Tag Archives | Education

Big Green Textbook

Children's LiteratureMy first inkling there was a thing called children’s lit­er­a­ture came at a yard sale. I picked up a thick green text­book, Children’s Lit­er­a­ture in the Ele­men­tary School, by Char­lotte S. Huck. I mar­veled at the idea that peo­ple dis­cussed and stud­ied the books I loved and planned to write, that children’s books were lit­er­a­ture, like Moby Dick. I was eigh­teen, one month out of high school, work­ing as a sec­re­tary. The text­book cost a dol­lar, steep for 1970 tag sales. I wasn’t leav­ing with­out it.

I didn’t read the text­book as much as own it. It went with me from job to job, rental to rental, rep­re­sent­ing a goal I’d reach after I was estab­lished in my real career as the next E.B. White. I was aware I’d skipped a cru­cial step but couldn’t afford col­lege. Dri­ve and desire would have to sub­sti­tute for for­mal edu­ca­tion. Along the way, I’d brush up on children’s literature.

The pub­li­ca­tion door didn’t open for me, but I cracked a back win­dow. My first book, and many that fol­lowed, were paper­back orig­i­nals, pop­u­lar fic­tion that kids bought with their allowance at B. Dal­ton or ordered from Scholas­tic Book Clubs. The first two pub­lished books gained me entry into the exalt­ed Children’s Book Guild of Wash­ing­ton, D.C. As a guest at month­ly lun­cheons, I was enthralled by talk of school vis­its, library con­fer­ences, and the easy ban­ter of writ­ers com­fort­able in the club of hard­cov­er pub­lish­ing. I loved the Guild’s fel­low­ship but even after I became a real mem­ber, I felt sec­ond-class because my books weren’t literature.

Going on TwelveThis feel­ing was under­scored by a snub from The Cheshire Cat, the famous children’s‑only book­store in the tony part of D.C. The Cheshire Cat was my mec­ca. I dropped hun­dreds of dol­lars on new books, includ­ing texts on children’s lit­er­a­ture for my col­lec­tion. But I was told I didn’t qual­i­fy for an author sign­ing because my books weren’t for the library mar­ket. How­ev­er, once a year, mem­bers of the Children’s Book Guild were invit­ed to a recep­tion and group sign­ing. For those Brigadoon evenings, I bought a new out­fit. My paper­backs with their pho­to-real­is­tic cov­ers (so kids would know what they were buy­ing) seemed tri­fling next to weighty stacks of hard­cov­er books with artis­tic dust jackets.

Even­tu­al­ly my books were pub­lished in hard­cov­er: fic­tion, non­fic­tion, pic­ture books. The paper­back orig­i­nals I con­tin­ued to write sold in the tens of thou­sands and paid the bills. My hus­band and I moved, too far for me to dri­ve to Guild lun­cheons. I fed my children’s lit fix with week-long con­fer­ences at Shenan­doah Uni­ver­si­ty. How I loved strolling around the cam­pus, eat­ing in the cafe­te­ria like a real stu­dent (Froot Loops for lunch!), min­gling with teach­ers and librarians.

Next, I treat­ed myself to Children’s Lit­er­a­ture New Eng­land, an inter­na­tion­al sym­po­sium held at var­i­ous New Eng­land uni­ver­si­ties. A week of heady dis­cus­sions and famous speak­ers left me dizzy: Gre­go­ry Maguire, John Rowe Townsend, Paul and Ethel Heins. I yearned to be a smart, seri­ous writer whose papers and speech­es were pub­lished in pres­ti­gious jour­nals. But I was still the girl from rur­al Wil­low Springs, Vir­ginia, who nev­er went to col­lege. I attend­ed CLNE for four (expen­sive) sum­mers, once in Eng­land, then stopped, know­ing I’d nev­er real­ly belong to that rar­i­fied group. Maybe if I got a degree, I’d be legitimate.

There were plen­ty of col­lege pro­grams for adults. What kept me from get­ting an under­grad­u­ate degree? Math. You won’t find any­one less inept with num­bers. Then anoth­er back win­dow opened. Ver­mont Col­lege of Fine Arts let me pur­sue an MFA in writ­ing for chil­dren. I was fifty and had nev­er stayed in a dorm. After grad­u­at­ing from VCFA, I was accept­ed in Hollins University’s grad­u­ate pro­gram in children’s lit­er­a­ture. Now I’d be able to under­stand the schol­ar­ly texts in my col­lec­tion! Maybe even write papers that would be pub­lished in journals!

On the very first day in my very first class, “His­to­ry and Crit­i­cism of Children’s Lit­er­a­ture,” a stu­dent dropped the term dia­log­ic, ref­er­enc­ing a text we were read­ing. I copied it in my notes, whis­per­ing, “Dia­log­ic … what is that? Crap! I am so up the creek!” Despite my fears (and three more sum­mers of dorm life), I felt in my ele­ment in the Children’s Lit­er­a­ture Alcove, a room devot­ed to sources and books. I earned my MA by writ­ing pas­sion­ate papers on the books I loved as a child, ignor­ing close read­ing analy­ses and pop­u­lar crit­i­cal the­o­ries. Nev­er once did I use aca­d­e­m­ic jar­gon. No one sug­gest­ed I sub­mit my papers to journals.

I walked with my class at com­mence­ment in May 2008 and in June I was teach­ing in the pro­gram. I enjoyed my stu­dents, who only a few months ago had been my class­mates, and my apart­ment (pri­vate bath­room!). As fac­ul­ty, I advised the­sis stu­dents, attend­ed con­fer­ences, and lis­tened to schol­ar­ly papers. My col­leagues were bril­liant. Most of my stu­dents were bril­liant. I felt like an imposter. Any sec­ond some­one would find out. My diplo­mas would turn to dust.

Where did I fit in the world of that big green text­book I picked up fifty years ago? Would I ever make my con­tri­bu­tion to children’s literature?

This time a door opened. After I’d writ­ten sev­er­al pieces for Bookology’s Knock Knock col­umn, Vic­ki Palmquist asked if I’d like my own col­umn. I said yes. We called it Big Green Pock­et­book, after my most suc­cess­ful pic­ture book. BGP became the place where I put my thoughts about children’s literature.

I count myself lucky to be in the com­pa­ny of won­der­ful writ­ers, illus­tra­tors, teach­ers, librar­i­ans, and oth­er pro­fes­sion­als who devote their lives to cre­at­ing and shar­ing children’s books. Bookol­o­gy makes me feel real. At last, I belong.


The Next President

The Next PresidentWho the next U.S.A. pres­i­dent will be is pre-occu­py­ing many minds around the world right now. This book takes a stance by telling us about the dis­tinc­tive pres­i­dents of the past, a cou­ple of sen­tences about every one of them, #1 through #45, and asks us to real­ize that the next ten pres­i­dents are prob­a­bly alive right now. Who will they be? Such an intrigu­ing question.

The struc­ture of this book is fas­ci­nat­ing. We are intro­duced by won­der­ing who the pres­i­dents of the future will be. Then we are sit­u­at­ed in four time peri­ods: 1789, 1841, 1897, and 1961. We look at what the pres­i­dents or soon-to-be pres­i­dents are doing in that year. Some of them are accom­plished men and some are still chil­dren. How does what they’re doing in that year shape their lives?

In 1789, Thomas Jef­fer­son (#3) is serv­ing as sec­re­tary of State. “In 1776, he had writ­ten the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence, which includes the words ‘all men are cre­at­ed equal’ — even though Jef­fer­son enslaved hun­dreds of peo­ple on his Vir­ginia plan­ta­tion.” Nei­ther the author nor illus­tra­tor side­step uncom­fort­able truths in this book. Rex depicts African Amer­i­can slaves build­ing Wash­ing­ton, D.C., behind the future presidents.

The Next President

illus­tra­tion © Adam Rex, The Next Pres­i­dent, writ­ten by Kate Mess­ner, pub­lished by Chron­i­cle Books, 2020

In 1897, Franklin Delano Roo­sevelt (#32) “was a col­lec­tor, too. He kept detailed records about his postage stamp, bird nest, and egg collections.”

The book fin­ish­es by ask­ing us to con­sid­er where the next pres­i­dent is now. The illus­tra­tions show a diverse group of peo­ple walk­ing through a gallery of pres­i­den­tial (and near-pres­i­den­tial) paint­ings. “When vot­ers choose the next pres­i­dent, they won’t look to the past, but to future — and the ever-hope­ful vision of what Amer­i­ca could be.”

We need to con­sid­er our future now … and always. For­ward-think­ing. Vot­ing is our duty as cit­i­zens. Hav­ing knowl­edge of our his­to­ry and look­ing ahead to what this coun­try needs in its lead­ers … that’s our respon­si­bil­i­ty. This is a good book for the class­room and at-home dis­cus­sions. We’re giv­en some way to dif­fer­en­ti­ate each of the past pres­i­dents, hope­ful­ly inspir­ing fur­ther explo­ration, and most impor­tant­ly we are asked to think. Chil­dren or adults, we all have to think carefully.

The illus­tra­tions suit the text admirably. Each pres­i­dent is iden­ti­fi­able whether they’re chil­dren or adults, and they’re each thought­ful­ly num­bered. There are sub­tle facial expres­sions that por­tray char­ac­ter … and even pres­i­den­tial pets get a dou­ble-page spread.


The Next President
The Unex­pect­ed Begin­nings and Unwrit­ten Future of America’s Presidents
writ­ten by Kate Messner
illus­trat­ed by Adam Rex
Chron­i­cle Books, 2020


Little Engines:
A Simple but Impactful Early Literacy Initiative

Little Engines Live Chat

In ear­ly fall of 2019, I com­plet­ed a grant appli­ca­tion through our local ear­ly child­hood board. I pro­posed a new ear­ly lit­er­a­cy pro­gram called Lit­tle Engines. Each month, we will have an ear­ly child­hood pro­fes­sion­al pro­vide a sto­ry­time pro­gram with activ­i­ties. These include lit­er­a­cy, nutri­tion, child­care, school readi­ness, music/recreation, creativity/arts, and STEAM. The library pro­vides fam­i­lies a tote bag that includes var­i­ous activ­i­ties and a book to enjoy at home togeth­er. This is also a part­ner­ship pro­gram between our local school dis­trict, a local video­g­ra­ph­er, and pub­lic tele­vi­sion. Although this is a grant-fund­ed pro­gram, it is a sim­ple pro­gram that any­one can adopt.

Our First Program:

Dr. Constance Beecher

Dr. Con­stance Beech­er, Iowa State University

In Feb­ru­ary 2020, we had our first pro­gram with Dr. Con­stance Beech­er from the School of Edu­ca­tion at Iowa State Uni­ver­si­ty. Dr. Beecher’s pro­gram focused on enhanc­ing STEM learn­ing through inter­ac­tive activ­i­ties for fam­i­lies to do togeth­er. The pro­gram began with a short inter­view with Dr. Beech­er and it was con­duct­ed by me and Kel­ly Nesheim from Iowa Pub­lic Tele­vi­sion. We did not have an audi­ence in front of us how­ev­er, we encour­aged fam­i­lies to tune in via Face­book Live. The inter­view focused on the impor­tance of fam­i­ly engage­ment and the ques­tions that were asked include:

  1. Tell us a lit­tle about you and what you as an ear­ly child­hood professional. 
  1. What does fam­i­ly engage­ment mean to you?
  1. What are a few things par­ents, grand­par­ents and care­givers can do each day to help engage with their child(ren)?
  1. Are there any spe­cif­ic resources that you can share on fam­i­ly engage­ment and resources that can help to gen­er­ate ideas?
  1. What are going to be doing today for your pro­gram (dis­cuss some of the activ­i­ties you brought and the story(ies) you will be reading). 

The inter­view was con­duct­ed in the children’s depart­ment sto­ry­time room. We repur­posed the space to include an area rug, col­or­ful set­ting, a few posters for a back­drop, and a table to show­case her resources. Dr. Beech­er added the STEM back­packs cre­at­ed by her team. Fol­low this link for more infor­ma­tion about their Check­out STEM pro­gram.

The DotFol­low­ing the inter­view, Dr. Beech­er pro­vid­ed an inter­ac­tive STEM sto­ry­time. She read the sto­ry, The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds. At the con­clu­sion of sto­ry­time, fam­i­lies were instruct­ed to par­tic­i­pate in a vari­ety of STEM activ­i­ties includ­ing an art project, explor­ing the STEM back­packs, and a sci­ence exper­i­ment. All fam­i­lies were giv­en a tote bag with col­or­ing sheets, a book­mark, and a free book. Here is the link to her pro­gram.  Please note that due to COVID-19, we are migrat­ing this pro­gram to a ful­ly online pro­gram. Addi­tion­al updates and pro­grams will be post­ed this fall.

Key Resources Rec­om­mend­ed by Dr. Beecher 

Sign up for the Vroom app

PBS kids

Sci­ence of Parenting

The fol­low­ing are the steps to help you cre­ate your own Lit­tle Engines program:

Step 1: The Layout 

It is impor­tant to con­sid­er the lay­out for this pro­gram. Some ques­tions to con­sid­er include:

  1. What ear­ly child­hood mes­sages do I want to send to par­ents? What are the key top­ics I want to focus on?
  2. How do I want to share these mes­sages? Do I want to record these mes­sages, or do I want to share them live via Face­book Live?
  3. How many times per month do I want to do this pro­gram, and will it be tied to a reg­u­lar­ly sched­uled program?

Step 2: Need­ed Equipment 

A key part of the Lit­tle Engines pro­gram is the use of a vir­tu­al plat­form to reach fam­i­lies. For this pro­gram, we pur­chased a tri­pod to fit both a tablet and a cell­phone so we can record these videos. How­ev­er, you could use a web­cam and con­nect a lap­top or desk­top com­put­er to record the videos. You will need to have access to a strong WiFi or eth­er­net for live videos.

Step 3: Record­ing Platforms

The fol­low­ing is a list of record­ing platforms:

  1. Face­book Live
  2. Zoom
  3. Google Hang­out
  4. Web­room

Step 4: Find­ing Presenters

For this pro­gram, the pre­sen­ters we locat­ed were from a vari­ety of sec­tors includ­ing edu­ca­tion, health, parks and recre­ation, emer­gency ser­vices, uni­ver­si­ties, and ear­ly child­hood com­mit­tees. It is impor­tant for me to empha­size that the pre­sen­ters for the Lit­tle Engines pro­gram have expe­ri­ence speak­ing with peo­ple; how­ev­er, they may not have expe­ri­ence on cam­era. It is impor­tant to reas­sure them and help pro­vide guid­ance through­out this process. The fol­low­ing is a short list of pre­sen­ters to whom we will reach out to par­tic­i­pate in the Lit­tle Engines program:

  1. Iowa State Uni­ver­si­ty School of Education
  2. Boone Iowa Coun­ty Conservation
  3. Ear­ly Child­hood Iowa board
  4. Iowa Asso­ci­a­tion for the Edu­ca­tion of Young Chil­dren play committee
  5. Boone Coun­ty Hospital
  6. Blank Children’s Hospital
  7. Reach Out and Read Iowa
  8. Iowa Pub­lic Television
  9. Boone Humane Society
  10. State Library of Iowa

Step 5: The Program

The Lit­tle Engines pro­gram has two phas­es. The first phase includes an inter­view between me, on pub­lic tele­vi­sion, and the month­ly guest speak­er. This inter­view focus­es on ask­ing the speak­er spe­cif­ic ques­tions relat­ing to fam­i­ly engage­ment. The objec­tive for this inter­view is to pro­vide par­ents an under­stand­ing of the top­ic, resources avail­able to them and their child to learn more about this top­ic, and ideas on how they can engage with their child. The sec­ond phase is the pro­gram and some ques­tions to con­sid­er include:

  1. What are spe­cif­ic top­ics that are in high demand for the fam­i­lies you serve? Some exam­ples include healthy eat­ing or the impor­tance of phys­i­cal activity.
  2. What space do you have avail­able to host this pro­gram and is it pos­si­ble to mod­i­fy this space to meet the need of the partner?
  3. What will engage­ment between chil­dren and fam­i­lies include? For exam­ple, what activ­i­ties can the part­ner pro­vide in their pro­gram to encour­age this engagement?
  4. How can we mod­i­fy the pro­gram to meet a vir­tu­al platform?
  5. If pos­si­ble, what give­aways can you pro­vide to fam­i­lies, i.e., books, book­marks, a tote bag, and/or a make-and-take craft?

Step 6: Advertisement 

To adver­tise this pro­gram, we worked with Iowa Pub­lic Tele­vi­sion to cre­ate a logo to include on posters and news­pa­per arti­cles. We adver­tised on the local radio sta­tion, local news­pa­per, on our Face­book page and the com­mu­ni­ty Face­book page, with the local school dis­trict, and the local human ser­vices com­mit­tee. Can­va is an excel­lent tool for us to use to cre­ate mar­ket­ing mate­ri­als at no cost. 

Key Books Used for this Program

Five books used in the program


Words of Wisdom

graduationI may nev­er be asked to give the com­mence­ment speech at my alma mater — or yours for that mat­ter. How­ev­er, just in case the oppor­tu­ni­ty presents itself, I am ready. After con­sid­er­able reflec­tion on my 25 years as an edu­ca­tor, I can sum up my mes­sage for aspir­ing teach­ers who are about to embark on a career in the class­room with the fol­low­ing words of wisdom.

#1. Prac­tice the “Art of Being”

Being avail­able, being kind, being com­pas­sion­ate, being trans­par­ent, being real, being thought­ful, and being our­selves, this is the path that leads to success.

It is so easy to get wrapped up in the “doing” when it comes to teach­ing. Once you jump on that tread­mill with your to-do list in hand, it can be dif­fi­cult to stop and rest. How­ev­er, it is the art of being that will lay the foun­da­tion for build­ing rela­tion­ships with stu­dents, par­ents and col­leagues. It is those rela­tion­ships that will play the most impor­tant role in your suc­cess as an educator.

#2. Devel­op Sta­mi­na and Speed

Be pre­pared to devel­op a com­bi­na­tion of these two con­tra­dic­to­ry but essen­tial skills. You will quick­ly real­ize that some aspects of teach­ing require you to go the dis­tance (bath­room breaks will be few and far between). At the very same time you will often need to train like you’re com­pet­ing for a spot in the Guin­ness Book of World Records (not every­one can eat an entire lunch and go to the bath­room in 20 min­utes or less).

#3. Mis­takes Are Okay

Beautiful Oops!The love­ly lit­tle book Beau­ti­ful Oops! by Bar­ney Saltzberg, offers a pro­found truth — mis­takes are much more than acci­dents or mishaps. They are oppor­tu­ni­ties to turn blun­ders into won­ders. Cre­ate a class­room cli­mate that embraces try­ing, fail­ing, and learn­ing from those errors. Set the tone for your stu­dents by cel­e­brat­ing those beau­ti­ful oops that all of us make so that every­one knows that no one is perfect.

#4. Find a “Marigold”

Sev­er­al years ago, Jen­nifer Gon­za­lez offered this wise advice to those just start­ing out:

Just like a young seedling grow­ing in a gar­den, thriv­ing in your first year depends large­ly on who you plant your­self next to… Among com­pan­ion plants, the marigold is one of the best: It pro­tects a wide vari­ety of plants from pests and harm­ful weeds.”

Seek out some­one who will serve as the type of men­tor who will sup­port you with pos­i­tiv­i­ty. Find a men­tor who will not hes­i­tate to show you the ropes, answer ques­tions and offer reas­sur­ance — you will nev­er regret spend­ing time with a marigold.

#5.  Words Mat­ter, Choose Them Carefully

Choice Words Opening MindsChoice Words and Open­ing Minds by Peter John­ston are two of the best books I’ve ever read about the impor­tant role that lan­guage plays in our efforts to reach stu­dents and pos­i­tive­ly impact their learn­ing. Both books are full of insight­ful exam­ples of how what we say (or don’t say) can make a dra­mat­ic dif­fer­ence in the lives of students. 

#6. Par­ents Are Our Part­ners — It Is Not “Us” Ver­sus “Them”

Dear ParentsToo often edu­ca­tors make hasty judg­ments about what appears to be a lack of inter­est or involve­ment on the part of par­ents. When issues flare with a stu­dent, the blame game may sur­face and the ten­sion mounts. One of the great­est invest­ments any teacher can make is to devel­op strong com­mu­ni­ca­tion and rap­port with par­ents. It’s not enough to sim­ply say you val­ue par­ent input, it is nec­es­sary to cul­ti­vate a sense of team­work and mutu­al respect.  Check out Dear Par­ents: From Your Child’s Lov­ing Teacher (Hand­book for Effec­tive Team­work) by Dana Arias for a won­der­ful col­lec­tion of let­ters that pro­mote a true alliance between edu­ca­tors and parents.

#7. Net­work, Con­nect, or Get “Linked In”

Social media offers an end­less nexus of pro­fes­sion­al groups. Dig­i­tal natives will have no trou­ble seek­ing out and min­gling online with oth­er edu­ca­tors who share the same inter­ests and frus­tra­tions yet may offer a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive or approach. In addi­tion to the vir­tu­al world of net­work­ing, don’t hes­i­tate to join orga­ni­za­tions that meet face to face, offer­ing high qual­i­ty and ongo­ing pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment. State and nation­al chap­ters of the Inter­na­tion­al Lit­er­a­cy Asso­ci­a­tion (ILA), Nation­al Coun­cil of Teach­ers of Eng­lish (NCTE), Nation­al Coun­cil of Teach­ers of Math­e­mat­ics (NCTM) and the Asso­ci­a­tion of Super­vi­sion and Cur­ricu­lum Devel­op­ment (ASCD), to name a few, are incred­i­bly valu­able resources. 

#8. Expect to Be Overwhelmed

Rose-col­ored glass­es don’t make an attrac­tive fash­ion acces­so­ry for edu­ca­tors. The real­i­ty of this chal­leng­ing career is that it is and might always be over­whelm­ing. The teacher’s job is tough and it is not for the faint of heart. Despite this fact, the rewards most def­i­nite­ly out­weigh the demands (take extra notice of #9 and #10 to coun­ter­act #8)!

#9. Be Patient with Yourself

Patience is not the abil­i­ty to wait, but the abil­i­ty to keep a good atti­tude while wait­ing.” —Joyce Meyer

You and your craft are a work in progress. It will take time to learn the art and mag­ic of bal­anc­ing cur­ricu­lum, tech­nol­o­gy, class­room man­age­ment, assess­ments, and effec­tive teach­ing strate­gies. You’ll like­ly be your own tough­est crit­ic. Strive to find the bal­ance between main­tain­ing a sense of urgency and stop­ping long enough to appre­ci­ate the fun and humor that wig­gles its way into your class­room thanks to the mar­velous lit­tle peo­ple you will be spend­ing your days with.

#10. Find Joy Every Day 

Be HappyBe Hap­py! by Mon­i­ca Shee­han offers excel­lent sug­ges­tions for stay­ing focused on the sim­plest of things … make friends, dance, dream big, be brave, along with a trea­sure trove of oth­er ideas. Read this lit­tle gem on the first day of school, the last day of school and lots of days in between. It is a mas­ter­piece and might just be the blue­print for a tru­ly sat­is­fy­ing life for all human beings.


La Escuela Primaria: A Visit to Cuba

school gardenThis past Feb­ru­ary, my hus­band and I trav­eled to Cuba on an eleven-day tour. Near the end of the trip, we drove from the cen­tral city of Cam­agüey to vis­it a ranch. After a two-hour dri­ve, our bus bounced down a long dirt road and passed under a wood­en sign that resem­bled a gate in an old west­ern, telling us we had reached “The King Ranch.” Sheep, goats, and cat­tle grazed on dry, scrub­by brush, in fields that lined both sides of the road.

We drew up near the ranch’s main build­ing. The ranch man­ag­er who wel­comed us was flu­ent in Eng­lish. He told us that Mr. King — the same wealthy Tex­an who once devel­oped a mil­lion-acre ranch in the U.S — had bought 40,000 hectares of land in Cuba before the Rev­o­lu­tion. At its height, the ranch boast­ed 20,000 head. When Cas­tro came to pow­er, the ranch passed into gov­ern­ment hands, as did all land and pri­vate busi­ness­es on the island. Now the ranch sup­ports 3,000 ani­mals and a vil­lage of about 130 people.

Our vis­it to the ranch includ­ed a small rodeo, where a few vaque­ros, rid­ing small cow ponies, com­pet­ed in calf and bull rop­ing as well as bull rid­ing. One stocky cow­boy man­aged to stay aboard a buck­ing bull for fif­teen sec­onds before being tossed to the ground. He scram­bled to his feet and dust­ed him­self off, unhurt.

After the show end­ed, we climbed into horse-drawn wag­ons that car­ried us to the vil­lage. As we approached a cir­cle of small, thatch-roofed cot­tages, a few kids ran along next to our car­riages, call­ing out to us. Why weren’t they in school?

Before we could ask, our hors­es drew up in front of a tiny, two-room school build­ing. We gath­ered in a gar­den out­side, dec­o­rat­ed with col­or­ful, hand­made sculp­tures of ani­mals and insects. Our guide explained that the teach­ing prin­ci­pal had just been select­ed as Teacher of the Year for all of Cuba. This hon­or meant that the school would host a local dis­trict meet­ing the next day. School had been can­celled to allow a team of teach­ers and par­ents to spruce up the build­ing, set up dis­plays, and sweep out the two small rooms where chil­dren in grades K‑4 were edu­cat­ed. In a nar­row hall, a par­ent was dust­ing and arrang­ing a few dozen books on a nar­row shelf that made up the school’s entire bib­liote­ca.

Mom with Books

Bib­liote­ca (school library): pho­to by John Fischer

 An out­side observ­er might think these chil­dren were deprived. After all, their homes were small sim­ple struc­tures, with dirt floors and thatched roofs. Except for the main ranch build­ing, none of these homes were built to sur­vive a hur­ri­cane. I also won­dered how the school man­aged with so few books and mate­ri­als. Yet the teach­ing prin­ci­pal (speak­ing through a trans­la­tor) was proud of his school’s suc­cess. He spoke of the ben­e­fits chil­dren gain when dif­fer­ent ages learn and work togeth­er. He also explained that par­ents are very involved in their children’s education.

Cuban home

Farm worker’s home: pho­to by Mar­tin Crossland

Cuba prizes its chil­dren. The coun­try boasts one of the world’s high­est lit­er­a­cy rates. Children’s health and edu­ca­tion are a top pri­or­i­ty. Through­out our trav­els, we saw chil­dren who appeared healthy, well-fed, and hap­py. On school days, chil­dren wear uni­forms accord­ing to grade lev­el: red and white for pri­ma­ry school; yel­low and white for mid­dle school; brown and white for high school; and dark and light blue for high­er edu­ca­tion. Their uni­forms are clean, bright, and serviceable.

Health care is free for all, new moth­ers can take a year’s mater­ni­ty leave, and the state pro­vides free day­care from six months to age five or six. Edu­ca­tion is free, from kinder­garten through uni­ver­si­ty or tech­ni­cal school, and grad­u­ate school.

La Escuela Primaria

Escuela Pri­maria: pho­to by Suzanne Raley

Although this vil­lage is twen­ty-one kilo­me­ters from the near­est town, nurs­es and doc­tors vis­it reg­u­lar­ly, and ranch chil­dren receive the same edu­ca­tion and fol­low the same cur­ricu­lum as their peers in city class­rooms. Twice a week, teach­ers make the long trip to give lessons in art, music, and com­put­er sci­ence. The prin­ci­pal showed us a first grade note­book where a child had writ­ten long para­graphs in per­fect cursive.

Cursive Writing

Dic­ta­do (dic­ta­tion): pho­to by Suzanne Raley

Dis­plays on the wall demon­strat­ed sci­ence projects and geog­ra­phy. Chil­dren leave the ranch in fifth grade to board with fam­i­lies in a larg­er town, four nights a week. There, their learn­ing con­tin­ues, through high school and beyond if that is what they choose.

After our tour, I walked back to the main house with our guide and the vaque­ro who had demon­strat­ed bull rid­ing. I learned that he and his daugh­ter, now 17, were both born in the vil­lage and edu­cat­ed at the vil­lage school. His daugh­ter was now fin­ish­ing high school and would enter med­ical school in the fall. He was proud of her accom­plish­ment, but he spoke as if it wasn’t unusual.

Of course, Cuba has enor­mous eco­nom­ic prob­lems. Though cit­i­zens are well-edu­cat­ed, they work for pal­try salaries and may not find jobs that allow them to use their exper­tise and train­ing. Their lives are con­strict­ed in ways that we would find oppres­sive. But as our bus drove away from the ranch, I thought of the stun­ning and inspir­ing art exhibits, con­certs, and dance per­for­mances we had seen in every city on our tour, which demon­strat­ed the val­ue Cuba places on the arts. This was in sharp con­trast to our schools, where the arts often dis­ap­pear when bud­gets are tight. I thought of city schools in Amer­i­ca with over­crowd­ed class­rooms that lack basic mate­ri­als, and teach­ers who are poor­ly paid and dis­re­spect­ed. What if our coun­try val­ued its chil­dren, their health, nutri­tion, and edu­ca­tion, as high­ly as Cubans do?

The Cubans we met were warm, wel­com­ing, and informed. They asked knowl­edge­able ques­tions about our upcom­ing elec­tions. Cubans hope — as we do — that the rap­proche­ment begun by Pres­i­dent Oba­ma will con­tin­ue to grow and heal the rift between our two coun­tries. Many Amer­i­cans like to boast that our nation is the wealth­i­est in the world. Still, we have much to learn from this fas­ci­nat­ing, croc­o­dile-shaped island.


Teaching the Future

by Rob Reid

Animal Shenanigans

Ani­mal Shenani­gans, Rob Rei­d’s lat­est resource book for teach­ers, par­ents, and librarians.

I am for­tu­nate to teach three sec­tions of children’s lit­er­a­ture each semes­ter to future ele­men­tary teach­ers, future spe­cial edu­ca­tion teach­ers, and future librar­i­ans. It’s tru­ly a fun gig. I was asked by the Bookol­o­gy folks to share those books and top­ics I teach to these bud­ding professionals.

I open each semes­ter by intro­duc­ing myself and read­ing my cur­rent favorite inter­ac­tive pic­ture book. The last few years, it has been Press Here by Hervé Tul­let and the stu­dents are delight­ed to know such a book like this exists. I then ask them to tell me what comes to mind when I say, “Children’s Books.” I write their respons­es on the board and…the same titles appear year after year. Titles from their school years: Arthur, Amelia Bedelia, Mag­ic Tree­house, Har­ry Pot­ter, Dr. Seuss — the usu­al sus­pects. All good choic­es but no sur­pris­es and noth­ing recent­ly pub­lished. That’s my job then for the next 15 weeks: com­bine his­to­ry of children’s lit­er­a­ture with the best of the new­er stuff, so they can share those with kids down the road.

Next, we look at cur­rent trends in children’s pub­lish­ing: trends I pick up from Pub­lish­ers Week­ly, the Coöper­a­tive Children’s Book Cen­ter, the Amer­i­can Library Asso­ci­a­tion, and my own obser­va­tions. We also look at the cur­rent NY Times best­seller lists for pic­ture books, mid­dle grade books, and series. I read a few of those best­selling pic­ture books to the class as well as selec­tions of the chap­ter books. (I read aloud children’s books to my col­lege stu­dents pret­ty much every class session.)

I con­trast what sells with what wins the numer­ous awards: quan­ti­ty vs. qual­i­ty (and luck­i­ly, the two go togeth­er with many titles) and how kids need to be exposed to all. Over the semes­ter, my stu­dents learn what the fol­low­ing awards are for, who are the most recent win­ners, and many of the notable past win­ners: New­bery (and I share my own expe­ri­ence being on that com­mit­tee), Calde­cott, Geisel, Coret­ta Scott King, Pura Bel­pré, Amer­i­can Indi­an Youth Lit­er­a­ture, Scott O’Dell, Sib­ert, Orbis Pic­tus, and the Schnei­der Fam­i­ly Award.

Sibk_wonder_140nce that last award orig­i­nat­ed at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin-Eau Claire, where I teach, and because I have many spe­cial edu­ca­tion stu­dents, we put spe­cial empha­sis on this award that rec­og­nizes por­tray­als of peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties. As a class, we all read Won­der by R.J. Pala­cio (before that it was Rules by Cyn­thia Lord) and I will also be adding El Deafo by Cece Bell this upcom­ing year as a required read to rep­re­sent graph­ic nov­els (I have been using the first Baby­mouse and the first Lunch Lady as exam­ples of ele­men­tary school graph­ic novels).

The oth­er required read is Love That Dog, and I intro­duce the oth­er works of Sharon Creech and Wal­ter Dean Myers (who is a fic­tion­al­ized char­ac­ter of him­self in the book). We look at dozens of poet­ry books not writ­ten by Shel Sil­ver­stein (and I have some good Sil­ver­stein anec­dotes to share) and learn ways to make poet­ry fun for kids.

Out of My MindStu­dents pick an elec­tive chap­ter book from a list I pro­vide (which includes Roll of Thun­der Hear My Cry, Out of My Mind, Joey Pigza Swal­lowed the Key, Al Capone Does My Shirts, Cora­line, Tale of Des­pereaux, Princess Acad­e­my, Eli­jah of Bux­ton, and sev­er­al more) and they cre­ate a lit­er­a­ture activ­i­ty guide to go with their novel.

Stu­dents draw the name of a children’s illus­tra­tor and put togeth­er a Pow­er­Point to share with the class what they learned about the var­i­ous artis­tic ele­ments present in the pic­ture books.

We also look at the time­line of diver­si­ty in children’s lit­er­a­ture, tra­di­tion­al folk­lore from around the world, fan­ta­sy and sci­ence fic­tion, con­tro­ver­sial books, infor­ma­tion­al books and biogra­phies, easy read­ers and bridge books, real­is­tic fic­tion, his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, and Min­neso­ta and Wis­con­sin book cre­ators (since most of my stu­dents are from these two states and we have so many tal­ent­ed, pub­lished, award-win­ning authors and illus­tra­tors here).

Each stu­dent also has to tell an oral sto­ry to the class based on a folk­tale. They are sent to the 398 sec­tion of the library to look through both the pic­ture book edi­tions and antholo­gies of folk­tales, learn one, and share it with­out notes.

We fin­ish the semes­ter with com­pet­i­tive rounds of Kid­die Lit Jeop­ardy, they fill out their stu­dent eval­u­a­tions that all read “This was a lot of work!” and I send them off to explore the remain­ing 99% of the won­der­ful children’s books we did­n’t have time to cov­er in class.



Books Plus: The Goods by McSweeney’s

The Goods by McSweeney’s:
Games and Activ­i­ties for Big Kids,
Lit­tle Kids, and Medi­um-Size Kids

edit­ed by Mac Bar­nett and Bri­an McMullen
fea­tur­ing Adam Rex, Jon Sci­esz­ka, and more
Big Pic­ture Press, an imprint of Can­dlewick Press, 2013 For your hol­i­day gift-giv­ing consideration … An over­sized book filled with every imag­in­able dis­trac­tion, this should be on every family’s hol­i­day gift list.… more

What’s got my dander up?

I can’t decide whether I’m angry or sad. When Steve and I trav­el around the coun­try, we stop in at book­stores and pub­lic libraries and schools, observ­ing the state of chil­dren’s books in those envi­ron­ments. We talk with book­sellers, librar­i­ans, and teach­ers. Some peo­ple are aware of our con­nec­tion to chil­dren’s books … some are not. We’ve found it a good way to “take the tem­per­a­ture” of books and read­ing, sub­jects upper­most in our lives and work.… more