On Your Mark, Get Set, Go!

Excited to begin another year at Peaslee School!!


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Fun with Folktales

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)

Common Core Standard 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.

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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.

Ready for Life

Photo by Sean MacEntee under Creative Commons license

Photo by Sean MacEntee under Creative Commons license

Last week, a yoga class and a hike serendipitously provided the inspiration for pondering about my teaching philosophy. This week, the synchronicity of a blog post and a discussion at a School Council meeting was the catalyst.

Over at Education Rethink, John Spencer is known for posting provocative stuff. In his December 3rd post titled “The Pros and Cons of Common Core Reading” he leads with a quote, “Common Core is about being college and career ready. What about being ready for life?” What about being a citizen of the world? A caretaker of the environment? A creator or promoter of the arts? And what about our students’ passions that may not lead to a career but will bring fullness to their lives? What about their curiosity that can’t be satisfied within the standardized frameworks?

In 1993, as part of Education Reform Act in Massachusetts, the state mandated that schools must create School Councils  as part of site-based administration to assist principals in managing the increased authority at the school level. Each school council comprises the principal and members of the teaching staff, parent community and a representative from the community at large. The charge of the council is to identify needs, review the budget, and prepare a school improvement plan. It was at one such meeting that a conversation about literacy initiatives, technology and budget segued to a discussion about the Common Core and standardized testing. Mary Ryan, our interim principal, shared some thoughts that helped crystallize my thinking about the road we are traveling in 2012 with our newest package of reforms. Commenting on the Common Core itself, she reflected that it provides consistency in curriculum and establishes the same objectives across the district (and by extension the state and country). It does not, however, mean that every teacher is teaching the same thing at the same time in the same way. “It is not cookie-cutter education. It is up to the teachers to add the meat to the bones of the skeleton to make it their own.” As for the insidious encroachment (my words, not hers) of standardized testing, she opined, “We are becoming more and more driven  by data and assessments and losing sight of the whole child.” She went on to explain that most educators take a holistic, humanistic approach to instruction and she fears we will lose that with more and more emphasis on THE TESTS.

Like John and Mary, I am not advocating for a rejection of the Common Core. I agree that it provides a solid basis upon which we will build a rigorous curriculum. I do, however, recognize its limitations. And that’s where school libraries and librarians come in. We can feed those passions with books about guinea pig care and dirt-biking and origami and birdwatching. We can satisfy that curiosity with materials about Bigfoot, the Titanic, robots and Ralph Waldo Emerson.  We can use literature to go beyond the walls of our school, the confines of our towns and cities, the borders of our states and the boundaries of our country. We can provide teachers with the materials they need (both electronic and print) to flesh out that curriculum and make it their own.

Our students (or at least most of them) wake up every morning ready for life. My aim as an educator and a librarian is to keep that zest alive.

Photo by James Callan under Creative Commons license

Photo by James Callan under Creative Commons license

Teaching Bibliographic Citation


I love to teach bibliographies! No, really, I do! Every year, I am invited into the classrooms of the teachers on the fifth grade team to teach their students how to create the first formal bibliographies of their academic careers. I make a big deal out of it, both to grab their attention and to emphasize that this is a skill that will be useful for the rest of their learning lives.

Now, do I hear some of you clicking your tongues and wondering why I am teaching such an arcane topic to elementary students? With the availability of online citation generators, why bother teaching the “grammar” of bibliographies anyway? Hey, why teach kids how to add and subtract? They can use a calculator! Learn to read? Why bother. Just download a handy text-to-speech converter on your computer and pop on those headphones. Seriously though, I do believe that learning the why’s and wherefore’s of citing one’s sources is as important as the research itself.

The lesson begins with a show of hands. “How many of you have been to the movies and stayed after ‘The End’ was shown on the screen?” All hands are raised. “Tell me what comes next.” Most all students will provide the answer I am looking for-“The credits.” We then discuss the purpose of the credits and some of the examples. I usually let this part of the lesson linger longer than it needs to, as children want to share some of the more unique jobs featured–“Best Boy” and “Gaffer” being two of their favorites. Once this little digression is wrapped up we talk about how a bibliography is similar to the credits at the end of the movie, an analogy easy for them to understand.

The next show of hands is for participation in sports or dance. Again, this usually results in a unanimous response. By this time the students are wondering if all we are going to do is to talk about what we do in our free time. But I quickly bring them back to the world of education by comparing the rules of sports or dance to the rules of citations. We talk about how rules must be followed, even if it seems like there might be an easier way to do something. The examples I use are a sideline throw-in at a soccer game and second position in dance. Following the rules makes things fair and easier to follow. Learning the rules might be hard, but helpful in the long run.

Now it’s time to get to work. We start very simply with a citation for a book by a single author. First we break it down into the five elements. Then, using a title page projected onto the white board, we locate the title, author, publisher and city of publication. I very sincerely ask them to find the last element, the date. “Can you enlarge the image?” they ask. I do. No date. Finally, someone offers that it can usually be found on the other side of the title page. “Yes, the verso!” I cheer and I quickly provide that image so that we can complete stage one of the citation–gathering the information.

The next step is to transform our bibliographic notes into a bibliographic citation. I explain that it is simply a plug-in formula that need not be memorized as long as it is understood. As a class we then convert the “data” into a citation by applying the formula which I chant as a warm-up. “Last name, comma, first name period. Title, underlined, period. City of publication, colon. Publisher, comma. Date of publication, period.” Perhaps the hardest concept to communicate is what I call “reverse” indentation, but they get the hang of it eventually.

Before I set them off on their own, I check each individual’s work, give them a big round of applause and then tell them, “You are now ready to create your own citations!!” Working in pairs for support, they are given books (or copies of title pages and versos) and off they go. At the completion of this task, again, I make a big deal out of the fact that they just independently created their first bibliographic entries.

In follow-up mini-lessons, I teach other formats (Internet primarily), alphabetizing, and how to use “hanging indentation” in Word.

Practicing what I preach, the original inspiration from this lesson came from correspondence with another librarian over a decade ago. Here is the citation:

Hastings, Jeff. Email to the author. September 9, 2000.

Bibliographies are not glamorous, but with a little pizzazz, the lesson is fun and the kids get it. And that’s what my job is all about.

Common Core Correlation: English Language Arts: W.5.8 Recall relevant information from experiences or gather relevant information from print and digital sources; summarize or paraphrase information in notes and finished work, and provide a list of sources.


I Search, You Search, We All Search for Research

Research is fun!

A student notes in his weekly journal home that he hopes he gets a chance to do more research in the future.

“When I read about it, I said, ‘Wow! That’s really interesting!’”

“I liked asking the questions and finding the answers.”

“Lots of the books had answers to our questions.”

In an earlier post entitled “How”,  I remarked upon the excitement of Mrs. Farrell’s third grade class as they explored the world of Native American cultures, spurred by a recent visit to the Fruitlands Museum in nearby Harvard, MA.

That excitement never waned over the three week study period as the children searched for information of interest to them. The buzz in the room was palpable. Here were actively engaged students, collaborating to build knowledge. The final product, a “Lift the Flaps Poster”, was the culminating work to present what they had learned to the school community.


The culminating project for the students’ research was to create a Lift-the-Flap Poster to share their discoveries with the school.

Research is nothing new in the classroom or the library. This project, however, was newsworthy from the start. Starting from the Common Core ELA Writing Standard: “Conduct short research projects that build knowledge about a topic” our original intention was to have students generate thick and thin questions about subjects of their own choosing in order to work on individual short research projects. Research would take place in both the library and the classroom. We began by introducing nonfiction conventions in mini-lessons. Another mini-lesson was devoted to locating information in a resource. We were ready!


After the trip to the museum, however, and recognizing that this early in the year group projects would be more supportive, Mrs. Farrell suggested we switch gears and narrow the subject area to native American culture while still allowing the children to generate their own questions. As you can see from the lead-in quotes, she made the right decision! This is the beauty of collaboration with a classroom teacher. She knows her students so well that she can tailor a project to meet them where they are.

Another aspect contributing to the success of this unit was the careful scaffolding during the research process. Resources were chosen with the developmental and literacy levels of the students in mind. During the first session of hands-on research we were fortunate to have five adults in the room (librarian, teacher, volunteers and aides) so that each group had guidance should the going get rough.

Before beginning the second session, we added one final mini-lesson–“The Researcher’s Chair”, based on “Anticipating Reader’s Questions” from Nonfiction Craft Lessons by Joann Portalupi and Ralph Fletcher. After modeling the process, several students were chosen to sit in the Researcher’s Chair. After reading their research question and preliminary answer to the class, they fielded questions from their classmates. The queries from the class were designed to help them clarify and expand their answers. The students then met in their work groups and continued this exercise so that every student had an opportunity to refine their research. The feedback gave them focus as they continued their research.

Culminating project presents research “answers” to the school community


Mrs. Farrell and I intend to continue this successful collaboration throughout the year. How can we not build on the enthusiasm of our budding researchers? And while the title of the post, which borrows from the ever popular phrase “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream”, may be a bit of a stretch, I look forward to many more enjoyable research experiences with her class and others in the school.

Students were fascinated with the dwellings of certain Southwest peoples






Melvil Who?

The immortal Melvil Dewey returns from the afterlife to lecture fourth graders about his life and achievements.

“Melvil who?”

That had best be my non-librarian followers asking that question! Those of us in the field, women especially, owe a lot to this brilliant but eccentric man of the 19th and early 20th centuries. So, fellow librarians, please, all together now, let’s enlighten the others with a chorus of  “Melvil Dewey, the Father of Modern Librarianship.”

Of course you may have already guessed that Melvil Dewey was the creator of the Dewey Decimal Classification System, a way of organizing library books that is still in use today by 95% of school and public libraries in the United States. What is lesser known about Dewey is that he also opened the first professional library school at Columbia College and proceeded to admit women despite Columbia’s insistence that they attend a separate school. Dewey prevailed and librarianship became a respected career for educated women.

Melvil Dewey speaks to a rapt audience of fourth graders

Interesting stuff, but of what relevance is this to elementary school students?

One of my teaching goals is to create independent library users—students who can use the online catalog to direct them to the right resource, in most cases a book, and then to use library directional signs and labels to find the book on the shelves. Do they really need to understand the Dewey Decimal System to find the book? No. But I believe that an understanding of classification and sorting will help them better understand the library in general, and if we can have fun with it, all the better.

So, on the day that I plan to introduce the Dewey Decimal unit, I arrange to be called to a meeting during library class. In my stead, back from the dead (his system immortalized him, didn’t it?), is Melvil, pacing back and forth, perpetually consulting his pocket watch, treating the students dismissively and in some cases, outright rudely, as he lectures them about his life, his passion for efficiency and his greatest achievement–the Dewey Decimal Classification System.  You could hear a pin drop in my normally chatter-filled library. Students do try to catch him (me) up in his lie—but the closet thespian in me stays in character and barrels full steam ahead until his allotted time on earth begins to run out and he exits the classroom just in time for me to return from my meeting. (Think Viola Swamp and Miss Nelson).

Dewey points, rather rudely I might add, to students with questions.

Now the fourth graders are intrigued and questions are flying. Teaching the DDS in the coming weeks won’t be so dull and boring, after all. We’ll practice sorting objects into Dewey’s ten categories. We’ll learn about the subject matter of each section and try to figure out why Dewey grouped things as he did. We’ll play guessing games, make paper airplanes, recite poetry and study maps.

And, believe it or not, a little bit of the Common Core can be thrown into the mix. One of the standards for fourth grade math is:

Understand decimal notation for fractions, and compare decimal fractions

While I won’t actually be teaching decimals, as we use the DDS we will be seeing the relations between numbers with decimals and will have practice using the concept of Base Ten.

 To my librarian friends, let your lessons come alive and try an impersonation or two. I don’t have rights to this concept. I actually borrowed this idea from a post on the LM_Net listserv from October 1998 which itself was based on an article in School Library Activities Monthly, April 1992. I have refined it and made it mine, but it’s there for the sharing.

To the rest of you, the next time you head to the library and find everything you are looking for conveniently grouped together, say thanks to Mel. He’d probably be too busy to reply, or just rude enough to offer a grunt in return. But he’d appreciate it. Even curmudgeons are grateful for a kind word or two.


How can school librarians support the implementation of the Common Core State Standards? How should we view our role? How do we get started?

Rebecca Hill, in the April 2012 issue of School Library Journal offers solid advice—“It’s the perfect time to step up (our) involvement as text and inquiry specialists….if (we)are not already on a literacy or curriculum-mapping committee…it’s crucial to become a participant.” I am lucky in that I am participating in both, one at the district level and one newly formed committee at my school.

In the September 11, 2012 online issue of Education Week, Catherine Gewertz paints librarians as being “thrust…into (a) leadership role…help(ing) teachers acquire inquiry-based skills integral to standards.”

So let’s take the bull by the horns and get started!

With the new emphasis on informational texts, think of how our libraries can provide enriched resources to teachers looking to go beyond the textbook. Let’s look at our collections with a critical eye. Are they current? Are they of high quality? Do we offer a wide range of reading and comprehension levels? Are we looking at e-books and interactive books as well as other media to support this new shift?

As information literacy gurus, we can partner with teachers as they design lessons and units to teach research strategies. I am lucky to work in a building where collaboration runs rampant! Sometimes all it takes is a quick conversation in the faculty lunchroom and we are off and running. More often, it requires meeting during planning periods or before and after school. Whenever and whatever it takes, it is worth it.

Imagine the excitement of third graders as they design their own research questions, building on their interest in Native American cultures gained on a field trip to a nearby museum. This project meets the third grade writing standard-“Conduct short research projects that build knowledge about a topic.” The students brainstormed “thin” and “thick” questions and used their understanding of nonfiction conventions such as the table of contents, index, photographs, and captions to locate information.

Or, the fourth graders who discover the important contributions of the presidents they are researching for the Presidential Hall of Fame to be displayed on Election Day. Students used a variety of resources (both print and online) to determine the important role their president played in the history of our country.

Both of these projects were initiated by teachers but enhanced by what I could bring to the table—a knowledge of the resources and how best to use them.

So, what do we need to do to remain a part of this conversation?

  • Learn the standards. No need to memorize, but get a sense of what they entail, how they progress from grade to grade, what is emphasized and what may no longer be as important.
  • Talk to teachers. Yes, this is nothing new, but listen for opportunities to support the Common Core in the classroom.
  • Design library lessons that support the Core. You are probably already doing this. A tweak here and there and you will find that you have been teaching to the Core all along.
  • Become familiar and comfortable with any subscription databases or research sites you have available and then use them with students and demonstrate them for teachers. Online literacy is definitely a 21st century skill!
  • Stay current in the literature. Read my blog. Read lots of blogs.
  • And as always, drink plenty of water and get sufficient sleep (just wanted to see if you were still reading!)