Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Be Filled With Love

The notes we get from our students during the last days of the school year are truly precious.  We had some touching sentiments and beautiful words of thanks but nothing struck me quite as deeply as this one from a 6-year-old who is clearly going on 40.

"Dear Gary and Oni,
I will miss you very much but always remember eat healthy and be filled with love and care.
From, Lina"

Monday, July 14, 2014

Top Ten 2013 - 2014

It is with great pleasure that I share the top ten books for the 2013-2014 school year.

Our first grade students diligently and thoughtfully compiled a list of all their favorite stories. The books with the most votes made it into the Top Ten.

The process began with a discussion of the rules.  First, the book must be one that was introduced this school year.  That meant Curious George was ineligible for consideration (although the little monkey did appear on most lists anyway).  Second, each title had to be one that we experienced together.  This meant personal favorites, read alone, were disqualified.  Third, each student must support his or her opinion with a reason.  "I like it because I like it" simply didn't make the cut.

I was thrilled to see that when all of the choices were voted on and tallied, we had six books in the top ten representing Greek Mythology. These kids certainly know how to identify a good yarn.

The Number One selection was Young Zeus by G. Brian Karas.  We read this book after the children already had amassed a great deal of knowledge about Zeus.  This fresh perspective on a character they had grown to love provided a sense of connection.  "Zeus was a little kid too?!"

The book contains a lot of details and backstory of the Gods and Goddesses presented in a fun, accessible way.  It was the perfect way to cap off our study of the Greeks and I am not surprised it came out on top.  Camella wrote, "I like Young Zeus because I was happy when he got to see his brothers and sisters".

Lyana's rendering of the cover art for "Young Zeus"

The Number Two choice was Exclamation Mark! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld.

This is a bright, happy book about the journey of self acceptance.

Although it certainly works on that deeper level, it is also perfect for teaching young children the proper usage of an exclamation point...and a question mark.  The authors make their point in simple, clear terms that are extremely engaging.  A touch of humor is never a bad idea in a children's book.

Leo wrote, "I liked this book because it taught me some punctuation and it made me laugh".

Joe thought the book "was so good when the ! said 'Hi!' and the ? went 'Who are you?'"

Number Three is a favorite whose author, the incredible Todd Parr,  has been represented on the Top Ten since 2006.  However, this is the first time that Otto has a Birthday Party made an appearance.

We read this book at every birthday celebration, including mine!

Cristina wrote, "I like this book because Otto makes a cake and that is my favorite!  Otto makes a mistake like me.  That's the same as me!" (Notice her use of the exclamation point...see above)

Lina wrote, "My favorite part was when the mud splattered all over Otto.  Read this book because you will laugh a lot".

And she is right, you will laugh a lot!  Click on the book title above to watch Todd read the book and find out for yourself.

Cristina shows Otto baking his birthday cake.  "Yay, Otto."

We got into a bit of a gray area with Number Four.  This is where the line between favorite story and favorite book began to blur a little.

The kids loved, loved, loved the story of Medusa but we told and read about her using many different sources (including the 1981 movie masterpiece Clash of the Titans).

We decided to go with Medusa (World Mythology) by Xavier W. Niz for our list because we used it quite frequently in the classroom.  What I adore most about the Medusa story this year is that the children actually had sympathy for her because they knew how she was just a casualty in Poseidon's game of life and love.

The Gods and Goddesses (I'm looking at you Athena) can be quite vengeful when they want to be.  And there are two sides to every argument.  It's a good lesson to learn in first grade.

The kids had quite a bit to share about the snake-haired Gorgon.

Emily wrote, "I like Medusa because she has snake hair and she is spooky.  Example: Her eyes make you turn into a stone.  And that's why I like Medusa.  The End."

"I think Medusa is scary.  Medusa is scary because she has snakes for hair.
If you look into her eyes you will turn to stone.  That is why Medusa is so scary".
Joe

Samantha wrote, "I think Medusa is interesting because she has snakes for hair.  My first reason is that Pegasus comes out of Medusa's body.  My second reason is that her snakes say, 'Hiss Hiss' and that is scary.  My third reason is that when you look into Medusa's eyes you turn to stone.  My fourth reason is that her blood is so hot you can get a burn and you would say, 'Ow'.  My fifth reason is she slithers like a snake and it scares me.  My sixth reason is I like where she lives in a cave.  Outside of her cave there are statues of people and animals.  That's why I think Medusa is interesting."

We were ushered back to the cooler days of winter with the Number Five pick.

I was a little surprised to see Margaret Moorman's Light the Lights! A story about celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas in the running.  It is a fantastic book but by the end of June it had been six months since we read it.  It may have helped that the main character is named Emma.  That obviously struck a chord with our Emma.

She wrote, "I liked this book because the book make me remember about Hanukkah.  And lighting my families candles together".

Samantha wrote, "I think it was interesting because I like learning about Hanukkah. And I think you will too".

Speaking of vengeful goddesses, Athena is at it again in the Number Six selection, Why Spiders Spin: A Story of Arachne retold by Jamie and Scott Simons with pictures by Deborah Winograd.

In this tale however, Arachne is kinda asking for it.  Here is a lesson in humility if ever there was one.

Natalie gave it high praise when she wrote, "It is not boring.  It has details".

Emily gets right to the point.  "My favorite part was when Arachne turned into a spider because it was cool." Indeed!

It's best not to mess with Athena!

Let's Go, Pegasus! A Greek Myth retold and illustrated by Jean Marzollo enters the list at Number Seven.

This is a wonderful book to introduce the myth of Medusa and Perseus.  All of the important characters (Athena, Hermes, Pegasus) are there and it provides an easily accessible, colorful retelling that is a bit playful.

Joe captures Medusa at a quiet moment
We used the many faces of Medusa illustrated on the end pages to launch our own art project about how to visualize Medusa. The children created incredible art using soft aluminum squares and wooden sticks.

I couldn't get some of the haunting images out of my head.

Poseidon may have given up the Number One spot to his little brother but he pushed his way into the Top Ten at Number Eight.

Poseidon: Earth Shaker by author/illustrator George O'Connor is part of the New York Times Bestselling Olympians Series.

I must admit that Poseidon is my favorite Greek God and this book includes many mesmerizing tales including Theseus and the Minotaur (see our Number Ten pick).

The illustrations are alive and vibrant and the storytelling top notch. I also love the author's note and other cool information at the back of the graphic novel.

I am eagerly awaiting the Olympians poster (To be released in October with the Boxed Set).

The Number Nine book was Our World in Space: Planets by Erin Dealey.  Oddly enough I cannot find any information about this book on the Internet.  It appears to only exist as part of our reading curriculum, ReadyGen.  Hmmm...

It is the only nonfiction selection on our Top Ten and a worthy addition.  But, good luck finding it.

The planets rendered in Play-Doh with a plastic orange sun.


Rounding out the Top Ten is Theseus and the Minotaur (Graphic Greek Myths and Legends) by Gilly Cameron Cooper.

This, like the story of Medusa, is another example of blurred lines between the story and the book.  This story was first told to our class by Sara, our librarian.  She created a visceral experience for the children who struggled to find their way out of a makeshift labyrinth using Ariadne's magical ball of thread.  The Minotaur himself is a powerful figure not easily dismissed.

It wasn't until after her retelling that we dove into artwork, illustrations and books to explore the topic even further.

We chose this book by Gilly Cameron Cooper but any of the related titles in our Greek Mythology bookbin, including Theseus and the Minotaur by Scott R. Welvaert, could just as easily been substituted.

So, there it is!  Our Top Ten list for 2013 - 2014.

I wonder what next year will bring.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Coolest Heracles Ever!

Joe as Heracles (a.k.a. Hercules, Alcides and "the glory of Hera")

Our little Gods and Goddesses requested that today - their final day of first grade - be spent entirely on Greek Mythology.

We were more than happy to oblige.

This year we read, retold and acted out many Greek myths as students fought over chose favorite characters to dramatize. Popular figures included Athena, Andromeda, Perseus, Poseidon, Zeus, Hades, Persephone, Odysseus, and Hera.

But none proved more riveting than Heracles and his twelve labors.

In anticipation of our day, Joe entered this morning decked out in full Heracles attire (sans the pelt of the Nemean Lion).  He told us he stayed up past 9:00 last night working on his sword and shield, although my favorite part is the Ruffles potato chip bag wrist guards.

The story of Heracles is expertly
told in Hera by George O'Connor
So, we happily spent our morning reading The Twelve Labors of Hercules whilst the children challenged this text for not providing the proper background and motivation behind the story.

They learned those details from the magnificent George O'Connor and his exquisite Olympians graphic novel book series.

As our final day together drew to a close our impressive students selected one labor (the capture of the Cretan Bull) to act out.  They worked together to assign roles and create the setting before packing up for a final goodbye.

As they lined up for dismissal our young Heracules became a sensitive little boy once again. He hugged me for a really long time and told me he is going to miss me.

I will miss him too.

I will miss all of them.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Those Who Open Our Eyes

Many times in my life  I have fallen in love with the works of a brilliant playwright, author, philosopher, educator or actor only to realize that they have shuffled off this mortal coil.

And sometimes they were walking towards the exit just as I entered.  It's as if I looked down to discover the cigarette still burning but found myself in an empty room.

It was that way with Tennessee Williams.  I became addicted to his work and life in the autumn of 1983 only to realize he had died earlier that same year.  That realization hit hard because I imagined us sipping cocktails together in Key West whilst he shamelessly flirted and regaled me with stories of southern women and lobotomies.

I also missed out on a walk through Chartres Cathedral with Joseph Campbell, a dinner party with Laurence Olivier, and a fireside chat with Charles Dickens (although his cigarette was ash long before my obsession kicked in).

However, with Dr. Maxine Greene I got it right!

Recently I was lucky enough to attend a fantastic workshop with Dr. Greene through The Academy for Teachers (which I wrote about here).

Yesterday I received an email informing me of the sad news of her passing.  It turns out that her talk with us was her last.  And so ends a life of "passionate purpose".

I feel fortunate that I was able to hold her hand and look into her eyes to thank her for honoring teachers.  When she looked back at me it was with sincere gratitude for the work that I do, for the work all teachers are doing.  She said it was our work that informed and enriched hers.

At 96, she had such palpable passion and energy.  I was moved by the fact that she wanted to keep the conversation going and looked forward to conversing through emails.  Although her aging body was betraying her, her mind stayed sharp.  

Maxine Greene always seemed to be looking for a challenge, to find the places of discomfort and unrest so the struggle could bring a new level of understanding.

That workshop was an inspiration.

I look forward to continuing to learn more about her work and remain grateful that I didn't miss an opportunity to spend time with this incredible woman.

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