Marty Pants

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I spent my last week of school sneaking in time between paperwork deadlines and cleaning chores to read the first in Mark Parisi’s Marty Pants books, Marty Pants: Do Not Open. The book was recommended to me by one of my fourth graders who read it after talking to one of her third grade friends about it who actually got to meet Parisi during a school visit. (Parisi’s sister-in-law is a third grade teacher at my school.) Marty certainly helped make light of a stressfully busy week.

Marty Pants is one of those boys who seems completely oblivious to the world around him, functioning in a universe of his own making. It’s great to hear the story told by Marty himself but hilariously unbelievable to think that any boy – real or fictional – could survive long with his particular way of seeing the world. And yet, I think I’ve had a Marty in my class every year I’ve taught. Throughout the story he misinterprets just about everything that he sees and hears and gets into some trouble with grownups on a daily basis.

Though not a graphic novel, Parisi illustrates every page and parts of the story rely on those pictures. One of the rising 4th graders that I met on Move Up Day asked if I would let him draw his comic strips and we had a short discussion about the many ways to show learning and tell stories, including comics. I can’t help but think Marty Pants was a big inspiration to him.

You can tell by the dinged corners and grimy cover of the edition that I borrowed that lots of kids have already enjoyed this book. You will too. It’s a quick, easy read, especially if you don’t have cumulative folders to organize and report cards to finish.

who gets the hat?

IMG_0108Jon Klassen’s We Found a Hat is his least dark addition to the hat series. I fell in love with Klassen with This is Not My Hat and I have not met a kid who didn’t agree with me that it was one of the best picture books around. They love that the thief gets it in the end, though they always hope they will get away with their own transgressions. How will the kids react to We Found a Hat? The friends in the story ultimately put their friendship over a hat that only one could have. It’s a love story, it’s a story about characters acting the way society wants them to act. Klassen’s other stories don’t follow the traditional kindness model we often see in picture books. And I think that’s why we love it.

We Found a Hat is pleasant. I still love the way Klassen tells a story, relying on his sparse  illustrations and short sentences, requiring his readers to pay attention to the connection between the two. But, I found myself wishing that one turtle ended the story wearing the hat.

perspective matters when kids act out

The kids were working in groups on their regions of the United States project this afternoon in between shows. Changes in routine are never good for my crew but they were doing fairly well. They sang all their rainforest-themed songs for the kindergarten audience in the morning and returned to class eager to work on their projects. I was checking in with a team who had let every sparkling light distract them from the task at hand when I noticed Lucy sitting apart from her team, folding wads of paper. Fiddling with paper is one of Lucy’s “tells” – something was up. I wrapped up with my unfocused duo and made my way across the room. I started with her team. It’s usually best to let Lucy overhear a possible solution than to try to work out things directly.

The team had been working for two days on a rap of the states of their region and while it was a terrible rap, it was a great example of teamwork. But then, as they were practicing, another student mentioned that they had put in a few too many “yeah”s. One teammate agreed and Lucy lost it.

I know what you’re thinking. If you are not a teacher you are thinking this kid needs to toughen up. If she’s going to let a minor critique derail her, she’ll never get anywhere and coddling her is only making it worse. But, if you teach in an inner city school, you’re probably wondering what sort of trauma Lucy has lived through or if she is safe at home, you may be wondering if she has a diagnosis that allows her to have special support or has an undiagnosed disability.

Lucy’s a kid with issues, issues we are still trying to figure out. But most days she’s the most sought after basketball team mate in the fourth grade, a go-to Math helper, and a much-admired singer.

And, she’s a kid who has a hard time recovering from frustration. Lucy can stubbornly refuse to tell you what’s wrong for hours. She just won’t talk, won’t work, and sometimes won’t move. Often, all we can do is wait for the storm to pass and hope she can talk afterwards.

Once I got the story about what was happening, I went to sit by Lucy. I saw she had broken a half a dozen possible sticks and had them scattered all over the chair and floor. I mentioned how dangerous it looked, all those jagged edges and made a show of brushing the one’s off the chairs in a way to avoid “getting slivers.” I talked to her a while, well, talked at her knowing she wasn’t ready to talk back, and once I saw that she was calm enough to at least not knock anything over, I left her to work with some other kids. When I looked over I saw her collecting the rest of the broken popsicle sticks using the same safe method I had used to avoid slivers. A few minutes after that she asked if she could take a walk. And when she got back, she just went straight to work.

Today was the 170th day of school. It must have been Lucy’s 70th “episode”. And it was the first time I have ever seen her recover herself.

She has made some progress after all.

Books to make teachers cry

I have to give a big shout out to the guy at Phoenix Books in Burlington, VT who told me about the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Award and pointed to the little note cards on the book shelves indicating this year’s nominees. That’s how I found the book Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson.

Let me preface this by saying I am having one of the worst teaching years of my career. No, I mean it, the worst. Just to give you an idea, last week my principal said to me “Well, at least we got through 163 days without anyone setting anything on fire.” Yeah, we had to restart that clock on day 164.

img_0082.jpgAnyway, this book revolves around the relationship 3 boys have with their 6th grade teacher, one of “The Good Ones.” And this year, I feel like I may never reach that coveted title and become one of the Good Ones myself, so I wasn’t sure I wanted to read the book. But, the cover art showing the three boys peaking through a little window, and the burning need to figure out what happened to Ms. Bixby and why this was her last day, along with the high praise by Vermont’s librarians pushed me to buy the book.

Now that I’ve wiped away the tears, I can tell you that I’m glad I bought it.

This book is an adventure story that tells what happens when three 6th graders skip school to go see their teacher in the hospital. Each chapter is told by one of the boys, so we slowly get their back story and find out why Ms. Bixby is important enough for them to spend their allowance and risk getting in trouble. There are times we think they won’t make it, like when Steve has to face the shark in the toilet at the bookstore or when George Nelson double crosses them and runs off with their money (you are going to have to read it yourself) but you kind of know all along that they will make it, it just won’t be quite what they expect.

I see several of my students in these boys. They come to school and I have only the most basic understanding of what they live with. They bring their anger and sadness and neediness with them and make themselves hard to love. But like Ms. Bixby, like just about every teacher I know, I do love them.

Teachers should read this book. Parents should read this book. And middle school kids should read this book, because John David Anderson captured our love and dysfunction in this story and we should always take time out to look at our lives.

What would you do with your last day?

Kneeknock Rise

It seemed right to pick up a Newbury Honor winner for my next Book A Day Challenge. I’ve read Tuck Everlasting but I don’t think I’ve read anything else from Natalie Babbitt. Knee knock Rise is a short book, which will make it appealing to a few readers in my class, and a bit of a mystery, which will appeal to a few others.

The Megrimum has been a part of Instep for as long as anyone can remember, a moaning spirit that is delightfully spooky and keeps everyone on their toes in town. The feared monster is the highlight of the annual Fair where folks hope for the bad weather that will wake the beast and send him moaning down to terrorize townsfolk and visitors alike.

Teased by his cousin, Egan decides to climb Kneeknock Rise (a delightfully descriptive name) and defeat the Megrimum once and for all. The results of his adventure are not quite what he expected, nor what I expected, which makes it a good read.

At a level S, and only 118 pages, this is an easy sell to even a reluctant fourth grade reader.

All of the Above

My second read for the Book A Day Challenge, which, yes, took me more than a day to read, is All of the Above by Shelly Pearsall. I picked up the book because of its Math theme. Though fiction, the book is based on the quest of a Cleveland middle school to break the world record for constructing a tetrahedron. A misfit group of middle schoolers, led by what on the surface (and that’s all we get in the book, is the surface) seems like an uninspiring Math teacher, decides to start an after school club to break the record.

The team succeeds, though that there was a book written about it makes it pretty much a forgone conclusion that they would, but they do face some obstacles along the way. Each chapter is told by a different character, including parents and other grown-ups drawn into the project. That’s the part I like most – different perspectives were given without repeating the same scenes from different views. Every character is flawed, another plus, without being pitiful or caricatured.

The book is level U which makes it a reasonable independent read for half of my class at the end of fourth grade. The urban setting, the struggles of living in various levels of poverty, and the picture of school as a sometimes boring place that kids long to escape all make the book relevant to my students. The short chapters will appeal to some, and the sketches by one of the characters will attract others. This is a good example of realistic fiction for classes that don’t want to add yet another Holocaust book to their selections.

Starting Book A Day with Magic

IMG_0018I am drawn to titles that include a reference to magic and even more to book jackets featuring a dragon, so Susan Cooper’s The Magician’s Boy seemed the perfect way to start out the Book A Day Challenge. Granted, that it is a particularly short book weighed in as well, since my last day of school is still a month away and I have miles to grade before I read.

The Magician’s Boy also features another literary device that I usually enjoy. Cooper takes familiar stories and characters and places them in a slightly new context. The Boy, nameless through most of the story, is apprenticed to a magician who will not teach him magic. But he is given the responsibility of the puppet theater, telling the story of Saint George and the Dragon.

Margaret Hodges’ version of the story was a favorite of my daughters. We often included it in our “book festivals” until the pages started falling from the binding. But I did think it odd to include this as the central story for this jump into Story Land since it didn’t seem like a well-known tale in our day. Cooper summarizes just enough so her readers know what’s going on.

When the Saint George puppet goes missing from the boy’s performance case, the magician sends him into the story to look for him. That’s when things get weird for me. The boy meets the Old Woman who lives int he shoe, and her too many children; the Pied Piper who tries to lead the children away; Jack and his Giant; and even Little Red Riding Hood. The stories didn’t seem to go together for me, though I suppose once upon a time, children would have been familiar with all of them.

I wonder if my students are? I don’t think most would have ever heard of the Pied Piper though they likely read Little Red in school. Teaching 4th grade, I haven’t been reading the old fairy tales they way I did with my 2nd graders. My students, mostly born in the United States of immigrant parents, have not had the same exposure to tales as I once had. My childhood was not filled with books outside of school, as theirs is not, but somehow we seemed to base more of our popular media on traditional tales than happens now. It was as if we know Little Red Riding Hood as a neighbor, never having been formally introduced, she was just always there.

So, how will my students take The Magician’s Boy, or any of the many books based on fairy tale characters? Should I take the time to survey the class about their familiarity with traditional literature at the start of the year?

There is so much material to cover in 4th grade. But, it wouldn’t take long to read a fairy tale now and then. It would make a few books make a bit more sense.

Check out Miller’s 8th Annual Book A Day Challenge here.