Thursday, September 15, 2011

Children's Literature and Essential Questions

By Denise Krebs, Children's Literature Blogger

One Saturday afternoon I was trying to organize for my coming week at school--plan lessons, print needed handouts, grade papers. You know...the never-ending tasks of teacherhood.

As I often do, though, I became lost in my Google Reader. (I'm finding my RSS reader bewitches me; hours can go by while I catch up on the blogs I follow, seeing what others are learning and reflecting upon.) On the afternoon in question, I enjoyed most-of-all Tracy Watanabe's post about essential questions.

In the comments on Tracy's post, I mentioned I was not a faithful user of essential questions. I've known about them since Understanding by Design and the Intel Teach to the Future program I was involved in more than ten years ago. However, I have not always remembered to use them in my teaching. Tracy's post reminded me of their importance. Then, again in the comments section, she responded back to me with an example of how she used an essential question with the book Ramona Quimby, Age 8.

Tracy wrote:
"I remember the first time I used an essential question, it was when I was a 3rd grade teacher, and we were starting Ramona Quimby, Age 8 (I love Beverly Cleary books!) My EQ was something like, "What does a 'sticking-together' family look like?" -- There was one discussion about cause-effect based on something Ramona Q did in the book, and the kids decided that she had a choice in how she responded... and her response would affect the whole family... so when things came up in their own lives, they shouldn't take it out on their own family... This conversation was 10 years ago, but I remember it so well because I was amazed at what those little 8 year olds were realizing about being proactive in their choices, all from a literature discussion. Furthermore, I don't think our conversation would have gone that direction without that EQ."

So the next day, as we discussed our book Among the Hidden, my students were asked an essential question I found hereHow much control should government have? We had such a fascinating conversation with that question that I had them write our essential question inside the front cover of their book copy.

As the book continued to progress we saw more signs of the unbridled control of government in this futuristic totalitarian society. The people were required to only have two children. They weren't allowed to grow food hydroponically, even though there was a purported food shortage. We continue to ask questions about why "they" (the government) could do those things and how they could get away with it.

I asked my students to help me write this blog post by sharing some of their thinking to the essential question of Among the Hidden. Here are some of their responses.
The government should have some control of our lives, but no more than two kids is really too much that they are asking for.
The government shouldn't tell us what we can and can't buy, unless it's illegal drugs. The government shouldn't tell us how many kids that we can have. The government shouldn't shut down food companies because it is unhealthy. They should have a little control. If they do things we don't like we can protest.
Government should protect us from harming ourselves and others. The government shouldn't tap our phones and barge in and take control.
I think that the government should watch us, but not control our everyday lives.
Absent Anna chatted from grandma's.
The purpose of government is to make safe rules, but if they go over and beyond that fact, then we have a right to protest for what we believe is right. The government should not make pathetic rules like they did in this book.
We need to trust our government. Otherwise, we could do whatever we wanted and there would be a lot of killers in the world.
We should be able to do anything that isn't harmful or dangerous. The government should just try to keep things fair and safe.
I don't think the government should have as much power as they do now.
The purpose of government is so nobody gets out of control.
If the government gets too powerful we can protest, strike, boycott, and vote people out of office.

We are not quite finished with the book, but before we finish, my students will see that the government asserts ultimate evil authority when it kills some young protestors.

With this one piece of children's literature, we have been invited into engaging and important conversations. We are discussing world issues like the differences between elected and non-elected governments, our Bill of Rights, liberal vs. conservative governing, protests in Libya, Egypt and Syria, as well as important personal liberty issues.

Had Tracy not challenged me when she shared her use of an essential question with Ramona Quimby, I don't believe we would have had so many great discussions focusing on the theme of Among the Hidden. So, will you join Tracy and me in this conversation?

What is an essential question you've used with a children's book?
Will you share it on this Google spreadsheet
Or on a comment below. 
Thank you! 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Growing Lifelong Readers

By Kathryn Trask, Children's Literature Blogger

I have always loved reading. When I was growing up in a small town in New Zealand, in the 1950’s there weren’t that many books available. I was always on the prowl for a book I hadn’t read. At that point in time, we only had a small family lending library that you could only get to by car. Occasionally the family down the road gave me a ride there.

Now, as a teacher, there are endless possibilities for reading material for my students. As a lover of reading, it has always been my mission to connect my students with all the exciting books available for them. One common thread running through my classroom in my thirty-five years of teaching plus, is the desire to have my students love books and reading. Although in saying that, the local Resource Teacher of Literacy, when she heard I was taking a 10-week paid sabbatical in 2012 commented, “Well there’s no need to ask! You will be doing something with ICT.” And she is right; I am going to be exploring digital literacy. I see it as an extension to my love of reading.

Ever since I taught my first class back in the early 1970’s, I have read to my class daily. Occasionally some of the books had to be abandoned, but most were relished by the class. At the beginning of this year I chose to read to them Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea.
My first decision with this book was whether to get it on my Kindle or buy the hardback. Finally, the hardback won, because I know that if a book is successful, many children in the class are going to want to read it for themselves after I have read it to them. With this book, that was certainly the case, and at present is passing from hand to hand.

Because of Mr. Terupt is a book about a classroom of children who have a very wonderful teacher who helps them negotiate the challenges in life. Then one day because of something one of the students does, the whole world swings on its axis for them. The book is told from a number of different viewpoints. The reader gains insight into seven of the students and sees often the same event through their eyes. Along with the students in the book, the reader waits to see what the outcome of the key turning point in the story will be.

My class loved this book; there were always groans when I finished each day. It is rather cleverly written, so that at the end of a chapter, the reader wants to get to the next. I assured my class this was not my fault! Rob Buyea was the man responsible.

At the end of the book, I decided to track down Rob Buyea. He lives on the east coast of America. Through a number of emails, we eventually arranged a time and date and set up a Skype session with him. He graciously agreed to Skype us in what was his mid-evening and was our midday, of the following day! We spent one wonderful hour discussing the book. We were delighted to hear that in 2012 there is a sequel to this book. He read us the first page. Definitely one I will put on pre-order!

When reading to my class I provide them with a variety of books. We have some excellent New Zealand authors, so I generally alternate between our own and overseas authors. This term we are listening to an audio production of Lion Boy by Zizou Corder.
This is the first in a trilogy. I hope that after listening to this one, they will want to read the next two for themselves. The three books are already sitting on the class library shelves.

I have always encouraged the students to read for pleasure and to read books of their own choice. I have been fortunate over the last few years to have avid boy readers. These boys have encouraged others to read by their recommendations. Some of these boys have been hooked into reading in this way.

One such set of books are The Five Ancestors series by Jeff Stone. Other series that are very popular are the Percy Jackson books and The 39 Clues series both by Rick Riordan.

Just recently I have started to use the Daily 5 way of structuring my literacy block. Those who have heard of this will know it comes from The Two Sisters, Gail Boushey and Joan Moser. This is a way of structuring the Literacy block so that it frees up the teacher to work with groups and individuals while the students engage in writing, vocabulary work, reading to self, reading to someone and listening. At present, a number of boys are choosing to listen to The Hobbit as part of this. It came as a request from them. As I always want to foster a love of books and reading, I made this happen for them.