Non-fiction Monday

The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of Eastern North America (Peterson Field Guides)
by Bill Thompson III is a great book for anyone, young, or old, who is interested in birds and birding.

Bill Thompson is well-known in the birding world as the editor of Bird Watcher’s Digest. His newest field guide for Eastern North American birds is aimed at a much younger audience than expected- kids.  This portable, slim, field-friendly guide is perfect for young birders.

The first 40 pages in this slim (easily packed into a bag) volume focus on the hobby of birdwatching and how to get involved.  For any child or person new to birding, Thompson is the authority on birdwatching.  The first few chapters do a great job of convincing the reader that birding is cool and fun, something that I don’t think many children consider.  Birding is also fairly inexpensive and can be done almost anywhere, at any time.

The field guide is slim and easily placed into a bag or pocket, yet it is packed to the gills with information.  The guide covers  200 common or intriguing birds from Eastern North America,  Each bird receives a page with a picture, the basics to identify the bird and its voice, a range map and a “wow” factoid about the species. Thompson does not fall into the trap of only featuring exotic, rare birds that kids will have a hard time seeing.  Instead, the sparrows, finches, sea birds, and cardinals are all well-represented.  I used the book while watching my birdfeeder this past weekend and it was perfect.  The bottom of each page also has a check box, where kids can mark the birds they have seen, to begin their life-list of sightings.

One of my favorite things about this book is that Thompson apparently consulted with his eleven-year old daughter’s class in coming up with the design of the book, so the book is child and adult friendly. The Wow factoids are fun and informative, and the pictures of each species are breath-taking. Plus, the cover is wipeable, meaning it will survive those days out in the backyard!

The field guide covers all types of habitats and all of Eastern North America.  This would make a great gift for kids from 8-18.


Censoring in the Classroom

This weekend I stopped by the Scholastic Warehouse Sale. While wondering the aisles (this is like mecca for me), I happened to hear two older women behind me. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but their conversation was fascinating. One of the women held up a copy of The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron. You know, the Newbery winner that caused all that ruckus back in 2007.  Below is a recreation of their conversation.

Teacher 1 (holding up a copy of The Higher Power of Lucky): “Would you want this book in your room?  It’s that book that says (looking around, lowering voice) scrotum.”

Teacher 2: “Oh my gosh!  I know, right?  And it’s a Newbery winner!  It could be the best book in the world but I am not putting that book in my library.  I’m not going to be responsible for explaining that word to one of my fifth graders!  Really, why would they let that book win an award?  Kids read it!”

Teacher 1: “Exactly!  Well have you read the last Harry Potter book?”

Teacher 2: “No, not yet.  I haven’t made it through the whole series yet.”

Teacher 1:  “Well, just wait until you do!  Towards the end of the book, Mrs. Weasley does something just awful. (Looking around and lowering her voice again).  She says b*tch!”

Teacher 2:  “What?!  Now why would the author do that?  That is just unacceptable.  Ridiculous.

Teacher 1:  “Well, I solved the problem in my room.  I have three copies of the book.  I went through each one and whited out the bad word.  I then wrote in the word brat.  Much better!”

This entire conversation left me flabberghasted.  Patron’s book did cause an uproar when it won the Newbery, but I have had plenty of kids read the book without once drawing attention to the use of the word scrotum.  As far as I know, most intermediate kids are learning the appropriate words for human anatomy in health/science.  I would much rather students get the anatomically  correct name for a body part in a book instead of a kiddie, nonsense name.  Plus, the entire scene is devoted to a dog, not even human anatomy!

Now, as for JK Rowling’s use of the “b-word”, I can’t even comprehend whiting out the word in the books and choosing my own word for that sentence.  While readers may not agree with Rowling’s word choice, it is just that- the author’s choice.  I’d be willing to bet that most readers of Harry Potter have heard much worse in their own households- TV, music, and pop culture use that word and more in the everday vernacular.  To white it out and then change the word to brat infuriates me.  You would be better off keeping the book out of your classroom library!

In my experience, most students don’t get to the final Harry Potter book until 5th/6th grade or higher.  They read the series in order and it’s not an easy or quick series to get through.  To put the situation into context, this past week my 6th graders were allowed to nominate songs to be played at their graduation dance.  75% of the songs they nominated were vetoed by me because I knew the school would not allow them to be played.  The number one song for most of my students?  “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” by Soulja Boy.  The last verse of the song includes that same b-word no less than 5 times. This was one of the tamer songs they nominated!

This is why books should be part of a culture of reading and discussion in schools.  Instead of focusing on filling in little bubbles on a scantron sheet, our students and teachers should be having discussions about books, about voice, about word choice!  Share your thinking with students- why do they think JK Rowling chose to use a curse word?  Why did she not use brat?  What do the students think of this decision.

Don’t just take censorship into your own hands.

Don’t rewrite literature.


Poetry Friday

April Rain Song

Let the rain kiss you
Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops
Let the rain sing you a lullaby
The rain makes still pools on the sidewalk
The rain makes running pools in the gutter
The rain plays a little sleep song on our roof at night
And I love the rain.

Langston Hughes

Alright, it’s really a rainy day in May, but the sentiment is correct.  Overnight, the temperature dropped 20 degrees and the rain has been falling all day.


Today, after a morning of standardized testing, I took my students outside to create eco-art.  In the tradition of Andy Goldsworthy we created art from the natural materials readily available around our schoolyard.  My kids were so amazing in this project!

After spending a good amount of time wandering the schoolyard, the students broke into small groups.  For the first time all year, there was no whining or fighting over working together.  Students seemed to naturally gravitate towards working alone or with a small group of friends.  They gathered materials together, brainstormed ideas, and even claimed their area without an ounce of anger or annoyance.  They quickly got to work and produced some amazing art.

Tomorrow, I will print out their artwork and we will use the pieces to inspire poetry and prose.  The words they write will then be combined with the photos before becoming a book on Shutterfly.  Through the Voices…From the Land project, we will share our book with another school and will receive one from another school.  We are very excited!

Why Don’t Our Students Read?

I read two fascinating articles today which really got me thinking. Reading has been my “thing” this school year. I don’t mean to brag, but it’s working. My students read, and read, and read, and read. They are sharing books, discussing them, making recommendations to friends and family. They constantly tell me that they have read more this year than they ever did before. Almost all of my students have read 20+ books since September, and many of them have read 35+.

I see the effects of their reading everyday. Their fluency has improved dramatically. Their own writing has improved, thanks to the abundance of great writers they are reading. Granted, not every book is an award winner (some even make me cringe!), but the point is they are reading for pleasure. And that they are equating reading with pleasure.

If only legislators and administrators could see this.

Jordan Sonnenblick, (author of Drums, Girls, And Dangerous Pie, one of my favorites) has a kick-butt editorial on right now. Entitled Killing Me Softly: No Child Left Behind, Sonnenblick laments the state of education across our nation right now. A former urban teacher in NJ, he visited his colleagues and was told more than once to stay home, keep writing, don’t come back. Why? Because of what has happened to Language Arts classes. Like myself, Sonnenblick loves sharing great literature with students. In this day and age of high-stakes testing, we are tossing out the books for workbooks. What has happened to us?!

No Child Left Behind has done to my school what it has done to untold thousands of urban schools. Our arts programs are gutted, our shop courses are gone, foreign languages are a distant memory. What’s left are double math classes; mandatory after-school drill sessions; the joyless, sweaty drudgery of summer school. Our kids come to us needing more of everything that is joyous about the life of the mind. They need nature walks, field trips, poetry, recess….What I loved most about teaching middle school English was the books, the stories, the poems. I loved putting great thoughts into the hands of my students, and watching what I really, truly saw as a holy communion between child and author, with me as the officiant. And it kills me to know that if I went back, I wouldn’t have much time to teach literature, which is increasingly seen as a frilly extra.

What???? What type of country do we live in now, where students no longer have time to read great books, learn about nature, or otherwise enjoy their learning experience? We have reverted back to the drill ’em and kill ’em rote memorization ideal of the 19th century. I fully believe that 50 years from now this will be looked upon as the worst time for education in American history.

A recent survey of 3 million kids in the U.S. revealed the number of books children read in 2007. Seventh-graders averaged 7.1 books in 2007, while 12th-graders averaged 4.5 books. This number is less than the amount of books I read in a given month. Yet I have seen the evidence in my own classroom. Students enter my room in September and fill our a reading survey. Most of them do not have a favorite book/author and it’s a rare student who has read more than 4 books in the last year. Why are our children not reading?

In my experience, our students are not reading because of NCLB. The joy of reading has been taken out of the classroom and the library. Students are no longer “allowed” to read for pleasure when they must attend mandatory test prep sessions, so that the school looks good on high-stakes testing. They are rarely introduced to the hundreds of new books that are published each year because library budgets have been slashed. Most schools have removed their classroom library budgets, too, so teachers are left to use their own money to stock their classroom library. Students crave new books. Instead, we force our idea of classics on them over and over again, never allowing them to find their own niche in the wide world of books. There are plenty of canon-worthy books that have been published in the last decade. Would it kill us to switch out a Hemingway or two for something like John Green’s Looking for Alaska or Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak?  Both are award-winners that are relevant to our students and their lives.  Both could also be used as a gateway to what adults deem “real literature”.  In other words, not YA literature.

To get back on topic, NCLB is destroying our classrooms and the education we should be giving our children.  Reading Jordan Sonnenblick’s editorial, coupled with the Washington Post’s recent survey, has lit a fire under me.  I hope it does the same for you.  Find a child or teen today.  Share a book with them.  Buy them a book or get them a library card.  Show them the blogs in the kidlitosphere and get them reading.  Help them find their niche and give them back what our schools are taking away.

Found (The Missing Book 1) by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Anyone who knows me has heard me sing the praises of Margaret Peterson Haddix. Her Shadow Children series has hooked many reluctant readers and turned them into voracious readers in my classroom. When I saw that she was beginning a new series, I was very excited. I just finished reading Found (The Missing) and I LOVED it. The plot is difficult to summarize without giving away too much, but I will try.

A plane that appears out of nowhere. Thirty-six babies mysteriously on the plane. No pilot, not crew, no adult passengers. Then, just as suddenly, the plane disappears.

Thirteen-year-old Jonah has always known that he was adopted, and he’s never thought it was any big deal. In fact, his parents spend more time thinking about it than he does (hence their bookshelves full of “adoption books). That all changes when he and his friend, Chip, also adopted, start receiving strange, anonymous letters. The first one says, “You are one of the missing.” The second one says, “Beware! They’re coming back to get you.”

Jonah, Chip, and Jonah’s sister, Katherine, are plunged into a mystery that involves the FBI, a possible baby- smuggling operation, that same airplane that appeared out of nowhere — and maybe even ghosts. The kids discover they are caught in a battle between two opposing sides that want very different things for Jonah and Chip’s lives.

This series promises to be just as good, if not better, than Shadow Children . The Missing is a pageturner with twists and turns you will never see coming. The next book isn’t due out until Spring 2009 and I am already dying to read it! Margaret Peterson Haddix is sure to draw in many more reluctant readers with this speculative fiction series. I can’t sing its praises enough!!

Hot Mess: Summer in the City by Julie Kraut & Shallon Lester

Hot Mess: Summer in the City is the debut novel by Julie Kraut and Shallon Lester. It’s fun, in a “Sex and the City for a new generation” type of way. The release of the SATC movie this month should only increase its popularity and Hot Mess: Summer in the City is the perfect companion for teens who are dying to live their own New York City adventure, a la Carrie Bradshaw.

Emma Freeman has just been dumped by her boyfriend. She and Brian were supposed to spend their last remaining summer before he went off to college lifeguarding together. Once he dumps her for his new college pals, Emma decides that her parents’ idea of interning in NYC is not such a bad idea after all. It has to be better than spending the summer working at the town pool with her loser ex. She convinces her best friend, Rachel, to join her and both girls are set up with internships, a small allowance, and rent money in record time.

The pair quickly realize that the summer will not be all pink fizzy drinks, Manolo Blahniks, and Sex and the City adventures. Instead, Emma spends most of her time watching Law and Order reruns and eating takeout. She and Rachel luck out when they find a cheap sublet in Union Square- living with Jayla, a socialite with a heart who is trying to prove to daddy that she can manage an apartment and two tenants. Of course, Rachel ends up with a great internship at a feminist online ‘zine, while Emma is stuck interning at MediaInc, being harassed by her boss, Dorfman. The devil definitely does wear Dockers in this novel! Then Rachel begins dating guys she meets in JDate, Jayla is partying, and Emma is stuck at home. The one time Emma goes out with Jayla, she tells a white lie to a gorgeous boy- who ends up working at her company. And he just might think she is a college graduate and media salesperson instead of an 18-yr old high school intern.

This is a fun book and the perfect beach read. I think teenage girls will love living vicariously through Emma and Rachel while they traipse through the city. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know many parents who send their rising high school seniors to live in NYC for the summer with an allowance and an unpaid internship! This is the perfect “escape” book for teen girls this summer. At times I was little annoyed with all the pop culture references (bands, songs, TV shows, etc that are popular *rightnow*), knowing they will only date the book a few years down the line. But for this summer, the book should definitely be a success!