Monday, April 20, 2015

The creative process for writing a story

Any Questions? by Marie-Louise Gay is a treat.  It’s an exploration of the creative process for an omnipresent author as she writes a story.

It starts as the author visits a school where children ask all sorts of questions:




 How did you learn to draw?
How many books have you written?
Which is your favorite book?
Can your cat fly?
Where do your ideas come from?
Where does a story start?





…and many, many more.  You get the idea.Though I did notice she didn't include the one I remember always coming up: How much money do you make?

It’s the last couple of questions that I listed above that really drive this book.  It’s about how Marie-Louise Gay comes up with idea.  Maybe the colour of the paper she’s working with will inspire her and she’ll end up writing a story about a snowstorm or a jungle or the sea.

Or maybe random words and ideas will give her an idea to play with.  Sometimes these fragments might sit around for a long time before they get used.  You just never know what might work.

 And if she comes up with a blank? Well, she’ll doodle, paint, sketch, play around and ‘shake up’ her ideas, letting her mind wander. Things might get a bit messy and be a bit hard but eventually, something always comes.

Using a story-within-a-story to illustrate this process works really well.  Besides showing this as being a ‘process’ there’s always a great sense of play, curiosity and exploration that is emphasized.  The children in the book become part of the process of working out ideas, creating a portion of the story being developed and just enjoying the ride to the end.

I've always loved Marie-Louise Gay’s illustrations.  If you know her Stella series then you’ll know what to expect. (Stella and Sam even have a cameo early on.)

I highly recommend this for early elementary grades when discussing story development and creative process.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Through the eyes of a poet -- Gentle rain

It must be spring.  Compared to last year, I’m early in posting about a poetry book rhapsodizing about the poetic qualities of rain.  But spring seems to have arrived in Calgary rather early this year and it’s been really difficult not to tuck away the snow shovels and winter boots.  Calgary is renowned for getting large, wet dumps of snow even into May, so the shovels remain out and the winter boots remain accessible, shoved into the coat closet.

Nevertheless, I’m really hoping that precipitation in the near future will be of the non-white, fluffy kind.


“Rain plops. It drops./It patters./It spatters.”

Raindrops Roll by April Pulley Sayre is a beautifully produced book of photographs and words.  With lots of macro shots of insects, leaves, flowers, grasses and webs we can see how the rain falls, lands, pools, soaks in, clings, magnifies, reflects and eventually, dries. I love zoomed-in shots that show such detail.

“It thuds./Makes mud./It fills./It spills.”

The close-ups are of creatures and objects found in a backyard garden which makes is seem like anyone can observe the natural beauty of a gentle rainstorm and its aftermath.  The rhyming is simple but dynamic and lets us see and feel what falling and fallen rain is like.

“Yet raindrops remain./They gather./ They glob together.”

At the end, there are a couple of pages that explains a little more about the science of water,  from the physics involved in making a drop of water, how water magnifies and reflect things about them, and how rain connects to the water cycle.

“Raindrops reflect./They reveal./Raindrops highlight what is real.

A terrific classroom book for the elementary grades connecting science and language arts.


“They linger in lines./And when the sun shines…/raindrops slowly dry.”

Monday, April 6, 2015

April is poetry month – Novels in free verse

I’m thinking they should rename this Poetry Awareness Month as I find that I do become more mindful about reading more poetry – at least, in the short term.

For someone who doesn't consider herself a strong reader of poetry, I don’t do badly when I revisit blogs I've written or check back on Goodreads.  Some of my favorites this past year included Poisoned Apples, God Got a Dog, and Forest Has a Song.  

Novels written in verse are plentiful and I do read a fair number of these.  My most recent reads included the Newbery winner, brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson and Crossover by Kwame Alexander.  Loved both of them. My all-time favorite is still Love that Dog by Sharon Creech.

But I did notice that there were a few titles that I hadn't blogged about that I think are worth bringing to your attention.

For the middle grades, I’m recommending The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney.  Situated in Darfur, we meet Amira and her family where life is fraught with uncertainties; farming in areas plagued by drought, few nearby water sources and the potential threat of Janjaweed militants are all factors that make life difficult. Amira is an interesting girl who looks to be an obedient daughter living up to her mother’s views on traditional values but still desires to go to school. An attack on the village that kills Amira’s father forces the family to flee their village and they end up living in a refugee camp. The violence and heartbreak Amira has experienced causes her to withdraw, shutting herself off until an aid worker gives her a red pencil and pad of paper. Once again Amira is determined to fulfill her dream of going to school.  The tone of the narration is a little lyrical but terse, too.  It captures the nature of life in Sudan without being too overwhelming for this age group. The reader yearns for the same things as Amira hoping that her struggle won’t be in vain. Though there is no happy-ending, the novel does end on a hopeful note.

For a slightly younger grade level (grades 3-6), Words with Wings by Nikki Grimes will offer reassurance to daydreamers and kids who struggle in school.  Gaby is daydreamer-extraordinaire, a coping mechanism that helps her deal with the discord and divorce of her parents. Unfortunately, this becomes a problem at school when the teacher notices Gaby ‘zoning out’ too much.  The story, then, is one of learning how to channel Gaby’s attention and powers of imagination in a way that helps her realize her strengths and resiliency.  In a word – poetic.

A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman will appeal to those in grade 7 and up.  As Veda studies traditional Indian dance she dreams of becoming a dancer defying her parent’s ambition for her to become an engineer. After losing part of a leg in an accident, she remains determine to continue dancing but studies with a new teacher who takes her in a new direction. Challenges abound beyond the obvious one of learning to adapt to a prosthetic limb as she learns the ‘art’ of dancing, continues to defy her parents, navigates her feelings about a young man, and copes with the loss of her beloved grandmother. This novel is very atmospheric, capturing family dynamics and Veda’s growth.

Another book about Sudan and a family seeking a more secure life is The Good Braider by Terry Ferrish.  For older readers (grade 9 and up), there is more intensity in the tone of this narrative compared to The Red Pencil mentioned above.  Viola and her family live in constant fear of the militants who occupy their town. Viola has caught the eye of a soldier who inevitably rapes her.  The family leaves behind a beloved grandmother when they make a perilous journey that eventually lands them in Cairo. After an interminable wait, they are able to settle into a large Sudanese community in Portland, Maine. Life maybe more secure but is far from uncomplicated.  When Viola begins school and meeting Americans, she runs up against her mother’s extremely narrow views on proper behavior and appropriate roles.


Each of these novels has beautiful language, taking us into the stories and connecting us with the characters. The succinctness of each ‘chapter’ captures the essence of significant moments and thoughts. I often promote free-verse novels to student-teachers, as useful with reluctant readers and that if done well they can be brilliant. These have all brilliantly told their tales.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Evaluating E-Book Apps for K-12

Toady's blog is written by Paula Hollohan, the Doucette Library's Instructional Technologies and Information Specialist.She writes the blog Doucette Ed Tech. 

Student-teachers often ask us what our opinions are about e-books so I asked Paula to provide a few points to consider when selecting e-books. The Doucette Library has the book apps mentioned here available on iPads that can be loaned out to students from the Werklund School of Education here at the University of Calgary.



By Paula Hollohan
I've been looking at e-book apps for almost a year now and I have to say, evaluating them is an involved process. It is getting easier but e-book content is evolving at the same time.  Here is some advice for evaluating e-book apps for a class set of iPads:
1. Find an e-book that you feel exemplifies what you are looking for. Many evaluators  look at  Bats! Furry Fliers of the Night for a great non-fiction e-book app that exemplifies great augmentation while not being distracting.
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2. Strike a balance between the basic book as a hard copy and the enhancements of the e-book app.  Are the add-ons truly enhancing the reader's experience or distracting from the enjoyment of the book? In this case, you must know your reader or the kinds of readers in your classroom and the amount of interactivity present in the app.  Test out Even Monsters are Shy to see activity, music, and a story. I thought this e-book was mostly balanced but, depending on your readers, it may have too much going on.
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3. Are you looking for an e-book app that you can be embedded in your curriculum or are you looking for technology to check off in the :"I am a technology forward teacher" box?  Adding an e-book app is great if it means that the book is an embedded part of your teaching. Many students learn differently and an enhanced e-book app may reach some very visual students.  For example, Water by Edward Burtynsky can be used across many curriculum areas and grades. It is very visual but has interesting information embedded for units on climate change, environmental responsibility, global citizenship and many social studies and science topics.
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4. Think about how you choose great books for you classroom library. Most of the same criteria apply to e-book apps.  Do you love the illustrations? Can the story be used to model writing? Is it interesting enough for students to go back to again and again.? I would be extra careful with e-book apps. I would experiment with many and read reviews but the ones that you feel are keepers for your classroom may differ from what the critics say.  Can you see yourself recommending an e-book app over and over to different students? Then it is a winner. Do you need one copy or a series of copies on ipads throughout your classroom? That is more expensive and may need to be refreshed from year to year.

5. Have fun! Experiment! Download apps for a panel of students to try.  They are so experienced with technology, you will find out pretty quickly which e-book apps are engaging and which ones are not. And like a hard copy book, an e-book app has a lifespan within your classroom and can be deleted when students are no longer using it. There is no shortage of new apps appearing each day.

Monday, March 23, 2015

I am who I am

Red: a crayon’s story by Michael Hall is one of ‘those’ books.  You know, the books you read and go “Oh!” then a few goose bumps race up and down your arms. Your brain is telling you that this book is going to be great in the classroom!

This is a story about Red.  He’s a crayon who is red.  Except he isn't very good at being a red crayon.  Everything always turns out blue. Red ants are blue. Strawberries are blue. Cherries, hearts and foxes all come out blue.

Even with help from his parents, teachers, and friends, all his pictures turn out to be the wrong colour.  No one quite knows what to do but all have an opinion as to why Red is the way he is.  Some crayons are more understanding than others.  He becomes very frustrated when practice and hard work doesn't make a bit of difference
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But wait! 

A new crayon hits the scene and asks Red to make a blue ocean for her boat.  And, voila! A perfect ocean is drawn by Red. He does a good job.  No one criticizes him or makes excuses.  It  is easy!  So is making blue birds, blue berries and blue whales.  He has finally found out what he was good at doing.

This is a terrific book that looks at identity and individuality in a fun way.  No one has to be stuck with a label.  Finding what each person (or crayon) is good at changes the game and allows for everyone to shine.

Recommended for preschool to grade 3, but why stop there?  Take it to any level and see what happens.

Books to think about pairing with:

Ten Birds by Cybele Young is also about labeling.

This is a Moose by Richard T. Morris about following your heart’s desire and not letting anyone but you in a box.

The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt keeps with the crayon theme though the story is about appreciating things we take for granted.





All recommended for the primary grades.

Monday, March 16, 2015

World Water Day 2015 - Sustainability



This Sunday, March 22 is World Water Day. This is a day designated to celebrate, raise awareness, and change the way we think about and access water, especially for those in the world who suffer for lack of clean water.  This year's theme is sustainability.  Visit the official website to learn more and get posters and banners to display in support.

A very timely arrival into the Doucette Library is Anna Carries Water by Olive Senior good for the primary grades.

It's about a group of children given the important job of collecting water for everyday household use such as drinking, cooking, washing dishes, or cleaning teeth. Anna, the youngest, is frustrated because she hasn't picked up the knack of carrying her water container on her head like the others. She does eventually overcome her lack of ability. They collect the water from a fairly fast moving, clean-looking river. The landscape is full of green hills, pastures and trees. This is a day-in-the-life kind of book, that would raise the question as to why children have to go a collect water from a river. It's not focused on accessed to clean water.

The story takes place on an island in the Caribbean.  It just so happens, that last year, I spent a little over two weeks on the Caribbean island on Carriacou part of Grenada and came across a similar scene as the opening in this book -- a group of children carrying large plastic containers of water, though not on their heads. Essentially, there is a wet season and dry season here.  I was there in April towards the end of the dry season and things were pretty dry; brown, dry grass, leafless trees and no standing water for wildlife or domestic animals.  There are few wells and no rivers.  Water is collected during the wet season using household catchment systems. When water runs low, people and animals do without. 
Water is at the core of sustainable development. Water resources, and the range of services they provide, underpin poverty reduction, economic growth and environmental sustainability. From food and energy security to human and environmental health, water contributes to improvements in social well-being and inclusive growth, affecting the livelihoods of billions. -- from unwater.org
Another terrific nonfiction book that ties in perfectly with World Water Day is Every Last Drop: bringing clean water home by Michelle Mulder. Here you will learn how people throughout history have obtained, used and disposed of water.  Current practices for water use around the world are found in the second half of the book with a smattering of information about sanitation - the often overlooked component of the clean water initiative. I recommend this for the middle grades as a way to delve further into the issues about water.

In last week's blog, I mentioned an enhance e-book app that was also a recent acquisition for the Doucette Library.  Water by Edward Burtinsky is well worth looking perusing as it looks at water issues through the eye of an artist.  This is best used at high school levels and up.

Happy Water Day, Everyone!

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