Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Brainstorm Vol 35

Books that can be used in multiple classrooms.

I'm doing something a little different today. This week I read two books that complement each other quite well, and then I thought of another book that could easily be added to the mix. So the following three books could be used independently or all together for a variety of lessons.

Picture Book Resources

The Curious Garden by Peter Brown
This is a newly purchased book for the elementary library, but it could be used at multiple levels. The story is about a little boy who lives in a drab urban environment. He finds an abandoned elevated train track and decides to help out the scrappy plants he finds there. Through trial and error he improves his gardening skills and thanks to his perseverance, soon there is a patch of color in the drab city. Over the seasons, he continues to care for the garden, and it spreads both in space and in popularity. Soon others catch the gardening bug and before long the entire city is transformed.

There are numerous ways this could be used in lessons. Here are just some of my ideas for lessons/talking points:

  • Talk with students about the benefits of plants. Whenever I taught a unit on plants I always had students initially whine, "Why do we have to study plants?" This book will help give a visual and can open up a discussion for other ways plants benefit humans. 
  • There's also the psychological aspect of the drab environment being changed into something beautiful that could be discussed. 
  • Have students debate the pros and cons of adding more plants to an area (i.e. smog vs pollen).
  • Students could even start brainstorming small ways they could help their community
  • I also liked that the author showed the boy persevering through some mistakes. You could discuss the perseverance and patience needed in learning new things, and how we can learn from mistakes. (A really important message for students with a tendency for perfectionism.) 
  • It's also just a fun read for the artwork
  • And lastly, history teachers might be interested in the note at the back that the boy's garden space is based on a real abandoned elevated train line. 
  • (In studying the history, you could also discuss various forms of recycling and repurposing things.)

The Gardener by Sarah Stewart, pictures by David Small
During the Great Depression, a little girl goes to stay with her Uncle in the big city until her parents can find more work. She writes letters to her parents and Grandma regularly telling them how she is helping in the bakery, planting the seeds she brought with her, and planning a surprise for her Uncle that she thinks will finally get him to smile. When news comes that it is time for her to return home, she leaves having made quite an impression on her Uncle and others in the city.

Like The Curious Garden, this has many potential classroom uses:

  • The text appears entirely in the form of letters, so this could be used as a model for letter writing or an introduction to lessons on letter writing and the parts of a letter.
  • With the historical setting, it could easily tie in with history lessons on the Great Depression.
  • One of the best things about this book is the little girl's attitude throughout. It would have been so easy for her to be upset and grumpy about being shipped away from her parents and staying with an unsmiling uncle, but she keeps a cheerful attitude despite her circumstances. Perfect for starting a discussion with a class about how your attitude can affect your life and the lives of those around you.
  • Relevant to international students, this could be a way to open up a discussion about the hard parts about leaving a place and people. The little girl took seeds with her to her new home, what would (or what have) students take(n)?
  • Like, The Curious Garden, this can obviously be used in talking about the benefits of plants both for the environment and for the psychological impact.
  • And like The Curious Garden, this can be used as a jumping off point for a talk on small ways students can impact their community for good.
  • This book won a Caldecott Honor in 1998. Talk about the Caldecott Medal with your students. It's a relevant time to do so, the new winners will be announced next Monday, Feb 2 at 8am (9pm our time).
  • If you read both The Curious Garden and The Gardener, have the students compare and contrast the two gardens and gardeners, or compare and contrast the settings, or compare and contrast the art styles...lots of compare/contrast options.
Nonfiction Resource

The Tree Lady: the True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever by H. Joseph Hopkins, illustrated by Jill McElmurry
This is the picture book biography of Kate Sessions, the first woman to graduate from the University of California with a science degree and the visionary who helped transform San Diego's city park from a dry dust bowl to a green haven. It's the story of a woman who repeatedly did the seemingly impossible, and mobilized others to do so as well. And all this was at a time when women were not seen as community leaders, at least not outside of fashion.

Kate Sessions' story could be used in so many ways:

  • Obviously, this could be used when studying the history of California or the US West.
  • It is also a great illustration of the impact of plants in helping prevent erosion and things like dust storms. So yet another benefits of plants for the environment and psychological factor discussion starter. (Ask students if they would have rather lived in San Diego before or after Sessions planted trees there and why.)
  • Classes studying women's rights, like the right to obtain an education (still a relevant topic in the world, it's why 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala was shot).
  • Kate Sessions was another great example of someone who persevered. Talk with students about whether they would have worked so hard to bring trees in, or if they might have given up.
  • The book talks about the way Sessions researched which trees would grow best in San Diego's climate before bringing in the trees. Talk with students about the importance of research and planning before action. Or talk with students about biomes, types of plants, and why it was necessary for Sessions to do this research. (You could also easily include a discussion about invasive species with this.)
  • Kate Sessions is an example of someone who took a subject she loved and turned it into a career. Talk with students about some of their passions and what careers match well. 
  • Kate is also a good example of someone who used her talents to help others. Kids may at first be skeptical that a botanist could help people, but have them list the ways Kate helped her community with her science skills. You can also talk about ways students could use their talents to bless others.
  • I really enjoyed the artwork in this book and felt it matched the story perfectly. Ask students what observations they can make about the art. And have them debate whether the style was a good fit or not and why.
  • Of course, if you're doing a unit on biographies, this is a great example.
  • Science teachers, when students ask what can you do with a science degree...Kate Sessions is a good example of a profession they probably wouldn't normally think of.
  • And if you read The Tree Lady along with either The Curious Garden or The Gardener, or both, you can discuss the difference between fiction and nonfiction, compare the gardens involved, compare and contrast the stories, or just use Kate as an encouragement for your students that such things as imagined in the fictional stories can and have really happened.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Brainstorm Vol 1 (revamped for the blog)

This was originally distributed just to the ICS staff October 2012.

Picture Book Resources

One Grain of Rice by Demi
Demi retells a folktale from India about a girl who fools a raja into giving her one little grain of rice, but doubling the amount every day. The beautiful illustrations show how many grains of rice the raja must handover in the subsequent days and weeks. Great for visually introducing multiplication or exponents, or for those studying India or folk tales.

Animalia by Graeme Base
Graeme Base illustrates a beautiful and fun alphabet book with alliterative lines about various animals. In addition, hidden in every page is a drawing of Graeme and hundreds of things that start with that letter. Obviously, this can be used to help teach the alphabet and animals. In addition, it can be used in language arts for teaching alliteration. I have also used it to help students work on visual acuity by finding hidden items, and in Biology by having my students classify animals they found in the book into Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, and Species.

Chapter Book Resource

Bloomability by Sharon Creech
There are very few books out there specifically about international students, but this is one of them. The heroine of the story, Dinnie, joins her aunt and uncle for a year as they teach at an international school in Switzerland. She experiences many of the typical emotions, joys, and challenges of a TCK. It is well written, and Sharon Creech knows what she’s talking about; she taught overseas for many years.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Brainstorm Vol 34

Books that can be used in multiple classrooms.

Picture Book

The Girl and the Bicycle by Mark Pett
This book is easy to overlook due to the non-flashy cover and title, but like many things in life, treasures can be found in the most unexpected places. In this wordless book, a little girl sees a bike in a shop window and decides that she wants it. Instead of begging for it, she develops a plan to earn it. She finds little jobs to do, and in the process makes a friend in an older neighbor lady. At long last the day arrives when the little girl has earned enough money to buy the bike, but she shows up at the store only to find the bike is gone. What she does with the money instead (buys her little brother a tricycle), and the unexpected surprise she receives later (the older neighbor lady gives her the bike), make this a very touching story about unselfish kindness, hard work, patience and perseverancefriendship that crosses generations, and great entrepreneurial money skills. The art is simple in color scheme and style, but there's lots going on in the background so readers will doubtless find new things on re-readings.

There are many talking points with this book. It can obviously be used when talking about money skills, but also all the other intangibles mentioned above. I can see a lively discussion with students if you asked them what they would have done with the hard-earned money if it were them and the bike they wanted was gone. The artwork is also notable for the neutral tones. Another interesting class discussion could be about the title and art style, and why the author may have chosen to go with the simple words and colors. And since it's a wordless book, students can also write out the story in their own words in English, Spanish, French, Mandarin, Thai, or other languages.

Nonfiction Book

What if? Serious Scientific Questions to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe
If you were to list things that students often say are boring, math, science, and nonfiction books would probably come up. But challenge students to read just a few pages of this, and I think they will soon agree that math and science can be quite fun and even humorous. And no one would ever accuse this book of being boring - slightly mad and scary possibly - but not boring. Randall Munroe is a former NASA scientist who fields strange questions, like 'What would happen if you threw a baseball almost at the speed of light?' or 'How dangerous would it be to have a periodic table with actual samples of the elements in your house?' He applies his super math and science knowledge to the question and comes up with some wacky (but scientifically and mathematically sound) illustrations and scenarios. If you need to liven up a math or science class, try reading one of the entries of this out loud. Did I mention that he also manages to break down complicated math/science topics really well for the lay person? Well, he does. So it could also potentially help kids understand a math or science class better. It will at least make the concepts more memorable! I personally often have to force myself to read nonfiction, but I devoured this in just two days and laughed all the way through it. (Granted, I do have a bit of nerd/mad scientist in me, so you can take this with that grain of salt.)
Note: Because many of the situations involve deadly or potentially deadly scenarios, I wouldn't use this below 5th grade (and the math/science would probably be a little over their heads anyway).

Fiction Book

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder
I've been trying to find more literature written by Asians to add to the Media Center this year. This is one of the books I came across in my hunt. Ogawa is a modern Japanese author who has just recently gained some attention for the English translations of her books. At just 180 pages, this promised to be a quick read so I decided to try it out. And I'm quite pleased I did. The story revolves around a young woman supporting herself and her 10 year old son by housekeeping. Her newest job is with a man who used to be a professor of mathematics at the university until he was in a car accident. Since the accident he is stuck in the 70s and his new memory only lasts 80 minutes at a time. He copes by covering his clothing with little notes to himself, but even so, every day the housekeeper and he meet for the first time in his mind. What could be a potentially trying assignment, turns into something wonderful for both the young woman and the old professor. The professor helps open the woman's eyes to the world of numbers and mathematics, something she thought she was too stupid to understand, and the lonely professor seems to enjoy her company and having a willing ear. When the professor finds out that she has a 10 year old son who is left alone in the afternoons and evenings while she cares for his house and makes his dinner, he quickly scribbles a note to himself on his clothing that she brings her son effectually trapping her into bringing him. He tells her the boy must never be alone again. And so this little boy with no father figure, gets adopted each day anew by the older professor who helps him with his homework and enthuses over baseball with him. This is a great pick if you want to encourage your students to experience some Asian literature or if you want to find a short read for a reluctant reader. It gives a culturally enlightening look at Japanese everyday life. And it's a beautiful, touching story that makes math come alive and also explores how people can be blessings to each other, even if they are seemingly broken.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Brainstorm Plus: Russian settings

Bookish Stuff

I have not seen a ton of use of the list of new books I was posting here, so instead I will just be highlighting a few of the new books that went on the shelves this week.

Egg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire is one of those books I've seen floating around on Newbery and Printz hopeful lists so when I saw it at the bookstore I snatched it up. This was my first taste of Gregory Maguire, as it probably will be for most students. From what I've heard, most of his other books are grittier and have content obviously aimed at an older audience. This one is safe enough content-wise for middle grade students, but sophisticated enough for young adult and adults. The book is set in early 1900s Russia with some magical elements. There's a poor Russian peasant girl, Elena, whose life intersects with a rich Russian-French aristocratic girl, Ekaterina. The two get tangled up in an adventure involving a Fabregé egg, a Firebird's egg, the Tsar, Baba Yaga, and the health of the magic of Russia. Readers who like re-imagined history and fairy tales should enjoy this fantasy adventure. And this is probably the funniest Baba Yaga you'll ever meet. She steals the show from the moment she's introduced. I'd recommend reading it just to meet her (oh, and her talking cat Mewster, too). This is also a good one for the multicultural factor and that it will help get kids interested in the history of Russia. I can see easily convincing students to read The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming after reading this since the time periods overlap.

What's that? You haven't read The Family Romanov? Oh, you've heard of it but have already read another book on the Romanovs? Well, you still should read this one. It's an exceptionally written, engaging, and informative biography. Fleming doesn't just introduce you to the Romanov family, she gives you a great framework for their tragedy by including first person accounts of peasants at the time, explains the social climate of Russia then, and includes information on how Russia's involvement in WWI contributed to things. It's the most well-rounded biography of the Romanovs I've ever come across. And it is so readable. Kids who think biographies are boring will be eating their words. Fleming knows how to keep the momentum going. This isn't dry history, it plays out like a thriller you're reluctant to put down even if you know how some things will turn out. There's a reason that this book is also on numerous award hopeful lists.

Want more info on each of these books, including notes on any content that may be inappropriate for some readers? Click on the titles for my full reviews on

Do you dream of becoming a published author one day or do you have students with such dreams? Do you/they want to do it full time? Author Shannon Hale had a brutally honest post recently about the ins and outs of the money side of being an author, something I really haven't seen many posts about, but I think it's needed. I see things about the writing process and publishing process all the time, but rarely have I seen anyone talk about the actual money involved. This post is a healthy dose of reality, and it is a must read for anyone seriously considering this career. The nitty gritty on authors, signings, and filthy lucre.