Saturday, September 21, 2013

THE DARK—Shedding Light on the Common Core Standards

My students fell in love with Lemony Snicket’s name last week when I shared his comments from an essay in POETRY. This author was new to most of them. They are a little young for his Series of Unfortunate Events but, I have no doubt, they will grow into this popular series in the coming years. In the meantime, our school librarian, Allison Brown, loaned me her new copy of The Dark, written by Lemony Snicket and illustrated by Jon Klassen, so I could share one of his stories written for the younger crowd.


A few of the kindergarten students looked alarmed on Tuesday when I showed them the cover and read the title. Lewis’ eyes grew round. He stared across the table and his voice edged up a notch higher. “I’m afraid of the dark.” Juan pulled his chair close to mine, wrapped his arms around my own and said “me too.” I admitted, I’m also afraid of the dark, sometimes, but I assured them, I had read the book and they didn’t need to be afraid of this story. Juan relaxed his grip on my arm and Lewis’ eyes lost their fear-tinged expression but he still seemed wary.

By the time we’d viewed several dark pages and read the dark’s own words in a voice, “creaky as the roof of the house, and as smooth and cold as the windows,” the kids’ faces had brightened. They took on a look children sometimes get in anticipation of a good scare. Like when a trusted uncle swings them alarmingly high and they scream in what sounds like pure terror but is actually a tingling joy and they come down yelling, “Do-it-again! Do-it-again!” That look.

While we were reading the book, the wind caught the edge of the classroom door and blew it wide open. I jumped at the noise but Hailey said, “The wind just wants to come in and listen to the story.” She was probably right.

When the story ended, the kids had a lot to share. Skylar informed me she heard a shadow coming in the dark. That led to a discussion about what a shadow might sound like, if it really could make a noise. Hailey said she had asked the dark to come into her room but it was shy. Sometimes, it peeks in to see if she is sleeping. Then it looks into her closet to make sure she keeps it clean. Landen told me he’s not afraid of the dark, but he is afraid of the really, really, really, really dark.

The kids wanted to invite the dark into our speech room and so we turned off the lights. The sun poured in through the window and the dark crouched under my desk, slid into the garbage cans and slipped under the speech room table. One of the kids said it grabbed her foot and they all laughed. It seemed to me, the kids were making friends with the dark.

If you’ve read many of my previous posts, you know I love to read with my students. Good books are not just for entertainment; they provide opportunities for speech practice as children retell events from a story. They enhance language skills as students structure their sentences to discuss a plot. And they can be used to address many of the Common Core Standards. For example, in the second reading standard for literature, kindergartners are asked to “retell familiar stories, including key details.”  And in the fourth standard, first graders are asked to, “Identify words and phrases in stories or poems that suggest feelings or appeal to the senses.” We had fun with that one as we discussed the creaky, smooth, cold voice of the dark.

I introduced The Dark on Tuesday, and by Friday, when Jose came into my room and saw the book sitting on my shelf, “the look” spread across his face. Not the fear-tinged wary-look but the excited-anticipation-look. Before he had a chance to sit down he said, “Read it again! Read it again!”  And we did, but not before he retold the story on his own, with impressive detail.

Friday, September 13, 2013

POETRY in the Speech Room

I had a pleasant surprise when I opened the September issue of POETRY magazine. This subscription, published by the Poetry Foundation, is a splurge that always brings me joy; the latest issue brought more than usual. When I peeled off the wrapping I discovered Lemony Snicket was the featured writer. 

Just looking at that name on the cover made me smile. I immediately turned to his essay and read Mr. Snicket’s own words,

“Poetry is like a curvy slide in a playground—an odd object, available to the public—and, as I keep explaining to my local police force, everyone should be able to use it, not just those of a certain age.”

The next day, I brought the magazine to school to share with my students. I read parts of Lemony’s essay to groups of five, six and seven year olds. When I came to the part where he said, (speaking of his collection,)

“The only things that all the poems have in common is that they are all strange in some way, because all great literature is strange, the way all good slides are slippery.”

Joden took exception to Mr. Snicket’s comment. “Except out in Wiggly Giggly Park when the slide is wet and you don’t slide very well.”

I suppose you can get stuck on a good poem in much the same way you get stuck on a good slide after the rain. And if a slide is wet, you are likely to get soggy pants, as Landen pointed out—but I’m not sure how that ties into poetry. It probably does. I’ll need to contemplate that awhile before I find clarity.

After we read a few of Lemony Snicket’s comments, we moved on to the poetry he’d chosen for his collection. The kids loved them. One they especially enjoyed was Auto-Lullaby by Franz Wright. The poem begins with the lines:

            Think of a sheep
            knitting a sweater;

It continues on with an engaging rhythm and rhyme for five child-friendly stanzas, but I don’t want to infringe on his copyright so I’ll stop there. By the end of the poem, my students wanted to try their own hand at writing poetry. Actually, they voiced their poetry. Their writing skills are still in the primitive stage so they dictated their attempts and I scratched out the words as fast as I could, trying to keep up with the words pouring out from students all around my speech-room table. They were inspired. 

We worked together to bring a little order to the words, practicing rhyming and comparing the rhythm of their lines to those of Franz Wright. By the time we finished, these are the lines our groups created:

            Think of a squirrel
            riding a poodle
            they fall in a ditch
            and eat a big strudel.

            Think of a Team-Rex (I think he meant T-rex but we let it stand as spoken.)
            going down the toilet
            and eating a duck
            before he could boil it.

Think of a bird
            flying to the sun
in a tiny bird rocket
while eating a bun.

He ate way too much
and his tummy popped
then he fell back to earth
and did a birdy hop.

Think of a dog
who writes a blog
and when he’s done
he wakes his dad up and drinks a glass of cold milk.

When Zayd dictated the last stanza, the other kids noticed he’d altered the rhythm and rhyming scheme, but no one wanted to change a word. They felt it was perfect just the way it was. And I had to agree.

The students are grateful to Lemony Snicket for collecting these poems and in appreciation they decided to work together to create one last poem, just for him.

Lemony Snicket
Got stuck in a thicket
He found a gray cricket
And decided to lick it.

Thank you Franz Wright, Poetry Foundation, and Lemony Snicket for inspiring our young writers.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Our School Garden! Planting Seeds of Inspiration

Toward the end of my summer vacation, I searched our local library for appropriate books to begin the school year. I came home with a sizable stack: Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes, Foxy by Emma Dodd, and The first Day of School by Mercer Mayer, among other familiar titles. Tucked in the middle of my pile was one I hadn’t seen before—Our School Garden, by Rick Swann, illustrated by Christy Hale.


The book begins with a poem about a child’s first day at a new school. He’s given a tour by another student and . . .

            He shows me the library, office, nurse,
            Lunchroom, art and gym.
            “The best is last. He grins. “Out here!”

            I open double doors expecting
Playfields, courts, or jungle gyms
            But stop in place, amazed.

            By what? A living space
            With vibrant greens, fruits and flowers
            And hum of bees . . .

            Our school garden!

The cheery illustrations reminded me of our own school garden. 

This book is longer than those I usually read to my speech students so I poked around and selected a few short sections to provide a springboard for further discussion. Like seeds planted in fertile soil, the author dropped bits of information within the book’s pages, which easily sprouted into further enquiry and exploration. The blend of fiction and nonfiction fit in nicely with our Common Core Standards and the varying tastes of my students.

After a few pages, the kids were inspired to draw some of their favorite plants and garden creatures:

One student, Lewis, was particularly creative:

When I asked about his drawing Lewis told me “It’s my pet worm, ‘Whizzy’. He wears a cowboy hat. I found him in the garden and he was cold so he crawled up my pant leg and I took him home. He doesn’t like living outside.”

I admired the drawing and the story. With that encouragement, and the admiration of his peers, Lewis continued. “He’s getting old. He’s turning browner and all scrunkely.”

Lewis has excellent language skills but I thought I might as well take the opportunity to expand his vocabulary so I asked what ‘scrunkely’ means. I was hoping to give him a real word that might do as well as the one he'd created.

“You know, he has those circles on his body and they’re getting, ‘scrunkely,’ like this.” He circled his hands, shook them rapidly and scrunched up his face. I wasn’t able to come up with a better word for that, so 'scrunkely' it is. (And I thought I was going to expand Lewis’ vocabulary—he just expanded mine.)

As the author said in Our School Garden!

“A school garden is a wonderful place to learn about the environment and our local food system. But did you know that it’s also a great place to explore science, math, social studies, art, and writing?”

After visiting our own garden this week, and hearing the kids’ discussions, I have no doubt the author is correct. Our students plant and care for seedlings, measure spaces, and calculate costs and profits during our spring plant sale. As to writing, just ask Lewis. He’s a great storyteller and, it seems to me, our garden planted seeds of inspiration in a future writer.