Monday, April 25, 2016

Evocative artifacts

The Great War: stories inspired by items from the First World War written by many beautiful authors, David Almond, John Boyne, Tracy Chevalier, Ursula Dubosarsky, Thothee de Fombelle, Adele Geras, A.L. Kennedy, Michael Morpurgo, Marcus Sedgwick, Tanya Lee Stone and Sheena Wilkinson.  Illustrated by Jim Kay. Quite the line-up, wouldn't you say?

The title pretty well describes the premise of this collection of short stories; 11 stories based on a specific object that connects in some way to World War I and evokes a time, a place and a prompt for the imagination that takes us, the reader, there.

These items are a Brodie helmet, a compass, the nose of a Zeppelin bomb, a recruitment poster, a Princess Mary’s gift fund box, a soldier’s writing case, sheet music, a butter dish, a Victoria Cross, school magazines, and a French toy soldier.

It may be that your own imagination is stirred just contemplating what the stories might be.

The Brodie helmet becomes a way for family to reconnect to a great-great-grandfather who died too young; the writing case a way for a class of children to understand the waste of war and the bravery needed to create a new world; a compass that provides a melancholy focus for a severely injured soldier who may be able to find the missing pieces once the doctors from the Tin Noses Shop get to work; or how a brass horn literally saved the life of a musician/soldier from the 369th Infantry Regiment, the Harlem Hellfighters.

Each story is very well told. The book is beautifully designed and illustrated. All the artifacts are written about in the back of the book to provide a little more context. This small weighty book will leave readers with lots to think about.

This would be a terrific book to use to model developing a story around an artifact. A co-worker suggested that immigrant families often have keepsakes with interesting stories and may provide inspiration for exploring family history, traditions and culture.

Recommended for thoughtful, strong readers grades 5 and up. I think that older students will take away more from these stories than younger students, however. 

Monday, April 18, 2016

Nonfiction Roundup

As life in the Doucette Library is becoming quieter with teacher-education students out on practicum, I’m getting caught up on some reading.

Today I’m highlighting some interesting nonfiction books for all levels.


A Place for Turtles by Melissa Stewart
Despite the commercialism of the jingle, “I love turtles”, I do, in fact love real turtles. They are fascinating creatures and this book lays out many interesting facts about various species of turtles predominately found in the United States. Along with these facts are the conditions and challenges that turtles face today. The illustrations are well done and provide abundant details about what the turtles look like and their habitats. It emphasizes the interconnectedness within ecological systems and the importance of protecting turtles.

What an interesting story! This is about a young man from Ghana who overcomes a physical challenge and societal prejudices proving that “disability does not mean inability”.  Born with only one strong leg Emmanuel had to learn to do things for himself fairly quickly. He learned to carry water and climb coconut trees.  He hopped two miles each way to get to school. He learned to make friends when the other kids didn’t want to play with him.  He was resourceful and resilient. As a young man he decides to honour a promise he made to his dying mother by cycling close to 400 miles across Ghana to spread his message that “disable does not mean being unable.” Loved it.

This book also explores the life of an artist who lives with what could have been a debilitating condition, going blind at a young age, but ends up becoming a world class runner and renowned artist. It’s an interesting story with good classroom potential to teach about resiliency, inclusion, and art.  I did find the writing somewhat abrupt, a little choppy with no sense of what the time line was for George’s life.

Middle School

Another fascinating look at an atypical childhood. We are introduced to Marie Ahnighito Peary, born in a shed in Greenland in 1893, the daughter of a naval office obsessed to become the first person to reach the North Pole. Marie and her mother were often willing participants of Peary’s expeditions (and there were many) that placed them far from Washington D.C. society and living in the high Arctic with sailors, explorers and local Inuit people. Marie was adventuresome and saw her father as a hero for trying to attain his goal. There are lots of photos of Marie, her family, the ships she sailed on and various locales that are mentioned in the text. The book has a lot of text which may put off younger or struggling readers but the story here is so interesting that it’s worth having in the classroom.

“Is this for real?” asked my partner when he saw this book sitting on the coffee table at home. That’s exactly what I thought when I came across this one, too. I had no idea that so many attempts had been made by so many innovators to construct a vehicle that would allow a car to fly or a small aircraft to drive like a car.  Many configurations of areocars have been designed between the early 1900s and today. It’s a fascinating idea that sparks the imagination but within a heartbeat raises a myriad of questions about the challenges of just anyone flying/driving a vehicle. Nevertheless, a really cool idea.


Okay, I’m going to fess up that I haven’t read all of this one – yet. This is an interesting, well-written account of the practical and societal issues about garbage.  What drew my attention to this book was an article that came my way about Boise High School using this book to engage its student body with reading and sustainability issues. Check out the article to read more about this initiative or read about the school's objectives for this project here. I love the idea that this sort of enterprise can have such a big payout for both literacy and social change in a school setting. This is an interesting and informative read that really does impact all of us.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Metaphorically speaking

You may remember that back in February I participated in the Nonfiction 10 for 10 event.  Besides getting me to really think about which nonfiction books I find indispensable, I gleaned titles of many books from other participants, too.

The Tin Forest by Helen Ward and Wayne Anderson is one of these books.
In terms of a classroom resource there’s a lot to recommend:

*language arts – metaphor
*science/social studies – environmental issues; interconnectedness;
*storytelling and everyday life connections – pursuing dreams, living creatively, imagination, and hope.

If you remember the movie Wall-E from a few years back and enjoyed it, this book may work for you.

There is an old man who lives in a place “near nowhere and close to forgotten” that is barren of other life.  There are no plants or animals, only vast piles of other people’s garbage that the old fellow spends his time trying to dispose of.  Yet, nightly he dreams of verdant forests abundant with many creatures, great and small. His dream inspires him to create his own forest made from the refuse that surrounds him.  Slowly a forest is born and with it comes a stray bird who brings his mate to take up residence in the man-made forest. 

They also bring seeds that grow into plants that attract other creatures -- and eventually the forest becomes the forest of the old man’s dream. It is colourful and beautiful and filled with life. The “build-it-and-they-will-come” theme is prevalent and conveys a sense of hope that an individual can make a difference and fulfill their dreams.

The illustrations are terrific, with a real steampunk vibe.  Though the birds, insects, other creatures, plants and trees that the man create are made out of scraps of metal and other odds and ends, they definitely have a friendly look to them. The coloring throughout the book perfectly reflects the mood being conveyed: grey and dismal in the beginning when all we see is an open landscape filled with garbage; sparks of colour are introduced as the man-made forest is being created; and finally, a warmly, fully coloured two-page spread filled with life.

Though the book is metaphorical, I didn’t think it is too overdone.  The environmental themes are obvious but not heavy-handed.  The forest grows quickly and the old man never ages but that’s beside the point of the story.

I recommend this book for elementary and middle grades.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Coffee Table Book Roundup

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’ll know how much I love coffee table books that have lots of oversized, glossy photographs.  I promote them in my workshops for student teachers, across the grades as a way to engage students. Whether a student is able to read the text of the book is less important in my mind than as a way to get a person interested in the topic.  If they’re keen enough maybe they’ll ask questions or even attempt to read the passages related to the pictures.

I’ve always been fascinated with macro photos. If this appeals to you too then you need to check out Hyper Nature by Philippe Martin.  The photographs are stunning. He’s developed a special technique making digital photos that brings the entire image into focus.   Blurry backgrounds and foregrounds are minimal and the creatures are in total focus.  This creates very sharp, almost 3-dimensional images.

His work is primarily of animals, insects and plants, found in their natural habitats around the world. Each photo tells us the common and Latin names of the living thing and details about how he achieved the photo including light conditions.  He does not always provide the location which is a minor quibble. I can’t say enough about the amazing, brilliant images in his book.

With spring about to get fully underway in Calgary, more and more bird life is becoming prevalent in our backyards and parks – at least for us in the northern climes. Life-size Birds: the big book of NorthAmerican birds by Nancy J. Hajeski, is one book to consult if you’re into bird watching and looking to hook a younger person.  With 95 birds featured including songbirds, raptors, gamebirds, waterbirds, among others we get to see and learn about them up close. This oversized book tries to show the birds on a 1:1 scale. For the smaller birds this is pretty easy.  We get to see hummingbirds, tits, warblers and wrens as they fly, feed, nest and care for their young. The larger birds such as the pileated woodpecker, bald eagle, vulture and larger owls are often depicted in part on the 1:1 scale to get a sense of size and also include other images on a 1:2 or 1:4 scale to see the entire bird.  All four sides of every page has a size gauge (in inches) to help with the sizing. Each entry also includes details about the bird's physiology, habitat and distribution. There are a few ‘features’ that focus on nest, eggs, birdsongs, bills, migration and threats to species. It’s a fascinating book that would be great in a math or science classroom teaching about measurement, scale, ratio and proportion.  I recommend this for grades 5 and up.

I should tell you right up front that I don’t get any kickbacks from National Geographic for recommending their books. I promote them all the time as they really know how to pull these kinds of books off.  Their explorers go to amazing places, often having adventures while taking remarkable photographs of their subjects of landscapes, people or animals.

First up are Ocean Soul by Brian Skerry and PristineSeas: journeys to the ocean’s last wild places by Enric Sala. Both of these books focus on the richness, wildness and beauty of the oceans of the world but Ocean Soul really looks at the wildlife that abounds and those that are under threat whereas

Pristine Seas showcases similar environments as ecological landscapes. Both give us what we love in these kinds of books; lots and lots of beautiful, informative images with well written commentary.

My last recommendation is Bear: spirit of the wild by Paul Nicklen.  This explorer must have nerves of steel and a big lens or two to get such close-up photographs of polar bears, grizzlies, black bears and spirit bears. There are shots of him only a few feet away from the bears as he makes his photos. Interspersed throughout the book are many contributors offering their personal perspectives about bears and their place in their environments. This book mixes pleasure viewing the images and informative, personal narratives. The outstanding kind of picture book in my opinion and one that anyone can enjoy.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Pinterest : Making life a little easier

Over the last few months, I started using Pinterest quite extensively as a way to curate titles of mostly juvenile literature to correspond with the Alberta Education curriculum.

     Visit Doucette Library's profile on Pinterest.   

Just this week I worked my way through the elementary program of studies for mathematics. This was not something I had been looking forward to (some of you may remember I'm somewhat of a math-a-phobe) and rate this right up there with going to the dentist.

Anyways, trying to use the learning objectives set out in broad categories by Alberta Education (numbers, patterns & relations, shape & space, statistics & probability) was a good starting point for organizing titles but quickly became too unwieldy. I created 13 boards to avoid lists with 100s of titles.

Take a look to see how I did that : Pinterest - Doucette Library (Tammy Flanders)

I included only books found in the Doucette Library and linked the boards to the library's catalogue.  I've included a few titles for DVDs but focused primarily on fiction and nonfiction books appropriate for students in grades 1 to 6.

**You may notice the board, Variables & Equations (Patterns and Relations), has very few titles. If you know of any resources that would fit with algebraic thinking, I would be really, really grateful if you'd let me know.  It may be that there aren't that many kids books with algebra written into the story line especially at the elementary level. Please drop me a line with your recommendations.

If you get to the Doucette Library's Pinterest page you will notice many other boards that also correspond to the Alberta Education curriculum for elementary science and social studies down to the level of every topic for every grade. 

So, if you're teaching a science unit for one of the primary grades about colour this board might have titles that would interest you as a springboard, a provocation or a resource for scaffolding this topic.

Or, maybe you're teaching social studies and looking for resources about quality of life, or the history of Alberta or democracy; there are Pinterest boards for each of these topics. 

There are a few boards that are not tied to the Alberta Education program of studies but still relevant.  These include boards for First Nations, Metis and Inuit resources that are to be included across all content areas.  You will also find boards for fiction that might make tie-ins with STEM or STEAM curriculum.  Both of these groupings are organized by grade ranges of primary (grades K-3), middle school (grades 4-8) and secondary (grades 9-12).

One last board I'd like to highlight is specific to picture books for older readers. This is a topic of interest for those student-teachers (and sometimes teachers) teaching grades 6 to 12 that often don't think about using picture books. Many of the books listed here are some of my all-time favorites because they can be used across the grades to enrich many content areas.  Interest? Click here to see what I've included.

These boards are proving useful for student-teachers when incorporating juvenile literature into their lesson plans. I invite you to check them out and let me know what you think.

Monday, March 21, 2016

More divergent thinking

Most of you will know how excited I get with books that offer a different spin on their topics or in how they present their material aka divergent thinking. I facilitated a workshop last October with students about the range of resources available, different types found in fiction and nonfiction and with their assistance created a Pinterest board listing some of their recommendations for books with divergent thinking characteristics. (See also blog from October.)

So today I’m recommending two more books that I think also showcase qualities of divergent thinking.

First up is I’m Trying to Love Spiders by Bethany Barton. No super surprising twist about the topic in this book.  Yup, it’s about spiders. As the author explains she’s trying very, very, very hard to learn to ‘love’ them which is hard work and taking a toll on the spider population. But by learning more about spiders, their characteristics and what they’re good at (mostly eating lots of other insects) the author does eventually come to better appreciate them.  Next up, learning to love cockroaches.

Both the illustrations and font type-face add to the book’s humour. Unless you’re already comfortable around spiders the book is easy to relate to. I, too, can appreciate qualities of spiders but its best if they stay out in the garden. I will try the catch-and-release approach to those that do take up residence in the house but once they reach a size of large proportions (Yes, I’m thinking of you dearly departed ginormous cane spider in Hawaii) I just kind of lose it.

So we have information, humour, and relatability to draw us in and engage our interest.  I’d recommend this for early elementary grades and see it tying in to the Alberta Education science curriculum for grade 2.

A Nest is Noisy by Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long is my next recommendation.

This is part of a series that I think is brilliant. Here are the other titles:
An Egg is Quiet
A Butterfly is Patient
A Rock is Lively
A Seed in Sleepy

All of these take a phenomenon from nature and give it an attribute you wouldn’t necessarily connect to that particular natural occurrence. I particularly like A Rock is Lively as you don’t think about a rock as being all that lively – for most of us they’re pretty static. Check out the book to find out more.  And what a great activity to have students model their own work by matching atypical attributes to nature’s wonders.

In A Nest is Noisy we’re introduced (or reminded) about various animals who build nests, mostly egg laying creatures such as birds, fish, and insects but also prairie dogs, primates and squirrels who do not lay eggs. So how are nests noisy? They’re filled with the busy-ness and the getting-on-with of life of rearing the young. The range of construction materials is fascinating including everything from typical twigs, leaves and grasses to mud, bubbles, and saliva. Army ants use their own bodies to create bivouacs or ‘living nests’.  Besides trees, nests are found in water, underground, in sand and shallow, rocky streambeds. The illustrations are beautifully rendered in watercolour with lots of attention to detail but typically displayed on single coloured backgrounds to highlight the nests and animals.

I recommend all of Aston's and Long's books across the elementary level in science (animals, building materials, sound), language arts and art.

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