Saturday, February 28, 2009

Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin

February 12, 2009, would be Charles Darwin's 200th birthday. Because he shares that date with Abe Lincoln he does not always get the press he deserves in this country. This year there was significantly more talk about him so it seems time for me to add my two cents, such as it is.

No, I am not going to get involved in the Evolution/Creationism debate. That is way beyond the scope of this blog and no matter what I would say I would be sure to upset someone on this touchy subject.

What I would like to do is recommend a fascinating biography of Charles Darwin. The Tree of Life by Peter Sis may first look like a picture book but it is not for the very young and, like all good pictures, grows as the reader gains more interests in the world. Peter Sis (due check out that link because it is great fun and informative) first and foremost is an amazing artist. He also has creative ways of conveying information. This biography highlights both of his talents. Woven into the intricate illustrations are more facts about the life of Darwin from his childhood through his adult work. My favorite fact to share with folks that I learned from this book: Charles Darwin had a brother named Erasmus who was called Ras for short. Charles liked to work in the chemistry lab a lot so he earned the nickname Gas--Ras and Gas, two brothers at a boarding school. What a great picture that conjures up for me.

Happy Birthday, Gas. I am so glad you liked exploring nature.

While you are reading Sis, be sure to check out his autobiography The Wall which documents his life in Czechoslovakia under Communist rule. It is not your typical autobiography.

For younger readers Sis has two books about a charming young girl exploring her New York City neighborhood--Madlenka and Madlenka's Dog--both of which have lots of interesting details and unusual twists. Another favorite that may be out of print is Komodo which is about a boy who really want to see a komodo dragon. Again, the illustrations deserve hours of careful study to see all the secrets hidden there.

Valentine's Day

From a school library point of view, Valentine's Day is a tough one. The kids are all excited about the party that is worked into the day somehow. There are Valentine's cards to exchange and enjoy. But there is little good literature to share. In fact, I have only one book from a Valentine's Day theme that I actually enjoy reading more than once.

Love, Splat by Rob Scotton is a charming story of elementary school admiration with a little bullying thrown in to drive home the moral of the story. What really makes it, however, are the wonderful illustrations. Scotton began his career as an illustrator and is still popular for his posters and greeting cards. All of his books about Splat who is a cat and Russell the Sheep are graphically amazing. The humor of the stories makes them some of my favor ties. Check out more about Rob Scotton at his website.

Yes, I know this post is two weeks late, but it is never too late for Valentine's feelings.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Subbing in Seventh Grade

Call me crazy but I think that seventh graders are great fun.

On Monday morning I had the opportunity (created by a teacher's sick baby boy--note: he is the cutest baby boy I know) to substitute in a 7th grade Language Arts/ Social Studies class. I hope those kids are not reading this because I am going to confess right here and now that they are hilarious. It took all of my will power to keep from laughing out loud for the entire hour.

The discussion of "In Flanders Field" was amazing. We went from deep thoughts to the most inane comments without batting an eye. Is this a pro-war or an anti-war poem? Someone argued that it might be both because it was, as stated in stanza two, written by the dead. The dead get a little confused at times, you know.

Vocabulary words were equally productive. Somehow we managed to leave behind the words for a discussion of the importance of parents. I think it came from trying to decide whether indulgent or strict parents were better. These 12 and 13 year olds are at exactly the right age to begin thinking that parents are really not that necessary to them any more. The suggestion came that somehow every person be given $20,000 upon reaching the ripe old age of 13 and be sent out to make a fortune. A wiser voice thought that might be too little for someone setting out in the world--no one mentioned the lack of education--and opted for $1,000,000 at age 13. "But what would that do to inflation?" someone asked. "You're right," came the reply. "You couldn't even afford a loaf of bread then." And so it went.

Do not be offended, wonderful seventh graders, but it strikes me that these conversations are not that far from those of my eager kindergarten students. You ramble off on unexpected paths with the same ease and disregard for where the teacher might have hoped you would go. Whether you are 5 or wishing you were 15, the trip is half the fun.

I don't want anyone to get sick again, but I am willing to sub with the seventh grade again any time. It was a real treat.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Quote of the Week--#017

Nobody can be exactly like me.
Even I have trouble doing it.

Tallulah Bankhead

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3, 4

This week the school has a strange feel. Kids are either louder or much quieter than usual as they bounce from standardized testing in the very quiet, controlled atmosphere of testing to the euphoria of relief that one more test is done. Only the students in kindergarten through second grade are living a normal life--normal except for the more ardent shushing that they hear as they march down the hall past doors with yellow signs declaring "Testing! Do NOT disturb."

Now is neither the time nor the place to enter into the wide world of controversy surrounding standardized tests. Most of the time I can find a reason to agree with all of the arguments, both pro and con.

I have been trying to remember when I started taking tests. I remember tests in third grade but don't know if that was the first year or just a continuation from years before. I have been saying that they were CAT--California Assessment Tests--but as I think about it they were probably from the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. I will say that CAT is much more interesting sounding that ITBS which is why we always used the longer name in some permutation of my life.

Just like most students I have talked to this week, I remember thinking that the testing process was pretty boring. For me the worst part was the rote reading of the instructions before every test. My last name at the time was almost as long as my current last name so had more letters than could fit into the space on the test. Each time we started the test the teacher would read with boredom dripping from the monotone of her voice, "If your name does not fit in the space, please raise your hand." Then she would look pointedly at me. I would raise my hand and explain that the line was two spaces short. The teacher would tell me to put in as much as I could. It was the testing ritual that stays with me all these years later. What the questions were are long gone from my memory, but I know that the line for last names had 11 spaces.

Parents, teachers, and society sometimes seem to make the testing process much more intense than anyone intends. That is why I like the picture book Testing Miss Malarkey by Judy Finchler with illustrations by Kevin O'Malley that give even more personality to the story. Miss Malarkey is a good teacher. Readers of others in this series already know that. Suddenly, however, she is chewing her fingernails and looking very stressed. It is time for the state sponsered IPTU test. (Say it out loud and you will agree that someone is deserving of pity.) All the other teachers are equally stressed as they practice filling in bubbles in art class and do "yogurt" in P.E. to help them become "one with THE TEST." Even the aptly named cafeteria lady Miss Slopdown is focusing on THE TEST by serving no more potato chips and lots of fish. The school brings in Dr. Scoreswell, The Svengali of Tests to help the parents understand what to do help with the test. The questions that the parents ask him are hilarious yet more than a little frightening in how close to reality they may be. On test day there are sick kids and sicker teachers. When the story tells about one girl who, told to erase all pencil marks, erases the entire test. Throughout the story, adults are telling the kids to relax, have fun, and not worry about THE TEST. The actions of the adults tell another story.

I enjoy reading this book to the classes that are in the midst of testing. It helps them relax. They find new humor in it every year.

Next week the testing will all be little more than a memory for the kids. We can only hope that parents and teachers remember how relatively small the impact this test has on the students and their future.