Storyworks Junior: #OnlineLearning Tool Extraordinaire

I grew up getting “Highlights” in the mail. All I remember doing was circling the stuff where two seemingly identical pictures varied. I never read anything from any of the magazines. Storyworks Junior is very different! 

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You can make your own games out of text. #STEAM Tweet shows Polite Pirates connecting to text

First of all, there isn’t any coloring or games. But, that does’t mean they aren’t fun. On the contrary, the articles and literature within each bimonthly magazine is more intellectually engaging than anything else I’ve witnessed. A traditional paper magazine arrives in my teacher mailbox every other month with a four page educator outline of the periodical. The outline gives overviews of the magazine’s stories, skills, and online tools that are available. 

Storyworks Junior is not that old. It began four years ago, as an offshoot of the Storyworks magazine for 4th, 5th, and older grades. This “Junior” version covers the same type of material as the original, but is tailored for ages 7 – 10 (third grade and advanced second graders). 

The magazine is perfect for the young minds that I teach because it has just the right amount of information. Each issue starts off with a literary appetizer that looks like the kid version of something you’d find in Time. Some favorites are about “The Best Pet,” “Why Do Animals Have Tails,” and more recently “The Fattest Bear In Alaska.” These two page articles have minimal text, contain funny ideas, and provide interesting pictures to get you thinking. It takes five minutes to read these pages, but a creative educator could spend a week right here! 

Every issue has a feature story that is nonfiction. These usually come from the editor, Lauren Tarshis, author of the “I Survived” series. This report was supposed to be about an online resource, and so far I haven’t even mentioned the powerful online component Screen Shot 2020-05-07 at 7.49.42 AMof this incredible magazine! Well, buckle up, because here is where Storyworks Junior shines. I used to think that you have to read a book, before watching its cinematic rendition. If you witness the movie, the ending of the story will be ruined! Storyworks Junior, along with some accompanying research has changed this mentality for me. The featured story for each magazine has a video that you show before the students read it. This video is accessed through the StoryworksJr.com website. It not only has the story read to you by the actual author, but there are images and video that help kids visualize the text. One of my favorites was the story about the revolutionary war. The video had tasteful battle recreation scenes that made the story’s setting come to life, without being too scary for little kids. How do you do that with words? 

Screen Shot 2020-05-07 at 8.12.44 AM.png“Does the video give away the ending of the story?” you may wonder. While it does answer the burning question of whether the main character survived, more than that, it gives students a mental literary road map for when they read the story on their own. They know what to expect. The video shows some of the text as it is being read, in between dramatizations of the story. Also, it provides vocabulary words with definitions in the middle of the screen when they are mentioned in the text. 

If you stop to think about it, nothing is lost because the title gives away the answer, anyway: “I Survived.” You read and watch to find out what kind of hardships the kid survived.

Screen Shot 2020-05-07 at 7.54.59 AM.pngThe video isn’t the only online tool that Storyworks Junior provides. Every feature story comes in a variety of differentiated versions for beginners, intermediate, and advanced readers. And, don’t forget about those English as a Second Language readers! There is a text for them, too. These texts, along with vocabulary slideshows, worksheet packets, and quizzes, all made by Scholastic, can be shared via the Google classroom. Before Coronavirus imprisoned everyone at home, I used to print some of these packets for kids to fill in while reading/listening to the story. Then I’d let the kids use their work to take the quizzes that I nearly always altered a little. You can easily do this because the quizzes are Google forms.

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You can seamlessly assign StoryworksJr resources through Google classroom or provide PDF versions for printing.

Screen Shot 2020-05-07 at 7.36.18 AM.pngLet me backup a little. One thing that I love about assigning the Storyworks Junior magazine work online is that students can listen to the text. Scholastic knows the power of audio, so they have made every version of the story available in “Text to Speech” mode.

But, if you turn “Speech” on in the “Accessibility” section of the settings on your iPad, every single text from a screen can be read to students. When I type my own questions and information into quizzes in Google Forms, I can have students listen to the questions, explanations, and instructions. My aim with online learning is for kids to be able to do their work independently. I don’t want parents to be bogged down with reading or explaining things to their children. Between text to speech and in turn students using “Speech to Text” to type, I rest assured that my Polite Pirates have the tools in their hands to communicate their thinking to me.

There are many educators connecting and chatting online about Storyworks Junior articles and teaching tools. You could join the Facebook group or tag them on Twitter. Use #StoryworksJr to share information. 

 

License to Poetry

 

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William Blake’s Ah! Sun-Flower: Poem Analysis. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://schoolworkhelper.net/william-blakes-ah-sun-flower-poem-analysis/

In my youth poetry was as elusive to me as calculus. It seemed unnecessarily complex and celebrated by the elite of literature. I wasn’t fond of reading in general back then. I definitely wasn’t going to champion wrestling over the hidden meaning of a poem.

 

And, really, if you want us to know that the sunflower symbolizes the afterlife, William Blake, just say so! Are poets trying to be annoying? In the same way no one imagines ever actually using calculus, poetry seemed worthless to me.

Songs_of_Innocence_and_of_Experience,_copy_AA,_1826_(The_Fitzwilliam_Museum)_object_43_My_Pretty_Rose_Tree_(cropped).jpgThen I became an elementary teacher. Poems are everywhere! Teachers begin the day with them. They are read on the morning announcements. Magazines end with them. Children’s literature is littered with them. Come to find out, some of my favorite authors celebrate poetry throughout their texts. Roald Dahl’s novels are packed with poetry. How did I never see this?

 

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Searching my Google drive revealed this poem I wrote in 2013!

Beyond the fact that I wouldn’t be escaping poetry, two things happened. I realized that this was a weakness. If I were a musician, I was playing rock and roll, ignoring the tendon of blues music that connected the muscle of contemporary privilege culture to the soul of bone-crushing hardship. Disregarding poetry would leave my students malnourished in the area of literary arts. The second realization I discovered was how interesting poetry can be. Come to find out it was fun to read and surprisingly easy to write!

 

I will say that before delving into this topic, I had to let go of the idea that only smart people can understand or read poetry. The fact that I might not “get it,” and would therefore feel dumb was holding me back from reading poetry. The concept that if I couldn’t write great poetry it would reveal a deficient intellect had to be released. Had I been defensively shielding myself from feelings of inferiority by purposefully ignoring this artful literature? Coming to grips with this possibility was the key for unlocking a love of poetry. 

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The librarian pulled a ton of poetry books for kids to hunt the styles after learning about them.
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These screenshots show comments between the librarian and I in 2014.

The first thing I did was prepare to teach the subject that I knew precious little about. I find that teaching helps me learn. I shared this idea with my school librarian, and the two of us planned to collaborate on a fun project of teaching several styles of poetry to my class. I convinced the librarian to use Google slides to make a slideshow that we could both add information to simultaneously and from any device. She hadn’t used this tool before. Sharing the same love of learning, my librarian jumped right in to figuring out this great collaboration tool.

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Link to Styles of Poetry slideshow for anyone interested to use, copy, and share

I learned poetry. The librarian learned Google slides. And, together we developed an exciting and fun interactive lesson that I still use to this day! Students are given a graphic organizer that has the names of the styles of poetry that they are about to learn on one side, five empty stars next to the name, and lines for writing. As they learn about the styles, they rate how they like them. In addition to coloring in stars, students are to write down a reason as to why they like or dislike  a style. I guide them through this activity, sharing some of my own opinions. We explore examples of the poetry, and even try writing some of our own. 

 

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Blog post “Poetry is Classy” has a poem (“Spelling Story”) about the homonym spell. It teaches the importance of spelling while demonstrating poetry’s liberty for misspelling. 

I by no means consider myself an expert on poetry. I have not read very much of it. The main change is that I am not afraid of it anymore. I’ve even tried writing some.

It helps that my audience is eight and nine-year-olds! By penning my own poetry and sharing it with my class, I am modeling giving it a try, even if you’re not good at it.

 

 

Not only that, but it is truly fun. One of the things that I like about poetry is the ability to break the rules. Like many things, it is important to know the rules, before breaking them. And then you don’t destroy grammar as much as bend it. My third graders are still a little young to truly understand “poetic license,” but they get the idea of bending rules. That’s for sure!

 

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I devised this “Grammar City” two week lesson in 2015, making metaphors of constructing buildings to symbolize the structure inherent in writing.

How do you share poetry? Why do you teach it? Why do you think poetry is important?

 

 

Communication During Online Learning

Anyone finding it tricky to communicate effectively with students and families during this 100% online learning experience?

A friend of mine uses Seesaw to share information with parents and students. This teacher is able to send blasts to her class with realtime, to-the-second info about things like Google meeting times and links, as well as clarification on Google classroom assignments. These same kiddos and parents have direct access to their teacher to ask questions and request explanations at any time of the day. This could be overwhelming at both ends of the communique, which leads me to wonder…

What is the ideal style of communication between Teacher and Class during Online Learning?

Seesaw isn’t the only app that fosters direct communication between parents and teachers. The Bloomz app is another powerful tool for connecting educators with homes. These social-media-style apps require logins, so they are safe for sharing personal information. This allows teachers to feel safe posting pictures of students, including names, and providing school information that would otherwise be too revealing on an open social media platform like Facebook or Twitter. Can the app be too social, though?

When group messages are posted, and parents “Thanks” and “Thumbs up” the message, each response goes to everyone. If you have “notifications turned on” on your phone or device, it dings over and over… Then families end up turning off the notifications and end up missing valuable information.

Classdojo is an app that I have used in the classroom. This one allows teachers to not only share information with homes, but educators can provide instant feedback concerning classroom behavior. With the proper settings and notifications, parents can be notified as to how their kid is doing throughout the day in a realtime way. Pictures, videos, and messages can also be communicated. Personally, I found that I was tied to the app, constantly looking for student icons to add information to, rather than actually addressing my students.

Additionally, when I used Classdojo, but this could be applied to any of these and other apps, families became accustomed to and dependent on the reporting. Teachers can become captives to communication!

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I’ve embedded a “Learning Plan” full of activities for the week into my classroom website. I try to “Link” as many items as possible to lessen the amount of “Searching.”

And, what about those families who are seemingly unreachable? Teachers collect all kinds of information at the beginning of the year; email addresses, phone numbers, best way(s) to communicate, etc. I’ve emailed, made phone calls, and texted. I want to respect people’s privacy, and not force my teaching onto their family life, but also make the educational experience reachable. I view my attempts at contact as throwing a pedagogical rope. If a family wants or needs some time to itself, they need not grab the string. It is there for them, though.

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I supplied videos and Google slideshows through the classroom website, as well.
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I love that this family got this assignment the way they knew how!

I have chosen to use a Google classroom to provide my online teaching. Because my school district uses Google and all of my students have Google accounts and are versed in Google apps, it was a no brainer. There are other platforms, but I imagine they behave similarly: Educators can post assignments, leave feedback, make announcements, and share links through an app that looks and behaves much like a social media platform. There is a “stream” of activity that teacher and students can scroll through to find things. Items are listed chronologically. Like the other apps, Google classroom provides the opportunity for families to be “notified” when there is app activity; when teachers post things to the classroom.

We return to my original question: What is the best communication between educators and families?

Too much could turn off families, causing them to literally “turn off” notifications. Not enough, and families will not be trained to depend on or look to the platform for updated information/assignments.

Composing this blog from an educator’s perspective, I am finding it difficult to locate my students’ work. In the physical classroom, I’d model and explain instructions to my whole-group of Polite Pirates (students) before posting a Google slideshow to the online classroom for them to engage with. Everyone heard the same message, and I was even available in person to aid students who needed guidance. Now that we are completely online, I am finding myself making movies to reiterate expectations. Luckily, I was able to train my class in the usage of the Google classroom before we were locked out of the school building!

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The flag next to the slide indicates there is a comment attached to it. The yellow box shows what the comment is attached to.

Here is a frustrating situation: I post an “Optional” assignment in the Google classroom. It is a Google slideshow that students can interact with; A copy was produced for each student. Because it is optional, students don’t have to do it. Do I have to check them all? I ought to honor the work of anyone willing to put in this extra effort! I have devised a system that could help me, and empower student work to be found for feedback. Simply tell me that you did the optional work in a comment with in the Google classroom. Additionally, in a slideshow made up of many slides, leave a comment on the slide that you worked on. In this way, students will be “flagging” their work. These comments are hands in the air saying, “Look over here; I did some work I want you to look at.”

I like the idea of “Less is More,” shared by iTeach:iMother on March 24th, 2020.

I am going to share this idea with my parents and pirates today. We’ll see how it works. What are some tips and tricks that you have used to streamline communication during this online learning experience? How can the connection between educator and pupil homes be made tight, clear, unhindered, unobtrusive, and most helpful? I’d love to hear from parents, teachers, administrators, app developers, and more! Comment below, and let’s make this out-of-school schooling as productive and beneficial as possible!

Not All Online Learning Is Created Equal

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Scarlet is a pro when it comes to imaginative play. 

Along with every other kid in the world, my 8 year old daughter Scarlet is experiencing at home, online learning during the “Stay at Home” novel Coronavirus Pandemic. She is receiving daily assignments of online activities. As I’ve been witnessing hers and preparing my own, I am evaluating what makes the most effective distance learning tools.

Recently, Scarlet was asked to log into a math website and complete a task geared toward teaching coin-counting. This cartoon animation had her making 25 cents with nickels and dimes. 

I try to let Scarlet do her online learning with as little distraction as possible, but this got to be too much for me! She was dragging coins to a spot on the screen until she accumulated 25 cents, and then it would celebrate her accomplishment with a silly jingle. I felt like my daughter was turning into a chimpanzee. 

IMG_6461I closed the device she was using and drew a grid. “I’m going to teach you a homonym; a multiple-meaning word,” I told her. “This is a table; not the kind you eat on. You use this to make sense of numbers.” 

We made a few tables with varying totals and different coins available. She made many different combinations of coins to show the same amount.

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Manipulatives help kids visualize math. 

While filling in a row of varying coins totaling a dollar, Scarlet made a slight mistake. The table already had one half dollar and one quarter. She wrote “5” in the nickels column which made me happy, but then she wrote “2” in the dimes space. I knew what had happened. She equated the value of one nickel with the number to be written in the field. No biggie. As it turned out, we happened to have toy coins that I had dug out of the closet. I presented the actual coinage on the carpet. Scarlet almost didn’t let me get out all five nickels, having realized her mistake. 

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If/Then problem solving; Cause & Effect relationships

Eventually, I made some puzzles where I would fill in certain coin fields and have Scarlet solve the missing number. “If you are making one dollar out of pennies, nickels, and dimes, and you have 8 dimes & 3 nickels, how many pennies will you have?” Not only did Scarlet solve the problem easily, but when I asked her to describe what she had done in her head, she walked me through her thinking

 

Thinking.

 

This is what was missing from the chimpanzee-producing online practice. The software allowed Scarlet to drop coins onto a spot on the screen and either rewarded her with a jingle or delivered a negative noise. It was up to Scarlet to figure out what worked best for getting the jingle to happen: Pull the lever to get the banana. 

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Follow Up Blog: “How Coding Can Be Taught Through Solving An Empty Field In A Math Table”

I’ve witnessed software programs that stop a kid after a few wrong answers and reteach a concept before allowing the student to continue an activity. Another way to check for thinking is having students type or video-record their reasoning for an answer. Then the educator can interact with the thinking, praising accurate steps, guiding ideas, and correcting missteps. 

The closer to simulating the tailored responses of a human teacher an online program can produce, the more thinking it will stimulate in the student. How can you make a program applicable to the most practitioners, while simultaneously being tailored to the most personalized outcomes/answers?

A Holy Kind of Classiness: Helping Others

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I felt like yelling this into comments to my students.

Today I assigned a writing assignment for the Polite Pirates (my 3rd grade students) to complete during their sequestered online-learning  experience during the novel coronavirus pandemic. The prompt was simple: “Tell of a time you helped someone.” In the instructions I told that this ought to take them a few days. I gave them a planning paper, loads of directions for using the writing process, and clear expectations.

As is always inevitably the case, several students submitted their work on the first day. On first glance, it looks like more time and renewed encouragement would be in order. It dawned on me that rather than say, “You must have at least five sentences,” an example text could be more useful. I sat down to put together something to share with them, and the following story, seemed to seep from my skin. 

This is probably the classiest thing I have ever done, and it is so simple. What is the classiest thing that you have ever done?

When I was a kid, my dad and I raked leaves a lot. We would clean up the leaves in the fall, of course, but we would also rake the yard in the spring. Because my yard had many large, mature trees, there seemed to be endless leaves to collect. Needless to say, I had a lot of practice raking.

There were two houses whose backyards butted up against mine. One had a fence around it. The other belonged to an elderly gentleman, whom I’d only seen a couple of times. He lived alone in a small, one story ranch. The yard was small, too, and it sloped downward, toward mine. 

One day I was just messing around in my backyard, when I noticed my elderly neighbor attempting to rake leaves in his backyard. He had a hunched back, which is to say, he could not stand up straight. Even though there were only a few, it looked like he was really struggling to pick up the leaves to put them into a yard barrel. He moved so slow! I knew I could clean up his yard in a fraction of the time it would take him. I went and got my rake out of my garage. Without ever saying a word, I began to help the gentleman rake and pick up his leaves. It was a breeze for me, being a spry 9 or 10!

I never said one word. I just joined my neighbor in his task. He never thanked me. I wasn’t given anything for this sacrifice of playtime. It felt pretty good to use the skills and experience I’d acquired over the years to help someone who really needed it. 

This story would be over, but for a unique experience I had when I went inside my house to get a drink. I’d just finished helping the old man with his leaves, and put my rake away. As I entered my house, I found my mom in the kitchen, looking out a back window with tears in her eyes. Although I hadn’t known she was looking at the time, I now realized that my mom had seen what I’d done when I helped our neighbor. When she looked at me, I could tell that her tears were trophies of pride. She didn’t say anything to me. She didn’t hug me or get me a drink. Now that I am a parent, I understand that she was so swollen with happiness that she would have popped if she had moved. 

I never shared this with anyone… ever. My mom and I never talked about it. 

The moral of this story is that it is classy to share the skills that you have learned and develop to help others, regardless of whether you get anything in return. Don’t do it, thinking that someone could be watching. Do it in order to grow into the best person you can be. 

I didn’t share what I witnessed in my mom’s demeanor in order to boast. In fact, now that I think about it, I imagine that deep down inside I knew that this was something too special to speak of flippantly. It was the kind of goodness that is too holy to talk about. It is the good that radiates from the marrow of a classy person’s bones. 

I stumbled upon it that day. Make no mistake: This was an accidental good deed. The lesson cut deep, though. I’ll never forget it. 

Inspired Writing With Kidblog

What’s the best writing activity you’ve ever done with your class? Have you ever tricked your students into wanting to write a ton? How’d you do it? What do you use to inspire creative writing?

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I’ve never witnessed more passionate writing before or since.

The most entertaining writing I ever witnessed my students perform came as a spur of the moment activity. Completely unplanned, an explosion of blogging happened in my class, thanks to Kidblog and creativity. 

There are so many reasons that I love teaching third grade! One is that this is oftentimes the last year that personification is more than just a literary element. Leprechauns actually hide gold. There is a Tooth-fairy; “How else do you explain the money under my pillow–and, my tooth was gone!” I can get away with using puppets. Santa totally has a list, and he sends elves to check on things immediately after Thanksgiving.

Screen Shot 2020-04-04 at 7.18.40 PM.pngHolly is my classroom’s Elf on the Shelf. She appears every year on the first day of school after Thanksgiving. Most students know the rules already. Many have their own elf at home. Each year’s students behaves differently. One year the Polite Pirates (my students) absolutely fell in love with Holly! 

Throughout the day, while I was trying to teach, students were writing notes to Holly. They knew they couldn’t touch her, so they snuck the notes as close as they dared. There was an impressive pile at the end of the day.

What did I do with all of these notes? The tiny papers were full of love, teeming with curiosity, and fueled by Christmas magic. I brought them home, and Holly began a Kidblog profile within our classroom account. 

At 5AM Tuesday morning she began to type. She shared good tidings from Santa, whom she had visited during the night, as she does every evening between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Then she jumped right into thanking the Polite Pirates for all of their enthusiastic writing to her and began answering their questions.

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By making blogs “Public” parents and others without accounts can access Kidblog writing.

I don’t know how she did it, because you have to have a teacher profile to make your blogs in Kidblog “public”. Holly must have used some Christmas magic in order to foster faster reading of her blog. The students didn’t even have to log into their accounts before reading Holly’s message. 

The class had already been using Kidblog, so they were actively checking to see if friends had left comments when they found Holly’s new blog. Before morning announcements began the room was already a buzz with imaginative play. 

All in all, Holly wrote only nine blogs, but she replied to hundreds of comments! The variety of student writing was interesting. Some students wrote lengthy diary-style entries from home. Others had to jump right into their kidblog accounts right then and there to ask Holly, “How’d you do it? Are you real?” among other pertinent questions. Holly tended to reward students’ writing by mirroring their compositions with a similar amount of text, thought, and imagination. She was classy, creative, communicative, and caring. 

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Holly modeled friendship, as she became the students’ friend.
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Holly taught the students how to be friends.
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At times impromptu grammar lessons were shared.
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Holly took on the role of listening ear for some journaling writers.

In addition to her writing, Holly enjoyed taking pictures of her hiding spots. She’d leave clues in the header of her blogs as to where she was camped out for the day. 

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Viewing the classroom from an alternative perspective, Holly taught the Polite Pirates empathy.

The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) sub-standard 3.A reads, “Create experiences for learners to make positive, socially responsible contributions and exhibit empathetic behavior online that build relationships and community.” This falls under the category of Citizen. Not only did the Polite Pirates welcome Holly into the classroom as a legit member of the crew, but Holly helped eight and nine-year-olds see life from a different angle… It was new every day, in fact, whether she blogged or not! Also, Holly’s positive relationships with the shelf-elves of the students, modeled through her commenting on Polite Pirate inquiries, were lessons in themselves. 

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A passion for writing comes from passionate writing.

When Christmas vacation took Holly from us, the joy of winter break was bitter sweet. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed more passionate writing before or since. What have you used to inspire imaginative writing?

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This was a really fun and exciting teaching experience.

 

Problematic Writing

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Jodi Picoult

Have you ever heard of the Problem Novel? According to Amy Pattee’s (n.d.) blog about Problem Novels, this genre presents a hot button social issue, explores it from various angles and leaves the reader to make his/her own judgements in the end. Jodi Picoult is a master writer in this field.

I have read many Jodi Picoult books that would fit this definition. “The Tenth Circle” deals with sex. It’s hard to imagine a more touchy teenage topic! Picoult has you squirm in your seat as she wields her words, weaving a web of deceit and mistrust. What causes what in this seemingly cause/effect story? The problems paramount as infidelity matures into murder. Where does it stop? 

Another Picoult book, and one that made her mainstream, is “My Sister’s Keeper”. Made into a movie, this story is about a girl, Anna, entering her teen years having lived, it seems, only as a surrogate for her older sister, Kate. Kate has had Leukemia for years. She requires Anna’s help to stay alive. In fact, it feels like Anna was conceived in order to keep Kate alive! This life or death problem goes deeper as Anna tries to wrestle with her own identity. 

Problem writing can be dark. Picoult brings the reader to death’s door, and sometimes even allows you a peek inside. Amy Pattee mentions the book “The Girl in the Box” (1988, Joy St. Books) as an example. In this story a girl is kidnapped and placed in a cement cell. She never sees her captor or anyone else, is given water and only barely enough food for sustenance, has to use the bathroom in a plastic bag, but [apparently] has a typewriter and plenty of paper to document the whole experience. As I read Pattee’s description of this problem novel, I thought it was the perfect metaphor for authors exploring the deepest corners of thought. Ouida Sebestyen, author of “The Girl in the Box”, created this cement cell in his mind. Then he lived the horrors of this girl by imagining her feelings, fears, hopes, and actions. 

2319392409_0222e7006c_bWhat makes problem novels riveting is their realistic nature. The events and situations within these tales are only as captivating as they are imaginable. In Picoult’s “The Tenth Circle” the daughter of an adulterer is date-raped. As it turns out, the perpetrator is the young girl’s ex boyfriend. The teacher of story-telling knows that every tale must present a problem. The line between “Realistic Fiction” and a text being a “Problem Novel” lies in the intent of the text. While a Problem Novel would fall into the category of Realistic Fiction, in that it is believable, the all-consuming problem of the story has the reader completely wrapped up in constant conflict. You are  reading ONLY to find out the answer to the problem. And, be forewarned, the better the Problem Novel, the less likely you will be provided a solution!

This reminds me of my “Controversy Can Be Classy” project. The concepts that Picoult presents would be considered controversial, because of their reasonableness. Yacek speaks of a controversy as being “alive” when it is believable in his paper, Thinking Controversially: The Psychological Condition for Teaching Controversial Issues (2018). He explains that both sides of a problem must be a realistic solution. This is where the masterful writing of a good Problem Novel comes into play. The more realistic the problem, setting, and characters, the more empathetic the reader will be. 

6574157971_97ffd06208_b.jpgHave you read any good Problem Novels? What might attract someone to read this genre? Why would an author choose to write this type of book? How does reading a Problem Novel help you? 

Sources:

Pattee, A. (n.d.). YA or STFU: Got a Problem with Problem Novels? Retrieved March 22, 2020, from https://www.kirkusreviews.com/news-and-features/articles/ya-or-stfu-got-problem-problem-novels/#continue_reading_post

Yacek, D. (2018). Thinking Controversially: The Psychological Condition for Teaching Controversial Issues. Journal of Philosophy of Education,52(1), 71-86. Retrieved August 5, 2019.

Where does Inspiration Come From?

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Imagine: All of Frankenstein came from the vision of a yellow eye!

Do you ever wonder where the ideas for a great novel come from? What inspires the thoughts that grow in an author’s mind, that eventually bare fruit in terrific and terrifying texts? You might think that Frankenstein was born of lightning, but the idea, the seed planted in the mind of the 20 year old Mary Shelley in 1817, was nothing more than a yellow eye. Shelley woke up from a terrible dream, and all she could remember was a hauntingly yellow human eye. This feeling grew and stretched into the novel that has dawned countless Halloween costumes. 

For Kate DiCamillo, it was hands; The capacious hands of a stranger who picked up her 86 year old mother after having fallen in the doorway of a cafe one cold January day. This giant of a gentleman helped Kate’s mom to a chair, while Kate stood stuck in the uncertainty of her mother’s admonition that she “Couldn’t do it.” Kate was not used to hearing her “Piece-of-Work” mother confess defeat. She was a fighter, if nothing else. Like dominos, her mother’s health toppled, and within a week she died.

DiCamillo explains the presence of this word, already traveling through the veins of her consciousness, in her acceptance speech at the 2014 Newbery-Caldecott Banquet for “Flora and Ulysses”. The word was birthed in the reading of Maxwell William’s “The Thistles in Sweden” (Maxwell, 1976). The last line reads, “And, I think that if it is true, that we are all in the hand of God; What a capacious hand it must be.” 

Flora And Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures

Written by Kate DiCamillo

The father of Flora is said to have a “capacious heart”. In the beginning of the story this character is a dysfunctional shell of a man, recently divorced from Flora’s mom, and stuck like a malfunctioning computer program. His only lines are his introducing himself to people, “Hello, I’m George Buckman. Pleased to meet you.” He wears a suit, complete with fedora, everywhere, no matter the temperature, situation, or time. The reader is made to believe that this man could very well wear this suit to bed.

When Flora’s pet squirrel reveals its super powers to the dad, he snaps out of his stupor and revives. He begins to think for himself again. He laughs. He stands up to malfeasance, a word repeated throughout this hybrid of novel and comic book. It was Ulysses’s superpowers that defibrillated George Buckman’s heart, but it was the capaciousness of his heart that loved Flora, a struggling tween, back to life. 

This exciting book has hilarious and head-scratching mysteries throughout. A boy who seems to have self-induced, temporary blindness due to a traumatic event that he won’t talk about is Flora’s unexpected sidekick. The reader isn’t sure if the apartment-guarding cat or the mom trying to kill the squirrel is the true nemesis of the superhero. And, the question most prevalent throughout remains unanswered at the end: “Can you be a superhero, if you don’t save anyone or anything?” 

One thing is for certain: boredom will be vanquished through reading this novel. DiCamillo has a capacious talent for storytelling, and this one keeps you on the edge of your horsehair sofa. (You’ll have to read the book to understand;)

BIBLIO: 2016, Candlewick, reprint, Ages 8-12, $7.99

REVIEWER: Matt Weimann

FORMAT: Paperback

ISBN-10: 0763687642

ISBN-13: 978-0763687649

Bio

Kate DiCamillo has lived in very different parts of America. Born in Philadelphia, she grew up in Florida, the setting for one of her Newbery Award-winning books, “Because of Winn Dixie” (2001). Her “About Me” page says that she lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, currently. 

Interestingly, Kate never had kids. Perhaps that is why she maintains the youthful voice of her main characters. She was the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature from 2014 to 2015. 

Other Books by DiCamillo include

Because of Winn-Dixie (2000)

The Tiger Rising (2001)

The Tale of Despereaux (2003), illustrated by Timothy Basil Ering

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (2006), illus. Bagram Ibatoulline

The Magician’s Elephant (2009), illus. Yoko Tanaka

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures (2013), illus. K. G. Campbell

Raymie Nightingale (Candlewick Press, 2016)

Louisiana’s Way Home (2018), jacket illus. Amy June Bates[16][17]

Beverly, Right Here (2019)

Bink & Gollie series, text by DiCamillo and Alison McGhee, illus. Tony Fucile

  • Bink & Gollie (2010)
  • Bink & Gollie: Two for One (2012)
  • Bink & Gollie: Best Friends Forever (2013)

Mercy Watson series (Candlewick Press), text by DiCamillo, illus. Chris Van Dusen

  • Mercy Watson to the Rescue (2005)
  • Mercy Watson Goes for a Ride (2006)
  • Mercy Watson Fights Crime (2006)
  • Mercy Watson: Princess in Disguise (2007)
  • Mercy Watson Thinks Like a Pig (2008)
  • Mercy Watson: Something Wonky This Way Comes (2009)

Tales from Deckawoo Drive series, text by DiCamillo, illus. Chris Van Dusen

  • Leroy Ninker Saddles Up: Tales from Deckawoo Drive, Volume One (2014)
  • Francine Poulet Meets the Ghost Raccoon: Tales from Deckawoo Drive, Volume Two (2015)
  • Where Are You Going, Baby Lincoln?: Tales from Deckawoo Drive, Volume Three (2016)
  • Eugenia Lincoln and the Unexpected Package: Tales from Deckawoo Drive, Volume Four (2017)

Great Joy (2007), illus. Bagram Ibatoulline

Louise, the Adventures of a Chicken (2008), illus. Harry Bliss

A Piglet Named Mercy (2019), illus. Chris Van Dusen

“Circus Mirandus” and Light-Bending

belief
Is belief naturally blind?

Can blind-belief be bad? This is a question that haunts me after rereading “Circus Mirandus” a third time. In this book, published in 2015, a boy visits a circus that can only be found by people (kids) who believe in magic. The author, Cassie Beasley, uses her own literary magic to weave a fantasy world where people live for thousands of years with a reality of an aged man dying of a respiratory disease. 

The boy’s name is Micah, and it is his caretaker-grandfather, Ephraim, who is dying. Throughout the entire book Micah believes that the magic of Circus Mirandus, a place that both Ephraim and Micah visit, can save his grandfather from the inevitable; End of life. 

It is hardships that bring the circus into both boys’ lives. Grandpa Ephraim found the circus when he was a youth and his father had been sent to war. He was battling depression and loneliness. Micah was drawn to the circus by the stories his grandfather had shared with him and the fact that this might be a place where he could find a cure for his grandfather’s worsening sickness. 

Another main character of the text is a man called Lightbender or “The Man Who Bends Light”. This ages-old mystic is a confessed illusionist. Toward the end of the book he reveals that he only causes people to think they see things. For example, part of his show is to get kids to visit Antarctica. They feel like they are actually there. Penguins are squawking all around them. In reality, the kids are sitting safely inside a tent at Circus Mirandus. This mind-bending power is used several times, in several ways, and for several reasons. In the end, Micah realizes that the power to believe something has its limitations.

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November 2, 2019

I read this book to myself, then to my daughter, and I just finished reading it aloud to my third grade class. A powerful vibe I get when I’m wrapped up in the storyline is the idea of faith or blind-belief. The thing is Micah and his friend Jenny, who he brings along with him to the circus the first time he visits, don’t blindly believe. Jenny is portrayed as a rational, scientifically-minded girl, who can’t view the circus until Micah coaxes her to just give it a try. He teaches her to be open-minded to magic. At one point in the text Jenny is even more open-minded than Micah. Beasley does an excellent job developing her characters and maintaining their deep personalities, even through this seeming role-reversal. Jenny continues to be calculating, constantly planning, while Micah’s faith is wrapped up in his emotions and unfounded hopes. 

Micah matures throughout the text, and in the end, Micah induces a purposeful, man-made, blind faith by actually closing his eyes to reality. You will have to read the book to understand what I mean. I’ll share Chintzy, the messenger’s hint: “Don’t look down”.

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Teaching Lies?

As I reflect upon whether I think that it is okay to allow children to “believe” in Santa Claus, leprechauns, cupids, tooth fairies, and the like, I am realizing that this novel is The Book that Bends Light. While reading it, you get sucked into a slightly altered reality where magic really does exist. A movie that this reminds me of is “The Matrix”. The main character of that flick is Neo, a young man delivered from the make-believe world of computer-generated bliss. While not everything was hunky-dory for Neo before leaving the Matrix, reality is even more grim. 

In “The Matrix” characters get “plugged into” a virtual reality world that is made up solely of zeros and ones. It isn’t real. This being said, if a person dies while being plugged in, their mind, so wrapped up in the believable fantasy world, will break, and the actual, physical body will die. Neo ends up being his own “Light-Bender”, escaping the trappings of the mind to live beyond the Matrix. 

Science > Opinion
Science is the Light

I am writing this blog during a seemingly dystopian time of pandemic closures and lockdowns. COVID-19 is sweeping the nation and world, infiltrating all socio-economic statuses, ages, and races. This virus is undetectable for up to 5 days, lasts about two weeks when in effect, and kills between 3 and 4 percent of its victims. There is a lot of talk about different actors multiplying the calamity of this virus through spreading dis- and misinformation. Some say the media has made a big stink about next to nothing. Many more people die from lots of other viruses and diseases. We don’t freak out about them! Others say that authorities should have taken the virus more seriously at the beginning. Government officials attempted to bend the light that science was trying to shine on this very serious problem. By acting like the virus was no big deal, were authorities communicating that 3-4% of the population was expendable? Their actions, if not some of the blatant messaging seemed to communicate, “The stock market crashing isn’t worth worrying about three to four out of one hundred people.” 

How much of the rise and fall of stock prices depends on belief? It seems like a circus sometimes. When the dust settles, I wonder how many Neos will be unplugged from the make-believe-world constantly telling us everything is hunky dory. You can pull the cord, or it will be ripped from your head as the earth falls away. If you pull the cord yourself, you can self-educate and learn to adapt and survive.

belief-1.jpgI recommend you weave plenty of entertaining activities into your self-educating-agenda. Reading is a great escape from both the Matrix and reality. I like books that make you think, and Circus Mirandus does just that! It explores the dangers of the pull of power. If you had the power to cause others to believe things, what would you do with it? Luckily, there are people in the world who work to help children and others believe in a better tomorrow. That is my aim. 

Although slightly dark, I hope that this blog is inspirational, also. What do you do to help others see the light?

Breaking Out the Controversy

 

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Use controversial opinion-writing to promote acceptance of feedback.

I am halfway through scoring and writing feedback for my third grade students, and it hits me: Writing opinions can be “controversial”. When you state what you believe, as opposed to a proven fact, you are providing a point of view that others may refute. 

 

Having finished typing feedback for all 27 kiddos, I am impressed with the arguments that my students used. The assignment was to share whether or not you thought the men who escaped Alcatraz in 1962 survived their daring prison-break. The December (2016)/January (2017) issue of StoryworksJr magazine had an article about the amazing true story of the one successful escape from the infamous “Rock” (Hopkinson, 2016). This article ends by telling students that no one knows if the prisoners survived the treacherous swim across the San Francisco Bay. It asks, “Do you think (they) made it out alive?”Screen Shot 2020-03-04 at 8.25.24 AM.png

Controversy

How is this controversial? David W. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson of the University of Minnesota published a landmark paper in 1979 titled “Conflict in the Classroom: Controversy and Learning.” In it they define controversy as an incompatible conceptual conflict that craves reconciliation. What question is more in need of answering than survival? Did the men make it? And, the two answers couldn’t be in more contrast with one another. 

The beauty of this particular assignment is that, although my students were asked a “Yes or No” question, they were required to back up their opinions with facts from the text. In this way, the kids invest in their answers. It causes them to interpret the text, seeing the trials of escape from the perspective of the prisoners. Students assumed a more active role in reading the text. Rather than looking back at the text to find answers to boring multiple-choice questions, students are hunting for ammunition to do battle against their idea-opponents.

This was a great assignment because it could go either way. There is plenty of evidence for both sides of the argument, which makes the cognitive fight even. And, because this assignment is so rich with ideas, it is extra easy to turn feedback into a communicative conversation, instead of straight “You did this well/You need to work on this.” I find myself writing things like “Have you thought of this angle?”

By conversing with students about what they wrote, an educator can ensure the acknowledgement of ideas for writing improvement. Instead of “You did this wrong” the educator can suggest, “If you want to persuade me to believe this, you should word it this way; You should include information from the text; You might want to explain yourself more.” 

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Best “Respond to Text” ever: So, did they survive or not?

With each new paragraph to grade, I look forward to seeing where my student stands on the issue. Sometimes, when I use controversy to teach, I will assign sides. I want the opposition to be even. A question will be posted in the Google Classroom. I make it so that students may be able to edit their answers, and they can read/reply to others. If you do this, you want the sides to be fairly even, so that no one feels overwhelmed with opposition. This particular project seemed to have opinions split down the middle, lending nicely to a balanced battle of wits.

I made sure to show my third graders a balance of points from the StoryworksJr text, too. As a class, we discussed some reasons it seemed unlikely the men survived the escape; They had to swim 1 ½ miles across shark-infested, freezing cold water, and that was after climbing a tall, sharp fence! When you are doing something daring and exciting, though, your body fills with adrenaline that can cause seemingly superhuman strength and endurance. With more back and forth ideas, we constructed a balance of ideas. 

Yacek explains the importance of having opposition on both sides of an argument in Thinking Controversially: The Psychological Condition for Teaching Controversial Issues (2018). He tells of a lesson he thought would spark controversy but fell flat because even the students who argued against the action didn’t truly believe it was a possibility. In order to foster the intellectual disequilibrium that Johnson & Johnson (1979) propose works best to arouse learning, students have to buy into their position. 

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Time to “break out” the classy controversy. 

For the prisoners, I suggested that these were tough men. The text had mentioned that they had successfully broken out of other prisons. That is why they had been sent to Alcatraz; “The Rock”! Just when you feel like everything is tipping toward a successful escape, however, there is the fact that it doesn’t matter how tough you are against hungry sharks and 1 ½ miles of open water! Also, don’t you think we would have heard of their survival? Everyone craves fame. “But, there was a letter written in 2015!” students exclaim through their essays. Yes, but this was a person who was looking for help paying for medical expenses. There is no proof that he was an escapee. And, the scale goes back and forth. 

We may never know if Frank Morris or the Anglin brothers made it to safety. One thing is for sure, my students’ reasoning and writing skills grew as a result of wrestling with the controversial idea. 

Sources

Hopkinson, D. (2016, December). Escape From Alcatraz. StoryworksJr, 4–9.
Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (1979). Conflict in the Classroom: Controversy And Learning. Review of Educational Research,49(1), 51-70. Retrieved August 13, 2019.
Yacek, D. (2018). Thinking Controversially: The Psychological Condition for Teaching Controversial Issues. Journal of Philosophy of Education,52(1), 71-86. Retrieved August 5, 2019.