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Book Clubs… Online??

We know and love that book clubs work. They are a wonderful way to get your friends together and talk about your favorite stories. It is beautiful to think that the book that is so closely tied to your heart is shared with a group of common minded people, a group that can be as small as one pair to millions of people around the globe. But book clubs are changing in this brave new world, and we can change along with them.

Once upon a time, we could meet on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis, snuggle on a bean bag chair or a comfy couch and sip hot chocolate while chatting with our friends about the assigned reading for the meeting. In our new normal, however, that may not be possible. That’s not to say that sipping hot chocolate is out of the question- perish the thought! But there’s more than one way to enjoy each other’s company and learn from each other.

For the past two months, I have been teaching the first of my Fantasy Book Club classes on Outschool, an online learning platform for homeschooling families. On Outschool, I am encouraged to offer focused classes on my favorite subjects rather than scrambling to teach curriculum that has been handed to me by administration. Here, I can be creative, ask critical questions of my students, and easily adapt my lessons to fit their individual needs.

One student and I tackle Lewis’ dedication to Lucy Barfield in “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.” One short paragraph can reveal so much about a child’s analytical skills.

In the three rounds of Book Clubs thus far, every group of students has approached the same text in different ways. They have tackled C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe with absolute gusto, devouring each morsel of text as if it were Turkish Delight itself. They have asked questions about race, feminism, morals and core values without realizing it and without my prompting. They have sent poor Edmund Pevensie to court and argued for a punishment for his treason or for forgiveness. One little one begged me to tell him all about the Inklings and how they met every week at The Eagle and Child, while another child wondered how the story would have changed if Peter and Susan had gone through the wardrobe first. And they have all done it from behind a screen, armed only with a camera, a microphone, and the text.

Book clubs work when the students are given the room to talk with gentle direction. Teachers and parents should work to be facilitators of book clubs and refrain from telling students what the “right answer” is. I start all of my Book Club sessions with the phrase, “who has a question for today?” Even if I get the ever popular “I don’t have a question,” I simply smile and say, “yes you do, it’s right in front of you.” I give the students the room to use questions that they have devised during their reading or to simply read from the assigned journal prompt for the week. Sometimes the question is as simple as “What the heck is a Faun?” As long as the conversation is student driven, then it will all fall into place.

I also provide a series of optional videos to watch for added enrichment and context. Some of the videos are created by me, others are from other creative people who can provide more context to the story. That way, students can have more than one avenue to explore the story.

You can start a book club through any media you desire. There are many fantastic podcasts out there, such as Mythgard Academy, The Prancing Pony Podcast, and the Lamppost Listener that delve into texts and meet weekly through an audio or video setting, such as Twitch. Many teachers on Outschool have used MMORPGs such as Minecraft to build and explore ancient civilizations or book settings to talk about their favorite subjects. Anything is possible if you can conceive it, and you can teach in an adaptable, personable way and teach the students in your community how to adapt to this changing world.

Most importantly, don’t try to adapt a brick and mortar model to the online classroom. One of the downfalls of online learning in this pandemic has been some schools’ inability or lack of resources to be flexible and adapt their curriculum to the online setting. What works in a school probably won’t work online, and trying to squeeze a square peg into a round hole does not work. Rather, reshape the round hole into a square hole. Consider how your media access lifts your curriculum rather than hinders it. Make changes, ask different questions, and provide resources for your students to learn along with you. Now, more than ever, students need to learn how to grow and change with the world, and you can grow and change along with them.

Foster community. Provide access. Talk about your books and the connections that students make with these texts. Help them lose themselves in the story and learn to love reading. Isn’t it magical?

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Announcement: Fantasy Book Club Series on Outschool!

Hello readers! I’m very excited to announce that I’ve listed my first Book Club on Outschool!

Outschool is a platform for kids ages 3-18 to take courses on their favorite subjects. It’s great for children who are home schooled or want to learn more about their favorite topics. This summer, I’m starting my Fantasy Book Club series with C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” This club meets once a week for 8 weeks, but I have multiple sections listed so that parents can choose which day works best into their schedules! During the week, students will have journal questions, optional background information videos, and other fun activities to engage them in different ways.

I’m truly excited to start this venture. My goal is to use this classic fantasy text to spark children’s imaginations and give them the opportunity to strengthen their reading, writing, and discussion skills in a fun, low stakes environment. “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” has been one of my favorite texts since I was a young child, and I can’t wait to share that joy with more students!

For more details on how the class is run, click the link here to sign up for my class!

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The Other Side of Remote Learning

This Isn’t Exactly an Ideal Situation

“There are too many equity concerns to grade remote work fairly.”

“Remote learning just doesn’t work. Kids need to be in school.”

“My kids don’t show up or turn in their work.”

“I miss my kids too much, I want to see them again.”

For the past two months, many of my colleagues and friends in the teaching world are expressing their frustration with the new remote learning mandates that are the result of mandatory social distancing and school closures. Major cities such as NYC, Los Angeles, and others are suffering especially because their budgets don’t allow for equitable learning on a regular basis. Kids are falling through the cracks and missing out on work because they don’t have phone or internet access in order to do their schoolwork.

But here’s the thing- even before COVID, this was a problem. Children in poverty or lower socioeconomic status have been cheated of a quality education time and time again. So why is remote learning getting some of the blame now?

The core of the problem is the lack of funding, and the fact that many leaders don’t understand how remote learning truly works. School budgets are consistently cut, teachers work more hours than they are paid and then receive the blame when someone’s precious angel doesn’t get a perfect passing grade. Too many school leaders are asking teachers to take their in school curriculum and magically changing it to fit the online world- but it’s a square peg in a round hole. What works in a physical classroom can and should be assessed differently and changed in order to meet online needs. And yes, it can be done well.

The time for training teachers how to teach online was before a crisis, not during one. The time for funding and flexibility was then, too, not just now.

The Other Side of Equity

I myself have had experience not only as a remote student, but also as a remote teacher. I’ve seen students fail spectacularly in the brick and mortar classroom, to the point of being asked to leave the school rather than tarnish their graduation statistics. When I taught in the Bronx, many of my seniors transferred (only some voluntarily) to different schools in the area and take online classes for credit so that they could graduate on time. Some of my students needed to work to support their families, and they found that the online environment was more conducive to their needs and their schedules. I’ve also had students in my remote classes with chronic illnesses and mental health differences, which made attendance at their school almost impossible. The online learning environment gave them the opportunity to work with me and curate their own schedules and due dates for assignments rather than facing the Sisyphean inflexibility of their schools (Illnesses often don’t adhere to state mandates!)

So then, why did these students fall to the wayside? Why did they come to close to slipping through the cracks? Why is it that my Bronx seniors didn’t have the option of taking online classes until it was very nearly too late?

Yes, school is and should be a safe space for children who need a structure, who need a meal or a counselor when they are receiving none at home. Many students are losing necessary Special Education services during this time of crisis. However, there are students whose diagnoses don’t fit the cookie cutter mold of brick and mortar schools and would thrive in a remote learning setting.

What ARE The Benefits?

Edutopia recently released an article on the positive effects that teachers and students are noticing with their recent remote learning experiences since the pandemic started. These are the benefits that they have noticed thus far:

  • Self Pacing:
    1. Students are deciding how and when they do their work, giving them the opportunity to critically examine how well they are completing the assignment, rather than rushing to meet a deadline.
    2. Students are giving themselves breaks and exercise, allowing them to come to class refreshed and ready to work.
    3. Students are learning to take responsibility for their own daily schedule and their schoolwork, rather than having someone micromanaging them daily.
  • Time Management and Prioritizing Their Needs
    1. An inflexible schedule during the day made it impossible for many students to squeeze in homework.
    2. Mandatory extracurricular activities and the pressure to impress colleges with sports and clubs have been almost eliminated, giving students a chance to focus on their schoolwork.
    3. Teachers and schools are also reconsidering how the daily school schedule (7-8 classes per day, minimal time for socialization) gave kids too many tasks to do with no time to complete them.
    4. Kids (and teachers!) are getting more sleep!
  • Lowering the Stakes
    1. Schoolwork and tasks are changed in order to fit the online structure, which is relieving the intense pressure that comes with ordinary schooling.
    2. Some students are excelling more so now because they no longer feel the pressure that comes with academic failure.
    3. The focus is now on learning instead of testing.
  • The Shy, Anxious, and Bullied Students
    1. Anxiety due to the peer pressure and social relationships is lessened.
    2. The shy student has the opportunity to be heard through other avenues besides hand raising and cold calling.
    3. The anxious student doesn’t have to worry about saying the wrong thing or being bullied for wearing the wrong clothes.
      1. This is not to say that online and cyber bullying does not occur. Rather, this is to say that the pressure that comes with being bullied at school, physically or verbally, on the bus or in the lunchroom, is eliminated.

So, Now What?

Now is the time to consider the future. Now is the time to consider the forgotten student who doesn’t fit the brick and mortar mold. Now is the time to reconsider the pressure that schools have been putting on students for far too long. Now is certainly the time to consider funding for students in poverty, students with disabilities, and for schools (and teachers!) who are pushing themselves to meet students’ needs every single day and failing because of circumstances out of their control. Let’s think about all of the students. All of them.

Remote learning and education does work. We’re just doing it wrong right now. But we can do better. And we will.

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Teaching and Working from Home: Adapting Education and Online Learning Models

Teaching online is a brave new world in this current climate. School closures and government mandates have led administrations to scramble to provide effective online education to their students. But what is effective online education?

Author’s Personal Note: I started writing this post about a week ago. When I did, I was full of hope about providing a resource to friends and teachers. Then, as it tends to do, self doubt and panic started to set in. As knowledgeable and experienced as I am about technology and education, I wondered if this post would truly provide the help and incentive that teachers and parents need right now. I decided to take some time and observe the Twitterverse to see what insight it could provide. I noticed that many teachers are already experienced in technological tools and websites, but there current concerns are thus; how do we help our students learn when the world seems to be falling apart? How do we help those who have limited access to technology? While there are giant, systemic issues that are beyond our control, such as State Testing mandates and access to basic needs, there are some things that teachers can do. We can be flexible, and we can have hope.

It’s no surprise to hear that school and office closures have led to some panic and confusion. Many teachers and professors are confused about the new requirements and requests to make their classes and content online, and many parents are left wondering how they are going to teach or entertain their children during these recent mandates. However, there are many fantastic teachers and schools that have shared their own tips and tricks for how they teach effectively online, and how you too can make learning effective, even through a computer screen.

The simplest way that one can teach online is with a camera. Using any kind of telecommunication or streaming service such as Skype, Zoom, GoToWebinar, or Google Hangouts/Meet can bridge the gap between staying at home and delivering content face to face. Even something as simple as a FaceTime session with an individual student can help. Test out the video service for yourself before using it in order to determine what bells and whistles come with the service. For example, GoToWebinar provides organizers and presenters with the ability to share their screen so that the other viewers can see content such as PowerPoint slides, videos, and web searches. Participants can click on a hand raising button to respectfully request to speak, and they can mute their microphones in order to minimize background noise. Make sure you do some test runs to ensure that any technological glitches that can be avoided are avoided.

Recent Minecraft news in response to the COVID crisis

If you have the means and the tools, this is also a good time to get creative! Some teachers who are experienced in gaming, such as The Tolkien Professor, are using and have used MMORPGs (Online role playing games) to host classes. Students can create a character in the game and can meet in large groups to have class. Students can chat with each other in-game using a microphone system or the chat feature, or teachers can host lectures in a predetermined location in-game with their microphones and field questions using Twitch, Discord, or another chat interface. If you can have fun, why not? For more on MMORPGs and teaching, click here.

A 2017 tweet calling interested parties to action for Exploring LOTRO. You don’t necessarily have to have a character in game- you can participate in the discussion through Twitch or Discord while watching and listening to Corey Olsen critically discuss the Lord of the Rings

Many schools are already partnered with educational tools and programs that teachers use to create content. The following is a list of tools that I have used in the classroom in order to boost participation and deliver content effectively:

  1. Google Classrooms
  2. Nearpod
  3. Socrative
  4. YouTube
  5. Quizlet
  6. Khan Academy
  7. Kahoot
  8. Goodreads
  9. Twitter

However, you must be sure to have clear expectations for your students in order to make sure that they are using these tools effectively. And remember- they are tools, and they are only effective if they are planned for and implemented properly. They do not replace effective content and teaching. What do you want to do with the technology? How do you want students to interact with each other? What should your code of conduct be for polite, respectful conversations? Planning for these moments at the beginning will help your classes run smoothly.

Above all, this is the time to be flexible, not only with your students, but with yourself. Everyone is learning how to adapt at this time, and some teachers have different resources at hand than others. Use the tools that you do have, and don’t worry about completely reinventing your curriculum. Your students are transitioning as well, so now is the time to take a deep breath and evaluate how you can be flexible during this time. Perhaps instead of making daily or weekly assignments, this is the opportunity to do a long project. Ask your students to document their project on a daily or weekly basis in a journal (handwritten or online). What are they exploring? How are they exploring it? How are they testing out their hypotheses? What are their methods?

Many teachers are also exploring the option of creating “Pandemic Journals.” This is an activity that asserts that this COVID-19 pandemic is a “living history” moment, and as a result we can create primary source documents that historians can discover and research in the future. Let them use their daily experiences to inform their writing and ask questions. Use email or text messages to provide prompts to students if they need help thinking of what to write.

Most importantly, be kind and be flexible with yourself. You are learning too. Research ways that you can help your students if you don’t know the answer. Find support groups online that can give you ideas if you are having trouble thinking of one on your own. Take brain breaks and give yourself boundaries. You may not be in a brick and mortar environment, but just because technology is at your fingertips does not mean you have to ALWAYS be available. Create time for yourself, your families, and your health.

If you need additional resources and help through this process, this link is a good place to start. Signum University has many different resources at your disposal, including a new mentor program for teachers and organizations. Don’t hesitate to ask for help if you need it.

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There Are No Limits to Imagination

Today’s post is an informal reflection of a concept that I have been wrestling with for a few weeks. It is a concept that is implicit to many of you who read my blog, and to many of my colleagues and fellow researchers who work in the world of fantasy literature, and even education. Imagination is a wonderful, magical world in which many of us retreat to when the real world is either too boring or too difficult to process. Many times, imagination is a haven from harm, or it is simply a fun retreat. In November, I wrote a post about Dramatic Play in Preschools, and how important it is for young children to engage their imaginations for their overall development. However, the question I have been pondering recently is thus: what happens when we have limited to no imagination?

I have had the experience of working with a student or two in one on one sessions. Some of them are creative and fun to work with, and they answer my questions with different possible answers. However, some have difficulty with the imaginative approach. One, in particular, struggles with using their imagination in my class because they* have had little to no exposure to imaginative thinking. Their parents completely forbid screens in the home (which is another conversation entirely), and when they see them after class there is very little dramatic or imaginative play in their interactions.** As a result, my student often stays in their own comfortable boxes that they have created. They are interested in subjects that are “true,” and they tell me when “that’s not true” or “that’s not real.” To my understanding, they read very few imaginative fiction books at home, except for the occasional Dr. Seuss. Fairy tales and fantasy are a complete mystery to them. While these choices are not wrong, they did lead him to have some difficulty when it comes to certain imaginative thinking skills that present in the classroom. If I pose predictive questions about the text (“What do you think is going to happen next?”), his automatic answer is “I don’t know.” When he draws in his Story Maps, he feels more comfortable drawing things realistically, and will refuse to draw if I ask him to “use his imagination.”

What, then, are the consequences for this student? What happens when imagination or creative thinking is limited or undernourished? A study by M. Root-Bernstein and R. Root-Bernstein (2006) posits that imaginative world building in early childhood contributes to creative thinking in adults. While previous research declared early imaginative play to be “uncommon and associated with the arts,” the data in Root-Bernstein and Root-Bernstein’s study “validated [their] expectation that individuals inventing imaginary worlds in childhood participate as adults in a wide variety of disciplines,” including scientists, artists, and those who work in the social sciences and humanities.

Particularly in the social sciences and sciences, creative (older) individuals were significantly more likely to have engaged in childhood worldplay than students anticipating careers in these fields. In addition, over one half of the study’s select and general populations recognized an important role for worldplay in their adult vocations and avocations. Many perceived mature worldplay in their work; others in their recreation. Still others continued to engage in worlds first invented in childhood. Finally, the prevalent perception of connection between childhood play and adult endeavor argues that the invention of imaginary worlds is not some obscure form of make-believe, but rather a phenomenon of wider cognitive import. …

Finally, we argue that worldplay at any age and in many guises presents a microcosm with which to explore the complex nature of creativity itself. Mature worldplay at work, in particular, may add a nuanced perspective to the ongoing discussion of creative individuals as generalists or as specialists. Creativity is such that an individual must combine previously disparate elements of knowledge and action into something novel and effective.

M. Root-Bernstein and R. Root-Bernstein, (2006) “Imaginary Worldplay in Childhood and Maturity and Its Impact on Adult Creativity.”

This research ultimately shows that imaginative play and world building is not only consequential for the child, it is also consequential for the adult. Engaging the imagination gives children and adults the opportunity to consider all possibilities when faced with a problem or a question. Entrepreneurs, scientists, and artists all need imagination in order to thrive and grow in their respective vocations, just as a child needs imagination and play to be happy in their day to day experiences.

References:

Root-Bernstein, M., & Root-Bernstein, R. (2006). Imaginary Worldplay in Childhood and Maturity and Its Impact on Adult Creativity. Creativity Research Journal18(4), 405–425. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15326934crj1804_1

*Here, I use the gender neutral pronoun “they” in order to maintain anonymity and adhere to privacy rules and laws in the state. This is not the student’s personal gender identity, but it is necessary for me to keep the student anonymous.

**In due fairness, I spend 180 minutes per week with this child, and I receive information secondhand and through my limited interactions with the parents. It is entirely possible that I may be receiving misinformation or an incomplete story.

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Book Review: “The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child” by Donalyn Miller

Donalyn Miller’s “The Book Whisperer” is an incredible journey from a teacher who instills a love of reading in every student who has come her way.

Donalyn Miller reminds us all of what it truly means to be a reader, and how we can teach our young ones to love reading. Reading is a magical experience, but too often schools are bogged down by state and test mandates to truly teach a child how to read. When one reads for pleasure, no one is asking them to find the main idea or mark a Scantron sheet. They are simply absorbing the text, and then later articulating what they did or did not enjoy about the text. Miller’s approach was crafted through years of experience, anecdotes of successes and (perceived) failures, and above all a love of reading.

Pennac’s “The Rights of the Reader.”

This book is, frankly, a godsend for all teachers who want their students to become strong readers who enjoy reading, can talk about their reading, and steal reading time at every moment. Rather than filling up time with warm up exercises, busywork, or worksheets that will eventually just end up in the trash, she works with her students to implement structured routines for reading. Waiting for line during Picture Day? Read a book. Finished with all of your worksheets? Read a book. Class trip? Read a book while waiting in line for the bus. For many adults, these stolen reading moments can be implicit in their reading practice, but they must be taught to young readers so that it becomes implicit for them as well. Her approach is to require students to read 40 books in the school year, and she uses teaching moments to show them how to make good reading choices, decide what to do when a book simply is not working, and make plans for their reading goals.

This book includes anecdotes from students and assignments from Miller’s teaching. Helpful appendices that can be copied as worksheets are also included!

Miller provides effective strategies for teachers to implement in their classes to replace some of the traditional teaching that have turned students against reading. For example, instead of traditional book reports, her students write book reviews and letters to the teacher in their reader’s notebooks. Conferences and book chats replaced or minimized tests on the content, and the students engaged in critical activities that showed them how to not only interact with and review a book, but also how to criticize it and make their own choices about their future reading and relationships with books. While one result was an increase in their State Test scores, Miller reflects that test scores are only a small part of her students’ reading journey. More importantly, she believes that every child should become a lifelong reader, and the journey has to start by abandoning “drill-and-kill” methods and simply give the students the opportunity to read.

If you would like to learn more about Donalyn Miller and her work, you can visit her website at bookwhisperer.com.

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Teacher Feature: Severus Snape

Many fans are conflicted with their feelings about the Potions Master, Severus Snape. Up to Book 7, we see him as a bully and a murderer, until it is revealed that he has been playing double agent out of love (or guilt, however you choose to see it) for Lily Evans Potter. Whatever his intentions as double agent, it cannot be argued that he was, in fact, a terrible teacher to many. What is worse, he could have been an incredible teacher that could have made a difference to many little potions masters to come. Unfortunately, he was not able to do what many teachers are currently asked (even demanded) to do every day, which is to leave his emotions and biases at the door. He had a brilliant mind, but he was not able to guard himself and follow his own advice…

“Fools who wear their hearts proudly on their sleeves, who cannot control their emotions, who wallow in sad memories and allow themselves to be provoked this easily — weak people, in other words — they stand no chance against [Voldemort’s] powers!”

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
J.K. Rowling

This material may be protected by copyright.

While Snape may pride himself on being an excellent Occlumens and gifted with the ability to play both sides, the strain of doing so affects his teaching abilities and his students’ mental health. His story is one of missed opportunities and a human effort to face impossibilities.

Snape’s initial meeting with Harry Potter is telling to his teaching style, and one that directly conflicts with most of the other teachers’ at Hogwarts. Immediately, he tests Harry by asking him exceedingly difficult questions that Harry couldn’t possibly know the answers to (but certainly Hermione knows). On the surface (and I’m sure was intentional), this interaction was a power move and a moment that meant to intimidate and humiliate. However, it was also a teaching moment for everyone in the classroom, and let them know exactly what Snape would expect from his students. He expects them to come prepared with the content, theories, and background so that when the practical events and experiments present themselves in the classroom, or other “extracurricular” moments (say, a logic puzzle to reach the Sorcerer’s Stone, or shoving a bezoar down your friend’s throat when he has been poisoned), the students will be prepared for anything. (For more on this subject, see Lorrie Kim’s post “J.K. Rowling, Giftedness, and the Ghost of Ravenclaw”).

Bullying, temper, and tortured soul aside, Snape has little to no excuse for his ineffective teaching practice. He is brilliant in his field, as evidenced by his marginalia in his old copy of Libatious Borage’s Advanced Potion Making (Half Blood Prince 189). His notes prove not only that he is an astounding wizard and potion artist, but it also proves that he was once willing to experiment and correct an expert’s knowledge and provide more effective approaches. However, as both Conn and Dickinson state, being brilliant in your field does not constitute an effective teacher. He uses closed questioning tactics* and homework as a punishment, rather than an opportunity for his students to learn from their experiences (Conn 1178, Bixler 76). He never models how to make a potion for his students, which detracts from the students’ need to see how a “perfect” potion is made. While Johnson claims that the lack of demonstration adds to the students’ active learning environment, she then amends that he practices this ineffectively because the students’ only guidance is their textbook and the potion recipe, with no chance for any student collaboration or student to teacher dialogue (82-83). Snape had an opportunity to be the best Potions master that Hogwarts could have, but squandered it over petty jealousy and a lack of compassion.

The question then becomes “What is the lesson for us as teachers?” Do we take the good with the bad, or do we cherry pick the qualities that we enjoy about Snape’s teaching and see beyond the angry veneer that he presents? What might we do in Snape’s stead, with fewer grudges and conflicts to face and more pride in our teaching? Do we look to Snape, or do we look to the young Half Blood Prince as our model?

*Closed Questioning refers to the use of “Yes”, “No,” or “one right answer” questions that limit the students’ chance for exploration, debate, or experimentation. For example, “Is a bezoar an antidote for poisons?” An example of an open questioning tactic would be “Compare and contrast the benefits of these three different antidotes to poison,” or “What are the benefits of using a bezoar instead of ____ as an antidote for poison?”

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Holiday Reading Challenge

There are times when I wonder if insomnia is a blessing or a curse. Recently, it’s been a bit of both. My semester at Signum is over for the present, and the lack of sleep (as well as a decent commute to work) has given me the opportunity to get quite a bit of reading done. I’ve been reading more books than I thought were possible, thanks to my access to ebooks through Libby (managed by Overdrive) and my local library. While I did not set out to complete a Reading Challenge, I was quite surprised to see that I had passed my Goodreads Yearly Reading Challenge- so why not keep the challenge going?

Usually, when I set out to find a new book to read, I check out my Goodreads “Want to Read” list to find the next chronological book I added in order to stay on top of the ever growing pile of books that I will probably never finish reading. Suffice it to say, it is not always the best strategy. This time, I started with a recommendation list from a classmate in my Modern Fantasy class. This particular list was created as a reaction to Harry Dresden’s casual sexism (Sorry, not sorry Jim Butcher) and a desire to read more gender inclusive and feminist fantasy. Let me tell you, I was HOOKED. I read book after book on the list, and it reawakened the child in me that would sit up at night under the covers with a flashlight, immersed in fantastic lands, folklore, and heroic conflict, with no thought to how I was going to function the next morning. Thankfully, I’m old enough for coffee now.

Group chats, threads, and forums can be very valuable, as this particular thread proved to me.

When that list ran out, I decided it was time to simply let it all go (cue snowflakes and inevitable cease and desist order from Disney) and fall down the rabbit hole of recommendations. My (wonderful) husband has a strategy for choosing a movie to watch on Amazon- click on a film that he might enjoy or has watched previously, then click on the “Customers Also Watched” link to find something similar. He will click on that link at least five times and scroll through all of the lists of all of the possible movies available before he is satisfied that he has found the perfect one that suits his mood, if he picks one at all (I’m usually sitting on the couch inwardly screaming, “Just pick a movie already!!!!”). However, when lying awake at three a.m., it was actually a perfect strategy when I was not sure what to pick next and I did not have the brain energy to think critically about my choice. So, I scrolled through Libby’s ten-plus Fantasy recommendations, read a few blurbs, and checked out the ones that captured my interest. I had no idea if I would like these books, if they were books that my peers at Signum or on Twitter might have read, or if these books were secret gems waiting for me to discover them. However, I dove right in, and here are my results;

In a space of about six weeks, I read 17 books (I’m a fast reader, but I’m usually not THAT fast).

Out of those 17 books, I found three that were not to my liking, and one that I returned early. You must know that this is highly unusual for me- while I tell my students all the time that they are not obligated to finish a book that they don’t enjoy, I often stick to a book until the end just to see if there is a eucatastrophic event or change in writing style that I would otherwise miss. In those three books, this was unfortunately not the case. I shan’t tell you what they were, in case you might want to read them yourself, and I don’t want my personal bias to affect your enjoyment.

I rediscovered my love for Jane Yolen in her “Sister Light, Sister Dark” series. This was especially intriguing for me because of the book’s setup- in addition to the plot itself, the books are punctuated with various fictitious myths, songs, ballads, and folklore pertaining to the matriarchal society in the story, much like a folklorist, historian, or anthropologist would see when Studying a specific culture. It even includes letters, articles, and diary entries written by historians, though they are of the school of Harold Bloom and protest the school of thought of another fictitious scholar (whose writing we do not read) who posits an alternative theory to the canonical writings (his theory, as you read the story, turns out to be factual).

Jane Yolen’s “Sister Light, Sister Dark” series.

This deep dive and random approach to choosing my reading was a valuable experiment. Too often as teachers we thrust a book into a child’s hands, telling them that we know we will enjoy it, or curriculum dictates that we must assign a reading, then grin through clenched teeth and pray that the student doesn’t chuck the book in your face. I wonder now what would happen if we, students and teachers alike, simply let go of our preconceptions of choosing books and let the book choose us. Close our eyes and pick up the first one we touch on the shelf. Pick a recommendation list and choose the fifth book. Perhaps it will be a book we will enjoy, perhaps not. But isn’t it fun to find out?

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Scholarship in the Potterverse

Hello friends! I’ve been battling a nasty cold for the past few days, and it has left little room in the brain for thinking. Therefore, today’s post shall simply be the sharing of a wonderful podcast episode from “Reading, Writing, Rowling,” in which I participated in a panel of interviewed scholars after the conclusion of the Chestnut Hill Harry Potter Conference of 2019. In addition to sharing my thoughts and reactions to the conference, I also take a moment to reflect on my own presentation, in which I examined teachers at Hogwarts through an active learning lens. It was an absolute blast, and I hope it inspires you to come to the Potter Conference next year!

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The Case for Dramatic Play

Recently, I’ve been getting a lot of questions from parents who are interested in my company’s Preschool Prep program and who see this idea in various preschool programs. They ask me, “What is Dramatic Play, and why is it necessary in preschool programs?” “Why does my son’s classroom have such elaborate play centers?” “Why does it matter?” In terms of literacy… it can matter quite a lot!

Firstly, Dramatic Play is a set space and time in which teachers allow for activities that include dress up, play sets that mimic life experiences, and guided prompts from teachers. In Dramatic Play, teachers and students strengthen their oral language skills and social development, and encourage students to use their imaginations to solve puzzles, create language, and determine the social nuances needed for the situation.

Excell and Linington (2011) assert that play activities are crucial in developing the implicit pathways to literacy that are present in perceptual- motor skills (a child’s developing ability to interact with his environment by combining the use of the senses and motor skills) and sensorimotor integration (the capability of the central nervous system to integrate different sources of stimuli, and to transform such inputs in motor actions).They cite the use of well planned, good quality play (Wood, 2009) to stimulate and link the neural pathways between these motor skills and literacy development. A pedagogy of play must include not only free play and spontaneous movement activities, but also structured, purposeful guided movement experiences designed to support specific aspects of gross motor, fine motor, and perceptual motor development, which thus lends itself to early literacy development (2011). The benefit of a pedagogy of play is that it is flexible, and that teachers are expected to link these movement-based activities with multiple literacy facets, such as oral language, communication, and critical thinking skills. A pedagogy of play and movement can help students strengthen, for example, the link between visual and auditory memory (being able to remember what is seen or heard) and the link between a letter and its sounds (Excell & Linington, 2011).

Excell and Linington’s Perceptual Motor Develppment and Behaviors Supporting Links to Literacy

With Dramatic Play, students not only have fun dressing up and playing with toy sets, they are also learning how to manipulate the toy sets based on norms set by the teacher, and by previous experiences they’ve witnessed at home. For example, with a kitchen set, students know that they have to turn on the “Oven” in order to cook the food. In most cases, the students have witnessed their parent cooking, or the teacher has given them the instruction to turn on the oven and cook. With guided instruction, students learn how to manipulate tools and social situations through these Dramatic Play sessions. Teachers should also be sure to use oral instruction and important vocabulary during these play sessions so that the students’ oral development skills are growing, and they are learning to associate certain vocabulary words with specific situations. For more instruction on integrating vocabulary in oral instruction, view this video here.

Many teachers take the opportunity to integrate literacy skills in Dramatic Play by giving the students a task to complete, and then creating literacy cards or worksheets that supplement the task. For example, when creating a Flower Shop, this teacher integrated math and literacy by providing different baskets with flowers, flowerpots, seeds, and a set space to plant a “garden”, complete with a cash register and receipts. Not only does this Dramatic Play sequence integrate math, it also requires them to write down the final product for the recipient, and it puts the students in the roles of consumer and shop owner, so that they can learn the social interactions that come with buying something at the shop. Providing clip boards, sticky pads, or forms (real or created) enhance the natural connection between play and the written word (Writing in the Dramatic Play Center). 

Parents and Home school teachers can benefit easily from engaging in structured Dramatic Play with their children. Reading a story with your child, and then providing the Dramatic Play center based around the book’s theme helps to integrate their Giving your children ample opportunities to dress up and integrate literacy and writing in everyday situations helps prepare students not only for reading and writing in the long run, but also for their social-emotional development and their attention to understanding the world around them. Dramatic Play is a beneficial opportunity to teach students about social situations that may be complicated or uncomfortable, and act out possible solutions to problems. For example, Greg Hogben @MyDaughtersArmy retweeted a post on Tumblr last year that had many parents singing praises.

The parent in question had taken an overused and uncomfortable trope (Princesses who need to be saved) and transformed it through the use of excellent and guided dramatic play. This father knew that there was more to being a princess than simply dressing up in cute outfits, and he took the opportunity to use his daughter’s love for princesses to teach her how to be a leader, a negotiator, and a strategist. This is the magic of Dramatic Play- using your imagination and theirs to counter and question, and to develop critical thinking through the magic of pretend.

For more on how to use dramatic play in your classroom and at home, visit Teaching2and3yearolds and Pre-Kpages.com.

References

Excell, L., & Linington, V. (2011). Move to literacy: Fanning emergent literacy in early childhood education in a pedagogy of play. South African Journal of Childhood Education, 1(2), 27-45.

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The Pedagogies of Earthsea, or Ways to Become a Wizard.

A few weeks ago, my classmates and I voyaged together through Ursula K. LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea for our Modern Fantasy class. This was my very first foray into LeGuin’s world of the Archipelago, and I am still amazed at her smooth storytelling. Through the eyes of the arrogant young Ged, we learn what it means to truly have power over a thing, and how tantalizing that power can be. It is a fantastic story woven with strands of chronicled “history,” dialogue, and lessons from friends and teachers alike.

Ged has many teachers in this story, starting from the very young age of seven when he demonstrates to his hedge-witch aunt his natural proclivity for magic. When his powers outgrow the skills his aunt is able to teach him, he is apprenticed to the Wizard Ogion, who takes a practical but slow approach to the teaching of magic. Frustrated and impatient, Ged chooses then to go to the School of Roke which has the more traditional approach to education that Ged was initially looking for. While each of these different “schools” teach magic in a different way, it is interesting to compare and contrast these approaches throughout the text, and wonder which might have been the more “effective” approach for Ged and perhaps for ourselves.

Thus, I posed the following question to the discussion board:

“Hello friends! I was intrigued by [our professor’s] questions of Ogion and his methods in teaching Ged about magic, the true names of things, and the Equilibrium of Power. I was also interested to listen to his musings about Roke and how they approached teaching, not only Ged but the other students magic. As many of us are teachers … I thought it would be interesting for all of us to discuss how each of Ged’s teachers and educational systems contribute to his ultimate “mastering” of magic. Which pedagogical approach, do you think, was the more effective? Which pedagogical approach might resonate with you if you were a student of magic in Earthsea? Who would you choose to be your teacher, and why? Would you choose the experiential, Socratic quiet with Ogion, or would you respond to the rote learning and theory based discussions in Roke?”

I received a number of responses, all of them critical and thoughtful in their approach. Some of my classmates are teachers, which made the question all the more interesting. We discussed not only Ogion’s silent approach to teaching Ged, but also comparing it with various teachers on Roke who would have a different approach.

Ogion- the Metacognitive Approach

“I don’t think I would respond well to Ogion, though I’d like to say I would. I definitely do better where I’m given more information. I think Ged also needed more than Ogion simply because he never would have learned what he needed to in the state he was in when he first met Ogion. It maybe he would have, but it would have taken him much much longer. It’s said that we learn more from our mistakes than our successes. I think that’s definitely true for Ged and we can see that in how quickly he transforms from a prideful boy to a wise wizard.”- M.

“At my school, we’ve been talking quite a bit in the last few months about metacognition and how reflection on the learning process aids students in the long run. When students are struggling with something, or are having a hard time seeing the purpose of an activity, I’ve found spending the time to explain the larger connecting pieces helps them to invest in the activity/unit. Ogion’s approach doesn’t seem to incorporate that. There’s the wizardly stereotype of only giving evasive answers, which likely isn’t very good for student learning. That’s why I don’t think Dumbledore is actually a very good teacher.” -Jens

“When I was listening to Professor Olsen discuss the teaching styles, I immediately thought about Montessori teaching philosophy in comparison to Ogion’s style. Independent, self-directed/discovery. I also found it interesting that Ogion was reflective of the fact that his teaching style may not have been appropriate for Ged to learn the things that he needed to learn.” -Miriam (See quote below for reference)

“How am I to know these things, when you teach me nothing? Since I lived with you I have done nothing, seen nothing—”

“Now you have seen something,” said the mage. “By the door, in the darkness, when I came in.”

Ged was silent. Ogion knelt down and built the fire on the hearth and lit it, for the house was cold. Then, still kneeling, he said in his quiet voice,

“Ged, my young falcon, you are not bound to me or to my service. You did not come to me, but I to you. You are very young to make this choice, but I cannot make it for you. If you wish, I will send you to Roke Island, where all high arts are taught. Any craft you undertake to learn you will learn, for your power is great, greater even than your pride, I hope. I would keep you here with me, for what I have is what you lack, but I will not keep you against your will”.

(LeGuin 24)

The Doorkeeper- The School of Humility

In Earthsea, I think the Master Doorkeeper is probably my favorite. There’s a quiet patience about him that is willing to let the student struggle but without abandoning them. He waits, he watches, he listens, and I don’t get the sense that he’s judging either. He requires that the student explore the riddle/question and the overall goal is only met not simply by producing the right answer (like ticking a box), but by actually getting the meaning/purpose of the activity.” -Jens

“In the end, I believe it changes based on how you define effective.
In terms of amount of learning gained, I would say Roke taught Ged well the content of his toolbox. However, they did not focus on discovering the how, when, or why to apply these tools. They gave basic causality lessons and instructed their pupils on when not to use magic. Roke was a school of “do this” and “do not do this” that covered in essence, the history and mathematics and magic. Ged was not lacking the bits and bobs when he left Roke. However, what Ogion attempted to teach Ged is something that I do not believe can even be encompassed in a lifetime of learning. Ogion was constantly listening and learning and very rarely acting. He was essentially passive (except for the titanic instance of stopping the earthquake). Ogion was teaching the how, when, or why, but I believe, how to determine the how, when, or why of magic for yourself.” -Laurel

Finally, I would like to share thoughts from Sparrow Alden and her fantastic presentation from New England Moot. She discussed her teaching and the lessons that she learned on how to be a great educator through fantasy stories, particularly through Kohlberg’s Framework of Moral Education and Fowler’s Framework of Faith.

“This is the School,” the old man said mildly. “I am the doorkeeper. Enter if you can.”
Ged stepped forward. It seemed to him that he had passed through the doorway: yet he stood outside on the pavement where he had stood before.
Once more he stepped forward, and once more he remained standing outside the door. The doorkeeper, inside, watched him with mild eyes.
Ged was not so much baffled as angry, for this seemed like a further mockery to him. With voice and hand he made the Opening spell which his aunt had taught him long ago; it was the prize among all her stock of spells, and he wove it well now. But it was only a witch’s charm, and the power that held this doorway was not moved at all.
When that failed Ged stood a long while there on the pavement. At last he looked at the old man who waited inside. “I cannot enter,” he said unwillingly, “unless you help me.”
The doorkeeper answered, “Say your name.”
Then again Ged stood still a while; for a man never speaks his own name aloud, until more than his life’s safety is at stake.
“I am Ged,” he said aloud. Stepping forward then he entered the open doorway. Yet it seemed to him that though the light was behind him, a shadow followed him in at his heels.
~ LeGuin, Ursula K. A Wizard of Earthsea (The Earthsea Cycle Series Book 1) (pp. 37-38). HMH Books. Kindle Edition.

“And that is Fowler’s earliest stage of Faith development – Trust, Faith in things not seen.””I am here, you are safe, trust that I will take care of you.”

How often do Moms say this to toddlers who are struggling to separate? How often are we asked to believe in something that we cannot physically touch and do not understand? This is a powerful lesson that Ged learns not through direct, didactic instruction, but by being asked to struggle, and then fail.

I sincerely thank all of my classmates who chose to participate in this discussion, and who have elected to share their thoughts to this blog. I hope I have done your comments justice! I would love to continue the discussion, and I ask you, my readers, to continue on Twitter and in the comments of this post. Thank you all, and happy teaching!

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Badger Business: Badgers in Children’s Literature in the 20th Century

Last week I had the absolute pleasure of presenting at New England Moot on a topic that I have found near and dear to my heart- badgers! Badgers, in addition to being absolutely adorable, are also the unsung heroes of anthropomorphic literature. Throughout 20th and 21st century children’s literature, they have consistently been featured with similar qualities of loyalty and bravery. Firstly, I examine these qualities and other consistent themes throughout these texts, and then I provide examples of our favorite badgers from literature.

The Qualities of a Badger- Hufflepuff Style

J.K. Rowling put it best when she characterized the noblest of houses with qualities that have consistently shown in badger characters throughout the years. These qualities have shown in (almost) every badger character in children’s literature.

For example:

A Hufflepuff, according to the Sorting Hat, is “just and loyal…/

Those patient Hufflepuffs are true and unafraid of toil;” (Rowling PS 111).  

“For Hufflepuff, hard workers were/ Most worthy of admission;” (Rowling GOF 163).

“Several outstanding brains have emerged from Hufflepuff house over the centuries; these fine minds simply happened to be allied to outstanding qualities of patience, a strong work ethic and constancy, all traditional hallmarks of Hufflepuff House” (Rowling Pottermore).

The Badger’s Sett

I was particularly intrigued by the use of the badger’s habitat throughout these stories. A badger’s home is a cozy one, with few decorations, but it is comfortable and cozy, very reminiscent of a hobbit hole. I found the following descriptions of the Hufflepuff Common Room and the Badger’s home in T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone.

“A sloping, earthy passage inside the barrel travels upwards a little way until a cosy, round, low-ceilinged room is revealed, reminiscent of a badger’s sett. The room is decorated in the cheerful, bee-like colours of yellow and black, emphasised by the use of highly polished, honey-coloured wood for the tables and the round doors which lead to the boys’ and girls’ dormitories (furnished with comfortable wooden bedsteads, all covered in patchwork quilts)” (Rowling Pottermore).

“Badgers are not like foxes. They have a special midden where they put out their used bones and rubbish, proper earth closets, and bedrooms whose bedding they turn out frequently to keep it clean… [The Wart] admired the Great Hall most, for this was the central room of the whole fortification… and all the various suites and bolt holes radiated outwards from it… there were ancient paintings of departed badgers, famous in their day for scholarship or godliness… there were stately chairs with the badger arms stamped in gold upon their Spanish leather seats… the leather was coming off – and a portrait of the Founder over the fireplace” (White 328).

I particularly enjoy White’s description of the badger’s sett. It brings to mind an image of an Oxford don’s lounge, a place where Tolkien and Lewis might have held a staff meeting or an Inklings meeting.

Brock- Linguistic Connections

For my linguist friends, some interesting linguistic connections!

Anglo Saxon: Broc m. (ns) -Sum fyðerféte nýten is, ðæt we nemnaþ taxonem, ðæt ys broc on Englisc (Medicina de Quadrupedis of Sextus Placidus).

Irish and Gaelic: Broc m. (gs and npl)  

Other Celtic cognates for badger include brock (Gaelg (Manx)), broch (Cymraeg (Welsh)), brogh (Kernewek (Cornish)), broc’h (Brezhoneg (Breton)) (Ager). 

Examples in Literature include Tommy Brock in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Mr. Tod, and Lord Brocktree in Brian Jacques’ Lord Brocktree. A hedgehog refers to the Wart (transformed into a badger by Merlyn) as “Mëaster Brock” (White 322-327).  

Tommy Brock in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Mr. Tod

Tommy Brock is an unsavory character in Beatrix Potter’s story, and is known for kidnapping Benjamin Bunny’s children to be roasted and eaten in Mr. Tod’s oven. 

“Tommy Brock was a short bristly fat waddling person with a grin; he grinned all over his face. He was not nice in his habits. He ate wasp nests and frogs and worms; and he waddled about by moonlight, digging things up. His clothes were very dirty; and as he slept in the day-time, he always went to bed in his boots. And the bed which he went to bed in was generally Mr. Tod’s” (Potter 9-10). 

While Tommy Brock is a villainous lout, he is an exception to the rule. He was also one of the first anthropomorphic badgers to appear in children’s literature. Then, not two years later, Kenneth Grahame publishes The Wind in the Willows, which launches the consistent use of the loyal badger friend.

Mr. Badger in The Wind in the Willows.

The Badger is a quiet friend to his fellow animals. He takes them in when they need help, but he is firm and cross when Toad takes things too far. He is loyal to Toad’s family by repeatedly reminding him of his duties to Toad hall, and asking him to reflect on “what [his] father might think” of all his antics. The chapter in which he rescues Mole and Ratty from the cold winters night is very revealing of his character.

“The Badger did not mind that sort of thing at all, nor did he take any notice of elbows on the table, or everyone speaking  at once. As the animals told their story, he did not seem surprised or shocked at anything. He never said “I told you so,” or “Just what I always said,”or remarked that they oughtto have done so-and so, or ought not to have done something else” (Grahame 66).  

The Badger in The Sword in the Stone

The badger in The Sword in the Stone is Arthur’s final teacher in his experiential educational journey. Merlyn describes him by saying “… I think he is the most learned creature that I know” (White 320).  

“Well, I can only teach you two things, to dig, and to love your home. These are the true end of philosophy” (White 327 ).

He teaches Arthur his final lesson on how to be king by sharing a parable about how Man came to be the greatest of God’s creations, and how each animal had approached God for their various traits. 

The badger writes and shares this story as a dissertation for his D.Litt., of which the badger is very proud. 

Badgers in the Redwall Series

Brian Jacques is very consistent throughout his Redwall series. While the stories in the series change, the characteristics and qualities of each species remain similar. Badgers in the Redwall series are a brave, stalwart species hat led their kind fairly and honorably in their kingdom of Salamandastron. They were a warrior based society, meant to be either brave and fearless, but some would retire as wise sages.

During battle scenes, badgers would often display eucatastrophic bravery and engage in the Bloodwrath- a red eyed berserk frenzy (perhaps influenced by the Viking Berserkers). This Bloodwrath would cause their eyes to go red and effectively smash anyone in their path. Rostankowski provides an effective analysis of the badgers in the stories.

“The greatest warrior heroes of the series are mice, with badgers a close second. Badgers are always stalwart, brave, and great warriors, or leaders in other ways. They tend to have the fearlessness of the medieval French hero of the Song of Roland, and occasionally also his pride and foolhardiness. Badgers are most likely to fight to the death with their vassals, the hares. In certain circumstances badgers attain a greater level of wisdom, and conclude their lives as sages” (Rostankowski 87).

“While many species speak in dialects reminiscent of the various parts of the United Kingdom, only mice and badgers speak consistently without dialect” (88). I found this to be an interesting linguistic aspect, particularly after discovering the connections in the United Kingdom with Anglo-Saxon and Celtic.

Trufflehunter- Prince Caspian

Finally, we can’t forget about our dear friend Trufflehunter, one of my favorite characters from C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series. Trufflehunter is the voice of reason in a Narnia corrupted by fear, prejudice, and anger. He reminds everyone that compassion is necessary, and makes for a better Narnia. He alone recalls the basic tenets that Narnia was founded upon, and reminds everyone how the balance is meant to be maintained.

“I am a beast, I am, and a Badger what’s more. We don’t change. We hold on. I say great good will come of it. This is the true King of Narnia. And we beasts remember, even if Dwarfs forget, that Narnia was never right except when a Son of Adam was King. … It’s not Man’s country (who should know that better than me?) but it’s a country for a man to be king of. We badgers have long enough memories to know that” (Lewis 347). 

Final Thoughts

The badger is a lesser known creature in the field of British anthropomorphic children’s literature, but it makes a consistent appearance throughout. From Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows to Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, and even in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, the badger remains a learned creature, accustomed to its various comforts, but also a loyal friend and fierce fighter, if they need be. 

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Happy Mooting!

Shawn Marchese said it best in his debrief of Tolkien 2019: “here’s a word we use in our community a lot: fellowship. We often use it slightly tongue-in-cheek (like precious), but it really does characterize the Tolkien community in a very important way… All of us… are Tolkien fans, first and foremost, and that makes us fellows. … everyone is welcomed, and that the hierarchies that separate the “experts” from the “fans” in other fandoms and disciplines just don’t separate us all that much in the Tolkien community.” This was certainly true at New England Moot.

Kay ben-Avraham will be publishing her new book in podcast format quite soon… her voice truly is that of Faerie, and will enchant you immediately.

I always enjoy meeting fellow Tolkien and fantasy fans, and I certainly enjoy learning new things from these brilliant minds. Held in Jones Library in Amherst, our small group of scholars gathered together to talk about all things speculative in Children’s Literature. The presentations given were excellent, and were given by some of my favorite scholars, bloggers, writers, and all around fantasy fans. All were particularly intriguing, and I invite you all to check out their excellent work.

Ashley Thomas, aka The Nerdy Blogger, and how animation can spark a child’s love of reading.

I audibly, and without shame, squealed with delight when Ashley Thomas of The Nerdy Blogger presented on “Gargoyles,” “Jonny Quest,” and the path to readership for students through those shows. Gargoyles was a strong connection to my passion for books, and a significant part of my teenage years. I revisit the show every so often to this day. Kate Neville wrote a fantastic paper connecting Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories” to the benefit that fairy stories have for children, not just for adults. She cleverly supported her thoughts using interviews from fantastic writers such as Diana Wynne Jones, Susan Cooper, and others. I was so happy to see some dear friends and preceptors from previous classes, such as Kay ben-Avraham, Sparrow Alden, and James Tauber, and of course the Tolkien Professor himself. We howled with laughter as he took us through Tolkien’s lesser well known, and rather bizarre, children’s book Mr. Bliss. To say that the story got away from him would be an understatement. We also had a Tolkien Studies first- a quilt adventure analyzing Tolkien based scenes through different quilting techniques!

Soon enough, it was my turn to present… this was my first Moot presentation, and, other than education based presentations, I had not ever presented scholarly research in English Literature. To say I was nervous… well, you can imagine. But it turned out I did not need to be. I will certainly write a full post on the topic of my presentation itself, but for now I simply want to share the elation that I felt at being able to share my thoughts and research with my peers… and (at the risk of sounding immodest) to do it well. I received so many questions and statements of interest in my topic that I finally felt validated in the work I was doing. After being kicked down in job after job, it was wonderful to have a good, validating moment to keep in my pocket for later to remind me that I am doing good work, and I can keep working on what I love.

If you’re debating whether or not to attend a Signum Moot, a Tolkien based conference, or even an informal club meeting, I assure you that it is worth it. One of the greatest strengths I’ve had in the past few years working with Signum is the community that has supported me and encouraged me throughout self doubt, imposter syndrome, and writers block. It’s a valuable community that reassures you that yes, you do belong, and you are part of a fellowship. You may be an experienced Wizard or you may be a hobbit just entering the Wild, but you are a part of that community and no one is going to leave you to the wolves (or the wargs, in this analogy).

Stay tuned for a Teaching with Magic Double Feature this week! Another post will be up by Friday!

If you’re interested in learning more about some of the talks I heard this weekend, be sure to click on the links provided and ask questions in the comments!

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Book Review: Stephanie Affinito’s “Literacy Coaching”

I’m always reading- whether it has to do with reading strategies, wizards, neuroscience (occasionally) , or unicorns, I am ALWAYS reading. To that end, I’d like to post some book reviews to share not only what I’m reading, but also why it is important to the work I’m doing as a literacy teacher and overall educator.

Each of my book reviews will serve a specific purpose. I will not be reviewing the books based on how much I like the book- while that’s important, it’s not nearly objective enough. I want to show my readers exactly how each of the books that I review will be helpful to teachers and parents on teaching their students and helping their children grow as readers. These books can include the fantasy fiction that I love, new books that I’ve never tried before, or they may be education based books that offer strategies for the classroom or curriculum development.

In today’s teaching climate, more and more schools are requiring digital technologies in the classroom and using these technologies to bridge existing gaps in learning. Dr. Stephanie Affinito’s Literacy Coaching: Transforming Teaching and Learning is an excellent resource for teachers and literacy coaches who want to learn two things:

  1. How to guide children and other teachers through their specific literacy goals,
  2. How to bring digital literacy into the classroom and use technology to effectively communicate with students, teachers, and parents.

To Dr. Affinito, technology is simply a pathway into unlocking student and teacher potential. Being a literacy coach means a lot of data tracking- whether the data is based on the students’ various reading skills (fluency, accuracy, prosody, and comprehension- to name a few), but coaches often have to keep data on their teachers’ needs as well. What does the fourth grade science teacher need for their ICT classroom? What skills and strategies would be most beneficial to present on for a professional development meeting? Which websites are worth applying in the classroom? Affinito answers these questions and more in her book. She provides links and resources for teachers and coaches to use in the classroom, in planning, and in professional development.

These tables provide comparisons to traditional tools that readers and teachers use to their digital counterparts.

In my own view, technology is not always the answer. Sometimes students need to physically write things down or learn a traditional method in order to determine for themselves what their “right method” is. However, that does not mean that we should limit the possibilities for our students and for ourselves. This book is an effective branch for literacy coaches and teachers to learn the different ways that students can be taught with technology, and how we as adult learners can use technology to bridge our own learning gaps and collaborate with each other.

For more information about Dr. Affinito and her work on literacy coaching and teaching strategies, visit her website here.

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The Case for Audio Books: “Magic” to their Ears

One of my favorite memories of my childhood is of our cross country road trips as a family. My Dad is a history buff and loved taking us to Civil War memorials and American Revolution reenactments. We would stuff the car with snacks, coloring books, water, and toys to keep us company. During that time, the Harry Potter novels were coming out and so my mom would make a quick trip to the library and rent the cassette tapes or CD’s to play during the trip. As much as I liked the monuments and the reenactments, the memory that sticks out the most will always be the sound of Jim Dale’s voice in my ear as the trees, cows, and hills outside the window raced by. Sorry, Dad!

Fast forward about fifteen years later. I’m teaching at Nameless Charter School, and I’m about to start my Fantasy Literature Unit for my Literacy classes (Grades 6-8). My supervisor shows me a stack of small iPods that she keeps in her classroom for her students, complete with a subscription to Audible. I then tailored my lessons to include reading time, with the option to listen to the audio book on the iPod, and then prepare for Book Club discussions through questions and worksheets.

Soon came the days when they were Sorting themselves and giving themselves House Points!

Every day, my students would rush into class to put on the headphones and listen to the audio books for Harry Potter or The Chronicles of Narnia while they were reading. Many of the students that I was working with had Generalized Learning Disabilities, which often included issues with processing text or comprehension. Some of the kids had test scores that showed a 3rd grade comprehension level- in Middle School, that’s a tough road on which to catch up. I only had one rule for these audio books- they had to be reading along as they were listening. They could pause the recording at any time to jot down notes or questions, and they could slow down the recording if it was too fast. Ultimately, it was up to them how they understood the reading and how they used the technology to help them, and they did. They were engaged, they enjoyed the story, and they enjoyed asking me questions about the books. My only regret was that I wasn’t able to bring Turkish Delight to class!

This child would complain every day about reading, but he loved The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe!

Every teacher has different feelings about technology in the classroom. Some say, “no way!” and will never allow a cell phone or computer to cross their threshold. Other teachers and schools mandate iPad use and require that students use a plethora of apps, videos, and presentation materials. In my view, it’s all about finding what works for you and your kids. Knowing that every child learns differently, and that every child can access a text through different modes is critical for their growth. For my kids at Nameless Charter School, they needed a different pathway to access the text. The audio books made a difference to them, just as Jim Dale’s voice made a difference to me as a child. If it works, give them that access- whether its a free YouTube video or an Audible subscription. It might just make the difference that gets them reading independently.

There are lots of ways to bring audio books into your classroom or your home. If you have old iPods lying around your house, label them by number and turn them into a resource for students to quickly access them. Set norms for storage, classroom use, and upkeep (They have to stay charged, after all!). Write a grant or If iPods aren’t an option and your class is reading a book together, play the audio book over the loudspeakers. Better yet, use Audacity or other recording software on your computer to have your students make a class audio book to help exercise their fluency skills. The possibilities are endless!

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Motivation- It Can Be an Aggravation!

Tips and tricks on motivating your child to read.

“My kid hates reading. What do I do?”

“It’s such a struggle getting her to read every night!”

“How do I motivate my child to read?”

These are some of the most common questions that parents and the general public often ask me as a Literacy teacher. Some kids have no trouble finding a book to read, (my own parents had to take away my independent reading books so that I would do my homework), but with others reading can be a struggle!

Many kids struggle with reading for a myriad of reasons: for some, reading has become synonymous with “work”. Mandatory school reading can sometimes take the fun out of reading for pleasure. For others, it’s due to a reading difficulty or disability. Many kids need or simply like to take their time with reading, but feel rushed due to outside pressure from parents, teachers, or their peers.

But I’m going to let you in on a little secret… it can. Be. Done.

I believe to my core that the key to motivating students to read boils down to one word: CHOICE. Giving your child choices when it comes to reading makes an incredible difference when it comes to developing a child’s positive reading culture. My overall thesis pertains to the choice of reading when it comes specifically to fantasy novels, because growing up those were always my choices for independent reading. However, it was not the best feeling when I was told “put it away” or “save it for later” when it came to my schoolwork. I’ll always be grateful for the breadth of choices and exposure to nonfiction and canonical works of literature that my teachers gave me, but there was always a little nugget in the back of my mind saying, “Why can’t we read fantasy too?”

So, without further ado, here are some tips on how to motivate your child to read:

1. Create a culture of reading in your home and your classroom.

Let’s face it- kids see EVERYTHING. Even when you think they’re not paying attention, they are watching and taking in the world around them. If kids see you reading, they will read too! Taking the time to model how enjoyable reading is can go a long way. Invest some time in taking them to the library- show them how you pick out a book, what interests you, and what you do to find a book when you’re stuck (and best of all, libraries are FREE!).

If your child is young and likes to be read aloud to, take the time to read to them even if it’s only for ten minutes. If they’re picking the same book over and over again (I have Brown Bear Brown Bear memorized by now), that’s okay! They’re taking in the vocabulary and the prosody in which you are reading, and they’re picking up the skills that you are modeling for them. Ask them questions as you read, and let them ask questions too.

Fun Fact: Reading aloud to your child helps develop their early vocabulary acquisition and their oral language skills!

If your child is older and reading independently, read alongside them and show them your reading interests. Many schools and teachers require 20 minutes of reading a day- take those 20 minutes and read as well! It doesn’t necessarily need to be a novel- if you like to read the newspaper, a scholarly or medical journal, or a magazine, you can read that too, as long as your kid sees that you’re reading. This also may be a good opportunity to put down your technology and read a print book, but if you do use an E-Reader, make sure you stick to the book!

Teachers, I know your lives are full- you have all of these mandates from the District, you have Common Core Standards that you need to teach, as well as the new professional development strategy that you just learned at the last meeting. But here’s the deal- no matter how many strategies you try, how many gimmicks the higher ups give you, there is nothing, nothing that will raise your test scores higher than giving your students time and space to read. Consistent, timely practice is critical for students to develop their reading skills and become better readers. Set aside SOME time for your students to read- whether its ten minutes in a 40 minute period, 30 minutes in a 70 minute block, or one full period a week (scary, I know!), make sure that your students are reading!

2. Give your kids choices.

Now, when I say choices, I’m not only talking about the books they’re reading. Giving your child choices about reading and motivating themselves to read gives them the opportunity to learn strategies on what does and does not work for them. There’s no “one size fits all” strategy when it comes to how WE read, so why not try them all?

Some kids are motivated with extrinsic strategies and rewards. Work with your child and decide what those strategies might be. You can try a sticker chart, a reading log, a journal, or a point system. Many kids and adults get satisfaction from seeing the progress they make in their reading (future post on Goodreads, coming up!). Talk to your child about what helps them feel accomplished, whether its in reading or in other activities. However, be careful about the rewards you give for reaching their goals. Rather than framing it as “If you read ten books, I’ll give you candy,” try something that relates to reading, like “If you reach your reading goal of five stars, I’ll buy you your next choice of book at Barnes and Noble.” Bribing your child with TV or candy won’t build a positive reading culture, but you do want them to see the reward of reaching a goal (particularly a difficult one!).

When kids have the power to choose the books they are reading, they are more likely to consistently read. Have book options available for them, either at home, the classroom, or in the library based on their interests. Many teachers create “book bins” for their classroom library for organization purposes: each bin can be labeled by genre, topic, or interest. This will help your child make positive reading choices, and eventually you can coach your child to explore outside of their comfort zone once they’ve started independently making reading choices.

3. Talk to your kids about their reading.

Have you ever asked your child, “What did you do in school today?” And their first answer is, “I dunno.” That’s because conversation is a practice, and it needs to be approached in different ways. Sometimes kids simply don’t have the language yet for describing their emotions or their tastes, and they need models for what those conversations can look like. For example, instead of asking, “what did you do in school today?” You can start by asking, “What was your favorite activity in science today?” Asking specific, framed questions about their interests and activities gives them a specific talking point, rather than a general one. Start small, and work your way up.

The same goes for reading. There are lots of things we may like or dislike about a book, but if someone asks me, “Did you like it?” Then my brain freezes. Ask your kids questions about the plot, characters, or even simply break it down by page or chapter. “Why is Ron Weasley your favorite character?” “What was your favorite chapter in The Hobbit?” “Which illustration in this picture book did you like the most?” Starting small and asking specific questions can lead to the bigger questions and supported conclusions on their reading.

Furthermore, do the same with your own reading. Talk to your child about the parts that you enjoy, even if you’re worried that the content might be too complicated for them. When I talk to my own students about my reading, I tell them about the characters, the structure, and the major plot points. For example, if I’m reading The Lord of the Rings, which is WAY above my toddler’s heads, I would say, “I love how the characters in my story work together to make sure that everyone is safe in their community.” While I don’t have to go into extraordinary detail about Tolkien’s sophisticated world building and the intricacies of Elf and Dwarf politics, I’m sharing an important theme with them that will last. They still understand that I enjoyed the community building and fellowship (pun intended) in the story.

Final Thoughts

The list can go on and on when it comes to motivating kids to read. The possibilities are endless when parents and teachers put their noggins together and share ideas. If you’re looking for some more resources on how to motivate your child to read, I’ve included some links below!

Reading Rockets: Simple Practices to Nurture the Motivation to Read

NYTimes: How to Raise a Reader

Reading Rockets: Top 10 Resources on Reading Motivation

International Literacy Association: Choices Reading Lists

Happy Reading!