Friday, May 30, 2008

Celebration Time

I was the proverbial kid in the candy shop picking out books for the tutoring group that I had organized and which was sponsored by Christ Covenant Church. Not too many things can make me happier than being told I could spend whatever I wanted to on books—besides giving the books away and seeing the children's excited responses. On Monday as I headed towards the cash register at Border's with two large piles of books, I hoped that I had chosen ones that would interest the kids—you never can tell if you'll hit home or not. I picked some of my and my own children's favorites—The Yearling, Artemis Fowl
(now in a graphic novel), a collection of Tintin stories, and Shiloh
were among the stack.

Tuesday afternoon we held our end-of-the-year-celebration at one of the tutor's homes. Each child had the opportunity to ride a horse, which was no doubt the highlight of the party. However, I think a close second was that everyone received one or two books. Quoting Linda Gambrrell's message in a recent Reading Today,I told them that one of the most important things they could do over the summer was to read. I hope they got the message!

One of the youngest, a struggling kindergarten reader, looked at his new collection of Frog and Toad and said, "We have these books in school." His little face scrunched up and he seemed confused as to why he was receiving a book that obviously belonged in his classroom.

I squatted down next to him and said, "Now you have your own copy." After that, he walked around showing it to his friends and promised me that he would read it to me in September. I wish I had thought to take his picture, or one of the boy leafing through his book on dinosaurs, or one of his friend who was looking at a book about cars and trying to figure out what a Mad Lib was. I was too busy giving out books, happy that my selections had found new homes with growing readers.

This time of year, many of you receive thank you notes from students and parents. Here are three that made my time with these students worth every minute:

"A simple thank you does not seem to be enough words to say how much we appreciate you and all you've done week after week." (From the parent who weekly brought the 12 students to the church.)

Without editing, from two students:

"Thank you for helping me with my homework and stuff and reading homework to. It was really fun having a tutor for me." A 4th grader.

"Thank you for doing so much for us. We all know it's the last time we will come to tutoring. We loved your tutoring. I hope you injoyed our company. And I want to wish you all a happy and safe summer vacation." A 4th grader.

Makes me look forward to September. How about you?

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Monday, May 26, 2008

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

"If you do start to read this book, you will go on a journey with a nine-year-old boy called Bruno. (Though this book isn't a book for nine-year-olds.) And sooner or later you will arrive with Bruno at a fence. Fences like this exist all over the world. We hope you never have to encounter such a fence."

This description from the cover flap of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (or in my case, on the cover of the CD) piqued my curiosity, but I was totally unprepared for the drama that lay in store for me. Told from the perspective of the son of a newly-appointed Commandant, young Bruno's voice of innocence permeates this atypical Holocaust story. The story opens with Bruno receiving the news that his family is packing up his beloved house in Berlin to move to an undisclosed location. The servants will only tell him that the sudden move has something to do with his father's important, yet highly secretive, job. Not pleased with the news that he has to leave his three best friends with whom he goes on exploring adventures, or that his "Hopeless Case" sister Gretel is also coming, Bruno contemplates the events in the unfolding days with a quiet seriousness. He is at the same time inquisitive (the explorer in him) and naïve (why do all of the boys, men, and grandfathers who live on the other side of the fence wear gray-striped pajamas? And if his father knew about the horrible huts they lived in, wouldn't he do something about it?) These traits are both endearing, and his downfall.

As the story develops, the reader sees life though the eyes of this young boy. We meet "The Fury" ("he was the rudest guest Bruno had ever witnessed.... he walked directly into the dining room and sat down at the head of the table—in Father's seat!"); and Shmuel, the boy who "happens to be on the other side of the fence" who Bruno finds out with delight, was also forced to leave his home—solidifying the friendship that Bruno longs for. Bruno struggles to make sense of the fence that separates the two of them, wondering why he can't crawl under it to play with Shmuel and the hundreds of other boys that Bruno imagines are happily living there.

It is this desire for the simple pleasures of boyhood friendships that propels Bruno into his final "adventure". The sad ending, as unfortunately inevitable as war, prejudice, and discrimination; hits the reader with bomb-like force. I would recommend it for 7th graders and up, in conjunction with holocaust studies; or, in language arts, to discuss a character's voice. Bruno's distinct but naïve voice is evident in his comments to Shmuel about his clothing, the camp…even about Poland itself. As the book jacket testifies, this is not a book for nine-year-olds. But it is a book that will certainly prompt thought-provoking discussions in the classroom. (Random House, 2006)Technorati Tags:
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Monday, May 19, 2008

Playing on my new HP

Don't you just hate the fact that your 19-year-old can get on your new computer and instantly be at home, navigating all over the place, without a moment's hesitation? I'm now on my fourth or fifth computer and even though I'm not the scaredy cat that I was 25 years ago with my Kaypro II (anyone else remember those monsters with tiny screens from the first days of personal computers?) when it sat on my desk and I wouldn't even touch it for a week for fear of breaking it, I still have an awe that keeps me at bay for the first few weeks of new computer ownership. Last week, after lugging my aging 13 lb laptop (including power cord) through the Georgia World Congress Center, I bought a 4 lb HP Pavilion. The touch screen and tablet capabilities are very cool and will add a new dimension to my powerpoint presentations for teachers. I can't wait to master the webcam and all of the other nifty gadgets packed into a machine that is half the size of the notebook binders I carried in high school. Of course, I'm not like Lori, who within minutes was chasing little colored balls by running the tablet pen all over the screen …but I'm getting there. Isn't it funny how as we get older and our memories get slower, our computers get smaller and their memories get faster? I guess it's a good thing. I sure wouldn't want it the other way around!

Now, if someone can tell me how to get the little orange ball into the orange hole and the blue ball into the blue hole, maybe I could give Lori some Ink Ball competition.

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The Neddiad

What kid isn't going to like a book in which the main character boards a fancy train headed to Los Angeles; is abandoned among cowboys in Flagstaff, Arizona; meets a famous movie star; and has a gun pulled on him during an airplane ride over the Grand Canyon? Personally, I can't imagine an adult not enjoying this fantastical novel by Daniel Pinkwater (Houghton Mifflin, 2007). If this doesn't sound like enough fun and excitement, then throw in a ride on a circus elephant, outwitting a movie producer who wants to take over the world, being an extra in the evil producer's movie along with your school buddies, and a mammoth who wanders into the circus one day.

Sound something like a crazy ride in an amusement park? You bet. Is it a little wacky? More than just a bit. In fact, the wild mixture of fantasy and fiction increases as the book progresses. But readers need to beware. Although the La Brea Tar Pits and The Brown Derby are real places—fantasy including shamans, ghosts, and sacred turtles are part of the roller coaster ride of the book.
As a Christian who believes in creation, I was uncomfortable with the manner in which Pinkwater intertwined evolution into the story presenting it as irrefutable truth. But the book is well-written and funny and will engage boy and girl readers from 4th-8th grade. In the classroom I would recommend using it to show how fantasy must be internally believable, despite the fact that the premise might be outlandish.
After reading the book, I discovered that Pinkwater published weekly chapters online. The sequel,Yggyssey, can now be read the same way.
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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

IRA-2008- Part 2

In her "Ode to David Letterman" Linda Gambrell (president of IRA) presented these as her top 10 reasons for pleasure reading in her keynote address:

10. Reading exercises the brain.

9. Reading helps you become fluent in a second language- text language.

8. The more you read the smarter you get. (Anne Cunningham and Keith Stanovich)

7. Reading takes you places when you have to stay where you are.

6. The reading practice you get from pleasure reading may not make you a perfect reader, but it will surely make you a better reader.

5. People who read are people who achieve. (Benjamin Carson, MD, Pediatric Neurosurgery, Johns Hopkins University)

4. Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read. (Grocho Marx)

3. It is not true that we have only one life to live; if we can read we can live more lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish. (S.I. Hayakawa, educator and politician)

2. The more that you read the more things you will know; the more that you learn the more places you'll go. (Dr. Seuss)

And last, but not least:

  1. If you're going to binge, literature is definitely the way to do it. (Oprah Winfrey)
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Wednesday, May 7, 2008

IRA, 2008- Part One

Even for a writer, it is hard to describe the energy and enthusiasm of 20,000 reading teachers, principals, and literacy coaches who came together to learn the latest methods to teach reading and writing. The World Congress Center in Atlanta, Ga. was packed this week with educators to whom "Reading Matters"- as the pin, which I acquired from a vendor selling Teaching the Story proudly, proclaimed. As Linda Gambrell, outgoing IRA president said at the Keynote on Monday morning, "We want our students to be readers, writers, and critical thinkers. Through reading, we become better at understanding ourselves and the world around us." Highlights from this conference were:

  • Close to 100 people at my session…and every single educator enthusiastically involved in creating an original character. Together we looked at three mentor texts: Peter Pan in Scarlet, Blue, and Brian's Return
    and how the authors showed their memorable characters FAST- through their feelings, actions, speech, and thoughts.
  • Selling my book to a woman from the Philippines who started her own K-6 school. To my knowledge, that is the furthest away that Teaching the Story has travelled. (Imagine the stories that those students will write!)
  • Sharing a room with Margriet Ruurs, author of over 10 picture books as well as several Maupin House books on writing poetry. Sitting on her bed, Julie Graddy (Maupin House's publisher) and I had the privilege of previewing Margriet's presentation on My Librarian is a Camel
    and hearing some of the amazing stories behind the book. Winner of the Silver IRA award for Global awareness, I would recommend this book for children as a window into seeing how children in other countries value books and some very unique "book mobiles" around the world. By the way, Margriet is also the editor for Kids Write—an online magazine where students can publish their stories- a resource which I recommend in my book!
  • And as pictured here, having dinner with Margriet and part of the Maupin House team: Julie Graddy, Rita Beck, and Laura Lok.

    Stay tuned. More on the conference in my next blog.

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Sunday, May 4, 2008

Blogging Benefits Teen Writers

A recent report featured in E-School News, indicated that teens who blog write more frequently both online and offline, according to a study by Pew Internet and American Life Project with support from the College Board and its National Commission on Writing.

In fact, "Forty-seven percent of teen bloggers write outside of school for personal reasons several times a week or more, compared with 33 percent of teens without blogs. Sixty-five percent of teen bloggers believe that writing is essential to later success in life; 53 percent of non-bloggers say the same thing."

The report goes on to quote Bradley A. Hammer, who teaches in Duke University's writing program. "In real ways, blogging and other forms of virtual debate actually foster the very types of intellectual exchange, analysis, and argumentative writing that universities value," he wrote in an op-ed piece last August." Be sure to read his full article in which he defends the use of blogs and other alternative forms of written expression in his university classroom.

I know as an avid blogger myself, that I feel a responsibility to organize my thoughts in a well-written format before hitting the "publish" button. One has to take the responsibility of writing to an audience very seriously. Similarly, blogging is not only a way for teens and young adults to use their writing skills for a specific task for a specific audience, but appears to be a promising new tool for language arts teachers as well.

I am writing this from Atlanta, where tomorrow I will be presenting a session at the IRA on, "Learn from the Masters: How Creating a Fictional Character Enhances Reading Instruction." Hopefully, afterwards I'll have the opportunity to talk to lots of teachers about the benefits of writing short fiction as well as the benefits of blogging!

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