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 kid 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 other ones:
2020 Calvin Coolidge
2019 George H.W. Bush
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.