Saturday, April 20, 2013

Beautiful, Simple Books with Powerful Messages

Well, I have been slammed hard by the testing monster... my first year of teaching in the most tested grade level. We have already survived the writing test. (Well, we don't have scores yet, but I am more than pleased with the effort of my students.) But we still face math and reading tests this week. The last two weeks have been spent making sure everyone was up to speed in reading and math. And right in the middle came... an author visit.

My first thought was, "Really? You want to pull us out of class right before testing for an author visit?" I was less than willing to give up time with my sweeties. And for some author visits I have sat through, that would have been true... but not this one.

I had never heard of Kathryn Otoshi or her books One and Zero, although they were published in 2008 and 2010 respectively. Boy, have I been missing out! And I want to make sure you aren't doing the same.
I brought my students into the cafeteria where the presentation was all set up, and standing before us was a small, pretty, Asian woman (which was wonderful for my Asian ESL students to see such a role model). When she spoke, she commanded the room without being authoritarian or over the top. The students were fascinated as she read them her books and explained the stories of how they came to be. She even led them in a reader's theater of one of them.
Both books are beautifully simple in their words and illustrations, but carry powerful messages. One tells the story of how red bullies blue while none of the other colors stand up to red. Then along comes a number 1 who encourages the colors to turn into numbers against red's will. But because 1 refuses to back down, so do all the other number colors. What a brilliant way to convey the message, "Sometimes it just takes one [to stand up to a bully]."
Zero focuses on believing in yourself, appreciating differences, and acceptance. In this story zero is sad because it has no value and can't count along with the other numbers. Zero tries to change and become something it is not, but it never works. Finally, zero is inspired by former bully red (who is now a number 7) to see itself as open and not empty. Zero shows the other numbers how to count even higher by adding a zero to each number. This book could even be a great way to introduce skip counting by 10s and some place value. Again, absolutely brilliant!
When we got back to our classroom, we had a discussion on the books and the author, and every single one of my students got the messages communicated. 
I have added these books to my collection, and I would urge anyone trying to teach these values to do the same.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Guest Blogger: Drawing Attention

Please welcome guest blogger Lee Reed.

Last week I was told there was an opening to fill in for an art teacher. Of course, I accepted the assignment and walked down to the art department to talk to Mary, the art teacher. What I saw and experienced there brought back old memories. There wasn't a surface anywhere that didn't have a paint or marker stain on it. Not only that, it smelled like an art department with the faint smell of turpentine permeating the air. Mary is an attractive woman in her fifties whose hair is completely gray and always a bit disheveled. She told me that she normally left a video for the kids to watch. For some subs, this might seem like a dream assignment, but I don't care for it. I would much rather teach something. Studies have shown that the average student spends an entire year under the tutelage of a substitute between kindergarten and high school graduation. We simply can't afford to waste that time.

I explained to her that I had some background in the arts and would like to try to teach something. She liked the idea, knowing her students really didn't like videos any more than I did. She told me she would leave the decision up to me and suggested I email her with my ideas.

Over the weekend I thought a lot about what I would do. My thinking took me back to my early days in the art world. I took a course in photography my first year in college and fell in love. I wanted to make it my major but was intimidated by the amount of art courses I would have to take: drawing, painting, sculpting, and more. With little experience in those areas, I worried I couldn't hack it but was willing to give it a try. What I learned and what I hoped to pass on to the kids in class, was that there were things that could be said through art that are nearly impossible to say with words. I was hooked, and I hoped I could hook a few of the kids in class.

The question that plagued me was this: how was I going to help these students see that in the space of one 50 minute hour? I remembered a lesson plan I had seen created by Ray Appel. Ray is a math teacher at the Rochester Elementary School. When he isn't busy teaching math and creating products to help other math teachers, he loves to cartoon and has put together a series of lessons on cartooning that he offers for free on his website.

I ran the idea past my wife, who loved it. (She's a university professor with a doctorate in education, so I value her opinion highly.) I also ran the idea by Mary, who was also in favor of the strategy. In my opinion, it was a strategy I could teach in a short period of time that might just spark an interest in the arts at a new level. Cartoons are relatively simple to draw even if you have limited artistic skills, and they can easily be manipulated to express a great many emotions. It looked like a good strategy for getting some kids involved in the arts that might normally feel welcome there.

The day of the sub assignment came and I told my story. Mary had written my name on the board up front under the heading “Guest Artist.” I explained why I thought cartooning was something they might really enjoy. I showed them how simple it was to make a face and how to manipulate the features. Then I gave them the rest of the hour to draw six faces representing six different emotions. Then I walked around the room to see what they were doing and offer encouragement.

I was pleasantly surprised at what I saw. Most were taking the assignment seriously. Some students clearly had some skill and were doing some amazing things. Others were doing the bare minimum to meet the requirements so they could go back to socializing with their friends. What pleased me most, however, was the few that did not have a lot of talent but saw this as a kind of back door to the art world. They had paid attention to my instructions and were working hard to make images they could be proud of. These were exactly the students I had hoped would benefit most. As far as I was concerned, the lesson was a success regardless of the results. However, if I was happy at the beginning, I was happier still when I saw what the class created. Some of the work was truly outstanding. Enough so that I was happy I had taken the risk.

My experience is that there are a lot of remarkable resources available on the Internet these days. I do my best to seek out the good sources, particularly the good free sources of information for teachers. Ray Appel is but one example of what is available. I can't promise that everything will work as well, but I think you'll be impressed with what is out there if you know where to look.

Lee Reed is a father, grandfather, and substitute teacher working on his credentials to become a full time teacher. Mostly though, he is a patient observer of life's ironies and loves to write about his experiences, especially those that have taught him important lessons. You can see more of his writing at Teaching a Day at a Time or check out his new book, The Substitute Teachers Toolkit.
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