Thursday, December 31, 2015

Another Year Draws to a Close

It is December 31st. 
It is quiet.
The girl is in bed. 
I just finished updating my Goodreads account for the year and now, I'm taking a moment to reflect on my own reading life.

I'll talk about her reading life (especially this last year) in another post, but for the moment, I'm going to think about mine.

This has been a slow year for me. I have found very few books that I loved. I only gave 5 stars to six books this year. I admit I'm a tough critic, but I also found that there were few books out there that touched me enough to earn 5 stars. 

What I did realize, was that the books that touched me, I wanted to share with others. I treasure and love my books, but I found myself handing out the copies I had because I wanted other people to feel the same joy and love I had for these books. So, although my list is sparse, it is a true reflection of the books I loved this year.

My reading stamina also declined tremendously. I found myself unable to sustain reading a book over several nights. My solution? Comic books. I became a frequent visitor to our local comic book store (Aw Yeah Comics located in downtown Skokie). Last year was the first year I started reading graphic novels. This year, I made the leap to actual comic books and trade paperbacks. I'm hooked. I have a few series that I follow and they are just the right length to read before bed. Interestingly, I know many educators who scoff at the idea of students (and probably adults) reading comic books. I'm sure I did too. But now, after actually reading them, I would defend many as a quality reading experience.

My hope is to read more informational texts in 2016. While I love novels, I think I might be missing out on the nonfiction world.

My Five Star Books of 2015

All-American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

Confessions of an Imaginary Friend by Michelle Cuevas

Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry by Fredrik Backman

Fish In a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Who Picked Your Outfit?

I am so fortunate to have a cousin who has a daughter that is about 8 months older than the girl. We get the most amazing hand-me-downs. From ages newborn-24 months, I didn't have to buy a single piece of clothing. My cousin is also pretty similar in taste as to the clothes she picks out for her daughter - nothing too frilly, mostly Old Navy, Target, and Kohl's. It's definitely a win-win situation (mostly for me).

The family has not got together recently, and therefore, the size 3T clothes that we need are still at my cousin's house. So the girl and I had to actually go shopping.

Don't get me wrong - the girl does not want for anything. But, we tend to buy clearance and on sale because she outgrows it so fast.

We arrived at Kohl's with our coupon and reward dollars. As we headed toward the toddler department, we were bombarded with apparel emblazoned with Frozen, Sophia the First, Doc McStuffins, Minnie Mouse, and an assortment of other pink/purple/aqua apparel that I couldn't identify.

I do consider myself lucky that the girl rarely asks for such things. We do own an Elsa shirt and a pair of Frozen slippers, but most of her attire is pretty neutral.

As we walked around, she grabbed a onesie off of the display and told me she wanted it. It was red and had a fire truck on it. I tried to explain that she couldn't have that one because it was meant for babies (3 months). She was insistent that she wanted that particular design.

I managed to get her to return the onesie with the promise that we would look at the bigger kid clothes and see if they had it in her size. We headed to the toddler section. As we purused the shelves, we found a cement mixer (!), a fire truck (!), and a dump truck (!). She was ecstatic. She loves construction equipment and often makes us stop to watch the big trucks whenever there is construction going on.
I held out the cement mixer and the dump truck and told her she had to choose between those two because we were only buying two shirts total. As I held out the shirts, the employee folding clothes next to us said, "Those are boys' shirts".

Boys' shirts.

I felt my heart drop into my stomach as I tried to gauge the girl's reaction to what the employee had just said. She didn't seem to hear as she was trying to make an extremely difficult decision. She chose her shirt (the dump truck), I scooped her up and we walked away from the area as fast as I could go.
I couldn't believe that we are still at this point.
Boys' clothes
Girls' clothes
Boys' toys
Girls' toys
Boys' jobs
Girls' jobs

The girl is only 3, but I hope that we are empowering her enough to know that there is no such thing as "girls' clothes or 'boys' clothes". Half of her wardrobe comes from the boys' section because that is what she is comfortable in. If she chose tomorrow to want to wear a princess dress, I'd buy it. Reluctantanly, I admit, mostly because she will probably trip and fall down.

I thought we were past the part where we were holding TODDLERS to gender stereotypes.


Here are some books we will be reading at our house in the near future.

Jacob's New Dress by Sarah Hoffman

Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress by Christine Baldacchino

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

And We Dance...Sort Of

Saturday was the girl's first dance class. I can't tell you how excited she has been about 'dance class'. 
For awhile, she was counting down the days until dance class. 
Every time she woke up, she would ask, "Is today dance class?"
Unfortunately, since she has no concept of time, she would ask after every nap and every bedtime. She was always disappointed.

But, finally Saturday came!

The class was described as "creative movement and imaginative play" for 2 1/2 - 3 1/2 year-olds. I envisioned ribbon dancing, playing with balloons, pretending to be a bird, etc. In fact, as the girl sometimes has trouble following the directions, we practiced how to follow the teacher's directions.

We arrived early on Saturday to get acclimated to the building. We found the dance studio (located next to the art studio and a cooking kitchen) and the door was closed. On the door was a sign that said in huge print NO STREET SHOES ALLOWED ON THE DANCE FLOOR. My stomach did a flutter as I wondered if I was supposed to have special shoes for her. 

I mentally pulled up the class description and did not recall anything about special shoes. I figured maybe that was for older students (it was the dance studio after all) and we continued our tour of the building. 

After about five minutes, more people started to arrive and we headed back to the dance studio for class to start. The girl was so happy to be at 'dance class' in her new Toy Story shirt, leggings, and denim jacket. For once, she was not clinging to me or crying, she was anticipating the class.

I glanced over to the mom and daughter on my right who were waiting right in front of the door. The mom was taking a video of the girl saying something about how excited she was about starting dance class. And I noticed that she had really dressed the part - pink leotard, pink tights, pink ballet shoes. Whoa! Way to get into a creative movement class.

Then, I glanced to my left at the other parents. They were ALL helping their daughters off with their over-shirts, revealing pink leotards, pink tights, and pink ballet shoes. My heart sank to the pit of my stomach as I realized that I had messed up something. My girl had no pink leotard, pink tights, nor pink ballet shoes. Suddenly, I was back in high school, feeling like the outcast who didn't have the 'cool' clothes, only this time I had done it to my child. The guilt gnawing at the pit of my stomach grew until class started.

The girl is so unaware, she had no idea the other girls had on something she didn't. For her, that Toy Story shirt was so special, I probably wouldn't have gotten it off of her, even if she had a leotard on underneath. But, for me, I felt out of place and ashamed that I hadn't figured it out. And worse, I had made my kid stand out in a not so good way.

So, we'll go back next week. 
We've signed up for 12 weeks.
We have a pink leotard.
Pink tights.
And pink ballet shoes.

Brontorina by James Howe

Dancing in the Wings by Debbie Allen

Firebird by Misty Copeland

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Read the Silly Books

 It's a new year and that means it is time for me to begin assessing first grade students. For the moment, let's put aside all the alarm bells that are going off in your head about the fact that it is only the second day of school and I am pulling students to do a reading assessment.

As I am walking first graders down the hall, I’m trying to establish rapport and get a gauge on their reading habits in 6.5 seconds by asking questions like
"Do you like to read?"
"What did you read this summer?"
"Do you read at home with mom or dad?"
"What’s your favorite book?"

Almost all the first graders respond in the affirmative – they love to read. Even the ones who can’t decode, tell me that they love reading. It makes my heart sing.

Later, I’m sitting in a fifth grade class and the teacher is having the students talk in groups about what they love and hate about reading.

The love side is short. And even though it says LOVE, their responses are lifeless and over quickly.

The hate side is long. 
Words and hand gestures are exchanged. The recording goes on forever. 
The students have a lot to say.

They could articulate exactly why they hated to read. We mandated what they had to read. We took away the choice. Dav Pilkey spoke eloquently about the need to allow students choice about the books they are "allowed" to read. You can read his interview here. Without choice, reading is an assignment, something that is done for the teacher. 

It comes back down to our purpose for reading. If our purpose is to instill a love of reading and help create lifelong readers, then maybe we allow Captain Underpants and Junie B. Jones to be read in our classrooms. Maybe after a student reads all 50 Diary of a Wimpy Kid books he/she will be ready and eager to tackle something a little more challenging like How to Survive Middle School by Donna Gephart. But, if right away we are banning 'silly' books, then we have turned the students off from reading before we even begin.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Art is Messy and Teaching is Art

My grandmother had this piece of art that hung in her house forever. It was a tree branch with delicate leaves made out of metal. It was painted delicate shades of green and blue (which matched the shag carpeting in her house). The piece has to be over forty years old.

When it came time for my grandmother to move out of her house, she was getting rid of most of her possessions; she planned to live with one of her children and would not have space for the items that currently occupied her 5-bedroom ranch house. Those of us who lived within driving distance were invited to take any items we wanted that she planned to get rid of - coffee tables, chairs, dining room tables, desks, etc. 

I only wanted two things. 
The piano.
And the tree art.

I had grand ideas of hanging the tree art in my house above the piano, where it could be enjoyed by my child, until it was time for it to be passed down again. After all, doesn't everyone want a 5-foot metal tree in their house?

When I brought the tree into our new house, I assumed that a quick dusting and some drywall screws would be all we needed to hang it. Upon further inspection, I couldn't have been more wrong. 
In my child's mind, the tree was a white birch, with delicate blue and green leaves. In the daylight, it was now a yellowed, hazy, dirt-encrusted, smelly lump of metal. Years of smoking and neglect had ruined the beauty that the art had once had. The task of cleaning and restoring was more than I could tackle.

It's been in the crawlspace for three years.

Yesterday, I got it out. I have grand plans.  I went to the art store and bought new primer and paint. I like to play make-believe and pretend. Sometimes, I pretend I know how to do art.

In my pretend art world, I know that I have to remove the old paint before I can start with the new, beautiful colors I picked out. Fortunately, I found this amazing spray-on paint stripper. You spray it on and wait (that's the hard part) and then wipe the paint off. It sort of works! At least, it works better than attempting to sand off all the paint, which was my original plan.

As I've been sitting in my garage, breathing the toxic fumes from the can, I've been thinking about how much of teaching is like this piece of art. No, not yellowed, hazy and smelly, but that every year we get a chance to start all over again. Every fall, we get to take off the old layers of what has been there before and start with new grand plans. Every fall, we can change what used to be into something better, something more spectacular. 

And, if it doesn't work out how we hoped, that's ok! We can use a little more of the spray-on paint stripper and start over the next day. I'm terrified of actually painting the art once I get the old paint off. It's not like I actually know what I am doing; I'm still playing pretend. But, once I realized how easy it was going to be to use the spray-on paint stripper, I knew I could give anything a try. 

Teaching is the same way. Give it a try. If the lesson doesn't go as planned, or you really don't like the outcome, just start over the next day (or the next hour). It's the only way to make art.

The original art in its natural form. 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Now, I'm a Believer

I'm sad to say even a year ago, I didn't see graphic novels as 'real literature'. When students would want to read them, I didn't necessarily scoff or forbid it, as I understand the importance of gateway reading, but I certainly didn't go out of my way to read them myself.
I didn't promote them.
And I most certainly didn't recommend that a child read one of those!

As my two-year-old would say, "So sad, mommy. So sad."

And she's right. This is the best way to describe how I feel about these lost opportunities. I'm hooked and frankly a bit obsessed. While certainly not all graphic novels are created equal, there are many good ones out there. The text and illustrations work together beautifully for students to comprehend and infer the author's story.

Of course, just like picture books, not all graphic novels are meant for all age groups. Just because there are more pictures does not mean that the content and story line will appeal (or be understood) by everyone.

But, there are so many good ones. Here are a few of my favorites.

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson

El Deaf by Cece Bell

Primates by Jim Ottaviani & Maris Wicks

March: Book One by John Lewis & Andrew Aydin

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Start of Informational Texts

This summer I had the opportunity to work with teachers in two different workshops.

One was a book study about Comprehension & Collaboration by Stephanie Harvey and Harvey Daniels.

The other was a workshop about using Informational Texts as a part of our daily instruction.

Of course, as I began to plan for these workshops, I realized how woefully unprepared I was to talk about informational texts. They were just not my ‘thing’. My interactions with informational texts have been limited to books about immigration (4th grade research) and polar animals (1st grade research). I realized that these texts were probably not going to cut it in a room full of educated individuals.

And then, I discovered The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming. This book was unbelievable! For the first time, I actually cared (and understood!) what was going on in history.  The family, time period, and country were coming alive through Fleming’s words. I had not experienced informational texts like this before. I knew I needed to search out other texts like this.

As I began searching at the library for great books, more and more texts kept popping out at me. I knew I needed to narrow my workshop focus if I was going to fit everything in three hours.
I defined my purpose for using informational texts in the classroom:
- When we read aloud informational texts to students we demonstrate that we value informational texts as much as narratives. We must be sure to read aloud or ‘bless’ a wide range of texts and genres.
- Informational texts inspire curiosity and wonder.
Informational texts can build background knowledge and give us more information about a topic we read in a narrative.
- Informational texts are fantastic mentor texts for writing.

Fortunately, a good friend and colleague captured many of the books I talked about here. I was so grateful to have someone capturing my ideas as I talked about them.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Quality Vs. Quantity

It’s spring. Finally.

And that officially means it is time for spring cleaning. When the school year starts winding down, I start going through the school looking for things that I can toss. One year, I went through all the non-student lockers. I found so many old books, pan balances, and weird random items (a sombrero, stuffed frog, and Christmas tree to name a few) that we filled several boxes in donations. Last year, I cleaned out our literacy closet and threw out old books that no one wanted to read and the lone single copy that had long lost its mate.

This year, I’m on to classroom libraries. It started at the beginning of the year when a colleague invited me in to help her weed through the books she had. Her purpose was to freshen up her classroom library because the students weren’t using it. Books were hard to find, it was haphazard and unappealing, and hadn’t been updated in quite awhile.
We began by pulling down each bin and looking at each book. Anything that had a cover that would be difficult to ‘sell’ was gone. Anything that was outdated (goodbye, 1983 science books) was gone. Anything damaged or just plain ugly was gone. By the time we finished, we had reduced her library by more than half.

The great thing was now we knew where the holes were! She knew which areas (Fantasy, Graphic Novels) needed more titles.  After a year, her library is thriving, her students are voracious readers, and the library is overflowing once again with current, appealing titles.

Just this week, another colleague allowed me to help cull her library. We packed up more than two boxes of books to go away.  While we were discussing the fact that now her library is considerably smaller, it is also now filled with only quality literature. The space isn’t taken up with books that no one is going to want to read.

I’ve now helped four classroom teachers with their libraries. Although the teacher always has the final say, I am ruthless in my suggestions of what to get rid of.

I love books.

I love stories.

But, I’m ruthless.

I’m realistic that a student in our school isn’t going to pick up a tattered copy of ‘Superfudge’ with a cover from the 1996 printing.

No matter how much a teacher loves ‘Misty of Chincoteague’ from her childhood, that horse on the cover is not going to draw in many students.

When we stock our classroom libraries with beautiful books that are inviting to students and appeal to a wide range of interests, we say to them, “I believe reading is important. We should have great books available at our fingertips. I believe that you are important as a reader and there should be appealing, attractive things that are of interest for you to read. I also will learn what you like as a reader and make sure that I have those things available.”

After four classrooms, I returned to my own office. I started looking through my own collection.

Another weeding may be coming soon.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Name Calling

Recently, I got called a name. Even though I am an adult, it stuck with me. The words were uttered by a stranger, yet they had more of an impact than if they had been said by a close friend.

She called me a good mom.

Those two words carried me through the whole weekend and beyond. Granted, she was a stranger. She caught me in one of my better moments and she minimal context for her statement. But, I’ll take it.

The girl and I were walking through the mall. It was a more upscale mall than the one in our town. She needed shoes and the kids’ shoe store was located in this particular mall. I had anticipated being in and out in under 30 minutes. We didn’t have anywhere else to be, but we had already been to the doctor’s office and Target, so I assumed the girl was about done.

We got in and out of the shoe store with minimal tears (nothing she wanted was in her size) and then headed out into the mall area. The mall was filled with enticing sights and adventures: the escalators, the fountain for throwing pennies, the skylights, the big chairs to sit and rest, the closed up store with its dark curtains enticing you to wonder what was coming next, the indoor play space, and finally, the idea that we would be eating in the mall.

We were there for over 2 hours.

The lady’s comment came as we were walking toward lunch. The girl is too heavy to carry, she refuses to hold my hand, and she spent so much of her very early years refusing to leave my side, I let her go as often as I can. This however, does require a lot of extra time to get to any destination. Two-and-a-half-year-old feet only travel so fast when there is so much to see.

Two women were in the mall walkway having a conversation. As we walked by (slowly), the one woman remarked about how I was such a good mom because I had so much patience for this journey. I smiled and we went along on our way.

When the girl and I started off our mall adventure, we had only one small destination in mind – shoes. After that, everything else was just a part of the journey. Fortunately, the journey is where some of the best things happen.

She learned how to ride an escalator.

She learned how to be flexible in picking other shoes.

She learned how to say thank you to people who help you.

She learned to appreciate the world around you when no one else does.

In the classroom, when our end product doesn’t turn out the way we hoped, or we’re not sure whether a lesson was effective, take a step back and think of the journey the students were on. What were the parts along the way that were great? How can we focus on the things that went well along the way while working towards a new destination?

Sunday, April 5, 2015

A Little Fun Never Hurt

Spring break is coming to an end. I did something unusual this break. 

I relaxed. 

Usually break is a time to get work done, finish work projects, clean my office, etc. Instead, I worked on crafts that I wanted to work on  - I sewed the top of my quilt I’m making, I made a zillion pillows for my nieces’ stuffed animals, I made matching games for the girl, and I read a few books.

It was lovely. Amazing. Rejuvenating.

And now, I’m ready to return to work. Sure, yes, we can joke that it would be great to have a few more days off. But, eventually, my brain begins to thirst for knowledge. I crave the daily adventures of my job and look forward to the conversations and learning that occur throughout. I’m eager to get back into problem solving around student work. I’m interested in engaging teachers in conversations about their craft and practices. I’m ready.

The students will be returning to school after their spring breaks ready to learn, I hope. They have also had time off and are hopefully eager to get back to learning. But, as we continue throughout the remainder of the year, perhaps we can take a small amount of time once in a while to laugh, relax and bring back some of the joy we felt on spring break.

With so much content to cover and so many goals to reach, sometimes it is hard to take seven minutes and just enjoy a good book. While students should know that reading can help them learn and think more deeply, I want them to also know that sometimes books are just fun to read. Sometimes, they just make us laugh. And that is a perfectly acceptable reason for reading a book.

Here’s a list of my recent favorites that are just great ones to share for no other reason than just because.

Dangerously Ever After by Dashka Slater

Mustache Baby by Bridget Heos

The Cat, the Dog, Little Red, the Exploding Eggs, the Wolf, and Grandma by Diane Fox

Monday, March 23, 2015

Spread Some Sunshine

Count That Day Lost
by George Eliot

If you sit down at set of sun

And count the acts that you have done,

And, counting, find

One self-denying deed, one word

That eased the heart of him who heard, 

One glance most kind

That fell like sunshine where it went --

Then you may count that day well spent.

But if, through all the livelong day,

You've cheered no heart, by yea or nay --

If, through it all

You've nothing done that you can trace

That brought the sunshine to one face--

No act most small

That helped some soul and nothing cost --

Then count that day as worse than lost.

I carry this poem in my mind often. Usually, it is when I am at the end of my rapidly fraying rope and I feel like I have nothing left to give. The last few days have been like that.

I carry it with me as a reminder, not that I expect to have good things done for me, but if I don’t teach the girl to do nice things for others, where will she learn it?

Sometimes, those nice things are just making sure we call grandma on the computer.
Sometimes, it is offering the older gentleman walking down the street a ride home.
Sometimes, it is just waving bye to the neighbors as they back out of the driveway.
And sometimes, it is letting the girl drink the bathtub water because she thinks it is funny.

It is hard to remember to try and brighten other people’s days. But those small acts of sunshine spread and pretty soon, everyone’s day could be a bit brighter.

Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson

One Zillion Valentines by Frank Modell