Thursday, November 30, 2006

Children's Books with ADD?

I've been thinking a lot lately about the comments of several of my students in regards to "busy" books. Each week when we study a particular strand of science or social studies, such as earth science, my students are required to peruse the PZ section of the library, my collection, the public library, or a local book store in search of a children's book that they feel will be useful in teaching, introducing, reinforcing, etc. the specific content under study. Students fill out a literature review form, come to class with the book, and then share their finds with classmates in their literature circle. The students enjoy doing this, they learn about many more books than I could possibly carry to class and/or present, and in many cases, their peers come up with really novel connections to the content.

However, in the last few weeks, I have noticed the students articulating a particular disdain for books they have dubbed "Books with ADD." Included in this category are the Magic Schoolbus books (the classic series by Joanna Cole, not the ones written for the television series) and books in the Eyewitness series. Students describe them as "way too busy" and "difficult to focus on." While many of them talked of Mrs. Frizzle with affection, when they viewed the books from the perspective a classroom teacher, the big question was "Where is the story? What part would I or could I read aloud?" Good questions. There is a lot of good information in the Magic Schoolbus books, but for teachers who really want to read a story that they can then pull ideas out of, how do they do that?

I've puzzled over this notion of "busy" books for a while. It feels as if the pandemonium on the pages is trying so hard to imitate the constant stream of images and ideas that bombard us in real life. Why must books mirror what kids see on TV or in video games? Perhaps I'm just getting old, but I relish the thought of sitting down with a good book that I can pour over with my son in a leisurely way. I want to take time with the words, look carefully at the pictures, and predict what will happen next. I want him to want to do this too. When we read "busy" books, his finger points at a rapid pace all over the page while he says, "What's this say? What's this? Did you read that?" UGH! Maybe I'm just too compulsive to read in a nonlinear fashion. I always hated the choose-your-own story format as a child. I felt like the author was making me do all the work. I just wanted to be taken somewhere where I could close my eyes and gloriously imagine, but I had to think about what to do next in these books and was never afforded the opportunity.

So, what's the point, you say? I'm not sure. Why are these books so popular? I'd sure like to know. Any why when I admit to detesting "busy" books on the one hand, do I find myself recommending The Tree of Life by Peter Sis to everyone I know?! Go figure. It must just be the scientist in me.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Thinking About Historical Fiction

As the semester winds down, I find myself already thinking about the pieces my class will read next fall. During 2004, when I first taught Integrated Curriculum Methods, I decided to include one piece of historical fiction as a required reading. I selected The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare. This was a Newbery honor book in 1984. Colleagues told me it was a poor choice because it was dated and portrayed Native Americans in an unflattering manner. I selected it anyway, having decided that my students could learn much about stereotypes from it. I gave them Charlotte Huck's guidelines for evaluating historical fiction, they came to class having read the book, and away we went. However, before we discussed the book, we used the "Book-in-a-Day" technique to read the first half of the book The Boy Captive of Old Deerfield, a fictionalized account of the capture of Stephen Williams by a French and Native American raiding party. Written in 1939, the story is brutal and graphic in its portrayal of the events that befell the settlers. But what of the Native peoples. The comparison of the relationships between the settlers and Native peoples in these two pieces, and a discussion of the "real" history made for a very difficult, but interesting discussion. In the end, the students agreed this was not a book for classroom consumption, and one that they didn't think would benefit students in its use.

When I read my course evaluations at the end of the semester, the students all claimed that they learned a great deal from the reading, but wanted to know why I'd chosen a "boy's" book. Hmmmmmmm... I guess I hadn't really thought about it as a book belonging to one gender, but rather as a book to teach other lessons. For more on this notion of gendered books, read this post from Lessons from the Tortoise. The fact that the class had 21 students, 20 of them female may have had something to do with this!

I did take these comments seriously in searching for books for the fall 2005 class, so I spent my summer reading a huge range of books. I decided that I would use my weekly literature circle groups to serve as discussion groups for a set of 4 selected works. I chose books that represented a range of time periods, books with both strong male and female characters, and books with non-white protagonists. The four books we read were:
  • Fever, 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson (set in Philadelphia in 1793 (duh!), young female lead, yellow fever epidemic)
  • Dragon's Gate by Lawrence Yep (set in China and California in 1867, young Chinese immigrant boy, building the transcontinental railroad)
  • Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary Schmidt (set in Maine in 1912, young white male lead with African American characters, based on Malaga Island history)
  • The Watson's Go to Birmingham - 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis (set in Michigan and Alabama in 1963 (of course), young African American male lead, life of an average family during Civil Rights Movement and Birmingham bombing)
Once again I had a class with only one male to a large group of females (17). With the exception of Dragon's Gate, the books all received ringing endorsements from the students. Only one of the four students who read Dragon's Gate liked it. The three who didn't claimed there was "too much talk about blowing things up," and "just too many boys."

I found that I enjoyed all four books, but was most moved by Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy and The Watson's Go to Birmingham. On the day we discussed these I also read excerpts from Julius Lester's Day of Tears: A Novel in Dialogue aloud and asked students to think about how we teach these difficult subjects in today's diverse classrooms. We discussed important issues of sensitivity and raised many good questions, some of which are still in need of answers.

This year, I decided that I wanted more students to read the same book, but I wanted that diversity of perspective. I went in another direction entirely and selected two books for each student. One was a short chapter book from the Scraps of Time series by Patricia McKissack. The other was a young adult book focused on immigration. Here are the pairings my students were assigned:
I had a small class this semester, only 12 students, with 11 women and one young man. I would digress here and talk about why we need more men in elementary education, but I'll save that for another post. I was disappointed that the students were altogether unimpressed by these choices. In straying from the Newbery list, they seemed not too find much of value in these selections. When prodded they suggested they might reluctantly use them in instruction, but felt there were better books out there.

So, now you know why I have already begun my quest for the "right" books for next fall. I purchase the current issues of Notable Trade Books for Young People (NCSS) and Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K-12 each year for my students. I want to impress upon them how important it is as future teachers that they read widely and deeply from the range of children's literature that is available, and that they must consider how works can serve them across the curriculum. I suppose I failed this year to lead them to particularly inspiring choices. This just means I'll have lots of reading (good reading, I hope) ahead of me.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Holiday Treats

Each year I try to bake anywhere from 8-15 different types of cookies to give to friends as a holiday treat. I have expanded the cookie list to include breads and other fun "accessories," such as chocolate coated spoons, chocolate covered pretzels, flavored vinegars, etc.

Even though I do return to some of the same tried and true recipes each year, I do like to find new ones to experiment with. Here are some of the sites with recipes I'm going to try:
Cookie Recipes - Joy of Baking
Cookie Recipes at Epicurious
1st Traveler's Choice Internet Cookbook: Cookie Recipes

Saturday, November 18, 2006

On the Joys of Planning

My students spend a great deal of time writing lesson plans. This semester, we are focused on elementary science and social studies. Students follow the lesson plan format devised by the department some time ago. This basic outline ensures that throughout their preparation they have some stability in expectations across courses and instructors. It also allows us to see growth over time as students progress through the program.

In speaking with colleagues at other institutions in recent weeks, I was surprised to find that they require their students to create all their lessons from scratch. FROM SCRATCH! Okay, so I'm a bit confused. Why ask a novice, with no real ideas about how to teach a topic, how long it will take to do so, how to organize it, etc. (I could go on here), to reinvent the wheel? We don't expect classroom teachers to do this, why would we expect those new to the profession to undertake this task? With so many wonderful resources available, I cannot for the life of me understand this position.

This recent posting, Planning Insanity, only serves to confirm my views on this matter. Read on for an enlightened perspective from a first year teacher.

93rd Carnival of Education

So many thoughts, so little time. Read this gem for a range of ideas on education.
93rd Carnival of Education: Get Your Feast On

For thoughts on teaching in higher education, read Teaching Carnival XVI at:
Ancarret's Abode

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

One Great Gift

Last night when I put my son to bed, we went through the usual routine. We read three books, Fire Cat by Esther Averill, Inch by Inch by Leo Lionni, and Sharks Lift-the-Flap. Once we finished reading, we talked about the books, recapped the day at school, and briefly chatted about the days ahead. We were happily talking about Thanksgiving and the upcoming visit from my parents, when I mentioned there would be no school on Thursday or Friday next week. The sudden flood of tears from my son's eyes shocked me. Why was he crying?
"What's wrong, sweetie?"
"Mommy, they can't cancel school Friday. I have to go!"
"But honey, no one will be in school Friday. It's a holiday."
"No, I don't want the day off! I'm going to miss the library!"
More than 24 hours later, I am still smiling. It isn't art, music, gym, or computers he's concerned about missing, it's time in the LIBRARY - precious time to return the "old" book and find a new one. This week's choice was The Enormous Crocodile by Roald Dahl. I have to admit, this was one Dahl book I had not read. It's long, but William simply loved it.

As for the day after Thanksgiving, we'll not be joining the madness of holiday shopping, but rather will be heading to our local library to check out some books. What a gift!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Three Classes Left ... And Counting

It always happens this time of year. I look at the calendar and my syllabus, shake my head in disbelief that another semester has come nearly to an end, and then panic when I realize that I haven't "covered" nearly as much as intended. But then I am reminded of Eisner when he says, “The aim of the educational process inside schools is not to finish something, but to start something. It is not to cover the curriculum, but to uncover it.” What have I uncovered this semester, and exactly what have I started?

My students are hoping to one day be future teachers. I don't doubt for a minute that they will succeed. They are extremely bright, enthusiastic, hardworking and creative. So far they have all demonstrated that they have the skills and the heart to succeed. This semester, we are specifically focused on the importance and place of science and social studies in the elementary curriculum. There is far too much information to fit neatly into a one-semester course in any depth, so I hope to uncover just enough of the pedagogies and content to spark an interest in students that will leave them wanting to know more. We have experienced that "aha-moment" together while working through the phases of the learning cycle, looked at the role of children's literature in the disciplines, experimented with web-based mapping and virtual globes, and wherever possible, looked at ways to integrate the curriculum.

Even though our weekly class sessions last 2 hours and 40 minutes, they all come to an end long before I have made my way through the entire lesson plan. (Teaching middle school students taught me long ago to over plan.) They leave and I wonder if we have made progress. Do they get it? Can I do more? What did I miss? What did they miss? Will they be ready? I can only hope that when this is over, that I have shown them where to find good ideas and verify the content of instruction, how to plan for instruction, and most of all, how to deliver instruction that meets the mandated curriculum (wherever they go) in a way that is most meaningful for students. And most of all, I hope they can do all this with enthusiasm, with love for the subject, and a desire to spark a passion in their own students for these things.

So with only three classes left, I have a lot of work left to do. Class is tomorrow, so I best get to it.

Friday, November 10, 2006

The Mañana Gene

Okay, it's Friday afternoon and I have 20 minutes left before I must leave to get my son off the bus. What have I done today?! Well, that's a really good question. I spent 2 hours in a department meeting, another hour revising documents based on aforementioned meeting, and an hour or so staring at my computer screen while alternately typing and deleting the annual grant report due Monday. Did I mention it needs to be proofed by the Grants Office before then? I usually work better under pressure and accomplish more when I have loads of work on my plate, but lately, that wonderful mañana gene has been kicking in. As Scarlett says, "I can't think about that right now. If I do, I'll go crazy. I'll think about that tomorrow. "

And as for a really meaningful blog, well that too can wait until tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Parent-Teacher Conference From the Other Side of the Desk

Last night I had my first Parent-Teacher conference as a parent. It was very strange. As a teacher, these conferences always made me nervous. The parents I really needed to see rarely came, and those who did mostly seemed concerned that I wasn't doing enough for their children. How do you meet the needs of every student when you see 80+ kids per day?

As a parent, sitting with William's teacher was both affirming and disconcerting. William is a kind and caring child, so I was confident that behavior and personality would not be issues. He's happy in school and right on track, so I knew academics would not be concerns either. My biggest concern was in fact, his teacher's concern. I have a kid who hates to make mistakes, puts too much pressure on himself to get everything right, and just wants to be downright perfect. Drat! The one character trait I desperately wanted him not to have, he displays in spades.

Okay, I'll admit to being a perfectionist (see profile). My dissertation advisor called me ABC (A Bit Compulsive). I thought for sure that having a child would force me to change in ways unforeseen, but sadly, this was not one of them. I should have known when at age 2 he lined up all the refrigerator magnets in nice neat rows that I had given birth to a clone. My brother tormented me as a child by rearranging the pushpins on my bulletin board so that the colors didn't match, and turning my pictures askew, so it seems reasonable, though unfortunate, that William has inherited my tendency towards this particular compulsion.

I was thrilled with the fantastic report I received from William's teacher, but found myself wondering on the drive home, how do I fix this? How do I teach him it's okay to make mistakes, that everyone does, and that this is really what learning is all about? I'm not sure, but when I find out, I'll let you know.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Why Miss Rumphius

I do not IM or text message, so, as my students so frequently remind me, I am a bit behind the times. I am not interested in FaceBook or MySpace, so I have decided to make my foray into this online world in the form of a blog. So today I launch The Miss Rumphius Effect. As for the title, I selected it because I am living my life in the shadow of Miss Rumphius and trying to live by these words:
"When I grow up, I too will go to faraway places, and when I grow old, I too will live beside the sea."
That is all very well, little Alice," said her grandfather, "but there is a third thing you must do."
"What is that?" asked Alice.
You must do something to make the world more beautiful," said her grandfather.
"All right," said Alice. But she did not know what that could be.
Miss Rumphius planted lupines, but I want to do so much more. What could that be? Like young Alice, I still do not know. When I find the answer, I'll let you know.