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Thursday, January 23, 2014

How Cold is it?

Despite the clear blue sky and deceivingly strong sunshine, schools were closed again today due to extreme cold and wind. Usually, I would be ecstatic about having another day at home, but no school means many changes of schedules and plans...and another day we have to make up at some other point. It did give me the chance to read a few books.

In thinking about comparisons and just how cold it is (cold enough that my eyelashes froze and my sunglasses had a layer of frost on the lenses during my run), I decided to write about Lita Judge's latest book How Big Were Dinosaurs? I expected it to simply demonstrate dinosaur sizes. Knowing Lita, I should have known it would be far greater than that. 

Not only did I learn dinosaurs names never before uttered in this house (where dinosaurs were popular subject matter for several years), like leaellynasaura and struthiomimus, but Lita's comparisons completely placed dinosaur sizes in contexts I could comprehend. Her paintings help make those comparisons even more vivid. Protoceratops, for example, was no bigger than a baby rhinoceros, so seeing the adult rhinoceros walking over a protoceratops was perfect for my mental image. I especially loved the velociraptor (about the size of a dog) pulling the boy down the street (switch the dog obediently by his side). The last page folds out into a four-page spread that features all the dinosaurs and creatures mentioned in the book, along with a pronunciation guide to dinosaur names, size estimates, and time period information. 

I know readers will love this book as much I as do. It will be an excellent read-aloud choice this spring.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Return Visit

David LaRochelle visited half of the third graders at my school today (and the other half tomorrow). He was greets by close to 200 "bad beans" in the hallway. I have loved looking at these personality-filled creatures over the past two days...and listening to children's repeated questions as to whether I saw theirs. The one with the walker. The one reading 1+1=5. The one with the curly mustache. Their joy in welcoming David to our school for the 18th consecutive year was palpable, as was their focused concentration during his presentations. In two weeks he will return to pick up the rough drafts of their stories. Magic emanates from authors and illustrators, encouraging young people to write and draw.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Metal Together

My mom, my son, and I spent Saturday afternoon focused on silver and guided by the talented artist and teacher Kay Rashka at the Woodson Art Museum. Kay's book, Bead Meets Metal, will perfectly guide beginners like us through the basic and involved projects, but it was a pleasure to learn from a patient, resourceful, and flexible instructor. When faced with restrictions about using butane torches to create the small fine silver beads at the ends of the ear wires for our earrings (in an art museum!), Kay improvised. She eventually set up an assembly line of participants next to a fire exit (with the door propped open by the equally patient museum assistant) and used her more powerful torch to combat the cold air. 

Her work with the class reinforced for me all the things teachers need to consider for successful interactions with students:

* thoughtful preparation of materials (like the tray of tools + chocolates waiting at our tables)
* modeling of procedures
* anticipation of problems and advice for what to do when those occur
* options for tools and tips for how to use them
* acceptance of different learning styles and willingness to revisit a lesson again
* using people's names and getting to know people
* displaying genuine interest in people's accomplishments

Teachers make hundreds of decisions each day to keep students engaged in learning experiences - and many more before and after lessons occur. It was a pleasure to learn to work with silver from someone who is skilled at her craft and at helping other learn it. The bonus, of course, was the pair of earrings I constructed. They look just like I hoped they would!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Captain Cat

When I teach students about keeping a Someday List (books they want to read in the future), one of the criteria for adding a book is "favorite author". And so, though do not generally appreciate cat books, I willingly read Inga Moore's new book Captain Cat. Having loved her work on A House in the Woods, I wanted this title to be equally enchanting. It was. 

Captain Cat had "more cats on board his ship, the Carlotta, than there were sailors in his crew." Because he travels only to trading ports, he does not visit all the wonderful places in his maps and charts. The trades he makes are all for cats, making fellow captains wonder how Captain Cat can even make money! In a twist of fate, his sailing brings him to the island of a queen in desperate need of cats! What ensues is the perfect ending. Moore's mixed-media illustrations bring the reflections on the water, the rolling waves, the sea-salt breezes, and the island rats come alive!

Today I let one of the third grade teachers read it to her class. They later reported on how they loved it, noting that it might not appeal to everyone, especially people who do not like cats much. I told them about my cat aversion, and they laughed to know how much I adored Captain Cat.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Yes, Chef

There are not many good things about exercising indoors for me. The challenge of keeping up my mental motivation during the boring miles on a treadmill or track continues, despite the moving trails of Olympic National Park or the Swiss Alps on the screen or the counting of laps. The annoyances of other runners' noises, the indoor overheating, and the clanging of weights challenge my focus. The only things I appreciate are the chance to exercise without freezing my extremities (due to Raynaud's Syndrome) and the occasional opportunity to get some reading done.

Yesterday I was engrossed with Yes, Chef, the memoir by Marcus Samuelsson about his path to becoming a world-class chef. His affection for food began as a boy in Sweden, adopted with his older sister after their mother died from tuberculosis. After leaving the Swedish formal school system for cooking school, he became immersed in the world of cooking stations, perfection, organization, and meticulous preparation. 

"If the ingredients are fresh and prepared with love, they are bound to be satisfying," he writes of his early cooking experiences with his mormor (mother's mother) and of smoking fish with his uncle Torsten. As I prepare food each day, I am reminded of that and of how much of myself goes into what I cook and bake, not just the time I spend with the food preparation, but the thoughts I keep in mind of the people who will eat what I make. Scents remind me of people, places, and events, just as the scent of berbere, the Ethiopian spice mixture his mother must have used, brings this woman he hardly knew back to him.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Cold People

I added Jane, the Fox and Me by Fanny Britt to my "someday list" after my friend Joyce raved about it last month. This morning I read it...and reread. Exceptional is the best word to describe it. A graphic novel about the size of a picture book, it is illustrated mostly in monochrome (pencil, color crayon, gouache, ink, watercolor). Hélène is the narrator, and I would guess her to be a girl about 10 or 11 years old. She has no friends and no place to hide from the taunts, stares, messages on walls, and ridicule. She believes the awful things said about her and just wants to be alone (or so she says). The words she chooses to express her feelings are extraordinary: "Even with my creeping vine of an imagination, I'm always taken off guard by the insults she invents. The same thing happens every time - another hole opens up in my rib cage. Hearing everything. Hearing nothing." p. 18

Her only refuge is the copy of Jane Eyre she takes with her everywhere. Intermingled with her story are the incidents fromJane's life that cause to Hélène ponder the words and actions of those around her...her lovely, well-meaning mother, the nasty girls who used to be her friends. Jane's ability to grow up and remain "clever, slender, and wise" draws admiration from Hélène and later helps her to view herself differently. I can say no more, lest I spoil the plot for those who choose to read it. But please add it to your someday list. It is an exceptionally important book.

I will read it again today and bring it to school for my trusted friends there to read tomorrow.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Winter Opinions

There is not a person in our state who would disagree that it is mighty cold outdoors. The air temperature as I write is only -14 degrees, but shortly after midnight it is supposed to be -28 (with a windchill around -55). The governor's decision to cancel school for the state was a wise one, and I look forward to a day of new books, mugs of tea, and cookies.

In her book Winter is the Warmest Season, Lauren Stringer makes the chilly season seem balmy! Winter is warm with woolly sweaters, boots, hot soups, grilled cheese sandwiches, dragon-like radiators, curled-up cats, and hot baths. Lauren's bright artwork warms the pages with contrasts between summery and wintry scenes and objects. Even the blanket of snow covering the ground warms the creatures in dens and in the subnivean zone. My winter is warm my favorite fleece pants, scarves that keep my neck and head cozy, steeping tea, and snuggling moments with my husband while watching movies. I love winter, despite the desperately cold temperatures like what we have right now. The book is signed to me "who loves winters and knows how warm they can be!" 

My good friend and teaching partner asked for mentor texts that will model opinion writing for third graders. Winter is the Warmest Season came to mind immediately. She will use it on Tuesday when the temperature is supposed to be -19 degrees to start the day.

Friday, January 3, 2014

What is Fantasy?

The first graders practically sprang from the chairs to th carpet when I entered with a pile of 30 picture books this morning. We started by listing characteristics they thought comprised a fantasy book. There were some accurate ones: creatures that are not real, super powers. Then I speedily talked about the books in my pile, spending a bit more time on titles unfamiliar to them. I noticed a copy of Gingerbread Baby on the easel and commented that even that was a fantasy book. All the while, their hands were busy making the interlocking symbol with their thumbs and forefingers (meaning = I have a much better than raised hands). They added more characteristics to the list after considering the books and begged me to leave them all for them to read in detail.

One child stopped me on my way out the door to inform me that his gingerbread baby really did run away! Oops.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Another New Year

Winter break is done, and the requests from colleagues have trickled in to my inbox: penguin books for kindergarten classes, book talk examples for one third grade class, good and bad book review examples for another third grade group, book talks for two fourth grade classes. My mind is so swirling with titles and ideas that I wonder if I will be able to sleep! For now, I am going to read about writing and life experiences through Ann Patchett's words in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. It is a collection of her essays that I am enjoying immensely. Consider this line from "The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life."

"Why is it that we understand playing the cello will require work, but we attribute writing to the magic of inspiration...The art of writing comes way down the line, as does the art of interpreting Bach." - p. 29