Tag Archives: read aloud

In Their Own Words (A Book Review)

When I was about ten, I spent a full year checking out, then renewing, my favorite book from the library. Finally for my birthday my mom and dad gave me a gift certificate to my favorite bookstore, The Red Balloon, who special ordered the book for me. What was the name of the book? My Prairie Year, based on the diary of Elenore Plaisted.

my prairie year

The book was put together by Elenore’s granddaughter. I made my mom read the book to me over and over again. I loved hearing about the different tasks involved in living out in the prairie. I imagined running through the sheets drying on the clothes line. I was thankful I didn’t have to warm the irons up on the stove before pressing my clothes. I loved reading about how Father tied a string from the barn to the house so that he wouldn’t get lost when he went to the barn to milk the cows during the winter blizzard. (I thought about tying a string from my house to my garage several times this winter, just in case.)

The book made homesteading in the Dakotas in the late 1800s come alive for me. And the pencil drawn illustrations are beautiful.

When I started teaching, I came across another book that I loved almost as much. It has become a “sacred text” in my classroom, which means that we read it again and again. This book, also a memoir, is called When I Was Young In The Mountains by Cynthia Rylant.

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Though the setting is in the mountains of Appalachia, there are many obvious comparisons. Rylant uses incredible imagery as she tells of visiting her grandparents home in the mountains. In prose so lyrical it almost reads as poetry, she illuminates everyday events, such as eating so much okra that she makes herself sick, warming up water for the evening bath in the old wood stove, being baptized in the local pond, and killing a snake as long as a room.

My love of memoir has grown with me as I have gotten older. The stories we tell of our lives are some of the most precious gifts we can give. Both these women have given incredible gifts of time, place, and adventure. In continuing the Women’s History Month theme, I wanted to highlight their voices and their stories.

In my own classroom, I use these books as “mentor texts” to highlight personal narratives in writing. In my home, I can’t wait to read stories to my little boy that tell of women like these two, strong and courageous. (Because it’s important to grow strong daughters, but it’s just as important to grow sons who respect strong daughters.)

My hope is that they will be well loved books in many others’ libraries.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

Intended Audience: All ages

Book Review: The Strong Women Who Lead the Way

She’s relatively well known at this point, but I stumbled upon Jeanette Winter’s book The Librarian of Basra at the closing of an art show featuring the silk road. It was my first year of teaching, and they were selling huge bolts of satin fabric, perfect for my bulletin boards. There, in the middle of the room, was a copy of the Librarian of Basra. No dust jacket. On sale for $5.

That was a little more than I would usually pay for a used book, but something about the book grabbed me, and I added it to the mounds of fabric and brought it to check out. I didn’t know it at time, but I had just found my new favorite picture book author and illustrator.

Jeanette Winter has written and illustrated many books. My favorite of her books are biographies about various women of note. In honor of Women’s History Month, here are a few of my favorite titles, featuring three brave women:

The_Librarian_of_BasraThe Librarian of Basra: This book was my first introduction to Jeanette Winter. In it, she tells the story of Alia Muhammad Baker, a librarian in Iraq. When the Iraq war started, Alia could not get the officials in her city to approve the relocation of the library. With incredible bravery, she took matters into her own hands. This story tells of one woman’s courage to fight for what she knew was right. The pictures show some very important images of war, which always capture my students’ attention, and leads to meaningful discussion.

indexWangari’s Trees of Peace: Not knowing my budding appreciation of Winter, my mother bought this book for my students after reading about Wangari Matthai’s incredible testimony of bringing back green to her homeland of Kenya with the simple and powerful act of planting trees. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, this book tells her story, and like Alia Muhammad Baker, details the bravery and courage it takes to stand up for change. Along with the book, my mother sent a package of dates, since many of the trees planted were date trees. Not all of my students were convinced, but it was fun to try something new.

georgiaoGeorgia:  In Georgia, Winter tells the story of Georgia O’Keefe, starting from when she was a small child, and going through until her death. Though her story of bravery is somewhat different from Alia’s and Wangari’s, Winter explains how she was willing to stay true to who she knew she was, despite that necessitating going against the grain. “When my sisters wore sashes-I didn’t. When my sisters wore stockings-I wore none.” This is an excellent book to use to celebrate the beautiful creations that come from being willing to leave the crowd and march to the beat of your own drum.

Like I said, Winter has many, many books. I get excited each time I see a new hardcover picture book with her name printed on the spine. They are well worth making a trip to the local library or bookstore to check out.

Intended ages: 8 and up

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

De-Stress THE TEST!

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So, the time for standardized testing has nearly arrived.  Kids across the country will soon spend hours carefully filling in bubbles with #2 pencils, or writing essays in response to a specific prompt, or writing out a specific explanation of the steps and calculations used to solve a math problem. Despite all the teaching and learning that took place in the days before, together with the constant and sometimes frantic test prep, this is a stressful time for families of students and teachers, for teachers and, primarily, for students.

This week’s teaching tip focuses on ways to de-stress the classroom and keep students motivated.  It also includes some ideas to help families and kids handle the stress of testing days.

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Helping the Classroom Community “Chill”

The kids know the test is important – to them, to their teachers, and to their school.  They’ve been working steadily and often by the first day of testing, they are apprehensive and anxious.  And for good reason:  everyone has been telling them (for months!) that they MUST “do their best on the test.”  A good dose of adrenalin might help kids focus, but true worry and fear can block the ability to think clearly and rationally.

There’s nothing like having a kid enter the classroom and vomit all over her desk because of nervous agitation.  Not an auspicious start to bubbling in the circles for anyone in that classroom.

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Here is a list of ideas to help your students keep it together so that they can deal with the unavoidable stress of high-stakes testing:

The Power of Positive Thinking:  Students, no matter where they fall in terms of quartiles, should believe in their ability to perform on the test. Teachers, you’ve prepared your students.  Parents, you’ve helped your kids with homework all year.  The week before the test, it is time to talk about the worry and then throw it out the window.  Let them know you believe in them and their ability.  Remind them that you’ve been working to reach this point all year – there is nothing to worry about. And remind them, it’s about the learning.  Period.  Tests tell us what we know, what we don’t know and what we still need to learn.  That’s it.

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Empowering Pre-Test Activities:  Our students are so resourceful and so darn clever.  To empower them, which in turn will help them manage their stress levels, two days before testing give them a fun task to create in collaborative groups.  There is so much “shhhh” on test days – let them use this pre-test time to engage and talk together while working.  Some ideas of collaborative projects which can be adapted easily to your classroom or school needs:

  • Create a video: Students can rewrite the lyrics of a popular, upbeat song and then record themselves performing it. Some schools have gone so far as making a school-wide video: Test Taker Face  and Hunger Games: Testing Version.  Post on your school’s website.
  • Share test-taking strategies with a partner classroom:  Partner with a teacher of a different grade and have the older students mentor the younger students on test taking strategies and advice.  Empowers all ages and builds school community.
  • Poetry and Posters:  Students could partner or work in small groups to create poetry about testing and then publishing the work in a poster to be displayed on a school bulletin board.
  • School-wide Pep Rally: Watch your video(s) at the school-wide rally where kids have a poetry jam using the poetry they’ve written or give motivational speeches on rocking the test and the principal tells all students that he/she knows they all will do well.  Not too preachy – just fun.
  • Mindfulness Practice:  Work  together as a classroom community on breathing exercises and even some guided meditation a couple of days beforehand and then on the day of the test to help students be centered and focused.  Here’s a link to a blog called “Kid’s Relaxation” with short guided meditation scripts free of charge.

Standardized Tests

The Powerful Parent Connection Enlist your parents – they want to help.  A couple of months before testing, after being besieged by moms and dads who wanted to know how to get their children ready for the test, we sent home this letter: Parent Test Prep Letter.  It gave them some ideas for supporting kids during the months  prior to the test.  A couple of days before the test, send your parents a letter reminding them of the testing window, encouraging them to get their kids to bed early (importance of a good night’s rest), stating the need for a good breakfast (but not too heavy), and stressing the importance of arriving at school on time.

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Test Day Decompressors:  Here is a list of some potential supports for the days you actually test:

  • Distribute sport-sized water bottles and mints to each student to have on hand during the test (peppermint may stimulate brain activity).  
  • Some classrooms may respond to tapes of ocean waves or other natural sounds (I would avoid running water as that might increase trips to the bathroom).  
  • Use Guided Meditation, Breathing and Stretching Exercises (see above and our prior post on yoga in the classroom)worry stones
  • Present Worry Stones: I used worry stones in my classroom and would distribute them to my students prior to the start of the test as part of a mindfulness routine and to help ease the tension in the room.  I would use smooth stones or jewels from the dollar store or target and wrap them with a card that had a worry stone saying on one side and an encouraging personal note to each student on the other.  You can also make your own stones using clay as shown here.  Here’s a template of the poem I used: Worry Stone Poem.  I explained that if you hold a worry stone between  the index finger and thumb, rubbing them is believed to lessen one’s worries.  This action is a stim which usually creates feelings of calmness, reduces stress levels and encourages focus during testing.  My students loved the ritual around the worry stones (I solemnly passed them out to each student the first day of testing) and some of the younger kids who came into my class the following year asked for them prior to testing. Here’s a great read-aloud to use prior to testing:worry stone
  • Have on hand Relaxing stuff to do after the test but before everyone else is finished:  Coloring sheets (Mandalas), crossword puzzles, word searches, and glyphs are great options.  Materials should be organized and handy so that there is minimal movement in the classroom while other kids are finishing up testing.  I found that these activities were soothing and calming, especially coloring!
  • Don’t forget the SNACKS/TREATS as a pre-test AND post-test incentive!  Take a look at these really cute ideas for testing treats and explore Pinterest for others.  Here are photos of a couple of other ideas: 
      test day incentive2Test day incentive

A Final Note to Familes and Friends of Teachers:  Testing days are stressful for students and for teachers.  It might be a good time to nurture the teacher in your life:  Bring over a casserole, a $5 Starbucks card, walk the dog or write an inspiring note.  I had a dear friend who made me an inspirational quote a day countdown where I flipped through a stack of cheerful notecards with thoughtful sayings each day.  You can bring over a great book to read (a page turner, nothing to do with teaching) or offer to walk with him or her after school as they decompress and listen as they process their day.  Grab a movie from Redbox and drop it off with some microwave popcorn.   Or better yet, treat your favorite teacher to a yoga class!

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De-stress and Namaste.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_n - Version 2Karen

Book Review: Wallace’s Lists by Barbara Bottner and Gerald Kruglik

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Every so often you stumble upon a book that so moves you, you can’t stop thinking about it, telling people about it, and reading it over and over again. Wallace’s Lists is that book.

Wallace is a lovable, extremely rule-bound character. Each day he makes lists, and only allows himself to do what is on his list. This is safe and comfortable for Wallace, until Albert moves in next door.

Albert is the curve to Wallace’s line. He is the artistic, free-spirited neighbor who confuses and intrigues Wallace. As quickly as Wallace can update his lists to accommodate Albert’s ideas, Albert develops new ideas. Albert loves changing his mind. “Changing my mind is an adventure,” he explains. But Wallace does not like adventure.

Wallace is faced with a dilemma. Stick with his familiar lists, or risk going “off-list” to continue his friendship with Albert.

This book speaks to me. I find myself cheering for Wallace, willing him to be brave, all the while deeply understanding the fear-scape of “what ifs” he imagines while falling asleep at night. When faced with my own fears, I too question adventure.

But ultimately, it is a story of friendship, and the ways that friends allow and even compel us to be brave, to do more and become more than we would on our own.

The book is an excellent way of teaching internal conflict, bravery, and friendship. Plus, there’s a lot of inferred humor.  Not surprisingly, this book is never available in our classroom library, but is passed like contraband under the desks from student to student.

The illustrations in this book are wonderful (done by Olof Landstrom). When I’ve read it aloud to my students, they often make me stop and let them get closer to the illustrations.

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I would recommend this book for all ages, and believe that the older you are, the more you will appreciate it.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_n-Rachel