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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Diverse Thinking from Diverse Folks About Diverse Books

Roxanne Feldman (AKA fairrosa), who is originally from Taiwan, and I are longtime close friends; she was an early and very important sounding board for me as I worked through how to tell the story that became Africa is My Home. For both of us the topics of diversity and identity have long been important, ones we constantly discuss and reflect upon in terms of our practice at school and outside in the children’s book world. Roxanne has now started a blog series in which she thoughtfully and carefully considers these topics. Anyone who knows Roxanne is aware of how thoughtful and passionate she is on these issues and how much we always learn from her. I highly recommend reading the following first three in the series and following her blog so as to read the rest.

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Not-What-You-Think-You -Know German Fairy Tales

She immediately owned up to her evil intentions, and the prince rewarded her by running her through with a sword.

A few years ago there was excitement about a “new” trove of Germany fairy tales collected by one Franz Xaver von Schönwerth. They’ve now been organized and edited, translated, and illustrated in a new edition, The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales.  A handful of them are already available online to read including “King Goldenlocks,” “The Wolves,” and “In the Jaws of the Merman.”    Emphatic, direct, harsh, and most entertaining in a particular way!


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Africa is My Home: How One 5th Grade Teacher Taught It

This past fall I received an email from a teacher who was using Africa is My Home (as of today in paperback!) with her 5th graders. She wrote:

My name is Keren Lilu; I am a 5th grade teacher at the Blue School in lower Manhattan.  Our big study for the year is the Harlem Renaissance/Civil Rights movement, with the essential questions centered around power: how does power emerge- is it inevitable?  Who decides who has power?  How do we empower ourselves in the face of injustice?  We actually began the year looking at slavery as a historical context to ground the rest of our study in, and we began by reading your book, Africa is My Home.  Wow- how this book has captured my students!  They absolutely love it and are completely engrossed and immersed in it.  It has taken so long to read it- we can barely get through a page or two a day- because each page just sparks so much discussion among the children; they can talk and talk about it!  I can’t tell you how much this book has touched them, and how it has really made them think about deep issues of the world.  They really have so much to say, and have fallen so in love with Sarah (Magulu).  And learning about Sierra Leone and the slave trade and the circumstances of the Amistad is really important to them, especially with our study this year.

I recently visited them and was absolutely blown away by their work. So much so that a colleague and I are currently using Keren’s approach with our own 4th graders. Because it is going so well I asked Keren if I could share it here.

I  did it as a read aloud with the kids following along. I think it honors it [the story] more that way and really created a reading community around it.  We often could only get through a few pages at a time because of all of the discussion it generated.  I actually, at the beginning, used it to teach discussion skills as well, because I found the kids were becoming so passionate with the book they all would start talking at the same time!

At points along the way:

 I had the children choose ten words or phrases from the text to capture that part of the story. We did it after the part where Margru is pawned, after the section of her trial and freedom, and after returning home.  These kind of turned into “found” poems too and were incredible, and the children actually wound up really loving this!

At the end she had them create Point of View poems.

The poems we did after we finished reading the book, as a writing piece and response.  They wrote one, and then we did a revision for these following points:
-what is the larger story you are trying to tell across the whole poem?  Think through the different “I am’s.”
-make sure each line is unique (replace ideas that repeat and say in a different way)
-expand each line with more vivid and emotional details

I knew I wanted them to really connect with the emotions and the journey of Margru, and I remembered this format of poetry that Pat [Lynch, her administrator] introduced to me a long time ago when I was teaching the travelers of the Silk Road.  I remembered those Silk Road traveler poems were so emotional and thoughtful, so I tried it with this book, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled.  I was debating having the children choose any character’s perspective (father, Cinque, etc.), but I decided at the end to focus just on Margru, since it was really her journey we were following.

Additionally, Keren teamed with the art teacher who had the children study Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and then create their own series of paintings of Margru’s journey. These were absolutely extraordinary.

Reflecting on the unit, Keren wrote:

What I would have loved to do that I didn’t think of until after was have the kids keep a journal from Margru’s perspective during the story and her journey, and have them write entries as reading responses during the unit.  I wish I did this.  I guess next time!

My visit with Keren’s students reinforced what she had written. The children were so involved in the story — their questions and comments were thoughtful, informative, and passionate. It was absolutely thrilling to see a master teacher use my book this way. I can’t thank the Blue School, Pat Lynch, and Keren Lilu enough for this.


Pat Lynch, myself (holding a signed collection of the poetry and a palm tree a couple of the children made for me), and Keren Lilu standing in front of a display of the children’s poetry (with illustrations).


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Celebrating The Bank Street Book Store

There are two major independent children’s bookstores in New York City’s borough of Manhattan, the downtown Books of Wonder and the uptown Bank Street Book Store. Both are important and wonderful to visit, each offering distinctive sensibilities. Today I want to celebrate The Bank Street Book Store, an important part of the venerable Bank Street College of Education, an institution that started  downtown on Bank Street (thus the name), but long ago moved uptown to 112th Street where it still is. As for the bookstore, it began in a tiny lobby space in the college building, then spent many years on the corner of of 112th and Broadway, and has now moved a few blocks south to 107th and Broadway.

Living nearby, for years I’ve walked by the bookstore daily with my dog, sometimes dropping in to see what was new, to chat with the managers (firstly the great Beth Puffer and now the passionate Andy Laties) and employees, to buy something as a gift for a friend or for my class, to attend an author reading, or just to browse. The bookstore kindly invited me to celebrate the release of my book last year and I go often to their events — these feature all sorts of authors — everyone from the parodic Stephen Colbert to book experts like Betsy Bird.  There are also free puppet shows, story times, literature discussions, and more. And this coming Saturday they’ve got a grand opening festival going on all day with an exciting array of authors.

On Friday they had a party introducing their gorgeous and warm new space and it was a lovely event with many recognizing the important history of the college and the bookstore in terms of children and their books. Below is the bookstore’s tweeted photo of many of the authors who came to the party including Fran Manushkin, Robie Harris, Peter Lerangis, Chris Grabenstein, Carol Weston, Yvonne Wakim Dennis, Arlene Hirschfelder, Susan Milligan, Selene Castrovilla, and me with my dog Lucy*.


And so if you are in New York City and are checking out all our wonderful bookish places, be sure not to miss this excellent bookstore.

* I told the young bookstore employee tweeting the event that Lucy was a “retro dog” being a traditional miniature poodle. I’ve now learned from her subsequent tweet that retro=disco these days.

Author of AFRICA IS MY HOME shows off her disco poodle Lucy!

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Philip Pullman Said Yes

I love comics, and I have considered at least three proposals to turn HDM into a graphic novel. I haven’t said yes yet because I wasn’t happy with some aspect of what was being suggested – the length, or the writer, or the artist, or something else. If the right combination of writer (because I haven’t got time to do it myself) and artist comes along, backed by a publisher who will give the project enough space, then I’d be delighted to say yes. (In answer to a 2010 question about when and if there might be a graphic novel.)

Well, it seems Philip Pullman finally said yes. There’s a graphic novel coming, the first volume out in the US this September.  So, so excited and happy.



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Coming Soon: Rebecca Stead’s Goodbye Stranger

Rebecca Stead started out quietly in 2007 with her first book for children, First Light. Her second, When You Reach Me, started out quietly too, but the decibels went up when it won the 2010 Newbery award. These were followed by Liar & Spy,  also a solidly middle grade title that made a loud splash by winning the 2012 Guardian Children’s Book prize. With three fine books under her belt, the question is: what will the next one be like?  My answer (in a vague spoiler-safe way):  just as good as the previous ones.  Coming out this summer, Goodbye Stranger is everything you’d expect from this smart, profound, and thoughtful writer.

It is apt that I am writing this just before Valentine’s Day as it is love in its numerous manifestations that is central to this novel. There is the love of friendship, the main one here between three 7th grade girls who have been close and committed friends since very young, vowing never to fight. There is sibling love as shown between the main character Bridge and her older brother. There is the love between parent and child that comes wafting through in Bridge’s memories of her childhood near-death after a horrific accident. There is the love between grandparent and grandchild expressed through unsent letters by Sherm, a 7th grade classmates of the girls. And there is romantic love, something that the girls, Sherm, and their classmates are beginning to explore and consider. How do you know about this sort of love? the young people wonder. What does it mean to like someone? As a friend? As something else? How do you show your interest? Or not? What happens when feelings change? After a few months or after many years? Stead doesn’t so much provide answers as avenues to consider these. Her characters make good and bad choices. They go too far at times. Or not far enough.

Despite its slim appearance, this is a weighty novel. Challenging and complicated issues swirl in it. Some are timeless and some may seem more current, say the tricky way relatively innocent flirtations can, through cell phones with cameras, become something far more difficult. The way jealousy can cause people to do hard-to-understand mean things. That one pair may wait for their first kiss for years while the another might be exploring sexuality sooner. How certain friends and family members can stay the same while others change.

Elegantly crafted and written, this is a book to savor. Stead fans have quite a treat to look forward to this August.



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