26 February 2014

Let's Play!

Seeing an idea that was mentioned as a "wouldn't it be nice if we could" kind of possibility at a beginning of the year staff meeting come to fruition is wonderfully satisfying.  In August, sitting with two new teachers at my school as we began to prepare for the school year, the subject of board games came up and how valuable games like chess are for students to learn.  We have been playing a lot of board games at home over the past few years, so I shared that there were a lot of other strategy games that are great for kids.

This conversation led to the idea of starting a game club if we could find a way to buy games.  This possibility led me to create a Donors Choose project to buy games for a club, which Matt shared on Reddit and which the Reddit board game community funded within 24 hours.  This support led to a board game club that met at school for 3 and a half months, two days a week, involving almost 40 children.

The game club ended today.  In the fall and spring I help lead GOFAR, so the game club filled the months in between.  It has been one of the best things I have done as a teacher.  It was so much fun to see the kids get excited about new games and to be able to interact with them while playing.  I am sorry to have reached the last day.

Some of the students came to game club with experience playing some of the games, but most hadn't played anything more challenging than Monopoly or Yahtzee.  After a few weeks they each had a favorite new game.  I wouldn't let them get settled playing the same thing week after week, though.  I made them try new games and their favorites shifted as their repertoire grew.

Many of the games I bought for the club I had played before.  Most Isaac had played,as well, so I knew they were on the ability level of the students I would have in the club.  I also brought additional games from home and introduced the kids to some cooperative games.  Even today I brought in a new game and it was a hit.

Some kids asked for games from game club for Christmas and were even trying to convince parents to buy something they had played this week so they could keep playing at home.  I stopped counting how many times I was asked if we could do another game club.   

All of this from a chance conversation back in August.  You never know what can happen if you don't stop after the "wouldn't it be nice if we could" thought.

So here are the games we played:
Settlers of Catan
Love Letters
Castle Panic
Forbidden Island
The Resistance
Pecking Order
Smash Up

24 February 2014

Don't Judge a Book By Its Pictures

One plea I would make to parents, and teachers, is to continue to read picture books to and with kids long past the age when you think they should be reading "harder" books.  I get disheartened when I see third, second and even first graders pass over great picture books because they want to read, or have been told they should be reading, chapter books.  If I had it my way, chapter books would be banned until third grade at the earliest so kids could have a couple of extra years to soak up some of the wonderful books that are out there for them.

There is a misconception that picture books are "easy" and just for little kids.  Many teachers believe that students need to read chapter books to build stamina.  But there are picture books being published by amazing authors and illustrators that are sophisticated and complex.  Some are very text heavy, despite the 28-32 page, illustrated format.  Others may have simpler text, but the layers of meaning in the simple lines require a level of comprehension far beyond what is needed to read Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Captain Underpants, or other "brain break" books.

A few weeks ago, Isaac thought he would simplify our bedtime reading by pulling a picture book off the shelf.  The first one he picked was ridiculously easy for him, but it was by Mo Willems so I did not argue.  Since that book only took about five minutes to read, I sent him back for another.  This time he brought back Dear Mrs. Larue: Letters from Obedience School by Mark Teague.  Little did Isaac know what he was in for.

This book is a brilliant picture book that is great for teaching letter writing, point of view and persuasion, among other concepts. Ike Larue is a badly behaved dog who has been sent to obedience school by his overwhelmed owner.  Upon arrival, he begins a series of letters, postcards and other missives to lament his imprisonment, insist upon his innocence and beg to be allowed to return home.  What makes the book so multi-faceted is that Teague is telling two stories, one in words and one in pictures -- what Ike says is not necessarily what Ike does.  So the reader has to interpret what really happened  and what is actually the truth.

Isaac thought he was getting off easy by picking picture books to read that evening before bed.  But even though Dear Mrs. Larue took more effort than he was planning to put into his reading that night, he ended up really liking the book and tried to find the sequel in the library the next morning.

Kids really do love picture books, even if they think they are too old for them.  When my older students have an opportunity to read to younger students, they have a great time finding a picture book to share.  There are authors who are writing picture books, fiction and nonfiction, that are as complex as they are beautiful.  And even if the child chooses a picture book that is below their reading level, it's okay.  Their brains may need the break.  They will snack on the pictures and maybe even some rhyming text, then come back to the novels when they are ready for something more substantial and fulfilling.  Kids' reading diets need to be varied to keep them interested.  Not every meal needs to be four courses of gourmet options.  Cheese and crackers will suffice now and then, and afterwards the haute cuisine will seem that much better.

So keep the picture books around longer than you think you need to.  And read them.  Please.  For the kids.

23 February 2014

Brain Break

Isaac has a Kindle but does not read on it often.  He says that he likes reading a real book.  I like hearing that, but we have put some books on his device for traveling or if there is a book that he wants and it is just easier to download it than go to the store to buy it.

Most of the books he has in e-reader format are in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney.  He began reading them last year and is about half way through the series.  He has not devoured them like most kids do.  Instead, he reads one for a while then takes a break and goes back to it when he has finished something else.  They are kind of like his snack-time reading in between his more substantial meal-time books.

I must admit that this is another series that I have not read.  I try to read children's novels to help me know what to recommend or to help figure out what kind of child it would fit.  I don't need to do that for these books.  They are liked by just about all kids and they find them on their own.  Isaac started reading them because his friends were reading them.  And every other kid who reads them probably has a similar story.

Wimpy Kid fits into the same category as Captain Underpants in Isaac's reading repertoire.  They are the books he reads when he is between material that requires a bit more effort.  He picks them up when he is bored and is not allowed to watch Netflix or play a videogame.  They are his brain candy bubblegum books.

The series centers around Greg Heffley, a middle school misfit and is told with a mix of simple line drawings and "diary" entries.  It is pure boy material -- hilarious antics, jokes about bodily functions, major mishaps.  Kids begin checking them out before they can read them just to say they "read" a Wimpy Kid book.  They are not great literature and will never win the highest honors, but they keep kids reading.

We all have our bubblegum reading material -- that book or magazine or website that we read when we don't have the energy to expend effort on something more serious or thought provoking.  Our brains need the break this light reading provides.  Even an eight-year-old's.

22 February 2014

Fonzie's Ghost Boy Isn't for Us

People of older generations will remember Henry Winkler as "The Fonz" from Happy Days.  Today's generation know him as a children's author, as well as an actor.  He co-writes with Lin Oliver on the Hank Zipzer and Ghost Buddy series.

Ghost Buddy books are always on the Book Fair and I had been trying to convince Isaac to read one.  Last spring, his second grade teacher gave him the third book in the series as an end of the year gift, so we started reading it over the summer.

The premise of the series is that the main character, Billy Broccoli, moves to a new house and new school when his mom remarries.  The house is also inhabited by Hoover Porterhouse, III, otherwise known as "The Hoove," a pre-teen ghost from the early twentieth century. There is the cranky new older step-sister and the neighborhood bully to deal with, as well as Billy's school-yard crush on the pretty girl in class, all of which The Hoove helps Billy navigate. The third book finds The Hoove being restricted in his hauntings because the Higher Ups do not deem him responsible enough to enjoy the freedom of moving around, so Billy sets out to make The Hoove learn responsibility by bringing home a pet for him to take care of.

Unfortunately, Isaac could not give "The Fonz" two thumbs up and an "Ay!" on this book.  To be honest, I don't think we even finished it.  The Hoove is rather annoying and the plot moves rather slow.  Neither of us really cared whether or not the boy ghost regained his freedom, we just wanted him to stop whining about it.

So, sorry Fonzie.  I don't think Ghost Buddy is for us.  But I still think your cool.

21 February 2014

Graphics Galore

I realized that the book I was planning on writing about tonight was another one that received a lukewarm reception.  Rather than have two fairly negative posts in a row, I chose instead to share a book that I knew Isaac did enjoy.

Isaac reads a lot of comics and has begun reading graphic novel series beyond the Marvel and DC heroes that many people are familiar with.  He shared why he liked Fangbone with you and has since read the next two books in the series.  Another series he has begun is Bone by Jeff Smith,  He has only been able to read the first book so far because they are rarely checked in at the library and he cannot find the second.  (He is like his mother -- reading a series out of order is not done.)

Smith's characters, the Bone cousins, are run out of their homeland of Boneville because, according to Isaac, they threw a big picnic to which they invited all of the Bone people.  They brought a "big blimp thing like you see in a parade" to the picnic, but the wind blew it around and the balloon destroyed the party.  This apparently angered the other Boneville inhabitants and the cousins were banished.  They find their way to a forest where they meet a dragon and "a bunch of things" that try to eat them.  Thus their adventures begin.

I can see why the books are so popular.  And, since it has been months since Isaac read the book, his recall of the story details is pretty good, a good sign that the story has hooked him.  Funny, bizarre characters appeal to him.  Which is why the book I will share tomorrow was not one of his favorites.

20 February 2014

Not Quite Ready for Disaster

Last spring we bought a copy of Masters of Disaster by Gary Paulsen.  After reading the summary on the back cover, I thought it would be a good book to read to Isaac over the summer.  It sounded like a great boy book.  Here is the Amazon summary:

"Roped into wacky attempts to break world records, imitate scenes from books, and other inspired ideas, Riley and Reed follow their fearless leader Henry into the wilderness, the bull-riding ring, a haunted house, cataclysmic collision with explosive life forms, and off the roof of a house on a bike."

We started the book, but it did not capture Isaac's attention like I thought it would.  The antics of the characters were funny but the vocabulary the author used was a little too hard for Isaac to fully follow the action.  We did finally finish it, but it is not a book that we will keep and re-read.

The story follows three boys as they try to make themselves famous.  There is a ring-leader, of course, who plans and leads each adventure.  But the boy who is always chosen to carry out the planned stunt is the timid, weaker one.  The story is more about this awkward boy gaining confidence in himself in that crucial time leading into middle school than it is about the failure of the boys to gain fame.

While Isaac wasn't quite ready for this book, I think it would be a fun read for an older boy with a wider vocabulary.

19 February 2014

Great For Him, But Not My Thing

I have kept a list of some books that I wanted to write about, ones that either we have read together or that Isaac has read on his own.  So I thought I would write a few short posts to catch us up over the next few days.

The Christmas before last we bought Isaac the full set of Captain Underpants books.  I have said before that I refuse to read these, and I still do.  There is really no need to.  Dav Pilkey has created a character that is both appealing to boys and revolting to adults.  I choose not to read things that revolt me.

So, why did I buy them for Isaac?  Simple --  because he will read them.  A few weeks before we bought them, Isaac and I drove to Charlotte for the Color Run.  The drive takes over an hour, especially on a Friday afternoon, and Isaac spent the entire drive reading one of these books.  He would proudly update me on how far he had gotten, what page or chapter he was on, throughout the trip.

This was a quarter of the way through second grade and Isaac was starting to read chapter books on his own, but preferred to stick with easier books.  I fully support kids continuing to read picture books after they have gained the stamina, ability and fluency to read chapter books.  But getting over that threshold of transitioning between a 28 page book and an over 50 page book is a big jump for some kids and Isaac was balking at making it.  To find a book that he would sit and read like that was wonderful to see.  And it boosted his confidence.  So, yes, I bought him a whole set of books that I will never read.

He has gone back and forth between reading those and reading other series.  His rising confidence gave him the courage to try other chapter books.  The last Captain Underpants book was finished around Christmas this year, 12 months after we got them.  Isaac made sure we knew that he had finished.

In October, I invited students to decorate a pumpkin as their favorite book character to display in the school library.  Being the librarian's son, Isaac had to do one.  Being my son, he chose a character that would require little artistic talent.  He made a Captain Underpants pumpkin and I displayed it proudly.

16 February 2014

Little Nudges

I have fallen off the wagon and am finding it very hard to catch up and climb back on.  I think about posting often, but then do not find the time to sit down and get it done.  I started this post weeks ago, but after a couple of paragraphs it just sounded whiny so I made myself stop until I could get in a better frame of mind. No one wants to read a whiny blog, though I am sure this one has devolved into that tone often enough.  I have thought about just not bothering anymore, but an experience at a conference last weekend made me think again.  It was a small moment, but I have been remembering it all week.  One of the session leaders briefly shared the blog she had started just a few months before.  Browsing through it, I skimmed her first post where she outlined why she was finally jumping into blogging.  She stated that she had always struggled with wondering what she had to say that people would want to read.  A sentiment I can closely relate to.  But she realized that blogging isn't, or shouldn't be, about what other people will want to hear.  You write for yourself, not for the readers.

That statement has been nagging at me all week and it is why I am writing this today.  I am not writing this blog for you or anyone else reading.  I am writing it for me, and for Isaac and Matt.  Matt used to keep a blog when Isaac was young.  He stopped writing about the time I started.  Together, our posts chronicle Isaac's life and are a way of holding on to memories.  Isaac's development as a reader and the books we share is a major part of his growth and saving these moments is valuable to us.  And that is reason enough to find the time to keep posting here.

Not that I kid myself into believing that I will be posting with any more regularity than I have been in recent months.  The stress of 3rd grade is kicking this mom and librarian in the butt.  The high stakes have been set and policies have been adopted to ensure that all students are meeting the goal.  We are assessing and testing and setting nightly reading goals all while trying not to pass the stress on to the kids.  I can't keep up with what we are supposed to be doing each night.  Add to that the afternoons spent at GOFAR or board game club or mad science or church or drum lessons and often it is Thursday before I remember to ask if we are ready for the weekly spelling test.  Most weeks the answer is "no."

Added to the day-to-day stress is my struggle not to pass my angst on to Isaac.  I have had to remind myself many times since August that just because I was never satisfied with less than an "A" does not mean that Isaac has the same mindset.  He wants to do well and he is a solid student, but he can easily accept an average grade whereas "B's" to me always meant "bad."  It has been a hard lesson for me this year to learn how to set expectations that are realistic for Isaac's ability and personality.

The worry among many educators who are in the trenches, seeing the students every day, is that we are killing their love of reading.  Isaac is a good reader, falling right where he should for his age and grade level.  He likes to read, though it is not his favorite thing to do.  Most of the time the nightly reading gets done willingly.  I have come to the realization this year, though, that sometimes the best thing I can do to ensure that he likes to read, is to let him skip a day or two of the "30 minutes every day" routine.  Life is busy, as much as Matt and I try to keep a balance between work and down time.  And, though we (teachers) are trying not to pass the stress on to the kids, it seeps down.  A month or so ago it hit me, in the midst of an evening breakdown during which Isaac was in tears because he hadn't had time to play and here we were telling him he had to go to bed, that he is stressed.  He doesn't know how to articulate that, but the signs are in his behavior.

I am trying to be more aware of how our home routines are structured to help him deal with his anxiety, because the school routines are not going to ease up.  And if there are evenings when the choice is to force him to spend his last 30 minutes before bed reading or let him play a video game with Matt or watch an episode of Adventure Time, then reading may get pushed aside.  The next night he may choose reading over the game or the TV show, but ultimately it has to be his choice.  If I want him to choose reading later, then I need to allow him to make other choices now.

The effort he puts into school and the time he spends reading are his decisions.  All I can really do is encourage, help, set examples and nudge.  And record our memories along the way.