Tuesday, December 6, 2016

What America Can Learn About Smart Schools

What America Can Learn About Smart Schools in Other Countries
written by Amanda Ripley
2016 (New York Times)


The results from the 2015 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) were released today. Fifteen year old students from seventy-two countries were tested in math, reading, science, and problem solving. Amanda Ripley, from the New York Times, wrote a compelling article about the results. For me, here was the money part of her report:

Here's what the models show: Generally speaking, the smartest countries tend to be those that have acted to make teaching more prestigious and selective: directed more resources to their neediest children; enrolled most children in high-quality preschools; helped schools establish cultures of constant improvement; and applied rigorous, consistent standards across all classrooms. Of all the lessons learned, the United States has employed only one at scale: A majority of states recently adopted more consistent and challenging learning goals, known as the Common Core Standards, for reading and math.

Other interesting findings from the report:


  • One in four boys and girls reported that they expect to work in a science-related occupation but opt for very different ones: girls mostly seek positions in the health sector and boys  in becoming ICT professionals, scientists or engineers.
  • Nearly 20% of students in OECD countries, on average, do not attain the baseline level of proficiency in reading. This proportion has remained stable since 2009.


  • How much time students spend learning and how science is taught are even more strongly associated with science performance and the expectations of pursuing a science-related career than how well-equipped and staffed the science department is and science teachers’ qualifications.
You can find the full report here

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Tell Me a Story

Tell Me a Story
written by Emily Bannister; illustrated by Barbara Chotiner
2016 (Kane Miller)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

So write of adventures and journeys you take,
And please share with me, whatever you make.

"So what's your story?" Ever been asked that question? We want to connect to others, to know about their experiences. Believe it or not, the purpose of writing is not so the teacher has something to put in the grade book. Writing allows us to share a little (or some novelists who share a large chunk) piece of ourselves with the world. Throughout this rhyming text, the narrator exhorts the writer to make a connection. "Send me a story down a river or sea. Send me a story to bring you closer to me." We love to hear stories from others so we can better understand them. I can give you facts about my life, but if I share a story, you can really get a sense of who I am. Another reason we love stories is that they take us away to other places. How often do we get lost in a book or watching a movie because a writer has captured our imagination and allowed us to leave our present location? The narrator urges the writer in all of us to send them a story about traveling so far. This also opens the door for a mini-lesson on identifying the setting in a story or how the setting can move the plot. Think about your favorite books and how the setting was vital to the story. For example, where would Hatchet be without the woods?  The Grinch without Whoville? Setting is so meaningful in a story so I'm pleased to see it emphasized in this book. Another emphasis you can make with Tell Me a Story is to encourage young writers to orally tell their tale before putting the pencil to the paper. This is an important part of the writing process. It helps flesh out your story and also works on communication skills as you talk with a partner.

I started writing because someone asked me to do it. It was that simple. As a parent, I was pretty good at pulling out a book every evening and reading to my girls. But how often did I ask them to tell me a story? Not read a book, but just tell a story. That is a critical skill for young learners. With the help of this enticing new book, we can encourage more storytelling with our youngest writers.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Paint Me a Picture

Paint Me a Picture
written by Emily Bannister; illustrated by Holly Hatam
2016 (Kane Miller)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Paint me the blue sea to sail on far and wide.
Paint me a pink dress to twirl in with pride. 

Think about how color influences your feelings. When you wake up, you look out your window to see a soft yellow-orange color or gray. Open your closet. What are you going to wear today? Something bright or a more muted professional look? Or if you're me, khaki pants. Monday through Friday. My point is color is an underrated mood agent. Paint Me a Picture gets this. On each two page spread, you have a feature color, an action influenced by the color, and adjectives in script that correlate with the color. It starts with the three primary colors and then goes to secondary colors. For example, red is represented by a young girl being pulled through the air by giant red balloons. Adjectives on the spread include passionate, bold, courageous, and dangerous. The illustration captures your eyes since there are no colors, other than black as an outline, to compete with the highlighted color. The combination of the illustration with the adjectives is an nice one-two punch.

This is a great way to teach color words. Instead of just being an empty label on a card, the word is infused with a personality. Students can make connections to the word with the adjectives. "Yes, yellow does make me happy." They can add on other words inspired by the color. Green or blue could be accompanied by cool. A delightful palette of playfulness!

Monday, November 21, 2016

Ultimate Oceanpedia

Ultimate Oceanpedia
written by Christina Wilsdon
2016 (National Geographic Kids)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Close your eyes and imagine that you are deep in the sea. It is dark and cold, and you hear the sound of whales coming from miles away. 

Chapters: Oceans, Ocean Life, Ocean in Motion, Wild Weather, Underwater Exploration, Along the Coast, When People and Oceans Meet

Dear Ultimate Oceanpedia,

You complete me. You took me on a trip to all of the oceans, introducing me to wild places like the Seychelles Islands which are made of granite. I met your wild friends, such as the Bathykorus Bouilloni or as you lovingly called it, the Darth Vader jellyfish since it has the helmet look of the bad man from space. You had me at the detailed diagram on page 41 that shows the layers of the ocean. In the Midnight Zone, you told me that only the female anglerfish has the lighted lure on its head and beard to go with it. Why use a razor to shave when you have razor sharp teeth? I felt a wave of emotion in Chapter 3 as you explained how waves work and the powerful energy that they contain. I learned about Mont-Saint-Michel, which is an island off the coast of France. Or is it? Depends on the tides as they go back and forth, covering and exposing a land bridge that connects the island to the coast.

Show me the ocean!! And you did, with beautiful photographs and diagrams that explain what goes on underneath. Continents shifting and tsunamis blitzing. A mountain range that is almost nine times longer than the above ground Andes Mountains of South America. Around twenty thousand underwater volcanoes exist, but we are just learning about many of them so that number will increase. Our journey finishes with brave explorers combing the depths of the ocean and other scientists who are fighting to keep our seas in good shape. You leave with good advice about how I can care for our saltwater superstars.

Thank you for taking me around the seven seas and back again.

Yours Truly,

The Reader

Sunday, November 20, 2016

How Things Work

How Things Work
written by T.J. Resler
2016 (National Geographic Kids)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Cool gadgets and scientific discoveries don't just come from laboratories. Many are dreamed up in the minds of storytellers.

I've had many parents come to me with a story that involves their child taking apart a family appliance/gadget because they were curious how it worked. This is the book for them. Five chapters feature the inner workings and history of fascinating devices. Chapter 1 focuses on inventions that came from science fiction. A four page spread discusses invisibility cloaks and how cloaking works. The idea is to make something disappear from your view. The trick is to bend light so it doesn't bounce off an object and therefore you are unable to see it. There are three terrific diagrams that show how vision works and how it can be deceived. Other devices included in this chapter are inventions that hover, with a nice nod to Marty McFly, bionic arms and legs, and tractor beams. Can't go wrong with Back to the Future and Star Wars. Chapter 2 is about household devices. Can you explain how a microwave works? I know about waves, but this explanation goes way deeper with more illustrations and photographs that would be excellent teaching resources on a document camera. Chapter 3 highlights items in a school. Topics include photocopiers, erasers, and thermoses. Hmmm. Maybe we could train students to fix photocopiers. If I had to guess which chapter in the book would be the most popular, I might go with Chapter 4 which is titled Extreme Fun. Who doesn't want to know how surfing and roller coasters work? And bounce houses? Don't get me started. How Things Work finishes with a chapter on transportation vehicles like rockets and escalators. Again, most of us have ridden an escalator but probably can't explain how it works. Now you can know and impress your friends.

Inside each chapter is a biography of an inventor. Chapter 1 features David Moinina Sengeh. He designs prostheses and mentors other young innovators in Africa. I love that we have STEM role models in these pages. Another great section of each chapter is Try This! where readers get detailed instructions so they can create their own device. Chapter 5 gives details on how to make a submarine with a 2 liter bottle. I also appreciate how in tune the author is with what students want to know. These are the subjects that will get readers to the page every time.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Book of Heroes: Tales of History's Most Daring Dudes

The Book of Heroes
written by Crispin Boyer
2016 (National Geographic Kids)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Cancer can take away all of my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever. - Jim Valvano

Look! Up on the shelf! It's a hall of fame. It's a catalog of bravery. It's both and more! Welcome my friends to a show of courage that never ends. We have heroes of action and heroes of peace. We have young and old, famous and unknown, human and nonhuman heroes. In fact, it is the mix of figures that is one of the most appealing features of this book. For example, we have famous heroes from the world of sports like Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, and Michael Jordan. But do you remember or know of Terry Fox? Unless you're Canadian, you probably are unaware of this superhero who ran 3,339 miles despite having lost one leg to bone cancer. He was not able to complete his run across Canada due to the return of the cancer and was just 22 years old when he died. But cancer could not touch how he inspired a nation. His Marathon of Hope continues to motivate to the tune of $650 million donated to fight cancer. The Book of Heroes draws from beyond the sports world. Scientists like the doctors who fought the Ebola virus and Lawrence Patrick, who gathered data on car crashes by experiencing them first hand, are also here. Taking on these injuries helped him create designs that prevented harm for others. There's even a section on fearless animals who saved lives. Each of the eight chapters ends with a Moment of Bravery which dedicates a two page spread to a heroic deed. At the end of Chapter 4, Heroes for Hire, we learn about Takeshi Miura and Miki Endo who worked in the Disaster Control Center in their Japanese fishing village. They both kept to their posts, alerting citizens of the coming tsunami generated by a massive earthquake in 2011. Thousands were spared as these two heroes gave their lives for others.

There are so many great stories in this book. I love the wide range of people that are highlighted in these vignettes. We talk about wanting role models for our children, and here they are in bold photographs and paintings. If your class has a biography unit, this would be the perfect book to share as a nonfiction read-aloud or to supplement a wax museum project. You can introduce a new generation to previously known and unknown heroes and perhaps inspire readers to become one themselves.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Science Encyclopedia

Science Encyclopedia
2016 (National Geographic)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Science is the way humans figure out how everything in the world works. 

Work with me on this one. Imagine Julie Andrews wearing a lab coat and breaking out in song:

Elements and sound waves and robots who rescue. Gravity and reptiles and landforms with fescue. Muscles and flowers and simple machines. These are a few of my favorite thiiiiiiiiings!

This book has it all. It starts off with a great introductory essay that talks about what is science, what scientists do, and a review of the scientific method. These two pages could be your first few days of science instruction each year. Divided into physical and life science, it's like a recipe for science nirvana. Physical science has four parts: Matter, Energy, Electronics, and Forces and Machines. Life Science has four parts as well: The Universe, Life on Earth, Planet Earth, and the Human Body. They've covered everything here. Within each section, you have two page spread covering a topic in the area. For example, in Energy we see heat, electricity, magnetism, sound waves, and other energetic subjects. Each spread has several colorful text boxes and awesome National Geographic photos. We're talking about over a thousand photos in this book! It's the textbook I never had as a kid. Other excellent features pop up throughout the book. Milestones highlights important dates within a specific area. One such milestone is Frankenstein Science which tells readers about the history of man and electricity. Yes, Benjamin Franklin and his infamous kite make an appearance as he shows that lightning is a form of electrical spark. Up Close devotes a two page spread to a featured subject such as Albert Einstein, the computer revolution, and predators and prey. There are also jokes and experiments sprinkled like dust from a comet throughout the book. After two hundred and ninety-one pages, that might be enough. But not here. In the back matter you get an impressive glossary and a list of over twenty-five websites and other helpful media.

This is the book that you want to gift your young scientist with. It's simply fantastic because that's what you expect from National Geographic and they deliver. It's a book that will be your go-to reference on scientific matters.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Wee Gallery: Farm and Jungle Slide and Play Books

Slide and Play Books
2016 (QEB Publishing)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

I am a BIG cat.
I have STRIPY fur.
I like to HIDE.
Who am I?

First of all, I like the one bright color against the black and white. That's a striking image to me. When you open this board book, on the left is a page with three short sentences and a question. Now obviously, with the animal on the other side, this isn't exactly your first choice for predicting. But what you can do is make this pattern into a game with a very young reader. After finishing reading, you can create more clues and see if the child can guess. Kind of like I Spy. On the right side of the spread is a picture with three slides that can be manipulated to make the image of an animal. Toddlers can also play with the slides to make funny off-center pictures. There are four pictures in this board book, a tiger, a parrot, a monkey, and a snake.

One of the surprising uses of these slide and play books would be to focus on parts of speech. The author capitalizes words in each sentence. With second graders, you could ask about the part of speech for each capitalized word and then ask them to recreate the page with synonyms for the capitalized words. Kindergarten students could read this book and then write their own riddles in a journal. Then they could share them with a friend to see if they could guess the animal. You could even use the pictures to ask what geometric terms are visible. No reason to be bored with this new series of board books.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Americanly

Americanly
written by Lynn Parrish Sutton; illustrated by Melanie Hope Greenberg (read an interview with Melanie here!)
2016 (Kane Miller)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

I love you continuously like Seattle's rain. 
I love you abundantly like the fruited plain.

If you, like me and the rest of America, are sick of the 2016 election, I have an antidote for this illness! Forget making America great again. It is great already and I have the proof in this wonderful rhyming travelogue featuring iconic landmarks, monuments, and natural areas. Each page has two famous American places, each accompanied by a rhyming verse that starts with the words "I love you..." and followed by a vivid adverb. On one page, you will go from Boston to Chicago:

I love you duckily like the Public Garden's flowers.
I love you impressively like Chicago's gleaming towers. 

So now the door is open to researching these two famous places using key words from the verses. What a nice gateway to a needed skill! The illustrations are also top notch with warm, bright water colors bringing each location to life. After visiting Hawaii, the book goes to its strong conclusion like a reliever striking out the side to end a baseball game. Symbols of America become the focus of the verses:

I love you grandly like the wave of Old Glory. 
I love you complexly like our national story. 

How smart is that last line? My interpretation is that yes, we love this country, but also recognize that our story is a complex one that requires great reflection and thought instead of hastily composed tweets. The book ends with a full map of the United States and the following words:

I love you shiningly, freely, Americanly.
I love you so.
From sea to sea. 

I can see sharing this with a class of 4th or 5th graders, and then asking them to create a page with two places in your state and a verse for each place. You could create a book with all of those pages. It would also be great as part of a lesson on adverbs. To sum up my feelings in a couplet:

I love you Americanly, I must be confessin'.
This is one sensational geography lesson.




Sunday, November 6, 2016

Scribble and Author

Scribble and Author
written and illustrated by Miri Leshem-Pelly
2016 (Kane Miller)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Wow, Author, you've created a beautiful beginning! Where do I go next?

Scribble, a spot of color with a necklace and boots, and her creator start their relationship off nicely. Author paints a serene tropical scene as the beginning of the story and Scribble approves of this choice. Author explains that Scribble will go on a journey and asks what she would like to do. Looking to make a friend, Scribble walks to a hole in the illustration that leads to the middle of the story. Seeing a monster, she scurries back to the beginning. Author explains that journeys have challenges. Bravely, Scribble walks to the middle and defeats the monster with an eraser. Her next challenge is the River of Questions which of course, prompts her to ask several questions. Borrowing a piece of paper from Author, she sails across the river only to arrive at The Mountain of Challenge. Once again, Scribble problem solves using one of her creator's tools. With two pencil shavings as wings, she flies to the top of the mountain. When you've reached the top of the mountain, there's only one direction to go. And go Scribble does, racing down the Slope of Fears being chased by a roll of tape like Indiana Jones and a boulder. Will she find a friend after all of these challenges?

So, so, clever is this story! This is a terrific way to introduce young readers to how narratives work. I can easily see using this as a template for writing a story. You could even create a River of Questions on a wall and place possible questions on it and also have a Mountain of Challenges. I would follow a couple of readings of this text with a shared writing. Maybe a Scribble story with different challenges. So many teaching possibilities with this wonderful book!

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Sharks!: Amazing Animal Facts

Sharks!
written by Lori Stein
2016 (Liberty Street)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

There are nearly 500 different species of sharks swimming in oceans around the world. 

The minute I caught sight of this book, I knew it could be a game changer. How so? Informational text usually comes in picture book size or in the coffee table book size. What's new to me with Sharks! is that it's in the format of a paperback novel with 107 pages of information. Why is that so great? Two big reasons right off the bat. One, the low price ($5.95 list) of the paperback means that upper grade elementary teachers can buy a class set and really dig deep with nonfiction reading and writing. With more books coming in this series of chapter books, teachers can purchase different titles and have students compare books and the knowledge they gather. The second reason why this format is a big deal is that it allows authors to explore a subject with greater depth than if it was a 32 or 48 page book. Chapter two, Sensational Senses, has full paragraphs about each of the shark senses as opposed to one or two sentences. This format allows us to learn more about electroreception where a shark senses the electrical signals sent out by other animals. Sharks can also sense vibrations in the water and changes in the pressure. With their taste buds, they even spit out food they don't like. Sometimes being overly sensitive is a good thing! Other chapters reveal facts that make nonfiction so appealing. Chapter five, Tricky Sharks, gives information about the salmon shark which swims 55 mph. Did you know about the subcategory of catsharks? There's over 150 different kinds of these small sharks which have eyes like cats. One of these, the swell shark, swallows water to double its size and scare off predators. It can also swallow air and expel it to bark like a dog.

Having informational text in a paperback format will pull in readers who need a simpler text, but don't want to be seen with a 32 or 48 page book. You also get the photographs and text boxes that you expect with nonfiction. With a companion piece, Dinosaurs!, also available, readers will want to take a bite out of this new series of chapter books.


Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Patch and Ruby

Patch and Ruby
written by Anouska Jones; illustrated by Gwynneth Jones
2016 (EK Books)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

But sometimes he felt like he didn't quite fit in.

Poor ol' Patch the horse. He has a lot of friends, yet is still lonely. How so? He spends time with the hens in the morning, but doesn't fit into their conversations. At lunch, it's a meeting with Lily and her family of ladybugs. The spotted insects are nice, but horses and ladybugs don't have a lot in common, and they have differing viewpoints when it comes to gardening. Dinnertime is spent with Ernie and Edith which is lovely, but taking care of their little mice leaves little time to converse with a horse. Even her most special friend, a little girl named Sam, is busy with school and human friends. Fortunately, Sam sees that there is a problem, and she has the perfect solution. The possible problem solver is transported by a horse trailer and is named Ruby. Will this field provide a friendship for two horses?

What does it take to be a good friend? That's an important topic in K-1 classes. One element of a great friendship is time. You have to put in the time to be a good friend. Patch needed somebody who could spend time with him. With Patch and Ruby, you get a text that will spark good discussions and writing about friendship. It's also helpful to use for working on prediction skills and for teaching story structure. Young readers learn that most fictional stories have a problem and a solution. With a gently sweet story and engaging illustrations, you and your readers will want to make friends with Patch and Ruby.