Sunday, August 31, 2014

Spirit's Key by Edith Cohn

Sometime this summer my good friend, Colby Sharp, began raving about a book he'd read called Spirit's Key. Looking it up online, I realized it didn't come out until September. Darn that Colby, he always gets me excited about books when I can't read them. Fortunately for me, the author heard from Colby that I might like to read a copy and sent one my way. I am ever so grateful she did. 

Spirit's Key is just the kind of book I enjoy. You have a great protagonist in Spirit - a twelve year old girl who lives on an island with her dad. Her dad has the family talent - the ability to see your future when he holds your key. Usually family members inherit this ability at the age of twelve, but it hasn't happened for Spirit yet. 

I was fascinated by so many of the characters in this book - the island really is like a small town with people who know everything about their neighbors. There is also an element of mystery. The island is populated by a group of wild dogs know as baldies. Local legend has it that these dogs are evil, but Spirit knows otherwise. Her dog, Sky, was one of them, but Sky died mysteriously before the book begins. Spirit needs to be strong and brave to figure out what is happening in her town - why are so many of the baldies dying? Why are members of the community getting sick? Sky's ghost returns to help her find these answers and so much more.

I loved this book because I know it is one my students will treasure. Beyond being a story about the love between a child and a pet, the book looks at themes such as fear and prejudice, but in a way my fifth graders can understand. My only quibble with this story was that I didn't want to see it end. Grab Spirit's Key when it goes on sale September 9th. Your students will love it. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Purpose and Authenticity

This will be a short, but sweet, post. I just wanted to share something that has really been helping me plan in the last few years. Looking at my students’ work this week, I realized I’ve changed a lot from the teacher I was eighteen years ago. Assignments, lessons, anything, have to go through two guiding questions…

What is the purpose of this?

Is this authentic?

When I ask myself those question, it eliminates a lot of what I used to think was important.

Take a writing activity this week. I used Linda Reif’s likes/dislikes lesson. I’ve created lists with my students in our journals before – list what you like, list what you don’t like. When you need ideas of what to write about, look there for ideas if you are stuck. Linda goes a step further and has them list their ideas on a piece of paper. They could illustrate them, color them, etc. Here is a sample from my classroom.

I thought through this lesson and assignment. What was the purpose? To generate a list of topics for my students for further writing and get to know them better at the start of the year. What is the purpose of the chart? Then we all could read each other’s answers, bringing our community closer together. Was it authentic? I think so. I’ve made many similar lists in my notebooks. I wouldn’t necessarily do the extra step of putting it on paper for the wall, but for the benefit of building community, it made sense.

The bigger aha for me was when the kids asked – does it need to be colored? Do you need every square to have an illustration? I thought about it – and thought about how long it had taken me to create mine.  (Colored and illustrated) I went back to the purpose – we’re generating a list of topics, learning about each other to build community.

So, why do I need illustrations or color?

Hmm. Well, it looks better. It appears that they put in more effort. But does that fit the purpose? So I left it at this. If you love coloring or drawing, of course you may illustrate and color. If you don’t want to do that, you may list the things you like and dislike. Color, don’t color, it is entirely up to you.

What I ended up getting fascinated me. Some kids obviously love drawing and art. Their papers were beautiful. They do stand out more, but that doesn’t matter to me. Some kids chose to illustrate the like side and not the dislike side because they thought that created impact. Others shared that they hated coloring and were so glad they could just write words. You know what? Their papers taught me just as much.

Purpose and authenticity help me really make better choices for my students. They guide me a lot in planning and even during lessons. Being a reader and writer myself also lets me reflect back and realize if it isn’t something I would do, if it doesn’t help me grow as a reader and/or a writer, than it doesn’t need to be in our classroom. This frees up time for what is really important for our students, which is my main goal.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Little Elliot, Big City by Mike Curato

I was super excited when I was asked to be part of the Little Elliot, Big City tour. I fell in love with this little elephant when I read the book. Elliot reminds me of so many kids I have taught - overwhelmed and, at times, unnoticed in this crazy, busy world. I'm grateful for the chance to interview the author, Mike Curato, and share just a bit of the love I have for this wonderful new character. 

Me: Mike, thanks so much for visiting my blog today. Little Elliot, Big City is essentially the perfect book to me. I talk a lot about how I want my students to form a community, be kind to each other, and look out for their fellow classmate. I see so much of that in your book. I cannot wait to share it with my fifth graders at the start of this school year.

To start right from the beginning, I love the dedication of your book, “To anyone who feels unnoticed.” Of course, this can be true for adults, but this can be especially true for our youngest students. Do you mind telling us what inspired you to write about Little Elliot?

Mike: The original story was actually much different from the one being published. It was cute, but wasn’t quite right. Someone told me that what they loved best about the story is the contrast of how little Elliot is in the big city (and that’s where the title comes from). That comment sparked a memory of Little Mike in the Big Deli. I was very young, and much shorter than the tall counter, and the man taking orders could not see me. People cut in front of me, probably assuming I was there with a grown up. I stood there timidly until someone asked if I was in line, and then I finally got to place my order. Once that came back to me, everything started to fall into place.

I love that Elliot is an elephant with blue and pink spots, one would think he would be noticed walking down the city streets. What made you choose an elephant as your main character?

I didn’t actually choose an elephant for the story, I chose the story for my elephant. I’ve been drawing Elliot for a decade. Over the years, his world evolved through the art I created. I didn’t start working on the story until two and a half years ago.

One point I want to share with my students is the friendship between Little Elliot and Mouse. Little Elliot is bigger and, of course, able to help Mouse. But Mouse helps Little Elliot get the cupcake he so longed for. Was there any friendship stories that inspired this duo?

Though there wasn’t a specific instance that inspired me, I can say that I have some amazing friends who have lifted me up to that proverbial pizza slice in the trash, and I hope that I am able to reciprocate that in little ways, like Mouse was able to.

My students often read interviews on this blog with authors and illustrators, what advice would you give them on being a writer and/or artist?

Well, all of this came about because I made something for myself. Drawing Elliot is what made me happy. I wasn’t trying to impress anyone, I was just trying to make something I loved. I saw one of my favorite designers, Jessica Hische, speak at a conference once. She said two of my favorite quotes, which are “Learn what you need to learn to make what you want to make” and “Make things you wish existed.” I don’t think I can say it any better. A few other tips: read as much as you can (including books that you wouldn’t normally read), pay close attention to details (use all of your senses to get to know a place or person).

My students also use a writing notebook in fifth grade. This is a space just for them – to record ideas or sketches each day. Do you have a notebook? If so, can you share with them what type of work goes inside it?

I keep a sketchbook/notebook. To someone else, it might seem a bit incoherent; there are lots of little doodles and quick, short lines of text. I use my sketchbook as a way to quickly jot down ideas, like creative post-it notes. It’s funny how I will totally forget about something, but seeing a little doodle in my book will bring back the entire idea!

And, last question and the one my students always want to see me ask, can you share what your writing space looks like?  

Of course! I have a whole room in my apartment for working…
I chose an apartment with a lot of light. it helps me work better.

I like hanging other people’s art on my walls who inspire me. They include some of my friends, and popular artists. The cat on the wall is a painting I made when I was four years old.

I keep all of my picture books in my studio for quick reference. Sometimes when I’m feeling stuck, I read some of my favorite stories to get inspired. You can also see the flat files where I store all of my drawings.

Thanks so much, Mike, for giving us your time and sharing your work space with us! 

Little Elliot Blog Tour Schedule
Tuesday, August 26                Librarian in Cute Shoes | @utalaniz
Wednesday, August 27           Teach Mentor Texts | @mentortexts
Thursday, August 28               Read. Write. Reflect. | @katsok 
Friday, August 29                   Kit Lit Frenzy | @alybee930
Saturday, August 30               Daddy Mojo | @daddymojo
Sunday, August 31                  Sharp Reads | @colbysharp 
                                               Watch. Connect. Read. | @mrschureads
                                                Nerdy Book Club | @nerdybookclub
Monday, September 1             Miss Print | @miss_print

Check out Mike's website HERE and the site for the series HERE.

Finally, the publisher is begin kind enough to sponsor a giveaway for this tour. Comment below and I will randomly select one person to win a copy of Little Elliot, some stickers, and a tote bag that you can only get from this blog tour. I have one already and it rocks! I'm so excited for you guys to meet Elliot, I know you will love him just as much as I do. 

Edited to add - the drawing is closed. Carrie, you've won! See the comment to your entry below.

Pssst.... If you love MerryMakers plush dolls like I do, rumor has it that a Little Elliot will be appearing this spring.