Monday, February 11, 2019

Read Africa

How often do you make a list for the grocery store and then leave the list at home and have to remember what you wrote down?  That is Fatima’s dilemma in Grandma’s List, a Children’s Africana Book Award winner by Portia Dery, illustrated by Toby Newsome. 

Calling Grandma’s List an excellent read-aloud book, Africa Access Review says the illustrations “show a neighborhood in Ghana that is very typical of many African towns with shops, gardens, small livestock, and many people outside working and playing. Children not familiar with West Africa can learn about palm nut soup, groundnuts (peanuts) and Bissap drink.”

Africa Access highlights the best books about Africa especially during its February Read Africa initiative but throughout the year as well.

Fatima has convinced her grandmother she can help with the chores on Grandma’s list of errands – but she loses the list and has to remember all the details, mixing up just about everything.  Contrary to expectations, Fatima’s family is very forgiving and she concludes that being a child isn’t so bad after all.

This is an excellent book for children to study the illustrations:
·       How does the dinner table look the same as yours? Different?
·       What about the village scene – what looks familiar? Can you draw a picture of your neighborhood on a Saturday morning?
·       Have children write their own list of grocery items or household tasks and imagine they lost the list. Ask them to write a paragraph about how they could help themselves remember items without that list.
·       Encourage children to consider the importance of details. Find out about cornflour – the kind Fatima mistakenly purchased – and write a paragraph about how it is used differently from wheat flour. Try to find a Ghanaian recipe using cornflour (usually called cornstarch in the United States).
·       Fatima doesn’t like her nickname “Fati.”  Do you have a nickname you like – or don’t like? Write about your nickname – or a nickname you would like to have.

There are more classroom ideas in the Africa Access Review of Grandma’s List as well as recommended picture books (Anansi Reads) and chapter books (Sankofa Reads), book marks and reviews of Children’s Africana Book Award winners. 

Children and teachers may add their own comments about the books they read at - which becomes a student writing activity in itself.  It is also possible for students to submit videos or posters about the books they read, write a letter to the author or illustrator and even request a visit from a Read Africa Teaching Artist. 

 The 2018 CABA awards  will be celebrated with a reception on April 5 and a family festival April 6 at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.  

Monday, January 28, 2019

An Amazing Classroom Resource!

Where can a teacher easily find interesting pieces to share in the classroom? Look no further than Issue 8 of Balloons Lit. Journal.

This magazine for upper elementary and middle school students is an amazing resource of poetry, fiction, and art. What’s more, it includes contributions from all over the world and features student work alongside professional adults. Poems are attractively presented in full page layouts sure to inspire the imagination. I am thrilled that one of my poems,  “Egret” appears on page 41.

I wrote “Egret” while I was out on a brisk walk near a body of water and this beautifully immobile creature stopped me in my tracks. Ask your students to describe an animal or plant so enchanting they couldn’t help but pause for a moment to gaze. Better yet, take your students outside and ask them to stand silently for five minutes, watching the natural world. What did they see, hear, smell? How did they feel? Can they make an effort to pay attention to the grass, the trees, the clouds, the insects, and everything else which flutters unnoticed when we hurry too much? Mindfulness can enrich one’s life as well as one’s writing.   

Listening to an author read their own work can be a meaningful experience for students. Balloons Lit. Journal also offers audio clips on selected pieces. Scroll down the page where Issue 8 appears and you will see an audio section and an opportunity to hear me read my poem, “Egret” as well as three other poets in this issue.  

I highly recommend sharing 14 year old Braxton Schieler’s voice reading his work, “Someday I’ll Be—An Autobiography.” Braxton writes about his life from the age of three till an imagined old age, describing emotional transitions with clarity and insight. Hearing a student read his own personal narrative aloud should jump start many a reluctant pen in your classroom.

Other pieces in Balloons Lit. Issue 8, such as the poems, “I Think My Teacher is a Witch” and  “Pillow Problems” could be great models for humorous writing.

Finally the artwork in Balloons Lit. Issue 8 is stunning. Available in PDF form on the website, images could be projected to present the ekphrastic challenge of providing a written response to and/or description of artwork.

Don’t miss this amazing resource for the classroom! Check out Issue 8 of Balloons Lit. Journal today!

Monday, January 14, 2019

Capturing Black and White America

“The youngest of fifteen, Parks arrives stillborn
And is nearly left for dead until a dip
In ice water shocks his tiny heart to beat.

The baby is named for the man who saved his life, Dr. Gordon.”

Gordon Parks would grow up to become a professional photographer, cataloging American life on film for the Farm Security Administration, Office of War Information, Standard Oil, Ebony, Vogue, Fortune and Life.

His early work (1940-50) is the focus of an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. from November 4, 2018 until February 18, 2019. He is also the subject of Carole Boston Weatherford’s biography, Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America.

For Gordon Parks, photography was the tool he used to expose “the unfairness of segregation,” and the African American struggle against racism. “He not only documented but also served as an advocate for the Civil Rights Movement.”  

Parks photographs often featured everyday Americans in their daily lives, including cleaning woman Ella Watson – a photo that became known as American Gothic. “In one iconic photo,” writes Weatherford, “Parks conveyed both the African American struggle against racism and the contradiction between segregation and freedom.”

“Standing before
the flag of freedom,
cleaning lady Ella Watson
holds the tools of her trade
and the hopes of her grandchildren.” 

·       Ella Watson lived in Washington, D.C. in the 1940s.
·       What do you think she hoped for her grandchildren? For students whose grandparents are living, have them find out their hopes for their grandchildren. Write about it or share those hopes with the class.  Students can also imagine what they might hope for their own children.
·       Ask students to write about three things in their own daily lives that they would photograph – and why they selected these people, events or places. 
·       Perhaps a few single use cameras could be purchased to enable students to photograph a story about their school that could be published online, in the school newspaper or in a local community newspaper. (This would be an opportunity for students to learn about obtaining the rights  to print photographs of other people.)

Parks was not only a photographer. He wrote a novel, directed a film and wrote poetry and music as well.

·       If you wanted to change people’s minds about an issue in society, what do you think would be the best medium and why? 
Gordon Parks is one of many famous Americans profiled by Carole Boston Weatherford. She is the 2019 Children’s Book Guild Nonfiction Award winner  and will speak in Washington at the award celebration on May 11, 2019.  Make plans to come and hear what she has to say – students welcome!

Tuesday, January 1, 2019


Guest Post by Susan L. Roth

Many Americans welcome the new year with parties, fireworks, feasts and champagne at midnight. And what do we do the morning after? We make lists of New Year’s resolutions. Do we keep them? Well, we try.

New Year’s Day is our once-a-year-day for a clean slate, yet another chance to do better and be better. On New Year’s Day everyone is full of good intentions.

New Year's Eve in NYC, Illustration Susan L. Roth
Diets and exercise usually top the list, but really, lists can go on and on and on: Read more good books, work harder, work longer, be more polite, stop being impatient. No more bad words, go to sleep earlier, get up earlier, hang up clothes instead of dropping them on the floor! Be better! Be nicer! Be more generous! Be more appreciative! Be a better friend! Be a better neighbor! Be tolerant, be understanding, be kind, be GOOD!

Chinese New Year, Illustration Susan L. Roth
Once the list is begun, it can quickly fill the page, and usually the list is adhered to, at the beginning, anyway. But what if we were given a plethora of second chances for celebrations as well as for second chances to improve ourselves?

Every Month is a New Year, (Lee and Low, 2017) a book of poems by Marilyn Singer, illustrated by me, is a book full of Happy New Year celebrations from all over the world. I learned so much from making the pictures for this book:  there are no two even similar looking. And as for resolutions, every page turn affords a fresh start.

Muslim New Year, Illustration Susan L. Roth
Herewith I am presenting you with another big list full of related activities for students, at least enough for an entire happy new year.

1-Ask students to write a short piece about the new year celebrations that they enjoy in their own families. 

2-Suggest that they create an accompanying illustration. My favorite medium is collage, but they should choose their own favorite.

3-For the most energized, curious and adventurous students: let them try to find other new year celebrations not mentioned in Every Month Is A New Year that they can write about and illustrate.

4- Invite your group to make a joint project calendar of happy new year illustrations which could certainly begin in February or March. Pictures would not have to correspond with unusual-to-us month-specific celebrations, but rather, personal ones. If there are more than a calendar year's worth of students in your group, continue the calendar for as many months as there are students. The finished product could be presented as a big wall of illustrations as well as a calendar, designed to fill a bulletin board, and/or it could be a consecutive band of illustrations designed to go around the walls of a classroom.

5-Encourage each student to start his/her own list of resolutions. Designate one day every month for looking back to see how they did. Invite anyone who managed to keep his/her resolution for that month to give a 30 second speech telling about it. Was it easy? hard? worth the effort? Does the student feel proud and victorious? Take time for applause! 

Do the same for anyone who wishes to tell about failing in the attempt, with applause for the courage it takes to speak about the failure. (This should be handled with humor).

6-Encourage a designated time, probably monthly, to look into each of the cultures explored in Every Month Is A New Year. The back matter in the book includes great explanations and resources for each holiday.  For example: make a dragon; watch wheat grass grow fast daily, right before everyone's very eyes, in a little dish in the classroom; make a kite and fly it; eat green grapes. With permission and supervision, break pots. (Do skip fireworks and firecrackers).

7-Maybe you could even create a brand new holiday: Happy New Month! Let it include a short monthly LITTLE party, and don't forget the Happy New Month's resolutions.

8-Finally, here are some heavier thoughts to think about, write about, to illustrate. 

Encourage everyone, including teachers and librarians, to think about the concept and idea of starting new, starting over. Why is the possibility of one more chance to BE better and to DO better so important? Does hope REALLY spring eternal? And why do we have celebrations anyway? for incentives? for rewards? just because they are fun?

I hope this food for thought gives you something to ponder all year long.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Look at Things from a Different Angle

Guest Post by Sue Fliess

We all know the story of Santa Claus, who has his long list of gift requests for all the girls and boys around the world. We know he has a sleigh and his 8 (plus Rudolph) reindeer who guide that sleigh. And we know he uses his magic to deliver all those gifts in one magical night, letting children wake up to delight in them Christmas morning.

But we really don’t know much about Mrs. Claus. What is she like? Is she meek? Headstrong? Fun? With my new book, Mrs. Claus Takes the Reins, I decided to explore the personality of Mrs. Claus, the woman behind the scenes who always makes sure Santa is ready for his long journey. When Santa gets sick and decides Christmas must be cancelled, I thought Mrs. Claus might be just the kind of woman who could take over in a pinch, and get the job done—with the help of the elves, but really with no magic at all. And does she ever! She uses her smarts and skill and overcomes every obstacle…and even returns to the North Pole ten minutes early.

Rewrite a story from a new point of view!
Ask your students to choose a favorite book, then rewrite a scene from that book (or a new story altogether, if it’s a picture book), from a different character’s point of view. What if we heard the trickster magician’s side of the story in Frosty the Snowman? Or in Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn Dixie, wouldn’t it be fun to know what the dog is thinking? Maybe we hear Peeta’s story from the Hunger Games, or how Hagrid is feeling in a scene from Harry Potter.

Encourage students to do this while they are writing original stories as well, to help develop the secondary characters in their stories. The discoveries may surprise them!

Monday, November 26, 2018

Have A Blast With Beep And Bob!

guest blog by Jonathan Roth

Bob is an ordinary kid who finds himself having to go to school in the most terrifying place he can imagine: outer space! Luckily he makes friends with a lost little alien named Beep, and together they face all the usual school challenges (tests, too much homework, bullies) and the not-so-usual (lack of gravity, black holes, giant space spiders). You can read all about their adventures (Bob keeps a journal and Beep draws the pictures) and use the following prompts to create your own!

Writing Prompts:
In a few words or paragraphs or pages, complete the following:

“I was just accepted to go to school that’s located _____________ miles away, somewhere near ________________________ but I’m super nervous to go there because ___________________________.”

“Don’t be mad, but I just let an alien into the school and it___________.”

“You’re never going to believe this, but we just went on a field trip to _________ and just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse ____________________.”

“I once traveled to the future for a day and to my great surprise _____________________.”

“Whatever you do, don’t push the red button because it ___________________!”

“I just found a special spray that cures me of my biggest fears, which are ______________ but the spray also gives me strange side effects such as ______________.”

“My Emergency Space Pack is full of such helpful items as ___________________ but also has some pretty useless things like _______________________.”

“Oh, no, I forget the password that disables the Self-Destruct Button I just accidentally pushed, but I know it’s one of my twenty favorite things, which are _________________ and _____.”

“I just read the entire BEEP AND BOB series, which was pretty good, but I have an idea for an even better series which is about ___________________.”

Illustration Prompts:
Beep is a cute alien, but there are some aliens Bob hasn’t met. So Bob will know who to look out for, please draw:

Squeep, who’s even cuter than Beep
and Klob, who’s super scary.
Know any other aliens? Draw them too!

I hope you have fun with your writing and illustrating. The main thing to remember is that you can always, always improve with practice. And being creative can be a blast!

Monday, November 12, 2018

The School’s on Fire!

How often do we think of fire drills as a nuisance that interrupts a lesson or a nice break to get everyone outside for a few minutes? Even though the kids at Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago, Illinois, had dutifully marched out in fire drills, their school lacked the safety measures that might have saved them in a tragic 1958 fire. Ninety-two children and 3 teachers died in the fire. Although it was not the worst school fire ever, it did lead to dramatic improvements in fire prevention measures in schools.

“This can’t be happening,” (remembered thirteen-year-old Michele Barale.) “Schools don’t burn down. Who ever heard of a school burning down?”

Rebecca C. Jones knew about a school that did indeed burn down in Chicago and wanted to learn the real story behind it. She conducted dramatic interviews with 26 survivors who shared their memories and experiences, classroom by classroom.

“The neighbors’ ladders were far too short to reach the second-floor windows, so some kids began jumping to the alley.”

In one classroom, a back door to the school’s only fire escape was always kept locked. 

“Sister Geraldita normally kept the key to the back door on a key ring attached to her belt…She had forgotten to bring (her keys) to school that day….10-year old Matty Plovanich watched his teacher. ‘I will never forget the look on her face,” he says. “It was complete panic and anguish.”

Jones provides a riveting account of children and teachers responding to a very immediate danger. As the subtitle says, there was bravery, tragedy and determination. There are also opportunities for young writers today to reflect on various reactions to a dangerous situation and how they can prepare themselves to think quickly in an emergency. The very real story of this tragic fire could even open the door to difficult conversations about current dangers in schools and communities.

·       What might you have done in Sister Geraldita’s situation when you did not have keys to open the door to the fire escape?

·       Teachers tried different approaches to keeping their students calm.  What do you think you might do to calm younger children in an emergency in the school, on the school bus or on the playground?

·       Tragedy affected every child and family connected to Our Lady of the Angels School. What are some examples of bravery and determination? 
o   What does it mean to be brave?
o   Do you remember a time when you have been brave?

·       After classes were back in session, some teachers did not want anyone to talk about the fire ever again. Do you think that was a good idea?

·       Do you have an escape plan if there is a fire in your home? Describe a conversation at home about what each family member should do during any type of emergency.

·       Survey the fire prevention measures that exist in your school. Are there things that aren’t working, like some doors and rules at Our Ladies of the Angels? What can you do about something you think is not working as it should?

In December, there will be special programs in Chicago to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the fire.  A new school was built on the site in 1960 with state-of-the-art sprinklers, smoke detectors, fire doors and fire-resistant stairwells; the school closed permanently in 1999.  More information about the fire is available at 

School Library Journal concluded that “this moving narrative of one of the most devastating school fires in U.S. history is recommended for middle school nonfiction collections.”