More than Just a Boring Old Book Club


As if it isn’t obvious, reading is my favorite subject. It was my favorite subject growing up and it’s my favorite subject to teach.  I squeeze and sneak it into every minute of the day. I think that teaching it is so important that when I was teaching full-time (I’m taking some time off while I get my Masters) I lead the coolest  after-school book club ever.

Kids need to feel empowered, they need to feel confident and important, but when it comes to reading, children often feel anxious, self-conscious, and lousy. According to the literacy company, “forty-four percent of American 4th grade students cannot read fluently, even when they read grade-level stories aloud under supportive testing conditions.” 44%! And I can guarantee you, that percentage is higher in low-income areas. I’m sorry, but Americans should be embarrassed  by this number. In our society, it’s inexcusable. I could go on and on about what I think American’s are doing wrong, but I’m not going to. Instead, I’m going to show you how a super awesome book club can help.

Scholastic.com lists seven ways for parents and guardians to build better readers:

1. Read with her for at least 30 minutes a day. This can include books, chore lists, signs, board games, menus, etc.

2. Take turns. When you read with him, read one page, then have him read one, and so on.

3. Ask questions. Build her comprehension skills by asking her who, what, when, where, why questions. Engage in a discussion about what you’re reading.

4. Be patient. Let him try to figure out the word. Give them at least a full minute.

5. Help her when she needs it. Show them how to use the context clues and root words to figure words out. Answer her questions about the meaning of words.

6. Read different-level books. It’s okay if he chooses an “easy” book to read. Reading a familiar favorite is a good confidence booster. Read more advanced books to him to introduce new words and challenging stories.

7. Praise her. Learning to read is frustrating. Encourage her by praising her and pay attention when she wants to read.

The book club I decided to use (which was created by two amazing teachers in New Hampshire) allows children and their parents to carry out each of these goals every week.

My biggest worry about the book club, was that kids wouldn’t be interested. When I was a kid I thought book clubs were for middle-aged ladies who sit around eating crumpets discussing the lusty world of Danielle Steel. Don’t get me wrong, I loved reading, but I don’t think the idea of a book club would have appealed to me. However, I really didn’t have any trouble at all getting kids to join. I went to every classroom, passed out flyers, and talked it up. At first they didn’t seem to really care, but when they heard they were going to get to keep their books, their ears perked up. I actually had to turn kids away. So if you decide to do this, talk it up as best you can. The more excited you are about it, the more excited they will be about it. And don’t worry about the cost of the books, it’s not going to come out of your pocket!

Alright, so the reason this book club is so cool and works at improving reading scores so well is because it’s a companion book club. You can name the club anything you like, but the type of book club is called a “book-companion book club”. Each kid is matched up with a companion. Ideally you’d like the companion to be the child’s parent or guardian, but if they can’t do it then a grandparent, teacher, staff member, police officer, fire fighter, or other prominent member of the community can step in instead. Children are excited to team up with adults, they like being able to show off their reading skills and they enjoy the extra attention. They also love keeping their companion accountable for their reading!

Okay, so it’s just a fact that people learn better when they’re having fun. So we jam pack every second of book club with fun. Here’s how it works:

Book club meets once a month. I find it’s easier for parents if the club meets in the evening, so they have time to get done with work and get their kids fed. We always met at 5pm. Everyone arrives with their companion, their book, and either a snack or an object. Whether or not they bring a snack or an object depends on what team they’re on. Each month we divide the club into two teams. One team is in charge of bringing in a snack that relates to the story (such as when we read The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo one child brought in soup, because soup is the Queen’s favorite dish). The other team is in charge of bringing in an object that relates to the story (they have to make or find the object, they can’t buy it).  When we read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever a little girl brought in a fire-extinguisher since the characters are always starting fires. Encourage the kids to get as creative as they can with this!

One of my super awesome kids. She made hamburgers and french fries (out of rice crispy treats) because the main character from the book of the month, Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson, loves burgers. 

After everyone settles in we say a little greeting, and then immediately begin the book discussion. Because we had so many kids, we usually split the group into two smaller groups, but you don’t have to. Each month a different child leads the discussion. They are responsible for coming up with and facilitating questions (if a child doesn’t feel comfortable doing this, try to get him to do it with his companion, but don’t force anyone who really doesn’t want to do it, this is supposed to be fun!).

After the discussion each child and their companion is given a piece of construction paper. They draw something they particularly enjoyed in the book (make sure they put their names and the title of the book on the back of the page). Sometimes it’s nice to play music that compliments the story. Collect their drawings when they finish. These will be bound into a memory book that each child will get to take home as a present at the last meeting.

When everyone’s done drawing each companion pair gets to share either the object or the food that they brought. They need to say what it is and why they thought it represented the story. This is show and tell time only, I always made everyone wait until the end to eat, otherwise everyone gets too distracted.

When they’re done sharing it is time for the most exciting time of all: the revelation of the next book! Everyone always gets excited for this part, and I make a huge deal of it. Every month I put the new books in a large sparkly silver gift bag. I make everyone give me a drum roll, and then I pull out a copy and hold it up. I read a description of the book (whether it’s the one on the back of the book or a better one I found online) with as much expression as possible. I use different voices if I think it’ll pump everyone up. And then I hand out the books. Each book comes with a bookmark. The bookmark has an image on one side and what the child is responsible for bringing at the next meeting (as well as “Discussion Leader” on the bookmark of the child whose turn it will be the following month) on the other side. When each child has their fresh new book in their hands, we all dig in to the treats.

The last meeting is party time. Order a pizza and watch the movie version of one of the books the club read that year. Have everyone share their favorites and their least favorites, and present each child with their memory book. They love seeing what they’ve accomplished.

Showing off his object (a toy bus for the bus Lonnie has to ride in Locomotion) during memory page time!  

So what about the books? Why do we give them to the kids and how to we pay for it? Well, it’s important to give the kids the books because it starts their personal library. Some of the kids in the school I worked in didn’t own any books at all. They deserve to have them, and if I can make that possible I think I should do it. I plan the books we will read a year ahead of time. My assistant and I wrote to a number of companies in the community explaining what we were doing and why it is important that they own the books. In no time we got donations. The Rotary Club wound up giving us $300, which actually lasted us a couple of years. I look for deals. It would be great if I could buy any books I wanted, but I can’t, so I have to find deals, like the $1 novels featured in each scholastic book order and the discount shelves in book stores. And don’t forget to get a teacher discount card at Barnes and Noble (but try to shop locally if you can).

I know this sounds like a lot of work, and sometimes it is, but I promise it’s worth it. The kids really enjoy it (and not only because they get a free book out of it) and the parents just love it. And if it’s mandatory for you to do something extracurricular anyway, why not suggest this to your principal? It’s way more fun than being on a data committee or something. I guarantee the students’ reading scores will go up, and I guarantee their self-confidence will get a super-duper boost! And don’t think you can only hold a book club in a school setting. If you’re a librarian organize a companion book club in your library. Or if you’re a parent organize a companion group with some of your friends and their children. Remember, it’s okay if some of the books are easy for some of the kids and difficult for others. Kids need exposure to all levels.

Let’s get all our kids reading fluently! Happy book-clubbing!

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Caldecott in the Classroom


One thing that gets me through the (usually) dark cold winter months are the award ceremonies. January is a month to view films, check out books, and pick your favorites. Although I love the magic of the red carpet, the Oscars is not the award ceremony that I look forward to most. The award that keeps me biting my nails at the edge of my seat are actually the awards that go out to the most distinguished picture books for children: The Caldecott Medals.

I think most teachers are able to tell you that the Caldecott goes to the “best picture books” but I’m not so confident that they know what makes them the “best”. Well, the truth is, there are an infinite amount of arguments one could make about why they think one book is better or more distinguished than another. In fact, just because a picturebook wins a Caldecott doesn’t actually mean that it’s the best. It merely means that a panel of teachers, authors, publishers, professors, librarians, and other kid lit folks discussed and argued and voted and finally decided upon a book, or books, that they personally believed was the most distinguished books. Another group of people could have looked at the same books and come up with a completely different choice. So, does winning the Caldecott really matter? In retrospective, no it does not. Which is why teachers, parents, and children should not just pick books that have awards stuck to them. There are hundreds of distinguished books sitting on shelves that haven’t won any awards at all. However, the reason I look forward to the Caldecott award is because it’s something that really lends itself to the classroom. One of the most multipurpose projects that can be done in a classroom is a mock Caldecott committee.

A mock Caldecott committee will give students practice in the following areas:
Reading
Art
Design
Making Predictions
Evaluating
Forming Conclusions
Debating
Making Decisions
Math
Leadership
Persuasion Skills
Writing

I’m sure that list could go on and on. Here’s how to do a mock Caldecott in your classroom.

Believe me when I tell you I know first hand what it’s like to have an air tight schedule and being asked to squeeze in another five minutes of something. But I promise that the Caldecott project is not as invasive to your schedule as it may seem. Most of it can be weaved into what you’re already doing.

First things first, you’re going to need the books. The American Library Association, the Horn Book, and some other children’s literature related websites will offer lists of books published in the previous year (however please know that they’re never full lists). If your school library books don’t have them then your public library probably will. Most public libraries allow teachers to keep books longer than regular members, just ask for the teacher card. Get as many of the books as possible (even the books not on the ALAs website!). As this is obviously a long list of books, you might want to check over them before and see if you can narrow them down to a manageable number for what suits the children in your classroom. Once you get the books bring them into your classroom and keep them in a segregated location, then explain to your students what you’re going to be doing over the next few weeks.

For the first week just let the kids get accustomed to the books. Read some aloud to them (morning meeting, after lunch, at the end of the day are all great read aloud times). Let them read them during silent read, at recess, when they’re done with their work. At first just tell them to read them and to look at the pictures and to think about what they see. Let them be free to explore without adding your opinion to any of the books. Remind them to return them to the location when they are done. If you have time to make one, also give them each a check list of the books, and encourage them to try to read all of them.

During the second week have some conversations with your students about art and design. Read them examples of past winners and discuss why the students thought they won. Read and share the book Picture This: How Pictures Work by Molly Bang with your class. Make a class list of what elements they think make a distinguished book i.e. character placement on the page, using color to show mood (like blue for sad), if the picture adds to the text, etc., and post it in the classroom. Afterwards, explain to them that they should apply what they’ve discussed to the books they read the week before. That Friday have each child write down their three favorite books on a piece of paper and collect them. Tally them over the weekend.

The third week is when the fun really happens. Make a list of books according to what the students voted on the previous Friday. These will be the books you will focus on that week. Remove the other books or put them in your library. Keep the ones that were voted for on display. Use Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to debate. Have each child write three reasons why they chose each of the books they voted for so they have something to reference (if you’re teaching a lower elementary class then modify this by making a class list).  Have the students sit in a circle or a “U” and let them debate. Encourage them to defend the ones they chose by articulating their reasons why. Give some input, but mostly be a mediator. Let the kids get a little wild.

On Thursday let the voting begin. Have each child vote for three books: one winner and two honor (the real Caldecott committee can choose as many honors as they want, in fact they don’t have to choose any if they don’t want to!). Here’s where it gets confusing. They pick three books. They put a 3 next to the one they want to win, a 2 next to their second choice, and a 1 next to their third choice. When you tally it up, which ever book has the most points wins the gold, and the others win the silvers. If there’s not a clear winner do a little more debating and another round of voting the following day. At the end of Friday you’ll have your winners!!! It wouldn’t hurt to have a Caldecott party! Cookies with yellow frosting and a special guest read aloud (firefighters, police officers, the principal are all great choices!).

When the real winners are announced compare them to your class’s choices. The Horn Book and ALA are always discussing these choices online. Share their explanations and arguments with your class. You can also have your students participate in the online Horn Book mock Caldecott committee (www.hbook.com). They can debate with other lovers of picturebooks and even people who have sat on real Caldecott and other ALA committees in the blog and then cast their votes. The kids will feel proud to be able to connect with such a prestigious award.

Here is a list of books that are getting some Caldecott buzz this year. Check them out. What do you think of them? When the winners are announced I will be back to discuss them.

Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell

Blackout by John Rocco

Grandpa Green by Lane Smith

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen

Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet

Where’s Walrus? By Stephen Savage

Stuck by Oliver Jeffers

Neville By Norton Juster Illustrated by G. Brian Karas

Naamah and the Ark at Night by Susan Campbell Bartoletti Illustrated by Holly Meade

Blue Chicken by Deborah Freedman

A Ball for Daisy by Chris Raschka

The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse by Eric Carle

Can We Save the Tiger? By Martin Jenkins Illustrated by Vicky White

(The list of picturebooks published in 2011 is obviously a trillion times longer, but at least this will give you a start! Have fun!)

On a final note, please do not believe that this project is only intended for young children. This project is appropriate for Kindergarten through post-graduate level students. You are never too old to examine and evaluate art. You are never ever ever too old for picturebooks! Don’t deprive your children or students of picturebooks, encourage them to include them in what they read.

Book Review: The Artist Who Painted A Blue Horse


A simple book with a profound message, Eric Carle’s latest masterpiece  The Artist Who Painted Blue Horses is a book that everyone will benefit from reading.

Sometimes I get worried about authors who have been in the business for decades, especially someone like Eric Carle who’s design is practically a brand. When I see them come out with another book I usually roll my eyes and keep walking. Not that I discount them as authors. I’m aware that some of there stuff is fantastic. You can’t sneeze at books like Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?  or The Very Hungary Caterpillar. But I get worried they get caught up in the politics of publishing books for the name on the cover instead of the content or quality of the book. When I first saw The Artist Who Painted A Blue Horse I thought this, rolled my eyes, and kept on looking around the bookstore. But when I heard about the book getting some Caldecott buzz I knew I was going to have to crack it open. And I’m glad I did.

The book is very short, it’s only about 50 words long. It begins with the introduction of a boy who says he’s an artist. Then the artist makes a list of the things he paints: a blue horse, a red crocodile, a yellow cow, etc. And then it ends with the boy saying “I am a good artist.” Seems pretty simple right? But then Carle adds a bit more in the back of the book that makes you realize how important a blue horse, a red crocodile, a yellow cow, and other nonsense is. He includes this image:

It is a painting entitled Blue Horse I which was painted in 1911 by Franz Marc. Carle then includes a paragraph about Marc and a paragraph about himself. He explains that Franz Marc was a German artist during the turn of the century who painted unconventional paintings that were often unrealistic in color. Many critics objected to his ideas but others did not, and eventually he was very influential in the modern and expressionist movements. Carle then explains that he also spent his childhood in Germany; Nazi Germany. He explained that the Nazis forbade modern and expressionistic art. However an art teacher secretly showed him some of Marc’s paintings, which changed the way Carle thought about art for the rest of his life.

Carle’s book encourages kids to think outside of the box. He’s telling them that it’s okay to be different. He’s saying that the way we express ourselves is important and is special, no matter how unconventional it is. Everyone can benefit from this message. As parents and educators, it’s important for us to celebrate the individuality of the children that are around us, no matter how far out it is. I once had a boy in my class who was the definition of unconventional. Not only did he love purple, hum the songs from “Hairspray” while he worked, and pranced around singing “I’m a little girl”, but he also flapped his hands when he was excited, would look around the room with one eye closed and one eye opened, and would start writing a sentence with his left hand and then switch to his right hand half way across the paper. The kid was strange.

But then one day, during morning meeting, I showed that class a stick. I said, “today we’re going to pretend. This stick is no longer a stick, it’s whatever your imagination says it is.” So I pretended to brush my teeth with it and said, “see? It’s a toothbrush.” Then I handed it to the boy sitting next to me. He stared at it. “Well?” I said. “What is it?” He looked up at me. “It’s a stick.” After some pulling of teeth he finally mumbled “it’s a pencil.” The next few kids did pretty much the same thing. I was astounded at how second graders could be so unoriginal, so boring! But then my little oddball got hold of that stick.

“It’s a rainbow maker.”

“A what?”

“A rainbow maker. See?” He put the stick on it’s side and turned it in the air in the shape of an arc. “See the rainbow?” Then he got up and walked around the room making rainbows with his rainbow maker.”

He’s the kind of kid that’s going to do something special with his life. We need people to think like him, otherwise we wouldn’t have things like ipods, yo-yos, airplanes, pogosticks, computers, shape-ups, mousetraps, microwaves, cupcakes, sparklers, saddles, or  picturebooks.

Think what would happen if I said “no kid, you’re a boy so you can’t make rainbows with that stick.” Then he might be afraid to speak openly about his ideas forever. And that awesome thing he was going to do in the future would never happen. He’s a kid that needs a book like The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse. And so are the kids who said the stick was a stick. And so did I for reminding me that weird kids are special. Get a copy of the book and share it. Share it with your kids, share it with your friends, and share it with yourself.

I give the book five huge rainbow makers.

Watch Eric Carle talk about the book here: