Monday, March 2, 2015

Curriculum connections

From There to Here by Laurel Croza and Matt James is a terrific picture book that would pair perfectly with the Alberta curriculum for the grade 2 social studies unit about communities.  It’s the sequel to I Know Here that also fits well with this curriculum topic.

In both books, our protagonist is an observant little girl who looks at the community where she lives.

In I Know Here, she revels in the community she’s a part of in rural Saskatchewan.  Her father has been building a dam and all the members of this community are involved in the same project. She loves the forest that’s behind her trailer: the wild animals that she hears and encounters, the dirt packed road lined with trailers of her neighbours, the school with a very understanding teacher and of course, the other kids she’s come to know.  It’s a great place to live and to have adventures.  When the dam project is completed the community will disperse to pursue employment elsewhere.  Our little girl is anxious about the move to the city of Toronto.

In the second book, From There to Here she’s learning about this place and making comparisons between her last home and this new one.  There are many differences: her father doesn't come home for lunch, everyone locks their doors, the roads are paved and there are few trees. When living in Saskatchewan all the children played and hung out together doing the same thing because there were so few of them.  In Toronto, the protagonist’s brother is off with his friends to some kind of exhibition which she’s too young to attend.  Though all these differences are noted and let us know how discombobulated the little girl is, it’s when there’s a knock on the door and new-friend-to-be-made, Anne, is there waiting, that we know that life will be okay.

I did think that the first book’s description of the little rural community very evocative and could feel the girl’s pain about leaving this place behind.  The description of Toronto is less suggestive of what it’s like as its being compared to what was left behind.  The illustrations give us a better look at this neighborhood in the big city.  The second book is about the differences between the two communities but also about resiliency and adjusting to new situations.  A new friend will be a big part of this little girl’s new life in Toronto.

A word about the illustrations – wonderful.  Very childlike drawings and fanciful use of colour help convey different feelings between the two locations. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Pink Shirt Day

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015 is Pink Shirt Day.

This is a day to commemorate anti-bullying efforts in schools and was the initiative of two students from Nova Scotia in 2013. After seeing a grade 9 boy bullied for wearing a pink shirt, they went to a local store, bought a bunch of pink tank tops and handed them out to the boys in school the next day.

Great example of student activism, wouldn't you say?

Bullying happens.  It happens a lot according to

Fact: Bullying happens to someone in Canada every 7 minutes on the playground.
“75% of people say they have been affected by bullying.” 
–from PrevNet

We hear lots in the media about it and of some of the dire consequences that stem from bullying.  Remember Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons as two very recent stories.

Check out ToThis Day by Shane Koyczan, a book of illustrations set to his poem that speaks to the pain that comes from bullying and the heroic effort needed to overcome the fallout. Great list of resources about bullying and anti-bullying at the end.

Mr. Koyczan recorded a reading of his poem on YouTube with animated visuals from dozens of illustrators and is well worth watching.

Don’t forget: this Wednesday, show some pink.

Monday, February 16, 2015

An apology

Dear Former Student Who-is-Now-Teaching and stopped by the Doucette recently,

I’d like to offer you an apology for not having read the novel-in-verse, Crossover by Kwame Alexander sooner.

I just finished reading this year's Newbery winner two days after you came to the Doucette looking for poetry that would engage junior high boys and satisfy the conservative leanings of your school administration and community of parents.

Your idea for using hip-hop sounded very intriguing but I could understand your reluctance to bring it into the classroom because you were worried what the parents of your students would think.  I know you felt a little stymied by this, and had hoped that we at the Doucette Library would be able to come up with something else that might work instead.

I, too, felt a little hindered by this though I’m glad you liked my suggestions of two books of concrete poetry by John Grandits, BlueLipstick and Technically, It’s Not My Fault. I love these books and hope that they’ll work for you.

But I really, really wished I had read Crossover just a little sooner. Take a look at the very first page of this story.

Even I, who am totally disinterested in basketball, can feel the movement, passion and intensity this character brings to his game.  The formatting is brilliant as it captures the moves of the player when he’s in the zone. 

So, Dear Former-Student, I think this book would have fit-the-bill for you.  I think the story would engage your grade 9 boys and satisfy the powers-that-be at the same time. 

There wouldn't be anything too objectionable in the storyline which is about twin brothers who are slowly coming into their own identities causing rifts between them.  Basketball, a passion for the whole family because the dad had been a former basketball star, always drew the boys together. But once one of the brothers starts dating and basketball becomes less of a priority, friction develops.  There is a lot of growth on the part of both boys and this family as a whole
Not all the poems are written as dynamically as the one above but a few are interspersed throughout the book and each carries that strong urban, contemporary vibe without becoming too edgy.

Again, in closing, please accept my apologies for not having read this book just a wee bit sooner.


Monday, February 9, 2015

Perfect Fit

A Bird on Water Street by Elizabeth O. Dulemba is a perfect novel to accompany the grade 6 science unit about trees in Alberta or any unit about trees for the middle grades, for that matter.

Here’s the opening paragraph:

Living in Coppertown was like living on the moon.  The whole area was raw ground, bare and bumpy from erosion ditches cuttin’ through every which way.  As far as the horizon, it looked like a wrinkled, brown paper bag. There weren't no bushes, nor grass neither – no green things weaving through to settle our homes in to the land and make ‘em look like they belonged.  So why did Miss Post bother teaching us about trees when we didn't have any?

Coppertown,Tennessee (circa. 1980s) is based on a real place and was very much a moonscape as described above while the copper mine was operating. The pollution produced from smelting and the resulting acid rain left the landscape bare of any vegetation and void of birds, insects, and animals.  Nylon stockings left to dry outside would be eaten by the rain.  Rain would sting as it hit bare skin.  Lack of vegetation meant that the soil would badly erode whenever it rained, too.  The author includes a few pictures of the town and area to give us a very good sense about the landscape.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

I got very excited as I read this book.  Because…

When I do a workshop about lesson planning for the student-teachers in the education program here at the University, I include an interactive component that requires the students to think about the Alberta Education objective for this particular unit:

Describe characteristics of trees and the interaction of trees with other living things in the local environment.

Not the most electrifying objective out there.  So the challenge is for students to come up with a more interesting question (really, an essential question if the time allowed) that could lead into an inquiry project and excite the imaginations of grade 6 students.

Students come up with all sorts of ideas but one that comes up pretty consistently is “What would the world be like without any trees?”

Hence, my excitement about   A Bird on Water Street.

Throughout the novel, Jack, the protagonist questions why things are the way they are.  He’s interested in nature, curious about plants, insects and birds he’s never seen.  With encouragement from his teacher, he reads about how plants grow and starts a garden. He’s fortunate that the mine is on strike so that the air isn't as toxic as usual and his tender seedlings have a chance to grow.  He doesn't want to be a miner like his father and struggles with the internal conflict he feels to go against family tradition.  There are several plot lines but the one with Jack exploring the natural world as best he can makes this book a perfect fit for a unit about trees.

This book provides an opportunity to introduce a language arts component into a science unit without any effort at all.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Early Reader Round up

Who doesn't like a laugh or two? And what better way is there to encourage new readers than with fun, action and much silliness?   The following three suggestions will pique interest and engage beginner readers resulting in the occasional snort, snicker and guffaw.  

The Princess in Black by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale
So-- not your typical princess in pink scenario.   This princess has a secret identity with lots of daring-do.  She’s able to handle a troublesome, blue-horned monster and quell the curiosity of a most –annoying Duchess at the same time without breaking a sweat or putting a run in her black stockings.  This action-packed romp includes lots of brightly colour illustrations contributing to the farcical nature of the story.

Tales of Bunjitsu Bunny by John Himmelman
No one can kick higher, hit harder or throw farther than Isabel, the best bunjitsu artist in her whole school.  But what’s even more important than her martial arts ability is her wisdom.  She would never use her powers to hurt another creature – unless she had to.  “Bunjitsu is not about kicking, hitting and throwing,” she said.  “It is about finding ways NOT to kick, hit, and throw.” So, what could have been a pretty preachy book is one with humour and gentle insights in to life’s challenges and adventures.  I thought her one clever bunjitsu bunny when she outsmarted a boat of greedy pirates in a very non-violent way.

These are part of a slightly older series of early readers but I think the likable characters, silliness and illustrations will engage readers with no problem.  Minnie and Moo are cows living in the country that end up in mischievous situations that always come out right.  Like the night Moo wishes for thumbs and to go dancing.  Well, wish one would be near impossible to grant so Minnie orchestrates wish number two.  After a little gussying-up, the two cows  crash the party of the farmer, mix in, shake things up, and gain two admirers.  Things are going well until Moo starts to eat a hamburger and Minnie suspects that it’s been made from two friends who are missing.  The HORROR!  But don’t worry, Moo isn't a cannibal and all ends well.

All recommended for Kindergarten to grade 2 or 3.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Graphic Novels Galore

I seem to have been on a graphic novel kick for the last month or so and found some new standalone books and series. Then there's always keeping up with the sequels to series already underway.

Here are some of my top picks:


Start of a grand adventure for a girl looking to become a monster tamer with a trio of evil monsters hot on her trail looking to retrieve a lost ball of golden, magical twine. Stay tuned - things are just getting good!

For the primary grades. A little girl wakes her baby sister with a great sense of excitement “because it’s Saturday”.  Everything is better on Saturday no matter the weather.  Whatever the circumstance, it’s gonna be a GREAT day!  Talk about a sunny disposition.

‘Wacky’ about covers it.  Really!  The beaver brothers become pitted against a trio of conniving baboons who are trying to fill their swimming pool with stolen melted snow from the mountain the brothers are skiing.

Middle School/Junior High

El Deafo by Cece Bell
Another childhood memoir about a little girl growing up deaf, experiencing regular school, learning (or not learning) sign language and the challenges of making friends.  Offers great perspective.

Sisters by Raina Telgemeier
Autobiographical, describes Raina’s relationship with her sister growing up. A family road trip across the US highlights the family dynamics in a very relatable way. If you've ever had a sibling drive you crazy, this one's for you.
Like this one?  See also Drama and Smile by R.T.

 Nonfiction history about the severe drought in the United States in the 1930s, its causes, agricultural implications and impact of the people who lived through it.  The illustrations are perfect for this with a dust bowl palette of browns, grays, and dirty yellow. Match this one up with Out of the dust by Karen Hess, The Storm in the barn by Matt Phelan, and Migrant mother by Don Nardo.

The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang
I really enjoyed this one for both the story and the history attached to it. Reading the afterward is well worth it. Imagine your mom deciding she wants you to become a superhero and forces to you to learn martial arts and then go out there and kick some evil butt. Obviously, this one has lots of humour with a good story about identity.  I hope there's more coming.

High School

Ms Marvel : Vol. 1, No Normal by G. Willow Wilson
A Muslim girl has a wish granted to become a superhero.  She must be true to herself, live up to her parents’ expectations and save the day, all at the same time. Good for grades 8/9 and up.

Saga, vol 1 by Brian K. Vaughn
An intergalactic Romeo and Juliet – the start of a grand adventure that seems to be introducing some very interesting story lines.  I’m looking forward to volume 2. Just to let you know, there's some sexual content.

Sumo by Thien Pham
A young man’s journey to find himself that takes him to Japan to train and compete as a sumo wrestler. Thoughtful yet easy read. Maybe a good choice for a struggling reader. 

Unwritten (Series) by Mike Carey and Peter Gross
A gripping series that involves a quest, mystery, an evil cabal and the power of stories (literally – how the power of story can change the world).  You need to pay attention to keep on top of the many characters and fast pace action.

Monday, January 19, 2015

God Went to Beauty School Ver.2.0

I’m taking this opportunity to plug a book that I love and have loved for a long time and recommend all the time because a revamped edition came out recently.  Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s a book that gets picked up all that much by student-teachers.

God Went to Beauty School by Cynthia Rylant was originally published in 2003 and has just a major overhaul.  It’s been reissued as God Got a Dog now published with beautiful illustrations by Marla Frazee.  This edition doesn't include all the poems found in the first book, reordering those remaining and with a few pronouns tweaked here and there. Overall, I liked the changes but deep down had hoped that this was going to be a new collection with continuing adventures for God.

This book tells what it would be like if God came to Earth and lived as real men, women or children of various races.  Each of these perspectives is reflected throughout the book to emphasize that God is to be found everywhere and in all of us whether as a lonely woman eating a spaghetti dinner, discovering cable TV for the first time, a teenage boy suffering with a cold or a black man named Jim, who loves to paint nails.

It’s an irreverent often humorous look at the ‘culture shock’ of being human, but also celebrates the many wonders of the world or reflects on the simple moments that compose ordinary lives.

Not being overly religious, I appreciate the breezy, cheeky tone of the book, but I know there will be those out there who will reject it for just that reason.    This God lives among people by living as one of us.  The illustrations are not overly elaborate and compliment the text beautifully with just a touch of lyricism.

Because it’s about God I wonder how teachers would or could use this book as it potentially could be contentious with parents, community, or school boards.  Great for a poetry unit but I worry that it doesn't make it into classrooms all that often.

I recommend this for grades 3 and up.

Some of my favorite lines:

From: God went to the doctor
And the doctor said, "You don't need me, You're God."And God said, "Well, you're pretty good at playing me, I figured you'd know what the problem was.
From: God caught a cold- 
And He was such a baby.  He NEVER caught colds. He loved to brag about it. And now here He was snot nosed. It's hard to be authoritative with a cold.  It's hard to thunder 'THOU SHALT NOT!' when it comes out 'THOU SHALT DOT!'  Nobody takes him seriously. 
From: God made spaghetti
And She didn't have a ceiling so She tried to make it stick to Jupiter but that just vaporized the noodle, so God decided to HAVE FAITH it was cooked al dente.

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