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?

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