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!