Monday, June 30, 2014

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This Past Week

A Rock For Ambrose was written by my high school English teacher, Loyd Hoke, Jr. It is a historical novella based on the life of his great-great grandfather Ambrose Hoke who was a Confederate soldier. Loyd used historical documents, including family letters, and combed state archives to reconstruct what happened to his ancestor. It's a heartbreaking tale that provides great insight into the life of a low level Civil War soldier. I'm so proud of Mr. Hoke!

Light Is All Around Us explains how we get light and how we can see it. There are several pieces of information in this book that were new to me. Did you know that the light from the sun measures 35 octillion lumens? That's 35 followed by 27 zeroes. The narrative is great for a K-2 nonfiction read-aloud. There are also three easy experiments in the back matter.

Kelsey Green is a third grader who is obsessed with being the top reader in her class during the school-wide reading contest. I like Kelsey because she is flawed. She is given to an occasional tantrum and doesn't always make the best choices. In other words, she's human. The book also raises some good questions about competitive reading events.

This Week

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Light Is All Around Us

Light Is All Around Us
written by Wendy Pfeffer; illustrated by Paul Meisel
2014 (Harper)
Source: Mebane Public Library

Check out Nonfiction Monday for more book reviews.

Light is found in many different forms and many different places. It travels from the sun and the stars. It lights up the sky, the sea, and                                                        our backyards.

Light Is All Around Us begins with our biggest source of light, the sun. Ninety-three million miles away, the light from the sun travels in waves of electromagnetic radiation. Light travels over 11 million miles a minute! There's a great graphic on pages 14 and 15 that shows how it compares to other things (cars, planes, sound) that travel. Light is not only fast, but it can be tremendously bright as well. Measured in lumens, light from a lightbulb measures about 1,750 lumens. Light from the sun measures 35 octillion lumens. That's 27 zeroes after the 35. That's more light than all the lightbulbs on Earth turned on simultaneously. This illustrates what I like best about this book. It has some very cool facts. I didn't even know that octillion was a number. Throw that word in a conversation and watch someone's jaw drop.

Light comes from many other sources besides the sun. Several familiar examples are presented, but one I did not know was my favorite. People in the West Indies would poke holes in gourds and put fireflies in them. This was their version of the flashlight. Very ingenious.

The last part of the book teaches readers how they are able to see light. On pages 32 and 33, there are two terrific diagrams that show the human eye and how the eye sends messages to the brain. In the back matter, you will find three simple experiments that will encourage students to think more about light.

Before reading Light Is All Around Us, I would do a circle map and ask students what could produce light. I would revisit the map as I was reading the book. I think you could also use this book to segue into a discussion of why we have day and night. If you teach a unit on light, find this book and add it to your resources.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Kelsey Green, Reading Queen

Kelsey Green, Reading Queen
written by Claudia Mills; pictures by Rob Shepperson
2013 (Farrar Straus Giroux)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Kelsey Green is a third grader who loves reading. She has a book in her lap during math, which probably isn't the best way to learn how to solve fractions and doesn't endear her to Mrs. Molina, her teacher. Fortunately for Kelsey, Mr. Boone, her jovial and bearded principal, interrupts class to announce the first annual school-wide reading contest. Among the announced rewards: the person who reads the most books in each class will have their name inscribed on a plaque. For the next month, Kelsey obsesses over this goal. In the process of trying to be the top reader, she drives her family and friends crazy. By the end of the contest, Kelsey has learned some valuable lessons and makes a surprising new friend.

One of the first things that I look for when reading a book that is based in a school is whether or not it rings true to the setting. Kelsey Green passes this test. She is not a flat character, but instead has flaws that make her more interesting. She occasionally throws tantrums and isn't always the nicest person. Overall, she's a great kid, but also not so great as to not be authentic. In this era of reading as competition (see Accelerated Reader, Battle of the Books, and reading-based fundraisers), some important questions are raised by reading this book. I would ask students if it was healthy for Kelsey to be part of this contest. What are some of the pros and cons of having a reading contest? I think you can also ask a question about identity. Is it healthy to tie your identity to one thing or better to be more well rounded? I like the class or small group discussions that will emanate from reading Kelsey Green. Second and third grade readers will easily connect to Kelsey and her friends which makes this a good pick for a class read aloud.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Lifetime: The Amazing Numbers in Animal Lives

Lifetime: The Amazing Numbers in Animal Lives
written by Lola M. Schaefer; illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal
2013 (Chronicle Books)
Source: Mebane Public Library

Check out STEM Friday for more book reviews.

Lifetime shows how many times a particular animal performs one behavior or grows one feature in a lifetime. 

I've been a sports fan all my life. That means I enjoy numbers and how they relate to performance. Growing up, I knew Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs in his career and cheered with my brother when Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run off Al Dowling. So when I read Lifetime, I was very interested in the numbers and what they could tell me. For example, you can make a lot of inferences with numbers. The first animal featured in this book, the cross spider, spins one egg sac in its lifetime. I think that must be one tough sac if it is going to be the only one that this spider produces. Inside that sac are 300 - 900 spiderlings. An alligator will build 22 nests and lay 550 eggs. I'm going to guess, based on the numbers, that less than 50 percent of the baby alligators survive. If more survived, we would be overrun with alligators. (I found an article at Discover Magazine that said only 10 percent end up growing to 4 feet, which makes them near invincible.) Several other animals, including woodpeckers, rattlesnakes, and dolphins, are featured in this book.

The narrative text in Lifetime is sparse and an easy read for your average second grade reader. I love this because it isn't so dense that young readers get bogged down. There are great opportunities for teaching sounds like /ir/ as in giraffe and birth. For advanced readers, the extensive back matter will satisfy their curiosity. Christopher Silas Neal's mixed media illustrations are fun because he uses the numbers in the pictures. Giraffes have 200 spots so Neal illustrates two sides of a giraffe with 200 spots. Kids will love checking to see if Neal holds to form. Lifetime is a nonfiction book that will get worn quickly because it will be passed around several times between classmates.

Monday, June 23, 2014

What I'm Reading This Week

Last Week

The remarkable Peter Sis strikes again. His illustrations are so detailed that I take it as a challenge to try and interpret everything on the pages. I knew very little about Antoine De Saint-Exupery so I enjoyed reading this text too. Pair it with The Wall if you teach older students. Don't be afraid of picture books if you teach above 4th grade. Sis's books would work well with older readers that have a sense of history.

Jason Chin rocks! If you teach K-2, you need to find this book. It's not often that an author can write a piece of nonfiction about a complex subject and break it down for the primary crowd.

This is a powerful picture book that tells the story of a group of slaves on a Texas plantation who learn of their freedom over two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was written. It's a great introduction to the holiday of Juneteenth. This book is collecting stars so it's getting a lot of deserved attention. Look for it to pick up some awards.

This Week

Claudia Mills, illustrated by Rob Shepperson Kelsey Green, Reading Queen

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Pilot and The Little Prince: The Life of Antoine De Saint-Exupery

The Pilot and the Little Prince: The Life of Antoine De Saint-Exupery
written and illustrated by Peter Sis
2014 (Frances Foster Books)
Source: Orange County Public Library

Check out Nonfiction Monday for more book reviews.

I knew Antoine De Saint-Exupery was the author of the Little Princewhich is one of the most beloved books of the twentieth century. I didn't know he was an aviation pioneer. The Pilot and the Little Prince focuses on his adventurous life on the ground and in the air. Peter Sis structures this book by providing a narrative at the bottom of the pages with a combination of illustrations, time lines, and other facts in the upper two-thirds of each page. Born in 1900, Antoine was daring at an early age. He built an unsuccessful flying machine at age 12 and also convinced a pilot to provide him with his first flight that same year. While performing his mandatory two years of military service, he learned how to pilot planes. Two years after leaving the military service, Antoine was hired by an airline that delivered mail. Flying gave him the adventure he had sought as a child. He flew in Europe, Africa, and South America delivering mail. Antoine was put in charge of an airfield in the desert and this solitude prompted him to begin writing. He wrote several well-received books for adults and continued his flying exploits including an attempt to fly from Paris to Saigon in 1935 which ended with a crash in North Africa. Antoine survived several crashes during his piloting career. With the onset of World War II in 1939, he was called up for military duty and photographed enemy locations from the air. Antoine left military service after France was occupied in 1940. Instead of staying in occupied France, he went to the United States where he wrote his most famous work. After being grounded for over two years, Antoine connected with his squadron again so he could continue flying. He set off on July 31, 1944 from Corsica to photograph enemy positions in southern France but did not return.

The illustrations in this book are amazing, but it's Peter Sis so that's expected. There is so much meaning in these pictures that you want to look again and again to catch things you might have missed the first time around. I would take The Pilot and the Little Prince, pair it with Sis's The Wall, and ask a group to find similarities and differences. In addition to the illustrations, I love how this book is structured and how it can be a model for students. I like the narrative at the bottom and the time line above. This book would be one that I would use to demonstrate how you can use a time line in a nonfiction narrative. Overall, it's a terrific book that highlights the extraordinary life of a famous author and demonstrates why Peter Sis is one of the best author/illustrators we have.

Friday, June 20, 2014


written and illustrated by Jason Chin
2014 (Roaring Brook Press)
Source: Orange County Public Library

Check out STEM Friday for more book reviews.

When reading Gravity, the first thing that struck me was the sparseness of the text. As Travis at 100 Scope Notes points out in his excellent review of this book, you just don't see a lot of good nonfiction for the early primary grades. It's a tough task to take a complex subject and break it down for our youngest students. There are only a few words on each page, but Jason Chin chooses the right words and has such rich illustrations that this is not a problem. He explains that this thing called gravity keeps objects from floating away from the Earth. Not only small objects like sand buckets and bananas, but also giant things like planets. Reading this book makes you want to say, "Phew, glad I have gravity!". Of course, I could have used a little less of it when I was playing high school basketball, but let's not go down that sad road. Chin goes on to explain that gravity not only keeps things from floating away, but within that same concept it keeps things together like the Earth near the Sun or the Moon near the Earth.

In the back matter, you will find two excellent pages that go in depth with more details about gravity. You learn why some objects have greater gravity than others and find out about the terms mass, orbit, and weight. Jason Chin does fantastic work as evidenced by his previous books. He is certainly deserving of an author study in K-2.

Here's a cool experiment that I found on the Bright Hub Education site:

Marble Dropping
Students can explore how gravity affects objects as they impact the earth in a simple experiment using flour, a baking tray and a marble. Pour enough flour into the baking pan to create a layer one-inch deep. Spread newspaper under the pan of flour to make clean-up easier. Drop the marble onto the pan of flour. Carefully remove the marble from the pan and observe the crater in the flour. Drop the marble from different heights to test if the size of the crater will change. This experiment can also be done outside with rocks and a large area of mud. This experiment will allow students to better understand what happens when a meteor hits the earth.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Poetry Friday: It's Over

Photo by Onderwijsgek

Look for Poetry Friday at Check It Out

My youngest daughter asked me if I was happy that the school year was over. I told her that happy wasn't the emotion that I was feeling. It's really strange when the school year is finished. I hope this poem shows a little of how I feel. 

It’s Over
I thought there would be joy
With the departing of each girl and boy.
But what I taste is not entirely sweet,
As I stare at each empty seat.

Almost ten months of days went by,
Teacher and students side by side.
“Will they be okay?” I wonder,
As I pick up pencils torn asunder.

All of my molecules pushed them to learn,
Now I am spent, stem to stern.
Memories are all that linger here,
The residue of another year.

With desks stacked off to the side,
And each colleague saying good-bye.
It’s time for summer, time to renew!
2013-14, I'll never forget you.

Jeff Barger © 2014

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Who's Buried in Grant's Tomb: A Tour of Presidential Gravesites

Who's Buried in Grant's Tomb: A Tour of Presidential Gravesites
written by Brian Lamb and the staff of C-SPAN
2010 (Public Affairs)
Source: I bought it!

No, a pilgrimage to a president's grave is instead a way to pay quiet tribute to all of our glorious past, to thank the militiamen who lost their lives at Bunker Hill, to honor the oratory of Patrick Henry, to salute the valor of the men who died at Iwo Jima and Midway and a hundred other flyspeck islands in the Pacific. All presidents-no matter how well they performed in office-are revered by most Americans simply because they represent our grandest           political traditions. - Douglas Brinkley (Afterword of the book)

I have an affinity for graveyards. Yes, that may make me a weirdlo but I don't care. The school where I teach is next door to one. I once bought a house a few yards from a state veterans' cemetery. So naturally I enjoyed this offering from the C-SPAN crew and friends. Brian Lamb, the face of C-SPAN, visited every presidential grave site and gives you a mix of history and travel guide for each president. You get a brief overview of the president's tenure followed by an account of his last days of life. Then, there is a list of directions showing you how to get to the grave site. Ending each section is a brief essay by Richard Norton Smith who is wickedly funny, incisive, and poignant in equal parts. What you learn is that some of these men may not be exactly who you thought they were. Calvin Coolidge has been painted as the poster boy for stoicism. He wasn't "Silent Cal" by accident. But what you may not know is that he harbored great sorrow as he lost his namesake son early in his presidency. You also learn that many animosities disappear when a president dies. Grover Cleveland, upon the death of Rutherford B. Hayes, makes a long train trip to attend Hayes's funeral. This in spite of the election of 1876 which was extremely partisan. George McGovern, asked by a rude reporter why he was attending the funeral of Richard Nixon's wife Pat, responded that you can't keep campaigning forever. Of course, for every George McGovern, there was an Andrew Jackson who delighted in the death of William Henry Harrison.

If you are interested in the lives of the presidents, pick up a copy of Who's Buried in Grant's Tomb. Below is a photograph that I took on a recent visit to Jefferson's grave site on the grounds of Monticello. Notice what he doesn't mention on his gravestone.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Summary Graphic Organizer

This pin is courtesy of Megan Leigh. It's an anchor chart for summarizing using the "Somebody, Wanted, But, So, Then" strategy. I've used this in my classroom and it works very well. I have a subscription to Time for Kids and we have summarized several articles. Here is a link to a graphic organizer (courtesy of for this strategy:

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Nonfiction Monday: Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas

Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas
written by Lynne Cox; illustrated by Brian Floca
2014 (Schwartz and Wade Books)
Source: Orange County Public Library

Check out Nonfiction Monday for more book reviews.

Elizabeth was an elephant seal who loved the waters of the Avon River which flows through Christchurch, New Zealand. At eight feet long and twelve hundred pounds, she was not exactly ladylike, but was so strong and regal that citizens named her after the Queen of England. One particular citizen, a young boy named Michael, connected with her. He walked beside the river on his way to and back from school. He would call out her name and she would snort as if to say hello. All was well until Elizabeth decided that the road was a good place to sunbathe. Her first venture to the warm asphalt caused a motorist to hit a rock and dent a fender. When news spread of this incident, it was decided that she needed to live elsewhere. Elizabeth was taken out to the ocean and a sandy beach full of elephant seals. Undaunted, she marched herself back to Christchurch and the Avon River. Once again, she placed her long body on the road and wreaked havoc on traffic. This time, the authorities took her much further away to another seal colony, but Elizabeth came back to her home place. Thinking the third time was the charm, they took her hundreds of miles away so as to make locals think that they had seen the last of her. Michael searched the waters for months with no sign of his seal friend. Then one day, she appeared with her head bobbing out of the water. This was a seal that knew where she belonged and would not be stopped.

Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas is a charming story about an animal that is determined to keep her home. Even though she is a seal, Elizabeth can teach children about determination and holding on to what you want in your life. Yes, that is a bit of anthropomorphism, but I don't think kids mind. They will enjoy this story and the wonderful illustrations from Brian Floca.

If you want more info about Elizabeth, check out this article from New Zealand: