Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Walking Classroom

Even though the weather may be starting to change to fall-like temperatures here in the Northeast, fifth grade students at my school are very fortunate to be going outside while learning and walking at the same time - and they'll continue to do so as long as we're able to add layers!

Thanks to a generous donation from our PTO, combined with a grant from The Walking Classroom (TWC), we were outfitted with a class set of walk kits - MP3 players pre-loaded with 15-20 minute high interest podcasts covering a variety of learning topics and fitness tips. This amazing award-winning, evidence-based fitness and obesity intervention program is innovative and engaging for students. It's music to my ears as my students beg me every day to do a walk!

One of my students explained that the walks help her to "clear the webs" in her brain, allowing her to focus more when she's back in the classroom. Other students have enjoyed the opportunity to be leaders in the walking line. And, the recall of the content when we discuss it later in class has been impressive!

There's a large body of research that suggests  myriad emotional, cognitive, and physical benefits of daily exercise for children. Often times, families find it difficult to fit exercise in given their hectic schedules. With The Walking Classroom, students get much needed movement breaks during the day, and they learn about Common Core aligned topics such as narrator's point of view, famous explorers, or U.S. history. And all of this occurs while breathing in fresh air, walking briskly, and soaking up vitamin D! 

Founder Laura Fenn (a former fifth grade educator), left no stone unturned when she created TWC. I was extremely impressed when I excitedly opened up our package. I found all of the walk kits protected by high quality plastic storage containers. Each kit came with a set of ear buds (to be used by only one child for hygiene sake) and a AAA battery. In addition, there's a large binder filled with lesson plans and quick assessments for the 90 plus podcast topics. Each lesson plan is carefully laid out and very detailed. Laura even went so far as to create lessons on how to model caring for the equipment and a trial walk to get your students accustomed to the process.

Here are my walking scholars on a recent outing. One of the best suggestions offered by TWC is to assign two students to be "pace-cars" at the front to keep things moving as well as two "cabooses" to make sure no one lags behind. 

I feel very fortunate to work at a school that values educating the whole child, and even more fortunate to have the backing of a very supportive PTO. We're also very grateful to The Walking Classroom for making this a reality for our students. TWC's tagline says it all: walk.listen.learn - what more could a teacher ask for?

If you would like to donate, are interested in learning more about TWC, or considering bringing The Walking Classroom to your school, check out their website here. It's full of information about how it works, testimonials,  and samples of the podcasts for your listening pleasure.

As Laura Fenn often says, "Happy Trails!"

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Mindset... it's not a grey matter :)

If you are a fan of Carol Dweck's Mindset book, you will love this "kid-friendly" (but not syrupy)  text entitled Your Fantastic Elastic Brain (YFEB) by JoAnn Deak, PhD. If you have not read Mindset, get yourself to the library, bookstore, or Annie's Bookstop - and read it now! Not only will it benefit your children/students, you will be inspired to apply it to your own life, too!  Then, immediately find YFEB to share with the children in your life. Seriously, once you read it, you'll want to share it with every child you know!



YFEB breaks down neuroscience into visually appealing, manageable chunks that children can readily understand. Research has shown that children who learn about their brains, how they function, and that they can grow over-time do increasingly better at improving effort, self-confidence, perseverance, and intelligence than their counterparts who believe in intelligence as a fixed commodity. 

Not only is YFEB visually appealing, it uses scientific language with developmentally appropriate explantations -- and offers interesting metaphors such as a child being a "neuro-sculptor" of his or her own brain. This combination of appealing illustration, combined with theory, engages children and provides them very important information about one of the most important organs in their bodies - the brain. This resource, paired with Goldie Hawn's "Mind-UP" curriculum, offers some of the most comprehensive brain study available for children. The author's website mentions that adolescent and adult versions of this book will be available soon. This text is a perfect match through upper elementary.

Whether you are a teacher looking to introduce brain based learning and stewardship to your students, or a parent trying to support your children, this book is suited well for home or classroom use. There's also an app that reads the book aloud and has brain-based learning games. It can be purchased on i-Tunes for $2.99:

Monday, August 19, 2013

"The Waterhorse" (book and movie)

Here's a delightful children's book set in 1930's Scotland that explores the world of "Kelpie" or "The Loch Ness Monster". This slim chapter book, written in 1990 by Dick King-Smith (of "Babe" fame)  is full of rich dialogue and interesting characters, one of whom is a beloved "monster". While the plot centers mainly around a family's attempts to keep the waterhorse, Crusoe, safe from his foes, it's simplistic plot is actually what makes it such an endearing story to share with children both young and old. 

The movie, released in 2007, is vastly different in plot, offering much more action and suspense, which works equally well. It's one of the rare instances where I've enjoyed a movie as much as the book. It can be streamed on Amazon for $2.99 (at the time of this post) or purchased on DVD for $8.99.

This story would work well in an elementary classroom as a literature circle selection, or as a read aloud. The book includes some of Crusoe's perspective, which would be a perfect springboard for a discussion on point of view.

The audio book, narrated by Nathaniel Parker (narrator of the Artemis Fowl series), is a wonderful companion to the printed book and would be a nice addition to a "listen to reading" station in readers' workshop.

"The Water Horse's" guided reading level, for those who need to pay attention to such things, comes in at a Fountas and Pinnell level Q or Lexile of 910. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

Twerp! Recommending a book BEFORE I finish it...

UPDATE: After finishing this book, I still feel it's a great read, but can get a bit edgy at points - think Judy Blume. For that reason, I highly recommend that you preview it so that you can plan how, or if, you may change some of the wording at some points.
Also, I've seen how some reviews have panned the book for the fact that it treats the bullying incident lightly and that bothers some. I think it opens up a great dialogue for discussion and offers a teachable moment for sure.


 I started reading this book aloud to my class yesterday after finishing the ever-popular book Wonder. We're 20 pages in, and Twerp is already a hit. I have no doubt that its appeal will continue throughout its 280 plus pages.

Surprisingly this is Mark Goldblatt's first book for young readers. It reads more like the effort of a more experienced middle grade author.

So, here's one reason why I'm recommending it before I've even finished... There's a scene at the beginning where the main character Julian is with his friend Lonnie and they've made the unfortunate decision to throw a rock at pigeons in a vacant lot "just to see what happens". My students were riveted. Some were hiding their heads in their hands not wanting, but really wanting, to hear more.  They were scolding the character, shouting out at him. Yeah, this stuff was real people. I won't tell you what happened to the pigeons because, well, you're going to read it, right? 

Twerp is a "journal" written in first person voice of the main character Julian. It's an assignment in response to a teacher's directive after Julian returns from being suspended from school. Goldblatt keeps the reader in suspense as to why Julian was suspended, but the stories he tells keep us so entertained we don't really mind waiting. 

This book not only appeals to its intended audience, as Twerp's 1969 time period is a perfect trip down memory lane for its adult reader. That's assuming your a child of the 60's and 70's like I am :) Even if you're not a middle-aged reader, you will find a sense of familiarity and abandon as the boys are able to navigate their neighborhood unfettered by the chains that bind current young adults. 

On the surface Twerp may appear to be a "boys' only" coming of age story but to  relegate it to that status is really short-changing this wonderful middle-grade literature that crosses gender lines and is sure to please.

Twerp was recently published and is available to purchase or check out from your local library.

I received a complimentary review copy from net in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Teaching Channel - Amazing stuff for, you guessed it, TEACHERS!

Okay teachers (parents too, if you'd like to look at the latest best practices on curriculum and pedagogy) you must visit this site and sign up for their newsletter:

Click here for Teaching Channel website

I have been watching videos on this site for months now. If you are just launching Common Core, visit now! If you are looking to brush up on your skills, visit now! If you would like to watch hour long, high quality programs on teaching using STEM, how to implement math and the core, or reading fundamentals, visit now!

The best part is that the videos are K-12, and there's something for everyone.

I have begun to reflect on my practice so much from watching these videos and the programming on this site. It's very well produced, and the teachers who are showcased are amazing at what they do.

This is one of the best resources that I've found to help teachers perfect their craft.

I hope to offer a drop-in study group in the fall where like-minded colleagues in my building can stop by my room once a month to watch these videos and collaborate.

If you've got a favorite online or print resource that helps you and inspires, leave me a comment and let us know about it!

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Holy Comics, Batman! Pixton for Fun and Pixton for Schools

My students have been busily working over the past month to research energy sources and write persuasive essays explaining whether or not the continued use of the sources is beneficial or detremential to our environment. After having worked so hard, I thought they deserved a treat.  I decided to have them create comics as their summative project, and we began this week using the online comic generator Pixton. Watch this quick information video to get a sense of the power of Pixton.

We started off by using a template of a comic on paper so that students could map out their panels ahead of time. I checked in with them to be sure that they had the right content (quality and quantity) delivered in a way that made sense for a comic. After a few revisions, the students were ready to create in Pixton. 

Many of my students are reluctant drawers, or do not see themselves as artistic. Their faces lit up when I explained that the paper copy was a "rough draft" of sorts, and that they needed to only write the words "polar bear" as a place marker - Pixton would supply the image. Suddenly, the mood in the room changed and the fun began!

Pixton offers a one-month trial to all teachers, for up to 50 students. I contacted them and asked for an extension in time (by a week) and the ability to have trial accounts for 51 students. They replied very quickly and agreed to allow me the exceptions.

I was able to set up my student accounts with their usernames and passwords using an excel spreadsheet. The process went very quickly. You can also have your students use an activation code, which allows them to select their own user information. I like to keep control over these details to ensure privacy and safety, but that may not be necessary with older students. I also like the fact that Pixton for Schools is self-contained and private and need not be shared out with the public. You can determine whether or not you want students to be able to comment on each other's work, and there are other settings that you can set - for example, whether or not images from the internet can be imported.

On to the fun stuff!

The website, found here: Pixton for Schools has many videos that show you how to use the comic generator. It also has an exhaustive help section that can be accessed with one click. And, it's searchable. I found it very helpful to use, and so did many of my students.

Pixton has many stock characters, backgrounds and props (images that can be placed seamlessly in the comic). Students can click on a panel and gain quick access to all of these features. I found the ease with which all students used this product to be impressive.

Character clothing color and style can easily be changed with a click. The panel size and shape as well as border are also easily edited with a few clicks. Don't like a character's size, stance or even position of arms and legs? No worries - click, drag, click... you've made a whole new pose.

Want to change the color of a prop? Click and select on a palette of colors. The possibilities of what you can customize and edit are seemingly endless.

I overheard many students commenting to each other on how much fun this was, and they were all engaged working hard to create amazing work. What they didn't know was that they were not only having fun - they were honing their story grammar skills, exercising their abilities to create meaningful dialogue (even if without quotation marks), planning settings, and working on perspective and visual spatial reasoning while they placed the props and characters. The amount of embedded taught skills are enough to please any teacher!

Here's an example of one of the comics created by a student in my homeroom:

You can sign up for a free, for fun account that allows individual access to many of the characters and backgrounds. If you are a teacher, you can also obtain a one month, free trial, for up to 50 students. Subscription prices for the school year are very reasonably priced. Students can print their comics on completion, share them on the internet, or embed them into a blog, like I've done above. 

Pixton, the web 2.0 comic generator. Give it a try! You'll be happy you did.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Ralph Masiello - Illustrator

Ralph Masiello recently visited the elementary school where I teach and met with all of the students. I really enjoyed his presentation, especially the way that he connected with the kids. Not only is he an amazing illustrator, he's a great storyteller. I was fixated on his every word and so were my students.

The real treat came when he started illustrating for us: owls, dolphins, dragons, Sphinxes, and more. Bam, one done! KaPOW another! He made it look so easy. Each of the classrooms got to keep one of his signed drawings that he created for us. Our class received a dolphin leaping out of the water.

My students were so impressed and really raved about the time they spent with Ralph. He left autographed bookmarks with owls on them for each of the students. I smile as I pass my students' desks and see them peeking out of their books.

If you have never experienced Mr. Masiello's work, you are in for a treat. He recently collaborated with his wife to create the start of what I believe will be a series of books, The Mystic Phyles. This book would appeal to mid-late elementary readers who are interested in mythology, cryptology, etc. and who like graphic novels or those which are heavy on illustration.  

Abigail Thaddeus lives with her grandparents in an old, spooky, ramshackle mansion. While her life is certainly unusual, Abigail finds it just plain boring. That is, until she receives an anonymous letter that sends her on a quest to research mythical creatures. With her best friend Charley's help, Abigail learns about beasts familiar (e.g. the unicorn) and unfamiliar (e.g. the bonnacon) and is shocked to discover that they may be more real than she had thought. When a threatening letter from the mysterious Board of Mystical Management arrives, Abigail has to decide whether to pursue knowledge at all costs or choose a safer path. Abigail's adventure is told through her journal entries, sketches, and beast research pages, using a scrapbook style. 

Not only is the book visually stunning, it's made of high quality page stock and the cover is solid too. It will withstand the many, many readings that it will endure as it is passed around a classroom or checked out from the library.

Masiello has also long been known for his work as one of the illustrators for Jerry Pallotta's alphabet books.

from the Icky Reptile book

Not only is Mr. Masiello an amazing illustrator for picture books, he's written a superb set of books to help children (and adults!) learn his tricks of the trade. I borrowed some of these from my local library, and my students and my own children are in the process of creating their own robots, dragons, and other creatures. The drawing lessons in these books may be bit challenging for younger children, but they are perfect for mid-upper elementary and middle school for sure. 

From the Robot Drawing Book

In an age of high-tech overload, it's refreshing to see children engaged in creating with paper, pencil, and marker or pastel. Visit your local library or bookstore and start with one of these wonderful books. Sit down with your children and draw, read and learn. You'll have more fun than you may imagine! If you have favorite "learn to draw" books or other illustrators whose work you admire, leave a comment and share the titles with us.

If you are interested in having Mr. Masiello visit your school or group, you can contact him through his website: