Thursday, December 16, 2010


      NPR some time back posted a story about Harlem Children's Zone and its Baby College. I've been buzzing ever since, hoping perhaps we just might have a new model that would turn children in our inner cities around. After all, it followed the usual successful plans -- a community taking charge of its own in order for it to succeed. Apparently major federal money is now targeted to replicate the HCZ model and place it throughout the country. Good. Or so I thought.
       But I guess somehow I missed out on my research. Recently I caught articles by Alexander Russo and Linda Perlstein that tell of a possible different story, one of the media not scrutinizing HCZ as they should, of HCZ withholding data results, of excuses being made by the organization for weak results (despite over 10 years since the inception of Baby College and 35+ years for HCZ). And the latest  interview in City Limits did little to quell questions.
       Let's see, No Child Left Behind mandates schools to show substantial results within one year, and every year after that -- results even from special education and struggling minority students as well as recent immigrants -- or millions of federal dollars will be withheld. And this same federal government now plans on shipping new millions to HCZ that has yet to show acceptable results? 
      I want Harlem Children's Zone to succeed, or any other program that can move these children on. But with all the financial fiascos we've seen in the past two years, all the wasted monies, I would think the federal government would be a bit more cautious with the depleted dollars, do its homework, and deliver dollars where dollars will best succeed, not just to the most hyped program of the hour.
      Please, Mr. Canada, don't operate as the business world operates -- hiding design flaws, critical data, finances. It usually all comes out in the end, anyway, and the business looks the fool. 
      So if Baby College doesn't yet have the data to support its tales of wonder, wait. Experiment. Improve.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

CADERS (Early Readers): Posting # 7

This book practices blends (br, st, dr, gl, etc) and digraphs (ch, sh, th, wh).

(Refer to November 14th for explanation of CADERS readers.)

           Don't Pinch a Frog

Don't pinch a frog.

Don't punch a truck.

Don't crunch a crab.

Don't bash a flag.

Don't whack a glass.

Don't thump a moth.


Friday, December 10, 2010

CADERS (Early Readers): Posting #6

By now your child should easily read the books I've posted. As you will notice, some have phrase repetition -- a certain line that repeats throughout the story with only one or two words changing. This allows the child to read "more sophisticated" stories, rather than being relegated to "Go, Dog."

On now to the next step -- digraphs (ch, sh, th, wh) and blends (br, st, pl, dr, etc). You will notice that there might be words your child can read but perhaps doesn't know (as with "flesh" below). This gives you a prefect time to discuss new words with your child/class -- learning words in context is always the best way to learn words.

And, as always, refer back to November 14th posting for a description of CADERS readers if you have not been a part of this blog to date:

            The Fish Has an Itch

The fish has an itch.

The shrimp has an itch.

The chimp has an itch.

The moth has an itch.

The chick has an itch.

My flesh has an itch.

We all have an itch.
Let's scratch!


Sunday, December 5, 2010

CADERS: Posting #5

Another posting for CADERS. (Refer back to November 14th for full explanation of what these are all about):

               Run, Bed!

Run, Bed!

Run, Mop!

Run, Bag!

Run, Can!

Run, Sun!

Run, Wig!


Saturday, November 20, 2010

CADERS (Early Readers): Posting #4

And a fourth very early CADERS reader (Refer to Nove 14th posting for full explanation of CADERS). Remember, it's all in the child's ability to figure out the words (Go ahead and give her the word, "this") -- and the illustrations!:

             Bed Has a Wig

This bed has a wig.

This can has a wig.

This bib has a wig.

This pot has a wig.

This box has a wig.

This mud has a wig.

I have a wig!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

CADERS (Early Readers): Posting # 3

And yet one more very early reader (Refer to November 14th posting for full description and purpose for CADERS):

      Me, Too

You run.
Me, too.

You sit.
Me, too.

You kiss.
Me, too.

You yell.
Me, too.

You nap.
Me, too.

You hop.
Me, too.

You wet.
Me, too!

Monday, October 25, 2010

CADERS (Early Readers): Posting #2

As talked about on November 30th posting (refer back for complete discussion on how to fomat, purpose and scope of CADERS), here's another posting. This one, too, is meant for the earliest of readers:

              So Big

Dad is so big.

Mom is so big.

Sis is so big.

Ted is so big.

My cat is so big.

My dog is so big.

I am so big!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

CADERS (Early Readers): Posting #1

For a couple of years, I've been writing playful, simple books for my students who are just learning to read. These are very basic books -- booklets, actually -- all of eight pages, most with only a few words on each. This is what early readers need. Each booklet focuses on one or two phonics (sound) skills.

 They are also child-centered, or so I hope. These books complemented a testing program I developed I call CADERS (Computerized-Assisted Diagnosis of Essential Reading Skills). They were first dubbed "Berenson Books."

Now I don't claim to be any type of illustrator, but it occurred to me that the children are, by far, excellent illustrators, so when I presented these stories to my students sans any illustrations, they were delighted. They read, they illustrate -- and if I write the book correctly -- they laugh.

I will start posting some of my early readers here. On my own computer I have them formatted into 8-page booklets with the 8 1/2 x 11 paper in landscape format so that one face of the paper holds two pages. Two sheets of paper, printed back and front, turn into the eight pages.

Unfortunately, though, I cannot yet figure out how to upload that format onto my blog. So for now, I'll simple give you the story (as basic as they are), and you'll need to either write or type them for your child. If your child attends my reading classes, don't worry about having them read these books before or after we do in class -- children thrill simply with the ability to read.

And remember, these are for beginning readers. Even Dr. Suess's books (Ach, I should even use his name in the same line as mine!) are for more "advanced" beginning readers.

Don't forget -- part of the joy is the illustrating. To our kids, illustrating is a type of play. And always, always, we want to make reading "play."

And now for one of the simplest ones: Dog Dog.

Do note: These books are only meant for your use with your child or students in the classroom. Any other use of these must first be approved by me.

Booklet (meant for readers who are mastering the simplest of words, CVC, or consonant-vowel-consonant):

                    Dog Dog

Dog dog

Cat cat

Pig pig

Bug bug

Rat rat

Hen hen

Me me!

Sunday, October 10, 2010


     Okay, I know the major boy series out there right now is Percy Jackson and the Olympians, but I haven't read those yet. My next review will be on at least one of those, I promise. But I did just finish the first three of Anthony Horowitz's eight Alex Rider books. (Okay, so I'm a bit late with discovering these. Am I the only one?)
     And what a ride these books are. A fourteen-year old British schoolboy turns into a reluctant-yet-highly skilled government spy after the mysterious death of his uncle. Unlike Bond, Alex does not want this life, but M16 threatens and bullies him enough to get Alex on these missions. Alex breaks away from his school routine just long enough to stop deadly computers from killing all the country's school children, to destroy Project Gemini and its goal to develop a racist world, and to save Russia from a nuclear attack. Along the way Alex must outrace crazed brutes, fly down mountainsides, step behind a crane's controls to outmaneuver others, escape a shark, live through the Cribber -- and, of course, much more. And as with Bond, Alex is supplied with tech master gadgets for his espionage, though his gadgets are zit cream, yoyo, Game Boy, CD, book, others.
     I raced through the three books, and I am not driven by action-based books. I found the boys in my classes, too, couldn't get enough of the books -- that is, if their reading ability was strong enough (about a fifth grade level).

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


     I've followed a fascinating blog, synthesis, by Shafeen Charania, a Microsoft engineer-turned-advocate-for-educational-change. (Okay, he has some other interests, too.) Other education blogs -- including my own -- should be so insightful.
     Some of you who are reading this blog do not know of a former time when it was believed we could make huge changes in schools. I was an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin, and I learned of Kozol. Kohl. Holt. Herndon. Perhaps it is that I am in the Midwest, but what I've basically seen since then -- definitely in the elementary classroom -- is what we've had for so long. Basals (or whatever their name of the day is -- anthologies? They are still basals). Worksheets. Some excellent novels and poems. Other excellent projects. But our basals still structure and rule the day.
     And the NCLB testing looms over us most of the year.
     Charania writes in his February 21 post of an education system that actually serves the public, not just offers shallow promises, a place where children from all levels educate together. He refers to the founder of a unique educational setting in California, a school that teaches by doing, by experiencing, by "becoming." This is no new theory -- I heard of it when I studied at the University of Wisconsin -- but then it was just talk and promises. In most places, it still is. Except at this High Tech High band of schools, from what Charania says, and a few other places.
     "We've made education complex -- it isn't," says Charania. I wanted to shout in agreement. "We've created a system whose rules require a book that's several inches thick...[Here he speaks of how school staff only cares about passing No Child Left Behind testing, and boy, is he wrong, but I doubt he has a clue as to what NCLB demands really are, so I'll forgive him.] We've forgotten that it is about graduating children whose future is profoundly more brilliant than anything we might conceive." Who could say it better?
     I call this post "Motivation Wednesday." I think I just motivated myself to change my reading classroom, to try to recapture why I came into education in the first place.
     I'll start right after we finish -- and pass -- NCLB testing.

Monday, June 21, 2010


   I just finished three middle grade/YA books. Two I'd highly recommend; one Iw suggest you ignore:

   Collins's The Hunger Games is about a futuristic America -- not exactly doomsday, but might as well be. Excellent, clever, creative -- good development of character, excellent sense of setting and intrigue  -- each time I thought I knew what would happen next, up to the very end -- well, I didn't.

   Brown's Hate List, the story of a school shooting, kept me riveted; I read until my eyes wouldn't focus, but I continued on until I finished the book. Characters very realistic and full of unique voices. I was also impressed that Brown didn't focus on the violence or (any) sex but rather the emotional turmoil and events both before and after the shooting.

   Now Grisham's Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer was a major disappointment. As tightly woven as many of Grisham's novels are, I was unhappy -- and concerned -- about his first venture into kids' books. He apparently underestimates the intellect of young readers; he brought in characters/events/ideas, then dropped them with little or no development. If I could get my money back from Barnes and Noble, I would.

Monday, March 8, 2010


     Now if anything will encourage creative writing and discussion, credible tales of fish raining down on Australia last month ought to do it.
     The fish were alive.
     Objects crashing down from the heavens apparently has its place in history. Spiders, hard boiled eggs, mice, frogs, crosses, blood, and more have been reported by reliable sources. Villagers in one town in Honduras take out pails each year to collect the fish that fall during the rainy season. Scientists guess why this occurs, but every answer has problems.
     It's a fascinating read for your students and children. Even more fascinating might be the stories they create to explain this phenomenon.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

     Kim*, one of my younger students, lights up whenever she sees me.
     Okay, it doesn't take much to get most little ones to like you. Smile a lot. Tell a few jokes. (They don't even have to be funny.) Hold their hand -- if they want to -- as you walk down the hall. Show them you care. (How could you not?)
     No wonder people like to work with the primary grades. Such unconditional love.
     Kim, however, misplaces her assignments, her classroom teacher tells me. She loses books. And her reading lags far behind that of the other children.
     I listen to Kim as she reads. She skips words, misses others I just gave her, reverses the letters of "slap." Sight words she should know she doesn't.
     As soon as Kim joins my class, I see what the teacher has reported. Kim checks out a book from me but has excuse after excuse why she doesn't bring it back. "It's on my table," she says, or it's on her bed, or it's in the car. When she does finally return it after three weeks and checks out a new one, that, too, takes over a week to return. Meanwhile, the students talk in class, and I hear Kim is in dance class and something else, either Scouts or baseball.
     I try to set up a time to meet with her parents. One meeting is missed. A second one never quite materializes. Phone calls are exchanged, but her mom can talk but a moment. I run into her in the hallway, and I can tell she is frazzled. "I'll call you," she says, stretching her fingers into that unmistakable handset shape. Of course I don't get the call.
     Everyone today, it seems, is overloaded. This certainly seems to be Kim's family. But I'm afraid that by trying to do more for their daughter, her folks may actually be doing less. What Kim needs now is structure. A bit of playtime when she gets home. Chores. Homework. Reading. Dinner and family time. Packing her book bag for the next day. Bath. Storytime. Bed. Other activities saved for the weekend.
     And filling up with stories. Learning to read well.
     This prescription isn't for everyone. But for Kim, yes, Kim needs this. Her other things will wait while she catches up on her reading, while her life organizes a bit saner.
     Then it will be time for her to go out and conquer the world.
*Name changed

Saturday, March 6, 2010


     I knew going in to the testing -- the No Child Left Behind testing -- that Kevin* might not pass. In fact, there was every reason to assume he wouldn't. His answers during reading class, during science and social studies and anything that required reading comprehension were all over the board, and usually they showed how little he really understood what he read. How did he get some of his bizarre answers we never knew.
     Of course his score wouldn't really affect him personally. It would not be posted in the grade book, and we didn't have to tell him whether or not he passed. Or we could always lie.
     But his passing, of course, did matter to the school. There was very, very little room for kids not to pass or major money would be lost to the district. With our large population of minority students, we were always on the edge.
    And Kevin's parents were so concerned about his abilities. He had often enough scored Ds or Fs. They vacillated between encouragements and reprimands.
    I could always use more training -- I'm always open to that -- but I did had one major strategy I had practiced over and over with the students: read only 2-3 lines, stop, paraphrase the reading. Do not, do not, I lectured, continue until they could restate what they had read. Do not. Work through the passage, no matter how painful.
     But at the testing, I couldn't tell Kevin what to do. I couldn't stop him when he barreled through a passage, not stopping once, typical for my students. Besides, if anything, we teachers want to know if what we are doing with the kids works. Stopping every few lines doubles the time it takes to read a passage. Was it worth it? Besides, sometimes this seemed to help; other times, he still missed so many.
     Wonders be, Kevin followed through. Stopped after the first three lines. Looked away. Tried to recite. Couldn't. Reread. Still couldn't. Reread. Never once looked over at me with his usual questioning face, just looked ahead and recited to himself. For each passage he may have reread it  4 times, sometimes 5 or 6. Amazing his inability. (Hadn't it improved any with all our practicing?) Amazing his tenacity. Exactly what was he thinking about the first 3 or 4 times he read the lines?
     And when he came to the questions, he only looked back twice to check his answers. No! That had been my second strategy I had hammered into the students. I was ready to, well, bang his head a bit -- a lot! (If only doing so would help!)
     But wait, he was getting the answers. Really. Well, almost all of them. Usually, by now he would have missed half. Hey, were we on to something? Could Kevin actually be taught to read -- and concentrate -- at the same time, something so basic for so many of us, yet apparently so out of his reach?
     And would the solution be that simple? How could it be?
     * Name changed.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


     For those of you interested in the early development of language in children, you might want to look at the article by J. Hartshorne in Scientific America or the recent one in the Boston Globe on J. Snedeker's work. Both discuss the current theories of how children acquire language. Hartshorne separates the discussion into that of language learned by native speakers, language learned by adoptees (ages 2-5), and  adult immigrants. Hartshorne argues that it might be the strength of the speaker's eventual vocabulary, and not developmental age, that determines the acquisition speed and complexity of her language skills. But the limited skills of immigrants brings into the discussion of a critical period for learning language efficiently; i.e. before a certain age. It appears a fascinating line of research.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


     For those of you with children around you who enjoy word games,  James Lipton of "Inside the Actor's Studio" tells of his foray years ago to unearth the terms we use for groups of things -- a gaggle of geese, a pride of lions, the charm of finches. He discovered more in 15th century texts (adding a few of his own): a charm of finches, a parliament of owls, a cry of players, an outback of Aussies, the unkindness of ravens, a quicksand of credit cards, a rash of dermatologists, the superfluidity of nuns, an acre of dentists, the acne of adolescents, a  queue of actors. He added some of his own and filled over 300 pages in The Exaltation of Larks: The Ultimate Edition. What a challenge for those around you, to create their own...

Monday, March 1, 2010


    The most basic of lessons can be become motivating to the child. How? Why has Spelling Baseball been a classic in classrooms for so many years?  It's its physicalness the students seek.*
     But there are many other ways to turn lessons physical. She correctly reads a line in her phonics lesson? She earns 10 seconds to do jumping jacks, skipping, or running across the room. (Believe it or not, she almost always calms down quickly if she know such activities will stop immediately if she doesn't!)
    Or the movement can be a part of the lesson. She claps her hands together three times, then four times more, and adds them together. Or a math challenge is written on a card. She computes it correctly. You wad up the card, and she runs as she catches it on the fly. 
     Or the child is learning to recognize description. Her challenge? To pop up every time she comes across another description in a story. (It might be best to give specific instruction, such as to stand only when she sees descriptions over one specific object or event in the story.)
     Or she is learning where certain punctuation marks go, such as quotation marks. You (or someone) reads an unmarked passage, and she throws up her arms (as if exaggerated quotation marks over her head) when she "hears" them.
     Okay, obviously you are not going to offer such movement activities all the time. You might already be getting dizzy, just reading this. Many lessons are enjoyable by themselves, and sometimes the child is going to do lessons because, because -- because she needs to, that's all. But on other days...
     Try some. Make up your own.
     And be prepared for a lot of laughter.
*This is assuming the child is healthy and not restricted physically.


     I started up with the bare skeleton of a blog. Slowly I'm adding what is needed:

Feed: Link is on right side
Comments: You need to click on the title of the article; the comments will then open at the bottom.

Sunday, February 28, 2010


       The New York Times posted the top selling children's books from last week. Now selling the most copies or winning an award is no guarantee of a great story -- I just slept through a Newbery Honor Book, which is unusual since I race through so many of them -- but selling rate and honors are places to start a book search:

Pikney's The Lion and the Mouse was the top seller for picture books
Sweet Little Lies (ages 14 and up) by Lauren Conrad for chapter books
Conrad's LA Candy for paperbacks
Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan for series.

Monday, February 22, 2010


 Once the child has mastered simple short vowels (3 letters, with the vowel in the middle, such as "cat" and "hot"), it's time to expand into consonant blends. Because the child must now hold not three sounds ("c-a-t") but four sounds ("s-c-a-t") before blending, this is tricker. Child having repeated trouble? Practice, practice the consonant blend first. Then, when reading a word, have her say the blend as if it were one sound, not two ("sc-a-t" and "dr-o-p").
     Examples of consonant blends: 
     Initial blends: st-, sp-, scr-, sw-, br-, bl-, dr-, gr-, gl-, cr-, cl-, fr-, fl-, pr-, pl-, tr-, tw-
     Final blends: -nt, -nd, -st, -sk, -sp, -ft, -lf, -lk

     Okay, to the activity:
     Give the child a rhymed pair (See below). She draws a picture of the rhymed pair but only writes one of the words on the picture. Can the other child figure out the missing rhymed word? (For parents at home: Adult draws the picture and writes the one word. The child unlocks the missing word). Add acting? All the more fun.

     clock block
     slurp and burp
     sled bled
     jump and bump
     duck cluck
     clam slam
     black crack
     twin grin
     grab crab
     press dress
     duck truck
     cross boss
     slit mitt
     slick brick
     twin grin
     last gasp
     step on desk
     lick stick
     dressed nest
     stop and drop
     flat hat

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


 As a teacher, I've always been torn with the pros and cons of merit pay. Universities, also in the business of educating, routinely pay professors salaries based on productivity. Then again, when is the last time a history professor's performance was impacted by how well her students scored on the GRE?
     But I do hate excuses.  
     Perhaps one of the best arguments I've read recently against merit pay is by Shafeen Charania of  synthesis. He refers to an article in Education Week, saying merit pay simply cannot work in an environment where the success of one teacher relies heavily on the input of so many others. "Merit pay ONLY succeeds in individual, competitive games; i.e. when you have to beat someone else to win," Charania writes. "It's really easy to motivate salespeople based on merit 'cause they control their destiny; they can only win when their employer wins; and when they win, their competition loses."
     Well, that certainly speaks to any of the schools where I've worked. We all have some form of child study team, a once-a-week gathering of administrators, classroom teachers, and specialists to discuss any student in the school.  Imagine if we were only rated on the success on the students specifically assigned to us? Would classroom teachers share lessons with one another?
     Collegiality and a shared passion, I've found, often set one school far above others. The adults join forces to teach, inspire, coach, and nurture their collective students; they then turn around and provide the very same for their colleagues.  
     When people point to a business model to emulate, they gloss over the problems businesses create for themselves -- the  cheating; the backbiting; the financial lying to stockholders; the serious product design flaws that are quietly hidden, then later main and kill innocents. 
     So let's not use business models to "improve" our nurturing schools. In fact, business has a lot to learn about humanity -- from teachers.
     No, there has to be something better.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


      My brother hooked me onto "The Dog Whisperer." He has dogs; I do not. But watching Caesar Millan take these animals -- neurotic, aggressive, terrified, withdrawn -- and within a day or so change them into well-adjusted pets is inspiring to watch.
     The dogs obey. They wait patiently. They wag their tails. Of course, much of his work is teaching the dog's owners how to act around their pets, but both humans and dogs appear immensely pleased. Dog and human now know what is expected of them. Everyone wins.
     I don't have dogs. But I do have classrooms of children. How could I not see the connection? I think my students enjoy coming to class -- they laugh, they chatter -- but still, there are those days. Whining children. Argumentative children. Pouting children.
     I do feel a bit ashamed, connecting the training dogs to the teaching children. Apparently, though, I'm not the only one. Belkin in her New York Times blog, Motherload, tells how many others think of Millan as "The Child Whisperer."
      I must say, after "The Dog Whisperer," I no longer feel the need to justify my words or actions to my students. I establish the rules in the classroom and the consequences for not following them. I periodically review these with the class (though not when anyone is disruptive). When someone acts up, I nod or point. The child knows what to do; if she choose not to follow the silent directive, there's a second -- or even a third -- consequence. From my nod or my point, she knows. I say nothing. (Okay, I'm not completely cured of that. I do have my days.)
     When I now ask these K-6 students who's "boss" in the room, they all point at me. They do it very matter-of-factly. No laugh, no smirk. They point. They know.
     Too bad there was no "Dog Whisperer" when I was raising my boys. I would have been a better parent. A lot less arguing. I would have been a lot happier.
     I'm sure my boys would have been, too.

Photo credit: 

Monday, February 15, 2010


     A kindergardener or first grader comes to school, so enthusiastic about learning to read, and what do many workbooks do? Hit her with dry phonics lessons. Ach!
     It doesn't have to be that way.
     I still make sure the child has the basics of blending out a word first, but only the very basic skill ("d-o-g," "s-i-t"). I don't ask her to be proficient. After all, it's all about practice and practice. Why not combine phonics and movement and silliness -- just what she likes?
     So the mantra for the following exercise is, "If you can read it, you get to do it." I decide what phonics I'm teaching, then create phrases using that skill that can be acted out.
    The child works alone or with a  partner, but in no way does anyone else help her. (Okay, she can be helped with the non-short vowel words shown in boldface, but no other words.) If she can figure out the words, she get to act it out -- far more fun than getting a star on her paper. If she can't, she doesn't get to do the acting.
     Simple -- and highly motivating. The students will work to come up with the phase so they can act. What could be better?

a. A box of props nearby is nice but not necessary.
b. I use this with other phonics lessons, too. I will post their phrases periodically.
c. This works just as well informally at home as well as during lessons.

1. Go rub -a dub in a tub.
2. Run as fast as a van.
3. Be a mad dad.
4. Jump on a bump.
5. Be a mom.
6. Be a fox.
7. Kiss a bib.
8. Be sick.
9. Kiss a sock.
10. Put your legs on your neck.
11. Swim fast.
12. Be a duck.
13. Be a rat.
14. Zip up pants.
15. Get ants in your pants.
16. Put on socks.
17. Pop up.
18. Quack.
19. Yelp.
20. Hum and hop.



For those of you who have not yet seen Brian Cox teaching this toddler (his grandson?) some Hamlet, it's a great 2 minutes of your time:

Thursday, February 4, 2010


     Most of us have heard of the One Laptop Per Child initiative begun by Nicholas Negroponte of MIT. For some time I've dismissed the idea as a well-intended but a seriously flawed program.
      I just came across a month-old interview of Negroponte in Big Think. Even if only half of his vision comes to fruition, how can we not be intrigued with the potential of OLPC?
     Okay, as a teacher I would like to think that I inspire every single student who spend time in my room. Of course I don't. If Negroponte's reporting is accurate, in places where OLPC has been implemented, truancy drops to zero, dismissing the oft-repeated argument that children stop attending these schools in order to work or care for younger siblings. He says students go home and teach their parents how to read and write, empowering these youngsters as "agents of change"for their entire family. Rote learning bows to investigative problem-solving, parents actively engage with the school, and students are soon "learning about learning" through their computer work. Excited teachers report that children are educationally involved all day, that through the privacy of emails, students ask them far more searching questions then they would have asked if in front of their peers. The computer doesn't replace the book, he argues, but rather gives children access to millions of books instead. Millions.
     Best yet, the children are passionate about their learning.
     There is criticism. The laptops apparently aren't the $100 versions once promised. Poor nations might not have the resources to fund such a project. There are questions about what corporations  might be benefiting from the initiative.
     Still, there is so much potential. Children, passionate about learning. Challenging tasks. Cognition strengthened. Parents involved. Truancy radically reduced. Supportive teachers.
     Or is this just another educational dream?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


A mom contacted me, worried that her eight-year old daughter had not improved in reading, at least according to her latest standardized test results. I was worried, too. This would usually call for a change in my instruction with her. But wait, I am beginning a new unit, one that teaches inferential comprehension, something I knew her daughter needed.
     But I also wanted to know if Kim* was reading at home. I have found that once my students actively tackle challenging books on their own, their reading ability usually soars. So I asked.
     The mom paused. "I don't think Kim's reading any this year," she answered.
     This doesn't surprise me. Students who struggle with reading usually don't read many books -- or any  --  on their own.
     Not good. Kim needs to read for her own skill improvement. For her own growth. For her own pleasure.
     Four years ago I decided to learn how to write fiction. I've come to understand, really understand, how favorite stories are all about the characters. So why do we teachers and parents just ask, "So did you read?"
     I know Kim to be a social creature, very generous with her friendships. Could Kim see books as a place to meet new friends?
     Okay, I know that thought isn't original. Sophisticated readers expect to bond with many of the characters they meet in books. But does this eight-year old? At night, after dinner, with her personality bubbling over and no other girls around...?
     I talked to her mom. "Downplay the word, "reading," I advised. "Just talk about the kids in the books. Maybe bring up a few book characters she -- or the two of you -- have met in the past...?"
     Kim came in the next day, all enthused. And the next day, too. "I like reading now," she tells me. Given the book she's carrying, the first of the Wimpy Kid series (see earlier post), I'm not surprised. That is the magic of Kinney's Greg Heffley.
     Good for you, mom. Whatever you did -- talking to her, finding a character she'd like, worked. And there are three more Wimpy Kid books after this one.
     But I need to keep Kim on my radar for when she's finished Wimpy Kid. There are so many more friends for her to meet.
*Name changed


Monday, February 1, 2010


     I read that some preschoolers in Saratoga Springs, NY spend three hours of their school day outside. In the rain. In the snow. In the wind. In the sun. Their classroom is the forest. And an old farmhouse.
     The children are loving it. Of course.
     Reminds me of why I went into education in the first place.
     I was sitting in a psychology class as an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin. The professor proposed anyone interested in studying "new" reformist ideas in education could join an alternative class with a teaching assistant. I joined. In came a barrage of readings by John Dewey and Jonathan Kozol and A. S. Neill and others. I was introduced to year-long projects for students that integrate math, science, social studies, language arts, arts, and music, throughly engaging the children. So different from my school days. Was I hooked!
      Unfortunately, I've yet to find a school district that is comfortable enough to really allow such reforms. And, of course,  No Child Left Behind and its whip-cracking keeps even the best-intended teacher from not deviating too far from approved textbooks.
     Of course I am not alone -- I've talked to many teachers who would love to integrate needed academics with a child-centered day -- with the child-centeredness as a critical factor. They try -- to a point. They -- and I -- stay close to what is expected of us. After all, we love our paychecks, too.
     So it was with eager interest I read about these schools that follow Rudolf Steiner and his Waldorf schools, a movement I had not heard about. Steiner advocated that reading instruction not start until age seven, that children be intrigued with the instruction given them, that science and art be integrated, that the study of other languages begin in first grade. And so much more.
      Perhaps it is Steiner who inspired Dewey and Kozol and Neill. I don't know. I don't know if these schools are what they propose to be. I don't know if all Steiner-inspired schools spend as much time outside as these preschoolers do -- or engaged in child-centered instruction.
      I showed the article to a kindergarten teacher. She wasn't as thrilled with the model. "That means the teacher would have to be outside for three hours every day," she reminded me. I hadn't thought of that. I like air conditioning. And heat.
     Still, there's a Waldorf school right over in Lawrence, only 30 minutes away. Think I'll go visit.

Saturday, January 30, 2010


The librarian at our school told me that when kids come to the library for their weekly class, she stops them at the door and throws her hands up. "I have no Wimpy Kid books," she announces, "so don't ask!"
     I read the first Wimpy Kid book when it appeared a few years ago and was quickly enamored. Greg is so  believable, so flawed, so funny in his innocence.  The cartoons Jeff Kinney (author and illustrator) scatters throughout the book are laugh-out-loud.
     I had no idea, though, Wimpy Kid would take off as it has. In every third and fourth grade group that comes into my room now, at least two of the students (of the usual 6) have one of Kinney's books with them. (The reading level of the books is approximately third grade. I have several second graders who keep trying to check out my copies, even though the books are a bit too difficult for them. I make them a bargain - they can get the Wimpy books if they read 15 other books in "their" bucket. A huge motivator.) Last week when I checked the AR website (AR is a popular web-based program that helps teachers test students' knowledge over books read independently), the Wimpy Kid series is the most-checked out book in 2009 for grades 3-6. Of course.
     Thank you, Mr. Kinney. I often tell parents it's not that boys don't like to read. They do - if they find something that talks to them. The boys run for Wimpy Kids. Girls do, too.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


     I am an avid follower of picture books. I run to the nearby bookstores to study how a talented illustrator has enhanced the world of children. I first bought A River of Words because it was a Caldecott Honor Book, but the more I look it over, the more themes I see -- and like.
     Jen Bryant and illustrator Melissa Sweet tells of the poet, William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), and how he managed to be both an active pediatrician and major poet of the day. I'm not sure if children will appreciate the art as much as I do, but the collages of prescription pads, lined pages, poems, textbook pages, celestial maps, and childlike drawings create an energy that should keep the kids visually engaged, as should the story of a boy who lives between a world of both boys and nature.
     And for those adults reading it, it reminds us that we really don't have to restrict ourselves into one lifestyle, one interest.

Monday, January 25, 2010


     So he just knows how to read short vowel words? No problem. There's still so much he can read. That is fun. And silly. 
     Here are a few tongue twisters below I made up that use mostly short vowels. (Okay, so I copied a few of them.) The object is not to help him -- at all. The reward for him once he conquers the words is to get to say the tongue twister over and over -- the faster, the better. Add some acting to it or some running or hopping -- it's amazing how much more fun reading is when you get to hop and run and do skits, right?

NOTE: A) Okay, you can help with the non-short vowel words that are in boldface, but nothing nothing nothing else. B) Periodically I will offer other tongue twisters for other phonic skills.

1. The bass with a bad back Dad whacked with a bat.
2. Will the vet get that pet into a net? Not yet.
3. How many cans can a canner can
    If a canner can can cans?
4. Did Mick quick-kick sick Rick?
5. The duck ducks under a dock.
6. If a fat cat pats a rat,
    Can the fat rat pat the cat back?
7. Of all the felt I ever felt
    I never felt a piece of felt
    That felt the same as that felt
    When I first felt felt.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


     I saved an article from the New York Times back in November. It tells of children as young as a year old who actively try to help adults in need, perhaps demonstrating that such behavior is innate in humans. Biologists find such helpfulness crosses culture lines with young children, that training does not improve this inclination, and that interactions in later years with peers and family members may then impact their helpfulness -- or lack of it. Interesting.


       The New York Times Learning Network asked kids where they'd most like to visit in the world. Canada. South Africa. MIddle East.Sri Lanka. Antartica.       
       Not one of them mentioned Disneyworld. 
       So I when I was called in to cover a third grade classroom while a teacher was called elsewhere, I asked these students where they'd most like to go. I did get one "Branson," the country-themed town in Missouri. But the rest gave articles like the children in this article -- Haiti, Israel, Africa, Antarctica.
      Says a lot about you, kids. Good for you.
Photo credit: / CC BY 2.0

Monday, January 18, 2010


     I have an aunt, the matriarch of our family now nearing 100 years old, who bemoans how the world has changed, how dangerous and ugly it has become. After the banking debaucle and the mortgage fiasco, after reports of gruesome assaults in our cities and our homes, after the bursting of New Orleans' levees from incompetence, after Iran and Iraq and Afghanistan, I sometimes want to agree with her.
     But I can't. There are simply too many amazing events going on today. Scientists are creating bionic fingers. Tiny cameras slip through the ill to assist doctors. Neil Gaiman writes his tales of strange world for our children while Jeffrey Eugenides and Cormac McCarthy write gripping tales for the rest of us, Greg Mortenson builds schools for girls in dangerous lands, "Phantom of the Opera" continues on Broadway, Sarah Sze creates her  eclectic mobiles. What is there not to like about today?
     As parents and teachers, it is for us to find, then share, this fascinating world with our children and students in a way they will understand. It is for us to review the science behind learning so we each can make intelligent decisions about what and how to teach. 
     That is the purpose for this blog.

Photo credit: SKBerenson