Saturday, April 30, 2011

And now for Ancient Rome

Well after hip hop there were the Ancient Rome presentations.  The kids began these about three weeks ago but were rather interrupted with the Easter long weekend, a field trip to Granville Island to see a play set in Ancient Egypt, that they of course really enjoyed, and all that hip hopping.  Don't ask about science and French kept getting delayed...
The presentations again turned out well and kids learned on their own to use prezi, not that Alanna, my faithful teacher librarian or I have mastered it.  I am going to attach some of their presentations and maybe even a video.  We will see how that works out.
One form of presentation they enjoy are online posters called Glogsters.  These are neat and they even can embed video.  Here is a sample of Jane and Anjana's.

Steven and Gaven used Prezi and here is a sample of their presentation.  If you want to see this in full screen just go to where it says more.  Another Prezi was done by Sadie and Simran.  They also did a neat cartoon (those bath houses kind of fascinated the kids)  using a program called Bitstrips.

Again we had some neat models.  Van, this time built a ship and even used pine, a wood that the Romans used.  

What impresses Alanna and me is how far they have come in terms of quality of presentations and their use of technology in particular.  Also this requires not only research skills but such skills as  choosing the right video clips,  and really making the information their own.  I laughed when students noticed that one group had Julius Caesar dying ten years earlier than another group.  Earlier while preparing the projects their was a spirited argument about who was the first emperor, and yes, it was Augustus, and not Julius Caesar.  I honestly don't think they see it as work and there are no complaints about doing these projects, and I can have quite a few critics in my class.  Steven was shocked to hear that I had been a spelling judge for a TV program, for instance, and questioned why he had to do a scavenger hunt at Granville Island as to its educational value. 

As students were doing their presentations, they were asked to tell what they liked about each presentation and what suggestions they had to improve the presentation.  We went through this at the end.  Usually the students were dead on.  In addition to self evaluations using the criteria I will use, I asked the students as well to look at themselves as learners to see what they are able to do now that they couldn't do at the beginning of the year.  They demonstrated again lots of insight. Now, of course I have to use the criteria to evaluate and decide who is going to be the grand research winner this time.

Me, I am still trying to learn to use my new camera and we will see how successful I was with my videoing attempts.   Well, okay, but I haven't managed to upload my video  here.

I am going to post my last assignment as a page here in case anyone is interested.  And yes, I am already being asked what their next project will be.  I suggested that I needed to do some science!  Now maybe they could just design their own experiments.  Sounds good to me!

Hip Hop and a Sense of Community...

Thursday, our students all performed hip hop-it was a dance performance by the students for the students kindergarten to grade seven.  They had six days of lessons, two classes at a time, with a very amazing teacher.  At first as there didn't seem to be enough room for all the students and the more and more parents who appeared,  I really wondered how insane it would be, but soon I was totally captivated as was the audience.  It was really amazing to see the delight of an entire school.  As I noted earlier I think we all need more laughter and we had plenty Thursday. These are the kinds of experiences that are so fun to be a part of, even if you have done nothing, but it's just fun to be part of the community, and see the delight on the part of parents and students and teachers.  

When I have looked back at great experiences in my life, it was this feeling of being part of a community that gave some of my best times-from working in a crippled children's camp (in French) to a writing course for teachers at the University of New Hampshire to a French Immersion course for teachers in Quebec City. Being part of close knit teaching staffs has also given me that feeling. Growing up first on a farm in a house my grandfather built to living in a small town,  I was born into having a sense of community.  For many of our immigrant families, some community was lost by moving to Canada, and often the school provides an even more important community to these children then perhaps it did to me... The place that really knows them is their school and in a school of 350 it's easy to be known. 
When you talk to retired teachers, most of them don't seem to miss teaching but they often miss the camaraderie of the staffroom.  Having spent four years as a consultant and returning to teaching knowing I would retire  in a couple of years, I think I have been able to have a slightly different perspective, perhaps a bit more appreciative, and not so worried about annoying trivia because honestly I won't have to put up with that much longer.  I can kind of focus on what is most important and what I will miss.  And I have to say an afternoon of an elementary school performing hip hop might sound like some people's nightmare but for me it really was a gift for me as well as for those children and our school community.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

A kids' book read for a change, The Wednesday Wars

I was just reading a book review from The New York Times of The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt  that started by the author, Tanya Lee Stone, wondering if this is a kids book that is perhaps more for adults, particularly those who grew up during the 60's.  I wondered this myself as I began reading.

Sometimes when I have read Newbery Award Winners in particular I have wondered this.  Are these books more for adults than children?  Will kids really like them?  Some books I think take more discussion than others.  Good children's or young adults' book lend themselves to discussion well.  Those have often books that I have chosen for read alouds or class novels.  One of my favorite book, The View from Saturday by E.M. Konigsburg was one that I loved doing as a class novel as it was great for lots of projects, teaching calligraphy, discussion of protection of loggerhead turtles etc.  It's one I have just put out for literature circles and I will be curious how the kids enjoy it.

Back to The Wednesday Wars.  It was a bit of a slow start for me, the book not really grabbing me, although it had been highly recommended by the bookseller at Kidsbooks where I had bought it.  I was reminded of how I had felt this way, as had several of my students, about Maniac Magee initially.  But like Maniac Magee, before I knew it I was spellbound, not wanting to stop reading as the story engaged me.

The book takes place during the Vietnam War, and we also witness the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.  For me I was taken back to watching Walter Cronkite and the CBS news.   I think I still have an aversion to TV news from those years of so much horror.

The book chronicles  the coming of age of one seventh grader through his relationship with the seventh grade teacher who he initially thinks is out to get him, and his own family who strive for perfection but it is as fragile as their living room ceiling that comes crashing down.  He also is helped in this quest of understanding by none other than William Shakespeare. 

Again, I loved the book.  It brought me back to another place and time, one that was quite familiar.  I loved the story telling ability of the author who was able to write the best kind of book, one that is able to turn from comedic to the serious and back again.  The discussion that his teacher has about what is comedy really pertains to the book the author has indeed written.  I thought it was all quite brilliant.

At the end of the New York Times review, in case you don't read it, the author's ten year old son is laughing out loud as he reads The Wednesday Wars and wants to read Shakespeare, proving to her the success of the book for younger readers.  I am curious how my seventh graders will like but I have a feeling they will.  Their lives are quite different from Holling's.  They don't live in New Jersey and in a town where most of the kids are Jewish or Catholic (Holling, being Presbyterian, he alone spends Wednesday afternoon's with his teacher) and they didn't live in the 60's and don't know much about that era, but Holling's struggles are struggles they can relate to as our his dreams, and they will be taken to a different time and place  that they now will understand a little bit more.

Little Bee

What I want so much for my students is to be swept away by a book.  And one way I have to laugh at myself almost any teaching day is saying to a student, "Stop reading and get your work done!"  I really hate to say it and of course one could argue that reading is the true work of the class. 
In our lit circles I quiz the kids," What do you rate this book?  What's the best book you have read so far?"  Most of my class has other books going all the time other than their lit circle books but these are the shared books, the books that we really can share conversations about.  We just meet a few minutes each group once a week but I know the conversations about books are truly ongoing.  There are 17 boys and 12 girls in my class who truly love to read, some more than others but reading is a joyful activity.  And that makes me happy.  Now there are other elements of my teaching that definitely need improvement, teaching is a profession that I don't think anyone can truly master or only a very few and I am not one, but at least my students have grown to love to read. 

Now anyone that reads this blog knows that I love to read but sometimes it can become almost habitual for me.  I can't not read.  I can only remember a couple of times in my life that I didn't finish reading a book in a week.  I was really busy!  Some people need to run I need to read.  And although I always enjoy reading (well usually) there are books that really sweep me away.

Little Bee by Chris Cleave is one of them.  Note that its British title is The Other Hand. Someone recommended it.  I have no idea who but I borrowed it from the library and have just finished reading it.  And I loved it.   A friend and I were talking about main idea yesterday (imagine) and I was saying I often try to say to my class what's the big question?  This novel has the big question, would you cut your finger off to save another person's life, and what if you did and what if you didn't? 

The story is told partly from the point of view of Little Bee who we meet at the beginning of the novel in a holding centre for illegal refugees as she is released with no papers into Great Britain.  She has one phone number and one place she can possibly go, to the home of the people she met briefly on a beach in her native Nigeria.

When I taught grade six, initially Nigeria was one of our country studies, but then it became difficult to get up to date information about it due to problems there and the lack of up to date factual information obtainable.  I had enjoyed learning about Nigeria with my students.  One big issue became of course the oil that lay in the traditional Igbo people's homeland.  Little Bee's village is destroyed in this quest for oil and she is unfortunately a witness when no witnesses are wanted. 

This book covers many serious issues but it is also an incredibly engaging story with engaging characters taking me to a place that I haven't been, and giving us a real personification of the sharp contrast between the North and the South.  Sarah, who gives the other point of view in this story is a journalist, an editor of a popular magazine.  I think many of us can relate to Sarah in that the sadness of the world is really overwhelming and we don't feel very powerful to make real changes, but in many ways, Sarah is fearless.  Honestly, to discuss this book much more will spoil the story and I just have to say, you really must read it.  Please note that Chris Cleave has an excellent website with many more resources about the issues discussed in the book.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Postmistress

I was very proud of myself.  During Spring Break, I wandered into Book Warehouse and saw three books I wanted to buy but instead I jotted down the titles and went to the public library up the street and put a hold on them.  The first that I received was The Postmistress by Sarah Blake.   The book is set during the beginning of the Second World War when the Americans are not yet in the war.  The book focuses on three women, a reporter working with Edward R. Morrow in London, the postmistress in a mythical small town on the western edge of Cape Cod, and the doctor's bride in the same small town. 

It's been interesting reading a book about the First World War to my class, it's really taken me into that time, and this book does this to me as well.  At a certain point in my life it seemed as if I read many books about the Second World War, probably because this was the most important event of my parents' generation so that many books were written by those who had been involved, but not so many now, and this book is written by a young writer who wasn't alive during the time the book is written.

It's a definite page turner as we finally find out what the letter is that the postmistress hasn't delivered.  The characters who include the doctor, a German Jewish refugee and the one man in the town convinced that u-boats will try to approach, are all fascinating, and sympathetic.  I think the author very successfully takes us to this time whether we are in the small Cape Cod town, to London during the Blitz, or sweeping across Europe on a train, as refugees usually unsuccessfully try to escape.  

back at work...

Well I have been back two weeks and now I am home with a cold... It was a busy couple of weeks.  The second day back I had organized a session with Adrienne Gear on Writing Power attended by about 150 teachers as I finished up with report cards and then this week it was the infamous parent teacher student conferences.  I started sneezing during the first one Wednesday afternoon and didn't stop as I finished off at about 8:00 Thursday night.  Friday we had a pro d day but I slept most of the day. 

Going back to school after a couple of weeks is always a bit of a shock to the system of both students and teachers.  My kids missed being with their friends and admitted they were glad to be back although thrilled to have a holiday yesterday.  Most of my kids were not off on holidays as parents were working.  I think that no one should ever underestimate how meaningful school is to many many students.  We seem to get lots of criticism but school, especially elementary school, is a really happy place for most students. 

One of my students is here for a year from Tofino and his mother and I were chatting about the difference between living in a community like that and a city like ours.  Kids in the city also just don't have the freedom of the never ending play in the neighbourhood that  I grew up with in a small town. 

The kids are now studying Ancient Rome.  Once again they picked partners or elected to do their own projects and chose topics.  With both print and internet resources away they have gone.  I can't describe the enthusiasm these kids have for this research.  They are already talking about what projects they want to do next.  I gave out the research grants for the Ancient Greek projects, one for 100 000 and several for 50 000.  I noticed that several of the "cheques" ended up in their portfolios for their conferences.   It all reinforces my belief that if you can teach kids the processes and give some basic structures but give them lots of choice, an audience, and an element of fun, the best learning can take place.  It also really helps to have a good library, an excellent teacher-librarian, and a good computer lab.

Here's a model of Ancient Athens...

Monday, April 11, 2011

Laughter-let's take a break from literacy as such...

As it seems sometimes usually, this blog was written just over a week ago.

Okay, I admit it I am writing that one report card I didn't do before our break-needless to say it's the difficult one.  I just thought I would take a small breather to think about laughter and guilty pleasures.  Last week at the library I picked up a fast read, Mini Shopaholic by Becky Kinsella.  I have to admit that Bridgit Jones' Diary sent me on a bit of a path of Chic Lit that led me to the Shopaholic series, which definitely has to be a guilty pleasure.  Now I only like certain types of shopping and avoid changing rooms and am not given to designer clothes if I have to try them on,  so not sure about my being drawn to Rebecca and her antics but I found myself laughing out loud as I read this.  And Rebecca may like shopping but she does have a good heart.

I told a friend, who borrowed it, and abandoned it after a few chapters.  I am sure she just thought it was just silly.  And I admit it is, but I think that anything that can make me laugh out loud has to be positive.  I couldn't remember anything that made me laugh out loud as I silently read it recently.  Now my class does laugh out loud, well we all do at times, when I read them Charlie Wilcox.  Again that has got to be a good thing.

Now my second confession has to be about going to the Herman's Hermits concert this week.  In my early teen years I had a  crush on Peter Noone, the lead singer.  At the time he was probably my favorite of all those 60's performers.  I even had a fantasy that I would become a well known reporter and would interview him and he would fall madly in love with me.  I think I missed the part that he got married at 22 and I think he is still married to the same woman.

I have to admit I haven't thought anything much about the group in years until I saw that they were going to be performing at the Red Robinson Theatre in Coquitlam's casino.  I convinced a friend to go and  off we went Friday night.   There was an audience mainly  of Baby Boomers (reliving their, our youths).   Some of these people follow the group-one woman had gone to over 300 concerts.  Unbelievable!!! 

But I have to tell you Donna and I thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and laughed all the way through.  Peter Noone made many jokes about himself, not at all egotistical, and he and the group put on a great show.  Donna wondered why there were still performing, but I kind of think it may be why I am still teaching...
Anyway wishing you much laughter wherever you may find it.