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“Odette’s Secrets” Lyrical and Hauntingly Lovely

24 Sep

Odette's Secrets

I read Odette’s Secrets in an evening, drawn in by it’s lyrical prose and unique perspective on a child survivor of the Holocaust, and found Maryann Macdonald’s novel deserving of a spot on the shelf next to Number the Stars if not quite Anne Frank.

The book is inspired by the real life of Odette Meyers, a young Jewish girl growing up in Paris whose father is taken away to the Nazi work camps. Her mother joins the resistance, and sends Odette to live in the French Countryside, where she pretends to be Catholic and lives with a family there.

The book is written in free verse, all in the voice of Odette, which means it looks at the horrors of the Holocaust through the lens of a child’s innocence. Odette’s family was culturally Jewish but not religious, and she is charmed by the rituals of the Catholic school she hides in, even as she wrestles with what it means to be Jewish.

After I gave a book talk on it to my class, I was surprised to see one of my boys who usually gravitates towards NBA player biographies had checked out Odette’s Secrets for his Readers’ Workshop selection. For the next few days, it was in his hands every time he had a free second — I would catch him with it in his lap, sneaking looks at it even when he was supposed to be doing other things.

I never once considered stopping him. When a basketball-playing boy from Texas is connecting with a girl of the Holocaust through a novel written in poetry, that is a sacred space.

More resources about Odette’s Secrets can be found here.

Diving into “The Neptune Project”

15 Sep

The Neptune Project

Texas Bluebonnet Award nominee The Neptune Project left me with a funny taste in my mouth, and not just from imagining the fish-flavored power bars the genetically altered children eat as they adjust to life underwater.

Overall, the book is an extremely captivating read. Author Polly Holyoke has created a clever new twist on the dystopian novel by setting it underwater. A group of children discover early in the book that their parents allowed them to be genetically altered with fish genes that allow them to escape the Orwellian chaos above ground and create a new world as the first humans to live under the sea.

Nere, the book’s protagonist, has always wondered why her eyes don’t see well on land, and why a short run has her wheezing. She finds out when her mother tells her that thanks to some fancy gene-splicing, she’s been growing in readiness for her transformation. Obviously, Nere has some mixed feelings about this. She loves the dolphins she’s been training all her life, but she is still resentful at being a real-life little mermaid experiment.

If the book had stuck to that theme, as Nere battles her feelings about her parents and the project and must become a leader to the group of similarly-spliced children as they escape from both sharks and human predators, I would have been thrilled with its inclusion as a Texas Bluebonnet Award nominee.

But Nere is also caught in the middle of a developing love triangle between  Dai, the loner renegade of the undersea group, and Tobin, the group’s caring and gentle medic. In one scene towards the end, she swims off with Dai for what turns to a session of kissing in the reef. Dai gets a little too rough, and has to break away to chill his gills, and this great read suddenly turns into 50 shades of Bella Swan and Edward Cullen.

Being a Bluebonnet nominee means this book is being talked up in nearly every elementary-school library in the state, and therein lies my problem. The love interest sub-plot isn’t necessary for the story, and really doesn’t need to be part of a book targeted to elementary schoolers. A crush is one thing. Getting crushed up against the reef by an uncontrolled kiss is another, and it will keep me from enthusiastically recommending this one to my 4th graders.

For older grades, though, the book has lots to recommend, and the Bluebonnet Award committee has put together some great links and resources for students whose appetite for more infomation is whetted — or “wetted” — by the undersea adventure.

The Neptune Project Resource Page

Scholastic, I Don’t Know If We Can Be BFFs

21 Feb

One of my favorite things about elementary school, besides the fact that the paste in the ’70s tasted like mint, was getting the Scholastic book order forms. I would pore over the catalog, optimistically marking a dozen books. My parents would wheedle me down to two or three favorites, and then, we would wait.

Book order day was like having Christmas in the classroom. Nothing smells quite like a new book — scented with just-dried ink and a whiff of adventure.

As a teacher, I still love the Scholastic order forms. My students can’t all afford to buy books, but every month, Scholastic catalogs offer a $1 book, and I always buy a class set so we can explore a new book together.

This month, I was especially excited to get a catalog  featuring just books on math and science.

Until I saw this:

Girls who like math are nwe

Girls who like math are nerds. Girls who twirl batons are ditzy!

“The Clueless Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Genius.”

Because, you know, the way we need to market science and math to girls is by offering not an experiment kit or a calculator, but two sparkly  “BFF” necklaces.  And the girl who is into math is a “nerd,” while the girl who twirls batons is a “ditz.” Because apparently smart girls are unattractive nerds and pretty girls are stupid.

(I did find part of the advertisement helpful, though — the warning about a choking hazard. Because I was like, totally fighting a gag reflex.)

An educational publishing powerhouse like Scholastic can do better for our girls.  Better than a catalog that only offers biographies of Einstein and the Wright Brothers. Better than the book and LEGO sets for boys “teaming up to save the world,”  while the ones for girls invite you to “adopt a pet, go camping, plan a surprise party.”

The catalog offers plenty of great books to stir interest in STEM for boys and girls. I’ll still spend way more money than I should, and I will still think “new book day,” is the best day of the month.

But Scholastic, if we’re going to be BFFs, maybe you need to read “The Clueless Publishing House’s Guide to Being a Genius,” and give girls something challenging to wrap their brains around instead of something sparkly to wrap around their necks.

Taming the Five Monsters of the Homework Wars

16 Oct

If you have school-age children, you know it’s not just Halloween goblins that go haunting this time of year. At kitchen tables and bedroom desks across the country, the Homework Apocalypse is going on like a B-grade horror movie. The bargaining, the crying, the never-ending whining.

And that’s just the parents.

homework wars

Otherwise lovable children can morph into monsters at homework time. Perhaps you’ve met some of them – the Time-Wasting Tornado, the Seat Shifter, The Perfection Piranha. Maybe you’re more familiar with the Defeated Dragon or the Great Pretender. All five homework monsters have appeared in our kitchen, gobbling up free time and turning evenings into a battleground.

But they’re not invincible. A few battle tactics can have you banishing the monsters and winning the homework wars.

The Time-Eating Tornado

The Time-Eating Tornado never met an excuse he couldn’t use to postpone the start of actually working on those assignments. Dull pencil, uncomfortable chair, hunger pains, unquenchable thirst… you name it, it can be used to stretch a 15-minute assignment into an hour.

But you can cut this homework monster off at the knees with a well-equipped homework bunker. Before school even gets started, set up a homework zone stocked with any supplies your child might need: pencils, sharpener, paper, pens. Sunday afternoons, take a few minutes to restock and make sure you are ready for the week ahead.

If you have a master procrastinator, you’ll need to move beyond the basics. At our house, it never fails that as soon as my son sits down, he will suddenly be hungry. It does not matter if he has just polished off a large pizza, a foot-long sandwich, and a side of beef! Homework elicits new pangs of starvation. So at our house, the homework zone is stocked with a healthy snack basket and has bottled water on hand.

The Seat Shifter

The Seat Shifter is a close cousin of the Time-Eating Tornado. She can’t get started because she can’t sit still long enough to pick up a pencil, and she’s got more wiggles than Shakira in the dance club remix of “Hips Don’t Lie.”

But you don’t need a seat belt or duct tape to get the wiggler under control and on task. Instead, think about ditching the chair altogether and have them do their homework sitting on a balance ball. A Mayo Clinic study in 2007 showed kids with attention-span challenges who used the balance balls had better focus and more productivity.

You can also create a “brain break” jar  for the homework zone. On popsicle sticks, write activities like “do 10 jumping jacks” or “dance party,” and when the Seat Shifter starts wiggling, have them draw a stick and get moving for a minute. It can also help to make sure homework time doesn’t start until after your child has had some time for active play.

The Perfection Piranha

High standards are important, but some children are so worried about getting their homework exactly right that they just don’t get going for fear of getting something wrong. Or, they constantly re-start projects that don’t meet their standards.

As a kindergartener, my daughter worked for hours one evening decorating a letter “M” that represented her first name. But after we’d glue-gunned, glittered and bedazzled every inch of the letter, she suddenly decided something was not quite right. Before I could grab it, the “M” was crumpled into a ball of defeat and tossed into the trash.

You can quiet the Perfection Piranha by setting limits on homework time when done means done. Make sure you are praising the work your child puts in, not just the grade he or she gets, and model gracious mistake-making so your child learns to deal with defeat.

The Defeated Dragon

For children who struggle in school, homework time can feel like an extended jail sentence. Before they ever pick up a pencil, they feel defeated. The homework looks too hard, too long, and too overwhelming.

To give the Defeated Dragon back his fire, divide and conquer. If your child is overwhelmed at the idea of a 30-question practice worksheet, don’t be afraid to get out your scissors and actually cut the worksheet into smaller sections, and give them to your child a few questions at a time. You can tape it back together before it’s turned in.

Celebrate these “mini-victories” with homework breaks, and applaud effort, not just right answers.

The Great Pretender

The Great Pretender can appear to be the model student. As soon as he or she gets home from school, they head right to their room and sit down at their desk with books and notebooks out, laptop fired up to tackle their latest assignment.

Three hours later, they have nothing to show for their hard work – unless you count five Facebook updates, three selfies posted to Instagram, 12 text messages to friends and a notebook full of anime sketches as academic progress.

To unmask the pretender, let them choose between two strategies. Either set up a homework zone where you can monitor their progress. Or, if you want to respect their choice to work alone in their room, set a kitchen timer with check-ins every 15-20 minutes so you can know they are mixing in a fair amount of work with the play.

Plan for Success

No matter which monster shows up at your house during homework time, a little preplanning, consistency with expectations, and a positive outlook can help you send them packing for good, and bring back a peaceful co-existence to homework time.

Life Sentences

6 Sep

The assignment:

Using one of these sentence stubs as a starter, write out a sentence on a strip of paper.

Once when I was little…

I wish I knew…

If I had a superpower…

I thought today…

I like…

One day I will…

We all taped them up around the room, and then walked around, reading and getting ideas for future stories.

Some were hilarious.

“Once when I was little I ate dog poo because I thought it was chocolate.”

Some, beautiful.

“Once when I was little I danced in my mother’s high heels while she smiled and watched.”

Some, amazing.

“If I had a superpower it would be telekinesis so I could clean my room without getting up.”

Some, really weird.

“Once when I was little I thought I was a werewolf because I ate like a dog and ate meat and then I thought I was a shark because I like to swim and STOP STARING AT ME.”

Some simple.

“I like strawberry ice cream because it is so sweet and cold.”

Some have me sitting at my desk long after the bell, praying for children who lay their hearts bare on strips of paper.

“I wish I knew when my mom was coming home.”

Life sentences.

What’s yours?

Still My Favorite

22 Aug

Meet the teacher night is almost over.

The now too-tall stack of crayon boxes teeters dangerously. Kleenex Box Mountain dwarfs the desk. The hand-shaking, smiling, sizing-up session is just  about over when the twins from my first year stick their heads in the door.

The girl throws her arms around me without hesitation. But her brother hangs back until I ask “are you still at the hugging age?”

“Oh yes ma’am, always.”

I remember a day when we’d drawn swords, faced off. He went to the next class angry. But later, a fire drill sent us bumping into the same hall.

I patted his shoulder, whispered “you’re still my favorite.”

He had tried to play it off saying, “everyone’s your favorite.”

But his voice broke, tears came, and he threw his arms around me, repeating “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.”

“Me, too,” I said, as the fierce relief of forgiveness welled up in my throat. “I’m sorry I let you leave mad.”

This night, three years later, we talk about books and band and middle school.

“We still talk about your class all the time, about how much fun we had in here,” his twin sister says.

Then the principal is on the loudspeaker thanking everyone for coming, their mom calling for them down the hall.

“You’re still my favorites,” I tell them, as they’re running out the door.

He calls back over his shoulder…

“Everyone’s your favorite.”

Collecting Carrots

5 Oct

An early release day meant we all ate lunch in the classroom today, kids filing into the cafeteria to pick up sad little sack lunches of peanut butter and jelly “uncrustable” sandwiches, cheese stick, apple, baggie of baby carrots, milk — chocolate or regular.

The two or three kids with lunches packed from home were flooded with offers to trade something, anything, my kingdom for a few Pringles, oh my gosh you have Pringles, I will be your friend and you can have my Xbox if only you will share your amazing wonderful Pringles.

The kids gathered in clumps, some giddy at being able to eat on the rug in the classroom library, some holding court at my U-shaped table for small group reading, a few gathering around my desk to keep me from feeling “lonely.”

Miss? Can we grade spelling tests, file papers, have a sticker, braid your hair?

I love unplugged moments like this, unencumbered by assignments and tests, please don’t talk while I’m talking, line up in ABC order, don’t make me sign your agenda.

Just magical, awkward fifth graders trying so hard to keep their balance teetering on the edge of adolescence.

Then I spotted him.

Collecting carrots.

Most of the kids had tossed them aside, the orange scourge of the sack lunch. But he was carefully gleaning the carrots from the abondoned bags, filling up a sack to slip in his backpack. I said nothing, but stopped a few kids who were throwing out apples.

“Just put those here on my desk.”

Later, with a conspiratorial wink, I tucked them in alongside his carrot stash. After school, I watched him show his little sister the bounty of his foraging.

I went back into the school, smiled through a dozen parent conferences, graded a few hundred papers, grabbed a quick dinner with co-workers.

Then, driving home, remembered the carrot collector, pulled off the road, and sobbed until my head hurt and no more tears would come.

They weren’t really for my carrot collector. I can make calls, get help, make sure he always goes home with a backpack of food.

I saw him.

But in a crowded classroom, a daily agenda packed with test worries and paperwork requirements… who slips by? Who is the child overlooked, unnoticed… left behind.

This is what I want to tell my legislators and policy makers.

While you chase rabbit trails of better tests and more tests and higher-stakes tests, you are losing sight of the carrot collectors, our most vulnerable children who will never achieve academic excellence when they are hungry and struggling to have basic needs met.

Maybe they need more rigor and RTI, but more than that, they need more teachers in smaller classrooms, so that someone sees it when they are gathering snacks to survive the weekend, when they are teary every other Friday because the parent with custody that weekend is dangerous and threatening, when they are late to school because they can’t set an alarm when the power is turned off.

I do not fear accountability. But I want to be held accountable for the things that matter. Did I give kids the individual help they needed to succeed? Did I feed their curiosity for learning so that they see other options beyond the life they are living now?

And for God’s sake, did I notice when they were collecting carrots?

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