Louhi, Witch of North Farm by Vicki Peters

February 27, 2008

What would happen if someone stole the moon and sun?
Such a plot unfolds in Louhi, Witch of North Farm. This picture book, with a retelling by Toni De Gerez and illustrations by Barbara Cooney, portrays a story from Finland’s epic poem, the Kalevala,. Through the rich text and poetic pictures, mystical characters share their magical powers and, perhaps, more powerful, their connections to nature.

Introducing the book:
Depending on the depth and breadth of our study, I would use this book with first through fourth graders. This could easily be a Winter long thematic unit, bringing us into Spring with the return of the sun, growth, plant life etc. I’d first read it aloud during group story and scaffold it with a discussion (I have an idea of the themes I recognize, but this would be a good opportunity to tap into the students’ interests). During the following days, I might read it again and invite the community to listen and think of one of the themes – listen and really imagine the mystical happenings–How does it feel to dream into animals and forge a great sun or moon? – listen and then afterwards record their thoughts in their journals and later we would act them out on our stage (Vivian Paley style).

A taste of possible theme related activities:
The book offers a variety of curricular opportunities ranging from scientific inquiry to poem writing, and
musical play.

Louhi also dreams herself into various creatures; our supporting journal entries could be: What animal would you dream into? How would you feel? Move? – this could even stem into an aside research project on their individual animals) creative movement and guided imagery could enrich the ecology of the imagination and bring the children’s experience into that of the story’s. The text also introduces folklore, and magical characters such as Vainamoinen (the great singer, boat maker, and knower) and Seppo (the great smith), the class can use these characters to connect to different folklore we have.

Other relevant studies include: skiing; the different qualities in snow; the importance of the sun and moon; animal connections; Finland; Scandinavian culture; epic poems; links to Native American poems and changing animals; creative movement; log home building; blacksmithing. Beyond concrete academics, this book fosters a compassionate bond with nature, and with others. If we only think of our wants or needs, the community could suffer. We must remember we are all in this together, all a team taking care of the earth which sustains us. Good notions to help children to consider.

Poetic Language and Creative Writing
This text offers a variety of graceful images, like Owl Moon by Jane Yolen, and children gain a lovely sense of appreciation of such through reading this book. Phrases such as “down a cloud hill,” “the wind howled angrily,” and “all is still except for Vainamoinen,” invite children to expansively wonder and marvel at the magic of life. When is all still for you? How do you feel? How does it sound? How do you get there? Who is with you? How would it feel to ski through the sky? Such conversations provide kind prompts toward reflective imaginative writing. Wind poems, snow poems or cloud poems could be modeled. Use this time to expose children to the full meaning of the vocabulary, for without words, how does one think? Let children deliciously know and understand and move through different knew words, encouraging children to raise their hand and look forward to discovering a new word, not feel any shame or stupidity for not knowing its meaning.

For more activities on this delightful book, visit http://www.vickipeters.net.


Mind Your Language by Paul J. Meyers

February 27, 2008

Our English language – the most widely-spoken and necessary language in the world. Necessary for its being the most widely-spoken and for its prestigious position as the world’s most prominent means of communication. English fluency, more so than any other language, is the most sought after linguistic endeavor of those who were born of another native tongue. In fact, it has become so commonplace to hear English spoken properly with all sorts of accents that we, living in a native English-speaking country, have taken this beautiful melting pot of a language and diluted it by throwing too much water into the pot. Thus, it can only be the job of the teacher to set things right with the proper mixture of ingredients that will not merely sustain the commonality of the language, but to rescue the integrity and dignity of the English language.

Without delving too deeply into an etymological diatribe, I will simply offer that English has come to be a culmination of many languages both archaic and other living, breathing languages of today.

Though technically considered a West Germanic language of England, its early influences include Old Norse, Norman French, and Latin. Throughout its evolution it has picked up bits and pieces from Greek, modern French, and more.

With a language so widely-influenced and now influential in its own right there should be no question of its richness, its subtle nuances, its sudden twists and turns, and yes, those many unexplained “rules” we have all had to endure.  Moreover, one would assume if so many people are learning proficient English from thousands of different native tongues, then in those countries such as America where English is the native tongue, people would speak it the most proficiently – incorporating its extensive vocabulary and eloquent grammar.

Sadly, the trends show no truth to this assumption as our mainstream society speaks on a level that experts once said was of an eighth grade proficiency level but have since downgraded to levels even lower than that. As the foremost goal of acquiring the most material wealth possible gives rise to a quantity over quality mentality, so does our accepting nothing more than mediocrity when it comes to our own language, which so many others strive to speak and have increasingly surpassed us at doing. Perhaps this cannot be better exemplified than by considering the future global economic projections that predict the United States losing ground to the Far East and an ever-growing united Europe. For what good is the most impressive knowledge one possesses if he or she does not have the proper tools of communication to convey and articulate that knowledge to others?

Already, at the dawn of my teaching endeavors I have come to see where emphasis on the fundamentals of English falls through the cracks at all levels of education from first grade through to college. It seems that with each grade the teacher assumes that his or her students were exposed to the specific vocabulary words and rules of grammar laid-out by the curriculum and, therefore, never revisited or reinforced them at a later time. Therefore, by the time one reaches high school and college not even the English teachers are taking notice of deficiencies in grammar and diction, let alone the teachers of other disciplines such as social studies, science, and so on. The shift then turns to content, as it is expected of one to use proper grammar and more eloquent words by this point.

Let me clarify that when speaking of English as a subject taught in school, it is a two-headed monster, if you will. On one hand there are the fundamentals or mechanics of grammar. This is usually associated with the lower grades. Then, from middle school onwards, there is the shift towards content brought on by literary analysis and critical thinking. It is at this point when the grammar head is decapitated, leaving the content head to stand on its own without the support and dressing up that only a well made-up face can do – even making the ugliest argument look good! The solution? Teachers need to be grammar sticklers throughout the grades!!

This is not a suggestion aimed only at English teachers per se (see how English allows for the slipping-in of the Latin phrase to seem so seamless?), but must be followed by teachers of all disciplines. It is our responsibility as educators to uphold the integrity of our language. Don’t cop-out by regarding it as a job for the English teachers. More importantly for you aspiring English teachers, don’t ever assume that simply because your students should have been exposed to the proper use of commas, for example, as the state-mandated curriculum dictates, that they have all retained it and can properly use commas for the rest of their lives.

Continually assess and reinforce the rules of grammar while simultaneously building on your students’ vocabulary throughout the grade levels. This should be done without making it seem tedious, mundane, and redundant. Instead, do it in all sorts of creative and innovative ways as expected of any Antioch-trained teacher.

If this epidemic of accepting substandard levels of English proficiency continues, then we may arrive at a point when “See spot run” is no longer spoken by the beginning learner of English but becomes the average level for the American adults’ speech.


Squeezing Poetry Out of Kids by Sophie Barbier

February 27, 2008

Mention poetry to kids and most often you’ll get a groan that can be heard half way across the globe. Like anything else we teach, we must first give our students a good base of knowledge, and build up the scaffolding. Once we know they can do it (which is usually before they know they can do it), there are fun activities that can help bring the poet out of the child; here are a few.

From Music to Poetry:
Have the class sit in a relaxed position and close their eyes. Play a song, either without lyrics or sung in a different language, and have them visualize what is going on in the piece of music. When the song is over have them write a description of what they visualized . Repeat, but have the children continue to write while the music is playing. Then have them use that descriptive language to write a poem. Here is what a few Antioch students came up with when listening to the same Putumayo song:

Where I come from
materials provide
escape from face to face.
Where I come from
pain is untouched
left to lie beneath.
Where I come from
people gather together
to forget, together.
By Johanna Spears

It was like tender raindrops on
water
So clean,
So clear,
When we
– many years younger –
Faced the wind
With our skin still burned
By yesterday’s sun
And we like birds
Sailed
and dropped
in the gusts of the wind
By Bernd Zabel

Mountaintops showered in sunset glow,
I breathe in and the air is cold, crisp.
Smells of warm chocolate, mulled wine, and horses,
Hot from towing lovers ‘round town.
Ice skaters dance, alone in their world,
They know metal on ice, and each other.
Dusk falls on the village
And Christmas lights shimmer.
Here, Christmas lasts until the final tourist goes home.
By Sophie Barbier

Autobiographical Narrative:
Have your students think of a specific occasion in the not so distant past. Have them close their eyes and “look” at the scene, where they were, what was around them, textures, and have them write down words or phrases describing what they saw in their scene. Next do the same with 1) what they heard, 2) the description of the light, 3) any questions they might have had, and 4) what they felt. Make sure to give them plenty of time in between what you ask them to “see”/write. Then have them pick one word or phrase that they wrote, that they liked the most, and have them write it out four times. When they are done, ask them to take what they have written and turn it into a poem, reminding them about using descriptive language, inferences, similes and /or metaphors. They will probably have to revise it a few times. Here is what came out of 12 year old Connor:

Sugarin’ Time
Drip drop,
Sap exploding
Out of the tap.
Clouds dark and gloomy
Getting ready to let go.
A waterfall of sap
Lets go into a filter.
Snow melting, into a solution.
Sap boiling, into a concentrate.
Cold shivers, running up my back.
When this all ends
You will know
When to start counting down to….
Sugarin’ time.


A prancing prince promised to marry a playful princess by Marnie McKay

February 27, 2008

Children in Waldorf schools begin to learn the alphabet in the first grade. The teacher reads a story (often a fairy tale) and then draws a picture from the story that has the letter clearly embedded in the picture. The children copy the teacher’s crayon drawing, and they may add to their pictures something they remember from the story that the teacher did not draw. The teacher also uses crayons to write the letter without any picture, and the children copy this as well.

We teach letters this way because children think in pictures. When they see the letter as part of a picture from a story they have heard, it has a meaningful context for the children. Letters standing alone are abstract symbols. Adults understand these symbols, but they have little meaning for children who have yet to learn to read.

The teacher also invents a verse that has many words with the sound of the letter. The children and the teacher recite the verse while moving in a circle. In this case, the children could “prance” like the prince and skip like the “playful princess”. The more movement that is in the verse, the better. This way, the children hear the letter, speak words with the sound of the letter in them and move while reciting the verse. Children are learning the letter with their ears, the movement of their bodies, their voices, the emotions they had while listening to the story and the artistic experience of drawing the letter as part of an image from the story.

Developing all of these skills every day builds children’s ability to create images in their minds and glean meaning from what they read and hear. These skills are necessary for reading comprehension. Children who may have learned to read prior to first grade become even stronger readers when they engage in these activities with their peers.

This is one example of “educating the whole child.”


Approaches to Teaching Writing By Sophie Barbier

February 27, 2008

In an attempt to find effective methods of teaching children to write, I found myself spiraling in a world of Ralph Fletcher, pop culture and the Bigfoot Research Institute.

I started innocently enough, by looking at different pedagogic approaches to teaching writing. I found three prevalent methods, the Six Trait method (sometimes called the 6+1 Trait), the Genre-Based method which introduces students to six major genres of writing, and the Process method, which by the way, has six steps as well.

The Six Traits model originated in the Pacific Northwest in the 1980’s and is still a popular choice for many school districts. The Six Traits approach has writing assessed by ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions. The Six Traits model offers up tons of writing prompts, including right-brained and left brained prompts, prompts for chapter books, journals and using classic literature as prompts. Teachers report that the self assessments made possible with this method encourages students. Students see themselves master each trait and this motivates them to write more.

This model seems to leave out audience as an important part of writing. Having writers be aware of their targeted audience enables them to influence, persuade and bring their readers into their writing pieces. They can make a stronger impression by using language, humor and subjects appropriate to that audience. Of course knowing that the teacher is a member of an audience can sometimes skew their intended piece of writing.

The Process Approach – brainstorm, draft, conference, revise, edit, and publish – encourages peer review, but students need to be taught how to provide constructive feedback. The results from peer review go beyond increased writing skills, children also become more confident writers with positive attitudes towards writing.

Some schools use the Genre-Based approach where children are taught six of the major genres of writing starting with the recount, short story and information report and graduating to the instructional texts, expository and persuasive writing.

In thinking about these three methods, I reviewed some of my second and third graders’ writing. I pondered Daniela’s story about a dolphin who watches all the other dolphins mating and feels sad about not having a dolphin to mate with. Her accompanying drawing is interesting. Robert wrote a ten page story called The Adventures of Little Square, in which a little yellow square has, in my opinion, misadventures, sometimes near death misadventures, although I’m not sure Squares can really ever die. Sven wrote about a bobcat named Bob, who ate baby birds. Quentin wrote a series of three books entitled Hocus Pocus Horror, 1, 2 and 3. The books, by the way, have a © on them, so don’t even think about copying them. Salvatore could never think of anything to write, even with all the creative prompts in the world, until I asked him to write to me explaining the intricacies of the Pokémon Universe.

I started thinking about what boys write about: the endless aliens stories, the incorporation of bathroom humor, and the bombs, blood and death often depicted in boy’s writing. And what was up with the insane popularity of Captain Underpants and the Preposterous Plight of the Purple Potty People! Most teachers and parents feel uncomfortable with the CU series, but love watching the children read with sheer enjoyment. A colleague gave me Ralph Fletcher’s BOY WRITERS: Reclaiming Their Voices, and I read through it in one sitting. In Boy Writers, Fletcher looks at the subjects that boys most often write about – war, weapons, outlandish fiction, and potty humor. Fletcher asks teachers to look at the classroom writing from a boy’s perspective and argues that we must “widen the circle” and offer more choices for writing if we want to bring back their voices. The book suggests that we look at what engages boys, what they are passionate about.

What I enjoyed the most about the book is that he discusses the controversial topic of allowing boys to use violence in their writing. I’ve long believed that the “violence” that children use in their play and in their writing does not equate to violence in real life. Like Fletcher, I don’t believe using moderate violence in writing is harmful unless it feels threatening to someone. Many of my favorite books, such as Shantaram and The Kite Runner include horrific violence, but it is an important part of the story and it isn’t harmful to the reader. Thomas Newkirk, another author who writes about boys and literacy, makes the point that the blood and gore used in boys writing is usually fairly sanitized due to their lack of knowledge of human biology and that almost always, boys don’t even describe their writing at violent, they say it has action and adventure. The stories that my boy students are most proud of, do include “action”, but also silly humor, stuff that I don’t find funny but that evokes howls from their peers.

Perhaps we, as teachers, need to re-read Captain Underpants and try to understand the humor that boys see in it. If we are to make connections to the real lives of our students, maybe we should study the Pokémon Universe, watch animé, and read manga. Jean Jacques Rousseau got it right when he said, “Childhood has its own way of seeing, thinking, and feeling which are proper to it. Nothing is less sensible than to want to substitute ours for theirs.”

Dave Egger also got it right. He was a boy writer that grew up. He and teacher Ninive Calegari recently opened up 826 Boston, an incredibly imaginative non-profit youth writing center. An offshoot of the original center at 826 Valencia Street in the Mission District of San Francisco, 826 Boston is now one of seven such centers nationwide. Each center has a quirky store front as a façade, with the writing center in the back rooms. Walk into 826 Boston and you’ll see a scientific research center, complete with scientists in lab coats mucking around with jars of murky goop and other props. You’ve just entered the Greater Boston Bigfoot Research Institute. Behind the scenes are four types of activities: after school tutoring, school field trips to their writing lab, in-school workshops and volunteers from a variety of fields (poets, screenwriters, and journalists) offering their expertise in apprentice-type workshops. The Bigfoot Research Center offers the non-profit some income from the sale of paraphernalia associated with Bigfoot, Nessie and Mongolian Death Worms, but as Egger says, it also offers an exciting way for students, “to really reach for the language to describe the world around them and also the world of their imaginations.”

As I write this, a male, adult friend reads over my shoulder and starts to chuckle. I look up. “Do you have a copy of that Captain Underpants book?” he says with a grin. Boys will be boys, let’s not change them. “Yes, Toby, I can get you a copy.”