by Michael Ian Black
Illustrated by Debbie Ridpath Ohi
Not plain, yet simple, this book is FUN!
A little girl, let’s say a precocious 4, beautifully rendered with simple wood-cut lines, is bored, bored, bored, blahhhhh, bored. And so is the disagreeable potato she has befriended.
“What do you like to do?” asks the little girl. The potato makes a suggestion. But, seeing how flamingos are scarce, she must do her best to entice the spud with other distractions.
She demonstrates games and tumbling, to no avail.
So she must resort to her imagination.
Finding the ballerina and lion tamer banal, the starchy little antagonist goads the child on, each new page turn revealing more and more elaborate scenes that fill with detail, colour, and emotion, until she’s HAD IT with the tuber’s bad attitude, and storms off.
Dynamic use of text layout and vibrating line work make this picture book a funny and entertaining read, but the funniest bits come from the incorrigible potato.
The Next Chapter
This is a note I post for parents who use my class website. Please feel free to copy it and share it as you wish.
Reading Chapter Books
Reading chapter books is different from reading picture books. At the heart of it, there are two reasons to read fiction: comprehension and entertainment. To help your child/student understand and enjoy chapter books, there are a few things to think about.
First, chapter books are more complicated than picture books. Many picture books are simply concept books. This means there is no story. There are just some ideas about a topic, like counting or feelings. Chapter books are almost always stories, and the reader has to know how a story is put together. So, the reader has to know about the setting, the characters, and the time. The reader also has to know about story beginnings, middles, and ends. As well, in chapter books, the problem and solution part of a story is very important, and it takes much longer for the problem to be fixed. Many chapter book series are quite formulaic, even beyond the typical progression of the story arc in a novel. Beginning and reluctant readers will often latch onto a series because this familiarity makes reading each successive book easier.
Second, there can be two stories that happen at the same time. This means that there are two problems to think about, and sometimes two main characters. Keeping these problems straight can be hard for people just starting to read chapter books.
Third, the length of a chapter book needs good memory skills, so that the story events and details can be remembered for the whole time it takes to read the book.
Fourth, depending on the book, there can be a lot of extraneous, superfluous, and diverting information that the reader has to filter through. The more descriptive the writing, the more outside of the reader’s experience, and the more purposely obtuse details (in the case of mystery and suspense), the more difficult (and one might argue more enjoyable) the read.
The increased complexity and depth of chapter books makes them a challenge, but the plot complications, older subject matter, and rich language make them an experience for all young readers to aspire to. And each experience makes the next one better.
Here are some tips for kids reading chapter books.
Talk about what you are reading as you read. When you talk about your reading, you give your brain extra practice remembering what happens. This will help to keep the whole story in the memory for the whole time it takes to read the book.
Visualize (picture) the characters and setting as you read about them. The pictures will help you remember these important parts of the book.
As you start each chapter, think about what you read in the chapter before. This is really good if you have just picked the book up again after a break. If you can’t remember what happened before, reread the last few paragraphs you read, to remind you.
Make sure you understand what is happening. Books are supposed to make sense. If things don’t make sense, you probably read something wrong, or remembered something wrong (or you’re reading a badly written self-published book – or a badly written professionally published book authored by a “celebrity”). Go back and reread the part that is confusing you. If that doesn’t help, reread the part that makes you think the new part is confusing. For example, if you read a part that says your character is angry at his friend, but then you read a part where he and his friend are happily playing together, maybe you missed something, or misunderstood something you read. Read both sections again, to figure it out.
Always remember that the character has a problem to solve. If you think about that problem and how everything that is happening helps to solve the problem or makes the problem worse, the story will be easier to remember and more enjoyable to read.
Smarter Than Your Average Orphan
The Mysterious Benedict Society
by Trenton Lee Stewart
As a teacher and an aspiring children’s writer, I read a fair bit of children’s literature, though, ‘literature’ is not the word I would use to describe some of the drivel that’s been published lately. For example, I recently read a Middle Grade fantasy that was completely ridiculous in its entirety. It was populated by cliche characters and preposterous situations, and had absolutely no grounding in reality. It was one massive contrivance that made me angrier with every page turn.
But, I’m not interested in wasting a reader’s time with long descriptions of what not to read. Rather, I would like to share books that I enjoyed, so that I can promote good writing over the pulp fiction din that currently clangs from the presses of a desperate-to-sell publishing industry.
The first book I’d like to write about is The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart. It is Middle Grade, which means it’s aimed at children in and around grades 3 to 6. There are several books in the series, including a prequel, and they seem to be doing well.
To impress upon you how much I enjoyed it, I read most of it over two days.
I will not give you a plot synopsis or spoilers, except to say that a handful of exceptionally gifted orphans are recruited to save the world.
I will tell you that the author knows his audience, as he gives exactly what they are looking for in an adventure. His characters are very relatable, despite being so unusual.
Some of the situations are over the top, but not beyond the stretch of a healthy imagination. And, though some of it is predictable to one with thousands of plot lines pinging in his head, much of it is fresh and inventive, and even surprising.
What I appreciated most, however, is that these children are not operating alone. These kids, who are all geniuses in their own right, in the middle of a perilous mission, still require adult support and guidance to get the job done without dying.
This author acknowledges that these kids are being put at risk, and he doesn’t belittle or diminish the danger at all. Also, he doesn’t just have the children dumbly stumble into the danger and decide to pursue the adventure because of some unwarranted, arrogant belief that they are superior to any adult, or, worse, out of boredom. Nor does he have them appeal to all the grownups, only to be ignored or abandoned (Shades of Jacob Two Two). They are recruited by adults, to do something adults can not do, and their abilities and strengths are all the more valued because of this.
One day I’ll write a post about just how ridiculous I think it is to exorcise positive adult influences from children’s books for the sake of empowering children. But for now, let me say that The Mysterious Benedict Society is a well written novel. It has a good, literally fantastic plot. It is written in elevated language, it includes some puzzles, and it demands some thinking from the reader. It has great characterizations (though a bit Dahlesque). And it has a couple of nice surprises at the end.
If I like it…
Flash Cards Good, Part 2
This entry talks about a method I developed for using flash cards to teach sight words. If you want the background and justification for this method, please read Part 1.
While working with my struggling readers, I made a few observations. Nouns and verbs are easier for them to learn than other kinds of words. The more abstract the words, the harder it is for these students to learn them.
By abstract, I don’t mean Cubism or Dadaism, though those are pretty hard to get your head around. I mean pronouns, and adverbs, and the words we, as adults, would have trouble defining. Give it a stab. Try telling yourself what the word ABOUT means. How about OF?
Anyway, when my students have no problem recognizing the words PENGUIN and NINJA, but can’t tell if they are reading IT, AT, IF, or IS, then I think it’s clear that the nature of a word holds sway over the ease of its acquisition.
To this end, I designed my flash card program so that the meaning of the word and its role in a sentence are given just as much importance as the look of the word. Three things to learn instead of one, yes, but three things that put the word into context, and allow for connections to be made beyond the dolch word list.
To make the flashcards, here’s what you do.
On the front of the card, as with any flashcard, write the word nice and big. With me so far? 😉
Now, on the back, write examples of other words that have a similar phonic structure, or make a note about the exceptionality of the word.
For example, you might note that the word WHAT starts the same way as other questions words like WHY, and WHEN. You could also note that the H is silent, and other words like WHITE and WHALE have a silent H.
The next thing to do is write a definition of the word. A good definition will explain what the word means, and how it works in a sentence. It will convey the purpose of the word. This is the REALLY difficult part, because you don’t want a dictionary definition. You want something the student can relate to and understand. And don’t use the word itself in the definition!
BAD: “What is what we use to ask what something is.”
GOOD: “WHAT is a word we use to ask the name of something.”
Or, “We say WHAT when we want to know about something.”
And last, you have the student come up with a sentence that uses the word. Write this sentence on the card, highlighting the word. It is important that your student makes up these sentences. First, because it will immediately tell you if he has any concept of the word – of course he won’t be able to read the word if he doesn’t even have it in his lexicon. Second, the sentence will be something he can connect to, so he can access his schema later. Third, it will be at his vocabulary and grammar level. Fourth, there is a current way of thinking that says students should encode before we ask them to decode. This is encoding at the sentence level.
Keep in mind that these are intended for use with students who need remediation. You can certainly use the methodology in a whole class lesson, but the cards themselves are too involved to have a class set, especially since they include generating personalized sentences.
Now, let’s use the cards.
First, see if she can read the word when she sees the front of the card.
Then, flip it over, and discuss the spelling of the word. Point out the features, exceptions, and similar words. After several visits to the card, see if the student can recall the spelling pattern on her own, or if she can read the other words you’re associating.
Next, review the meaning of the word and how it’s used. Again, see if the student can eventually define it herself. It’s okay if she just gives an example of its use, rather than a definition. Remember how hard it was for you to define them when making the cards.
Last, have the student read her sentence from the card. Have her point to each word though, so she isn’t just parroting her words. You can make a new sentence later, if you need to use the cards often.
Run through several cards repeatedly, over days. As the student becomes more familiar and shows that she has memorized the appearance, features, and use, you can move on to new cards. Remember to revisit old cards to reenforce the learning over time.
Now, I can’t guarantee that this method will work for all students, and students with severe learning disabilities may not benefit from this at all. But I have had success, especially with children who do not learn grammar patterns through osmosis.
As always, you will have to try the method, give it a few weeks, and then test to see if it’s working. If you try this out, please let me know how it went. If you came up with any tweaks, or have a particularly good definition for one of the trickier abstract words, please share.
Flash Cards Good, Part 1
In the past, I was an Early Literacy Intervention teacher. I worked with the weakest readers, half an hour a day, in small group sessions. One of the things I had to do was improve their sight vocabulary. I used the standard Dolch lists (words selected for their frequency in child centered texts and their irregular spellings), doing what most primary teachers would do; I wrote the words on flash cards, and drilled, drilled, drilled.
We went through each deck of cards, a few at a time, reading and spelling the words over and over. We played games like snap and memory, and whatever else I could think of, to get these words into their heads and out of their mouths.
What a waste of six weeks.
No matter what I did, whenever those same words appeared in the books I assigned, my students almost never read them properly. They never read them fast. And sometimes they didn’t even recognize them as words they had studied.
So, after permanently altering my hairline, I had to reflect and find out why this ‘tried and true’ technique didn’t work for these kids (all the time wondering if it ever has).
Here is the conclusion I drew from these results. The students I was working with could not transfer the discrete skill of simple recall to the act of reading meaningful sentences. They were perfectly fine at recognizing and naming these words in the context of a meaningless list, but they couldn’t recognize, name, or even guess at those same words outside of the specific drill activity.
Now, in this role, I became somewhat of a self-proclaimed expert on conducting and analyzing running records (having the child read aloud from an unfamiliar text while I manually record everything that the child says and does, so as to determine strengths and weaknesses in the child’s reading behaviours). The most important component of a running record is determining which cuing system(s) the child uses, be it phonics (visual), grammar (syntactical), or context (meaningful), or any combination of the three. A strong reader will use all three systems, seamlessly switching from one to another, depending on the demands of the text.
And duh, sight word flash cards only focus on the visual cuing system, and poorly at that, as there is no focus on the phonic relationships at all. It’s just, “Here’s a word, say it.” No wonder these kids don’t recognize these sight words in contexts that demand grammatical and semantic knowledge!
How did I address this? In Part 2, I will describe a sight word flashcard method I developed, which incorporates all three cuing systems, in order to teach the whole word, not just how it looks on paper.
This Will Make You Smarter by John Brockman
Oh, if only. Pray that the title isn’t just a clever marketing tactic.
I have always been interested in the study of intelligence. There are so many intense debates about natural ability, and teachability, and testing, and measuring. This book isn’t about any of that. It is about thinking better, and being more aware of who we are, how we think, and what is happening in the world around us.
Every year, John Brockman, via Edge.org, gathers together the thinkers of our era, and asks them a question. This Will Make You Smarter is a collection of answers to this one.
“What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”
In each mini essay, one of today’s intelligentsia describes a concept in layman’s terms, and attempts to connect it to our everyday life, demonstrating how knowledge of this concept, or the practicing of that skill, will improve the way we think. The responses are varied, and some are seemingly contradictory. They have been grouped into overall themes to help the reader make some connections.
Now, just in case you think this might be too “sciency,” Brockman clarifies the question a bit. “Here, the term “scientific” is to be understood in a broad sense – as the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, whether it be human behavior, corporate behavior, the fate of the planet, or the future of the universe.” So, there is lots of philosophy to try to wrap your head around too.
Full disclosure. A few of these ideas are beyond me. So much for my 129 IQ. However, on the whole, the entries are interesting and thought provoking, and justify the effort to understand them.
I think that much of this book will eventually end up in my personal arsenal of intellectual weapons, to reload my pen and tongue, as it were. I will update this section with synopses of some of the entries, and the questions and ideas they provoke, as I work through the book.
But check it out yourself if the state of modern intellectual development is something you’re interested in exploring, or if you just want to get smarter.