Gorilla or Fish? It’s a Win/Win

Video

“Humans waste words. They toss them like banana peels and leave them to rot. Everyone knows the peels are the best part.”      (from The One and Only Ivan)

Told from the perspective of a silverback gorilla and inspired by a true story, The One and Only Ivan is a book that deservedly won the Newbery Award which was announced earlier this year. Katherine Applegate’s doesn’t waste a single word in this heartwarming tale. She tackles the issues of animals in captivity in a way that will make kids think twice about zoos. Are zoos good or bad? Children will be able to grapple with this question and realize that the question isn’t really boolean.

Cover image taken from npr.org

The Caldecott medal this year was given to John Klassen’s This is Not My Hat. Beautifully illustrated, it tells a tale of a fish who steals a hat from another fish. A great picture book is one that uses illustrations to great effect in the story telling. Even though it’s designed for very young readers, it is refreshing as the main character isn’t exactly one with upstanding character traits (after all he does steal a hat right at the beginning of the story).

In the end, both books are fine examples of storytelling at its best.

Here’s a trailer someone made for The One and Only Ivan:

What Does Censoring Children’s Literature do to Critical Thinking?

It saddened me to read in the news that a book by one of my favorite authors, Patricia Polacco was restricted in a Utah school district on Monday.

Patricia Polacco is a prolific children’s writer and for some of my readers we engage in an author study featuring her books. She tends to write from personal experiences about family and friends and her themes vary widely. Some of her most famous books include:

Thank you Mr. Falker, a book about a young girl with dyslexia who realizes her potential thanks to a fifth grade teacher named Mr. Falker.  The epilogue is quite touching when you realize that the girl with dyslexia is the author.

Pink and Say, a book about two boys (one black and one white) during the Civil War. Another touching book.

Mr. Lincoln’s Way, a book about overcoming bullying.

Thundercake, a book about how the author overcame her fear of thunderstorms.

The book that was banned was called In Our Mothers’ House, which is a story about family or three raised by two mothers. I always worry about children’s books that may contain ‘issues’. Often they can be preachy and end up not being very good literature. This book is simply a good story. We had it in our library, so I read it to my students.

I asked them why they thought this book might be banned for children, and it was quite refreshing to hear their responses. The overwhelming response was, “I think some adults don’t think children can handle stories with sad endings.” Only two children identified the two moms as the possible reason and one child said, “I think it might be about the two moms because in some places, they just don’t get it yet.”

I try really hard not to provide any answers for my students. They need to analyze and think for themselves. I enjoy opportunities to do this. If books are censored, how can children develop critical thinking skills? This doesn’t mean I need to read every book on a banned list, but it’s important to get kids thinking.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/01/utah-school-district-rest_n_1564118.html

Are Innovative Breakthroughs Accidental or Do They Require Hard Work?

What do you think of when you hear the term, “Slam Poetry.” My early experiences with slam poetry were not very memorable and usually consisted of overwrought and angry performances. The point they were trying to make was lost on me.

Then, last year, Sarah Kay, a spoken word poet, presented at TED. I was immediately captivated by the words she wrote, the way she organized them, and the way she delivered them. In an instant, my preconceptions about spoken poetry had changed.

Those attending the Thursday session of the NAIS conference were lucky enough to hear her as the closing speaker of the day. Speaking to educators she began with a poem about learning and growing up in New York (it was much more than that).

After her poem, she addressed school leaders about the theme of the conference: innovation. Innovation wasn’t simply bringing something new to the class each day. Innovation required breakthroughs. She described that there were basically two types of breakthroughs. The first kind is one that is accidental. They’re breakthroughs that happen in a moment, or occur when you have an epiphany. Something that fundementally changes they way you thought – a breakthrough that alters a paradigm you once held on to strongly. The other kind of breakthrough she talked about is the kind that requires an incredible amount of effort and time – something you work very hard towards before reaching that breakthrough. Once you get there, these breakthroughs can change your life. Sarah also talked about how children tend to have much of the first kind of breakthroughs, those aha moments. Adults, however, start to forget about accidental breakthroughs and begin to value only those breakthroughs that require hard work. We value that we’ve made on our own because we recognize the hard work to get there. We also tend to dismiss a lot of our own outside-the-box ideas or those that are brought to us by others. Though we embrace children who ask “What if…” questions, we are quick to discredit adults who ask the same or have differing ideas. Rather than be open to a potential breakthrough, adults tend to shut those ideas down and move on with the paradigm they are already comfortable with. Schools across the country are notorious for this, making education reform very difficult. I am not naive. I don’t believe that every new idea warrants merit. But a willingness to listen to them before dismissing them is extremely important.

Sarah Kay also talked about her very first teaching experiences, and how she began from stumbling, falling, and failing to realizing how to deconstruct something that was second nature to her into smaller bits. She claims that whether they are breakthroughs that come through rigorous work, or are accidental, we as educators need to find the balance. We need to

“equip our students  with the skills they will need to overcome obstacles and meet challenges – and we do that through innovation. Through teaching them new ways to approach old problems and old questions. But it’s incredibly important that in doing that, we also make sure to teach them to stay open to the idea of accidental breakthrough – things that they cannot prepare for – only keeping themselves open to the possibility. And so, to do that, we have to live that ourselves.”

She talked about being flexible and the learning that happens in-between. A teacher may have spent hours preparing the best lesson, but if a student steers the class down a meaningful “rabbit hole,” you just might want to go there. For the learning that occurs during those teachable moments are some of the best.

Sarah Kay then ended with a poem about the first person who taught her what it meant to be an educator: her elementary school principal. It’s an incredible 7 minute performance and I highly recommend viewing it.

It’s amazing how the culture of sharing is catching on. For those who were not available to attend the conference that day, so many of these resources are made available. By clicking on the image below, you can view her entire 25 minute keynote.

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!

 

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?

Connecting Through Storytelling

At the TEDxEastsidePrep event I attended last week, there was one speaker told a very compelling story. Marcus Brotherton is an author, journalist, and, according to his speaker profile, an adventure motorcyclist.

He began talking about an earlier experience where, due to certain circumstances, he had to share a house with a crotchety 72-year old WWII vet for a landlord. It wasn’t until years later, when he had an assignment interviewing other WWII vets for his research, that he began to understand and reflect on what his landlord had taught him and perhaps why the old man behaved the way he did. Brotherton began to learn about developing empathy. He asked this question: How does one teach taking yourself beyond one’s self? Brotherton listed three things to develop:

  1. Invite people to tell their stories.
  2. Imagine the world through other people’s eyes.
  3. Suspend judgement.
With many education leaders talking about the brewing change upon us, and the challenges that lie ahead if we don’t adapt, Brotherton reminded us of what I think is the most important element in education – the connection between a student and teacher (that teacher may be another student, a parent, or anyone willing to make that connection). Brotherton also demonstrated very well that storytelling is a very effective way to do this. Empathy is a 21st Century Skill. Our students need to develop it, and so do we. I’m still working on mine.
The TEDx event was driven by inquiry and asked the following essential questions:

What could education look like in the next 5-20 years? What paths must we follow to develop engaged citizens in a digitized age?

  • What assumptions about our current education systems no longer hold based on new capabilities, new insights and new developments in the fields of brain and behavioral research?
  • What essential attributes must remain in future incarnations of our education system to be successful?

I think we know which question this speaker addressed.

Why Diversity is Important

This past weekend, I saw the Intiman Theatre’s production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons here in Seattle. The director set the play in Seattle in the Central District with the Keller family portrayed as an African American family living in the 40s with both white and black neighbors. Opportunities for people of color in the 40s were pretty bleak. They were denied entry into many jobs, establishments, and neighborhoods among other things. With this as the backdrop for the play, one could easily see why it was so important for the main character, Joe Keller, to continue to live the American Dream regardless of the cost (it’s an Arthur Miller play – you can guess the cost was pretty hefty). It’s a great production, and if you get a chance to see it during its run, you ought to.

Seeing this play made me think of other shows such as Porgy and Bess or Show Boat, and how color-blind casting wouldn’t work for those two shows, but has for something like Les Miserables. In the first two shows mentioned, race is a central issue in the play. In Les Mis, it’s not.

When it comes to diversity, race is definitely an important issue, but it’s not the only one. Gender, age, sexual orientation, political views, religious views (or the absence of them), socio-economic status, culture, sub-culture, interests, IQ, EQ, and a myriad of other things all play into diversity as well. It’s amazing to hear some Republicans and Democrats try to debate. They stick to their talking points, don’t answer the questions, and fail to realize that they actually have a lot more in common with each other. It’s this common ground where these two opposing voices should start. It’s through their differences that new ideas and innovations can occur. It’s this common ground that we all share that we need to focus on as well as our differences. The common ground gets us to start something. The differences inspire creativity. That’s why diversity is important.

When many people start to talk about diversity, unfortunately, the other forms I’ve mentioned seem to get drowned out, and the focus very often goes back to race. It’s true that students do benefit from seeing teachers that look similar to them, but it is just as important for them to see teachers who are older, younger, female, male, white, black, Hispanic, Asian, mixed, as well as teachers with disabilities, exceptionalities, differing political views, differing orientations, who speak different languages, and so on.

In Seattle, we have a large population of students who have one parent who is white and the other parent who is a person of color. Why ask that child to choose a box, or have us fill in a box on their behalf on some diversity survey? Why not figure out who that child is, what motivates her at school, and meet her needs based on those criteria instead. I am of mixed heritage and consider myself very much a person of color. For me, what’s far more interesting than the color of my skin are the 11 years I lived in Asia, the 20 years I lived in Canada, and the 10 (updated 12) years I’ve lived in the US. What makes your students interesting? How can they add to the fabric and culture of your classroom or school?

Rather than viewing diversity as ‘what’s the other person’s story?’, it would help to see it as ‘how can we both contribute in meaningful ways to the story?’ Timeless stories like Arthur Miller’s All My Sons work regardless of race. Miller manages to hone in on the conflicts all of us face.