Great ideas born of desperation…

Sometimes a planned lesson just isn’t going to work… I had one of those late last term, when my Year 4 class could not settle. In sheer desperation I fell back on the traditional technique of giving out paper and pencils, and pulling out the whiteboard. I didn’t want to do something pointless and timewasting, so I came up with a series of questions focussed on books and reading, and asked everyone to write down their answers, but to keep them secret for a big reveal at the end. We ended up with 15 questions, such as favourite book, book character you’d most like to meet, least interesting book this year. With 10mins to go we stopped and I asked everyone to pick a few answers they’d like to share – hands shot into the air, lifting their owners off the chairs with their enthusiasm to share! I ran through the questions likely to give the most interesting range of responses, and zoomed through the forest of hands as fast as possible to give everyone a chance to speak – and insisted that everyone speak at least once on a question of their choice. Even more fun than the answers were the reactions of their classmates – cries of agreement or disbelief rang out, “I love that one too!”, or “I can’t believe you like that!”. This lesson went so well that I repeated it 3 lessons later with my other Y4 class (last lesson on a Friday, so having something really good is really helpful).

This activity turned out to be such a great way to have my students talking about their reading interests that I decided to take the sharing further. For our next lesson I typed up the questions (having taken photos of the whiteboard list so I didn’t lose it), printed them on different coloured pieces of paper and posted them in different places all around the Library. I asked my classes to type up their answers only. I asked for a minimum of 10 so that boys who are slower to type up work had some leeway built in. I gave them parameters for font size and style, and asked for names on each answer. Then we printed and cut out the answers, and I asked them to stick their replies around the questions. My Library now has 15 very untidy collections of paper strips stuck around coloured questions, and this is the door to my office:

Q8: Book on the top of your Must Read list?

Q8: Book on the top of your Must Read list?

It has been really rewarding though to see the number of students stopping to read the responses, not just from those classes but also older students and some teachers.

For such a simple activity this ended up having a significant impact, reaching well beyond the initial 50 minute library lesson.

What’s new here?

Dear Bloggiverse,

Sorry I’ve been such a poor correspondent – I keep meaning to put fingers to keyboard but never quite get there.

What have I been doing of interest to the teacher-librarian community? Well, let me tell you…

Earlier this year we set up a Skype session to talk with a Kinder class in Wisconsin, with whom I had collaborated last year. This required a bit of time-zone juggling – we came in early and they stayed late! The Kinder children read stories to us that they had written in response to the book Throw Your Tooth on the Roof by S Beeler and G Karas. We read them an Australian classic, Possum Magic by Mem Fox.

In a separate Read Around the Planet activity, a Year 4 class connected with some Y4 students in an after-school program at a primary school in California. We ran a Reader’s Theatre activity, where the Californian students recited One Fish, Two Fish by Dr Seuss, and we replied with Oh the Places You’ll Go. This was a lot of fun, and our boys really enjoyed the activity. I have kept the contact details for their coordinator and we hope to do something collaborative again! Sadly a second session with a different school fell through, so I still owe my other Year 4 class a chance to do Skype Reader’s Theatre. I will have to find someone else to work with later this year.

I highly recommend participating in these kinds of projects – it is a great place to start collaborating with schools in faraway places, and around a theme of great relevance to our work with children and books. Later this year the Global Read Aloud project will be happening again, so I am going to add that to my plans for connecting my classes to a wider world through shared experience of a great story.

Thinking about reading…

I came across this post a few weeks ago, and it has been sitting open in a tab of my browser ever since, while I’ve wondered what I wanted to say about it.

The author, Paige Jaeger, is advocating the rights of children to choose their own reading materials, rather than educators getting hung up on giving children texts that support particular curricular outcomes. Whilst Ms Jaeger is looking at the US context and their Common Core Standards, her points are equally applicable here.

In the classroom, the teacher’s job is to help children make sense of the rules of language, digging deep into grammar, text types, writing styles, vocabulary, and all the other elements that going into developing the knowledge and skills necessary to be literate.

When those children step into the Library, what the Teacher Librarian really wants is to see those children dive joyfully into a wide variety of books and come back up grinning with delight at the treasures they found inside.

Picture taken from the poster of Rights of the Reader

Perhaps this week the theme is to challenge themselves to explore two new genres – the TL will remind the students how to search the catalogue by subject, and suggest more titles that might intrigue them.

Other students are looking for information on their favourite animal, or tv show, or arguing about the status of Pluto – the TL will steer them towards the tools they need to find what they want.

Sometimes though it is a bit trickier – what about the child who at 9 years is still reading like a 6 year old? He needs simple but interesting books that don’t look babyish, because he’s ashamed of how far behind he is and is worried about being teased. Or the child who at 10 years can decode just about any book you put in front of him – he isn’t old enough for the themes in most YA fiction, but the majority of books written for his age group are too easy to engage his attention.

This is where TLs and classroom teachers work together, talking about the needs of their students and looking for books that will help both the struggling and the exceptional students become confident, eager readers who see books as a source of entertainment and delight.

Finally, I think it is fitting to include The Rights of the Reader, a beautiful book by Daniel Pennac, with an equally delightful poster illustrated by Quentin Blake.

The right of the individual to decide how to be a reader – that’s the whole point, really.

Sometimes the simple things…

Sometimes you have a lesson that is perfect just because it taps into the most basic needs and interests of your students. No technology, no complicated set-up, just pure engagement.


Today I taught one of those lessons with my Prep and Year 1 classes. These boys are mostly nice children, although there are a few in there with poor social skills or impulsive behaviour that can interrupt carefully-planned activities. Many of these children are still learning to read with any fluency, and cannot write long pieces of text. Therefore a lot of our response-to-literature activities include drawing, colouring, matching images to words, those sorts of things.

Not today.

Today we were interactive.

Our book today was Donald Loves Drumming by Nick Bland. Young Donald the rhino has a drum kit which he loves to play, but he is just as happy to drum his sticks on any other object available, or to clash cymbals, or do anything that is louder, faster, messier, higher or more dangerous! There is so much boy-focused action in this book that I thought we should have some in our class, and let them get really involved in the story. (I’m sure that wiggly little girls would enjoy it too, but as my school is boys-only, the point is moot for me.)

The Activity:

    I asked everyone to space themselves out further than usual so that there was a little circle of space around each child.

    Every time I said ‘drumming’, the boys had to drum madly on the floor until I said ‘stop!’.

    We practiced drumming and stopping a couple of times, with lots of reinforcement of great listening.

    I told the children that we were going to have a lot of fun with this, but that we could only do the drumming if everyone followed the rules.

    I read the book to the class, putting plenty of emphasis and expression into every ‘drumming’, and using very sharp and clear ‘stops!’.

    The boys were thrilled with the chance to get really physical and a bit noisy with the story, and loved the challenge of stopping exactly on my command.

    As the story went on I introduced some other actions, such as wiggling fingers to show rain, a falling sound or hammering sound to match events in the story.

The Result:

I am really pleased with the way this lesson turned out. We didn’t have any cute pictures to take home for the fridge, and I am kicking myself for not thinking to set my iPad up to record the sound of their drumming, but that wasn’t the aim. I wanted the boys to recognise their role as participants in the story. Given that these boys are 5, 6 or 7 years old, a really physical activity is a beautiful match for their stage of mental and social development.

Although this lesson required no technology, I think it demonstrates why things like iPads are so exciting for children. They are still learning about the world by physically manipulating it, or by moving their bodies or making a noise, and activities that reward those kinds of behaviours will be more interesting to children. When we give children access to technology, we need to make sure it matches their needs and abilities in a rich way. I think that my classes had morefun today drumming on the floor than they did in other lessons when we manipulated an ebook app on the IWB.

I know I did!

Finger Puppets and more

This term the Prep teachers and I wanted to really focus on visual literacy skills and hands-on activities to get the Prep students actively looking for meaning within the illustrations of the books we read. Visual literacy skills are so important in this world of screen media and magazine advertorials, and picture book storytime is a fantastic opportunity to explore and develop these understandings with children.

Last week we used the two ebooks hosted on the Little Big Book Club site to explore stories on the iwb. The book Cat by Mike Dumbleton and Craig Smith was particularly good for this activity – the endpapers of the book present a birds-eye view of three suburban backyards, typical of any older town in Australia. Asking the children to name the things they could see gave them a list of the characters and objects they could expect to find in the story: a cat, a dog, grass, fences, a ladder, trees, a bird, people, a hose. This was particularly important for our students as Hong Kong is a city of medium to high-rise concrete apartment blocks, where even balconies are highly unusual, so items such as the sprinkler on the end of the hose, or the Hills Hoist clothesline, would be strange to many of our students.

Reading the story together there were many opportunities for the children to interpret the pictures, especially since the text in this book is both minimal and very repetitive! We invited the children to explain what had happened every time the cat or another character said “Thank goodness for that!” – for instance they needed to put into words that the cat ran up the tree to escape from the dog.

We did not provide a paper-based activity with Cat, but instead relied on having the children read the text as a chorus, and discuss the meaning of the illustrations. Also, this being an ebook, there was the added bonus of built-in sound-effects – by hovering the cursor over parts of most pictures we discovered that we could play the sounds of the different animals and events in the story, prompting lots of barking and meowing noises from the children!


Now lets talk about finger puppets!

This week we read a different book, coincidentally about another cat: Mr Muggs the Library Cat, by Dave Gunson. This book lent itself to discussing perspective, particularly the second double-page spread where the viewer is floating high up in the rafters, looking down into the Library. The rats sitting on the rafters look very big and the people down below look small, so this prompted the children to comment on their size and use explanations such as ‘things that are close look big, and things that are far away look small’.

On another page the story talks about the cat wanting to stay in the nice warm Library, but our view is of the street outside, where it is dark, raining and windy – the children have to interpret the angle of the rain across the page, and the way that people are clutching coats and umbrellas to understand that it is cold and windy, giving us the reason why it is a good idea to stay inside where it is warmer.

When we finished reading this story I handed out small pieces of paper and asked the children to draw Mr Muggs on one piece, and Pablo his rat friend on the other so that everyone could make finger puppets. Next week the children will be able to retell a bit of the story, or make up a new conversation between Mr Muggs and Pablo, using their finger puppets. I think that this simplest of activities is going to prove highly engaging for all of our students – this is important as for many of them English is their second language, so giving them opportunities to re-enact parts of the story is a way to enrich their vocabulary and develop their confidence.

Other plans this term include:

  • making predictions about what will happen next, and splitting the story over two weeks to keep the suspense level high;
  • comparing two wildly different characters, such as in the book Pearl Barley and Charlie Parsley
  • creating a visual Character Map, where the children add words and pictures around a drawing of the main character to show what that person likes, dislikes, does, looks like etc.

We don’t have any particular genre or theme planned, just wonderful books that lend themselves to these activities.

It promises to be a fun term with Prep Library, full of creativity and rich thinking!

All images sourced from the publishers’ websites wherever possible, or from a bookseller. These images are copyrighted by the original illustrators, and are used under the Educational Fair Dealing clause of the Copyright Act 1968 – used for the purpose of education and review. As an Australian teacher working in an Australian school I abide by the Australian laws regarding copyright.
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