Archive | July, 2013

Picture Book Nostalgia

30 Jul


I was lucky enough to have parents who read to me every night.  I only have hazy memories of the actual event–were my twin sister and I in bed, or on the couch?  Did we read just one story or many?  Did I follow along and read the words I’d memorized? It’s all a fog.  What I do hold onto, vividly, are the emotions attached to those stories.

Goodnight moon.  The Runaway Bunny.  The Velveteen Rabbit.  In our first chapter book, Pocohontas.  I remember the chapter where John Smith had put his head down on the execution block, waiting to be beheaded, and Pocohontas flung herself dramatically across his back to save him (no politically correct version for me in the 80’s.)  My mom came to the end, folded down the corner of the page, and announced it was time for bed.  Nooooo!!!!  We wailed.  Just one more chapter!  But she was immovable.

Tomorrow, she promised.  Tomorrow we’ll find out what happened.

Even now, my sister Rachel and I just have to say the words, Pat the Bunny to fall into endless recollections of how we could turn the page and rub the bunny’s fur, attached to the back page of the hard book, as we read.  Remembering these books brings back a warm fuzzy feeling, the kind of glow attached to early childhood when it seems like my only jobs were to play and learn.  Sure, if I think hard enough I can remember the dark side of being 5–the tantrums, the frustrations, the boredom.  But those feelings can’t withstand the onslaught of warm fuzzies that a book like The Very Hungry Caterpillar brings out.

I still love reading, and there are young adult and adult chapter books that I think are stupendous.  But they never have, and I suspect never will, match the emotional resonance I feel with the books of my childhood.  Maybe it’s because I was so young, or maybe it’s because when you read something 40 times, as many of us do with our favorite picture books, they cement themselves into your identity in a way a book read as an adult once, or twice, or three times, have difficulty doing.

Sometime around 3rd grade, my parents stopped reading to us at night.  I guess they decided we were old enough to read to ourselves, and they had our little brother to attend to.  It drifted off slowly, reading a few nights a week, then a few less, until it stopped.  I both accepted the change as a natural part of growing up, and felt a bit adrift without the nightly ritual.  My kids, I decided then, would be read to for much longer.  At least till 4th grade :).

Slow Ideas – Spreading Information in Medicine and Education

24 Jul

contributor_atulgawande-new_p233Atul Gawande is an author and a doctor, the kind of writer who  takes lessons learned from the medical world and  connects them to bigger-world implications.  He’s written about coaching and budgeting, politics and testing.  And yes, that’s coaching, budgeting, politics, and testing in medicine, but if you’re seeing the ties to education, I see them too.  His most recent article, “Slow Ideas,” is no exception.  In it, he discusses why some ideas take off like lightening, whereas others take years or never catch on, no matter how sensible and life-changing they may be.

Why the difference?  He talks about some reasons that ideas don’t take off (invisible problems, painful implementation, lack of resources) and about how the government has tried to spread ideas in the past–asking people to do something, or punishing them when they don’t do it, or rewarding them when they do.  Sound familiar?  But what’s even more interesting are his thoughts on how to help those ideas take root.  Gawande gives example after example where the way to spread an idea is through people–through person-to-person connection, talking and building relationships.

This approach takes time and investment.  It’s not a quick fix, or particularly high-tech.  And it connects to our work with students, with teachers, and in schools.  If  we want an idea to take root and grow, we need to invest not only the time into it, but the human relationship as well.  One of Gawande’s last quotes is from a nurse explaining why she was willing to listen to an expert colleague who nonetheless had fewer years of experience.  “It wasn’t like talking to someone who was trying to find mistakes,” she said. “It was like talking to a friend.”  Time, personal relationship, and the sense that the woman was there to help, not judge or punish.  A good analogy for educational coaching, and professional development, and reform and learning in general.

I encourage you to read the article,  and an older one about coaching (thanks to Jenny Maehara for tipping me off to this one!) — they’re good stuff!

Swash Boggling Phiz Whizzing Word Analysis in Everyday Life

20 Jul

Anyone who has known me for a while has probably heard my argument about compound words: I think a word is compound if and only if the meaning of the two smaller words contributes to the meaning of the larger words.  So

  • grasshopper
  • fireman
  • toothpaste

would all fit that definition, but

  • carpet
  • season
  • hemlock

would not.

I was briefly stuck by the word “butterfly” which someone brought up as a challenge to my theory.  “Butterfly” really feels like it should be a compound word, but I couldn’t figure out how the meanings of “butter” and “fly” added to the overall definition.  Until I googled it, and learned that “butterfly,” comes from Europe, where the fly-like creatures would buzz around freshly made butter sitting in the windowsills.  Crisis averted!

I just came back from a trip to Scotland, and I noticed that there were tons of trucks selling “ice lollys.”  Besides the fact that anyone selling ice cream in Scotland–65degrees on a warm day–seemed strange, I started thinking about why Scotland called them “ice lollys” and we called them “popsicles.”  Where did those words even come from?  I got pretty excited by this theory (my sister thought I was being ridiculous):

  • “popsicle” is a combination of “icicle” and “lollipop,” because it’s like an icicle you eat like a lollipop.
  • “ice lolly” is just the other half of “icicle” and “lollipop.”

Pretty cool, right?  Americans and Europeans just flipped around the word parts!

Except it was wrong.  Going back to trusty google, I learned that “popsicles” in America were originally invented by Frank Epperson, and called “Epsicles.”  When he died, his children called them “popsicles” after their father (at least I got the icicle part right), and the brand name stack, a la Kleenex and Xerox, whereas in the United Kingdom they use the more generic ice lolly.

So why am I going on and on about my great compound-word odyssey?  What does this have to do with literacy?

In reading, we want students to think about what words mean, and one of the strategies to do that is for them to break words apart–to look at the words affixes, roots, and bases (and compound parts!) to discover the meaning.  We need to teach them how to break apart the words to do this, but we also want to imbed a natural curiosity about words and the world.  Mysteries about where words come from like ice lolly and butterfly are one way to engage students in the process of discovery.

We also want students to be able to manipulate words as writers.  We hope the majority of their words are real, but Lewis Carol and Roald Dahl showed the power of taking parts of words that people recognize and smashing them together to make a new word, such as chortle (now an official word) and whizzpopping.

Source: Oxford Dictionaries
Word list filed with the first draft of The BFG.

We can learn about where words come from and how they change over time, and we can study authors like Roald Dahl who manipulate language. has a series of lesson ideas for Roald Dahl’s birthday that involves children breaking apart words and creating new ones, or writing poems about their new word creations.  If we have students create their own word in their writing, or independently research where a word comes from, how cool would that be?

Tiny Habits

17 Jul

Start small, dream big.  That’s the thrust of Stanford Psychologist BJ Fogg’s course on building good habits, called Tiny Habits.  The basic idea is that when we’re trying to start a routine, the most effective way to begin is with one, small, step.  Too large, and you’ll never get started (this is where that, “I’ll go the gym 4 days a week” New Year’s Resolution gets most of us), but start with something small, and chances are you’ll actually do more than you ever imagined.

Fogg’s example is flossing.  His tiny habit?  Floss just one tooth a night.  One tooth was manageable and tiny.  But once he was flossing one tooth, he often flossed every tooth.  Just one tooth was a tiny goal he could stomach starting, but once you start something, most people feel compelled to finish the task.  And voila!  Every tooth flossed.

The rules of tiny habits are simple.  A tiny habit is something:

  • you do at least once a day

  • that takes you less than 30 seconds

  • that requires little effort

Fogg has a list of examples, as well as more details about how to start a tiny habit, here.

Can you see the application for students?  There are so many huge habits we want them to form–study habits, social habits, healthy living habits–but it’s notoriously difficult to create a new habit, even for a 9 year old.  If little Johnny has been stuffing his papers in his backpack or desk for 5 years, telling him to, “Get organized!” isn’t going to help much.  But what if we tried a tiny habit?

Tiny Habit: Johnny will check that he has a sharp pencil when he sits down at his desk.

Pencil by Arda Balkan



  • he does it at least once a day

  • it takes him less than 30 seconds

  • it requires little effort

Notice I said that Johnny will check that he has a sharp pencil, not that he’ll get two sharpened pencils, or have all of his papers out on his desk, etc, etc.  Tiny habits need to start tiny.  But if Johnny gets in the habit of checking, he might just go ahead and sharpen if he notices it’s dull.

Tiny Habit: Grace will check the end of her writing for a period when she finishes her work.

  • she does it at least once a day

  • it takes her less than 30 seconds

  • it requires little effort

Again, we’re not asking Grace to check all of her writing for punctuation, even though that’s the ultimate goal.  But if she checks that last line, we know we’ll have one period in the paper.  And maybe she’ll begin to check a little more, and a little more.

My own tiny habit?  Closing the closet door at night.  I tend to leave everything open–drawers, cabinets, doors.  I can’t be bothered to close them, but my husband hates the site of everything wide open.  This week my goal is to close the closet door (just the closet door) each night before bed.  I do it every day, it’s less than 30 seconds, and it requires little effort.  So far, I have 3 days of success.  And all of my kitchen cabinet doors are closed too!

What would your tiny habit be?

Tech and Engagement

14 Jul

I think I have a little bit of a nerd crush on Rushton Hurley and Jim Sills, two of the presenters at the Google Apps for Education summit.  Actually, I should probably add Richard deVaul in there too (he’s like the Q of Google) and, what the heck,  let’s throw some women in there too, like Lisa Highfill, tech trainer extraordinaire.

A lot of the GAFE summit was about how technology can enhance what we do in the classroom and our students’ lives, but I was struck by how the technology was limited or enhanced by the presenter.  By the end of his keynote, I’m pretty sure Jim Sills could have talked about the glory of vegemite on toast and we would have all run out to eat it for dinner.  How were these folks so good, and how can I learn from their mojo?

There’s three things that stood out: passion, humor, expertise.  I put expertise last for a reason–the first two really go a long way towards “fake it ’till you make it” but ultimately you really do have to have some meat to back up your session.







(I get a kick out of making these photos sports related, since I’m about the least sporty person there is.)

When my brother went to college, my family advised him to pay less attention to what he thought would interest him, and more attention to whether the professor teaching the class had a reputation as an engaging teacher.  It turns out that pretty much any subject can be made interesting–or deadly–depending on who presents it.  There were no deadly presenters at GAFE, but the great ones certainly brought their subjects alive.  I know this idea is a little dissonant with one of the thrusts of GAFE–student centered, inquiry based–but the truth is that the teacher matters.  It matters if you’re passionate, engaging, excited, knowledgeable.  Do you have to be the be-all end-all?  Of course not.  Can students learn with someone who is dull, dull, dull?  They better, because those teachers exist.  But wouldn’t we all rather have a Jaime Escalante or Robin Williams, or Lisa Highfill?

I’m excited to dive into some of the tech tools that can help to foster the engagement and excitement in my class next year.  We’ll continue to move ahead with the Google Drive accounts–docs, presentations, spreadsheet, and forms, and hopefully add in some more work with youtube, class blogs, and a host of mini-projects with real-world audiences.  Here are some of the links to presenter’s sites that have a host of resources you can look through at your leisure.  There’s oodles of good stuff here, it’ll take a while to go through.  Happy Hunting!

Jim Sills – youtube and film creation


Lisa Highfill – googlizing your readers and writers workshop, youtube, and much more!

Rushton Hurley – Digital Media, creating and using videos, citing sources from creatvie commons

Google Apps in Education Conference – Using Tech to Foster Literary Nerddom

13 Jul

I’m spending the weekend at the Google Apps in Education Conference, and it is wild.  I consider myself pretty tech savvy, but there’s nothing like a tech conference to break down that illusion pretty thoroughly.

I did have to laugh at this picture shared by the keynote:


It’s exciting stuff, even if the sketchy wi-fi at Sequoia High School makes things challenging.  There’s nothing like watching a room full of people trying to get on their macbooks/ipads/iphones/chromebooks at the same time, desperately searching for wireless, to make you laugh.

I wanted to share Megan Ellis’s session on Creating a Culture of Literary Nerds.  If you’ve read my posts on using music videos and movie trailers in the classroom, you know I’m a fan of using technology to teach reading skills and strategies.  Megan’s session dealt more specifically on using technology (both online and off) to help create enthusiasm around reading and to create a community of readers.

She had some great ideas:

  • Online Reading Logs – Megan teaches middle school, and she has her students log completed books in a Google Form that then populates a spreadsheet that everyone in the class can see.  Advantages are that more students fill out the log, no one can lose the log (the bane of my life, lost paperwork) and since the logs are public, students can keep track of what their classmates are reading and use it to help them pick their next books.  My students log their reading daily, and since I teach elementary, I wouldn’t want to get rid of that check-in and the chance for me to analyze how their reading rate is progressing, but I think the idea of an online completed books page is awesome.
  • – I just got on goodreads myself a few months ago–I was skeptical about why I needed a site to keep track of books, but I’m a full convert now.  I never realized how many books I want to read that I forget about, or how many great books I read that I never recommend because I can’t remember the title.  Goodreads solves that problem.  Megan has her students on goodreads, and their online completed book logs link to a goodreads review.  The result?  The class has access to tons of written book reviews that can help them decide what to read next.
  • Book Trailers – Publishers are putting more and more quick book trailers on youtube.  “Book Buzzing” about a novel is a great way to get kids interested in it, but I haven’t read close to all the books in my library, and faking your way through a book talk is pretty painful (and I’m pretty sure the kids can tell.)  Pulling up trailers will get kids excited about books, and the students who troll youtube endlessly after school just may start looking up books!  Caveat: there are a lot of bad book trailers on line.  It’s a good idea to check them out before you press play.
  • Student Created Book Trailers – Have your own students make book trailers and then play them for the class!  Another way to reinforce your literacy community.
  • – If you run around most of your reading workshop helping kids find books, this is for you.  It’s a website that shows books that are similar in genre/content/style to a book the child loves.  It’s a site in progress, so I expect they’ll continue to add books and grow as time goes on.

I think the most important message of Megan’s session was to create a community of readers — sharing their reading lives with each other — as a way to increase engagement, volume, and variety of reading.

Thanks for the great session Megan!


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