a brand new book each year, one that is clearly going to be a classic. For instance, we did The One and Only Ivan shortly after it won the Newbery. This year, before it received its Newbery Honor, I decided it should be Cece Bell’s El Deafo.

Once I started thinking about how to do it I realized the usual literature circle format (especially the roles) weren’t right for Bell’s wonderful graphic memoir. And so I left it more open, asking the children to consider some guiding questions and inviting them to come up with more on their own. Happily, it went wonderfully well. The group conversations were rich and when they came back together as a whole class they eagerly shared highlights.

At the end, each child wrote a blog post response to the book. Since these are private, I have posted excerpts here so you can get a taste of authentic child response to the book. Since I wasn’t at all sure how they would respond to the book or how the discussions would go, I’m delighted with their responses!

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In the Classroom: Teaching Africa is My Home

Last month I wrote a post about the Blue School’s Keren Lilu’s fabulous unit on Africa is My Home. Inspired, a colleague and I used Keren’s ideas with our own 4th grade students and it went wonderfully well. And so for others who might want to give it a try I’ve put together this page that details her methods so that others can follow them too. Keren also provided this video of the children’s wonderful paintings of Margru’s journey (inspired their study of Jacob Lawrence’s Migration series).

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In the Classroom: Conversations and Kindnesses

Williams College psychologist Susan Engel‘s “7 Things Every Kid Should Master” are based on her review of “more than 300 studies of K–12 academic tests” and remarkably sensible. All seven are excellent, but two, in particular, jumped out at me as they seem to come up less than others in the discourse these days about teaching and learning.

One of these is the importance of conversation.

Teachers are given scant training about how to encourage, expand, and deepen children’s conversations. Schools of education offer lots of courses on curriculum planning, reading strategies, assessment, and classroom management, but I have seen few places where teachers deliberately reflect on or practice ways to have real conversations with their students.

I’m involved in an intensive review this year at my school. Among the goals I set for myself was a focus on the consideration of introverted teaching and learning. And during the year that has made me very attentive to the art of conversation. I spend time with my class discussing how to do this in small grounds and model and guide them regularly in it as a whole class. I’m a huge fan of discussing books as a class — books we’ve read together and ones I’ve read to them — and have the impression (perhaps erroneous) that many teachers spend a lot more time doing one-on-one conversations with students about their reading than whole group conversations. My instinct has been that there is a lot of important learning going on in the later — that it isn’t just about teachers telling kids what to think about books — and am grateful with Engel’s affirmation of my thinking about this.

The second point of Engel’s that stood out to me was this one:

One of the most robust findings in developmental psychology is that kids learn how to treat one another by watching the way adults treat them and treat each other. Yet few teacher-training programs emphasize the informal ways in which teachers behave. Nor do principals and superintendents attend much to how teachers treat children throughout the day or to how they interact with other teachers.

That is, the importance of being aware of how we adults in school settings model kind behavior with and to each other We spend a great deal of time worrying about how mean children can be to each other. But how often do we consider that they are watching how mean we adults are to each other? Over the years I’ve observed too often some of the very same behaviors happening among adults that we rue when we see children doing it. More self-examination of our own behavior in schools and how children may be modeling it seems very necessary to me.

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In the Classroom: This Blog’s on a Top Ten List!

Thank you, Teachability Lounge‘s Mary Graham, for including this blog among your “Top Ten Teacher Blogs.”  With all the blogs now out there, I sometimes wonder how many teachers read this one. After all, I’m pretty eclectic. So, I was thrilled with this affirmation.

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In the Classroom: Dealing with Difficult Language

As a longtime 4th grade teacher there are times when racist language appears in our classroom work. Each time I try to educate my students, but in a way that doesn’t seem hectoring, no easy task. For I think it is a fine line we teachers walk — while most of the kids may well take in all that we say, others may be quietly dismissive and go away with the opposite thought.  And I try to keep in mind that what might be horrifying to me because of the history and knowledge I bring to a word, may not be for my young students. I try to consider that even those words that shock me the most may not do the same to my students.  That said, there are certain words I cannot say and I avoid books and work that include them. But sometimes they appear unexpectedly and then there are others, somewhat arguably less charged that also occasionally appear. And I think carefully about those kids and how best to make them aware in a way that helps them throughout their lives.

I’ve been thinking about this because of the conversation over at Betsy Bird’s post about older books that include racist elements and even more so this post by Matt Tavares about his decision to take out a highly racist word in a new edition of his book, Henry Aaron’s Dream.  Because of my classroom experiences I think Matt’s decision is the right one,  discomforting though it is. Here’s my comment on his blog post:

I’m a longtime classroom teacher (31 years at my present school, most of them with 4th graders) and think this is the right decision even as uncomfortable as I am going that way. So kudos to you and Candlewick for making this hard choice.

For me, it isn’t only about the book not getting into its audience hands, but that kids in their own world do take language and own it for themselves and sometimes that can be in extremely hurtful ways. We may not like thinking this, but it can and does happen. The audience for this book is a young one and not yet at the developmental place where they are able to unpack the history around that word (as I would hope those teaching Huckleberry Finn to much older young people would do). And so putting it in may not have them understanding your book as well as you would want.

You might be interested, if you don’t already know it, of the book Desmond and the Very Mean Word — also, it so happens a Candlewick title. I’ve read that to my class and they focus on the result of the word and are fine not knowing what it was.

I really think that we need to be honest about the realities of young children — think hard about what they take in and don’t. Keep in mind where they are developmentally. Additionally, every child’s situation is different — some may know a lot and some may not know so much.

I’ve been faulted for sanitizing the harsher aspects of the Amistad story in my book, but I stand by my choices. Like Matt, I want the story to be known, especially for younger children. Here’s my thinking (in the source notes) about that:

There is no record of Margru’s firsthand description of her voyage from Africa to Cuba. Based on the many other accounts available I can only guess at its dreadfulness and feel it would be presumptuous of me to write about it in detail.  My father, a Holocaust survivor, was not able to talk about certain things and so I imagined that Margru could not either.  I also did not want to frighten the relatively young child audience I have in mind for this book and so tried to communicate the horror without the specifics.

If we want younger readers to know harsh stuff we need to think hard about them, to consider just where they are on their life journeys, what they know and don’t, and what they bring or don’t bring to their encounters with books. Matt, it was a hard decision, but I think you are absolutely right.

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