Saturday, September 29, 2012

Creepy Carrots! and Clever Kids

I know it is still September but October is only two days away and my students have been asking for Halloween activities for about three weeks now. So this week I introduced a story with hints of Halloween, (and it shouldn’t offend those who don’t celebrate the holiday), Creepy Carrots! by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Peter Brown. My students loved this book and I must admit I loved reading it to them on Monday - I still loved reading it when they wanted to hear it again on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. By Friday, I’d convinced the kids to start writing their own creepy vegetable stories and I heard some fabulous tales.

Creepy Carrots! is about a young rabbit who loves carrots, especially those found in Crackenhopper Field. He couldn’t get enough of them . . . until the carrots started following him (at least he thinks they are following him).

“Jasper was about to help himself to a victory snack . . . when he heard it. The soft . . .  sinister . . . tunktunktunk of carrots creeping. He turned . . . but there was nothing there.”

You can’t be sure, until the end of the book, if Jasper has an over-active imagination or if the carrots have actually uprooted and are trailing him. Poor Jasper sees fleeting images of carrots with jack-o-lantern faces peering out of windows, peeking around the shower curtain, popping up from a gutter – they’re everywhere. Always, when he turns, he sees something orange – an old soda bottle, a curtain, a washcloth – but no carrots. Lest you think this story is too frightening for young children, I must tell you, my first and second grade students found the idea of carrots tunktunktunking behind a rabbit hilarious and the carrots are depicted with a perfect combination of humor and creepiness. The dark illustrations – black, white and gray with a splash of orange – add to the creepiness.  When I read this book aloud, the kids’ eyes widened, their shoulders went up, and they held their breath a couple of times, but their mouths twitched upward into smiles.

By the end of the week, my students were writing their own creepy stories, and that created a great vocabulary building opportunity. We talked about categories (fruits and vegetables), adjectives, (synonyms for creepy) and we came up with a few interesting alliterative titles like: Spooky Spinach, Bizarre Broccoli, Gruesome Green Beans, Ghastly Gourds, Terrifying Turnips, and Monstrous Mushrooms. Two of my students wanted to include fruit and so we added Weird Watermelons and Appalling Apples.

The students didn’t have time to finish their creepy fruit and vegetable tales but they are off to a good start and they are saving their work for next week when October finally arrives. I foresee some great stories in the weeks ahead and when Halloween comes, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I have a few creepy carrots knocking at my door.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

What Kids Say on Constitution Day

Across America, schools celebrated Constitution Day on Monday of this week. There are books, posters and artwork scattered around our elementary school in honor of September 17, 1787, when the U.S. Constitution was signed. The younger students don’t have a deep understanding – well maybe I should say, they don’t have any understanding – of our constitution or the terms that are batted around like, Founding Fathers, Bill of Rights, or three-pronged government. But they understand the three-pronged rules of our school – be kind, be safe, be responsible – and that’s a good springboard for discussing national freedoms and responsibilities. Fortunately there are excellent children’s books that help explain some of the terms and information surrounding this historical event, like this one by Lori Mortensen, illustrated by Siri Weber Feeney:

Writing the U.S. Constitution 

This book is loaded with facts and they are presented in simple language, making the information accessible to my early elementary students. One of my speech groups was especially interested in the argument over representation. The kids looked at the size of the thirteen states and saw the problem. In the book, after the Virginal Plan was presented, we read, “The plan upset leaders from states with large populations. They said it was not fair. Large states should get more votes!”

These second graders agreed – it wasn’t fair. Their solution, however, was different than that of the founding fathers. The students thought the state boundaries should have been redrawn so all of them would be the same size. (Fairness is a big issue in elementary school.) That created some new discussion opportunities, as I’m sure you can imagine. Another second grader wished he had been on the committee making all the laws. If he had been there, he would have made a law to never kill dinosaurs! We have more to learn in our speech and language sessions, but we are having fun in the process.

This book is a great tool for building vocabulary. It has a glossary to help students learn the terms and it has a timeline to chart important events. The only drawback I see – perhaps the author could have started her timeline earlier, like when dinosaurs walked the earth.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Rope of Friendship

This week we passed the eleventh anniversary of 9/11 and my thoughts turned back to that infamous day. I’m sure you remember how racial tensions mounted during the weeks that followed. Those tensions inspired me to write a children’s story. It has been sitting in a drawer for just under eleven years and I thought this might be a good time to share it.  

The Rope of Friendship

            There once was a village, nestled beside a towering granite mountain. The mountain was so tall and smooth that no one from the valley had ever climbed it.
            A mosque, a synagogue and a chapel stood apart in the village. Cottages surrounded each meetinghouse and the three congregations never mingled . . . well, almost never.
            When the sun dipped behind the mountain, people drifted like shadows though the valley. That’s when Rashad left his home by the mosque and crept through a field of grain to Jacob’s home by the synagogue.
            He climbed an oak tree. With legs wrapped around a heavy limb, he inched down until the branch dipped and scraped Jacob’s window. SCRIIITCH.
            Jacob peered through the glass then snapped the curtains closed.
“What’s that noise?” his mother asked. “I hope the cat isn’t in our storehouse.”
            “I’d better go look,” Jacob answered, and hurried out the door.
            “Rashad!” Jacob scolded in a loud whisper. “Mama could have seen you.”
            “She’d never think I came to find you.” Rashad laughed. “She knows our people don’t mix.”
            The boys crept along a dry creek-bed to the chapel. They gathered a few pebbles before dashing to Peter’s house.
            A light shone from the window. “He’s in his room,” Rashad whispered, then tossed a pebble at the glass.
A moment later Peter grinned out at them, then climbed down the rose-covered trellis. “Ouch!” he cried when a thorn pricked his hand.
            “Shhh,” the boys hissed.
Peter missed the last trellis rail and tumbled to the ground. The boys covered their mouths to hide their laughter as they ran.
            They followed the creek-bed to a huge tree, deep within the woods.
            “No one’s touched it,” Peter said, pulling a fallen limb from beside the tree.
            They tossed aside brush and uncovered the end of a thick braided rope they had woven from vines many months before. Up they climbed, until they reached a platform hidden in the branches above. It was their fort, where, week after week they played together in secrecy.
            But this evening was different. CRACK! BOOM! CRASH! Thunderous sounds shattered the stillness. 
            WOOOOSH! A blast of dusty air nearly tore them from the tree. “Ahhhhhhh!” they screamed as they clung to the lurching branches.
            A dust-cloud rolled over them, covering the mountain, covering the moon that had brightened their path.
            The boys scrambled down the tree, coughing. “What’s happening?” Joshua sputtered.      
            “We’d better get home!” Peter said.  The boys pulled their shirts over their noses and sheltered their eyes as they struggled toward home through the dust.
            When they came to the village they found people huddled in the streets, coughing and staring in shock. An enormous slab of granite had split from the mountainside.  Gigantic boulders had crashed down, destroying crops and livestock. Thick gray dust was settling into their wells, turning water to sludge.
“Go to your homes!” the Rabbi called.
“Shut out the dust!” the Priest and Imam advised their followers.
            Early the next morning the villagers gathered around their leaders at the foot of the mountain. Each group stood separate from the others.
            “We have no food or water,” people complained.
            They looked up the mountain. A high plateau, that had been hidden behind the granite peak, now shown in the sunlight.  “Look at that grain,” a villager called, pointing to heavy stalks nodding over the edge. 
            “There are wild berries,” called another.
            As they gazed, an old man looked down from the edge of the plateau. He saw the destruction and then looked back at the wild, rich land behind him. If only the villagers could climb the mountain they would have plenty to eat.
            The old man tied three long cords around a stout tree and threw them down to the people. One to the north, one to the south and one right down the middle.
            The crowds applauded. The Imam, Rabbi and Priest each grabbed a cord and chose a follower to go up the mountainside.
            Three villagers pulled themselves up.  Hand over hand they climbed until –SNAP – the cords broke and they tumbled down.
            The old man dropped three more cords — one to the north, one to the south, and one right down the middle.
            More climbers were chosen. Again the cords snapped and people tumbled down.
            Rashad, Jacob, and Peter stared at each other across the space that separated their groups. Then they nodded, one to another, and snaked their way through the crowds.
            When they reached their leaders, they each asked to try the climb.
The Imam scowled, the others growled and shook their heads. Then, looking down at the boys they realized their small size might help. The leaders shrugged and held out a cord.
            Each boy grabbed one and ran to meet at the foot of the mountain. The people gasped. 
            “Get back!” shouted the villagers. “We don’t mingle — what are they doing?”        The boys ignored the shouts and worked together, weaving their cords into a long braided rope, just like the rope they’d woven for climbing into their secret fort. 
One after another the boys climbed — up to where the first men had fallen and still the rope held — on to where the next climbers had dropped but the rope did not break.  Farther and farther they climbed until, finally, they reached the top.
            At first, all was quiet on the mountaintop, but soon a murmur crept up from the valley below.  It buzzed and grew, rising to a cheer that echoed through the valley and up the mountainside.
            Then the villagers helped one another climb the rope, until all were settled above. 
            Working together, they soon built a new Mosque, Synagogue, and Chapel, side by side, on the wide plateau.
            Ever after, this day has been remembered. The villagers hold a yearly Rope Festival. They play music and eat baked apples, baklava, and challah. Throughout the day, people drop by the weaving post where long strands of cord hang from a pole. They dance the weaving dance Rashad, Jacob and Peter taught them. By the end of each festival, a thick braided rope stretches down from the pole.
Many strands of cord make the rope strong — just as many strands of friendship make a village strong.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Lions, Dragons and Language Arts Standards

On Thursday of this week, I had a hard time wresting a book from one of my seven-year-old students. She really, really wanted to take it home to show her big sister. I almost gave in, but since the book belongs to our city library, I thought I’d better wait and look into getting her a copy of her own. The book that captured her attention was, Chloe and the Lion by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Adam Rex.

Chloe is supposedly the main character in this book, but Mac and Adam take over the story. It begins on the title page where Mac is pictured saying, “This is me, Mac. I’m the author of this book.” On the next page, he introduces Adam, the illustrator. When Chloe appears, Adam is shown putting the final touches on her blue-haired, wide-eyed, bespectacled illustration. She’s charming. Chloe’s story begins when she searches for loose change to pay for a ride on the merry-go-round. And that leads to a walk through a dark forest filled with noises.

“And just as Chloe realized she’d been walking in circles, a huge lion leapt out from behind an oak tree.”

Only a lion doesn’t leap out in the illustration, a dragon does, because Adam thought a dragon would be cooler. My students jumped into the conversation at that point and said, “Yeah, way cooler.” The tension builds between the author and illustrator with some hilarious outcomes. Eventually, Chloe steps in (like any good main character) and saves the day.

This book fits in nicely with one of our Language Arts Standards. First graders in California are expected to recognize the title and author of a story. Our teachers have added to that standard and ask the children to identify the illustrator too. I imagine Adam would appreciate the idea. It only seems fair. By the end of the book, my students could easily identify the author and the illustrator and they had hopes of becoming one or the other themselves. Marie decided she wants to be an author; Justin wants to be an illustrator; and Dylan wants to be the main character. We can work with that. They have some adventurous ideas for a story with three main characters. You can probably guess their names. There won’t be any lions in this story, but the students are planning on lots and lots of dragons!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Life and Language Lessons from a Mole Hole

“Mole had everything –
one small home, one bed, one pillow,
one shelf for books and one cup for tea.”

What more could a mole want? He soon found out when his friend Emerson came for a visit. “Two friends and one teacup did not work.”  After Emerson took Mole for a visit to his own home, where he had just about everything, it dawned on Mole that maybe he didn’t have much after-all.

And so Mole set out on a journey in search of “everything.” He tunneled and scraped for miles, popping up into swamps, caves, junkyards and shops collecting odds and ends like a rocket, an old piano, a cactus and just about anything else you could think of, until he had “everything.”  Then he tunneled and trudged home, tugging his new possessions along behind him. He crammed it all down his tunnel and you can imagine what it looked like. A two-page spread with an upward foldout displayed the chaotic collection. Mole now had everything but time for the simple pleasures he used to enjoy, like spooking birds or running though fields. With his newly cluttered home he was always “moving this, dusting that, winding, fixing and arranging.”  

I won’t spoil Jamison Odone’s story by telling you how it ends - you’ll have to read it yourself and I’m certain you’ll be glad you did. My students enjoyed this book and it promoted a lively discussion. They loved the illustrations and were thrilled about the idea of having so much “junk” (as they appropriately labeled the new possessions). Of course, that was not the point of the story but it opened opportunities to introduce new vocabulary as they selected items they wished they could take home (like the old skull, crashed plane, and a diver’s helmet). By the end of the story, they were beginning to understand the point. Most agreed they’d rather live like Mole had at the beginning of the book, in his snug little home, without the clutter and work it entailed.

Before our session ended, the children began telling about their own collections, like old Halloween buckets, a box of broken seashells and a closet full of outgrown shoes. One child added, “I have a chicken with an egg and I walk him in a cage.” It may not be a collection yet, (until the hen lays a few more eggs), but you’ll have to agree, it was interesting. 

My students looked at the teacup sitting on my desk and decided I should follow Mole’s example and collect just a few more things - four to be precise. They thought I needed four more teacups, not for tea, but for steaming cups of hot chocolate with a few mini-marshmallows to throw on top. It sounded tempting.