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:

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Think Fun! continued...

After I blogged about how wonderful the Think Fun! games are, I found even more reasons to celebrate. First off, did you know that they will replace lost or broken parts for FREE? Yes, FREE! They even pay shipping! And, the turnaround time is amazing. We lost a piece to the Chocolate Fix game this week. I sent an email to the company with their attached request form on Wednesday. I opened the mail today, Saturday, and voila! They had included an entire set of pieces, not just the one missing chocolate. 

They also included a few sample cards from their newest game - Word Around - along with a 20% off coupon to be used on their site. Word Around looks like a lot of fun. I was challenged with the few cards they sent, but not impossibly so. I think kids would really love this game.

Basically it's a word puzzle. You have to look at one of the bands of color (determined by the color of the card back that came previously in the stack) and find the word that is spelled around that band. The key is knowing which letter you need to start with, then it just flows. No need to unscramble. Sounds easy, right? Not so fast! You're competing with others to get the answer.

Some of the words are a bit tricky and may not be known by younger children (e.g. astonish, delicate, trauma) yet, others are readily identifiable: cinnamon, driven, before. This is an excellent game for children who need practice with visual discrimination, tuning out excess stimulus, and maintaining focus. 

It also provides a great opportunity to learn vocabulary without feeling hit over the head with it. Once you've solved a word it's only natural that kids will want to know what it means. 

It's also a great way for children to build problem solving stamina and strategies. Many players will quickly begin to understand that one needs to choose a start letter or look for a common letter pattern to try to form a word, and continuously move along using this strategy. Children who struggle with tasks like this tend to take in the detail or the whole picture, but are not able to chunk their thinking, or look for patterns.

It may seem like the game has limited play value given that there are only so many solutions, but the beauty of its design is that you will only use 1/3 of each card's possible answers in any given game. That, combined with the fact that there are over 300 words, and a game only takes about 10 minutes, means that you can play for quite some time before you've mastered all the words. 

The fun thing is that you'd also be able to easily replicate this game and make your own cards on card stock. That would be a great way for kids to learn new vocabulary and try to come up with words that will trick others.

What a wonderful company to work with. They make excellent products, provide amazing customer support, and know how to get you coming back for more!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Think Fun Games

I've always been a big fan of Think Fun games. I remember when my kids would sit for an hour (okay, 10 minutes... :) and play Zingo! years ago. They LOVED that game, and I did too! Our bookshelf is stocked with many of the Think Fun products, and I thought I'd share our favorites with you.

First off, Rush Hour has been getting lots of play at our house this week.  You can purchase a Jr. version, a deluxe version, or a regular version. They all look something like this:

The differences between them are basically the types of vehicles that you will receive in the package and the level of difficulty of the problem solving cards (although each set does have an easy-medium-difficult variant). We own the Jr. version, and I think we're almost ready to graduate to the regular version (rated 8 and above). And, when I say we're almost ready, I'm including myself! Some of these scenarios are challenging! 

For those who may not be familiar, the game is a "gridlock puzzle" which requires the player to make repeated strategic moves to free one particular vehicle up to move off the 6 x 6 playing board. In the case of the Jr. version, that vehicle happens to be an ice-cream truck. How fun!

Each of the 40 scenarios presented has a solution on the back. The nice thing about the solution set is that it's a bit cryptic, which prevents impulsive cheating. 

While this game is a fun challenge for all, I'd also like to point out the benefits for those who may be parenting children with special needs. I see so much potential for practice for children who:

  • have difficulty persevering with tasks
  • present with executive functioning challenges (i.e. planning and coordinating thinking)
  • struggle with visual spatial awareness (having to line up the cars initially is a great way to practice reading positions on a grid, then having to coordinate moves to free the cars requires lots of thinking about which portions of the grid need to be freed up)

If you purchase the standard/adult version, there are reasonably priced ($6-9) expansion packs of cards you can purchase that also come with bonus vehicles.
I read reviews on Amazon that suggested the Deluxe version wasn't really "deluxe" so you may want to read some of the feedback before you purchase.

I highly recommend this puzzle / game if you have a child who presents with the challenges I mentioned, and I also endorse it for those who just want to see their kids/students working hard to problem solve something that's not a video game.

The next Think Fun game that may be of interest is Distraction (rated 8 to adult). And, it lives up to its name for sure. You can strengthen your memory by taking turns drawing number cards and remembering an increasing sequence of digits. Draw a distraction card and you must answer a quirky question before reciting the numbers in order. If you repeat the sequence incorrectly, and get caught, you collect all of the cards. The first player to run out of cards wins.  

This game initially caused some frustration for a few members in our family. If your child has a weak digit span (i.e. ability to remember a sequence of numbers and a common measure of short term memory in neuro-physcological testing), or is diagnosed with ADHD  or dyslexia he or she is likely to be very challenged by this game. That said, you shouldn't shy away from introducing it. You should encourage its use in a non-threatening way. You can modify it to make it inclusive by allowing pencil and paper recording of the numbers for a few rounds until your child learns the rules and becomes accustomed to the game play. Then you can remove and fade the supports. You could also play in teams and pair your child with a "stronger" opponent. You could also bend the rules a bit, and program in the distraction cards at intervals that match with your child's digit span in order to build success. This game is a great tool in developing digit span, and it happens to be fun too!

Next up, Chocolate Fix (also rated 8 and up), the sweet logic game. It's like Sodoku without numbers. Like Rush Hour, it has 40 scenario cards that come with the game.

This is a game of logic and deductive reasoning, and a very inviting way to begin to explore the logic used in Sodoku puzzles without laying math on top. Unfortunately, this game doesn't have any extension packs, but the 40 challenges in the game box make it worth the $15 price tag.

If you don't already own Think Fun! games, consider checking them out. If you do own some of them, comment with your favorites. All of these games are on our shelf and have been well-loved and enjoyed. Let me know if you enjoy them too!