Sunday, March 20, 2011


Thursday, March 17, found me at the Annual Conference of the Michigan Association of Computer Users in Learning (MACUL). Cobo Hall in Detroit was hopping with approximately 4,000 educators from around the state. All of them were interested in the hows and whys of using the latest technology in the classroom. There were lectures and workshops and a room full of vendors all eager to share what is exciting to them.

Of all the things that I heard and saw, the most exciting was a talk by two Michigan school librarians who last summer had the kind of experience that makes any librarian green with envy. They spent a week with other librarians from around the country training and sharing at the Library of Congress (LOC) in Washington, D.C. Their primary goal was to help the LOC improve its website and its outreach to teachers. This site is listed as My LOC and is slightly different from the main LOC site. Both sites are well worth visiting.

They began with some basic facts about the nation's library which contains some 147,000,000 items on 838 miles of shelves. LOC resources also include 15 million digitized works with more coming on line all the time. The smallest book in the Library of Congress is Old King Cole fit onto pages measuring just 1/25th of an inch square. The pages must be turned with a needle. More interesting facts rotate on the LOC sites so visit them often if you like trivia.

Teachers perked up their ears when we were presented with examples of the vast array of primary sources available on-line at the LOC. We saw the rough draft of the Gettysburg Address, copies of period sheet music, pictures of great Americans along with copies of their speeches, and just touched the tip of the iceberg.

I encourage everyone who has any interest in American history, to search these sites often, whether for research or just for the fun of it.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Happy St. Patrick's Day

Wouldn't it be nice to be able to tell you that I have found the perfect book or books to read for St. Patrick's Day? Alas, that will not be the case today. There is not much to get excited about in terms of books for good St. Paddy. There are few stories that directly name the day and none of those that I have seen are good to read aloud.

So, we go to books of leprechauns and Irish lore. Both Tomie DePaola and Gerald McDermott have retold Irish folk lore. Depaola has two tales of Jamie O'Rourke who is said to be the laziest man in all of Ireland. These stories are good for a laugh but are long for the youngest listeners. McDermott's books can also be wordy but it is worth taking a look at Tim O'Toole and the Wee Folk or Daniel O'Rourke. If you like telling stories rather than reading, any of these would be a good choice to fit to your own style.

Clever Tom and the Leprechauns by Linda Shute is better suited to reading to younger groups (kindergarten or first grade) who are excited about leprechauns. Our first grades are visited by leprechauns at this time of the year, so I leave this book for them to share. After all, they are the ones who introduced it to me.

For older students, there is the option of looking at Irish history. While there are many lengthy informational books about Ireland and its history, the best one I can think of for reading aloud in one sitting is The Long March: The Choctaw's Gift to Irish Famine Relief by Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick. This is an illustrated telling of a little known story of American aid to victims of the Irish the Potato Famine. The Choctaw Indians themselves suffered much loss and hardship in 1847, yet the group empathized with the the Irish enough to collect $170 (equivalent to about $5000 today) to send across the seas to help. It is a moving tale of giving even when times are hard.

What will I be doing with classes this St. Patrick's Day? I will pick and choose between facts about Ireland and Irish tales. A to Z Ireland by Justine and Ron Fontes offers colorful pictures and 26 interesting snippets about the Emerald Isle which is a good, quick introduction.
Then we will talk about snakes, which were supposedly driven from Ireland by St. Patrick. (Of course, most people agree that there never were snakes on the island and that the snake is symbolic of evil, but we will not let that stop me from spreading the old legend to the youngest classes.) Older students will learn about the Blarney Stone and we will play a game we call "Blarney" which is loosely based on that great old game show, "To Tell the Truth". Since our school teaches students to prepare for all kinds of careers, I figure knowing how to tell half truths convincingly may someday prove valuable for someone.

I am sad to report that I won't be wearing my giant shamrock earrings this year. I will be a conference on March 17 and my substitute will get the joy of working with the super excited children. I hope she remembers to wear green.

The Joys of Visiting Authors

It is my goal to bring at least one author to the school each year so in my eleven years as the school librarian I have met a number of different authors. It is fairly easy for me to impress the kids with some name dropping, even it is a name they have never heard before. It is fun to meet fellow book lovers, especially those who have written books that are on my list of favorites. Every author has important things to share with the students and with me.

Usually, I am a nervous wreck before the visiting author comes. This year I was much more relaxed. I knew things could go wrong but I also knew the author would take it all in stride. For once I could tell the students that not only was there a visiting author coming but that she was my personal friend. I have known Valerie Scho Carey since her daughter and mine were in first grade together, more than twenty five years ago. We go out for a meal together every so often just to keep track of what the kids are doing and to share ideas. Valerie is a brilliant woman who just happens to have a knack for writing picture books and retelling folk tales. When her very first book Harriet and William and the Terrible Creature was reissued this year, it seemed like the perfect time to invite her to talk to our students.

Even the wiggliest of classes settled down when Valerie began to tell them a story or read from her own works. The kindergarten and first grade classes have asked me about Quail Song several times since Valerie read it to them. Of course they loved the story but they also wanted to know more about how it came to be and to compare other stories. They are also eager to demonstrate a coyote wail for me. The third through fifth grade students enjoyed Tsugele's Broom in a presentation that was made more interesting by the inclusion of pictures of a shtetl. Valerie shared these to show us how her father's memories of childhood in shtetl inspired the story. I enjoyed listening to the students who came to her for advice on how to improve their won writing. Since Valerie has taught writing, she was the perfect person to ask about these issues.

It is indeed a pleasure to have had a friend come to speak as an authority on writing. She is an authority but I could relax and enjoy the presentations because she is also a friend.

There have been many other author visits over the years. Some were wonderful. Some were not. Here are a few of the highlights.

I will forever treasure the wonderful day spent with Naomi Shihab Nye that ended with driving her across the state and sharing a wonderful, relaxed, fun filled dinner with her. Now I not only enjoy her novels (especially Habibi) and her many volumes of poetry, I have that personal experience to read into every word she writes. I think that our students felt the same about her visit several years ago because they were writing poetry for many weeks and months afterward.

Mark Crilley was someone I frankly invited in large part because he lives not far away. I barely knew his books and had had only minor success getting students to read them. He brought his Akiko books to life for me and for every person who listened to him. It was like having a stand-up comedian with a highly polished act come to the school. The fact that we could read his books and learned about the writing process was a wonderful bonus. He, too, inspired many creative stories and fantastic illustrations long after he had headed home. I still can not keep his books on the shelves even though few of our current students were here when Mr. Crilley came but many have heard the legendary tales about him.

Christopher Paul Curtis is as nice, funny, and caring as the characters in his books. I take a little vicarious pride in being able to say that when he visited our school for the second time, he handed me his laptop for self-keeping, telling me that he had the manuscript for his next book right there and did want to risk losing it. That manuscript turned into Elijah of Buxton which is a book I think everyone over the age of twelve should read at least once. Mr. Curtis is a serious author, but he clearly still has a lot of joyfully young boy in him and he channels that into every book he writes.

There have, alas, been some real bombs. These authors will remain nameless here because I know they tried and their writing is much better than their presentation skills. However, I am still haunted by the man who scared several students with his somewhat cross-eyed stare. He drew derision from others when he dozed off almost in mid speech. Another author was just plain B-O-R-I-N-G. My daughter says that she can not remember a thing about that author's book other than that it nearly bored her into a stupor.

There is another author visit coming this year for our middle school students. Again, I am not too stressed. Will Purves is another friend and former co-worker who is eagerly awaiting the finished copy of his first young adult novel. He will be at the school in April. We are all hoping that big box of beautiful books will arrive before then.