Letting the Children Lead

Two weeks ago I decided to mix up the regular library routine with my kindergarten classes. Rather than starting with a read-aloud selected to support their classroom curriculum or a particular library lesson, followed by book choice and borrowing, I offered my take on a “flipped classroom”.

I gathered dozens of picture books and early readers that the children don’t normally gravitate to when they get up to borrow. Translate–not a Star Wars, LEGO, Jack and Annie (aka Magic Tree House), or Minecraft book among them. Dividing them up into six baskets, I spread them around the rug and had the students work in groups of three to complete two assignments:

  • Choose a book for me to read at the end of the lesson
  • Find a book they might want to borrow (with the understanding that Star Wars, LEGO et al were still allowed if they just couldn’t find something they liked)

After the borrowing, we regrouped on the rug and I reviewed the six books that were selected by the groups and chose one to read aloud in the remaining time. The purpose of the lesson was to encourage the students to move outside of their comfort (and copycat) zones when it came to borrowing and to empower them by allowing them to choose the read aloud.


What I didn’t expect was that one of the books chosen would lead to the following week’s lesson. Too Many Toys by David Shannon is the cautionary tale of a boy who is inundated with toys and can’t/won’t part with any of them. Finally (finally!) he agrees to box up some of the excess but when his mother comes to collect the box, she finds all the toys dumped out and the box nowhere to be found. As it turns out, the box was the best toy of all. Not a surprise to any adult who has witnessed present-opening at virtually any occasion.


Clearly I had to incorporate playing with boxes into the following week’s lesson. Preparation was easy. I gathered up boxes, corrugated cardboard, tubes and other paper goods from our low-tech mobile maker cart, added some masking tape, markers and scissors and then posed the following question: “How would you play with these boxes and what would you make?”

Mobile Maker Cart 1

What would they make indeed!!

Laney and her dogLanie and her dog:

“I got the idea from my stuffed animals. I’m a fan of dollhouses and animals. I’m going to name him Spot. I putted cones for his ears. A long one for his tail and a short one for his nose.”



Logan’s rocket:

“You move thingies to make it blast off. I got the idea of a rocket from the book. I want to add more detail.”




Ari and his house:

“This is the chimney. This is the fire and this is the smoke. The pipes exploded and the water is coming out.”




Nate and his bird feeder:

“I cut this. I put this string I cut off from a party hat and I tied a knot in it.”


Evan and his creation

Evan and his rocket tank:

“It’s called a rocket tank. People can sign their name if they want to sign up for programs. These are heaters. The red is heat.”



Jamie and his truck

Jamie and his truck (built with Lukas):

“It’s an ice cream delivery truck.”



Eli and his house:

“I need to finish this at home. See the details-a couch, bed, TV, table and chairs, even a bowl.”


And there was a pirate ship “with no plank, like in the olden days”. A sled–“We’re pretending that we’re in real snow. It’s the best sled ever. There’s a front handle and a back handle. Hold on to the pencils to make you stay on.” A blower ship: “You blow on this and it will go in here and back up to make it move.”



Though this activity grew organically from David Shannon’s Too Many Toys, it would work just as well (maybe even better) with Antoinette Portis’ classic Not a Box. That might make the best lesson ever!!







Lights, Camera, Action

Pedro's book trailer-click to watch

Pedro’s book trailer-click to watch

I wrestle constantly with how much time I should devote to information literacy skills and how much to promoting the sheer joy and love of free, independent, voluntary reading. My passion is the latter, but my lessons for upper grade students often favor the former. The older my students get, the less cool recreational reading is for many of them. Is the emphasis on information literacy, then, misplaced?

As the “invested, introspective and inspired’ librarian that I aim to be, my mission is to save my students from the terrible fate of a bookless future. (Okay, that’s a little melodramatic, but it got your attention, eh?)

Click here to watch AIdan's book trailer

Click here to watch AIdan’s book trailer

So swings my pedagogical pendulum. And did I mention that there’s technology integration to think about?

Kerri W's book trailer-click to watch

Kerri W’s book trailer-click to watch

Tick–Information Literacy

Tock–Free Independent Reading

Tick–Big 6 and the Inquiry Process

Tock–The Book Whisperer (awakening the inner reader in every child)

Tick — Digital learning

Tock – Old-fashioned paper based instruction

Tick–Standards for the 21st Century Learner

Tock–Readers Advisory

As is often the case, a conversation in the teachers’ lounge morphed into a project that quieted all this incessant tick-tocking. One of my colleagues asked me if I could teach the students how to make book trailers. She had seen me working on one during a summer iPad workshop. Here was an opportunity for me to “practice what I pixel”—I could “sell” books to reluctant readers, while teaching a valuable 21st century skill with an authentic purpose. The Fifth Grade Book Trailer Project was born. Still a novice with iMovie, I enlisted the help of our technology specialist and we were off and running.

Information Literacy? Check. Students learned about both safe and copyright free image searching as well as crediting sources.

Free Independent Reading? Check. Students were given (almost) complete autonomy in choosing books for this project

Grace's book trailer-click to watch

Grace’s book trailer-click to watch

Inquiry Process? Check. Successful image searches required thoughtful development of key words.

The Book Whisperer? Check. Allowing and encouraging students to read what they want, in class and out.

Jasmine C's book trailer-click to watch

Jasmine C’s book trailer-click to watch

Digital Learning? Check. Not only was the creation of an iMovie a motivator, but it also became an authentic task when we determined that we could link the book trailers to our online catalog. How exciting to see your own production featured in the school’s catalog for everyone to see!

Old-fashioned paper based learning? Check. Storyboards were created by hand so that students knew exactly what they were expected to do before beginning the movie-making process.

Hayden's book trailer-click to watch

Hayden’s book trailer-click to watch

Standards for the 21st Century Learner? Check. Students used “technology… to display knowledge and understanding in ways that others can view, use, and assess”.

Readers’ Advisory? Check. What better reader’s advisory than a recommendation from a fellow student?

Amanda's book trailer, click to watch

Amanda’s book trailer, click to watch

Actions speaking louder than words, please enjoy these short iMovies (45 second to two minutes) about our students’ favorite books. (And if you would like to see more, contact me for the links to the rest of these award-winning productions!)

Roll the credits, please…. Thanks go to Andi Daunais, Nick Greenwood, Lisa Miranda and Jenn Potter and all the wonderful fifth graders at Peaslee School.

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.

What if you were never allowed to go to school?

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What if you were never allowed to go to school? That is just one of the questions author Elizabeth Suneby posed to my fourth and fifth grade students during her visit to our school yesterday. Because, as she explained, there are sixty-nine million school-aged children worldwide who are denied an education due to poverty, political instability, war, natural disaster or tradition. A hefty topic to discuss with the nine to eleven year old set, but Liz captivated her audience with an interactive program well-suited to upper elementary school students.

If you have been following my blog, you might remember my April post about Liz’s book, Razia’s Ray of Hope: One Girl’s Dream of an Education. Full disclosure, I was privy to it pre-pub due to the fact that Liz is my sister-in-law. But I can assure you my April review was unbiased and today’s post is as well.

Razia listens as her brothers study

Razia listens as her brothers study

This author visit was not the typical “this is the process an author follows to write a book”. There were no galleys, no examples of endless revisions and no book signings. In fact, she hardly spoke about herself at all. Because the topic of her most recent book is so powerful and so important, the visit was mainly devoted to what inspired her to write this fictionalized account of the building of the Zabuli Education Center, a free private school for girls, in the Afghan village of Deh’Subz, and the young girl who dreams of attending it.

Our students were well prepared for the visit. We had read and discussed the book, generated questions for the author and done some quick research about Afghanistan. Due to this preparation, they were an especially attentive audience because they brought their curiosity about a world where women wear burqas, girls are not permitted to go to school and female literacy hovers around 14%.

The wearing of burqas proved to be of particular interest. Neither the girls nor the boys could understand why a woman would be required to be covered and hidden in such a way. Liz had been able to borrow two burqas for willing volunteers to try on. She recruited one boy and one girl in each grade who shared what it felt like—hot, stuffy, claustrophobic, itchy, and virtually impossible to see out of. A hands-on experience that was truly an eye-opener.

Liz showed the students videos of the schoolgirls, the school and Razia Jan, its founder. The children were surprised to discover that while the homes have no electricity and little furniture, the school not only has desks, chairs and electricity, but also computers and Internet service.

The presentation ended with the question “How can YOU make a difference?”

The students left inspired and empowered. Ideas for fundraising percolated. A meeting was set up with the principal. I do believe these children will make a difference. Stay tuned.

We say potato, they say patata

Having some fun with Mr. Potato Head as a springboard for writing our story

Having some fun with Mr. Potato Head as a springboard for writing our story

For those of you old enough to catch the lyrical reference of the post title, no, we didn’t call the whole thing off! For those of you not old enough, a quick Google of George  and Ira Gershwin should enlighten you.

But back to the potatoes.

Last month I posted about an on-the-fly read aloud collaboration between my school, Peaslee Elementary School, and the school my daughter teaches at outside of Madrid, Spain in honor of World Read Aloud Day.

This four-minute video was such a hit at both our schools that other teachers expressed an interest in working on a project perhaps a little more substantial and with some specific learning objectives.

And so the cross-continental storytelling collaboration was born. Working with Miss Miranda’s fifth grade class here in Massachusetts and two seventh grade classes in Mahadajonda, our goal was to create a story written and illustrated by both the American and Spanish students in four alternating sections. The Common Core learning objective for our American students was to “write a narrative to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequence” (ELA W.5.3) and more specifically to “use narrative techniques such as dialogue, description and pacing” (ELA W.5.3b).

Since fluency was also an objective on both sides of the Atlantic, in addition to writing and illustrating, we recorded the students reading the story for a final production to be launched on El Dia Del Libro, International Day of the Book, April 23rd. Elena Gosalvez, a teacher of Ingles at IES Leonardo da Vinci produced this marvelous Prezi slideshow of the collaboration.

But wait, didn’t you say something about potatoes?

Crazy Mr. Potato Head

It was agreed that the students in Spain would write the first installment of the story. We had no idea what to expect and so eagerly awaited the arrival of the email with the story attachment. Imagine our surprise when we opened it to discover they had provided us with a story starter about Mr. Potato Head (and his look-alike Senor Patata!) Due to a mix-up at the airport, the potatoes are headed home with the wrong families. Oh the possibilities!

Here in the states the brainstorming began and the story developed. We sent our installment off into cyberspace and anxiously looked forward to the next episode. We were not disappointed and neither will you be. But no more spoilers. You’ll just have to watch the Prezi yourself to find out what happens!

In closing, I quote the words of Ira Gershwin from the refrain of the mystery song paraphrased in the post title, “We know we need each other so”.  At the risk of sounding a tad maudlin, we do all need each other so, whether we eat potatoes or patatas, waffles or churros. Thank you. Gracias.