Showing posts with label home. Show all posts
Showing posts with label home. Show all posts

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.

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:

Sunday, April 14, 2013

"Look Up: Birdwatching in Your Own Backyard"

In the Northeast US, signs of spring are finally starting to surface, albeit slowly! I love the sprouting flowers, longer days with sun shining, and the smell of freshly thawed soil. Corny, I know, but true! I especially enjoy the return of the birds. 

Just yesterday I watched a busy robin plucking out tasty worms from the wet grass in our backyard while an industrious chipmunk was by her side washing his cute little face. It got me thinking about birdwatching. I've done a bit here and there; my friends and family will remember my fascination -bordering on obsession - with the hummingbirds at my feeder last year. I've never really been a birdwatcher per se (assuming Angry Birds doesn't count).

I did a quick search at the library today, and online, and came up with an impressive selection of books, journals and games that you can use with your families (or your students) if you want to venture out to look for and listen to birds this spring. I'm not a pro, but I'd imagine you'll need some binoculars and a birding hat, just to make it official!

This picture book, by Annette LeBlanc Cate is wonderfully written, and creatively illustrated. I knew I'd enjoy it when I saw the funny text bubbles on each page. It appears that even birds ask their moms to remove the crusts from their bread! But don't be fooled, this isn't just a lighthearted look at birds. Cate consulted with Jim Barton, a veteran birder associated with the Boston office of the Audubon Society. The result is a kid-friendly look at bird identification/classification, migration, shapes, colors, feathers, habitats and more. 

Although "An Egg is Quiet" also contains illustrations of insect eggs as well as birds, it's definitely worth reviewing as part of your birding adventure. We have this book on our shelf at home. If you aren't familiar with Dianna Hutts Aston / Syliva Long's collaborations, you need to be. These books are lyrically written and provide some of the most detailed nature drawings I've seen in children's picture books. 

It can also be fun to identify the nests, as well as the birds and the eggs. This "Take-along-guide" is a perfect resource for just that!

Let us not forget the "fathers" of birdwatching! As many of you know, we have Audubon and Peterson to thank for their efforts in drawing and cataloging birds. These two picture books provide excellent, child-friendly introductions to their work and legacies.

Once you're out on the hunt for birds, you'll want to record your findings, and these two journals would  be perfect for children to keep track of the variety of birds they see.

Bingo anyone? This game looks like fun! I've not actually seen it, so I cannot comment on its quality. It did receive high reviews on Amazon.

And, last but not least... One of the things that I think would make birdwatching especially fun would be having an app that can identify birdsongs - like having a birdcall version of Shazam! (the song ID app). It appears that this technology isn't too far off, but not yet available this spring. Here's a link to an article that I found on the topic:

If you decide to birdwatch, leave a comment and let me know what types of birds are common in your area. If you're an avid birdwatcher, suggest additional resources that may be of interest.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Math fact fluency - what teachers want you to know...

Spring brings birds, daffodils, warm weather, and standardized testing! Along with that comes stress. Parents and teachers want to be sure their children/students are performing at or above standards, and that they are making effective progress. Unfortunately, many students get nervous and wonder if they'll be promoted a grade if they don't do "well", and many teachers worry about the very real possibility that their evaluations will be tied to the results of these assessments (that's a post for another day). 

So, what does this have to do with math fact fluency? 

As I work with my students to prepare them throughout the year for the state mathematics assessment (and more importantly to think and perform like real world mathematicians) I continue to witness how many students' problem solving abilities are greatly impaired because they have not mastered basic facts across all operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division).  

Why is math fact mastery important?

We can only hold so much information in our "working memory" (the part of your brain that stores and manages information for a short amount of time). If a child's working memory is tied up trying to remember a math fact, while also trying to learn how to simplify fractions, or find a common denominator, he or she is likely to become frustrated and give up. In many cases, children start to see themselves as "not good at math" when that's simply not true. A bit of practice can make all the difference!

If we want to teach our children to eventually become competitive players in a global market, we need to give them the skills they need to succeed. In the United States and other countries, there's a recent push to introduce and expand STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). If we want our children to participate meaningfully in these learning experiences, they need to be mathematically literate. Mathematical literacy depends greatly on math fact fluency.

As parents, we get very concerned when our children cannot read - that is decode the text. Yet, somehow, we often do not seem to get as alarmed when our children haven't mastered the basic building blocks of higher level mathematical thinking. We need to be concerned, and we need to do something about it.

How does a child reach mastery? 

You know the answer to this, but I'll post it anyway because it's worth repeating: PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE! The good news is that our children are growing up in a very technologically advanced age. There are myriad ways for them to gain computational fluency without having to pull out the old-fashioned flash cards that many of us used as kids (although there's absolutely nothing wrong with them). 

It's our job as parents and teachers to ensure that children are taking the time daily - yes, daily - to actually practice the facts until they reach mastery.

Here are some of my favorite sites, some subscription and others free, that help children to practice. It's important that the practice have an element of urgency and timing to it. That's what helps students to gain automaticity with the facts:

IXL Math  Is a subscription site that has fact practice and lots of other leveled math problems. Although a very useful site, IXL does not time students in a way that creates a sense of urgency in their fact practice. The site allows students to solve 20 problems free each day without having an account. Yearly memberships average approximately $80.00

Reflex Math Has more of a game-based, timed focus on math fact practice. Home subscriptions can be purchased for approximately $35.00

First in Math  game-based site that focuses on lots of aspects of fact fluency and number sense and many of the games provide a sense of urgency to solve the problems quickly. This site can be accessed for a yearly fee of $30.00.

Xtra Math is a free web-based practice site that also builds fluency through timed practice. Reviews from my students suggest that it isn't as much fun as some of the subscription sites.
The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has created a free game site that parents, students, and teachers can access. It's called Calculation Nation.

There are many iPhone, iPad, and Android apps that also focus on fluency. I'm not going to post those here as you can easily find them by searching for those on your device. 

Once students have begun to master facts, there are many board and puzzle games that can be used to practice and apply the facts in fun ways. All of these are available on Amazon.

CheckMath!, which plays like checkers, was developed by a math teacher to help students with factors and multiples.

For younger students, Sum Swamp, is a fun way to practice addition and subtraction:

The "24" game was developed many years ago by the creators of the First In Math site mentioned above. This problem solving game requires players to strategically combine multiple operations to arrive at an answer of "24".

A favorite in our house is "Shut the Box". A dice rolling game where low score wins:

No matter which method children use to practice, the most important thing is that  they actually make sure there's  commitment to doing it daily. Your child's teacher (and eventually your child) will thank you!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

"Real Kids, Real Stories, Real Change" a REALLY great book for upper elementary/middle grades

I found this book (another great resource from Free Spirit Press) and knew that I just had to introduce it to my students. We'll be spending a couple of our reading blocks this week digging into these short biographic profiles of some amazing kids from around the world.

The readability of these profiles is approximately a 5th grade level. It's a very approachable text as the font is large enough not to be daunting (but not so large it feels "elementary"), while there are just enough graphics and maps interspersed to keep it interesting. 

Each of the profiles are categorized into chapters that cover themes such as: Kids Saving the Environment, Kids Standing Up for Themselves, Kids Helping Others, Kids Overcoming Challenges, and Kids Using Talents and Creativity. There's parity between genders, with both strong boy and girl figures represented from around the globe.

The applications for this book are really endless. We'll be examining and reading closely (yes, my new buzzword) to look for similarities and differences between the kids, their skill sets, curiousities, and their causes. We'll also explore the causes themselves and look at the effects of each young adult's efforts.

I am predicting that my reluctant readers will be particularly drawn to these mini biographies for a number of reasons. I would imagine that parents of reluctant readers would want to try this book with their own children. It offers a global perspective, using real-life examples, and delivers text in short, easy to digest snippets. It could easily satisfy independent reading requirements and kids may be sparked to become change agents themselves!

I borrowed a copy from our local library, but it's well worth purchasing for $9 on Amazon.

If you read it with your children or students, please leave a comment and let me know if they enjoyed it!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

"Notice and Note" an amazing book for teachers and parents

With the advent of the Common Core Curriculum Standards teachers are being asked to present their students with texts that are more rigorous. In addition, we are being encouraged to engage students in close reading. No, that's not hold the book closer and read! It's strategic reading of text excerpts multiple times with a focus on various aspects of theme, conflict, characterization, and author's purpose. This isn't necessarily anything new for most teachers, but it does present an opportunity for us to dig a bit deeper and reflect on our instructional practices.

I stumbled across an amazing book that does just that! Not only can teachers benefit from its content, parents who are interested in working with their children to enhance comprehension can use this too.
The premise of the book is that all  of the commonly read literature in grades 2-12 contains "signposts" or signals that good readers attend to while reading. Here's a summary list that the authors created after analyzing numerous fiction texts:

1. Memory Moment - when a character stops and remembers something that happened earlier. This is a great time to stop as a reader and ask yourself why this event is important to the character or the plot.

2. Words of the Wiser - sometimes a character receives significant advice from another character (usually an older/wiser person). Often times this leads us to the themes and lessons in the book.

3. Again and Again - when a reader sees situations, phrases, or statements being repeated over and over, he or she should stop and reflect on the importance. Maybe you'll learn something about the theme, or it could be a foreshadow.

4. Aha Moment - sometimes characters figure something out or realize something that they should have seen all along. Again this leads us to themes, conflicts, and possible understanding of character development.

5. Contrasts and contradictions - characters and situations sometimes aren't as they appeared previously. Pause when this happens and consider why this is significant and what it means to the character and to the plot.

6. Tough Questions - when a character stops and asks him or herself a tough question you often find clues to the themes and conflicts in the story if you pause and wonder about its importance or significance.

If you would like to read more about how to use these signposts in your instruction, find questions that scaffold reader thinking, and see sample lessons, you must buy the book! It's well worth the $20.00 on Amazon.

I used these signposts with my class as a summative assessment for the book "Number the Stars" over the past two days, and I was very impressed with the critical thinking and analysis that I saw as I observed students working collaboratively to find text evidence of these signposts. Even my reluctant readers were enjoying finding and describing the significance of their evidence.

Parents can use these signposts while reading aloud to their children, or as activators to get kids thinking while they do their independent reading. For example, challenge your child to find at least one signpost during their reading time and stop to tell you about it's significance.

Teachers should really consider buying this book and collaborating with grade level colleagues to introduce it to your students. You'll be glad you did!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Blue Orange Games

I have purchased many games from this company and have not been disappointed yet. Our most recent find is "Golden Gate".

It's a relatively quick game, played in 5 rounds. The tin box is sturdy and the cards and chips are high quality. It's for 2-4 players and rated ages 7 to adult. I must say that I enjoyed playing it and so did my kids. The object of the game is to be the first to play all the cards in your hand and earn the most chips in the process.  Players need to sequence cards either by going up (0,1,2,3...) or down (7,6,5,4...) while keeping in mind that green cards are neutral and red cards left in your hand will penalize you at the end of the game. Gold cards earn chips, but a player needs to be strategic in when he or she plays them. The longer you can hold onto and play a gold, the higher score chip you'll earn. Since it's a five round event, you have a chance to make up for a poorly played round. Like many games of this genre, there's a bit of luck and a bit of strategy, which is perfect for those children who maybe aren't ready for "full-on" strategy games. The educational value isn't huge, but children do need to think about whether to count up or down based on their hands, and the count "resets" at 0. That means that a count down from 0 goes to 10, 9, 8 and so on. A count up from 10 goes to 0, 1, 2, 3. Also, at the end, chip tallies need to be added (the values are 10, 20, 30, 40) and that makes for a perfect opportunity to practice mental math. At appx. $12.00 this game is well worth its value. 

Another wonderful and fun Blue Orange Game is Spot It! We have the basic version:

Since purchasing this last fall, the company has come out with a number of themed versions of the game based on sports teams, holidays, and basic shape/number recognition. The idea is amazingly simple, yet so much fun to play. Basically, you're looking for matches on cards (and each card has a match with another no matter what). The images that you are trying to match will likely be different sizes and it takes careful examination to find the right combination. It really levels the playing field between adults and kids.

The beauty of the game is that it has high replay value. There are many variations in the directions and the game is never the same regardless of which way you choose to play. It's quick and easy and lends itself to playing at the beach, a restaurant, or even on a plane. Although this game is fun for all, it's particularly useful if you have a child at home or school who needs help and practice with visual discrimination.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Maze/Puzzle for EVERYONE!

I am always on the lookout for games and activities that are fun and educational.  l bought this on Amazon for my kids, but I have to admit that I'm having as much fun as they are. It's a great maze/puzzle that has cards of increasing difficulty. I haven't made it past beginner/intermediate! The cards themselves are very high quality material with two wipe off pens. The metal box is very durable. I would suggest wiping the cards off with a Lysol or other wet-wipe since they do get the hazing from the wipe off pen. Dry with papertowel and they continue to look like new after several uses. 

Although everyone can find something to enjoy about these mazes, they are especially great practice for kids who struggle with executive functions (planning and organizing in particular)and for those who have difficulty with logical reasoning and visual / spatial skills. 

If you prefer to use an app instead of a table game (which is great for indoor recess or waiting at a restaurant) then you may want to check out "Flow" and "Flow: Bridges" from Big Duck Apps on iTunes

Follow this link to iTunes

Both of these apps are similar in principle to Lab Mice, and they offer different versions/levels and time constraints to add even more challenge.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Bullying... or, how we can help to prevent it!

There is an increased focus on bullying these days, as there should be. Unfortunately many of our students and our own children are exposed to all sorts of behaviors that range from teasing all the way up to full-fledged bullying. Let us not forget, the bullies have parents too - even if they don't want to admit it. Not every kid is the victim, some are the perpetrators and others are the bystanders. Others are actually trying to be something different - peacemakers! Wouldn't it be great if all of our kids fell into one category? THE PEACEMAKERS!  I realize that may be a Utopian view that isn't ever going to be reality. It's likely unicorns will walk on Earth the day that happens. But still, can't we try to imagine a world where kids work proactively to get along and broker peace? Maybe the adults could try it too?

I found a new resource that helps children (and their adults) to be more peaceful, mindful, and empathetic.

This book is an amazing resource that comes with a CD of all of the worksheets that you can use with students, or even your own children. Its target audience is grades 3-6.  This text has 125 mini-lessons that can be taught within 20 minutes or less. Student activities—including games, role plays, group discussions, art projects, and language arts exercises—affirm the importance of respect, listening, and kind actions vs. bullying in schools. Kids learn skills they can use to calm down and conflict resolution techniques for situations when strong emotions threaten to disrupt the peace. With a focus on preventing teasing, name-calling, fighting, exclusion, and other hurtful actions, No Kidding About Bullying also features activities to stop bullying when mistreatment is occurring.

If you'd like to see sample pages/sheets from the book, visit the publisher's site. They have many other wonderful resources for teachers and parents. I highly recommend (and own) many of their products:


I borrowed this from my local library, but I plan to purchase it and add it to my shelf. It's that good!

I will post additional mindfulness and empathy resources in coming weeks. Stay tuned...

Monday, March 25, 2013


Do you know about this amazing site? If not, read on. As their tag-line states, "Wonders never cease". It's brought to you by the NCFL (National Center for Family Literacy) and Verizon's ThinkFinity non-profit organization. So, what is Wonderopolis you ask? It's a daily dose of thinking and time well spent with a child or a group of children.

Visit the site HERE and see what you think. It's updated each day with a new "wonder" that you can share with your class (perhaps as part of a morning meeting?) or with your own children as you settle down for the night after dinner (or maybe before, to spur conversation?). However you choose to use it, Wonderopolis is sure to be a hit with children and the adults in their lives. The best part? You can nominate a wonder of your own! Have fun, and let me know what you think!