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.