Monday, November 28, 2016

Writer’s block at the starting gate

I’m starting today’s post with a, “When I was in school...” story.

When I was in school, I dreaded hearing the teacher tell the class that today was the day we were going to write a story. That we’d use our imaginations to write stories about fabulous places and interesting characters doing who knows what. No sooner were the words spoken and I was panicking because every thought I might have had was gone.

Blank. Zip. Nada.

But maybe if I’d been given an idea to start with, say an open ended scenario, a stimulating
picture, a pertinent or perplexing prompt then maybe, just maybe, I wouldn’t have felt so lost.

Once Upon a Line by Wallace Edwards is one such book to provide story starters for struggling writers. It has a clever premise that every story begins with “Once upon a line”, line referring to the first sentence of the story as well as a physical line used in illustrating this picture book. Wallace presents the reader with the challenge of finding a very particular shaped line that is found in each illustration. (See image below.) I did find this challenging. Kids might like this component more than I did.

But I can see this book being particularly useful as a classroom tool for getting students to come up with some pretty intriguing stories. The format is a one page illustration, captioned with “Once upon a line,” and then an open ended statement that connects to the illustrations and needs to be finished by the reader.

For example, “Once upon a line, there was a knight who was allergic to horses. This was not a problem because…” is paired with an illustration of a trio of medieval knights riding into battle (maybe?) but one of them is sitting on an octopus.


Once upon a line, Captain Kurd grew eager to sight land. If he didn’t find land soon, he was going to have to…” which shows a small boat with two mice holding musical instruments and the captain who happens to be a chunk of cheese searching for land using his eyeglass.

The illustrations are nicely composed with fanciful and sometimes humorous images that will help struggling writers construct their stories.  Still, lots is left for the imagination to get a work out but the pressure for creating the original idea is eliminated.

Other picture books to check out for story starters are:

Fish on a Walk by Eva Muggenthaler (lots of surreal images and only two word prompts to get a story started)

Breakfast on a Dragon’s Tail by Martin Springett (interesting illustrations with a good chuck of a story provided and a couple of questions to help spark ideas) and finally,

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg (my personal favorite, a classic picture book with a single super realistic, surreal illustration and only a single sentence to spark the reader’s curiosity.)

I’d recommend these books for upper elementary and into junior high.

Monday, November 21, 2016

If it’s broke…keep on breaking…

In last week’s post, I recommended a book I thought would be a great fit in an elementary, STEM classroom.  This week I have another book that would also work well in a STEM or STEAM classroom but would work across many grade levels.

Things Come Apart by Todd McLellan falls into the coffee table book category because the photographs are so provocative and will appeal to a wide range of ages.  The premise of the book is looking at all the parts of everyday appliances, mechanical devices and constructed objects. For example, let’s say you’re keen to know about the inner workings of a mechanical pencil or a 1928 mantel clock or a 1964 Smith-Corona typewriter or a 1912 upright piano or a 2002 iPod 2 or a 2012 two-seater light aircraft (you get the idea, a range of things over several decades) or what it’s made of, then this book is for you.

All of these devices (plus 44 others) are entirely disassembled by the author. Every single piece, from the smallest screw to the largest casings are included and arranged in very attractive layouts (my favourite is the 1960s accordion) on one page and with a corresponding page showing all the parts falling through the air.  The piano and airplane are the exceptions and have pull out spreads to show us the entirety of their discombobulated glory.

So what’s the value of this?

In the field of education, you may have become aware of the Maker Movement. It’s all about getting children back to using their hands to create things both low and higher tech. (Think origami paper cranes to clothes that are programmed to light-up.) But if you think about creating something or exploring an idea then it’s sometimes really useful to think what the opposite of this thing, idea or process is (in this case, deconstructing) as a way to develop a different understanding of the object, idea or process.

(If you’re keen to read more about the Maker Movement go to Paula Hollohan’s blog, Doucette Ed Tech to see additional resources and information.)

Included are five essays by experts in various fields who explore the idea of taking things a part or putting them together or how repairing, reusing or repurposing objects touch on sustainability issues. These essays are more for an adult level or senior high level student.

So, go grab those old toasters, computer printers and TVs that are sitting idly in your basement or garage. Let a new journey begin with loosening a screw or two. What are you waiting for?

Monday, November 14, 2016

Live and learn - wool sweaters can shrink in the wash.

Though Funny Machines for George the Sheep by Geraldine Elschner and Remi Saillard is a book to introduce elementary students to the genius and inventions of Leonardo da Vinci, it is one with potential for more than just that.

First, meet George.  He’s a sheep.  He’s a sheep with a problem. His problem is shrinking to the size of a mouse every time he gets wet when it rains. When the sun comes out – phfff! – he’s big again.  Leo, the shepherd, resolves to find a solution to help George with his problem.

After stocking up on the various implements he needs to begin designing his new invention, we see Leo’s struggle to come up with a device that will help George. Eventually he settles on an umbrella shaped like a tall pyramid. Great design but there’s a flaw.

The first big gust of wind to come along whisks poor, old George off into the wild blue yonder. Seemingly unperturbed, George enjoys his aeriel view of the countryside and better still, the image of a pretty female sheep composed of fluffy clouds.

And, Leo?  He’s back at the drawing board looking for a way to find his lost, high-flying sheep.

The devices or machines that Leo devises are all based on Leonardo da Vinci’s designs which we can learn more about from the back of the book. Included are the self-propelled car, the army tank, the ornithopter, the paddleboat and the pyramidal parachute. Additional information is included about da Vinci, his genius and his inventions.

The book itself is OK. It’s been translated from French which I think accounts for some of the clunkiness. The ending is pretty abrupt with no resolution other than Leo happily dreaming up some invention to help him find George with oddly, no sense of urgency. I guess George will be found all in good time. I like the cartoony illustrations which have a European flavor and depict a landscape that remind me of paintings of northern Europe – Holland or northern France, maybe. 

What I really like about this book is it's potential in a STEM classroom as a way to introduce the concept of design thinking, innovation, problem solving, and perseverance.

In design thinking there are five stages of development starting with fully understanding the problem (empathy). Leo is in a position to learn all about George’s problem and why it needs to be fixed.  The second stage is defining the problem more fully leading to step three where the designer begins coming up with ideas, all sorts of ideas with no limitations (the crazier the better) that might begin to address the problem.  These two stages are represented in the book as Leo begins working out and drawing up plans for different machines. The last stages are more concrete, as a prototype is constructed and then further refined as the designer gets feedback on the suitability of the final product.

Does Leo construct a device for George that works at keeping him dry? We never do find out as George remains missing in action and the book ends. But this provides an opportunity to have your students take up the challenge and come up with their own solutions to prevent George from shrinking every time it rains.

If you’re interested in learning more about design thinking visit the Doucette Library’s library subject guide. Also, visit the blog Doucette Ed Tech written by my colleague, Paula Hollohan. I’ve linked to the tag for design thinking.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Odd Octopus Out …and Bob

Today’s post is all about acceptance and finding one’s true self.

And me wondering, “What’s with octopuses?”

Not that I’m against octopuses. In fact, my fascination with giant squids has extended to octopuses after reading a very interesting book last summer called, The Soul of An Octopus by Sy Montgomery. (She’s also the author of many of books in the series, Scientists in the Field, a fantastic series worth checking out.) 

Cephalopods rock!


Let’s start with Hello, My Name is Octicorn by Kevin Diller and Justin Lowe. In this book, we meet Octi. Octi is half unicorn and half octopus. A rare breed, indeed. And he has a difficult time fitting in but really, really wants a friend. He has so much to offer, too: tons-o- fun at parties, excellent at juggling and various sports especially swimming, light on his tentacles when he hits the dance floor and an exceptional hugger. Things to know about octicorns include: how much they love s’mores, recess, and the colour blue as well as cupcakes (because who doesn’t like cupcakes?).

The humour comes across in the illustrations particularly well with simple blackline drawings on white pages. Some of my favourites include Octi break dancing and spinning on his horn; Octi toasting a s’more over a campfire also speared onto his horn; and Octi’s tentacles entangled around the bars of a merry-go-round. The book is a gentle exploration of how differences, whether in looks or interests, shouldn’t be impediments to making friends. The book ends with Octi inviting the reader to be his friend and he eagerly awaits our reply.

Then there’s The Octopuppy by Martin McKenna. 

“Edgar wanted a dog. But Edgar didn’t get a dog. He got Jarvis.”

And Jarvis is an octopus which was major disappointment, to say the least.

But Jarvis can do so much more than a dog. He’s multi-talented and exceptional in a multitude of ways and so, so eager to please Edgar.

But what he can’t do is ‘be a dog’ and after disappointing Edgar once too often Jarvis decides to run away from home or should I say ‘flush-away’ from home.

And this is exactly the moment when Edgar realizes how much more Jarvis has to offer than a dog. Why, he’ll rescue a kitten stranded high in a tree instead of chasing it; he prefers smelling roses to smelling poop; and he’s more likely to create a delicious meal rather than make-off with your food.

“He’s the best OCTOPUPPY in the world!”

Edgar then searches high and low and is finally able to get the word out about how sorry he is and desperately wants Jarvis to please come home.

Jarvis is not an octopuppy to hold a grudge and home he comes to be reunited with Edgar and live happily-ever-after.

I loved it for its premise and the colourful, zany illustrations. This one is just so much fun.

And then there’s Bob.

Bob, the Artist by Marion Denchars is about a bird who is teased about his super, skinny legs. He tries to fit in by trying to make them bigger but it’s just not possible. Rather despondent,he goes for a long walk and passes by an art gallery. He goes in and is---


 After viewing many beautiful, colourful and patterned pieces of art he realizes that this will be the answer to his problems. He will paint his beak in beautiful patterns like Matisse or Jackson Pollock. And those who had mocked him for his skinny legs? Well, they are so impressed with Bob’s talent that they change their tune to one of praise and admiration. Bob no longer worries about his legs and comes to feel more comfortable in his own skin confident enough to be who he really is.

The illustrations work well with the narrative with a crow-like Bob strikingly displayed on mostly white backgrounds. The font is loose and splashy (maybe done by hand?) that adds to the overall appeal of the books.

I recommend all three books for Kindergarten to grade 3.

 And look forward to seeing more octopuses in picture books.

Template Design | Elque 2007