07 December 2014

Stupid Alabama

  One of my oldest friends, affectionately known as “Little Matt” has also developed a friendship with Isaac.  For Isaac’s birthday this year, Matt sent him the book “Stupid Alabama” by his friend Michael P.Wines.  Matt assured me that despite it’s length it would hold both of our attentions with numerous humorous scenarios involving bodily functions.  

    The boy ended up begging to read more every night.  

    It is the story, a fifth grade Brooklynite Melvin has  adventures with his Uncle Petro, a biologist in Alabama.  It is a fish out of water story that doesn’t discount the city kid’s intelligence and savvy.  I appreciated how expectations about what it means to be an environmentalist, outdoorsman, and even a Southerner are all shown to be more complicated than you would initially expect.  

    Every few chapters, “Petro’s Field Notes” provides humorous information about animals mentioned in the book.

    Uncle Petro works at a university lab and is trying to save some local endangered species.  The reader gets a glimpse at some of the day to day reality of being a scientist, but also some of the eccentric personalities that are drawn to this line of work  
    The closest thing I can compare it to is one of Hiaasen’s young adult novels like “Hoot”.  There is a little bit of age appropriate romance, but the animals, pranks, and adventures are the real draw here.  

     If there was any weakness, it would be the buffoon like investigative journalist.  A great foil for kids to hate, but I just couldn’t help imagine his part being played out like any of the hundreds of bad kid’s movie comical villains I have seen.  

    I think kids from  ages 8-14 would love this book, especially if they like reptiles, and the fluids that those reptiles excrete when threatened.   


06 August 2014

A Reading Community

Our drive to and from Florida takes us through some small towns in three different states. I like being off the main highway for part of the trip and enjoy the slower pace and scenic views of the country roads. There are some towns that we drive through that are picturesque and quaint. And there are some areas we drive through that are depressed and run down.

In South Carolina, there is a small town called Society Hill. It is a town I look forward to driving through despite the abandoned buildings and empty storefronts that line the county road. In Society Hill there is a library -- right there on the main road for everyone driving through town to see.

For years when we drove to Florida, we passed this small library and saw a fundraising sign out front tracking the progress of the effort to build a new library building. Then one day, as we drove through, there it was. The brand new, modern, beautiful Society Hill branch of the Darlington Public Library.

When I first saw the new building, it struck me as such an enormous undertaking for this small, poor town. Then I thought about the commitment that the people of that community must have to literacy and education. What better gift could they give their children than to make sure they have a place to find books, to connect to the world with technology, to gather with peers, to learn?

I have been doing a lot of professional reading this summer -- trying to evaluate my practices and beliefs. I read Donalynn Miller's books about teaching reading, The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild. She writes about how she works to create a community of readers in her classroom. I have been thinking about how I can create the same kind of community at my school and help teachers build that community in their classrooms.

When I think about a reading community, I picture the Society Hill libraries, old and new. It may only exist in my imagination, but there is a reading community there. A group of people that are dedicated to making books available to everyone, to making sure that resources are on hand to help people find the information they need, to making a space that people can meet and discuss and get to know each other.

Donalynn Miller has been added to my teaching heroes list. I will have her books on hand this year as I work to build a reading community at my school. I will also have a picture of the Society Hill library posted by my desk to remind me of the reading community that has been there and the commitment that they have to keeping it going.

22 July 2014

Brilliant But Weird

We have been listening to a lot of Weird Al this past week.  His new album was recently released and eight days in a row he released a new video from the album. I thought the first two songs and videos, "Tacky" and "Word Crimes," were brilliant and fun. The later songs I thought were typical of his work, but they did not resonate with me like those two did. It does help to know the songs or the styles he is parodying and I willingly admit to being so woefully out of touch with pop culture that I am mostly clueless about where the parodies on his new album originate.

Isaac, as you can imagine, loves Weird Al.  That's his wheelhouse -- the guy gets 8-9 year olds' humor. Isaac knows slightly more of the music that is being parodied than I do, but only slightly. For him, though, the the humor does not come from the parody, it comes from the lyrics and funny videos. Most of his favorite Weird Al songs are older ones like "White and Nerdy" and "The Saga Begins" and "Eat It."

In the past week, there has also been a lot of criticism centered around the new album, specifically the song "Word Crimes" in which Weird Al uses Robin Thicke's song "Blurred Lines" to parody grammar mistakes. In it, he uses negative language to refer to people who use improper grammar. So, his song lyrics, while moderately educational and maybe even well-intentioned, are actually reinforcing stereotypes and the marginalization of a segment of society. There is supposedly debate about who he is actually parodying -- the people who use the incorrect grammar or those who are such sticklers about it.

I listened to Grammar Girl's podcast yesterday about the song and she has some pretty strong opinions about which side he falls on and the message his song is actually sending. I get it -- his terminology could, and should, have been more carefully selected. But I still think the song is fun to listen to.

Would I use the video with my students? No! Before the criticism of the song began, I knew I could never show it to my students or share it on the school Facebook page. Regardless of the degrading words he uses, the video has sexual innuendos that are not appropriate for the classroom. As much as kids, Isaac especially, love his stuff, it isn't meant for school.

Weird Al is brilliant, but he is also crass and his humor is base. Like I said, perfect for 8-9 year olds. I Googled some of the artists and songs he parodied on this album. See? Woefully out of touch. While Weird Al may not be the most high-brow influence on Isaac's musical tastes, I much prefer him listening to Yankovic than the artist "Word Crimes" came from.

Isaac and I made our annual 9 hour drive to Florida last week. Weird Al was played most of the way down. A friend commented that he didn't realize there was 9 hours worth of material. I assured him that there isn't, at least not on Spotify. And Isaac has some definite favorites. I now know them all by heart. I realized that Isaac is now about the same age I was when I first listened to Weird Al. I like that we have that connection and when a song comes on I can say, "I remember seeing this video when I was a kid." There are worse things over which we could bond.

21 July 2014

A Summer of Reading, So Far

I don't read as much during the school year as I would like. I especially don't stay caught up with the new novels that come out for elementary age children. This summer I am trying to play catch up and read some things that I have had on my list and become familiar with some books so I can make better recommendations next year for my students. So here is some of what I have been reading.

Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage is the first book in what is now a series. The story is set in the fictional North Carolina town of Tupelo Landing, which is somewhere "down east." Mo LeBeau, whose mysterious beginnings set the stage for a puzzle that will span future books, considers herself a detective and jumps into the fray when there is a murder in her small town. Her antics sort of help solve the crime, with some bumblings and interference along the way. Her best friend, Dale Earnhardt Johnson III, is her partner and the backdrop of small town, everyone-knows-everyone-else's business, life brings in a host of interesting characters. There are nosy old women, overly helpful local politicians, eccentric business owners, the town bully, and rivals turned friends. Mo is funny and earnest, mostly funny because she is so earnest, but her insecurities will resonate with many kids who are asking questions about life and self and the mysteries around them.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio made me cry.  A lot.  I cried in the first chapter and in the middle and I sobbed at the end.  It is the story of Auggie Pullman, a seriously disfigured 5th grader who is going to school for the first time.  His story is told from multiple perspectives -- his, his older sister's, his classmates', his sister's friends'. Through the eyes of all of these characters we get a picture of Auggie finding his path through the world and finding friends to make the journey with him.  He is bullied and hurt but it is a story of triumph and healing.  This is a story of perseverance and acceptance that everyone should read. But have a box of tissues on hand.

A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff is about a fantastical world in which most people are Talented. The Talent may be a bizarre one, like having perfect spitting aim -- or an artsy one, like being able to weave elaborate braids -- or a sentient one, like being able to place orphans with their perfect families on first meetings. In this world, in Poughkeepsie, NY, live some interesting characters whose lives become tangled together as one searches for her forever family, another searches for her Talent, another searches for adventure, another searches for a long-lost treasure, and yet another searches for an escape from the past. This story is also told from multiple perspectives and it weaves in and out of each character's experiences, all the time tying everything together and showing how people's destinies are often connected to those around them. Sometimes we all need to be reminded that what we do affects others. This story will help kids make that connection.

Twerp by Mark Goldblatt is set in 1960's Queens. It is about 6th grader Julian and his struggle to come to terms with some bad things he has done and what kind of person it makes him. Julian is suspended before the novel opens for an act of bullying, we assume, though what actually happened is not explained for most of the book. His English teacher gives him an assignment as additional "punishment" -- keep a journal for the remainder of the school year and get out of writing the "Julius Caesar" essay the rest of the class will have to do.  The novel is Julian's journal.  In it he works his way through typical 6th grade problems -- self-esteem troubles, friend troubles, girl troubles, friend troubles caused by girl troubles, self-esteem troubles caused by friend and girl troubles -- and eventually does some deep self-examining, which we all, including Julian, knew was his teacher's intention in the first place. I liked that the characters in this book were real, with real defects. Julian knows what his teacher is trying to do and openly resists it.  Julian also knows that his best friend is a bully, but can't quite admit it to himself. Instead, he defends Lonnie, even at the end. But he also stands up to him and makes him do the right thing. That kind of courage is hard to find when you are 12. This is a different perspective on bullying and one I think many boys will connect with.

Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo is about a lonely girl and an unlikely super hero.  It reminded me a lot of The Tale of Desperaux, also by DiCamillo. Flora, the daughter of a divorced accountant and a romance novelist, is a cynic who doesn't believe in hope. Her approach to the world has been formed from reading The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto -- "Do not hope; instead observe." Ulysses is a squirrel who got sucked into a vacuum cleaner and emerged with super powers -- strength, flying, writing, understanding humans. Flora, with the help of some weird neighbors and unexpected friends, saves Ulysses from his arch-nemesis. In the process, she loses some of her cynicism and even finds hope.  The tone is very similar to Desperaux -- characters is both books are on a journey of self-discovery and the main animal character views the world with a sense of wonder. What I think will really appeal to children about this book, especially boys, is the use of comic-style illustrations to tell part of the story.  Flora also constantly refers back to her comics as she struggles to work out the various obstacles she and Ulysses encounter.  The book is a nice mix of the two styles of storytelling.

I have also done some professional reading and read some adult novels, this summer. We finished reading Harry Potter with Isaac -- he is now reading Timmy Failure:Now Look What You've Done. I read Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman, and enjoyed it. I also have a stack of books with me to read on vacation, so my reading is far from done. Now to decide what to read next . . .

18 July 2014

Fortunately, The Milk reviewed by Matt

My old college friend Ben McFarland compared Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately, The Milk to an un-aired episode of Doctor Who for children. That was enough to make me want to read it. Isaac, like many children, has a love/hate relationship with the Doctor. He is both fascinated and terrified of the science fiction creatures on the show. I leapt at the opportunity to give him the same intellectually playful and non-cynical experience of Doctor Who without the chance of him coming to our room at three in the morning to tell us about his dreams of the Cybermen.

Gaiman actually has written an episode of Doctor Who, “The Doctor’s Wife," along with many other books including Coraline, The Graveyard Book, and co-wrote Good Omens which had me gasping for wind from laughing so hard when I read it for our church book club.

Fortunately, the Milk is the story of one father’s attempt to bring some milk home from the store and the shaggy dog adventure he had on the way home.  (Sort of a cross between Dr. Seuss’s To Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street and The Usual Suspects).  It also reminded me of one of our favorite web comics, Axe Cop, in it’s rambling “everything including the kitchen sink” method of storytelling.

The Doctor famously once said,People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but *actually* from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint - it's more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly... timey wimey... stuff.”  And that certainly applies here.  It gives young children a chance to experience non-linear cause and effect in a fairly simple way.

The book takes maybe 30-45 minutes to read and all three of us enjoyed it immensely.  Pick up a copy and let us know what YOU think.