Monday, December 27, 2010

Wishing you all a Happy New Year

Happy New Year Everyone!
I'm not posting any blogs for the next week as I'm taking a break over the holidays, hoping to get a little reading done, enjoy my company and relax for a bit.
Thanks to all you who continue to pop into Apples with Many Seeds.
I'll see you in the 2011.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Heat is on

The ease with which we can ignite a flame, whether lighting a candle or starting a fire, is something we all take for granted.  But fire, as a subject for study, has the intrinsic value of opposing qualities.  Yes, we’ll learn about heat and light but we’ll also learn about the destructive nature of fire, as well.   There’s a certain inherent tension with a topic like this.

50 burning questions: a sizzling history of fire by Tanya Lloyd Kyi (304.2 KyF 2010) is a compilation of the various aspects of fire, combining social history, science, and technological development.  In another words, my kind of book, and it really sets up ‘fire’, presenting all that is good and bad about it.

It starts with a look at the advantages fire would have had for early humans; protection from animals, heat and light.  If nothing else, we learn just how adaptive humans really are.
          *Who would have thought that a good light source would be a smelly, oily fish?  The Northwest Coast First Nations peoples did, when they discovered that an oolichan fish would burn very much like a candle.

          *Who would have thought that baking clay would result in a waterproof container?
 Earliest evidence comes from eastern European about 27,000 years ago.

          *Who would have thought that fire could be used as a means for communication? The light from stone towers set along coastlines warned sailors of danger or smoke generated from wood fires acted as early warning systems.

Very inventive.

Try out a few of the activities spread throughout the book to really understand some of the principles involved.

The book also provides lots interesting information about our emotional and psychological connections with fire, too.  Think about this in terms of religion and folklore.  Many stories relate how humans came to have fire and the importance of light.  There is a powerful response when we think about the Nazi book burnings of the 1930s and 40s with huge bonfires burning thousands of books.  Or tall crosses burning in front of people’s houses as a way to create fear by the Klu Klux Klan.  Or the fear generated by the spread of wildfires that may or may not have been set by arsonists as was the case in 2009 in Australia or in California during the 1980s.  The power of fire is very real on many levels.

If you think this book sounds familiar, you’d be right.  In 2007, Annick Press published Burn: the life story of fire by the same author.  The information in that book was pretty much the same as 50 burning questions without the colourful, fun, and often goofy graphics.  50 burning questions would have more kid appeal.

Monday, December 20, 2010

“I love my father like salt.”

The above quote is from Shakespeare’s King Lear and is how Cordelia measures her love for her father – which he totally misunderstands.  For her, food is tasteless without salt and thus, nothing is more important than salt.  This was so for many people and nations throughout history.

I love it when I get to see something in a new light especially when it’s something I pretty much take for granted.  Like salt, for example.

Recently, I’ve been enjoying the book At Home by Bill Bryson which is an interesting trip through history via the house, its rooms and all that we can find in it.  Going from room to room, we get a grand tour of social history, geography, science, and technology (everything but the kitchen sink, you might say). And he makes it such an entertaining trip.  Lots of digressions that deal with the nitty gritty of being human, really.  And he mentions salt. And pepper, for that matter.

I can tell you at once that nothing you touch today will have more bloodshed, suffering, and woe attached to it than the innocuous twin pillars of your salt and pepper set.

Whoa, that’s a lot of drama for something that sits on my dinner table.

The Story of Salt by Mark Kurlansky and S.D. Schindler (553.632 KUS 2006) takes this fascinating topic and spins out the history and science of this substance – its chemical makeup, why the body needs it, which countries exploited it for economic reasons, and how people have used it for centuries.  This is an adaptation of his adult best seller, making it accessible for kids, ages 9-12.

The grand narrative that is attached to this everyday item makes it ideal for connecting content areas across the curriculum.  Take a unit about explorers and exploration.  Salt as a preservative was important as it enabled people to travel long distances with food readily available to eat or trade.  Also, salt was of major economic importance for many countries such as China, Rome, France, India, Mexico and the United States, to name only a few, and typically remained in the hands of government for this reason.

There are lots of science connections, too. Let’s start with geology and learn about the connection between oil and salt domes.  For health, learn about the biological requirements of humans and other animals for salt.  Technological advancements in preservation changed the role of salt as a preservative.  Industrial uses for the separate components of salt, sodium and chlorine have also been exploited to make pharmaceuticals, baking soda, explosives and bleach.

For such a ho-hum kind of thing, salt has amazing potential for the classroom.  What would we do without it?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Guest blogger - Ken Dyer

Ken Dyer, (teaching English to university students in China) has written a couple of blogs over the last couple of months.  This is his latest posting about how he develops his lessons and what resources he uses in the classroom.   

Teaching Materials and Unit Development for Classes in China

If you think it’s easy to create lessons in China you would be quite wrong. I don’t create any of my units in China and I can easily explain why. In China, the internet is still heavily restricted, even for the most inconsequential of things.  You cannot download any videos of any kind and I am not downloading the naughty kind either!  I can usually get access to two pages of images on Google, but by the time you click for the third page the internet police will shut the connection down; you can’t have people collecting pictures from Clipart as they might create disharmony in the land. Its nuts, but that’s the way it is so you have to plan ahead.  Mind you, since Google has switched to working out of Hong Kong you can get better access to images but still no videos.

So what can one do in this constrained environment?  Well, basically you have two choices: use what the school gives you or create your own lessons before you come to China.  I will admit that a lot of teachers (and forgive me, a lot of teachers who are not creative), opt for the former choice.  I think this is fine for very inexperienced teachers but the dull content and its natural numbing effect on the students is very counter-productive.

Most of the materials offered to the teacher are what has been “state approved” which means it is incredibly boring.  I teach students who are in their mid-twenties. Talking about cats and dogs, banks and post offices just puts them to sleep.  In addition, they have been fed this diet of monotonous topics for ten years or more!  What they want is something different, controversial and interesting to talk about.

This begs the question - what topics/units  do you choose to talk about?  I use a dual-approach. First, I think about what I would be interested in and also ask other young adults in Canada what they are interested in. This gives me a “Western” point of view. Also I’m interested in knowing what the students in China are genuinely interested in. At the end of each term, I give my students a report card to fill out on my teaching style, grading and the topics/units.  They are encouraged to tell me which classes they liked, didn’t like and what they would change as well as other topics they would be interested in.

Granted, some students will take the safe route and give you bland responses, even though their name or ID number is not recorded.  Some will ask for practical units such as applying for jobs and interview skills, as many of them will face the huge and competitive Chinese job market in two short years. But on occasion, you will get some students who will really step out of the ‘Chinese Comfort Zone’ of topics. Last year I was asked to create a unit about alternative lifestyles including homosexuality and fetishes.  A few have asked for classes on how to practice safe sex. In China, topics such as these are never mentioned, let alone discussed or taught in class. I try to accommodate the suggestions they’ve suggested in the report cards, within reason, as I’m compelled to stay within the school guidelines. I like teaching in China so I don’t go too crazy.  I have developed a class on alternative lifestyles this year and I am discussing the possibility of giving a lecture on sex education, but I don’t think the school will approve it.

Once I have some topics in mind, it’s time to create the lessons/units.  When I’m home in Canada, over the summer, I start researching, compiling, and creating my lessons.  It’s a good time to prepare the entire unit, from the PPT’s used in class to my class booklets, as well as collecting my resources.  Examples include things such as photographs, maps (I asked Disneyland for maps and they mailed them to me along with some promotional videos), Canadian money, and listening activities, both audio and video. I have found it takes me two to three days to make one lesson so it is a big process to create your own lessons, with PPT’s, for two semesters.

I find the process both arduous and rewarding, especially when I get the units up and running and find out if all the hard work will come to fruition or be a dud!  To be perfectly honest, most of the classes have gone over quite well, but I have had to revisit or even chuck out a few lessons over the years.  One example was a class on propaganda which I thought was great but the majority of my students were uninterested.  However, level of interest is quite varied which gives me room to be creative.

Classes about what is happening in their lives, or about things very far from their lives, are the best received.  Topics about everyday activities are not very interesting for them, so I try to keep this content to a minimum or use it as a starting point leading into something more interesting.  Teaching for me is a very creative process, but unlike a painter I have to rework my creations.

When I’m home for the summer, creating class lessons is only one part of my work. I also review my existing units, deciding what needs to be changed, what can stay, what needs to be thrown out completely or seriously altered. I spend many hours in front of the computer searching for new materials, new ideas, or extending someone else’s ideas in a way that I think best fits the needs of my students. This process is aided by what I do while in school. After the lesson is over I write comments in my teacher’s book tracking the things I disliked or that did not work well. Usually it involves clarifying and developing step-by-step approaches for more complicated activities.  For example, I had developed a lesson about travelling and had acquired some subway and bus maps from the internet. But the instructions that came with them were too vague for my students to follow, so I made them easier to follow as well as providing a preliminary example. This made things much smoother. I did this after the first class as I knew the following six classes would meet with the same difficulties.  I still feel that changes are needed and will be changing it over the summer.

I believe that a good teacher always has to revisit and critically evaluate what and how they teach; I think that if you feel you’re a great teacher and need not do reflecting, then you’re on your way to becoming a mediocre teacher. I try to put myself back in the classroom as a student and figure out what they’re thinking, how they react to what’s being taught and how. Being your own worst critic can help towards becoming a better teacher.

Please keep in mind that my students are not children; they are all in their mid-twenties and have an intermediate to high level of English, so the content and level may not, and in many cases will not, be appropriate for younger ESL classes. You really have to get a feel for what your students want to learn, and their level of English, while also keeping in mind the standards of the teaching institution you are working for.

Monday, December 13, 2010


Last week I posted about Watch This Space, a kid’s book about the importance of public space in urban centres.  I got totally distracted by this book.  I really had started out to write about Metropolis : ten cities, ten centuries by Albert Lorenz (909 LoM 1996).


I recommend that you give yourself lots of time when you crack the covers of Metropolis.  This is not a book to be rushed through.  An historical survey that is rendered in an oversized, pictorial format with an awesome amount of detail starting in 11th century Jerusalem, proceeding throughout Europe (Paris, Koblenz, Lisbon, Florence, Vienna, and London), parts of Asia (Osaka, Mongolian tent cities) and ending in 20th century New York City is a lot to take in.  The focus on each of these cities, at particular times, looks at significant events that had long-lasting or long-reaching effects.  (For example, we learn about the importance of the crusades across Europe and the Middle East by focusing on the epicentre, Jerusalem.) The cut-away cross-sections of buildings, aerial views and wide-angle perspectives of cities capture the many activities of everyday people.  A timeline frame on each 2-page spread keeps us in the loop of other significant events happening in other parts of the world.

Besides finding the informational content fascinating, I think this book would provide an interesting model for kids to follow when doing historical research about a time or place.   Visually representing historical research might be a way for some students show what they have learned.  This might be a different way to assess a student’s historical understanding.

If you’re a fan of the books A City Through Time or A Street Through Time then you will take particular pleasure in this book. I recommend it for grades 5 and up. 

And remember -- give yourself lots of time to enjoy.
Join Nonfiction Monday Roundup at books together  to see a list of recent blogs dedicated to highlighting nonfiction resources.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Book swap wrap-up.

Just a word about the book swap I was recently involved in.   Okay, two words – Very Cool!

Zoe Toft, host of  Playing By the Book ,organized an international book swap.
The idea behind the swap was to pick a favorite picture book and send it to a designated recipient (in my case, Polly in North Wales, also a blogger) and then wait to receive a favorite picture book from them.

So, I'm now the delighted owner of  Josephine Wants to Dance by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley. It's wonderful.

This is a very cute story of a kangaroo who wants nothing more than to dance, dance, dance.  When a lead ballerina in a visiting ballet company twists her ankle Josephine bounds in to save the day, realizing her dream to perform, pink tutu, ballet shoes and all. The naysayers (Kangaroos don’t dance, Josephine) including her brother are shown that nothing is impossible if you believe in yourself and take the occasional risk.

I loved the illustrations, as well.  Josephine sneaking into town and hiding behind trees and lampposts to watch a ballet practice is picture-perfect.

Very enjoyable especially for ages 5-7.

The books I sent to Polly are still in transit, unfortunately.  Hopefully, they will have arrived by the new year.  Gotta love Canada Post during the holidays.

Can't wait to do this again.  Great fun.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Living in space(s)

A recent addition to the Doucette Library’s collection, Watch This Space: designing, defending and sharing public spaces by Hadley Dyer and Marc Ngui, is a book about public spaces found in urban communities.  Not a topic I would have thought to be particularly gripping.

But it is in fact very timely, certainly for the city of Calgary, at any rate.  Calgary is rapidly growing both in its population base and physical size. Apparently, Calgary has the same size footprint, with only one tenth the population, as New York City. It is also a city currently debating and eventually, transforming the way it develops/uses land.  There is a vision  to create higher density living spaces closer to city centre, with less development in the suburbs, more emphasis on sustainable living spaces, and pedestrian friendly areas, resulting in less importance on accommodating cars. Here’s a snippet from one document: 

        Brentwood station area will become an "Urban Village"; a major hub in northwest
       Calgary where people can live, shop, dine, work, be entertained and meet their
       daily needs.  It will be a people place with quality connections and a well integrated
       transit system.  Attractive public spaces and a wide variety of uses will contribute
       to a vibrant and safe community.
Or, that’s my understanding.

Watch This Space helps define what exactly constitutes public space (both virtual and reality-based), how public spaces help create a sense of community and why this is important. It addresses very real issues from how spaces are regulated, to the accommodation of special groups such as young people in general, skateboarders, graffiti artists, and advertisers and finally, it encourages young people to get involved in finding a voice for themselves when it comes to public spaces.

Upper elementary grades in Alberta might find Watch This Space a terrific support for the social studies curriculum.  In looking at how past and present Albertan or Canadian communities create identity and a sense of belonging for those who live in its towns and cities..

Join Nonfiction Monday Roundup at  Reading Tub to see a list of recent blogs dedicated to highlighting nonfiction resources.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Challenge – Who am I?

One of the blogs I follow, A Year of Reading, is written by a couple of school teachers and they often discuss teaching reading in elementary school.

Recently, one of them challenged her grade 4 and 5 students to identify 100 things about themselves as readers.
This tied into a book I had read recently, that talked about the importance of getting kids to recognize themselves as readers,  The Reading Turn-Around by Stephanie Jones, Lane Clarke, and Grace Enriquez (372.417 JoR 2010).  Chapter two is all about getting to know your students and figuring out what they read, perceptions of themselves as readers or nonreaders, in addition to many points of reflection for the teacher about their own practices.  A couple of examples are (from page 25):

Do I call attention to certain students as being ‘good’ or ‘struggling’ readers in one way or another?  How does that impact all my students’ reading identities?
Do I make assumptions about what students are thinking rather than asking them?

There’s lots of practical advice about how to rework the reading classroom so that there are many opportunities for students to succeed.

The blog got me thinking about how I identify myself as a reader and I liked the idea of the challenge to come with 100 things.  It’s not easy.  I got to somewhere around 50 easily, the rest took longer to come up with.  I got to 87.

I’m not going to list all 87 but thought I’d do two, Top 10 lists.

List one:  
Most Typical Points About Me As Reader (or, No Surprises Here)
  1. I’m always, always reading.
  2. Something very recent: I’m a newbie to the blogging world meaning that I’m now hooked on a bunch of different blogs to read about diverse topics such as children’s literature, education and teaching, travel, eclectic thoughts about everyday life, and creative thinking.
  3. I love recommending and loaning books to friends and family
  4. I never feel guilty about not finishing a book.
  5. I always have several books on the go (about 6 or 7 at the moment). I’m pretty good about remembering where I’ve left off.
  6. I read for information and pleasure.
  7. I listen to audio books when I run.  I’m half-way through The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.
  8. As a kid, I read at night hanging off the end of the bed to see by the light in the hallway when I should have been sleeping.
  9. I love it when books show me something in a new light.  Recent examples, The Vermeer Interviews by Chris Raczka, The Arrival by Shaun Tan, The Grand Mosque of Paris by Karen Gray Ruelle, and 14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy.  Too many to list, really.
  10. I love to discuss books with people.

List two: 
Less Likely, Usual or Mundane Points About Me As Reader (or, The ‘Who knew’ List)
  1.  The first book I read with a swear word was Thunderhead by Mary O’Hara. (Yup, a horse book.). I was in junior high school. It was ‘damn’. Guess it made an impression.
  2. I love donating my own books to good causes for raising money.  Basically, this keeps the book buying ‘habit’ under control and eases the guilt.
  3. I discovered that I have a creative bent because of Shelia McGraw’s book Papier Mache for Kids.
  4. I seldom reread books.  Books I have reread, include several by Bill Bryson, Love that Dog by Sharon Creech and The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman.
  5. Not into vampire books.  Haven’t read a single one of the Twilight series (even for ‘professional’ interest).
  6. I tried teaching my sister to read with Dick and Jane books when she was in kindergarten and I would have been in grade 2 or 3.  Don’t know whether I succeeded but did a good enough job so that she could say all the words on each page.
  7. I was in a remedial reading class (grade 4, after moving from Ottawa to Saskatoon). I don’t remember being upset by this or questioning it in anyway. I do remember my parents spending hours with me doing reading homework trying to help me read.  These are good memories.
  8. If a book is funny, I laugh out loud.  Makes for awkward moments when in public.
  9. I love being read aloud to. My partner and I read to each other at night before bed.  We pick books with lots of humour.
  10. Not too keen on belonging to adult book clubs. I’ve learned that I prefer not to be restricted in what I’m reading trying to meet a ‘deadline’. (This might surprise you based on List One, #10)

Well, that’s the good, the bad and the ugly about me as Reader.
What about you?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Paintings could tell stories

"Paintings could tell stories."

When the teacher librarian at Coventry Hills School in Calgary  (grades K-4) asked young students” where stories are found”, this was one of the responses.  In a display of the students’ answers, the librarian attached this response to a picture of the cover of the book  Capturing Joy : the story of Maud Lewis by Jo Ellen Bogart (759.11 BoC 2002).

Narrative can be found in so many places and this lovely book tells us about the life one of Canada's best known folk artists from Nova Scotia.  Many of us will be familiar with Three Black Cats.  We learn that Maud Lewis came from an artistic family but was disabled early on in life. This prevented her from playing the piano but not from painting.  She eventually married Everett Lewis and though living with few comforts and little money, continued to paint with what ever materials were at hand (with paint left over from fishing boats, cardboard and scrounged bits of scrap wood).  Even the teeny house where she and Everett lived was covered  in her brightly coloured images of birds, butterflies and flowers. The house is now preserved at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax.

 As well as portraying her own life, she is also known for the many scenes she painted of rural life in Nova Scotia depicting everyday activities such as children going to school, outings in horse-drawn carriages or Model T automobiles, or seaside life with fishing boats, lighthouses and gulls. Her love of nature and animals is often to be found in her paintings.

Eventually, her paintings became so sought after that she had trouble keeping up with the demand. She died in 1970 due to poor health.

Maud Lewis' paintings do indeed tell stories and Jo Ellen Bogart does a great job telling us her story, too.

Join Nonfiction Monday Roundup at  Playing By the Book to see a list of recent blogs dedicated to highlighting nonfiction resources.

UPDATE:  Just had it brought to my attention that  the National Gallery in London has a webpage that allows viewers to learn more about well-known paintings and add sounds to 'enhance' the story. 

Thursday, November 25, 2010

I repeat…

Last February I wrote about The Rabbits by John Marsden and how one student-teacher thought the book worked really well with his Grade 3/4 students for social studies.

I’ve just had it pointed out that a teacher at the Calgary Science School also used this book in a Grade 7 Humanities class.  It was used as a resource to help the students understand that history is told from a particular point-of-view.  In this case, the students took a page from the book and reinterpreted the story from the Rabbits’ perspective.  The original story is told from the perspective of the indigenous people and the impact the Rabbits have on their environment and culture.

Parallels were made with Canadian history so that students could develop their understanding of alternate perspectives and perhaps see how misunderstandings occur and their consequences.
 See the students' reinterpretation at Grade 7 Remixing Historical Perspective.

I just love how this book offers opportunities to see ourselves, history and world views in new ways, and so creatively, too.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Real world connections with math and science.

While preparing for a workshop that would showcase math and science resources for elementary and middle grades, I became reacquainted with Our Living Earth : a story of people, ecology, and preservation by Yann Arthus-Bertrand (363.7 DeO 2008).  I’m really diggin’ it.

 It’s a slightly oversized book with eight chapters centered around big topics, each broken down to several smaller segments that touch on different aspects of the bigger issue.  Added interest is provided by lots of good photographs, especially of the oversized variety that I’m a big fan of.  In addition to the photos, I really think the small aside bubbles, containing pertinent statistics and facts are very interesting.
Here are a few examples:
-It takes nearly 2000 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of beef.
-Women perform two-thirds of the work in the world, but they only earn a tenth of the revenue.
-75 to 80 percent of ocean pollution comes from sources on land.
-0.66 gallons of water is needed to make 0.264 liters of Coke.
-A cell phone generates 165 pounds of waste.

I particularly love that these statements connect math and science together, making both more relevant to every day life and placing them (especially math) into a context. 

Some of the issues include water (conserving it, accessibility, pollution), use of the oceans (over fishing, sustainable practices for food production including fish farming), urban development (migration of people, community development, poverty), people (population, issues related to women, conflicts and causes of conflicts) and food (production of both meat and plant foods).

Overall, an appealing book to jumpstart some interesting math, science and social studies units.

Join Nonfiction Monday Roundup at Practically Paradise to see a list of recent blogs dedicated to highlighting nonfiction resources.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Guest blogger - Ken Dyer

This is part two in Ken's series about teaching English in China to university students.  Check out part 1 if you missed it.  Ken's stories about his teaching experiences are fascinating as they provide a counterpoint to the educational systems found in Canada.  If you have any questions or comments for Ken post them in the comments box and I will forward them on to Ken via email.  Ken cannot access this blog due to internet filtering by the Chinese government.  I will post Ken's replies in the comments section.

Teaching in China

If you recall, my first class was a mixture of apprehension, fear, terror and relief!  But what is it really like to teach in China?

Up until I left for China, I had only taught children in Canada ranging from grades 3 to grade 5, and I openly wondered what differences there would be between teaching children in Canada and English to adults in China.  I did what every good teacher does -- prepare like crazy!

I came up with a range of topics, a variety of lesson plans at a number of levels as well as a host of games and activities.  This process was greatly enhanced by brain-storming ideas with the other teachers who went to Dalian. I must say, it was a stimulating and rewarding process as we built on each others ideas. I highly recommend the process.

You may also recall from the previous blog that the students in my class said nothing when I asked general questions.  Part of the reason the students are quiet in class is based on their experiences growing up in a Chinese school environment.  As a Western student and teacher, I have a very different approach to teaching and learning.  I had never thought to ask about the style of teaching in China and I found that teaching in China, was, and still is, teacher-centered.  The two opposing theories, ‘filling the vessel’ vs. ‘lighting the flame’ are quite apparent when teaching in China. If I were to compare Western teaching philosophy to the Chinese approach – I would say that in the West we use more of the ‘lighting the flame’ theory of teaching with some aspects of ‘filling the vessel’. The Chinese predominately use the ‘filling the vessel’ approach where students repeat what the teachers say and rarely ask questions.  But, in defense of this approach, how does one inspire a class of 50 or more students?  I think it becomes about control when it’s a class of that size.  I am not endorsing this teaching method, but I can see why it is used.

When I started teaching my classes, I stepped back to an approach that I developed from my experiences in my early practicums, known as organics.  Essentially you get a feel for what level your class is, what they are interested in, who needs extra support, and who you can rely on to act in some ways like a student-teacher.

In addition to this, I tried to follow the tenets of Gardner and designed classes with multiple intelligences in mind. I’ve found that a fun and interesting class gets students actively involved and engaged which makes things easier for the teacher, as well.  I tried to mix things up so there was some individual work, pair work, and small group work.  These methods worked well in China as well as in Canada, maybe more so.  Classroom management was a lot like teaching the kids at Banff Elementary, but with a twist.  First, you have to get them talking and the twist is trying to get them to stop!  In China, classroom management is almost nonexistent; I can’t tell you how much of a joy it is to focus solely on teaching, rather than dealing with classroom management issues.

Perhaps a couple of examples from classes that I have taught in China may bring this point home.  I often try to make my classes unique and my Halloween and food classes are prime examples. 

Wanting my students to have a real sense of Halloween, I designed a class around the history, traditions and activities of Halloween.  As the class progressed we discussed the history of the Jack-o-lantern and the process for carving a pumpkin.  Similarly, in the food class we talked about a variety of foods, preferences for food such as hamburgers, and the process for making a sandwich.  These activities did take up a great portion of the class but still left us with about forty minutes.

I then asked them if they thought they could really carve a pumpkin or make a sandwich. Most say that they could, but had no sense of what was coming.  I wish you could have seen their faces in the food class when the PPT told them to go and wash their hands.  Most of them sat there, stunned, unsure if they really needed to wash their hands or what was coming next.  But in both classes, when I held up a pumpkin or bread there was a palpable feeling of excitement, usually accompanied by squeals of joy.

Before they get into the process of making a sandwich or carving a pumpkin, I do spend some time instructing them on safety and care with knives and cleanliness. At that point, they then get into following the instructions/recipes that we have discussed previously.

I often think, with the litigious society we have in the West, I could never teach these classes in Canada.  Also, I honestly think western students are not as na├»ve or childlike, at least not at the university level, as my Chinese students.  As the class progressed and students showed off their pumpkins or munched on their sandwiches, I knew that this lesson would stick with them for a very long time. Many have told me that when they return home, they have made sandwiches for their parents.

Preparing classes like these requires a great deal of planning and preparation, not to mention the expense.  Each food class required six loaves of bread, 2 jars of mayonnaise, 18 hard-boiled eggs, knives, forks, spoons, pepper, chopped green onions, and bowls for mixing the egg salad sandwich in.  Now, imagine going to a market and buying a pumpkin for every pair of students.  It was no small task and I had to rent a small truck to deliver them to the university!  If I had thought about the difficulties, I may have given up the whole idea altogether. But when I recall my students walking out of class with their pumpkins in hand I see the joy on their faces and a swagger in their stride as other students look on in amazement at their Jack-o-lanterns. It is worth while and yeah, I would do it again.

Those moments make teaching a joy for me.

PS – I had said in the last blog, that I would tell you about the English names Chinese students choose for themselves.  You might think there would be a host of Marys, Johns, Janes and Bobs, but you’d be quite wrong!  The names they choose are quite unusual at times.  You meet a lot of names centered on flavors such as Vanilla and Chocolate, which always makes me think of milk shakes.  There are some poetic names such as Morning Bud, White Hill, and my one of my personal favorites – Blue Breeze!  These names are often based on the translation of their Chinese names.  But the one that will always stand out the most for me is … Fetus !  Yes, Fetus !  When I asked the student if he knew what the name meant he said, “Yes.”  I asked him why he chose it, and he said, “It means a new beginning, the start of something.”  Who can argue with that kind of logic, and you can bet that anyone he meets will never forget his name!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Gross or Engrossing

I was recently helping one of our undergraduate students pull resources for a unit about the nutrient cycle.  My first thought, “Oh boy! How are we going to make that interesting?”  I knew the library didn’t have anything new about this topic specifically.


 Sometimes, I jump a little too quickly to the wrong conclusion.  As it turns out, the unit was a hit with her grade 6 students.  She taught the cycle showing the interconnectedness of the individual components (water, air, decomposition, plant growth, minerals, etc.), reinforcing the concept with a game that emphasized this never-ending cycle.  To emphasize the importance of decomposition, the unit was wrapped up with the book, What rot! : nature’s mighty recycler by Elizabeth Ring (571.939 RiW 1996), read aloud to the class to spark questions and discussion. This fairly short book, besides describing the process of decomposition, includes lots of great photographs with close-ups of worms, insects, and bacteria breaking down organic matter. A little ‘gross’ (according to a couple of the grade 6 students), but fascinating at the same time. 

I love that the student-teacher used a non-fiction book as a read-aloud to grade 6 kids.  I love that the gross bits of the book worked at succeeded in getting the kids talking.

Next, I’ll keep my eyes open for newer resources about the nutrient cycle.  Any recommendations?
Join Nonfiction Monday Roundup at In Need of Chocolate to see a list of recent blogs dedicated to highlighting nonfiction resources.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Super modeling – Artsy inspiration

I don’t think it would be too difficult to persuade many of you just how wonderful many, many picture books are.  Typically they are works of art.

And by focusing on the art, we have a multitude of resources at hand to encourage and inspire kids with their own art.  As a person who can’t really draw very well, I sympathize with those kids who also struggle and often feel inadequate when it comes to art.

Thus, when I find books that show me ways to be creative and expressive without (necessarily) having to draw, these are books I note and pass on.

I just finished reading My best friend is as sharp as a pencil by Hanoch Piven (823 P689M8 PIC BK) where the main character describes for her Grandmother her teachers, friends and even the school librarian. Jack, the best friend, is smart.  He knows lots about geography, is as sharp as a pencil, curious as a magnifying glass and precise as a microscope.  The objects shown in the illustrations (a globe, a pencil, a magnifying glass and microscope) become the pieces that construct Jack’s face in a simple collage (see the picture on the cover).  “Is he a genius, or what?!”

I must admit my favorite depiction is of the librarian who “is as exciting as rubbing a magic lamp…as interesting as a book full of stories…When [reading]…her eyes shine like marbles…can be as funny as a clown or scary as a monster.”
Her smiling mouth is made from an open book and her eyes are two bright green marbles on book pockets and date due cards.  Captures the spirit of the woman, for me, exactly!

Obviously, this would be a great choice if you need to a book that demonstrates simile or metaphor, too.

Another book I’d recommend for its collage style is a very clever retelling of Henny-Penny by Jane Wattenberg (398.245 WaHe 2000 PIC BK).  These collages are constructed with overlapping photos of various birds (mostly of the fowl sort – ewwww, I know, bad pun) on backgrounds of well-known sites from around the world, including Stonehenge, the Egyptian pyramids, the Leaning Tower of Pisa , the Taj Mahal and so on.  The language is full of action and frenzy as the panic about the falling sky must be told to the King without delay.  The crazy puns and rolling rhyme are perfect for reading aloud.

Visual feasts to fill the mind and stir the creative spirit.

Monday, November 8, 2010

A kick in the pants by serendipity

November 11 is Canada’s day to remember those who have been in involved in military operations, whether because of war or peacekeeping duties.

I hadn’t planned to post anything about resources for Remembrance Day, but having just read A Bear in War by Stephanie Innes (940.40971 InB 2008 PIC BK) and then visited the website Historica-Dominion Institute  where I found some pictures that were most relevant to this particular story – well, I can take a hint.  Nudge, nudge…

A Bear in War is based on a true story about Lawrence Rogers who enlists to fight for England in World War I. This fictionalized version is told by Teddy, the beloved stuffed bear of Lawrence’s daughter, Aileen.  We come to know this Quebec farming family and the rhythm of daily life and feel the pain that comes when Lawrence leaves.  Eventually, Aileen sends Teddy to Europe to help protect her father while he works with injured soldiers and to that end he carries Teddy in his coat pocket.  Though the stuffed bear does provide comfort, it is unable to prevent Lawrence’s death at the battle of Passchendaele.  About year after the battle, Teddy is returned to Canada with Lawrence’s uniform and medal for bravery.
As I was checking out resources at the Historica-Dominion Institute website (good resources for Remembrance Day including recorded accounts of war experiences from veterans and military personnel currently engaged), I discovered a picture of Teddy .  The cherished bear now resides in the Canadian War Museum and is one of its most popular exhibits - a small stuffed bear that makes an event from, seemingly, long ago and far away, very real. This might be seen as a testament to the real cost of war and a reminder that soldiers and their families pay the highest price. 
I know.  A lot to remember.

Join Nonfiction Monday Roundup at Shelf-Employed to see a list of recent blogs dedicated to highlighting nonfiction resources.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Desperately seeking…

I’m often asked for recommendations for math resources and especially for picture books to add interest to the lesson.  But a common problem is that there’s always a run on the same resources at the same time.  And then what?

Which takes me to the problem with the books about patterns.  They’re all out!

As it turns out, I just finished previewing a couple of new picture books that would fall more into the category of ‘game books’.  Within pages of brightly coloured patterns and/or animals we must find hidden creatures or discern similarities and differences between creatures.  Lots of fun.  But, they could be used with children who are working on visual patterns, as well.

So, check out these two books, if you’re desperate like I am, when all the other pattern books are out:

Same & different by Manjula Padmanabhan (793.73 PaS 2010 PIC BK)
Spot it!: find the hidden creatures by Delphine Chedru (793.73 ChS 2009 PIC BK)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Picture this

I’m a big proponent of photographic books (those oversized, glossy-paged coffee table types) as a point of engagement in classrooms for all ages.  A ‘discrepant event’ captured in a photograph can be a way to stimulate questions, critical thinking and discussion.

One of my latest favourites is I dreamed of flying like a bird by Robert B. Haas (779.32 HaI 2010).  It’s written for middle grades students (ages 9 and up) in an easy-to-read style.  This adventurer, specializing in aerial photography (he likes hanging out of helicopters and small planes to get his shots), fills us in on the stories behind his photos.   He travels the world, from Africa to Alaska, Latin America to Greenland, taking photographs of animals from this unique vantage point to “capture from the air exactly what I am looking for – a group of special images to bring back and share with my readers.” (p.58)

My all-time-favourite picture is of a large flock of pink flamingos. The large flock is, walking in shallow water, continually moving so that varying loosely-formed shapes are made.  Just before Haas leaves the site, the flock of flamingos forms a shape that looks like a pink flamingo! Amazing!  You have to love how serendipity plays out sometimes.

When Haas describes the excitement (and trepidation, as the gas begins running low as they wait to see the outcome) of capturing images of lions hunting African buffaloes, we can sense his appreciation of witnessing this rarely seen event from the air.

Throughout the book we come to know his passion for animals, wilderness, diverse landscapes and photography.  As he gets behind a camera, he allows us to get a snapshot of what goes on in the mind of a world-class nature photographer.

Brilliant and totally accessible.

Join Nonfiction Monday Roundup at Capstone Connect to see a list of recent blogs dedicated to highlighting nonfiction resources.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Anything but junk…

Recently, I attended a workshop presented by the author of Proust and the Squid, Maryanne Wolf (612.82 WOP 2008), which was all about the brain and the wonder of reading.  One of the things the author said that really struck me (besides all the really interesting stuff about reading – another blog) was about the brains of people with dyslexia.  That these are brains that are needed in our world.  That there is nothing wrong with these brains.  That these brains process information differently.  And that many of these brains belong to famous people renowned for innovative thinking, people like Pablo Picasso, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci and Auguste Rodin (for more names check out the website Famous People with the Gift of Dyslexia .
I just finished reading Patricia Polacco’s book The junkyard wonders (823 P756J8 PIC BK) which I found very touching and reminded of Maryanne Wolf’s comments.

It’s based on Patricia Polacco’s own experiences in school when she was placed in a class with lots of ‘odd’ children known as the junkyard kids.  The kids in the book all have different learning and physical needs, which does not perturb their teacher, Mrs. Peterson, one little bit.  She encourages them to see beyond their perceived limitations and believe in themselves.  A cruel insult from a boy, not in the class, demeans the name of ‘Junkyard Wonders’ given to them by Mrs. Peterson. To help them understand what is wonderful about junkyards, the class pays a visit to one, looking for objects that can be transformed into something new - “forget what the object was…imagine what it could be!”  The enterprise is successful after a few tribulations bravely met along the way

A brief afterword by Patricia tells what became of a few kids from her ‘tribe’ in this class; one became the artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre Company in New York, one a textile designer invited to work in Paris, another an aeronautical engineer for NASA and of course, Patricia herself, a well-loved children’s author/illustrator.

This book was a great way to reinforce Maryanne Wolf’s premise about the brilliance to be found in the minds of people who think differently.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Little black book

The Black Book of Colors by Menena Cottin (535.6 CoB 2008 PIC BK) can be used to engage kids on many different levels, cognitively, emotionally and physically.

In this book, a young blind boy tells us what colour means to him. Colours become associated with things that stimulate his other senses, such as the taste of red for an unripe, sour strawberry or the pain a scraped knee, yellow for the soft feathers of baby chicks,the tart, fresh taste of lemon ice cream for the colour green or for the "king of all colours", black, the feel of his mother’s silky hair.

The book also provides its own textual associations; we can feel Braille text as we read the narrative at the same time.  Because the pages are black, the illustrations (also in black) have been done in glossy, slightly raised relief. The images catch in the light as the pages are turned, begging the reader to rub their fingers over the whole page.

As far as classroom usage, this book makes great connections to science units about the senses, blindness (also health) and colours.  The Black Book of Colors would make an interesting addition to art lessons, as well.

Literature often takes us into the lives of others showing us places that we can’t or won’t go, both in terms of real places but also places found only in the heart and mind. The strength of this boy’s ability to ‘see’ colours despite his blindness allows us to understand and empathize.  No big drama here.  He just ‘sees’ his world a little differently than we do.

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