Best 2nd Grade Books for 2011

It’s that time of year again where ‘best of 2011′ lists in every conceivable category seem to pop up everywhere. I figured I may as well compile my list of best books for 2nd grade.

In the past few years, there have been many children’s books that would have made my list, except for the fact that they weren’t really suitable for all 2nd graders. Books on those lists would have included Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book and Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me (2010 and 2009 Newbery Award Winners). I keep hoping for another book like Kate DiCamillo’s 2004 Newbery winner The Tale of Despereaux, a book that has deep complex characters and themes, that although sometimes dark, are balanced with just the right amount of light for young children. It’s no accident that one of Despereaux’s foes is named Chiaroscuro.

There were many engaging chapter books that 2nd graders gravitated towards this year, but most were books that were part of a series like, Diary of a Wimpy Kid. My list of top 2nd grade books for 2011, therefore, does not include a chapter book. If you have any suggestions, please let me know.

Grandpa Green by Lane Smith

You can say so much with so few words and marvelous images. A great book about memory, aging, gardening, history, family, and much more.


Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature by Joyce Sidman, pictures by Beth Krommes

Not surprisingly, Beth Krommes has already won a Caldecott Award. The illustrations are mesmerizing.


Press Here by Herve Tullett

For all the people who are averse to reading on a tablet, this book has a great sense of humor in the way one is supposed to interact with a physical book.



The Chronicles of Harris Burdick (illus. by Chris Van Allsburg; written by various)

Originally published in 1984, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, was a book of fantastic illustrations, each with only a single caption. These illustrations and captions have been great story starters that have inspired children to write. Now, well known authors like Sherman Alexie, Kate DiCamillo, Stephen King, Jon Scieszka, and Lemony Snicket have all contributed their story to one of the illustrations. I haven’t all the stories yet, but the ones I have are great!


The House Baba Built: An Artist’s Childhood In China by Ed Young

An amazingly illustrated memoir of the author’s childhood in Shanghai during WWII.



I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen

Another book that says so much with so little. It’s also wickedly funny.



Everything On It by Shel Silverstein

Books that are published posthumously often seem to be a random compilation of odds and ends. That’s not the case with this collection of poems, each as silly, witty, and fun as any in his other collections.


The Lego Ideas Book: Unlock Your Imagination by Daniel Lipkowitz

Currently, it’s the most sought after book in my classroom library.



There are several books that were published this year that I have yet to read, something I hope to do this winter break. Among them are Wonderstruck, Inside Out and Back Again, The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman, and Secrets at Sea. I’m hoping one of these will make a good read-aloud.

Have a wonderful holiday!


What Can a Book Do?

It’s back-to-school time, and it’s always exciting and busy. I love this time of year, and this week has been a great one. We started our all-faculty gatherings this week. Though there’s a lot of work to do, it’s always nice to catch up with colleagues you haven’t seen over the summer and welcome new teachers, getting to know them a little better. It was also a great week as this blog was mentioned on I had never really been interviewed by the media before, so I wasn’t sure how I’d come across. It was a good experience, and I learned a lot. I was thankful for the first aid training we were required to take. I just hope I never have to use CPR on a child. There were numerous good moments this week, but I never expected it to end this way:

From Anita Silvey's Children's Book-a-Day Almanac

In 2004, one of my students announced that they would not be returning to our school. His family would be moving to Italy. As a farewell gift, I gave him the book Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett, a children’s mystery that I thought he’d enjoy.

Almost 7 years later, while visiting Seattle, they paid a visit to the school today and presented me with a different book with the same title. It was a photo book of my former student and his younger brother in front of every Vermeer painting. Inspired by the book and taking advantage of living in Europe, they planned many of their vacations around where these paintings were kept and set on a quest to see all 35 undisputed paintings (the 36th is stolen).

It’s always great when former students visit and I get to find out what they’ve been up to. It’s also rather incredible to know a children’s book can inspire such an adventure. Looking through the photo book this evening and seeing a third grader grow into a tenth grader standing next to all those paintings was truly a special way to end the week.


Reading Fiction

The final Harry Potter movie in the franchise will open in less than two weeks. I remember taking my class over a decade ago to see Ms. Rowling at the Vancouver International Writers’ Festival. The festival is a great event in Vancouver that promotes reading and always has events for school children. In previous years we saw John Scieszka and other kid-lit authors in an intimate setting on Granville Island. In Vancouver, to read and talk about her fourth book, The Goblet of Fire, they needed to host the event the Pacific Colleseum (at the time, the arena for the local NHL ice hockey team) for Ms Rowling. The event was like a rock concert. Kids screaming at the top of their lungs. How great though to have children that psyched about a book.

Like many of my students, I devoured the Harry Potter books, but it’s been a long time since I last read one. Yesterday, when I saw a trailer for the film, I couldn’t remember from the clips what happened. Aside from kid-lit, I used to read a lot of fiction each year: Jonathan Franzen’s Corrections, Ian McEwan’s Attonement, Rohintin Mistry’s A Fine Balance, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi, Margaret Attwood’s Blind Assassin, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex and so on.

A couple of years ago, though, I started reading more non-fiction and got hooked on it. I continue to do so with little time to fit in any fiction. I was simply fascinated by Dweck, Pink, Chip and Dan Heath, and Seth Godin, just to name a few. I picked up the graphic novel Logicomix thinking it was fiction. It was, sort of. It turned out to be, in some ways, a biography of Betrand Russell.

This past year, I think I have read only 4 pieces of fiction: American Born Chinese, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, The Help, and The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. The first two were more middle school reads that piqued my curiosity and the last two based on recommendations for airplane reading. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back at all four books, they all deal with race. Reading fiction, if written well, allows the reader to empathize with characters and sometimes pretend to walk a mile in their shoes. It’s not exactly the same thing, but it gives you a sense of what that mile might be like. Having just read The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, which is set in Seattle and includes a sad piece of American History where the country interred the Japanese, it struck me that 1942 was not that long ago. Many still live in this area and have vivid memories of that time. Thanks to all who recommended it. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It also reminded me that I need to read more fiction. Any recommendations?

8 Things I Learned Today

One of the sessions at ISTE that I attended was called Google to the Max: The Power User’s Guide by Dr. Howie Di Blasi. The title was not an understatement. After a nice introduction where he talked about 8 things he learned today, the speaker powered through example after example of incredible ways to utilize the free tools available through google that kids and teachers can use. One simply has to be creative. Thank goodness those resources and examples will be posted tomorrow, so I could sit back an actually learn a few things. Here are 8 of the many things I learned today.

8 ) There are so many resources out there that it’s extremely hard to sift through them all. Thank goodness others are sharing the wealth. An example, would be from a session I attended today called Resources for Emergent Literacy Teachers by Boni Hamilton. Here is her resource page on early literacy alone. Of these resources, I really liked the reading assessment database which gathers all available reading assessments for preK to 3rd grade, groups them into either criterion referenced or norm referenced assessments, tells you how much they cost, and what these assessments do and do not test. For example, you can see on the chart that the DIBELS assessment, one of the tools we use at our school, is a free resource that assesses reading comprehension (through retells), decoding, cipher knowledge, phoneme awareness, and letter knowledge (depending on the grade). What it doesn’t assess is language comprehension, background knowledge, linguistic knowledge, phonology, syntax, semantics, lexical knowledge, alphabetic principle, and concepts about print.  Depending on the age of your kids, you would look to other assessments then, to glean more information about the other areas or reading.

7) Collaborative writing is interesting, and I participated in a demonstration this morning using the tool MixedInk. This would have a lot of potential for teachers who want to create a shared document on school policies, beliefs about education philosophies, or other subject areas. Having said that, I tried a shared google doc with our faculty this year, but did not get any participation. I also think peer editing works for older kids and that younger kids aren’t ready to ‘critique’ their peers’ work without it becoming a popularity contest. Some teachers say they assign code names to their students, so only the teacher knows, but in the end many shared theirs with each other. I would also find it difficult to have 8 year olds deciding which of the different sources is best. The fact that this tool allows users to rate others worries me too.

6) I’ve never seen so many ed Tech vendors gathered in one space. You can tell who the big players are as their ‘booths’ look like full-blown stores. What’s even better is that many have their own sessions – and they’re good. Here’s an example. What I liked was that you obtained their schedule by snapping a QR code with your smart phone. No paper. It’s a tech conference. I do not want fliers, pamphlets, or google logo beach balls. As it is, the conference program is over 200 pages. I will however claim an ipad if my name is drawn – so far, no luck.

5) Tech Ed. does not belong to the young teachers. It belongs to those motivated to learn. I would say most here are over 40. Neither age nor gender seemed to play a factor in tech ed. Except that during the purely elementary school sessions I attended – males are still grossly underrepresented. Using tech in education is a mindset.

4) I love infographics. I attended a great session with Kathy Schrock. Again…resource/info overload. Thank goodness for a site she put together for this presentation with all the links.

3) Administrators need to play, explore, use technology to teach (hold meetings, reflect, share resources, engage in PD, blog, etc.) as well as teachers and students to really make change happen as better decisions on the type and implementation of tech is more likely to happen. This message was repeated by several presenters.

2) Tech seems designed to bring out the problem solvers in us. Let it bring out the problem solvers in kids. Kids in second grade or younger should work in pairs when on a computer. It’s not simply the tech that’s helping them learn different literacies, but the conversation they’re having with each other is even more important for development.

1) People from Philly are direct. Walking through the massive maze-like conference an attendee asked one of the security workers for directions. After giving him directions, the attendee started walking the wrong way. The security agent rolled her eyes, yelled at the gentleman and said, “Sir, did you hear anything I said? It’s that way.” As he reversed direction, she threw her arms up in the air and in a voice loud enough for all to hear she continued, “That’s a man for you!” I felt for the poor guy, but was so glad it wasn’t me.

Rubik's Cube solver made of Lego - I really liked this.

Learning to Read and Reading to Learn: Where does One End and the other Begin? #isedchat

Do you ever get something completely different out of a book after multiple readings?

There was a conversation at our school recently about “reading to learn” and “learning to read.” When does that tipping point happen? Or does it? After thinking about it a bit, I realized, at least for me, both those things are life long endeavors.

Just a couple of summers ago when I took several Spanish courses (something completely new to me), I was asked to read out loud in front of the class. I was so concerned with pronunciation – the phonics and fluency of the language, that there was no room in my brain to also comprehend what I was reading. At that moment, it was easy to empathize with some of my struggling second grade readers.

I just finished reading aloud The Secret Garden to my class (a book I hadn’t read in a few years), but having read Carol Dweck’s book Mindset and hearing her speak about it a couple of years ago,  one of the that story’s themes – growth –  took on new meaning. I was also moved because of seeing a colleague recently step out of his wheelchair as did a character in The Secret Garden. Even in another book I read every year to my class, The Tale of Despereaux, I found more light and more dark than I had in the past. It’s pretty clear that the author of Despereaux, Kate diCamillo did not name one of the characters Chiaroscuro arbitrarily.

And when I read new research in education and come across new terms and phrases, or read statistics with more scrutiny, I am continuing to ‘learn to read’ as I ‘read to learn.’

So to answer my my own question – at least for me, they are both lifelong pursuits. Now the question remains, how do we teach both these things at every level of school while respecting and validating everyone’s perspective? Reading is so much more than a skill.

Happy President’s Day Y’all

Our school’s mission includes creating confident, courageous, and curious learners and includes the values of respect, responsibility, and resourcefulness. Using the biography of President John F. Kennedy is a great way for kids to try and find these traits in others.

I love David Adler’s biographies for kids, and leading up to President’s Day, we read his biography on JFK. We discussed if he would meet our school’s mission and values, giving examples. Then the children go on to choose their own biographies searching for those same traits. I also add the task of asking them how their famous person changed the world in a positive way.

It’s my first time in Dallas, and being Presidents’ Day, it made perfect sense to visit the Sixth Floor Museum which highlights JFK’s life and sadly, his assassination. While he was president back in the sixties, it’s amazing how much the current state of the country seems to parallel that era: extreme polarization in politics, people demanding justice and equal rights, a president committed to improving education, and the country involved in war. We have come a long way since then, but things remain unfinished.

It’s Awards Season

The American Library Association announced this year’s winners for the Caldecott (illustrator) and Newbery (author) awards for children’s literature. The book A Sick Day for Amos McGee which I posted about last week, won the Caldecott. Sometimes books can be simple and sweet without the harsher realities of the world and offer children a nice escape into a world where everyone is kind to one another. If you follow this blog, you know I really enjoyed it, but I thought David Weisner’s Art and Max was a little better. Of course, Weisner has already won 3 Caldecott Medals, so maybe they decided to skip him this year. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see him again soon. What was a pleasant surprise was the Laura Ingalls Wilder award. The Wilder Award honors an author or illustrator whose books, published in the United States, have made, over a period of years, a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children, and this year’s winner was Tomie dePaola; it’s a fine coincidence that second grade is currently involved in a dePaola author study. It’s often quite exciting to observe children when they have a close connection to current events. Below are a few of dePaola’s better known titles. Another author/illustrator known for simple and sweet. I haven’t read this year’s Newbery winner Moon Over Manifest, but it sounds good, and perhaps I should grab a copy. Hopefully it’s as good as the last two winners.


Reading Fluency – It Matters

What is fluency? Is it simply reading quickly and accurately, or does a fluent reader also need to read with expression as well as comprehend what is read? Interestingly enough, a more recent definition (Good and Kaminski, 2002) has left out both expression AND comprehension! You know a book is a good book when it makes you think about how you teach and why you do what you do. In Richard L. Alliongton’s book What Really Matters in Fluency: Research-Based Practices Across the Curriculum, he addresses those same questions I posed, and yes, fluency should include expression and comprehension.

One of the conclusions is that reading volume (the amount read) has a huge impact on reading success. The more one reads, the more fluent one becomes. A fluent reader also knows where to place stresses or inflections on words. An example he uses that I like is if you ask someone a question like, “Who threw the ball over the fence?” A normal response would be:

JOHN threw the ball over the fence.

The stress placed on the first word. But if we asked the question, “How did the ball get over the fence?” a typical response would be:

John THREW the ball over the fence.

The stress now is placed on the second word.

A fluent reader would know this and place the stress on the correct word whether speaking or reading. What the author worries about is that many teachers are in fact not teaching fluency skills. The kind of expression needed in order to convey meaning. Like the way we talk.

  • One of the most important strategies for reading fluency is reading aloud to children so that you model good fluency. Just imagine those who enter Kindergarden and have been read to every night vs. those who have not had that same opportunity. The gap between the amount of words, phrases, sentences heard (even if the child cannot really read by then) is in the millions.
  • Another strategy is making sure kids read appropriate texts. They need texts where they feel successful in order to foster fluency development.
  • Accuracy is also very important. Children need to develop “at-a-glance” recognition, also called automaticity with many of the words they read. Kids who have trouble reading often do so with the little words both in meaning and their orthographic similarities (of, off, if; where, were, there). When was the last time you asked a child to define the word “of”?
  • As mentioned, reading volume. The more they read or are read to, the better. One suggestion in getting struggling readers to read more, is by pairing them with reading to younger developing readers.
  • Repeated readings is also a strategy that works, but there are caveats, one being that it limits the opportunities of the child from experiencing unique texts.
  • Do not interrupt a reader when he/she is stuck on a word. One should pause, then provide a prompt if needed, and then praise the effort. Too often teachers interrupt the struggling reader too soon. In second grade, we teach our students to do this as well when partner reading.
  • Have students engage in Free Voluntary Reading or other sustained silent reading times.
  • Be careful of basal readers or anthologies – often the range in reading difficulties is so great. The author found a third grade anthology with texts ranging from 2nd grade reading levels to those of a 6th grade text. A teacher should not assume that the publishers have done their job in vetting the stories for reading levels.

Finally, what I found most interesting in this book is the author’s disdain for the assessment tool called DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills). Each subtests calls itself a fluency test, but all it is measuring is the rate and accuracy of reading with no regard to comprehension or prosody. Often children read for speed, score well, but don’t comprehend a thing they have read and are given texts that are inappropriately too hard for them. Others may fall in the “at risk” factor based on this assessment because they are reading slowly and carefully, but they read with more expression and understand what they have read. Unfortunately many of these students across the country are also given the wrong texts. Why do I find this interesting? This author devoted a whole chapter to assessing fluency, half of that chapter, he spent dismissing the reliability of DIBELS as an assessment of fluency. Our school uses it as one measure. It’s validating, though, that we take a lot of other things into account, many of which are mentioned in this book and use multiple assessment strategies as well, but if DIBELS is really all that unreliable, should we be using it at all?

In the end, I couldn’t agree with the author more, that both reading aloud to students and reading volume is important. It goes with the persistent practice theories mentioned in The Talent Code and other similar books. Kids need opportunities to read, at school, at home, wherever. My only complaint of this book is the $37 price tag for a 138 page paperback. Thank goodness it was left in the teachers lounge on Friday to be passed on, where it will return tomorrow for someone else to read. Thought provoking and written in a style that is easy for teachers to read, the book also offers many strategies for fostering fluent readers.



Integrating Math and Literature

This month’s Teacher Children Mathematics journal had a great lesson involving the Caldecott winning picture book, Jumanji. Those familiar with the title know that it’s about a pair of children who find a board game and begin playing it by rolling the dice. Things get out of hand and the only way to end the game is by rolling a 12. Then (to a lot of groans), I slammed the book shut and asked the children that we were going to do some math and I would read the end aftewards. I began by asking them  how likely they thought the chance would be that a 12 would be rolled. There was a large range of answers. I then gave each child a pair of dice and asked them to roll it ten times and to record their answers. Finally, we took all their data and filled in a graph on the board. It looked like a nice rolling hill. I then asked the children why they thought this pattern emerged and eventually they started to say that the were more combinations of numbers to add to make 7 whereas there was only one way to get 12. We then read the end of the book and it was a great way for children to experience the concept of probability and how it might affect their lives. Would it be better to build houses on your strip of Monopoly when someone was 1 place away or 6 places away? Why?

Unfortunately, many textbooks are so linear, teaching one concept at a time, they don’t leave room for integration of other math concepts or even literature connections for fun, engaging, lessons like these that ask kids to discover the why behind the math. Many textbook series have ‘literature’ connections by producing their own children’s books. None to my knowledge have measured up to Chris Van Allsburg’s Jumanji – a true classic.


I ♥ Picture Books








I have to add this book to my top 10 of 2010 list. I don’t know which book I’d bump out, but this one would definitely make my top 10 … A Sick Day for Amos McGee (Stead/Stead). Simple and sweet with illustrations that evoke picture books of the past. I highly recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in creating caring classroom climates (I apologize for that alliteration. It was completely accidental).

Generation B – Father and Daughter Bond by Years of Reading –

Great story showing that your child is never too old for a read aloud.

Published: March 18, 2010


WHEN Jim Brozina’s older daughter, Kathy, was in fourth grade, he was reading Beverly Cleary’s “Dear Mr. Henshaw” to her at bedtime, when she announced she’d had enough. “She said, ‘Dad, that’s it, I’ll take over from here,’ ” Mr. Brozina recalled. “I was, ‘Oh no.’ I didn’t want to stop. We really never got back to reading together after that.”

Mr. Brozina, a single father and an elementary school librarian who reads aloud for a living, did not want the same thing to happen with his younger daughter, Kristen. So when she hit fourth grade, he proposed The Streak: to see if they could read together for 100 straight bedtimes without missing once. They were both big fans of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, and on Nov. 11, 1997, started The Streak with “The Tin Woodman of Oz.”

When The Streak reached 100, they celebrated with a pancake breakfast, and Kristen whispered, “I think we should try for 1,000 nights.”

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