Monday, September 29, 2008

White Fang

I picked this book to read because of the cover. It had a big picture of a wolf. The wolf's name was White Fang. When White Fang was a baby all of his brothers and sisters died and White Fang's mom was always protecting him. One time she protected him from another wolf and she killed the wolf. Something happened to White Fang's mom and then he became a sled dog and he was in the back, but they said to put him in front because he was the strongest wolf in the pack and he started to get wiser and stronger. White Fang killed another dog though so they let him go, but he found some white people and he saw that they treated their dogs really nicely. He made friends with Gray Beaver. This guy came over and said I want to buy this dog, but he didn't have enough money. But then he became rich and he bought White Fang from Gray Beaver because Gray Beaver didn't have any food or money. But the guy put him in a cage and made him fight with other dogs and he would whip him. White Fang fought with a bulldog and the bulldog was biting White Fang's neck and they were rolling around and Gray Beaver came and stopped the fight and bought White Fang back. Then they had a dog that always followed White Fang around , but White Fang couldn't fight back because it was a girl and at the end they got married and had 6 babies.

I liked this book a lot because White Fang was really tough and he survived. I would recommend this book to other boys my age because it's about animals and it's a really good story about friendship and it's better than other books I've read. I heard there is a White Fang 2. I want to read it.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Success-For-All, including us!

Yesterday was the happiest day in the history of the world!

Yesterday we were doing touch-down dances and shouting from the roof-tops!

Yesterday I became $40 poorer because my twins are officially READING AT GRADE LEVEL!

The gods of the GATES reading assessment test heard and answered our humble pleadings and that 40 days and nights of fasting paid off.

All joking aside, It was the most incredible feeling to watch my boys eyes light up when they heard the news. I could see the Hey-does-that-mean-I'm-not-dumb-anymore? look on their faces and it kinda sorta almost brought me to tears, just a little teeny tiny bit.


Thursday, September 25, 2008

Still awaiting answer to my humble prayers . . .

Today, we find out if my 4th grade twins were finally able to break the shackles of their 2nd grade reading level. In my heart I know they already have, but I want to shout it from the rooftops, "Seeeeee! I told you so!" to all the teachers who send home after-school tutoring forms to be filled out and returned ASAP.

Yesterday, as soon as my twins walked in the door, I was all over them: How went the test? Was it hard? Did you know the answers? Yes, of course you can eat now, our 40 days and 40 nights of fasting is over.

"I think I scored an 8.0," said Garrett. He was totally serious. "At least I hope so because I really want that $1,000 you promised me if I scored an 8.0." (Did I say that?)

"Tell me tell me tell me all about it," I said.

"Well, it was scarey," he said. "My heart was pounding. Butterflies. I was really nervous . . . because I really want that $1,000." (I know I didn't say that!)

I just want a 4.0! Is that so wrong? I confess I did promise them $20 if they tested on a 4th grade level.

(But hey, if they can read at an 8th grade level, a dirt bike is not out of the question).

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The GATES Reading Placement Test Prayer

Dear Gates-Reading-Test-god,

I come before you, humbly, with fingers crossed (and arms crossed
and legs crossed and eyes crossed).

Almighty decider of fate, it's been 5 years since you have granted my twins
a star on the forehead for reading at grade level.

I have never asked anything of you before, but today they will meet you for
the first time as 4th graders, so I ask that you smile upon them
and make yourself clear, oh so transparently clear to them.

And please, please, please if they test at 2nd grade level again, don't
tell their teachers and their friends. I would never ask you to lie,
but a little fibbing never hurt anyone.

If it be thy will, please let them shine.
Please let them make their teachers scratch their heads in bewilderment.
May they do a touchdown dance and sing Nana nana boo boo for once in their life.

But if it be thy will that you remain an obstacle in their path, grant them the
serenity to use you as a stomping, I mean stepping stone and not a stumbling block.


Friday, September 19, 2008

Zach's Story: The Success (An ounce of effort goes a long way, and a gallon lasts forever)

A few nights ago we went out to play tennis and didn't get to bed until 10:15 pm. My husband declared, "It's too late to read, get to bed!"

The boys brushed their teeth and shuffled off to their room. When I appeared in their doorway to say goodnight, guess what I found?

Wyatt reading White Fang and Garrett reading Crash!

(Secret HOORAY!)

I couldn't resist stretching out on the floor on my stomach and picking up a book myself. When Wyatt finally closed his book I asked him how the story was going.

"White Fang is getting stronger," he said. "And wiser."

(Secret sigh!)

The whole time we were reading Zach was zonked. He had obeyed his father. And I realized as I watched him sleeping that I had not finished telling you his story. I shared with you his reading struggles, but I never shared his successes. So this is Zach's Story Part II: The Success. Not because I want to brag.

Because I'm so proud of him.

And because I want you know there's hope.

And because he's NOT dumb. In fact he's a very critical thinker who as a little boy would ponder deeply important questions, like can Pokemon beat up Satan? and are Santa Claus and Jesus brothers? And yet there has always been this thorn in his side--his reading/writing/spelling.

But I wasn't about to let my son feel dumb because he was a slow reader.

Fourth grade was a turning point, and for two years we worked to help him overcome his self-doubt in his academic abilities by reading to him and pushing him to read.

In 6th grade he won the school science fair, competed in the district science fair competition and the state Math Bowl. At the end of the year he received the Presidential Academic Award, the Top Scholar Award, and the Citizen of the Year award. He won the state History Day competition, 5th place at the National History Day competition, and the History of Baseball award which landed him $500.

It was a gallon of effort, I confess, BUT the payoff is forever. Now he's in 7th grade and he's pulling straight A's in the honors program. He does all of his own homework on his own--researching, writing, developing ideas . . . Last week he asked me to check his current event report. I sat down at the computer and my mouth dropped. He had introducted his sources and used transitions to tie his points together. He had capitalized, quoted, punctuated.

The skills and confidence he has developed will last forever and best of all, he feels smart and capable.

And it all started with reading.

Don't give up!

Goosebumps (and a music lesson)

I've always been curious about the appeal of R.L. Stine's Goosebumps series so I picked Let's Get Invisible up on my last trip to the thrift store. I only got to page 11 before throwing in the towel. Unfortunately this leaves me with absolutely no opinion of the plot, but I know exactly what's troubling me about the book--the way the sentences sound.

When you open a book the words make music. Gary Provost, author of several books on effective writing, says in Making Words Work, writing is not a visual art, it's a symphony. "It's the shattering, not the glass. It's the ringing, not the bell"

I know I've harped a lot on the importance of an interesting story, but I bet another reason boys get bored with reading is simply because of the way the sentences sound. The way the words fall on their ears is no different than the rhythms of a song that hooks them. If an author wants to hook a reader, he's got to have rhythm.

Great writing employs a variety of both sentence lengths and structures. For instance, the following numbers are the length of each sentence on a single page in Dan Gutman's The Million Dollar Shot: 17, 10, 6, 16, 9, 7, 10, 17, 12, 11, 12, 16, 5, 9, 6, 10, 12, 14, 12 4, 9, 13, 10, 14, 6

Notice how the sentences crescend and descrescend, creating a dynamic tone.

Here are the sentence lengths from a page in Stine's Let's Get Invisible: 9, 6, 6, 10, 8, 17, 8, 7, 9, 6, 9, 8, 6, 6, 12, 9, 4, 4, 8, 13, 6, 7.

Most of the sentences are approximately the same length--short, creating a choppy tone.

An author might be able to get away with this if he varies his sentence construction, but Stine's sentences are frequently structured the same way, subject/predicate/object, creating a monotonous tone.

Listen for youself. The following is a string of examples, all taken from the beginning of sentences on a single page in Let's Get Invisible:

Dad says, I turned, I grabbed, I hit, Lefty and I held, I think, He said, He thought, I knew, I started, He and I raced, He handed, Lefty grabbed . . .

A little switch-a-roo of the object and the subject, (to vary the structure) and maybe combining a sentence or two (to vary the length) could do wonders.

Like this:

Here's a real sentence from Let's Get Invisible.

The door had a rusted latch about halfway up. It slid off easily, and the warped wooden door started to swing open before I even pulled at it. The door hinges squeaked as I pulled the door toward me, revealing solid darkness on the other side.

SIDE NOTE: The word door is repeated 4 times and the word pulled, twice. (Redundant).

Why not make this sentence easier on the ears? Like this:

The rusted latch, about halfway up the warped wooden door, slid off easily before I even touched it. Hinges creaked as I pulled the door open, revealing solid darkness on the other side.


(Am I sounding like your annoying high school English teacher yet?)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Zach's Story (and one more cheer for Dan Gutman)

Last night, as we were winding down for the night, Wyatt grabbed White Fang and Garrett grabbed Crash, but it wasn't smooth sailing like the previous night. Settling down didn't come easy. And then when they did settle down, Wyatt kept trying to figure out who Gray Beaver was in his story. "Maybe it's a beaver, duh!" said Garrett. "Beavers can't keep up with Dogs, DUH!" Wyatt shot back. While they were batting that argument back and forth Zach was trying to decide what book he was going to read. I passed him some Andrew Clements, since I'm going to review his books later today (check back in) and some Jerry Spinelli. I passed him the sequel to Holes. I told him to try one of the sequels to Hatchet, or some Goosebumps? All books I want to review soon.

It's not the first time we've gone through this. You all know what I'm talking about. Chosing a book is half the battle and Zach is my hardest son to please. He has the most emotional baggage about books. He went the longest feeling dumb because he tested low and struggled to decode words. I wasn't tuned in to the angst of reluctant readers until his 3rd grade year. By that time he had been teased one too many times and felt humiliated over being placed in lower then grade level SFA reading groups. His test scores in other subjects were plummeting too because he was expected to read directions and instructions by himself.

I got serious about working with him over the summer before 4th grade, but it was next to impossible by that time. He was already convinced he was dumb. I bought Hooked on Phonics and Audiblocks. (great program, btw) I read books about Dyslexia and A.D.D. I counseled with school counselors, consulted Dr. Google and started reading out loud to my boys at night. (The twins were already complaining that reading was dumb and boring). I began with Magic Tree House (YAWN), and from there tried every series I could get my hands on. It was a looooooooong and thorny path to get him past the first sentence of a book.

Thanks heavens for Franny K. Stein and for Dan Gutman.

So last night I had a slight flashback. Zach picked up 6 or 7 books, read the first sentence, snapped the book shut and tossed it aside.

"Mom, I am NOT reading this book!" he said. "Listen to this: The minute the two friends saw each other they burst into tears."

"Not reading this either: Yesterday I left Lathbury behind. I traveled with father and he let me drive the cart on the way to Bridewell."


A testament to how critical that first sentence of a book can be.

Fianlly he grabbed a Dan Gutman book. The Million Dollar Shot! It was about basketball. "I always prayed to be on the Shirts because I'm real skinny and I don't like taking my shirt off in front of people. It's embarrassing." Now there was something he could relate to.

He read the first chapter out loud. I found myself listening to his story and smiling rather than concentrating on the book I was reading.

Have I mentioned yet that I just LOVE LOVE LOVE Dan Gutman? Because if I haven't . . .

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Baby Steps and Big Leaps

Last night I tested my soap box theory. I decided to encourage Garrett to give Crash, by Jerry Spinelli another chance, (even though the words on the page are teensy and he practically needs magnifying glasses to read it). If he didn't take the bait I was going to read a few chapters to him just to see if he enjoyed the story. Well, I didn't even have to suggest it. He tackled that book like a true linebacker. (Couldn't resist that metaphor since the book is about football).

He grabbed a baseball card to keep his place on the page and began reading out loud. I sat on the mushroom chair in the corner and listened, my mouth gaping open. He was incredible. He was smooth. He was . . . funny.

He kept pausing and laughing to himself. "Listen to this," he would say. And then he'd read me a passage with matching voice inflection. He was loving it. These passages had nerve.

"Mom, listen, when Crash was in first grade he was sitting in his yard digging with his little red shovel and this little runt comes walking up the sidewalk" . . . then he starts reading. I feel a lump in my throat. He's reading with . . . attitude:

It was coming from a funny-looking dorky little runt walking up the sidewalk. Only he wasn't just walking regular. He was walking like he owned the place, both hands in his pockets, sort of swaying lah-dee-dah with each step. strollllll-ing. Strolling and gawking at the houses and whistling a happy little dorky tune like some sneezy or snoozy or whatever their names are. A few minutes later:

"He stuck out his scrawny chest. It says "Hi, I'm a flickertail"

"What's a flickertail?"

"A flickertail is a squirrel. There are lots of them in North Dakota. That's why it's called the Flickertail state. What is Pennsylvania called?"

"The Poop State."

That line got repeated several times, as you can imagine.

But that was just Garrett. I haven't even started with Wyatt. He was laying on his bed, completely focused, reading White Fang under his breath.

On and on he read. Garrett finished chapter 1 and held his place at page 5, but Wyatt kept reading. Garrett brushed his teeth and climbed into bed, and still Wyatt read on. I checked the page, 58, before I started getting Zach to bed. He was still reading when my husband and I went out for a walk, page 66. When we returned he was asleep with the book beside him. I opened it to the book mark. Page 72!

I put on the Rocky soundtrack and went to bed with a smile.

Take THAT, GATES reading test!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Up on My Soapbox

When I first started teaching Freshman composition courses, that was exactly what they were--composition. My job was to teach students how to write the various types of essays and a research paper. It was fine, but nothing to get a charge about. After a few years my boss gathered us teachers together and told us we were boring our students to tears and we needed to change things up. The university gave the whole program an extreme make-over and literature was added . . . hallelujah chorus!

Finally the students actually had something to think deeply about, grapple with and write about. The level of intellectual engagement shot through the roof and students sprang to life in class. Surprisingly, (and not surprisingly) so did the level of writing. I began to enjoy grading (as much as it's possible to enjoy grading) because the papers were no longer mindless and hum-drum. Best of all, the students began to find (a little bit of) joy in writing.

I remembered this this morning when I suggested in my Cam Jansen post that beginning readers may not really need story, and that perhaps decoding words was enough.

Words are magic, but they have no power without ideas. The story is the hook. Without story, our reluctant, hesitant readers will never catch the spirit.

My mission for this blog is to find excellent, stimulating stories that have the power to infuse the joy of reading, thinking, feeling, learning, pondering and virtual traveling into all those boys out there who are distracted by X-Box, gameboys, Ipods and Phinnaues and Ferb.

The earlier the better, right?

More to come . . .

Cam Jansen

Yesterday I picked up a dozen or so used books at a thrift store. Before I put my twins to bed, I dumped them on the floor and they eagerly rummaged through the pile to choose which ones they would claim for their own. Among them were three Newbery books and three Cam Jansen's. Surprisingly, neither of the twins picked any of these books.

Wyatt is an animal lover so I wasn't shocked when he chose White Fangby Jack London (the dumbed down version--the Young Collector's Illustrated Classics.) Garrett chose Crash, by Jerry Spinelli which shocked me a bit because he loves mysteries and he's reading Cam Jansen at school in his SFA group--Success For All. (SFA is a program that tests and then catagorizes students according to their reading level. My twins have been testing poorly since 1st grade--consistantly below grade level--which bewilders me because even though they're not crazy about reading, they seem to decode the words quite well).

I've never read any of the Cam Jansen series by David Adler so I chose one and stretched out on my stomach across the floor. The twins made use of me as their pillow and we all cracked open our books and began reading. Garrett was immediately intimidated by the super small words on the pages of his book so it wasn't long before he traded for a Cam Jansen. The books are a quick read at approximately 60 pages per book, with illustrations. I was nearly finished when I said, "Garrett, how come you read these books at school?" Without hesitation he said "Cause I suck at reading."

Hmmmm. Not exactly the way you want your kid to feel about the books he's asked to read at school.

"Do you like Cam Jansen books?" I asked. "No, they're boring," he replied.


I don't always trust my children when they say a book is boring. Sometimes a book may be boring because they don't understand it, or because they are impatient and want to get to the point right away. Other times they just don't give it a chance. But sometimes a book may be boring because . . . it's boring.

After reading three Cam Jansen's last night, I think the latter may be the case. The Cam Jansen series is a cute idea and has been in circulation for 28 years, so there's obviously an appeal. A 10 year old girl has a photographic memory which helps her solve mysteries. But the mysteries I read didn't feel very mysterious, and the reader doesn't really get to help solve them. I kept trying to figure out why the book is so bogged down with extraneous (yawn) details--a lot of time standing in line to buy food. I thought the details might be clues worth paying attention to in order to solve the mystery, but there is no payoff for remembering what animal shape was stamped on Cam's hand when she entered the amusement park, or why the lady in line to buy popcorn was wearing a pink jogging suit. I suspect Adler is trying to help readers learn how to muddle through details to figure out which ones will help solve the case, but this is a risky method, which may likely confuse readers and turn them off. Details must move the story along as well as provide information. I found this series to be tedious.

It may however work well for beginning readers who are learning to decode words and are less concerned about story. (Not sure I totally agree with what I just said, but there must be a place for Cam Jansen somewhere out there beyond my book shelf). I just don't see it as a stimulating option for a 4th grader, even one who scores below grade level on the GATES reading test.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Million Dollar Putt

Reviewed by Zach

The Million Dollar Putt by Dan Gutman was the first book I read all the way through by myself. I started it because my mom read all of his Baseball Adventure Series books to me so I know I like Dan Gutman. The book is also set in Hawaii, which I liked because I live in Hawaii.

The story is about a blind kid who loves golfing so his nickname is Bogey. Both of his parents were good golfers, but hand he happens to be really good at it. One day he went to a driving range with his friends and found out he was really good at it. He used to sneak into the golf course and play rounds with Birdie. His dad used to be a professional golfer and his mom too, but his mom died so his dad didn’t want him to golf. Now his dad’s job is diving for golf balls.

My favorite part of the book was the last shot for the million dollar putt. He curves it around this tree with his dad’s advice and he the ball goes through a lot of obstacles and you’ll have to read the book to see if he makes it or not. This is a really great book!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Calvin and Hobbes: Weirdos from Another Planet

Reviewed by Garrett

I like reading Calvin and Hobbes. They are weird. Once they were digging for bones, but they just found old trash and stuff. But they still built a dinosaur out of the cans. The thing I really like about Calvin and Hobbes is that it's really funny how he talks to his tiger. Once when he came back from school his tiger was hiding and he said "I'm home." And when the tiger jumped out his eyes got really big and his hair got all spikey. The tiger scared Calvin so many times, but then the last time Calvin scared the tiger.

The pictures are so funny. I also like it because there are a lot of cartoons on each page and each one is different. I feel happy when I read it. I'm on page 32 out of 130 pages. I'm glad I still have a lot of cartoons to read. I like to read it every night. The end.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Cheers, Dan: an interview with my favorite children's author, Dan Gutman

As you know, my favorite children's book author is Dan Gutman. I love love love (did I mention love) anything and everything written by him. Besides Franny K. Stein, I give him credit for getting my oldest son, Zach to read. His Million Dollar Putt, from his Million Dollar series, was the first book Zach ever read without being prodded. It was also the only book he's read in which he pretended he couldn't play so he could finish. Gutman's Baseball Adventure series hooked us from the start, and they are the only books I buy in hard cover as soon as they're released. I read all of them to my sports fanatic boys because as soon as I'd crack the cover and open my mouth, they would freeze (highly unusual). At times Zach couldn't handle the pace and would read ahead on his own.

Gutman's series books are all targeted for different age groups and audiences, and though you're guarenteed to adore them all, you wouldn't even know they were written by the same author.

Not only is Gutman a great author, he's also a really nice guy, who granted my son an interview for his history day project about Jackie Robinson. He also granted us an interview for this blog.

My kids and I came up with a list of questions and . . . drumroll, here are Mr. Dan Gutman's answers:

Q. What is your writing process/schedule?
Dan Gutman: After my kids leave for school in the morning, I head upstairs to my office and try to write for a few hours. Then I'll come down for lunch. The afternoon is usually spent on paperwork, email, research, busy stuff like that.

Q. How much time do you spend writing each day?
Dan Gutman: About 2 hours. After that, my brain stops working.

Q. Would your kids say you are a funny dad?
Dan Gutman: I'm not sure. They claim my jokes are lame. But I don't stop making them. It's not like living with Henny Youngman (which wouldn't be much fun, because he's dead), but I try to keep things light when possible.

Q. Which authors or books did/do you like?
Dan Gutman: None of them. No, just kidding. A few favorites: Dave Barry, Mark Twain, Carl Hiassen, Gary Paulsen, Robert Benchley.

Q. Who were your inspirations?
Dan Gutman: The Beatles, Woody Allen, Mad Magazine, Laugh-In, Get Smart, Picasso, Edison. But mainly, The Beatles.

Q. How do you get all your crazy ideas?
Dan Gutman: They're beamed to me from outer space. Also, my kids, my wife, and reading the newspaper every day. Reality is weirder than anything I could ever make up.

Q. Do you have any hobbies?
Dan Gutman: Riding my bike, photography, music, movies.

Q. You said Johnny Hangtime was your favorite work so far? Why is that your favorite?
Dan Gutman: Because sometimes you have a good idea and poor execution, and sometimes you have a bad idea and great execution. But on that one, I think it was a great idea and great execution. So why is it one of my worst selling books?

Q. Do you plan on writing any more of your current series books? What can your fans look forward to from you in the future?
Dan Gutman: My Weird School will extend to 30 books. There will be 11 baseball card adventures. After those two series are finished, I plan to have a nervous breakdown and then start all over again.

Q. How much time do you spend doing research? I notice all of your books are
more than just entertaining, they are very informative and even touch on some
important social, political and emotional issues.
Dan Gutman: It's about time somebody noticed! I spend a LOT of time learning all about my subject. If I can sneak a little learning in there while I'm telling a good story, and the kids don't even notice, well, I've achieved my goal.


For more information about Dan Gutman and his books visit:

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Unhinging hilarity. A laugh-out loud novel. Should keep the readers in stiches. These are all bits of reviews on the back of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. An excellent choice for reluctant readers, it says. (So, if my boys didn't like it does that mean they're not reluctant readers anymore?)

I pinned my summer reading hopes on Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Garrett enthusiastically picked it out at the school book fair and, after seeing it was the #1 New York Times Bestseller, I didn't protest. In fact I was excited. There was a buzz about it--my friends were talking, boys were reading, it was flying off the shelves, and when I went back to the book fair the next day to buy book II in the series, it was already sold out. This was golden.

Each night I would hand it to Garrett as he was getting into bed, but instead he'd reach for Weirdos from Another Planet, a collection of Calvin and Hobbes cartoons. I brought it on our family vacation, anxious for our boys to have something fun to read on the plane or during the down time. Whenever I pulled it out, Garrett would say, Did you bring my Calvin and Hobbes?

We've been back in school for a month and it's still unopened next to Garrett's bed, so last night I decided to read it for myself.

SIGH! I almost cracked a smile on page 44, but the rest just made me cranky. That's not a good sign. So this morning I cornered Garrett and Wyatt about it. They were quiet, evasive, passive.

OUT WITH IT! I finally commanded.

That book's not even funny. Wyatt finally said. Everyone thinks it's so funny, but it's just dumb.

Garrett hung his head, I didn't like it, Mom. Sorry. I thought it was boring.

I think I'm changing my views about reluctant readers. They need stimulation!

(And if a book has glowing reviews plastered across the back cover . . . be skeptical!)

Tom Sawyer--some books are worth the challenge!

Some books are better when read aloud. Some books need to be experienced.

If a book is difficult, but well worth the read, it may take a lot more effort and energy than a child is willing and able to exert. That's where a parent or teacher can step in and impress a story upon a child's heart forever.

When I was a child my parents gathered us around regularly and read J.R.R. Tolkiens The Hobbit, and then The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. It's the warmest coziest family memory I have and because of it I harbor a deep emotional connection to Bilbo and Gandolf and Frodo and Sam, and I've never forgotten the lessons they taught me about loyalty and courage and struggle.

I teach Freshman literature and composition at a small liberal arts college and I always begin the semester with Hamlet, mostly because it's my favorite Shakespeare play, but also because my class theme is Complex Ethics and Simple Truths, and Hamlet is chock full of moral complexity. But it's a difficult read, particularly for second language students. (This semester, out of my 44 students, only 9 are from the U.S. The rest are from Tonga, Samoa, the Philippines, Korea, Japan, China, Hong Kong, Mongalia, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Thailand, Cambodia and even Austria.) I get a lot of complaints that Shakespeare is too hard, but I don't buy that. I know my students are up for the challenge.

To prepare my students for Hamlet, I show an inspiring film about a teacher named Rafe Esquith who teaches 5th grade at Hobarth Elementary School in Los Angelos, and has this magical ability to get results and teach kids morals, partly by using difficult and challenging texts, like Hamlet. After watching The Hobarth Shakespeareans for the first time I realized I was underestimating the power a challenging book can have on even the most hesitant reader and decided to change my approach at home to match my approach in the classroom.

I made a book list of difficult, but classic stories I wanted to read aloud to my kids and started with Tom Sawyer.

It took us 6 months to get through it. Not an easy journey, but an interesting and rewarding one. Not only is the vocabulary difficult, but the dialect is completely foreign--much like Shakespeare. I had to stop often to explain vocabulary and context. There were times when the boys got fidgety and complained that they didn't understand what was going on. Often, in the beginning, they would sit and play with their gameboys or look at baseball cards while I read. But I plugged away at it and it paid off. The boys began asking me to read Tom Sawyer to them every night. When I finished a chapter they would ask for another and then another.

The story is compelling and the characters are multi-faceted--nothing cardboard or fast-food about this book. You rarely find round characters like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in children's books today. These boys aren't always well-behaved, but they are real, and Mark Twain doesn't make them misbehave for the sake of entertaining a bored audience. He gives them real emotions and fears, which are often humorously complex and intense. They don't like doing chores or sitting through church. They ditch school, twist the truth and say rotten words. All the things we forbid our boys to do, but they do anyway. My boys sleep through church, pass blame to each other and laugh hysterically anytime someone mentions words about bodily functions. I don't love this about boys, but it's real, and I love real.

The conflict is serious and dramatic. Tom and Huck witness a murder. That's big-time. But the subplots and subsequent conflicts made my boys laugh and think and question and wonder. Tom and Huck are superstitious and quirky and charming and Mark Twain is smart and witty and insightful. Reading it was an experience. A memory.

After we finished we rented the one version of the movie I could find. (The musical with Jodie Foster). Interestingly, My boys watched it over and over and over again.

Now we're on to Huck Finn. My daughter is reading it in her English class and thinks it's the most pointless, boring book in the world. She feels so sorry for the boys that they have to listen to me read it. But I can't help but believe if she were to listen in and read it with us slowly so we could digest it and experience it together, she'd probably fall in love with Huck Finn.

It's worth the challenge anyway!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Franny K. Stein--Mad Scientist (book 1 reviewed by Garrett)

Review by Garrett--Sept 2008

I finished the first Franny K. Stein last night. My friend read it 7 times and now he's reading the 2nd one. Franny K. Stein is easy to read for a 4th grader because it has a lot of pictures in the pages. The pictures are funny. The vocabulary is harder than Boxcar Children though, but the Boxcar Children takes longer to read. I like Boxcar Children more because it has more mystery, but Franny K. Stein is more funny than Boxcar Children. I laughed so hard when the little kid peed in his pants.

There is a monster in this book because of one of Franny's experiments and a guy put a pumpkin and another guy spit his gum out and another guys put an old shoe in the garbage can and then one guy put unstable industrial waste in too. Then a monster popped out and it was a cool monster with a pumpkin head on it. He grabbed miss Shelley and climbed the flag pole. Franny asked all the people in her class to bring her all their lunches and then she got the meat and a needle and string and sewed it together and made a meat creature. They also made a pile out of the peanut butter and jelly sandwhiches if Miss Shelley fell. When she fell it was the loudest poof in the world. The next day at school Franny thought that everyone was going to hate her. But right when she came in to the class everyone said hip hip hooray.

The lesson Franny learned was about friendship. She learned how to get along with the people at school. She also learned that she could be herself and it's okay to be a mad scientist.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The happiest mom in the world!

No, that's not a book title, (but it should be). It's just me, writing a follow up to yesterday's Shel Silverstein post.

Last night I sent the boys to bed with a promise I'd tuck them in when I was finished helping my daughter with her homework. As soon as I opened their bedroom door here is what I saw:

(None of these photos are staged, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die, double swear on the Holy Bible).

Zach was reading Shel Silverstein again. Out loud! When I came in he asked me to help him find the poem about the beard so we looked through the glossary together and then he read it over and over, laughing out loud each time as if it was the funniest thing in the world. I just have to share it:

It's probably a boy thing, but whatever works.

I stretched out on my stomach on the floor and listened to him read and laugh over silly poems about thumbs and jump ropes and boa constrictors. Then he asked me to read to him, so I took the book and read about the magical eraser and the dancing pants and the recipe for a hippopotamus sandwich, feeling warm fuzzies each time he'd chuckle at a funny line. Soon I looked over and he was fast asleep.

I went to bed feeling like the happiest mom in the world.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Where the Sidewalk Ends

I bought Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends years ago at a school book fair when I read somewhere that the best way to help your child learn to read and love to read is to recite poetry to them while they're young. It seemed like odd advice, but I was desperate and willing to pluck hairs and burn wax if I had to. Apparently the magic is somewhere in the way repetitive rhymes bend the brain.

It was worth a shot, I had read a lot of Dr. Suess and Mother Goose to my daughter and she was a reader, but my boys had come into this world on top of each other and I'd spent most of their childhood on my knees changing diapers and sending pleas for patience to the big man upstairs.

So I bought Shel Silverstein because they were past the Mother Goose years and because I had chuckled over it myself as a child. For some time I read it to them each night as they'd drift off to sleep with visions of similes and metaphors dancing in their heads.

Okay, that's a lie. I'd read it to them as they were smacking each other, giggling, crying (oh, wait, that was me) bouncing on the beds and begging me to let them sleep with the radio on. After several deep inhalations and interuptions I'd finish a poem and snap the book shut. What'd ya think? I would say. Thoughtful pause. Can I have a drink of water?

So that was that. Reading poetry was a sham, I decided. But last night I tucked them in, in characteristically grumpy fashion, and one of them said, Will you read something to us? They were holding up Shel Silverstein. Not tonight I said, I'm too tired. (Bad mom, I know!) Maybe Wyatt can read Shel Silverstein to you. And this is where my jaw hit the floor. Okay, he said, Zach read it last night, so I'll read it tonight.

Wait, what? They were reading behind my back? Poetry? Words? Books? Yes, they said. We read when you're not looking. We crack open Shel Silverstein and we actually read him. What was your favorite poem? I asked Zach, still skeptical. The one about the beard, he said without hesitation and then they all started chuckling and high fiving each other while they recited the funniest parts of the beard poem.

It was a hallelujah moment! All you worried, tired, anxious moms, go put Shel Silverstein on your book list.