Archive for February, 2015

Teacher’s Lounge: Six Ways to KILL the Love of Reading

February 27, 2015

Or, suppose they gave a common-core-aligned lesson plan and nobody came?

Here’s a tale of three sisters.  The first two don’t remember learning to read as a struggle, even though kill-readingtheir companions on the journey were the pasty-faced and bland Dick and Jane.  And Spot and Muff.  From See Spot run.  Run, run, run they made the leap to more exciting fare like Honey Bunch: Just a Little Girl (I loved it when she fell down in the coal cellar, though I had no idea what a coal cellar was).  They would just as soon curl up with a book as pedal their bikes madly around the neighborhood.  For the youngest sister, though, reading didn’t come easy.  She would get frustrated sounding out words (“What does a b sound like?” the middle sister would ask impatiently, when forced to listen to her practice.  “Bu-bu-bu, a, a, a, du-du-du . . .”).  Little sister was (is) a smart cookie and reads perfectly well now, but it was never her favorite thing to do.  Her house is crammed with everything except bookshelves.  She’s just not a reader.

Reading itself is not a “natural learning process” for most children; it has to be taught, and basic phonics is probably the best way to do it for most.  But the break-it-down-in-little-bitty-learning units doesn’t work for every child.  The “whole-language” approach to reading, which used to be called look-say and is probably called something else now, had one idea right: reading is an integrated process involving vision, brain circuits, emotion, and physical and mental readiness.  And it’s a mystery: how does anyone grasp this highly complex system of combining and recombining 26 symbols into the entire western canon?  It’s much more than just translating symbols: it’s also catching inferences and making connections and understanding figures of speech and gaining a sense of plot and character development, all of which comes with practice and can’t be front-loaded: readers will understand the subtleties of reading only after they’ve read.  A lot.

Surveys indicate that reading for pleasure is a declining activity, for lots of reasons.   but teachers and parents can help kill it off, if we’re not careful.  For instance, we can

1. Make everyone in the class read the same book.  As much as I love it when a school district buys copies of The Middle of Somewhere or Somebody on This Bus Is Going to be Famous for an entire class, I know that not every student is going to love reading it.  (Even though they’re both lots of fun!*) Book discussions are valuable, but only if the participants have some interest in the book.  A better way to generate book discussions is to allow free-range reading, as much as possible.  Donalyn Miller, The Book Whisperer, simply stocked her sixth-grade classroom with books to appeal to a broad range of reading tastes and levels, and tried to set aside an hour a day for the students to read whatever they liked.  (By the end of each school year, she claims, every one of her student had found lots to like.)  Their enthusiastic recommendations to other kids developed impromptu discussion groups on the fly.

2. Hand out work sheets at the end of every chapter.  Really?? Every chapter?  When the kids are dying to find out what’s behind the door or what happened after Danny accidentally ran into the principle with his go-cart?  The author wants them to turn the page.  The kids want to turn the page.  Let them turn the page.

3. Make the study of a book all about how the author writes the book, not what the book is actually about.  If a young reader makes it all the way to college (or senior year honors English), that’s the time to do literary analysis.   As mentioned above, analysis can’t be front-loaded: it’s too much to ask a young reader to write character sketches when they don’t have a firm grasp of “character,” or outline a plot while they’re still gaining a sense of plot.  It’s like grammar: you learn to use nouns and verbs fluently long before you know what they are.

4. Cut money for the library budget.  See #2 above.  Students will not learn how to pick up and browse a book if they have no books to pick up.

5. Cut classroom reading time in order to schedule a test.   And another test.  And another test.  I know, if the district mandates a certain number of tests, you don’t have much choice.  But maybe something else could be cut to allow for reading time.  We’ll never know how much education is caught rather than taught, and how much a student subliminally learns about reading (and much else) just by doing it.  This takes time.  For reading’s sake and for the child’s, do whatever you can to give them time.

6. Talk it up every chance you get.  Look, I’m a reader.  And even I get fed up with rhapsodies about being swept away by a story or “saved” by a book.  It happens, but not to everybody.  Overselling can make the non-reader feel like they’re seriously missing out if they don’t hop aboard the good ship There Is No Frigate Like a Book and let it carry them to worlds unknown.  For some kids, all you need to do is help them find a book or story (or subject, if they’re more inclined to nonfiction) that they enjoy.  Transcendence will come from some other source for them.  And that’s perfectly okay.


*Hey, don’t take my word for it.  Here’s what VOYA says: “Cheaney’s narrative style is dynamic and lively. She clearly has high expectations of her audience, creating a middle-grade reader with both substance and complexity that is also truly fun.”


Teacher’s Lounge: George Washington . . . and YOU!

February 20, 2015

Yes, I know . . . we already celebrated President’s Day.  But when I was a kid, and not the crabby curmudgeon I am today, we celebrated Washington’s Birthday when it was really, you know, Washington’s Birthday.  If there are any teachers out there who would like to at least acknowledge the Father of His Country on a close approximation of his birthday (it’s Feb. 22), here’s an interesting way to do it while at the same time getting in a little education.  First of all, get a copy of this picture, or sit the kiddoes down in front of their computer screens and post it up.  Try to get a clear full-screen view:


Yes, you’ve seen it: the object of many a parody.  But even though we’re too sophisticated to be moved by such obviously heroic scenes, it’s still a awesome painting in all kinds of ways.  The original canvas is 21’4″ by 12’5″ (you read that right) and was painted by Emmanuel Leutze in Dusseldorf, Germany.  Leutze has come from Germany to America at the age of nine, then moved back to Germany where he opened a successful art school and waylaid any Americans who passed through to model for him, especially when he started his great canvas of Washington.  The local Germans, he felt, were too short.  Worthington Whittredge, an American admirer of Leutze, came by to visit when the artist was first sketching out his canvas, and he became the model for Washington: “Spy glass in one hand and the other on my knee, I stood and was nearly dead when the operation was over.”  He was standing because Leutze wanted him standing to suit the composition of the picture, even though Washington almost certainly sat down during the actual crossing, for obvious reasons.

Anyway, tell your students the story of that Christmas Eve in 1776 that changed the fortunes of America–here’s an account from the Mt. Vernon website, and another with more background and an eyewitness account, and here’s one for kids.   Once they have the story straight, ask your students to study the paining and choose one man in the boat to write about (decide for yourself whether to eliminate Washington–or you can be Washington.  That way you can insure the Father of Our Country gets some respect!)  They’re going to write a paragraph about that night from their chosen character’s point of view, following these guidelines:

  • Write what someone says.
  • Include two sounds and one smell (hint: there animals present, and people didn’t take baths much back then).
  • Tell what you’re looking at, including color, texture, and/or motion.
  • Tell what you’re doing.
  • Tell how you feel, without using the words “I feel.” Remember, it’s Christmas Eve!

After everybody is done, choose some students to represent each character in the boat and ask them to arrange themselves in imitation of the painting (life-sized vignette, anyone?).  Then ask them to read their accounts aloud  or choose a good reader to read all the accounts, going from left to right.

Does anybody want to share???


Teachers’ Lounge: More Rabbit Tales

February 13, 2015

Two weeks ago we looked at ways to tweak a narrative in order to provoke a particular response in the reader.  (Actually it wasn’t tweaking so much as taking the narrative by the ears and wrestling it to the ground.)  If you were here in the Teachers’ Lounge you might recall me wondering aloud how the first few paragraphs of The Tale of Peter Rabbit would sound if Beatrix Potter were writing an action-packed adventure tale . . . or a cautionary tale . . . or a humorous romp.Battle-Bunny

(I would try a combat Rabbit, but Jon Schieszka and Mac Barnett beat me to it: )

So anyway, here’s what I came up with.

The call of ADVENTURE:

Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits.  Their names: Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter.  Peter marched to the beat of his own drum.  But you’ll see that.

They lived all crammed up together with their Mother in a sandbank, in a house that made Peter feel like he was suffocating.  The root of a very big fir tree bumped his noggin every morning when he jumped out of bed.

“Now, my dears,” said old Mrs. Rabbit one brisk and sunny morning, “you may go into the fields or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden – your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.”  She glared at Peter when she said this, but her words sounded more like a challenge to him.

“Now run along, and don’t get into mischief. I am going out.”

Peter’s ears tingled–freedom!

The weight of a MORAL:

Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names were: Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter.  Please pay special attention to Peter.

They lived with their widowed Mother in a fine home that their father had dug out of a sandbank, safely situated underneath the root of a very big fir tree.

One morning Mrs. Rabbit noticed there was nothing for breakfast–who had nibbled away the parsley buns?  She had an idea, but was loath to accuse without proof.  So it was off to the market: “Now, my dears,” she said briskly, “you may go into the fields or down the lane while I’m gone, but don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden – Remember what happened to your poor Father?”  Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail nodded solemnly, but Peter snickered behind his paw.  Mrs. Rabbit sighed.  What was this black sheep of the family coming to?

“Now run along, and don’t get into mischief. I am going out.”

Peter’s ears twitched: freedom!

Reaching (maybe too far) for LAUGHS:

Once upon a time—or maybe it was just yesterday; I’m fuzzy on the details–there were four little Rabbits, and their names were: Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter.  (Somebody might have been hitting the blackberry wine a little too hard when they were handing out the names.)

They lived with their poor-but-honest Mother in a sandbank, underneath the root of a poor-but-honest—and very big–fir tree.

“Now, my dears,” said old Mrs. Rabbit one morning, as she absent-mindedly tied a sausage on top of her head, “you may go into the fields or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden – your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.”

“Mom,” remarked Peter, “did you know you had a sausage tied on top of your head?”

Mrs. Rabbit started, darting a paw to the incongruous object.  “Goodness me!  Why didn’t you say so?”

“I just did,” sighed Peter. 

“Never mind, then,” she sniffed.  “Now run along, and don’t get into mischief. I am going out.”

Other genres may come to mind: romance? spy thriller? combat drama?  Many possibilities, and many more words to work with.

101 Ways to Say “I Love You”

February 6, 2015
  1. Just say it: “I. Love. You.”love-you
  2. Say it with flowers, chocolates, or Hallmark.
  3. Say it with poetry.

(#4 – #101: all the different ways you can say it with poetry–guess what this post is about!)

Poetry has been around as long as language has–in fact, it’s the world’s oldest literary form.  Of all the poetry that’s ever been written, a significant percentage is love poems.  Of all the poetry written by amateurs and song writers, a significant majority is love poems.

Love is a great thing–some people even think it makes the world go ’round.  But love is also a mighty big word, referring to feelings expressed by and for God, parents, husbands and wives, teenage crushes, a boy to his dog, a girl to her horse, a patriot to his country,  Expressions of love can be grand and glorious, so much so that they lose focus.  A very famous example is Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s tribute to her husband Robert (himself a poet of renown):

How to I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breath and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace . . .

Here’s a more recent example–one of Petulah Clark’s greatest hits (trust me, she was very big in the sixties):

 My love is warmer than the warmest sunshine

            Softer than a sigh;

My love is deeper than the deepest ocean,

            Wider than the sky.

 And so on.  The problem with these grand expressions is that sometimes they can sound like “just words.”  Love is a great thing, but usually expressed in little ways.  If my love never gets the chance to sacrifice his life for me, will he at least take out the trash twice a week?

The key to writing effective love poems is the same key to writing effective anything: BE SPECIFIC!  Every love relationship shares some common characteristic: affection for the other person, wanting the best for him or her, sharing problems and joys.  But since everybody is different, every relationship has its own personality, private jokes, small irritations, individual quirks.

So here’s the deal: Valentine’s Day is coming, and the retail community is trying to make you feel guilty.  Unless you buy flowers, candy or cards–at the very least–or a spa vacation or cruise at the most, how will your beloved know what’s really in your heart?  It’s an obvious attempt to calculate affection by how much money you spend, but you don’t have to fall for it!  Just write a poem.  It’s personal, heartfelt, unique, and doesn’t cost a thing.  (Even though it wouldn’t hurt to pony up for chocolate.)

That is, doesn’t cost a thing but agony as you start sweating out what to say and how to say it.  But there’s no need to sweat.  Here’s your problem: love is such a huge subject it’s hard to get a grip on it.  The solution is, you start with small things and everyday details.  Here are three ways you might do it, with “poem starters” included.  (Thanks to Jack Prelutsky, whose book Read a Rhyme, Write a Rhyme furnished the idea of poem starters.)

  1. Focus on the object of your love, using details.

Don’t think of qualities, like loyalty or punctuality (often the qualities that draw us to our spouse is the very thing that irritates us later!).  Think little things, small kindnesses, helpful words.  Here’s a simple poem start for kids, called “Because.”

Because you stay up with me when I’m sick;

Because you set limits and make them stick;

Because you make little sacrifices, day by day

   to provide what I need and teach me God’s way . . .

Or, in a more romantic vein for grownups:

Because of the way you comb your hair,

Because of that sway when you walk down stairs . . .

End the poem with a short couplet (two rhyming lines) that sum it up, such as

Because you’re you

I’m stuck like glue!

(Couplets, incidentally, are the easiest rhyme scheme for beginning poets.)

  1. Focus on how your love affects you.

Here’s one for those people who don’t like to go all mushy.  Imagine the object of your poem as an inanimate object (several objects, actually), and then say what you would do in response.  For instance:

If you were a basketball I’d dribble you;

If you were a cookie, I’d nibble you.

If you were a pizza, I’d savor you;

If you were a sore foot, I’d favor you . . .

And so on, for as long as your imagination holds out.  End with a summing-up couplet beginning

Since you’re none of those things, then here’s what I’ll do:


(And surely you can think of a final line, maybe with “you” at the end?  Or blue, few, dew, grew, new, slew, too, true, view, or hullabaloo?)

  1. Say it with flowers.

Just not the kind you order from FTD.  Write a poem titled “My Bouquet,” or something a little less sappy, in which every line is built on a flower.  The two previous poems depended on rhyme for their effect, but this one uses alliteration–that is, using the same first letter or sound for significant words in the poem.  For example:

Here’s a daisy for that day

   you dropped everything to help with my budget report.

Here’s an iris for the eyes

   that smile when they see me all dressed up.

Here’s wisteria for the way


 Here’s a pansy for the praise


Here’s ______________ for the ___________


You get the idea.  In case you’re not up on botany, here are some other flowers that might provide alliterative inspiration: violet, dahlia, lily, rose, hibiscus, geranium, hollyhock, clematis, sweet pea, honeysuckle, snapdragon, gladiola, black-eyed susan, peony, primrose, columbine, orchid, and phlox.  Just kidding about the last one–if ever a name does NOT belong in poem, “phlox” is it.  You may “tie up” the bouquet with a rhyming couplet, or a line about how these flowers will never fade.  And chances are they won’t.  Your poem may never make it to a poetry anthology, but it’s very unlikely that the recipient will throw it away.

That doesn’t look so hard, does it?  Now, go make someone happy.