Le Petit Prince was right. On ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.
As a high school student (lo those many years ago), I read The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery in the original French. This classic fable has stood the test of time, offering up a plenitude of memorable quotes, but none more resonant with me than this one: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Today while students spent one more day digesting turkey; teachers devoted time to professional development. As one of our district priorities is curriculum mapping, the teacher-librarians met to develop essential questions (and enduring understandings) to go with each of our instructional units.
According to our curriculum mapping software, “an essential question is used to provide focus for a course or a unit of study in the form of a question and keeps the focus on inquiry as opposed to answers.” While I have informally used essential questions in the past, today’s endeavor required a rigorous approach, correlating essential questions to standards, content and skills already input into the database.
And so we dove in. Fingers were flying on keyboards, questions and clarifications ping-ponging back and forth. As a professional development session it was extremely productive, yielding dozens of potential essential questions such as:
- How can we be safe and savvy on the Internet?
- How does the medium and technique of a book’s illustrations affect the mood of a story?
- Why do we classify and organize information, knowledge and things?
- How can historical fiction help me to have a better understanding of history?
- How can I develop strategies to find information relevant to my research question or personal need?
Productive? Yes. Focus on inquiry? Absolutely. Collaborative? Without a doubt. A successful workshop indeed.
And yet, a little itchy thought niggled at my brain. Something essential is missing from these essential questions. And the little prince had the wisdom to see it. “What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Yes, these essential questions are important. But we must not forget the (invisible) human connections and relationships between teacher and students. They are as necessary to arriving at an enduring understanding, the “big idea that has enduring value…beyond the…classroom” as the essential questions themselves.
Since this revelation is so important to me, I turn to those who can express it more eloquently than I. Please find time to take a hop, skip and a jump over to the words of two profound writers–Katherine Sokolowski and Jack Schneider. Katherine, who blogs at Read, Write, Reflect, (a must-read blog for teachers, librarians, parents, principals and policy makers) talks about relationships as the core of her teaching. In this sm post she links to Jack Schneider’s wise words published in the Washington Post. In my humble opinion, these are both essential reading.
I would love to hear what you think.
I had already decided to turn over a new leaf a good month early (by starting my 2014 resolutions on December 1st) when I came upon a Twitter conversation on Thanksgiving evening. Several members of the Nerdy Book Club were discussing renewing their commitments to writing and/or exercising daily. A discussion among a few grew to a thread. When the thread earned its own hashtag, I realized they were on to something. I lurked in and among the tweets to see where this thing would take me. It turns out I am not the only one beyond the original group who was intrigued. They say they want a nerdlution and here (and here and here and here) it is.
Not wanting to be presumptuous enough to speak for the original tweeters by interpreting their intentions, this will reflect my own text-to-self connection. I had certainly fallen off the exercise bandwagon and writing is not yet a daily activity for me. Self-improvement projects have been started and abandoned with well, with abandon.
I have participated in group challenges but have never been able to commit to the one-size-fits-all focus. After attending a weekend meditation workshop I vowed to meditate for a year. Lasted six months. Facebook’s 30-Day Plank Challenge looked promising. Made it to Day 20. Instead of celebrating my success, (Six months meditating! Doing a 2 ½ minute plank!) I lamented my failure.
But this time is different. Each nerdlution is personal and yet by nature of social media, public. A customized resolution, publicly stated and made at a time when motivation is high has a better chance of success. Plus, I’ll keep it simple and small. I will be part of a supportive community with the encouragement of tweets and posts and instagrams galore. It’s doable. I am going to do it. I am. And so I commit to the following over the next 50 days:
- Physical-30 minutes of daily exercise on average during the week
- Spiritual-5 minutes of meditation a day
- Cerebral-Write, read or ponder for at least 30 minutes daily
Join me. 50 days. December 2-January 20 #nerdlution
Let’s do it!
That got your attention, didn’t it?
Friends and followers know that I am usually a Pollyanna-ish, half-full kind of gal. A blog post entitled Epic/Fail (which, according to the Urban Dictionary, is a “full-blown, game-over fail”) doesn’t seem to be my style. I celebrate successes and don’t dwell on failures (at least in public).
Astute readers noticed, hopefully, the placement of the “/” however. This post, in fact, will not be about an epic fail, but rather about an event that was truly EPIC and the repeated refrain at said event that FAILURE can actually be a good thing.
I have just returned from the American Association of School Librarians’ (AASL) biennial national conference in Hartford, CT. Its theme was “Rising to the Challenge”. And rise we did, thanks to the organizers who planned an event “extending beyond the usual or ordinary, especially in size or scope” (Merriam-Webster). Hundreds of concurrent sessions vied for our attention. Dozens of vendors plied us with swag, about which, I am happy to report, books vastly outnumbered totebags and t-shirts.
New friends were made and ideas shared (shout out to Angenine G, Gwyneth J, Heather Lo, Joquetta J, Linda D and Tiffany W). Old friends surfaced (hey, Maria M!). Current colleagues connected (tip of the hat to Jennifer R, Heather Le, Audrey A). The keynote and closing speeches were, as expected, both inspirational and motivational.
Perhaps most inspiring was the late night Unconference organized by Library Rock Star Joyce Valenza and friends. Chockfull of friendly debate, informal exchange of information, a “Smackdown” of one minute helpful tips and even singing (yes, singing!), it left my head abuzz and my feet a’tappin’.
At the risk of pushing the “EPIC” portion of this post into the tl;dr (look it up) category, what follows is a random brain dump of “stuff” (thank you, Christopher Harris) swirling around in a very disorderly fashion in my head at the moment. I hope to write about many of these ideas in the future, but for now, listing them is about all I can handle. I would love feedback regarding which ideas resonate the most with you. Please feel free to comment below.
• Dewey is dead (figuratively as well as literally); genrefication is the rage
• Picture book biographies can be springboard to teach research process
• Libraries can be Maker Spaces
• Matthew Holm rocks
• Much like ESL students acquiring vocabulary, I am a Digital Language Learner when it comes to technology
• Children’s curiosity should drive instruction
• Andrea Davis Pinkney rocks
• Love the concept of librarian as curator
• Book trailers promote reading; provide authentic assessment…and they’re loads of fun to make!
• Matt Tavares rocks
• QR codes on books connect to more info about topic
• Mission-us.org, is a “revolutionary way to learn history”
• Doreen Rapapport rocks
• Use Twitter to create Professional Learning Network (PLN)
• Jennifer Bryant rocks
• Capitalize on Lego fascination by using them for poetry and story starters
• Best-book-lists wiki suggests scores of titles as mentor texts to teach comprehension strategies and literary devices
• So many ways to teach the inquiry process
• Connect first grade students across the country through a shared blog
• Melissa Sweet rocks
• Apps to explore: postermywall, tellagami, subtext, padlet, smore, clipping magic, awesome screenshot and so many more
• Membership in AASL is valuable; need to continue as active participant
Tony Wagner, Innovation Education Fellow at the Technology & Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard was the keynote speaker on Thursday. An excerpt from his website expresses his view on failure.
“The most innovative companies celebrate failure. At IDEO, a design and consulting firm that is consistently recognized as one of the most innovative companies in the world, the motto is, “Fail early and often.” Most high school and college classes penalize failure and thus discourage students from taking intellectual risks. In contrast, schools with a culture of innovation teach students to view trial and error—and failure—as integral to the problem-solving process. One Olin college student told me, “We don’t talk about failure here. We talk about iteration.”
This philosophy of celebrating failure (or at least learning from it) echoed throughout the conference. Award-winning author Andrea Davis Pinkney spoke about having to rework her acclaimed book Sit In at the eleventh hour because she had the wrong information for what the four friends ordered at the Woolworth counter. Maureen Milton and Shelly Buchanan explained how independent student inquiry projects provide students the opportunity to fail in a safe environment. Several workshops offered a view of the library beyond Dewey. Reinventing a library’s organization system can be hit-or-miss. Learn from the misses to create a truly child-centered arrangement. Matt Tavares spoke of debunking a myth about Hank Aaron by diligent research and consultation of primary sources. He didn’t let failure to find the truth at first stop him.
Far from being a game-over fail, AASL 2013, Rising to the Challenge, was a resounding success. I came home with new energy, new ideas, new “stuff”, an epic sense of the library world and a willingness to fail as I take new risks in my professional life. As the closing music suggested “Up, up and away!”
Once upon a time there were two sweet and kind, smart and loving educators. (If I were true to the elements of folktales, there would be three, but I am getting ahead of myself.) They worked in the village of Peaslee–home to laughter, latitude in instructional design and love of learning. And then, one day, the Common Core came to town. The Common Core, with its rigid evil standards and foolishly high expectations. (Work with me, here. I don’t really mean this, but you can probably see where I am going.)
The educators had to act fast. In their hearts of hearts they knew that the Common Core wasn’t really evil or foolish. It was just lonely. If only they could come up with a plan to welcome it to the village of Peaslee, make it feel at home. A clever, good deed, like a new and exciting unit might do the trick. So, they got together and created one. Both teachers had taught folktales before. But there would be no laurel-resting for them. Their re-engineered unit would incorporate the Common Core as well as their shared love of literature and learning. It would be fresh, new and participatory. It would include authentic assessments. It would engage and excite the students. And indeed it worked! The Common Core was accepted into the community. Our smart and kind educators loved teaching it, the warm and willing students loved participating in it and (wait for it…) they all lived happily ever after.
Our tale’s message? Good teaching is so much more than the Core. It is being well-versed in the standards, understanding your students, knowing your resources, and modeling collaboration for the students–proving two heads are always better than one.
Third-grade teacher Ariella Greenspan and I had been talking about collaboration since the beginning of the school year. The time was right when she started to think about teaching this standard:
Recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text. (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.2)
We began by looking at the standard and determining what else we wanted students to know, and how we wanted to enhance the teaching. It was important to us that students understand and recognize the elements of folktales. With a little Internet-searching and tweaking, we came up with the following elements:
• Foolish or unsuccessful character
• Successful, smart or loving character
• Animals or plants with human characteristics
• Evil character
• Trickery or good deeds defeat evil
• 3’s or 7’s
• Moral, lesson or message
We then decided upon a framework. Knowing that I would be working with her for the first five days of the unit and upon reviewing my collection of folktales (and focusing on the emphasis on “diverse cultures” in the standard), I suggested that we use five folktales from five continents (sorry Australia and Antarctica!) as mentor texts to teach the elements, most especially the final one—finding the moral, lesson or message. This proved to be a huge success. It gave us a structure, it demonstrated the universality of folktales and it allowed for a bit of a geography lesson as well.
The stories we shared were:
• Seven Blind Mice retold by Ed Young (from Asia)
• Raven retold by Gerald McDermott (from North America)
• Grandma Chickenlegs retold by Geraldine McCaughrean (Europe)
• Master Man retold by Aaron Shepard (Africa)
• How Music Came to the World retold by Hal Ober (we chose this to represent South America, although technically this version came from Mexico)
We also choose one story with two versions to be used for a compare and contrast activity. The well-known Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobokina was paired with The Hatseller and the Monkeys retold by Baba Wague Diakite. Although I wasn’t in the classroom for this lesson, I was told that the students “made connections all over the place.”
Ariella created a grid and hung it on the wall so that the children could record their observations about the elements in each tale. She also posted the learning standard in terms the children could understand (as she always does) and (with my help) collected dozens of other folktales for her classroom library. This allowed for immersion in folktales, beyond what was specifically accomplished using the five original tales. The students read stories individually, in pairs and in small groups, completing a graphic organizer identical to the classroom grid for each one. The books were also available for voluntary free reading, the key to reading success, as any good librarian (or teacher) will tell you.
The graphic organizers provided formative assessments as the unit progressed. The summative assessment at the culmination of the unit was a writing assignment. The students wrote one paragraph about what they learned and one analyzing a specific folktale.
I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to work with Ariella on this project. Grateful for the fixed/flex schedule that allows me the time. Grateful for a supportive principal who encourages this kind of teamwork. Grateful for a veteran teacher who welcomed me into her classroom and gave me the chance to spend five hours that week with her students, above and beyond the thirty minutes of instructional time I usually have with them. This kind of in-depth teaching cannot be done working within the traditional fixed library schedule.
And they all lived happily ever after.
Readers’ Advisory—such an important facet of a school librarian’s job, yet one often neglected in the job description.
Just what is Readers’ Advisory? It is as simple as reversing the two words–advising readers (patrons) by suggesting titles in the collection that they will like based on a knowledge of the individual, his/her borrowing history and patterns, and an engaging interview to determine what it is he/she wants to read.
But, despite taking courses in the literature of children and young adults, when I studied for my Masters degree, there was no specific training on the process of advising, nor was it acknowledged as part of our role as School Library Media Specialist (still the official job title of many of us).
Let’s look at what the American Library Association (ALA) has to say.
On the ALA website, the heading of the Reader’s Advisory Wiki states, “Readers’ Advisory is a service provided by public libraries, typically.” Really, ALA? Have you spent time in a school library lately?
Information Power: Building Partnerships for Learning, published in 1998 by the American Library Association and still the bible for budding school librarians, outlines our four roles. They are:
• Information Specialist
• Instructional Partner
• Program Manager
No mention of Readers’ Advisory, the hook that catches the students and keeps them coming back for more. Putting a book in the hands of a child and knowing that I have played a role in instilling his/her love of literature, both fiction and nonfiction as well as libraries, both school and public, is one of the most rewarding parts of my job.
Readers’ Advisory is more important now than ever before. Competing media are drawing our children away from books. To keep them captivated we need to give them what they want.
This year I plan to focus my efforts on improving my advisory skill set. Looking at new releases with an eye on matching them up to a specific reader. Updating my “If you like…” bookmarks to reflect what my patrons are asking for now. (I’ll soon be creating one for “World According to Humphrey” fans. Can’t keep those books on the shelves.) Paying closer attention to what the students are recommending to each other. (The best Readers’ Advisory is often peer to peer.) Setting a book aside for a reader in anticipation of their next request. Networking with other school librarians to see what’s hot at their schools that I might be missing.
I’ll be looking at my circulation statistics at the end of the year to assess my success at this endeavor. Let’s see those books fly off the shelves!
As the summer drew to a close (yes, this post is long overdue), my colleague Andi Daunais and I got together to plan a collaborative lesson to introduce the literary element of theme to her fifth grade students. She was hoping to wrap the lesson around the “Learning Safari” theme (no pun intended) that she had chosen to kick off the new school year.
As preparation, she had already immersed herself in an exploration of all things African and had decided to begin with folktales, both to teach the concept of theme while also exposing the students to African geography and the diversity of peoples and cultures of the continent.
During our conversation, I had a light bulb moment. As a college undergraduate (lo, those many years ago), in a Children’s Literature class, I had created a set of finger puppets to accompany the telling of Gerald McDermott’s Caldecott award winning book Anansi the Spider. Although I went on to become a banker upon graduation and didn’t reenter the world of children’s literature until almost twenty years later, I never let go of those puppets. Now, finally, I would get a chance to use them. This would be the perfect book to introduce theme and the colorful little puppets would add a little pizzazz to the presentation.
Let me tell you a little bit about the character Anansi, our Spider-Man. In the many extant tales about him, he is portrayed variously as a spider god, spider man or just a jungle-variety spider. He is a folk hero to the West African Ashanti people. He can be a cunning and mischievous trickster, a wise and inventive sage, a lazy but loveable rapscallion. The stories hearken back to a time when humans, gods and animals could all speak to each other and travel within each other’s worlds.
Back to our lesson. Since the McDermott retelling of this tale features Anansi and his six sons, my cast of finger puppets numbered seven. Although doable, it was quite unwieldy to manipulate all seven so I recruited six students to play the sons as I told the story. No dialogue was required; I merely asked them to move their puppets along with the narrative. And they did as they were told, until one serendipitous unscripted moment in the story.
“And so they tried to decide which son deserved the prize. They tried but they could not decide. They argued all night.” That’s the text. Here’s what the students did. They started “arguing”, each claiming that the task that they had performed (built a road, swallowed a river, etc.) was the one that had “saved” the father. No prompting. No previous instructions. They just spontaneously enhanced the telling by acting the parts of the sons. It was a precious moment and a great start to our school year, it being just the second day of school. It’s this kind of occurrence that keeps me coming back to school every August.
I followed the storytelling with a mini-lesson on theme. It’s simple enough to explain, but not necessarily easy to recognize in a text. Folktales, because they are often instructive in nature, make the identification of theme easier. As a class we discussed the theme of the Anansi tale (teamwork) and then we generated a list of themes that might be found in other tales.
At this point, I turned the lesson over to Andi. She explained to the students that they would be divided into four teams, each assigned to a different African folktale. Their jobs, over the next few weeks would be to read the stories, create a story map, identify the theme and then write a script illustrating the pivotal plot points and theme. Once completed, with simple construction paper props and costumes, they performed their skits for their classmates. Assessment and entertainment wrapped up in one tidy package.
And no Marvel superheroes were required.