Provocation into the Power of Words

I recently came across the following image from one of my favorite comics, The Awkward Yeti, by Nick Seluk:

Language Emoji
via The Awkward Yeti, by Nick Seluk

The modes of communication have undergone such dramatic, exponential change in the past couple of decades that it makes sense that communication itself is also undergoing change. But even as language gets sometimes stripped away to basic emojis, it’s significant to examine the enduring principles of powerful word choice.

Resource #1: “The Power of Words”

Resource #2: “A Child Of Books” by Oliver Jeffers

via Amazon
via Amazon
via Amazon

Resource #3: Infographic by Grammar Check

5 Weak Words to Avoid & What to Use Instead (Infographic)
Source: www.grammarcheck.net

Provocation Questions:

  • What makes words powerful?
  • How does developing better word choice impact our lives? How does it impact our societies?
  • How is vocabulary use changing in the 21st century?
  • What is the relationship with words and language? How are they alike and how are they different?
  • How does powerful word choice impact message people share with their audiences?
  • How is powerful word choice relevant even as communication evolves?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

What Happens When The Author Becomes A Person #TeacherMom

I admit it: when it comes to reading to squirrelly toddlers, I’ve cut corners. I’ve condensed paragraphs. I’ve skipped pages. I’ve proclaimed happily-ever-after’s within 17 seconds flat.

For the sake of packing in as much story as possible before a cardboard box won over audience attention, I even used to omit reading the author’s name. Fortunately, as my oldest’s patience for storytime grew, noting the author’s name was my first step in making literary reparations.

I would never have guessed the ramifications of such a small course-correction.

First, I noticed that my daughter started “reading” the authors’ names, too.

Next, she started memorizing said authors’ names and would make requests at the library accordingly (“I want a Kevin Henkes book! Can we read Mo Willems? How about Steven Kellogg?”). She started trotting right over to their shelves, recalling the location of those authors’ books even though she was a long way yet from reading.

When she eventually started writing her own stories, she was always sure to list herself as the author, too. And the illustrator. And she made sure everyone in her world knew that she wanted to be an author/illustrator when she grew up.

These days, the author is often as much a part of the conversations about books as the stories they’ve written. I tell her that I think she’ll love Clementine because I read Pax and loved Sara Pennypacker’s style. I show her other Shannon Hale fairy tales when she kicks off Princess in Black. We even got excited when we saw that Brendan Wenzel was the illustrator and author for the first time with “They All Saw a Cat,” (having already enjoyed his illustrations in “Beastly Babies” and “One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree”).

In short, the authors and illustrators have become people. We admire not just the work, but the people themselves — people with unique voices, styles, and humor. We get excited when they write a new book, not just because it’s a new book we enjoy, but because it’s something new from that beloved writer.

This practice of spotlighting the author carried over into my classroom, too, with discussions like, “Did you see what Charlotte Zolotow did in that poem?” or “How did Gail Carson Levine’s use of a super comma work there?” We started to notice the deliberate strategies and craft behind what made the writing magical. As a result, we started to see ourselves as capable of developing those strategies, too, recognizing the fact that every author once started where we are now.

When authors come to life, so does our own self-identity as writers. Because if they are real people instead of an abstract idea, then we can see the possibilities for ourselves, too.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

3 Lessons from Blogging for More Authentic Literacy Teaching

I expected that this opportunity to blog regularly would bring benefits to my writing over time — if nothing else, at least train words to flow a little more easily as I typed more and more.

But I did not anticipate the powerful lessons about writing that would also come my way, lessons that I can and most certainly will apply when I return to the classroom. They all stem from a place of authentic, raw honesty about what it really means to be in that writing arena.

1 Writing elements and structure are not about ticking off a checklist; they are about making your writing more enjoyable to read. When I skip out on a conclusion on a post, I might have convinced myself at the time that the rest of the content was sufficient and that a conclusion would just be excess. But more often than not, I know that what it really came down to a “good enough” mentality.

When I return to the classroom and we’re breaking down those elements of good writing, we will search together for that sense of completeness. We will analyze how and why pieces do or do not feel quite right, and I will work to help them discover and seek out each of those elements for themselves.

2 “Write only what you alone can write” (Elie Wiesel) Most of us have probably heard some variation of this advice before. But it was only when I really started to take it to heart that I began to understand. If I stuck to writing just what I thought was supposed to go on an educational blog, or if I just wrote about those trending topics all the time, I knew my desire to write anything at all would dry up. The surest way of making writing feel like a burden is to deny it any sense of personal touch. After all, the entire point of writing is connection; if we never connect with what we write ourselves, how can we expect to find meaningful connection with our audience? 

I know that in the past, I have spent far too much time trying to help my students prepare for those state writing assessments or otherwise drilling template, soul-less writing. Even if those tests don’t go away, we can still prioritize the notion of identifying and conveying the messages within each unique individual.

Trust the authentic writing process. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just follow one linear, well-defined process and produce good writing every time? The above-mentioned state writing assessments would have had me and my students thinking so (and we worked hard to meet all those requirements — 1 thesis statement, 3-4 reasons, 3-4 details per reason, x # of transition key words, and on and on).

The reality is, the authentic writing process requires a lot of trust. Trust that as we live our lives and engage in the things that matter most to each of us, inspiration (those stories only we can tell) will come. Sure, the viciously practical part of me might prefer to have the next 6 blog posts all neatly planned and ready on the assembly line. But if I am to truly discover the rich stories and powerful observations woven into the fabric of real life, then I must engage with real life, compartmentalizing less and engaging more.

I’m far from a perfect blogger or writer now. But I know I can hope for greater capacity and joy in the future as I work to live and write as authentically as possible.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

10 Favorite Board Books #TeacherMom

As I geared up to attend two back-to-back baby showers, the familiar gifting dread gathered. I’ve never enjoyed shopping, and my practical taste never looks very cute in pastel tissue paper.

Just when I was about to go the gift-registry route, it hit me. Books. BOARD BOOKS! I might not be able to pick a onesie that gets me terribly excited, but books have me geeking out on a regular basis.

In the past, many board books have tended to just be sturdier versions of regular picture books, sans several pages. Or else they have consisted of overly syrupy or didactic text paired with equally uninteresting illustrations. In short, most board books just haven’t been fun to read.

But as long as babies tend to be skillful paper-shredders, we need board books, and we need ones that will make parents and babies actually look forward to storytime together.

Here are ten of my current favorites:

The Epic Yarns books by Jack & Holman Wang (and especially the Star Wars books for my Force-loving family) are delightfully unique. Each page consists of a photo of a detailed set crafted out of wool, along with a single word to capture the essence of that moment.

All Board! National Parks: A Wildlife Primer by Kevin & Haily Meyers is perfect for all parents who want to cultivate enthusiasm for the outdoors from the cradle. Each page takes you to a different national park, also featuring animals found in that location. I also love how the last page displays their animal tracks.

No list of board books would ever be complete without Sandra Boynton. Moo Baa La La La has delighted all three of my kids with its bouncy tempo, hilarious farm animals, and of course, pigs singing instead of oinking. The “No, no, you say, that isn’t right!” with enough high-pitched expression even gets the infant grinning every time.

Angela DiTerlizzi published Some Bugs a couple years ago, and I was delighted when the board book version rolled out last year. It includes every one of the delightful original pages filled with gorgeous illustrations and fun rhymes. Given the spare text, it includes a surprising amount to learn about bugs, too!

Jennifer Adams’ BabyLit books have me especially geeking out. They are the perfect way to introduce young readers to classic literature as they share passages with gorgeous illustrations. I’ve read most of them at my local library, but The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and A Midsummer Night’s Dream top my list of favorites.

Ashley Evanson’s Hello, World books, such as this London Book of Opposites, are fresh concept books with a colorful view of the most iconic features of cities around the world.

Eric Carle‘s books are classics that aren’t diminished in board book form. I don’t see the cadence of Brown Bear, Brown Bear ever wearing off.

A is for Atom by Greg Paprocki is a nostalgic walk down memory lane, both with the ideas that defined the 50’s, and the mid-century-styled illustrations to match.

Is Your Mama a Llama? by Deborah Buarino and Steven Kellogg is one more classic treasure that will never get old. My kids love guessing the animal to match the rhyming clues as the baby llama talks with various animals to find his mama.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Top 10 Read Alouds for Upper Elementary from 2016

2016 has been an excellent reading year for me. I’ve renewed my use of Goodreads, enjoyed sequels in favorite series, and discovered a new genre I deeply enjoy (more on that later). My old lists of read alouds for upper elementary grades featured a lot of favorites I had read long ago (first list, second list), but not a lot of recent reads.

So to keep my recommendations fresh, and to help me keep up my momentum of reading more books, I want to start making a habit of sharing my favorites reads at the end of each year, starting today (note, these are not necessarily books published this year, but rather ones that I read this year). Hopefully this list will be timely for teachers looking for a quality winter-break stack (and for my own children and students down the road)!

#10: Confessions of an Imaginary Friend: A Memoir by Jacques Papier, by Michelle Cuevas

This book had me tickled by the fact that, without the title, readers wouldn’t even realize the narrator was not, in fact, a living breathing member of the family for the first several chapters. Rather, he seems more like just a kid with a lot of problems with getting ignored. This is a genre that I’ve designated as “other-worldly whimsical,” a personally-defined subset of modern fantasy of which I find myself constantly wanting more. A hilarious yet profound read about belonging and self-understanding.

#9The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas, by David Almond

This book originally caught my eye because of Oliver Jeffers. I was delighted to discover that David Almond’s style very much parallel’s Jeffers’. Follow Stanley Potts as he discovers his destiny far from his fish-canning home. You and your students will enjoy themes of courage, confidence, wonder, rules, and conformity. Also one I’d classify “other-worldly whimsical.”

#8: The Magician’s Elephant, by Kate DiCamillo

The Magician’s Elephant felt like a lovely poem or perhaps a dream. “We must ask ourselves these questions as often as we dare. How will the world change if we do not question it?” Peter Augustus Duchene changes his world by asking the question, “Does my sister live?” Readers then follow him through an enchanting and mysterious tale of truth and love.

#7: The War that Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Like the Pevensies of Narvia, Ada and her little brother are sent to the country away from war-torn London during WWII. There, they, too, discover a new world with their caretaker–one full of love, acceptance, and hope. This historical fiction will move and inspire your class.

#6: The Wild Robot, by Peter Brown

This outdoor adventure-loving girl fell in love with this book the moment I read the words, “If you stand still in nature long enough, something will fall on you.” It’s just so–real. Peter Brown helps us ponder what might actually happen if an advanced A.I. robot found herself on an uninhabited island. How might she adapt to her surroundings? Would she be able to learn the language of animals? And would she–a man-made creation–be able to find her place in the natural world?

#5: The Inquisitor’s Tale, Or Three Magical Children & Their Holy Dogby Adam Gidwitz

From the fascinating approach to narration, to the way we are invited to truly access life in medieval times, this is a fresh and truly unique story. I especially loved the idea of “illumination” as opposed to illustration, keeping in line with a common medieval practice. Learn of three children whose powers have the entire kingdom–from the king of France down–in awe, fear, and/or admiration.

#4: The Seventh Wish, by Kate Messner 

See my review here.

#3: Pax, by Sara Pennypacker

This is a tale of bonds that even miles and a war-torn country cannot break. Follow a story that shifts in perspective between Pax the fox and his boy, Peter.

#2: Lockwood & Company, The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud

If you are looking for a series that will have your students begging for more, this is it (I actually read book 4 in the series this year, The Creeping Shadow, and am dying to find out when book 5 comes out!). Lucy and her companions, Lockwood and George, are teenage agents working to rid London of the Problem (a development in which ghosts return, wreaking panic and death among the living). Only children can see the Visitors, but Lockwood’s is the only company that consists only of children. It is a bit creepy, so you might want to run it by your students before choosing it as a read aloud–but if they aren’t too nervous, it will have them on the edge of their seats!

#1: Three Times Lucky, by Sheila Turnage

I just finished reading the third and final book in this series (The Odds of Getting Even), and I loved every moment of it! Mo is probably the wittiest and sassiest 6th grader you’ll meet, and her best friend Dale is an equally loveable character. Follow the duo as they establish the Desperados Detective Agency and solve a murder. Packed with hilarious figurative language, mystery, and small town charm, Three Times Lucky is simply a must-read!

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A 2 Year-Old’s Favorite “Things That Go” Books #TeacherMom

You know your local library rocks when even your two year-old can access his favorites with ease. One such accessibility detail includes sorting the high-interest books by category, such as ABC’s, colors, dinosaurs, princesses, potty training, and above all (at least in my son’s eyes), “Things that Go.”

Every week, he makes a beeline for that section, quickly piling books on tractors, buses, cars, boats, planes, and bikes (and every week, we face the immortal struggle as he refuses add his books to the bag, but he can’t carry his entire selection. I can’t be the only parent that has failed to convince their child of the purpose of the book bag, can I?).

20161109_105628

Over time, I’ve come to notice he has definite preferences. So, for other parents of “things-that-go”-loving kids out there, I thought I’d share those for today’s #TeacherMom post. After all, every book in their hands that helps them make significant personal meaning is what it’s all about. And right now, for my son, most of that significant personal meaning revolves around “things that go.” So here we go:

construction

His absolute most-selected “things-that-go” book is Sally Sutton’s “Construction.” It might be the attention to detail in constructing a building. Or the variety of tractors and construction vehicles. Or perhaps the fun rhythm and abundant onomatopoeia. Or all of the above.

night-driving

This is probably the most my son has enjoyed a black-and-white illustrated book. “Night Driving,” by John Coy depicts a special nighttime road trip with a father and his son.

sheep-in-a-jeep

Sheep in a Jeep” by Nancy Shaw has now brought multi-generational delight to my family. The spare rhymes offer endless laughter with hilarious illustrations to match.

the-plan

Alison Paul’s “The Plan” is an instant classic. For now, my son just enjoys the process of a child constructing a plane, but eventually, I’m sure he’ll come to appreciate the deeper themes, along with the simple literary construct of shifting one letter per page.

flight-1-2-3

“Flight 1-2-3” by Maria van Lieshout is another frequent choice. The graphic design and use of actual airport symbols engage my son every time.

axel-annie

A bus + an enjoyable story-line of perseverance = another favorite read. “Axle Annie” by Robin Pulver will have your child wondering what’s next!

little-blue-truck

Alice Schertle’s “Little Blue Truck” gets double points with my 2 year-old as it brings farm animals into the mix. And I love that it addresses what kindness really means.

who-sank-the-boat

Another oldie-but-eternally-goodie is Pamela Allen’s “Who Sank the Boat?” It’s always fun for little ones to guess who, in fact, will sink that boat!

on-the-move

“Little Explorers: On the move” by Ruth Martin is a recent nonfiction discovery that has also become an instant favorite. My son spends a good deal of time checking under every single flap.

little-reds-riding-hood

“Little Red’s Riding ‘Hood” by Peter Stein is a delightful vehicular fractured fairy tale. Little Red the scooter meets the big bad Tank–what’s not to love?

old-mcdonald-had-a-truck

“Old MacDonald Had a Truck” by Steve Goetz is another fabulous vehicles-meets-farm story, with an ending that reveals what Old MacDonald and Mrs. MacDonald have been working on all along.

duck-on-a-bike

In “Duck on a Bike” by David Shannon, Duck shares his bike-riding antics with all the other farm animals–and finds out what happens when a bunch of kids park their bikes.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Meeting Your Students’ Authentic Reading Needs with Goodreads

I recently started reading Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer. Two quotes stand out sharply to me. The first:

“I believe that this corporate machinery of scripted programs, comprehension worksheets (reproducibles, handouts, printables, whatever you want to call them), computer-based incentive packages, and test practice curriculum facilitates a solid bottom-line for the companies that sell them, and give schools proof they can point to that they are using every available resource to teach reading, but these efforts are doomed to fail a large number of students because they leave out the most important factor. When you take a forklift and shovel off the programs, underneath it all is a child reading a book.”

Amen!

“I am a reader, a flashlight-under-the-covers, carries-a-book-everywhere-I-go, don’t-look-at-my-Amazon-bill. I choose purses based on whether I can cram a paperback into them, and my books are the first items I pack into a suitcase. I am the person who family and friends call when they need a book recommendation or cannot remember who wrote Heidi. My identity as a person is so entwined with my love of reading and books that I cannot separate the two.”

The best literacy teachers I know of are these kinds of readers. And they do it without the “corporate machinery” of literacy instruction.

It’s obvious why, isn’t it? For one thing, they are able to give timely book recommendations tailored to students’ needs and interests; their kids don’t need those drill-and-kill comprehension worksheets when they are already talking excitedly about that book you helped them find! More importantly, these teachers have thoroughly shaken off the hypocrisy of teaching students to embrace something they themselves do not. They keep literary enthusiasm front and center, regarding books as familiar friends, rather than as benchmarks to “pass off.” They are the embodiment of those “not the filling…a pail, but the lighting…a fire” (William Butler Yeats). Our literacy teachers should be the best readers around.

Yet, for me personally, I admit that I have felt overwhelmed by these prodigious teacher-readers. I love reading, but I have limitations that make me worry that I wouldn’t be able to meet my students’ needs as well as they can.

For me, those limitations here boil down to problems: #1) I’m a slow reader. #2) I have a terrible memory for book titles.

Enter Goodreads. Though I’ve had an account for years, I’d always considered it to be too cumbersome to use regularly. But the two features below have at last shown me how my efforts there can be richly rewarded and magnified to meet my students’ and my own reading needs.

Problem #1: Slow reading 

I don’t read the volume of books that these teacher-readers that I admire do. Without that volume, it’s difficult to offer suggestions that sufficiently meet their needs and interests. But as I sort books that I have read into custom digital shelves on Goodreads (see below), it generates recommendations based on the genres/levels of those shelves. This allows me to leverage the reading/reviews of millions of other readers to help me get that perfect book in my students’ hands.

Problem #2: Memory for titles

For the still-many books I am able to read, the titles tend to swirl together over time, making it difficult to pull one out for a timely student recommendation. Goodreads solves this problem by allowing me to sort and “shelve” these books into a personalized library with custom categories.

To an outsider, my many shelves may seem like madness, but for me, I know they will help me pick out the trees in the forest, so to speak. Some of my current shelves include:

  • 5th grade: Friendship (titles like WonderFlora and UlyssesThe Inquisitor’s Tale: Or the Three Magical Children and their Holy Dog, Three Times Lucky…)
  • 5th grade: Other-Worldly-Whimsical (The Magician’s Elephant, The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas, The Wild Robot)
  • 5th grade: Overcoming Odds (Rules, Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller, Holes)
  • Picture books: Challenging Status Quo (“In Mary’s Garden,” “Rosie Revere, Engineer,” “Cinder Edna,” “Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music”)
  • Picture books: Loss and Emotion (“The Heart and the Bottle,” “Boats for Papa,” “Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgois”)
  • Picture books: Unexpected Endings & Humor (“Stuck,” “The Skunk,” “The Wolf’s Chicken Stew”)

Bonus feature: Integrate your search with your local library’s database!

Today, I added a button to my account that takes me from a book page on Goodreads directly to the book on my library’s online catalog. This allows me to check availability and to place a hold that much more easily! Here’s a link to help you learn how to add the button. If you run into any trouble, just contact Goodread’s customer support and they will add your library for you so you can select it from their list! 🙂

Whatever your strategy–whether through Goodreads or more regularly scheduled library visits–our students will reap the benefits when we choose to commit to move toward greater authenticity as readers ourselves.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto