Saturday, December 3, 2011

Google Tips and Tricks

I learned a few tricks from this tutorial

I learned a few tricks from this infographic tutorial by Josh Catone. Looking at this reminded me that I can definitely work on being a smarter searcher.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The world is so full of a number of things

Today I spent a certain amount of time being a sidewalk superintendent. A crane was being assembled for the construction of Columbia's new sports facility on West 218 Street. What a treat to watch this behemoth being assembled like an out-sized Tinker Toy, or Knect construction. The crew assembling it were a real team - focused and synchronized.

I went out to visit the crane three or four times during the day. In the early evening I went out and watched the final assembly and stayed until the crane was up. Wow! There were some other adults hanging out and taking pictures including a professional from an engineering magazine. When the crane was on the way up many of the construction crew also took out their cell phones and took pictures.

I wasn't surprised to see some adults stopping to gawk. After all - so was I! What surprised me was how few children and teenagers bothered to look. In the evening there were two families with pre-school aged children and parents acting as explainers. But this is a neighborhood that is crowded with families! Where were all the kids? Is almost everyone too busy to look at something as extraordinary as this? Or perhaps we have grown so blase since we can watch on the computer or TV as things much bigger and more elaborate than these are built or blown up? Or is anything that isn't announced as an "event" just invisible?

I am puzzled. A lack of background knowledge, the information about and vocabulary describing the world, can be a major obstacle for our students. Where will they get this information if they aren't encouraged to go out and look?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Teaching Digital Citizenship - It's Complicated

I just Read Joyce Valenza's blog entry "On Growing Knowledge Citizens." Joyce, as usual, sets the bar high for the teachers and librarians who follow her thinking.

Every time someone tags a photo, likes a Face Book page or posts internet links to a social link account like Delicious they are contributing to the organization of the internet. All these little actions add up. Of course the more thoughtfully, sensitively, and knowledgeably these contributions are the smarter the internet - our shared public knowledge-base will be.

Information literacy, the strand of learning that school librarians are teaching and publicizing in their schools, has long out-grown library skills and internet search strategies. Digital citizenship is now a big part of what students need to understand.

Philosophically I am on board. Practically, however, I struggle to understand what this means for me. Facebook, including my library Facebook page, is blocked in school. Google Docs can't be used on the library computers because of the old operating system. It is hard to talk about digital citizenship in the abstract. I also understand that social media can be distracting in the classroom...
Safety is paramount, but I also worry that by blocking social media sites from the view of responsible adults (such as teachers) a dark alley has been created for our students to explore on their own.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


Its been a few weeks since I have posted here. I always feel a little harried at the start of a new school year, so I gave myself permission to slack off on a few activities. So here is how things are going now I am firmly "back to school."

All classes in grades 1-6 have had their orientation sessions. This is the lesson where I say all the things that must be said before students start coming to the library independently. Rules, procedures, schedules, and what to do if the fire alarm rings when you are in the library.

I added an emphasis on respecting personal space (not crowding, not touching) to this orientation. The library was very crowded during open access last year, and I am trying to figure out how to keep it comfortable for students even when overfilled. I have also added an acknowledgment that I can't always help with big questions during open access periods. I am asking students with bigger questions to put a note with their name and class in the book drop. The note can be as simple as "I have a question." Perhaps I should also put an "I have a question" form on the library home page. It is frustrating when the big issues - the real library work - gets pushed out of the way by the mechanics of checking books out to students.

Next week I have my first "real" library class sessions - the traditional Google Earth introduction for third grade. My principal is a little annoyed that the classroom teachers get basically a free ride. I do the heavy lifting of planning and teaching the lesson after a conference with the classroom teachers. They participate, guide the content they want the students to remember, but are also learning too. She feels that the teachers should learn how to use and teach this tool. I agree, and have told the third grade team that they are expected to teach their own Google Earth lessons throughout the rest of the year. I will be in the room (either with a small group or on my lunch or prep) to act as a seat belt. This year I am also asking the teachers to give a written assessment checking on the students understanding of the work we do. I feel that I need this both as a check for me, and to add accountability for the students and teachers.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Books for Girls and Boys

I spent the last three days back at school unpacking and beginning to set up for the new year. (Teachers are officially due back next Tuesday.) While unpacking and moving books around to cope with the perpetual problem of much too little shelf-space I was also thinking about what my students did (and didn't) read last year. To buy space on the shelves I moved several more series and popular authors into plastic tubs labeled by author or series. These tubs provide an easy way for students to find a particular type of book, essentially promoting those particular types of books.

This morning while reading the news, list-serve, e-mail etc. while putting off making labels and otherwise working productively, I read a series of articles about the genderization of reading - AKA boys books and girls books.
Charles London for the Huffington Post
Oposing Viewpoints at the School Library Journal
Saundra Mitchell's The Problem is not the books
And this is why the problem is not the books (with book list)

So back to my book tubs: If tubbing up a series or author essentially promotes them, am I "empowering" more boys or girls? What does it say if I put the Time Warp Trio next to the Magic Tree House and Abby Hayes next to Junie B Jones?

Here is a list of some of my tubs - an incomplete list because it is only ones that need new labels or that I clearly remember.
Paula Danziger
R.L. Stine
Lois Lowry
J.K. Rowling
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Magic Tree House / Mary Pope Osborne (2)
Arthur Chapter Books / Stephen Krensky
Horrible Harry / Suzy Kline
My Weird School / Dan Gutman
Rotten School / R.L. Stine
Dragon Slayers Accademy
Junie B. Jones
Dav Pilkey
Abby Hayes / Anne Mazer
Bone / Jeff Smith

Some series are definitely geared more to one gender than the other. I especially notice concern about gender appropriateness towards the older edge of the series age group (end of grade 3 - 5) rather than at the beginning (end of grade 1 - mid 3rd). Sometimes I feel that I see more struggling readers thinking about gender issues. Though perhaps the more proficient readers are more self sufficient...

I do feel that fewer "boy" books are exclusive to boys than to girls. I do recommend the story collection Guys Read Funny Business to anyone who likes funny stories. I would not probably recommend Fairy School Drop-Out or the Allie Finkle series by Meg Cabot to any boy. However, contrary to popular belief, guys do read and enjoy Junie B.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Paying for Ad Free internet services

This morning I read a short but pithy article by Clive Thompson in Wired magazine, The Problem with Advertising. Mr. Thompson writes about how there is an advantage to actually paying for some web services. This resonates with me. I have found myself buying "upgrades" to various web based services that I use to provide information through my library. My Portaportal site, Library Links, for instance is ad free. I also have paid for a subscription to Jing, which makes my screencasts ad free. The disadvantage is that these are recurring fees and I don't get anything concrete for my money. The advantage is that I am not selling the "eyeballs" of students, teachers, and parents when I recommend (or with students require) that they use these tools.

As I have mentioned before, I do have an organizational Facebook page which of course does have ads. The difference is that although I use Facebook to reach out to constituents, I by no means require or even strongly recommend that anyone use it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Challenge of Nonfiction

Last week I responded to Marc Aronson's post about the challenges of nonfiction. He defines the two challenges as "context and engagement." I have been thinking through what this means for teachers and students. Context (in teacher-speak) is "prior knowledge" - all the stuff you know about a topic that makes it possible to understand what you are reading. Building a store of prior knowledge is a huge reason for reading both nonfiction and a greater variety of fiction. Readers who only read about what they know from their personal experience are not building collecting a store of knowledge that will help them understand the world. Engagement is a bigger problem. Readers who are engaged in their reading not only understand, they care. Perhaps it is easier to be pulled into what you read when the author's voice sounds more like yours - when it is more colloquial or speech-like. It is easier to read and understand simpler text with shorter sentences, but that isn't enough to make them engaging. The most popular fiction books tend to be those where the language of the book - the voice of the narrator and the characters - seems real to the reader. "Relateable" as some students say. (Yes - I realize that relateable is a questionable word, but it is very much in the air.)

It is worth seeking out nonfiction that grabs the reader and pulls them in. Authors such as Marc Aronson that strive to balance connecting to the reader with solid, really interesting research aim to engage readers without watering down the content. After all, finding really interesting and surprising information is one reason why we read nonfiction! It's not all about engaging with the author, it's about the story - and best of all the story is real!

Applying these ideas to the real world of books: This summer I have enjoyed two wonderful adult nonfiction best sellers. (Yes I do sometimes read "grownup" books!) Stacy Schiff's wonderfully entertaining and occasionally racy Cleopatra, and the more staid but equally wonderful 1776 of David McCullough. The Cleopatra biography often strikes a conversational tone. I described it to a friend as Chatty and "snarky." I kept wanting to read snippets out loud just for fun. Although well-researched and densely foot-noted, the author's tone often didn't seem far from the office water-cooler. 1776 on the other hand is written in a more academic style. The sentences are longer and definitely not conversational in tone. The story however is gripping, and I ended feeling I knew the characters in a deeper and more personal way than I had from my prior knowledge history. Both books are wonderful in their own way, but one is easier to engage with on the surface partly because the author chose to use a more colloquial tone with less complex language and a more familiar tone.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Text complexity and the Common Core Learning Standards

The Common Core standards, national standards and benchmarks for language arts and math were officially rolled out last June, almost a year ago. Then they were officially adopted (and renamed the Common Core Learning Standards) by New York State. Now they have been officially adopted by the NYCDOE, which with the Common Core Library has begun to put processes into place for applying them in schools. This year these standards will finally begin to have an impact on classroom practice, although many aspects including new tests won't be completely in place until next year. It will be interesting to see how the spirit of these standards evolves as they are fitted into the real world of teaching and school.

I first read the standards last summer, and have been thinking about them and reflecting on possible implications for my school and its library. It is tempting to say that there is "nothing new under the sun," and "what goes around comes around." However I don't think that this will be just another variation on a theme, or another raising of the bar. Certain aspects of the standards demand major changes from our schools and teachers. It will take time for the full impact of the changes to be felt in the classroom, but as the Common Core becomes part of educational practice changes will be felt by all involved, including students, teachers, and parents.

What has changed in the ELA (English Language Arts) standards can be explained as four "shifts" (This language was used at a conference I attended last week, it is also used in the Engage NY Common Core Video Series and in presentations from the Indiana Department of Education) 1) Emphasizing informational text 2) Literacy standards across the content areas 3)Emphasis on text complexity 4)The special place of argument.

Of these shifts, the emphases on informational text and on text complexity are the two changes that most effect reading and book choice. ("Argument" is mostly a writing focus, and "content areas" flows out of the emphasis on informational reading.) I expect these cause some immediate changes, some consternation, and unfortunately some over zealous application and misunderstanding. I am expecting teachers to want to know more about "text complexity," and I am worried that students may be dissuaded from reading what they want for pleasure.

Informational text is more challenging for the teacher as well as the students both because it usually demands some prior content knowledge of the reader and because the reader must attend more closely. More complex text is less "natural" and often harder to explain because longer and more complex sentences demand that the reader make connections and understand connecting words to fully understand the meaning. Some teachers, students, and families may feel uncomfortable with more assigned reading being in an academic rather than a colloquial style. Much written English, especially fiction, has gradually become more and more like spoken words. However the academic English that college freshmen need to understand has become if anything more complex and opaque. Academic language is almost foreign to most of our students and even many of our teachers.

So where do I go from here? I have been re-visiting the perennial issue of readability levels and text leveling. I find myself thinking about readability even as I have been reading for pleasure this summer. I will also continue reading as much current non-fiction as I can at the elementary level. As teachers wade into "complex" texts and figure out how to use more non-fiction in their classrooms I will try to be there with books to both fill needs and stir imaginations. I will also be there for my students, urging them to read more, read broadly, and yet read what they want. I want to "feed the need to read." I also want their teachers to find what they need to broaden their students' horizons.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Selecting from the information hose pipe

"It's like drinking from a hose." (urban dictionary) "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time." "Try something new for 30 days."
These are comments, questions and responses that connect (in my own mind at least) information overload. And not just information, but information management tools that are overwhelming in quantity and diversity.

On Monday I went to a class at the NYPL for social studies teachers and school librarians about primary sources, social studies teaching, and the internet. We looked at materials created by and with the library, we practices creating maps on Google Earth that linked historical pictures from the NYPL collections to locations on the map. We practiced creating Voice Threads with images from the NYPL digital gallery.

Finally - and most pertinently, perhaps - we talked about the "Is it worth it? test." Does technology allow you to do something you couldn't do before? Does it allow you to do something better? I also added, Does it make it easier?

I spend a tremendous amount of time each week looking at things that people I trust or "follow" recommend on the internet. The tools that I love and speak either to me or that I think would be meaningful to a particular group that I work with, I post or talk-up. Some make it to my Portaportal site, some are important enough to go on my home library page, some get a mention on my Facebook page, and some might get a mention here.

Just because I mention something doesn't mean that everyone should try it! Even more importantly, please don't think that everything I mention is right for you! Each person is the final filter. They choose what to explore, what to try, and finally what to use. Each of us only uses a few tools or applications with any frequency. The trick is finding what works for you.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Reading Ambassadors - and the end of the year

31 students have jumped through all the hoops to be be "Reading Ambassadors." Many more came so close! It is hard to tell students who were hoping to go on our trip to Barnes and Noble that I am so proud of them for what they have done but...

Another hard thing at this time of year is ending circulation. My line in the sand is that books don't go home now. "You can borrow books in the morning and return them in the afternoon. If there is a bookmark I won't disturb it." Still, during last period today I had a bunch of students, second graders mostly, wandering around the library, gathering books and trying again. Even after a student selects a different book, I still have to say - you can borrow a book in the morning... In a perfect world the school library would stay open through the summer.

Realistically, school ends in three weeks. During that time library accounts have to be closed, inventory started and ended, and the whole operation mothballed for next year. My husband looks at me wringing my hands and says, "it's always like this. It will be finished at the end of June."

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Non-Fiction and reading diversity

I had two students question today whether it was "fair" to record their non-fiction reading in their "passport." The passport is the reading log for New Yorkers Read, a special program in my school. Ironically, part of the point of this program is to increase reading diversity and make students aware of the cool non-fiction waiting for them in the library! In the end we had a really good talk in this group about how readers have to read more intensely and more thoughtfully when they read non-fiction. Reading good non-fiction can sometimes be more challenging than a novel, even if the book is shorter.

This connects to a thread that I have contributed to in another blog that I follow: Nonfiction Matters with Marc Aronson. Marc writes thought provoking non-fiction usually for middle and high school. His latest book, Sugar changed the world could change your view of history and geography.

Friday, May 6, 2011


During the last week I have added screencast tutorials to my library home page. So far I have made tutorials on ebooks, and resource lists from the school catalog. This took a chunk of time - much more than I expected - and is one reason that I didn't blog last weekend.

So far I have posted four five-minute tutorials. So why haven't I done more of these? Quite simply, it is harder than it looks. I am much more appreciative now of the talking heads, especially those that have to use their hands as they talk. Even after lots of practice I still have odd little pauses whenever I move the mouse.

I bought a subscription to Jing Pro over the winter holiday break. It took me this long to finally get started, but now I have finally gotten my feet wet I have many ideas for tutorials that would be helpful to people using the library. They won't be arriving all at once, but I will keep creating them whenever there is an opportune moment.

I am currently debating with myself over whether it is better to write a script, or to plan the tutorial but wing the delivery. At first I was adamant about using a script, but now I am not as sure. I allowed myself to hot dog - do one tutorial planned with bullet points but no script. I think it might actually sound a little better. Not easier, but maybe a little better. I still had to restart the recording five or six times.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Why do books "appeal" to different readers?

I just finished my third book from my holiday reading stash. I purposefully chose books that were not at all similar to help me think about what makes a really good book. The books I began my break with were Gary Paulsen's Notes from the Dog, Frances Hardinge's Fly by Night, and Leslie Bulion's The Trouble with Rules. Still waiting in the wings are Enrique Flores-Galbis' 90 miles to Havana, and James Patterson's sequel to Witch and Wizard, The Gift.

Back in November I wrote about two very dissimilar books that were both about mermaids. I have continued to think about and apply the "Appeal terms" discussed by Olga Nesi. Most recently I have used her ideas in building online book review forms that I have posted on my web site.

Reading these three books back-to-back once again pointed out that the sophistication (grown-upness?)of a topic is not a predictor of the style of a book. I expended the least effort in reading Paulsen's gentle, character-centered Notes from the Dog. Finn, the fourteen-year-old narrator is completely realistic and believable. Both he and his family grow positively through their friendship with Johanna, their new neighbor and breast-cancer "survivor." Although the plot seems to center around Johanna, her chemotherapy and activities to raise money for the cause, what I took away from the story was a feeling of connection to and between the characters.

The polar opposite of Gary Paulsen's book was Frances Hardinge's Fly by Night. The story is less about Mosca, the central character, than about the evolution she witnesses in her society. The complex plot demands that the reader keep track of layers of history while lush descriptions help paint pictures of the geography. The importance of reading and of freedom of thought and religion are the issues behind the story. I was left with a lot to think about.

I began my holiday reading with The Trouble with Rules, but I put it down half-way through, took a break and finished it today. The feelings evoked by Nadie, the first person narrator of this book and her struggles with the social scene in her school and her fourth-grade class were so vivid I literally couldn't stand it. The complications of fitting in without giving up things you really care about is something many children can empathize with.

I'm really glad that I read all three of these books. I suspect that I will find more opportunities to recommend Notes from the Dog and The Trouble with Rules than I will find readers for Fly by Night, but I am proud to have all three in my library.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

New Yorkers Read

I am in the thick of the New Yorkers Read program. The materials arrived at the end of last week so this week has been largely devoted to rolling out the program.

I have visited every class in grades 3 to 6 and invited the students to sign up to be "Reading Ambassadors." Those that sign up get a passport to record their reading. The passport also explains the requirements to be recognized as a Reading Ambassador: Read (and talk about) 15 books between now and June 3. Write two book reviews. Rad across at least 5 Dewey areas. Find 2 adults to fill out a postcard saying what they read and why they read. (I read____ because____)Every student is also given an "I read-because" postcard during my spiel in their classroom.

So far 126 students have signed up for the program! Admittedly, the passport is rather cool looking, and provides a nice incentive. Students are also promised recognition at the end of year ceremonies, but the enthusiasm right now is almost scary. So here is the awkward part: How will I manage to listen to all those "book talks so I can stamp the passports?" I will have to budget some time in my schedule each and every day if I will even get close to hearing from every student. I have some ideas about how to manage this problem of "flow," but I probably should pass them by my principal so I don't step on any toes.

A big part of New Yorkers Read is encouraging diverse reading. (That's the point of the whole read across at least 5 Dewey areas piece.) To make that more enticing a big chunk of the grant is a substantial non-fiction collection. The first half of this collection arrived about 2 weeks ago and is already on the shelves (or checked out.) The second half should arrive this week. There are some fabulous books in this collection! I try and read a couple of new non-fiction books each day, but as I explain to the students who ask, it just isn't possible for me to read all the books.

Saturday, April 2, 2011


My library Facebook page is up and running and it seems like it could be a useful way to reach out to people in my school community. This is a page for the library, not a personal page so it doesn't have friends, instead it has fans. So far I have 5 fans. I think there is something important that happens when I have 25 fans...

This is actually my second attempt to join Facebook. The summer before last in a library technology class at St. John's University the professor required my class to use Facebook. I was suddenly besieged with friend requests, and as a school librarian I just didn't see how I could say no and not be friends with the teachers in my school community. What I got was way to much information! I felt like I could accidentally become a conduit for personal information between students, teachers, and parents - a pretty scary idea! I ended up using this page very little, and eventually closed it entirely. I am much more comfortable now with this corporate page.

The page is still very much a work in progress. So far It gets a fair number of "impressions" (19 people looked at my posting of an event for next week) and two students have posted comments. This Wednesday I have a Family Reading Night. I will mention my Facebook presence to the parents at the event and see if that helps spread the word. It will be interesting to see how this develops over next few months.

Monday, March 28, 2011

New Non-Fiction

I am having such a good time reading non-fiction lately! All three boxes of the first delivery of the New Yorkers Read grant collection have finally been delivered. I try to be really strict with myself - if I stop to browse then the books will never be processed and out on the shelves (or tables for the moment.) But still, I'm human, so I have sampled a number of delicious titles.

Today I read Steve Jenkins Never Smile at a Monkey to a 4th and 5th grade ESL class in preparation for drafting a group-written review. This was part of rolling out my new book review forms using Google Docs on my library web page I meant to just sample one or two pages, but the kids couldn't get enough of the book. It is truly a potato chip like read - you can't read just one page.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Catch up!

A lot has been happening in my little library since I last posted! Book orders, book deliveries, Family Reading Night, parent conferences, student conferences, and finally a Face Book site for my library.

Book ordering -I finally sent out my (hopefully) last book order for the year. There are so many wonderful books out there that cutting my wished down to the size of my budget is hard. Book orders are fun - I get to read reviews and dream about all the great books out there. I also visit book stores to look at books 'up close and personal' and interview students about their wishes...Like I said, it is a lot of fun, but also one of the world's biggest time-sinks.

Book deliveries - it's raining books! I received the first installment of my first book order. It is bragging, but I have to say the kids are thrilled, and the books are flying off the shelves! I am also thrilled to see some big beautiful boxes in the office from Follett (my favorite book jobber) that contain some amazing non-fiction courtesy of the New Yorkers Read grant. I imported the records today, but I won't get to open the boxes until they are officially delivered to me. I am thrilled to have this infusion of 111 new non-fiction books for my library!

Family Reading Night - This event (sponsored by Target) is both a lot of fun and a lot of work! The March FRN featured non-fiction information books. These books can be a real challenge for parents of little kids who often bring home very "cool" books that are far beyond their independent abilities. I had a good crowd - 21 families and about 35 kids. A huge shout out to Nesi my volunteer English to Spanish translator!

Parent conferences - Last Tuesday was parent conferences where parents meet with teachers and pick up report cards. Our school opts to do this all in one day. That means a half day of school followed by conferences from 1:00 - 3:00 & 5:00 - 7:30. Since the school day begins at 8:30, that means an 11 hour day, minimum. Basically we all run on adrenaline, which made the rest of the week feel a bit worn down. I saw about 50 families, and was completely talked out. I not only had a lot of good conferences, but managed to sort out some sibling pairs that I had no idea went together!

- Last, but not least, is my creation of an institutional page for the library. This is my second exploration in Facebook. The first time I created a Facebook page was when one of my library technology classes required it, and it scared me off. One of our young teachers shared things that were not suitable for my (albeit prudish) concept of public sharing. I don't want to be a conduit for anything that could get someone into trouble. However, I can't rule out the fact that Facebook is a huge part of the way people communicate. So here it is!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

More about biographies before I move on

I have a lot more I would like write about biography research. But I will only share a few snippets.
The "R" word reared its puzzled head again. A young lady was trying to read about the young life of Betsy Ross, and was really making no sense of it. I finally figured out that one of the problems were the vocabulary words Quaker,Society of Friends, [married outside of the] faith, Episcopalian... basically a big part of the drama of her life was shrouded in unknown vocabulary.

A puzzlement for many of the students was the requirement that they learn about their subjects "youth." Vocabulary again. The most puzzled students couldn't define for me what youth meant. They just wanted to find a place in some book or article that would tell them about it. The idea of doing the math to find out how old their subject was when events happen seemed to be new to them.

Of course I realize that at the end of the month I was "supporting" research with the students who had been the least successful. Still, next year I will suggest that during the silly season for biographies that a little daily practice with dates in word problems could make thinking about dates and ages a little more intuitive for everyone.

I have read several of the finished biographies. The variety and level of the fourth grader's writing is impressive. There is just always so much I could have done better to support this work. Next year!

Saturday, February 19, 2011


Our school follows a writing calendar with a genre-of-the-month. February is biography month in grades one through six. Consequently I have been really busy coaching students through their research.

Their is a lot of fabulous writing in the biography section of our library. I wish more students would reach for a biography when they are looking for something exciting or moving to read. Distressingly, I have to take ownership of this problem. When a student is looking for an exciting story I need to reach more often for a biography as part of the book talk.

Sadly, most students are only exposed to biographies when they are required to write one. This means they need the facts - not some interesting or exciting or romantic book. With a graphic organizer worksheet to fill out and a looming deadline for a finished essay, the last thing they need is a biography consisting of poems each in the voice of a person at an imaginary wake, (Talkin' about Bessie , a biography of Bessie Coleman by master poet Nikki Grimes) or anything equally wonderful. Instead they need the facts - at least for the graphic organizer.

So I have been spending a couple of hours each day working with students, mostly from the fourth grade, in small groups. They are sent to the library to "get more information," often after writing a first draft that roughly paraphrases an encyclopedia article.

To be fair, the students I am seeing this week are the unsuccessful ones. There are many thoughtful and moving biographical essays being written in these fourth grade classes. Meeting with the students who are struggling has prompted me to reflect on what a biography is and what an author needs to be able to write one.

The most common misconception is that a biography must start at the subject's birth, write about every stage (or every year) of their life, and stop with death. This reminds me of the bed-to-bed narratives that are common in the very early grades. Bed-to-bed narratives are (not very gripping) stories that tell about a day starting with getting up and getting dressed/having breakfast/taking a bath and ending with bedtime rituals. They do provide a window into cultural differences! However they are not a preferred model of storytelling or narrative writing. Similarly, the birth to death biographical essay is equally uninspiring.

A good biography even at the elementary level provides clear and even moving information about why this person is important and why their life should be documented. The details of the subject's life are not just any random available facts, but show some connection to the meaning of the story.

A great biography goes a step beyond documenting the subject's life, but uses the details available to bring the person to life, making the reader care about the subject. A great biography is art.

However reading a great, or even relatively good biography about a subject will probably not give the student the information required to fill out the dreaded "graphic organizer" and write an adequate essay about every stage of the subject's life. The biographer has carefully selected what facts to present to tell a story about the subject. If the student is going to write their own story about a biographical subject, they will have to actually do research.

So this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Extending Reading Clubs to the Classroom

The second grade lunchtime reading club was a wonderful experience. The girls that started it wish it could keep going. We will keep talking about how they can continue during lunchtime on the their own. Meanwhile, just about everyone in the class wants to be part of the reading club! I talked about this happy problem with my principal and she suggested "empowering" the classroom teacher to run reading clubs. She suggested that a particular time each week could be carved out for reading clubs and that I could visit the classroom to lead a group and perhaps other adults from the school or community could also be invited to lead groups.

To make a long story short - I presented four possible book clubs. 1) an author study of Cynthia Rylant where every student would read Henry and Mudge the First Book plus as many other books by Cynthia Rylant as they could 2) an author study of Ezra Jack Keats 3) Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus (A longer chapter book that is also available also on CD) 4) a topic discussion group of weather where students would read as many books as they could about weather and talk about what they learned and how the books differ.

The students wrote down their first, second, and third choices. They are anxiously waiting to be assigned to groups on Monday so they can start reading.

I am anxiously waiting to see how this works out!

While I was talking to their teacher about organizing these groups, the teacher's impulse was to assign the students to groups by their reading ability. So much time is spent in classrooms on reading instruction that I imagine it can be hard sometimes for teachers to imagine reading discussion that is not about teaching how to read. I emphasized to him that the books for all of the groups were accessible to a broad range of readers and the students selected for interest, not reading level. I realize that in the library I am very lucky that I get to talk with kids about books - not usually about their reading ability. I hope that I can keep the idea of "reading clubs" in the classroom still clearly focused on the books and ideas, and the students' interests, and not let them devolve into just another period of reading instruction.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Reading Groups

This Winter I was approached by two students that wanted to form reading groups. Students who want to "work on reading" on their own time - what's not to love?

The first request was from a fifth grade girl who wrote an excellent formal persuasive letter. It turns out that the letter was part of a class assignment, but the desire was real non-the-less. I showed the letter to my principal and she gave me permission to host this reading group after school on Fridays and offered some suggestions for funding books. I spent some time talking with the girl who proposed the idea. The list of students that said they were interested was more than half her class! I am currently working on figuring out how to make the group available to a smaller group... I feel like eight is probably the maximum for working comfortably in a student rum group. Five might be even better. I am currently trying to figure out a way for students to sign up for groups by interest, balancing being fair with trying to make it work.

The second request was from a second grade girl. She initially asked me what she needed to do, to form a lunchtime reading club. I told her that she would need a list of students that would be interested in participating and some idea about what they would do. She came right back with a list of nine students - most of the girls from her class. After we talked about what she wanted to do in the group she formalized the proposal by writing me a letter. That was a week ago Friday. On Monday we started our reading club with an author study of Mo Willems. The girls have been having a wonderful time! We are ending this group by writing letters to Mr. Willems today and tomorrow. On Friday I will let students from this class sign up for the next author study in our lunch time reading club. This has turned out to be a wonderful idea! Thank you girls!

Of course, now the other second grade teachers are asking why their students don't get to be in the club? I may have to rotate to another class after the first two rounds. Eventually the groups should probably be mixed - not one particular class or one gender. I wonder however if part of what made this work is that these were friends who decided to form a club?

Some fantasy and a realistic novel

Yes, I finished A tale dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz within a day of opening it. It's the kind of book that is hard not to just inhale. I will have to let it go, send it on to the library stacks where it will be passed from hand to had, I am sure. This is a joyously gruesome riff on the fairy tale form where periodically the narrator turns to you and reminds you to send the little ones out of the room or to "close your eyes." All kinds of horrible things do happen but (spoiler alert) there is a fairy tale ending.

Another fantasy - but from a completely different family of stories - is The Boy who howled by Timothy Power. The absent-minded and rather callous parents in this peculiar book reminded me a bit of The Series of Unfortunate Events and a bit of The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry (another very peculiar book). However the parents have very little to do with the plot which revolves around Callum, a boy raised by wolves as he re-enters human society and eventually connects with his sister, a private school and his family. I can imagine this book prompting some conversation about behavior in our schools and our society. Thought provoking, but also very, very funny.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


I accidentally dropped into the Strand (Broadway at 12th) on the way back from a professional development day last Thursday. The PD was hosted at Scholastic headquarters, and I had dodged that bullet by simply starting a wish list and firmly telling myself that nothing here couldn't be purchased officially with school funds. So what was I doing walking uptown on Broadway? I must have known that meant passing, or rather going in to the Strand...

I happily gave myself permission to read picture books. No charge for reading, and I added many to my ever expanding wish list. Here are a couple that were really hard to leave behind: The black book of colors by Menena Cottin with illustrations by Rosana Faria is a multi-sensory exploration of colors with the text in both white on black and in braille with embossed pictures on the black pages. A beautiful and thought provoking book. Another stand out that it was hard to leave behind was The heart and the bottle by Oliver Jeffers. Books about grief are often heavy handed telling us directly about the loss and what to do about it. Here no easy answer is presented even with the upbeat ending.

I should have stopped there, but no I had to keep walking through the children's section. In the end I couldn't resist some amazing bargains. And one book that I just wanted to read. A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz. More about that later.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Celebrating Fairy Tales Retold

Today I visited one of our fourth grade classes for a writing celebration. Each of the students read their retelling of a fairytale in front of an audience of their peers, a few adults from the school, and a few parents. It was truly a festive occasion.

Almost all of these stories were told in the first person from the perspective of a character (often the villain) in the story. Most of the stories began with the character introducing him or herself, and several ended by thanking the audience for listening to "my side of the story." Clearly, the students were familiar with The true story of the Three Little Pigsby Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Lane Smith.

The students' stories were filled with creative details and many had some interesting twists. They also showed their familiarity with several other fairy tales, an understanding of the difference between a third person narrator and a first person participant, and almost all showed that they understood that a difference in point of view can completely change the interpretation of actions. A few of the students also understood that their first person narrator wasn't necessarily nice or even honest. (Scieszka and Smith make this clear with many little details including the "graffiti" on the back cover.) Obviously this was a successful project that the class enjoyed and worked hard to bring to fruition.

So what is it about fairy tales that lend them so beautifully to being used and twisted in this way and many others? Perhaps it is the voice, or lack thereof of the narrator. The narrator or storyteller tells us the plot fairly briefly with little character development or descriptions of character or setting. Often the characters don't even have names (the king, the queen, the princess, the witch, the wolf...), but even if they are named they have little character. Their character traits are named and assigned to them, (proud, ugly, resourceful, faithful) but you don't really know them. They could be anyone - even you!

The action in a fairy tale can be exciting to the point of brutality. People are cooked, eaten, have their heads cut off, and are forced to accomplish impossible tasks. But then they are often reassembled and married off for the classic "fairy tale ending." So a traditional fairy tale is in some ways a blank story. It is waiting to be re-imagined and populated with real characters. Each reader and listener can dive into these stories, re-live them, and make them their own. They are scary, yet safe. Impersonal and terribly personal. At some point every girl knows that she is Cinderella, and every boy is a prince with a magic blade. The stories belong to all of us. They are unbreakable toys that we can play with as we see fit.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

More about folktales

Both third and fourth grade classes have been writing variants of fairy tales this month where they write in the first person from the point of view of a character inside the story.  Tuesday I was assigned a last minute "prep" coverage of a third grade class, so I decided to have some fun with this genre.

I selected the story Sleeping Beauty largely because it a familiar folktale that has not, to my knowledge, been taught in our school in the past few years.  It is also a story I know well enough to tell with very brief preparation time.  I also had an attractive variant, Sleepless Beauty by Frances Minters.

Sleeping Beauty is a pip to tell.  It has proud and overprotective parents,  fairies, a mean witch, a good fairy godmother (who in my retelling is frazzled, disorganized and always late), and a handsome, kind, but admittedly bland prince.  The kids were wide eyed and agog and then about half way through one of them turned to a friend and said "it's Tangled!  She's telling about Tangled!"

Telling a story (for me) is a quick activity.  The whole story took just a bit over five minutes and was absolutely satisfying.  I acknowledged afterward that "some of you noticed that this story is connected to a movie. Since folktales belong to everybody they are often borrowed for movies, just like they are borrowed for books."  This provided a fine seque into  Sleepless Beauty

In the last 20 minutes of the period the students wrote letters from "inside the story."  They launched enthusiastically into the project and had a good start to the project by the time their teacher picked them up.  I hope that some of the these letters were completed later.  I will check in this week and see if any are "published."

Whether or not the writing is completed, I feel like I accomplished my mission.  Several students have asked for Sleeping Beauty, and my copy of Sleepless Beauty has also been checked out from the library.  The students in this class have had an experience with the "oral tradition," and several are newly enthusiastic about folktales.  A nice side benefit of this lesson is that students made connections not only between folktales and books but also to movies.  Popular movies are often not discussed in school and they are a memorable part of our students cultural landscape.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Three Little Pigs and other folktales

This week I have spent some time re-reading reflecting on some of the wonderful versions of this folktalke.  Some of our fourth grade classes are using The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs retold by Jon Scieszka as a model of writing from a particular point of view.  The students will then study other folk or fairy tales and rewrite them from the point of view of a character in the story.  So I have been doing a brisk business in Three Little Pigs stories with the students as well as teachers borrowing a variety of other folktales. 

Some adults are surprised to discover that the students don't know the fairytale cannon or are only familiar with the "twisted" variants rather than "straight" fairy tales. Other adults would like all the fairy tales to already be available as "point of view" stories and are perturbed to discover that authors have twisted the stories in so many other ways, but that Rapunzel (for example) is not told (yet to my knowledge) as a point of view story.

So, out of this rich soup, what is the library ingredient?  My library message this month for this grade is that folk tales belong to everybody.  The do not have an author, because they come out of the oral tradition.  They belong to the "folk" or the people.  There is not one right way to tell a folk tale.  If I include or leave out certain details, that is just my retelling.  I realize however that many children have never heard someone tell a story!  So during the coming week I plan to "pop in" (at prearranged times) to all of the fourth grade classes and tell them a story.  I began on Friday in one class with the story of The Three Billy Goats Gruff.  A five minute performance that I begin by introducing as "retold by Mrs. Dejean" and end with "this is my version of the story.  When you read in books there will be be different details.  When you tell the story, you can change it as you see fit."

Although I encourage the teachers to do a group retelling of the  story of the Three Little Pigs (After the wolf blows down the first pigs house I suggest that the class vote on whether or not the wolf eats the pig) I think that listening to a storyteller is a different experience. Perhaps this way our students will realize that stories don't just grow in books.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

When books aren't good for "Independent Reading"

In my last post I raised the issue that some reading activities wouldn't necessarily be considered "really reading" by some teachers. This is a big issue because it makes a real impact on the reading habits and attitudes of many young people.  It also looms over many book choice conferences, as the teacher is often a silent third party in the conference.  As a librarian I am trying to please and reach the student, but the student is often choosing with an eye towards pleasing the teacher!

Before I go on and write any more about this delicate matter, I want to make it clear that I am not telling students what to read and what not to read. I stand firmly behind my students freedom to read, and champion their right to select their own books.  This means that I try to only give positive messages to students about their book choices, and insist that the school library is a place where others are not allowed to make negative comments about other students book choices.  The library must be a safe place so all students can learn.

However there are many book choices in my library that are not appropriate for a homework reading log, or that a teacher may not permit during "independent reading" during class. (Independent Reading  is an instructional period where students are expected to practice reading.)When a student brings a book to check out that falls into this category (or the gray area around it) I do believe in telling the student what I notice about the book choice and asking about his or her plan is for independent reading in the classroom and at home. 

What does this look like in practice? Here are some examples pulled from reading conferences during the last month:

No David! by David Shannon  was brought to the circulation desk by a fifth grade girl that had been browsing  the "Books for Brand New Readers" baskets at the rug area.  I had a wonderful conversation with the group about what they remembered about learning how to read and what made the No David books such a wonderful memory.  We ended up reading the book in chorus as the girls (and a growing group of happy observers) laughed and talked about why it was such a great book.  In the end they decided in the end to leave No David! for  some lucky "little kid" to borrow.  But they might come back and "visit" it again.

Flotsam by David Weisner was selected by a second grade boy.  I asked him if he knew that this book had no words, and he didn't.  I told him that David Weisner is one of my favorite artists and his books are amazing, complicated, and take a lot of thinking to figure out. This is not an "easy" book!  We spent a couple of minutes looking carefully together at the first two pages.  He seemed totally taken by the concept of a book as a puzzle where you have to figure out the story.  However I also offered to help him find another book - something cool with words in it - that his teacher would let him read during independent reading and put on his reading log home.  The student agreed with me that it looked like Flotsam was a a cool book, but not so good for practicing reading.

Another problem for "Independent Reading" is when students choose books that are far beyond their reading skills.  Second and third graders seem particularly prone to choosing the largest possible books they can find.  Eragon and its sequels Eldest and Brisingr are frequent victims of this particular book choice strategy.  Often the student will explain that their parents or teacher have told them to choose longer or harder books. When I tell them that "books are like clothes, you have to try them on"  most students will "try on" giant books like these and report that they "can read" them.  Arguing about that would be pointless and really counter-productive.  I really don't want to convince a child that they really aren't a good-enough reader!  Instead I ask them to read for one minute and estimate how long it would take to read a page. If one page takes about five minutes (not an uncommon estimate) then 100 pages will take about 500 minutes.  This is more than 8 hours.  600 pages adds up to 48 hours which means it really isn't possible to read this book before it has to be returned to the library.  "Eragon and the rest of the series are really great books and very popular with students in middle school, but it might be a little frustrating for you."  Although I don't really recommend these books for [second] graders I can certainly let them try it.  However I also ask them to select another book that they can finish if they read it every day. I would rather have a student have an extra book out from the library than be stuck with nothing to read!