Friday, November 23, 2018

Book Review - The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp


The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp
by Kathi Appelt
Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Paperback - May 20, 2014

Deep in the Sugar Man Swamp, Audie Brayburn's rusted 1949 Chrysler DeSoto has become home to raccoon brothers Bingo and J'miah. As brand new swamp scouts, their job is to monitor the swamp and wake up the mysterious Sugar Man in the event of an emergency. Their first five days on the job coincide with an ominous rumbling created by an animal threat drawing near.

Meanwhile Audie Brayburn's grandson, Chap, is learning what it means to be the man of the house following his grandfather's death. His family's way of life is in danger as their home and bakery at the edge of the swamp stands in the way of a proposed Gator Wrestling Arena and Theme Park. He needs a boatload of cash or a visit from the Sugar Man to stop this human threat.

From beginning to end, this was a fun book to read. I really enjoyed getting to know the characters. J'miah's nervousness at Bingo's death-defying tree climbs, Gertrude the giant rattlesnake's itchiness, and Coyoteman Jim's late-night thoughts at the local radio station made the characters feel real. Chap was the star of the story, though, as he longed for a message from his grandpa that would help him save the Paradise Pies Cafe. I was moved by the mixture of hope and longing as he revisited Audie's birding sketchbooks to search for ideas and advice.

When a book knows it's using terrific vocabulary!
As great as the characters were, the author's voice is what really makes this a special book. The frequent perspective changes between the human and animal world are often separated by chapters full of facts about topics ranging from the history of the Polaroid camera to the behavior of alligators that quickly tie in to the story's big picture. In addition, the book often draws attention to its own beautiful vocabulary. After one character proposes that the Sugar Man is no longer extant the author places the message "Extant. What a great word that is" in parentheses. It's one of many times that the narration pops off the page.

This was one of the 2019 Idaho Kids Vote Book Award nominees I had not read before this year's program began. When I started reading, I thought the Deep South setting was an unusual choice for our state book award. Wouldn't Idaho kids relate to a book about life in the mountains better? Even though we don't have bayous, our wilderness faces threats, too. I think the unfamiliar setting gives readers in Idaho just enough distance to consider the message of finding harmony with nature. Not only will that message stick with me, I think the laugh out loud moments and touching relationships in the book will have me remembering the residents of the Sugar Man Swamp for years to come.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Book Review - Mac B. Kid Spy: Mac Undercover

Mac B. Kid Spy: Mac Undercover
by Mac Barnett
Illustrated by Mike Lowery
Orchard Books
September 11, 2018

I received a free copy of this book through the Scholastic Insider program, but the opinions in this review are my own

What happens when a kid growing up in late 80s California gets a call from the Queen of England asking for help? He becomes Mac B. Kid Spy!

Mac is tasked with retrieving an interesting item stolen from the Crown Jewels. The Queen believes that the President of France has taken it, but Mac discovers the truth is much more complicated. He travels through Europe in order to find the Queen's missing item as well as some other items that have disappeared along the way.

This was a fun book and I loved the humor throughout it. As a kid who grew up in the 80s, I loved the references to the disappointing graphics of the Game Boy and comments like "Phones had cords. You can look that up." Those bits might lead to some fun conversations between parents and kids as they read. Mac's situations throughout the book definitely led to a few laughs, and I hope I'm not the only reader to suspect that he has a karate battle with a future world leader.

Although it was fun to read, it was a very simple book. The plot was straightforward and the vocabulary was basic. I think this would be a great choice for kids who are just entering the world of chapter books. More advanced readers may have a good time with this book, but it is not one that will give them a lot to think about. That being said, I gave this to my son as soon as I finished it. He was over halfway through less than a half hour after picking it up and I heard him laugh out loud as he read. It's not one that I will be recommending to the grade 3-5 students in my advanced learning program, but I do think it's one that many will enjoy finding in our school's library!

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Innovation vs. Expectations

My podcast diet typically consists of the fun kids' science podcasts my son can't get enough of, like Wow in the World and Brains On. On a rare solo drive this week, I listened to Rough Translation, a more mature offering, and it has filled me with questions. I strongly recommend listening to it (or reading the transcript) before you read the rest of this post.

What does this mean for all of the changes and innovations that are necessary to keep improving my practice as an educator? When I know that I am making improvements for my students, I need to have the courage to stick with it. I can't let the questions and scrutiny that comes with change cause me to roll back into the old way of doing things.

A few years back, I ran across a quote from Brian Tracy that basically said one hour of professional development reading per day could make someone an expert in their field within seven years. Most Americans spent seven hours a day going to school for at least 13 years. After all that time, they feel like experts in schooling and have definite expectations of what education should look like.

Innovation, by definition, doesn't conform to expectations. Education stakeholders are going to ask questions and have conversations about the innovations that don't conform to their expectations. Even if it isn't the intention, this scrutiny can lead teachers to have cold feet with their new ideas. In the case of Ghana's preschools, teachers continued to put up colorful posters and move out of the traditional rows of seats, but they stopped asking students the important questions that led to the gains in personal expression.

Students investigate
the concept of area
I've seen it in my community, too. All Idaho teachers are required to take a mathematical thinking course. Although teachers have been taking the course for around a decade, there hasn't been a big shift to the type of mathematical learning that the course advocated. I think a lot of this is due to subtle pressure from parents and the community to teach kids math in a familiar way.

Educating parents is difficult. My school hosted a math night last fall where I gave an opening talk to the families that attended. The big messages of my presentation were that anyone can learn math, counting on fingers is positive and helpful, and it is good to make mistakes. As soon as I was done talking, I sent the parents off to their children's classrooms. I now wonder what type of conversations happened in those classrooms as a result. It leaves me wondering how to best involve parents without creating anxiety about new approaches.

How can we engage all of our stakeholders in a way that allows innovation to thrive? Communicating with parents is an important part of the job, but all of the change and innovation over the last few years makes their expertise and expectations from their time as a student obsolete. I think this dichotomy between outdated expectations and moving forward quashes a lot of innovation in our schools. What is the balance between expectations and innovation? How can we honor all of our stakeholders while trying new and unproven ideas?

If you have thoughts and answers, I would love to hear them. I will continue to experiment and refine as I seek answers to my questions.


Monday, February 19, 2018

Presidents Day 2018


President Nixon has always held a fascination for me. I grew up in the era where he was something of an elder statesman who would make appearances on the Sunday morning talk shows my grandpa watched, but he was still the butt of many jokes. In fact, I remember proudly wearing a "Nixon in '92" T-shirt while my middle school history classes discussed the debates between George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. That long-standing interest (plus Nixon's instantly-recognizable "V for victory"), made our 37th president my first beardless president portrait. Happy Presidents Day!
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

If you like this, see the old ones:
2017 Grover Cleveland
2016 Ulysses S. Grant
2012 - 2015 Lincoln, Arthur, Hayes, Taft, Garfield, and T.R. plus an explanation of the whole crazy thing


Bonus: Behind the scenes!

Today's high temperature was 20 degrees Fahrenheit, and Sarah has a terrible case of bronchitis. I wore my suit with snow boots and stood on a step stool for this year's picture. We would go outside, take a few pictures, run back inside to get warm and check our work against the source photo, then go outside to snap a few more. Sarah was patient as I tried to get it just right. No matter how we arranged the shot, all of the North Idaho greenery kept us from getting as plain of a background as Richard Milhous Nixon had on that campaign stop.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Hate is poison. Education is the antidote.

It's easy to say that white supremacists of all types are wrong and I do not support their ideology one bit, but it's hard to figure out what I can do about it. When I couldn't sleep last night, I looked to my past experiences and my community's history for answers.

I have lived in or around Coeur d'Alene, Idaho for my entire life. For most of that time, a white supremacist compound in nearby Hayden Lake cast a shadow over our town. I became aware of the aryan nations group when a bomb exploded less than 500 feet from my first grade classroom. A nearby business owned by a Jewish family was targeted when some members of the group used explosions to distract from their plans to rob a bank.

As I grew older, I remember occasionally seeing a swastika patch on someone's jacket in the grocery store. My response was always to move to another aisle as quickly as possible. There were times that their hatred became more visible. One day, the neighborhoods around my high school were leafleted with racist propaganda and some of my friends brought the papers to school. Some were laughing at the inappropriate jokes inside, but most were shaking their heads with disbelief. I was concerned about my friends who found it funny and remember telling them that the neo-nazis wanted to turn their laughter into hate.

Looking back, it wasn't hard to be honest with my friends about hate. My parents did a good job giving me the confidence to stand up for what was right, but my education deserves credit, too. To counteract the hate in our community, educators made an effort to teach love and acceptance for all, especially those who were different. My fifth grade class was one of the first to attend the long-running human rights celebration that we still hold today. Books like Number the Stars were part of the curriculum, and reading them led to discussions of the toll that hate takes. 

The final hate group march in Coeur d'Alene, 2004
Photo by Cole via Flickr
Our community did its best to avoid adding fuel to the fire. When hate groups marched downtown, movie theaters, the roller skating rink, and other businesses across town offered free alternatives in the hopes that no one would be on the sidewalks to see the brownshirts and klansmen pass by. Most people understood that the white supremacists craved conflict. It was better to turn our backs to them until we were able to drive them from our community.

That day came when they shot at a former elementary school classmate of mine and his mother. I was in college about 100 miles to the south, but I followed the story of how the aryan nations were forced to turn over their property after losing in court. The story is worth reading. "Welcome to Hayden Lake, where white supremacists tried to build their homeland" by Meagan Day is a good overview, and the Spokesman-Review has a number of articles if you're interested in digging deeper.

Of course, closing the aryan nations compound didn't remove hate or all white supremacists from our community. During my first round of conferences as a teacher, I found myself shaking hands with a man wearing a black jacket with the aryan nations symbol on one sleeve and two jagged images of the letter 'S' on the other. Sometimes I catch a student using hateful language or humor, and I find myself pulling him or her aside to talk about it. No matter what happens outside of school, hate is not welcome in my classroom.

I've come to the conclusion that the best way I can combat hate is with the way I teach. First, my classroom is a safe space for all. We work on how to listen to one another and solve problems together. Second, we get to know our fellow humans. As I build my classroom library, I strive to include books with characters that each of my students will identify with. I also intentionally pick books that will allow my kids to get in the heads of people who are very different from themselves. Good, diverse literature helps kids understand others without seeing them as "the other." We also reach out to the world through the Global Read Aloud, mystery location calls, and connections with our class blog. These actions have gone a long way toward inoculating my students from hate by increasing their empathy and understanding of others.

In addition, I plan to address hate when we encounter it in literature and current events. We need to have frank discussions about the hate that exists and how we can keep ourselves and our friends from allowing it to spread. My students need the courage to stand up to their friends when they notice hateful words or actions. I can't stop the white supremacists that take to the street, but I can make sure my students know better than to stand for it.

___
Note: excuse my lack of capitalization, but hate groups don't deserve to be proper nouns.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Idaho Kids Vote Book Award year two

One of my students, Hattie, created the logo
Last summer at this time, KidsVoteAward.com was still a week away from becoming a registered domain name. I wanted to get my kids talking and sharing about the books they read and reading more complex books. The idea of having a statewide book award had been bouncing around in my head since I saw displays for Oregon Battle of the Books and ORCA (Oregon Reader's Choice Awards) at Powell's books in Portland. That led to a flurry of activity for me that started in early July as I built the aforementioned website and began reaching out to others to make the Idaho Kids Vote Book Award a reality.
One of the inspiring displays

The premise of the award was simple. Teachers would nominate outstanding middle grade books that had been published in the last few years. They would then make these books available in their classrooms and encourage students to read about them. Kids would naturally talk about the books, but teachers could set up blogs and arrange connections with other participating classrooms to get the conversations flowing beyond classroom walls. Finally, in April, kids who read two or more of the books would vote to choose a winner.


With one year of the award completed, it's time to reflect and start thinking about the next one. Things went well in my classroom. Using my classroom budget and donations, I was able to get three copies of most of the books. There was buzz around them throughout the school year (especially the winning book). Although students talked about the books, not many chose to write about them when they created blog posts.

My students contributed one-sentence review blurbs to this bulletin board.
From the feedback I received, things did not go quite as well in the other 21 classes that signed up to participate. Few teachers were able to devote funds to buy all eight books. Others said their administration and district policies were roadblocks to connecting with other classrooms outside their district. Still, four classes contributed votes for the winner and suggestions for this year's award.

In the next few weeks I'll be ramping up for the second year of the Idaho Kids Vote Book Award. I'm presenting about it (and classroom connection strategies) at the P20 Conference at College of Southern Idaho. I'm also reading possible nominees for the award and hope to publish some book reviews here. Of course, there are some questions I still need to answer: How can we get nominated books into classrooms? What could remove some of the barriers to connecting classrooms? Is there a better way to make this accessible to students?

That's a lot to think about while I also catch up on household projects, work at my summer job, and take advantage of some extra family time I don't get during the school year. If you have ideas to help this succeed, please share. And I'll keep you updated as I continue to experiment and refine...

Friday, April 7, 2017

Compliance: #IMMOOC inspired post

Image courtesy immooc.org
Compliance: I often think of it as a bad word in education. Just like the quote above, I believe that it often leads to conformity and squashes student voice.

Compliance has been heavy on my mind for the last few months. Where is the line between a high-quality learning environment and compliance for compliance sake? I want my students to be comfortable. I want them to have the freedom to be themselves in my class. I want them to move when they need to. Lately it seems like those wants are clashing with the learning needs in my classroom.

Let me start by explaining a little bit about my classes. I teach reading and math enrichment groups in a traditional elementary school. My classes are similar to 45 minute middle or high school class periods, although there isn't a passing period. Students often trickle in for the first five minutes as they make their way from their main classrooms. We start class at assigned tables (it helps me take mental attendance and gives students a built-in discussion group) and begin with mental math or an estimation that requires students to share their thinking. It doesn't matter to me if students sit or stand (or even wiggle and dance) at their tables as long as they participate in their discussions and respect everyone's space. This year I have a few students who aren't staying at their table or withdrawing from table talk when a best friend is at a different table. I want students to work with everyone, not just their friends and homeroom classmates. I'm left questioning if these procedures that support my goals are worth the frequent power struggles.

Image courtesy of immooc.org
I have to admit that the old saw "give them an inch and they'll take a mile" has crossed my mind a few times this year. However, reading The Innovator's Mindset strengthened my resolve to give my students the inches, feet, and miles they need to be independent learners and innovators I know they can be. In these last couple months of school, I plan to increase my efforts to build relationships with these students and give them opportunities to use their strengths. Hopefully we will get to a point where these students trust me enough that they will buy in to balancing their personal freedom with their responsibilities to the whole classroom community.

Although I am going forward with my plan, I still question rather it is the right path. Next year is a new opportunity to structure a classroom where my students can become innovators. All of the professional development I have done this year, including my school's book study on That Workshop Book, a visit to a classroom with a successful reading workshop, my own reading of Mathematical Mindsets and The Writing on the Classroom Wall, numerous Twitter conversations, and #IMMOOC are bouncing around in my head. It's time to make some changes, and "change is an opportunity to do something amazing"!