Category Archives: Teaching

Best art project ever…

Well, ok, maybe it’s not the *best* art project ever (how could I pick a favorite, really?), but today’s process art project was phenomenally fun, and also a great example of the cool things that you can do with art in a preschool storytime.

I’ve never been a fan of craft projects as part of storytime, since it pains me to limit the imagination of those beautiful four and five year old minds: one predetermined “right” final product teaches kids early on that there is a right way and wrong way with art.  How dismally depressing for the child who struggles to achieve the perfect final result while others are creating exactly what the teacher/librarian/adult prescribed.  And how limiting for those who are more dextrous, those who have the fine motor skills to really push their artistic bounds.

And so I’ve gone with process art projects, which have been incredibly fun and satisfying for everyone, adults and kids.  [Thanks, as usual, to Mary Ann Kohl and her book Preschool Art for providing the projects and the inspiration.]  Today we went with more of a group project than usual and made salad spinner art – page 217 in Kohl’s book – and I have to admit I was a little worried before storytime by how this project would work.  I never know exactly how many kids will be at the preschool storytime (today we had five), and it can be hard for kids of this age to work together and have patience while everyone has a turn creating.  But I also felt that it was important to try, and so we all shared one salad spinner to make our art.

It was fantastic.  Truly fantastic.  All five kids were great about taking turns, and everyone was fully involved in the process of each piece of art.  How would those two colors work put next to each other like that?  How would the super fast turning of the salad spinner by the child in charge affect the end result?  What about the child who chose to turn it slowly – would the paint look different than the super fast turning?  And, best of all, the questions about why the paint was doing what it was doing – moving us into a gentle discussion of force and motion.

It was so much fun, in fact, that even the adults were anxious to take a turn after the kids were finished.  One adult discovered the magic of turning the spinner first one way, then the next, which gave a completely different look to the paint on the paper.  Which then drove some of the kids to ask to make just one more, please, in which they experimented with alternating rotation and also with more bold placement of color on the page.  So we talked not just about art, but also about science and color mixing (I got out the color paddles from the STEM kit) and we also learned how to use an eye dropper.*

We kept at it for a full forty-five minutes, and I think many of the families will be going home and finding an old salad spinner to experiment with on their own.  It was awesome.

*  N.B.:  the eye droppers were the one change I made from Kohl’s directions in the book; we have eye droppers on hand, and I thought it would be cool to introduce the kids to using them.  And it worked!

Tooting my own horn

One of my storytime regulars said the nicest things to me today – so nice that I just had to share them, though I know it comes close to blatant self-promotion…

This storytime regular (who drives in from another town) has been coming to my storytimes for a few years now, first with just her oldest son, then with both of her sons once the younger was born.  Their family has come to my Mother Goose on the Loose storytimes for a long time, and then the oldest son grew older and they also started coming to my Storytime for 2’s & 3’s.  And today they tried out my Art & Stories for 4’s & 5’s for the first time.  As the kids in the group settled in to their art project, this mom came up to me and said, “Abby, you are phenomenal.  You’re good with all the ages – some people are only good with one age, but you’re good with them all.  You’re phenomenal.”  She went on to say some other really nice things, all of which made me feel appreciated and understood in a way that I haven’t in a long while.

And then later we were chatting again as I rinsed out paint-filled Chobani containers and messy paintbrushes.  I mentioned that my mother had been a teacher, and that she had always wanted me to be a teacher, too, grooming me from an early age; Mom even brought me with her to work when she was a preschool teacher and I was ten or eleven, putting me to work with the kids and talking me through how to work with them.  “The sad thing is,” I said, “my mother never lived to see me in this job.  Which is a shame.”  And this lovely storytime regular said to me – bringing tears to my eyes then and now – “I bet your mom knows exactly what you’re doing, and that she’s watching and smiling down on you.”  And then she went on to say, “It’s definitely in your blood, teaching.  You’re a teacher-librarian, that’s what you are.”

So here I am tooting my own horn, but also expressing gratitude to someone who did what we all should do more often, but don’t: telling another person that you value and appreciate them.  It’s such a great feeling to know that you’re making a difference in the world, because I know that there are many days that go by where I’m not sure if what I’m doing is having any impact.  Today, happily, is not one of those days.  Today I am reassured that what I do every day is worth doing.  Thank you!!!

A road not taken

All of us have things that we could have pursued in life, but haven’t – those roads not taken.  Yesterday I was reminded of one of mine…

Quite unexpectedly, I ran into the mother of one of my former students yesterday, and our conversation made my week (perhaps even month).  I recognized her immediately – especially since I had the advantage of context, as she was working the job where I met her – but it took her a few seconds to realize who I was.  Her face literally lit up as she figured out that it was me, and she said, “Abby!!!!!!” with a huge smile.  And then she started talking about how key I was to her son’s success in life, and that they frequently think of me and are thankful for what I did for him, for, as she put it, I started the ball rolling for her son’s education.

I tutored her son when he was in kindergarten and first grade, and he was the most dyslexic student I ever worked with.  Very sweet, and very, very smart, but very dyslexic, and his school system was not providing anything close to what he needed.  I suspect that that school system had never had a child quite like him, and simply didn’t know how to help him.  My role in working with this student was primarily to get his confidence back, help him with sound recognition, and, when his mother asked me in desperation if her son should attend a school that specializes in dyslexia, to give his parents the name and number of an advocate.  That advocate managed to get this boy into the Landmark School, with the town paying the bill, and the difference in the boy was almost immediate.  He had reached the point where school was unbearable for him, but after he started at Landmark I remember his mother telling me that suddenly he was the first one in the family to wake up in the morning, and that he would get dressed and ready for school and wait impatiently for his family to drive him there.

And I found out yesterday that now he is finishing his junior year in highschool; he owns and operates his own landscaping business; he can read fluently; he plans on attending a two year college; and that he wants to have a career as a tugboat captain.  He is thriving, and his mother very kindly gave me a lot of credit for his success, since I was the first one to recognize the extent of his needs and I helped her find the experts to get him where he needed to be.

This isn’t the first time a parent (or child) has credited me with such grand things, and yesterday I once again worried whether I made the right decision seven or so years ago when I decided to lose my $100 deposit at Simmons and not enroll as a student in the two degree programs in which I had been accepted:  to get my master’s in special education and my education specialist degree in language and literacy.  Everything had been signed and sealed for me to get those degrees and then pursue a career as a reading specialist, but each morning as I got ready for work I’d cry my eyes out and say to myself, “But I want to be a children’s librarian!!!”  And so that’s what I did – I went with the career path that felt right to me.

But was it the right path?  Do I as a children’s librarian have as much potential to positively and profoundly affect kids’ lives as I would as a reading specialist?  I’m not sure.  In going down the path that I knew would make me happy, did I lessen the positive impact that I could make on the world?  Or, as I’ve often told myself, would the fact that being a reading specialist wouldn’t make me happy mean that I ultimately wouldn’t be as good at that job and thus not as effective?  I’ll never definitively know the answers to those questions.  But I do know that it was lovely to see that mother yesterday and to hear how well her almost-grown son is doing, all these years after I knew him.

Three quick things

Thing number 1:  I really enjoyed Silverfin by Charlie Higson.  I had expected it to be purely an action story, but Higson takes the time to establish the character of James Bond at age 13.  He also gives us a good sense of what it would have been like to be a student at Eton in the 1930’s.  And then, of course, the story moves away from Eton and into some good fun Bondish action.  Definitely a good book for any of you James Bond fans.

Thing number two:  yesterday’s Book Gobblers program was interesting for me.  Usually we have fourth and fifth graders who attend this read aloud program for older kids, and they have really enjoyed hearing selections from Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories.  Given that past history, yesterday I decided that I would read “The Cat That Walked By Himself” to them.  But there was a little change in demographics yesterday, with mostly second graders attending.  They mostly liked the story, but they didn’t love Kipling’s language like the older kids have; the older kids have literally sat in rapt attention, almost devouring Kipling’s words as I read them.  But the younger ones looked slightly puzzled at times.  The second story I read them, though, was a huge hit:  Ghost Hands by T.A. Barron.  As you may remember, T.A. Barron spent the early years of his life in the town in which I work, so I always love sharing his books with kids at my programs.  And Ghost Hands, which provides an imagined reason for paintings of hands in a real cave in Patagonia, really grabbed their attention – total focus from the group as I read, and lots of great questions and discussion after the story was done.  I’ll definitely be reading this book to kids at the school when I do summer reading visits in June.

Thing number 3:  Last but very definitely not least, the third grade book group had an exciting and wonderful meeting on Monday as we had a Skype visit with author Sara Pennypacker.  I will be writing a full post on this visit over the weekend to do it full justice, but wanted to mention it here in brief to whet your appetite.  Ms. Pennypacker is an incredibly generous, kind, open, and engaging speaker, and I believe that this Skype visit was a really transformative moment for several of the kids in the group.  More on this visit in a day or two…and now it’s time to get ready for work!

Wednesday was another day

So Monday’s storytime was a bit rough…but then I did the exact same storytime lesson plan on Wednesday, with a group of similar composition (i.e., ages and number of children), and it went very well.  Though the two stories I read were long, this group was able to stay attentive; though there are a fair number of newbies in the group, the group dynamic was focused for most of the twenty minutes.  This was good, since it reassured me that I’m not crazy and this lesson plan on hats can be used successfully with this group, but it also made me think that I should have changed tactics a bit more midway through the Monday storytime.  If I had stopped and deliberately encouraged everyone to stick it out, rather than keep rolling as if there weren’t a problem, if I had addressed the unraveling of the group directly, then perhaps the entire storytime could have been resurrected.  I did think about doing this, but I didn’t want any one parent to feel self-conscious or singled out, so I decided to just keep on going.

What is the best solution?  Stop and talk about the meltdown when it’s happening, or keep going and give the parents and caregivers time and freedom to address inattention without feeling singled out?  The “keep going” option has always, always worked for me before…but perhaps there are just times when it’s not the way to go.

School visits

I had a fabulous time last week visiting classes at the elementary school.  As the week went on, the visits got better and better, culminating in the terrific last day where I actually got to read to the kids in their classrooms (the school library was being used for another purpose).

I LOVE being a children’s librarian, but visiting those classes made me think (not for the first time in my life) that I would also love to be a classroom teacher at the elementary level.  To spend a whole year, day in and day out, with the same group of kids, really getting to know them and teach them and see them progress intellectually and socially – it’s got to be a cool feeling.  Hard work, for sure, but also rewarding work. 

But back to my visits.  I chose a bunch of newer books to read to the kids this year, and a lot of them were very well-received.  This year’s favorites include: 

For the 1st graders:  I Lost My Bear written and illustrated by Jules Feiffer.  Ok, so this isn’t a “new” book, but it’s a fantastic readaloud, and most of the kids had never heard it before. Then Help! A Story of Friendship written and illustrated by Holly Keller.  An oops on my part worked out just fine – I remembered that this story was a hit last year, so I brought it out again this year.  What I didn’t remember is that I read it to the Kindergarteners last year, and to the first graders this year – in other words, I read it a second time to the same kids.  But it was actually ok, and the kids loved it just as much this time as they did last time.  Then, the last story for the 1st graders was Lissy’s Friends written and illustrated by Grace Lin.  I really love this story, as do the kids, and it gave me a chance to show off one of our freshly-signed Grace Lin books.

For the 2nd graders:  Cupcake: A Journey to Special written and illustrated by Charise Mericle Harper.  Such a fun story – and great for 2nd graders, because they could slap their foreheads in frustration as the candle and the cupcake totally miss the obvious.  Then we read Not Last Night, But the Night Before by Colin McNaughton, illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark.  At first the kids thought it was too young for them, then they’d realize the subtle humor and the cameo appearances of fairytale characters, and then they’d smile and laugh and enjoy it.  Cool book, just right for 2nd grade.  And then we read Bad Bears Go Visiting by Daniel Pinkwater, illustrated by Jill Pinkwater.  This is a fun book, good n’ silly, and we all enjoyed it.  I just have one beef with this book:  Pinkwater overuses the word “says” in his dialogue, which isn’t too noxious on paper, but gets pretty tedious when reading out loud.  It’s weird, too, since it doesn’t go with the variety of the rest of Pinkwater’s writing.  Maybe he did it intentionally, but that doesn’t make me enjoy reading “says” out loud fifteen million times…

For the 3rd graders:  Timothy and the Strong Pajamas written and illustrated by Viviane Schwarz.  I LOVE this book, and the kids do, too.  It’s wise to start off with this book and end with quieter books, I’ve found, because the kids get pretty riled up by this story (a good thing, if you ask me).  Mid-way through the book, I usually mention that Monkey reminds me a bit of Yoda, and the kids go “Oh, yeah!!!!!”  Another favorite for the 3rd graders was Why Epossumondas Has No Hair On His Tail by Coleen Salley and illustrated by Janet Stevens.  The kids usually started off skeptical about this book (obviously thinking it was too young for them), then were transfixed by the end.  Then, if there was time, I also read Too Many Fairies: A Celtic Tale by Margaret Read MacDonald and illustrated by Susan Mitchell.  I love MacDonald’s books, but have to admit this is not my favorite of her works.  It’s ok, though, and the kids enjoyed it pretty well.

For the 4th graders:  A Giraffe Goes to Paris by Mary Tavener Holmes and John Harris, illustrated by John Cannell.  The kids loved that this was a true story, and it definitely kept those mature almost-fifth grade minds fully engaged.  They also loved Princess Hyacinth: The Surprising Story of a Girl Who Floated by Florence Parry Heide, illustrated by Lane Smith, which is just silly enough and mentions Royal Underwear just enough for this age group.  And, on Friday, I also read to them What Really Happened to Humpty: From the Files of a Hardboiled Detective by Jeanie Franz Ransom, illustrated by Stephen Axelsen.  I had held off on this book earlier in the week, because I thought perhaps it wouldn’t resonate with the kids, that they wouldn’t “get” the detective jargon, but in fact they loved it and laughed at all the sly allusions to fairy tales.  A big hit!

I didn’t get to see the 5th graders this year, sadly, because their schedules are too tight, and I’ll be seeing one of the Kindergarten classes next week (hopefully the other three Kindergarten classes too, we’ll see).  It’s been a lot of fun, and we’ve read a bunch of awesome books together.

Preschool Storytime & Circle Weave

Yesterday was an art week for the preschool storytime, and for our project I chose “Circle Weave” from MaryAnn Kohl’s book Preschool Art, my favorite resource for great art ideas for ages four to seven.

Before the project, though, I read three books to the kids.  I realize I’ve been remiss lately and haven’t been reporting on what books have been a hit in storytime, so here is a brief rundown on the books I used yesterday and the reactions of the kids to each book:

First up was Scaredy Squirrel at Night by Melanie Watt.  I broke the cardinal rule of storytimes, and didn’t preview this book before I read it aloud.  Big mistake. Though cute, this book doesn’t lend itself well to a storytime read aloud (which I should have remembered from reading the first two Scaredy Squirrel books to storytimes in the past).  Too many little details in little pictures – the kids had a tough time seeing what was going on in the pictures and also understanding the story line.  I’d still recommend this book, but for a lap sit reading with one or two children; in a lap sit, kids would be able to really study the pictures and also ask questions about what is happening in the story.

The kids were an exceptionally patient, sweet group, though, and lasted well through the first story, even though they weren’t totally engaged.  Next up:  Rhyming Dust Bunnies by Jan Thomas.  I love Thomas’s illustrations, and I love the all-out goofiness of the storyline: four dust bunnies finding rhyming words – all except Bob, who keeps saying things that don’t rhyme, like “Look out!”  Bob, of course, is the voice of reason, trying to warn his fellow dust bunnies that there is a broom and a vacuum cleaner after them.  I thought the kids would find this situation funny, but in fact several were deeply disturbed (and I do mean deeply disturbed) that the dust bunnies were being harmed.  I tried to explain that dust bunnies are just bunches of fluffy dirt that we all clean up, but my explanation was met with furrowed, worried brows.

After that flop, I was ready to move right on to the art project, but H. pointed out that I still had one book left to read.  So we read Potato Joe by Keith Baker, a book that I had put in my preschool storytime pile a couple of weeks ago.  I don’t know what I was thinking.  The book is just too young for this crowd, and though they were patient with it, and counted the potatoes aloud with me, they were clearly bored by it.  I’m not condemning this book, though; it would be an excellent choice for my toddler storytime, and I will definitely use it for that group in the future.

On to “Circle Weave.”  For this project, I pre-cut a couple of dozen five inch diameter circles from poster board of various colors.  I also pre-cut two foot lengths of yarn; I had bought yarn in five different colors, two of which are cool multi-color skeins of varying shades.  Before embarking on the project, I introduced it to the kids by showing them the pile of poster board circles.  Then I showed them a circle with six small triangular slits cut around the edge (see Kohl’s book for an illustration and details on how to do this).  We talked about how the circle with the slits was different from the other circles, and I told the kids that their first assignment was to cut their own slits.

This proved to be way too much of a challenge for the kids.  I had incorrectly assumed that parents would come in to the room to help out with the slit cutting, but many of the adults had very young children they needed to watch and thus were unable to assist.  Luckily, none of the kids had a meltdown when they struggled with cutting, and luckily, I was able to quickly cut slits in stacks of circles.  But there were ten dicey minutes at the start of this project where I thought for sure it would be an absolute failure.  All of the kids were frustrated with the cutting, some of the kids were having a really tough time with taping the ends of yarn to the back of their circle (one boy pulled off two feet of scotch tape and looked up at me with puzzled, desperate eyes), and one little boy totally didn’t understand that we only need to use one piece of yarn at a time.

But suddenly the tide turned, and everyone started to have fun.  Some kids did straight weaving, lacing the yarn in and out of the slits, but other kids got incredibly creative.  We had necklaces, earrings, bracelets, and paper dogs being walked on yarn leashes.  We had letters woven on to the circles.  Each child kept asking for another circle, please, and each child made at least five woven circles.  One little boy kept leaving the room – I thought he was bored and leaving, but he was actually delivering woven circles to his mother, then he’d come back to make another.  The kids kept at this project for a full half hour, and only stopped when their parents came in to say it was time to go.

This art project was a very good lesson for me as a teacher/facilitator: don’t give up if you think the project isn’t working.  Have patience, let it evolve, let the children be challenged for a bit, and allow them to come up with their own solutions to the difficult task given to them.  If you give the kids the space and freedom to work, they will end up surprising you with their creativity and artistic joy.  And then everyone leaves happy: teacher, children, and parents.

Moving on

My tutoring gig ended for the school year (and most likely for good) on Wednesday, and school ends today, so I’m moving on to the next phase of my year:  summer reading.  Our first event is tonight – a movie night, we’re showing Bolt – and the summer reading kickoff event is scheduled for next Tuesday, though I’m guessing that it will be rained out and we’ll have to use a rain date.

At any rate, after the marathon of seven tutoring lessons in ten days, now I feel like I can breathe again.  As much as I loved working with my student, I am tired tired tired of tutoring.  It’s just too much intensity and focus on top of my full-time job which also demands intensity and focus.  I’m not quite sure how Jim and I will manage without that extra money, but sometimes, truly, the money isn’t worth the toll on the body and mind.  Last Thursday I came down with another brutal head cold, which I’ve passed on to Jim, and I’m sure that my long days of regular work and tutoring contributed to my getting sick.  (Though the main reason has to be the cute kindergartener who accidentally sprayed spit on my lower lip as he responded enthusiastically to the story I read to his class on Tuesday of last week…)  And my mind is tired, too. 

A couple of weeks from now, sans tutoring, I’m sure I’ll be my usual energetic self – hopefully healthy, too – and no doubt I’ll start to think wistfully of tutoring come September.  When that happens, please remind me that I’ve retired from tutoring in order to get my life back.  I know I’ll need that reminder.

Doubtful this week…

I’m afraid I won’t be posting much this week (week of June 14), due to extreme busy-ness.  This afternoon I’m making the felt pieces for tomorrow’s storytime; the theme is “Mealtimes,” and I’m currently debating whether to make pieces for Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar or if I should go with the lesser known but very cute Pizza Kittens by Charlotte Voake.  Either way, it will take me a good amount of time to make the feltboard story for tomorrow, and I won’t have time today to write a week’s worth of blog entries ahead of time, which is what I would normally do (and yesterday was one of my Saturdays to work at the library).

And this coming week promises to be, shall we say, a bit killer.  Quite a few classroom visits are scheduled for this week, which are a huge amount of fun but also – at times – a bit more tiring than my usual routine at work.  And I’m scheduled to work this coming Saturday, culminating in a B.J.’s shopping trip for Ice Cream Social supplies with Lisa (Lisa belongs to B.J.’s and I don’t.)  But more importantly, my almost-graduated tutoring student and I are fitting in four lessons this week in a desperate attempt to meet our semester total.  Josie missed three lessons in the last few weeks due to school and athletic commitments, and I missed two lessons due to that nasty illness a few weeks back.  Which means that we’re fitting in five extra sessions before school is out on the 26th.  Lesson learned here: though semester pre-payments are nice for tutoring clients, they can also cause problems that are hard to solve.  We should have figured out a way to buffer in some absences when we did this semester’s schedule back in January.  Too late now, though.  And the week of the 22nd will be similarly tight, as we fit in three lessons on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights.

At any rate, know that I’ll be posting again as soon as humanly possible.  Until then, check out some of my new favorite books:  Deeper by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams and The Ruby in the Smoke and its sequels by Philip Pullman.

Tutoring update

It occurred to me that I haven’t written anything recently about my tutoring student, J.

J. is now almost at the end of the Wilson Reading System Step 12, and still has a terrific, upbeat, motivated attitude.  She’s a pleasure to teach, and we’ve been having a great time starting to analyze the etymology of words (something we’ll start on in earnest in a week or two).  She’s become incredibly fluent in looking words up in the dictionary, a skill that I feel is undertaught in schools these days.  She also has developed an even keener curiosity about word origins that she used to have, which is saying something. 

There’s something very special about being able to take a student all the way through the Wilson Reading System.  My students at the elementary school only got to work with me through Wilson Step 9, which teaches the final syllable type, the vowel-team (or vowel digraph and vowel diphthong) syllable.  Standard school practice has decided that Steps 10, 11, and 12 are superfluous, since they cover very advanced concepts that are infrequently used by a typical elementary school student.

J. is only the third student that I’ve been able to teach through Step 12 (ironically, her older brother was the first, and my boss at the elementary school allowed me to keep working with him past Step 9), and I find myself discovering amazing things about our language along with her.  Words and phonology are incredibly cool things, and I love that I get to teach and learn and explore them.  I can’t wait for our detailed study of Latin and Greek roots, prefixes, and suffixes, coming in the next few weeks.