Friday, December 13, 2013

Happy Holidays!

There’s definitely a holiday spirit around our school this week. Take a look at some of the artwork from our halls and classrooms:

Our school librarian, Allison Brown, added to the festive spirit by producing over 300 elegant stars. They decorate our halls, classrooms and library windows, creating a holiday atmosphere. But she didn’t hang them merely to adorn our school; these stars are lighting the way to new books for our shelves.

Parents, students, and teachers alike, are snatching up the stars for a mere five dollars, and all the proceeds are going to purchase new books—like the one Alison read to our students yesterday:

Over the winter break, I plan to read some new books myself, sitting in front of a crackling fire with a cup of hot cider in hand. Our family will celebrate Christmas together and perhaps make a few more ornaments to commemorate the year. Like this one we made in honor of our trip to San Francisco to watch the Nutcracker several years back.

Or this one we created of our red Toyota on one very memorable trip into the woods to cut down a tree. (We were lucky to make it safely home.)

I’ll use some of my winter break for writing projects. If you’ve been following my blog, you may remember, I didn’t post during the summer in order to concentrate on a middle grade novel I was writing. The first draft is finished but it’s hard to fit in revisions with a full-time job and a weekly blog. And so, I’ve decided to take a break from posting until I’ve completed another draft—or two, or three. I can hardly wait to dig in! I’ll be back posting from my speech room later in the school year and fill you in on my progress.

Happy holidays! Thank you all for reading and I’ll see you in 2014.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Kids Can Make a Difference

A couple of weeks ago, I received a review copy of Let’s Make a Difference: We Can Help Protect Mountain Gorillas, 
by Gabriella Francine with Solara Vayanian, illustrated by Phil Velikan. This week I had the opportunity to introduce the book to a couple of my speech and language groups and they were glad I did.

Some of my students are working on “g” and “k” sounds at the conversational level. They are able to pronounce these phonemes correctly when naming pictures, but once they are chatting in a more spontaneous manner, they slip back into using “d” for “g” and “t” for “k”. (We call that “fronting” in speech therapy circles, because the kids move their tongue forward instead of back, where it belongs for these sounds.) The children got a lot of practice as we talked about Pikoe, the baby gorilla, and his father, Kunga, a “silverback,” named so because of the gray hair on his back.

In the language group, we had a nice vocabulary lesson with words sprinkled throughout the text like, “foraging,” “species,” and “endangered.” The authors supplied some of the definitions as they used the words in the story.

        “ ‘Endangered’ means that if people don’t help them, the mountain gorillas will someday disappear.”

The kids weren’t the only ones to glean information from this book. I didn’t realize there are less than 900 mountain gorillas still living in the wild. Their home is in the cold, misty Virunga mountains of Africa, where they forage each day for leaves, vines, bark, shoots and roots. Gorilla mothers gather food with their babies clinging to their backs. They start looking for food early in the day and then take a nap before searching again. It is no wonder they take a long time to find enough food—

     “Because mountain gorillas are so big, they need to eat a lot! Pikoe’s father, Kunga, has to eat 75 pounds of food every day.”

Phil Velikan illustrated what that amount of food might look like: pizza, watermelon, broccoli, chicken, a carton of milk, kabobs, and other edibles, create a mountain of food on a bathroom scale in the middle of a kitchen. The drawing shows a child reaching up to place a peppershaker on top of this pile that is larger than the child himself!

The blend of illustrations and photographs appealed to my students. They loved the expressive faces on the animals, especially the baby gorilla in the veterinarian’s arms. The infant seemed to look into the eyes of the “Gorilla Doctor” with a mixture of trust and a question, “will you take care of me?” That picture captured the hearts of my students, and they decided they’d like to help that little one and all the other (less than) 899 mountain gorillas living in the wild. They don’t want these animals to disappear from our planet.

Fortunately, the book has suggestions on how they can make a difference. The last page lists organizations that are working to protect mountain gorillas and their habitats. We didn’t have time to visit the websites but the kids wanted to share the information with their classmates and families so I sent them off with website addresses.

While I read the book, and we discussed the plight of the Mountain Gorillas, the kids drew some pictures:

Zayd is going public with his. He plans to decorate a box with small gorillas on the side, cut a hole in top for coins, and hang his picture above it on a local restaurant wall.

He certainly took the title of this book to heart. Let’s Make a Difference: We Can Help Protect Mountain Gorillas. I believe he will.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Giant's Sneeze

With Thanksgiving around the corner, our school walls are covered with beautiful fall and holiday-themed artwork. It makes me realize how thankful I am for my artistic coworkers.

One I’m particularly thankful for is Susan Joyer who loves art, loves kids and loves children’s literature. That is a winning combination in my book, in fact that winning combination is in one of my books—The Giant’s Sneeze

I wrote this story to give my students an entertaining way to practice their “ch” sounds, a fairly common speech error. Since my artistic talents are limited, Susan Joyer volunteered to illustrate the story so we could both use it with our students to encourage pre-reading skills along with articulation.

Speech and reading skills are interdependent and children make leaps toward literacy when those skills are taught together. It so happens, this practice fits in nicely with one of the Common Cores Standards—Reading: Foundational Skills (RF.1.3) where students are expected to,

“Know the spelling-sound correspondences for common consonant digraphs (two letters that represent one sound).”

Like “ch” for example.

I had a chance to read our book to a couple of classes yesterday. It was fun to watch the kids’ enthusiastic response to Susan’s illustrations and to the story. They chimed right in when the giant gave his mighty warning of several “ch” sounds before each sneeze. They laughed at the blustering sneeze-breeze that turned milk into cheese and scattered millions of bees. They were especially entranced with the honey tornado caused by the gusty sneeze when it, “rounded up the scattered bees, and funneled their honey far into the seas.”
Marcia Douglas' Class - some are showing how to make the "ch" sound.

Gabe, one of the first grade students, wondered if the giant put bread on his honey. That sparked some lively discussions about what the honey tornado might look like with thick slices of bread stuck to the sides. By the end of the story, the students had no problem identifying the sound represented by “ch” and they had no trouble showing me how to articulate the sound clearly. We’ll probably need to review the information after the holiday break, but that should be an easy job. I’ve already heard students say, “Read it again, read it again!”

Thanksgiving will be here soon. I can almost smell the turkey cooking and apple cider simmering on the stove. There will be ten of us around our table and I’m grateful for each one. When I return to work on the following Monday, fall decorations will start coming down and winter snowflakes and snowmen will begin to make an appearance. My Thanksgiving attitude will linger as I watch the transformation brought about by many of my coworkers who use their artistic talents to create an inviting learning environment for our students, and an inviting place to go to work each day. And I feel especially grateful to Susan Joyer for using her artistic talents to bring The Giant’s Sneeze to life.

Happy Thanksgiving! May it be filled with good food, friends and family.

Saturday, November 16, 2013


There was no school on Monday of this week in celebration of Veterans' Day. With the three-day weekend, my husband and I left straight from work on the preceding Friday and headed up the coast for a mini-reunion with friends. Our group rented a house somewhat midway between those furthest north in Washington and those furthest south in California. We arrived late at night and settled into an oceanfront rental for our third annual reunion with three other couples. 

We’ve known all but one of these friends for over thirty-years but we lost contact for at least 25 of those years. Our friendships started in Southeast Alaska where we all lived: young, single, and in the beginning stages of new professions. 

One of our friends brought this one, taken the day
my husband and I met! Can you guess which one is me?
During our reunions we’ve caught up on all the major life events, poured over old photographs and shared our stories. I especially enjoyed reminiscing about the ones we have in common, like our hike along Salmon Creek, visits to the Mendenhall Glacier and camping at Denali.

Our trip to Denali 

Phyllis reminded me that during one hike she stepped on a rotting bridge and her leg went right through, landing her in the creek. She started back to work as a classroom teacher with a fat lip and a suspicious principal. 

This may seem like an "off-topic" subject for a speech therapy/kidlit bog, but I don't think it is entirely unrelated. In my work, whether I'm teaching students to articulate sounds, formulate a sentence, learn the fundamentals of social language (pragmatics) or increase their vocabulary, one of my ultimate goals is to help them become better communicators so they can have healthy long-term relationships and so that they can tell their own stories, the stories of their lives.

This past week I haven’t had a chance to read books with the kids. Report cards go home next week (along with IEP progress reports) so I’ve been busy testing and writing reports. It seems somewhat tedious but the time is well spent. I can see tremendous growth in some students and it is obvious, by their smiles and the glint in their eyes, they recognize their growth. A couple of the students, who were almost ready to be dismissed from speech at the end of last year, are now fully ready. 

I have mixed feelings about letting them go, but it is time to do so. I feel good knowing their speech and language skills have grown stronger and my hope is that these new skills will help them form friendships like those I cherish. Perhaps, one day, they’ll enjoy reunions with old friends and be able to share life-enriching stories of their own.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Robots in the Speech Room!

I had a new student in speech this week. When I went to his classroom to pick him up for his first session, I called his name and he shrank. His shoulders rolled forward, he tucked in his chin and tried very hard to disappear into the crowd of kindergartners sitting on the carpet at their teacher’s feet. I gave him what I thought was an encouraging smile but it wasn’t encouraging enough—his eyes widened in apprehension, then melted into a pleading look as he turned toward his teacher, obviously hoping she’d rescue him. She didn’t. But she introduced us and reassured him that a lot of kids love going to speech. After I spoke a few kind words and found a friend to walk with him, he left with his new speech group and trudged along to my classroom.

Fortunately, I had an enticing book on my desk, just waiting for the right moment and a fitting group of kids for its introduction. I’d found both, so I scrapped my original plans and grabbed Robots, Robots Everywhere! by Sue Fliess, illustrated by Bob Staake.

Robots, Robots Everywhere!

I thought the cheery illustrations and catchy rhymes might help this new student forget his nervousness. I was right; the worry lines on his forehead softened the moment he looked at the cover of the book and they disappeared entirely by the time I’d finished reading a few pages,

On the ground
and in the air,
Robots, robots

Up in space,

Beneath the seas,

Robots make discoveries.

I’d forgotten how appealing robots are to young children. The kids moved in close to examine each illustration. Soon, this reluctant child leaned against my side so he could get a better look at the pages. It wasn’t long before he was pointing and laughing and talking about the kind of robot he wants to own. All of the kids had ideas to share. Jose wants a double-headed robot that climbs trees. Olivya wants a pumpkin-robot that glows. Enrique wants a tiny one “about this big” he circled his hand around a walnut-sized pocket of air. His robot will go on water, land, and in the sky.

My students made a scavenger hunt out of the book and scanned the pages for familiar shapes—squares, circles, rectangles, triangles, ovals, and ice-cream-cone-shapes. Their enthusiasm was contagious. I snatched my box of paper-scraps and quickly cut out a few similar shapes. We made collages, building our own robots as we built vocabulary.

I’ve known for a while, knowledge of shapes is an important foundation for growing math skills, but I was curious about its place in the curriculum so later in the day, I searched the Common Core Standards to find out where it’s listed. Sure enough, the first two kindergarten geometry standards require students to learn the names of various shapes. Our vocabulary lesson and Ms. Fliess’ book was a perfect fit for these kindergarten mathematicians.

The next day, when I went to pick up my new student, he practically bolted from his classroom. He could hardly wait to see if his robot collage was dry. He didn’t trudge to my room; he scurried along on imaginary robot feet, smiling all the way. It was no surprise to me. Over and over, I’ve seen what an appealing book can do to reach a reluctant child, whether it is a reluctance to leave a familiar environment, face a challenge or learn a new skill; books often ease the way into comfort and open minds to learning just as Robots, Robots Everywhere! did for this student.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Figurative Fun with Animal Idioms

When I asked a group of first graders what they thought a person might mean by saying, “you eat like a bird,” all four heads dipped down to the table. With hands in their laps, they bobbed and “pecked” at imaginary seeds on imaginary ground. They were a bit surprised when I opened Sandy Donovan’s book, Until the Cows Come Home, illustrated by Aaron Blecha, and read page 26 where they learned this idiom means to eat a small amount of food. 

They were even more surprised when they discovered how much a bird typically eats; a one-pound bird is likely to eat about a pound of food each day. If my students actually ate like birds, they would eat about 45 pounds before turning in tonight!

These facts may not be new to you, but some of the information in the book was new to me. For example, did you know the phrase “don’t let the cat out of the bag” began back in the Middle Ages? I didn’t. According to Ms. Donovan, since cats were cheap and pigs were expensive,

“Sellers at marketplaces used cats wrapped up in fabric bags to try to trick buyers. The buyers thought they were buying a pig. The sellers would take their money and give them a bag with an animal squirming around inside.”

If they let the cat out of the bag before they returned home, they would discover the secret.

Ms. Donovan’s book defines idioms as “phrases that mean something different from what you might think they mean.” After reading several examples, I turned to a page with an illustration of a monkey clinging to a frustrated, freckle-faced boy and said, “The phrase, monkey on your back” is an____?” I paused to let the kids finish the sentence and Hailey called out, “Idiot!” The others agreed before I had a chance to correct her mistake.

Landen was so intrigued by the illustration he decided to demonstrate how you might get a monkey off your back. First he wrapped his arms around his body, then changed positions to spread the fingers of one hand on his cheek and used his other hand to peel off the fingers, one by one. He explained how he’d peel the toes off too, and then twirl so the monkey would fly off.  He used excellent descriptive language as he expounded on the process and by the time he finished, it was easy for the other students to understand the origins of this idiom. I tuned back to the book and read,

“What does a monkey have to do with an ongoing problem? Well, let’s think about it. If you had a monkey on your back, it would be really hard to get it off, right? Monkeys have those long arms. They could wrap their arms around your neck. You might try to shake them off, but they’d cling on. . . That’s why people use the phrase “monkey on your back” to refer to problems that won’t go away.”

Idioms are confusing to many of my students and they are especially baffling to kids on the autism spectrum who are very literal in their thinking. I remember one precocious sixth grade student who had autism. After a few lessons on idioms, Alex came into my speech room and said, “Did you notice, it’s raining cats and dogs outside. I hope we can have lunch soon because, I’m as hungry as a horse.” He was very pleased with himself and I was happy as a clam to hear him using the idioms appropriately. Alex would have enjoyed Until the Cows Come Home. It is packed with information and he loved collecting facts.

With the Common Core Standards’ new emphasis on nonfiction, this book would make a nice addition to any elementary school library. And, though I’ve been reading it to first and second grade students, it is laying the foundations for a fourth grade language standard (L.4.5) where students are expected to “Recognize and explain the meaning of common idioms, adages, and proverbs.” My younger students can already explain a few, thanks to Ms. Donovan’s book. If you’d like to introduce your children or students to idioms, there is no need to hold your horses, just trot over to your local bookstore or library and pick this one up.