Category Archives: In the Classroom

In the Classroom: Africa and Animals

Right now I’m listening to the NPR show On Being where they are talking with Katy Payne, “a renowned acoustic biologist with a Quaker sensibility.” Her comments about elephants in particular are so moving and made me think about the recent complicated responses to the killing of Cecil the lion.

I was completely disgusted and disturbed when first learning of Cecil’s death as trophy hunting seems a completely horrible activity to me. But as the media juggernaut continued it struck me that here again was the way Africa is perceived by those in the United States. (I was particularly taken by Goodwell Nzoua’s New York Times op-ed, “In Zimbabwe, We Don’t Cry for Lions” and this CNN piece.)  And this is because we grow up with our media featuring mostly a handful of striking animals from one small part of a very large and diverse continent. As I wrote last year in my Horn Book article, “Books About Africa“:

The distortions begin with animals. From a very young age, American children are exposed to Africa almost exclusively through its fauna — in ABC and concept books, in cartoons, in toys, in Broadway shows…the list goes on. Stories full of appealing lions, zebras, elephants, giraffes, and other popular African animals make it easy for young readers to assume that 
wherever they go on the continent, there those animals will be.

And as we grow up it continues. Just a few weeks ago I was watching BBC-America and there were constant ads for a series on “Africa” that seems to only be about its animals. And so what bothers me isn’t the response to the killing as much as how it shows the way we focus so much on African animals (think also of zoos) and so little about its people. And how this results in the sort of media frenzy that happened with Cecil. How I wish we could be more balanced and that the media do a better job representing the continent so it doesn’t just become again and again about animals, war, and poverty.


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In the Classroom: First Week Read Alouds

I don’t go back to school till after Labor Day, but know that many others are going back now. Like other teachers, I think carefully about the books I read aloud that first week. My way of connect to kids is very much through books. And so I Iook for books that will relax them, see me as someone safe to be around, and consider that this is likely to be a good school year. Ideally the first book will be school-related, but not necessarily. There are many, but tend to be for younger kids. I’m far from my classroom right now (being on a Swiss Alp:) and so not able to browse through what I have there. Also, I have to love the books myself. I’m going to be establishing a tone and a way of engaging with read aloud books and so need to be at my best. This first week isn’t the time for me to check out a book I’m not so sure about.  So, as of this writing (a month to go for me) here are three books I’m considering:


Edda: A Little Valkyrie’s First Day of School by Adam Auerbach.  This distinctly amusing twist on the “being at a new school” trope was a big hit last year so it is top on my list to use again this year. Edda lives on Asgard, one of the homes to the Viking gods and when her father decides she needs some experience with other kids her age (there being none on Asgard), he sends her to school on Earth. The result is a gently humorous look at Edda learning how to bring her own self into a new and very different place. This is a book that is definitely one that can be best appreciated by my students — some of them have already studied the Vikings and others know about them. And Edda’s fish-out-of-water feeling is one they probably are all feeling on that first day of school. Not to mention, it is quirky and different — I mean, are there any other first-day-of-school books inspired by Wagner’s Ring series (as this evidently was)?  Though that it was doesn’t matter a wit; I don’t know Wagner’s operas firsthand, but do know that this little off-beat story is a great one to start my class out on their 4th grade year.


Each Kindness Jacqueline Woodson. I fell in love with this book the fall it came out and advocated for its consideration for the Newbery that year. Since then I’ve been pleased that so many others agree. This is not a book I read aloud the first day. It is one I read at the end of the first week (or sometimes a week or two later) to start an ongoing conversation about kindness. It is a book that we refer back to all year.


Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones. I always start reading aloud a novel that first day. It is definitely challenging to find time every day in my schedule to read aloud, but I do it. At our morning meetings I usually read a fun picture book and then a novel for the last 15 minutes of an afternoon period that is called Lab. This is an important element of my school’s philosophy — it is a time where kids can work on various projects, see teachers, etc. Taking 15 minutes out it for a read aloud is tricky for me. I love the idea of Lab, but also feel strongly that we need to have a read aloud period. So the latter trumps the former. I like to start with something that is new or not out yet and so am still considering what this year’s will be. I adored Jones’ book and would like to see how kids react to it. It isn’t long, something I think is very important as I think we teachers have to assume that no matter what the kids say to our faces that not every child in the class is going to be equally in love with a read aloud and so if they aren’t they don’t have to live with it too, too long. But I’ve got time to contemplate this decision. I do know I would like it to be a sure fire hit — not something that I have to abandon before we are done. I’ve done that very occasionally with read alouds the kids are just not warming up to, but never the first one.

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In the Classroom: Teaching on the Screen

I find it fascinating to see how classrooms and schools are represented on the screen. Too often they look little like my own reality — the desks are in rows (I have them in table groups), the teacher sits at her desk at the front of the room (I’ve a rug and rocking chair at the center of my room), and the walls are full of commercial stuff (mine are full of children’s work). As for the interactions between children and teacher — they tend to be pretty limited.

And so may I just mentioned the kick I’m getting out of how my professional life is represented in the new Amazon Prime series, Catastrophe. A rom-com about two different people meeting (Rob’s from Boston and Sharon is Irish), getting to know each other, and falling in love, the conceit is that it all happens after they get together — when she gets pregnant after a brief affair and they decide, for the child’s sake, to marry and live in London (where Sharon lives and works). This is a witty series, loads of fun to watch for many reasons, but one for me is that Sharon is a teacher of what looks like kids the age of the ones I teach. And so the bits in the classroom and school are totally hilarious. Sharon is clearly a terrific teacher, well respected and no doubt loved by her students, but she also is a strong and complicated person and ….things happen…in school. Just teeny bits among the larger scenes of the real story, but fun nonetheless. Highly recommended for teachers and non-teachers alike.

There’s a brief bit at 1:16 in this trailer:

And a pretty over-the-top one at 37 in this one. (I remember thinking — no, she isn’t! And she does. The kids’ reactions — need to see the full episode for them — are fabulous.)

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In the Classroom: The Pushcart War Project


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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