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Sunday, November 17, 2013

Big Snow

Ever since I was a little girl, I have waited for the big snow to come in the late fall, hoping each year it would arrive earlier. Skating, building snow creatures, sledding. I loved winter. I still do. Like David, the young boy in Jonathan Bean's new book Big Snow, I found things to do while I waited. This boy, however, does not wait patiently. His mom suggests he help her make cookies. "But then the flour, white and fine, made David think of snow." His mom uses a dustpan and broom to clean the snow from the kitchen floor. Yet when he goes outside to check the weather, fine, white snowflakes were falling. He runs across the yard jubilantly. Later, he helps his mom clean the bathroom (think white and fluffy snow) and put clean sheets on the guest bed (think white and cool snow). His mother's expression with each cleaning effort appears more frustrated. Outdoors, however, the white, fluffy, cool snow changes the landscape. The artwork on each page adds details to the story, making it he perfect book to read aloud this week as we look forward to big snow.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Favorite Books

This week I began reading aloud two books on my all-time favorites list. Third graders are listening to Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo. Second graders are listening to Charlotte's Web by E.B. White. I just love the voice of each story. India Opal Buloni is forthright, funny, honest, and insightful. Her narration resonates with subtle humor, careful observations, and thoughtfulness. The omniscient narrator of Charlotte's Web portrays the wonder of the Zuckerman's barn in such a way that I truly believe I have sat there with Fern, listening to Charlotte reassure Wilbur, hearing the goose's stuttering, cringing at Templeton's crass suggestions. The hour I spend each day reading those books carries me through all monotonous duties. 

The children so obviously know how much I adore these books and characters. There is never a behavior problem. All eyes watch me as I read. Giggled and smiles appear when I read about how Winn-Dixie smiled at the preacher. Several students whispered "salutations" after Charlotte said it to Wilbur today. The kids tell me how they can see the story in their minds, like a mental movie. Sometimes important discussions why a mom would leave her daughter and why Mr. Zuckerman would butcher Wilbur.

And sometimes, the discussion gets humorous. Like when one person asked what meat came from a pig. "Bacon," said one boy. "Ham," said another. "Lamb chops," said a third. The child next to him gave him a strange look and said, "Seriously? Those come from a lamb." Then one person asked, "Where does chicken come from?" The rest of the children chorused, "Chicken!" And that is where I brought the discussion back to the story. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

In the Little Chair

I have the good fortune of collaborating with my third grade colleagues during their reading workshop hour each day (though I only have 17 minutes to be in their classrooms before I have to teach second graders). I get the privilege of presenting mini-lessons before the students go off to read independently (or enter the reading zone, as we all like to say). This week I have shared these lessons with the readers:

* asking questions as you read (using Yoshi's Feast by Kimiko Kajikawa)
* looking for details that make a book historical fiction (using Michael O. Tunnel's Mailing May)
* what it means to be a good group member (with the help of my colleague and three students who comically portrayed an interrupter, a daydreamer, and an off-task speaker)
* making connections (using Cari Best's lovely story Goose's Story)

I love this part of my day. I am in a different person's room most days, and I love the things I learn with these readers. I love the feeling of gathering together on the carpet to share and talk about books. In on classroom, though, I especially love sitting in the little chair. My friend keeps it in the corner of her room, and it is the sturdiest, most comfortable little chair. Just another reason these 17 minutes brighten my school days. Tomorrow's mini-lesson is a book talk about ten historical fiction novels.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Great American Dust Bowl

Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust brought the despair of the Dust Bowl to me through the eyes of 14-year-old Billie Jo. Grains of dust blew into every aspect of life! In Don Brown's latest graphic novel, The Great American Dust Bowl, that same despair is echoed in the text and artwork, accompanied by speech bubbles that convey the actual words of folks who lived through the time period. He provides background information about how the plain bordering the Rocky Mountains was formed and describes how so many pioneers came to live there. Eventually, the plain dried up to "dry, pulverized earth." His descriptions of the conditions are gripping, like this about a dust storm in 1932:

"In January 1932, wind blew dirt ten thousand feet into the air, nearly twenty times higher than the Washington Monument. The sky turned brownish gray, sixty-mile-per-hour, dirt-filled winds lashed Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. People called it "awe-inspiring." - p. 21

The variation of panel size, the color palette, the arrangement of text on the pages, and the inclusion of incredible details (like how desperate people believed dead snakes hanging from fence posts would bring rain) make this such a successful book. Despite the grim topic, it is sure to hold readers' interest.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Buster Keaton in BLUFFTON

Matt Phelan's artwork first captivated me in Betty Birney's The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs. I loved the bear in Alice Schertle's Very Hairy Bear and the panels in his own graphic novel  Around the World. His latest book, set in 1908, features the same style as the latter title: soft watercolor panels with speech bubbles and occasional narration in textboxes.

I think I expected Bluffton to be more about vaudeville and The Three Keatons, in which case I probably would not have enjoyed it so much. Instead, it was the story of three summers of Buster's teenage years as told through the eyes of Henry Harrison, a fictional boy who lived in Muskegon, Michigan, and who visited Bluffton and the Actors' Colony. Henry's fascination with the members of the colony draws him there each day (when his own father does not need his help at their store). The young people engage in games of baseball, skip stones, and participate in Buster's ingenious practical jokes and schemes. Though Henry begs Buster to teach him how to fall, how to land, how to avoid getting hurt, the young Keaton clearly just wants to be seen as a person aside from the acts. The author's note tells more of Buster's story and encourages readers to view the man's movies. 

The story of how the author acquired the photograph at the end of the book is fascinating:

Now I need to watch Phelan's recommendation: The General, starring Buster Keaton (

Saturday, November 2, 2013


The Science Museum of Minnesota is hosting Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed, an exhibit featuring what archaeologists know about one the most civilized of ancient cultures. I appreciated many things about the exhibit, especially their number system (which I want to practice - They built extraordinary pyramids without machinery and commonly used implements. Their glyphs have been studied and interpreted by archaeologists and can be found all over their structures and artwork. And, they created codices, few of which survive due to decisions made by Spanish monks in the 1500s to burn them because of their promotion of the devil and evil spirits. Two are on display, and they are both fragile and intricate. If you live in the area, take time to visit the exhibit...and be sure to create your own name Maya name (and then your personal Stela based on your Gregorian birth date).

Friday, November 1, 2013


A zombie and a fairy princess rushed across the yard to greet me last night after yoga. After getting candy from my husband at the front door, they dashed to our newly installed Little Free Library. The zombie asked, "Are there any Jack and Annie books?" There was one, but it wasn't a Magic Tree House chapter book as he had hoped. Still, the zombie gladly snatched Mummies and Pyramids, the nonfiction companion to Mary Pope Osborne's Mummies in the Morning from our library shelf and went on his way trick-or-treating with delight.

Later, I rang the doorbell at their spookily decorated house, and after declining the candy bars they tried to stuff in my pockets, the zombie settled himself in my lap, the fairy princess snuggled against my side, and we started reading about ancient Egypt. The author cleverly assembled the research gathered for the fiction book into these ingeniously designed nonfiction books for readers. Sal Murdocca's illustrations accompany the text, and Jack and Annie present additional information and definitions in sidebars. Potentially unknown words are defined in context without interrupting the flow of the text. The readers with whom I shared the book groaned when their mom declared it was time for bed.