Jan 30, 2015

Raising Readers: The Example of an Older Child

The selection of our very first chapter book to read aloud was a long and agonizing process. Aaron was three-and-a-half at the time, and I was very concerned about it being a positive experience so that he would want to do it again (and again) (and again).

I finally decided on The Mouse and the Motorcycle, and I can still remember introducing (essentially, selling) the book to him: "See? This book is divided into chapters. We read one or two chapters at a time. Then we put in a bookmark to save our place and we come back to it the next day. There are only a few pictures, so you just listen and make a picture in your head instead. Isn't that awesome?!"

In the three years since that time, we've read dozens of chapter books. A few days ago, I realized, with something of a start, that Bradley is now the same age as Aaron was when I made the grand chapter book introduction.

But Bradley needs no introduction.

As the third child, he is very well acquainted with the concept of a chapter book. Although he has yet to listen to one from beginning to middle to end, he has been listening in on snippets for years. He knows Ramona and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and Charlie Buckets. He knows what a chapter is (the other night, he asked, "What's the name of Chapter 7?" and when I told him, he said, "Oh! Chapter 7: Alone in the Dark. Dad! Do you know what Chapter 7 is called? Alone in the Dark."). He knows that there are only scattered pictures (and often asks, "Is there a picture yet?").

This prompted me to think about all the other things I haven't taught Bradley but he has just absorbed through the examples of his older brothers.
  • A pleasant afternoon can be spent looking through a stack of books
  • The idea that letters on the page make words
  • How to listen to a picture book
  • What speech bubbles are
  • How to listen to an audiobook
  • The library is a thrilling place
  • We treat books with respect
  • It's exciting to receive a book as a gift.
But most importantly, he has learned that reading is fun, enjoyable, and exciting. He has observed and applied with virtually no instruction from me.

Of course, it's easiest to have the "example of an older child" if that older child is a member of your immediate family. But cousins, friends, and, yes, even adults can also provide a wonderful example. In retrospect, I'm wondering if I could have utilized someone else's example a bit more with Aaron (or even now, who might provide that example for him for the new reading experiences that are still coming down the pike).

I'm very interested to hear from all of you about how the examples of others have influenced your child's love of reading? For those of you who have only children, do you feel like there was a particular person (or people) who provided an example that got your child hooked on reading? Or, like me with Aaron, have you had to make a special effort to introduce new ideas?

Jan 28, 2015

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing

This is the kind of book that makes me want to start throwing around superlatives: monumental, extraordinary, miraculous. But even the superlatives pale in comparison to the sheer magnitude of this story. It is epic. (See, I can't help myself.)

It's the kind of story that should be unreal, but it isn't.

In 1914 Ernest Shackleton set off on an expedition with 27 other men. Their goal: to cross Antarctica from one side to the other (known as the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition). Their ship was called the Endurance. It was supposed to take them through the Weddell Sea and land in Vahsal Bay where they would begin crossing the continent on foot.

But it never made it that far.

As it navigated the icy waters of the Weddell Sea, the Endurance became trapped in an ice pack. Unable to escape the floes, the crew wintered on the ship. They thought they would be able to get out in the spring, but the breaking up of the ice put extreme pressure on the ship and crushed her in October 1915.

Up to that point, I was interested in the story, but in a half-hearted sort of way. Mike (who read the book a couple of years ago) kept asking, "Where are you now?" only to be disappointed at my slow progress. He finally said, "I guess it's just not that interesting to you."

But with the loss of the Endurance, things picked up rapidly until I was the one badgering Mike about it and saying (over and over and over again), "This book is CRAZY! I cannot believe this ACTUALLY happened."

Shackleton and his men survive on an ice floe for several months until it literally disintegrates around them (one of the more harrowing moments occurs when a huge crack opens up right under one of the tents in the middle of the night, and they have to find and save one of the men from the frigid water), whereupon they begin to navigate the treacherous Antarctic waters in three small boats. They alternate between being wet and frozen, nearly die of thirst, and navigate the majority of the time in the dark. When they finally make it to the uninhabitable Elephant Island, six of them leave for South Georgia for a rescue ship while the remaining men stay on the island with only the barest of supplies.

The story mounts to an unbelievable climax. In fact, if the tale was fictional, I'm afraid I might have criticized the author for taking it a bit too far, leading the readers along to the last possible, the ultimate, second. But the whole thing is true, and instead of criticizing, I'm just awestruck. There was one point where Alfred Lansing tried to convey the futility of what Shackleton and two other men were about to attempt. He said, "Not one man had ever crossed the island for the simple reason that it could not be done." He wasn't being facetious; these men were literally attempting the impossible.

As I was listening to this book, I kept thinking, How is it possible that I am a member of the same species as these men? How is it possible that we are breathing the same oxygen or that the same blood is flowing through our veins? It is incredible how much they were physically able to endure, but even more than that, I couldn't believe how well they kept up their spirits through the long ordeal, which I think is a testament to Shackleton's amazing leadership.

For example, after they lost the Endurance, Alfred Lansing noted this:
They were castaways in one of the most savage regions in the world, drifting they knew not where, without a hope of rescue, subsisting only so long as providence sent them food to eat. And yet, they had adjusted with surprisingly little trouble to their new life, and most of them were quite sincerely happy. The adaptability of the human creature is such that they actually had to remind themselves on occasion of their desperate circumstances.
One of the most tender moments for me was a scene that easily could have been left from the book. It was really rather inconsequential in the vast scope of the story, but I think it gives a glimpse into maybe why these men were able to survive with one another for so long. One day, Greenstreet (the cook) prepares their daily ration of warm milk. As he passes it around, his own portion gets spilled. He is devastated (when you have so little to look forward to, even such a small thing can be crushing). Instantly, several of the men pour a little of their own precious milk into his cup. That one scene really humanized the book for me--it not only showed that they were not immune to sadness and disappointment but also that they would band together to be kind and help out one another. Even though this particular moment had a real impact on me, Lansing filled the book with many similar examples.

I honestly can't praise Alfred Lansing's writing enough. The book was published in 1959, but it reads with all the gripping realism we've come to expect from more recent books like Unbroken. After finishing, I was so disappointed to find out that he didn't write any other books during his lifetime. One of my very favorite lines came after Shackleton and two of his companions slide down a mountain. He said,
"They were breathless and their hearts were beating wildly, but they found themselves laughing uncontrollably. What had been a terrifying prospect, possibly a hundred seconds before, had turned into a breathtaking triumph. They looked up against the darkening sky and saw the fog curling over the edge of the ridges, perhaps two thousand feet above them, and they felt that special kind of pride of a person who, in a foolish moment, accepts an impossible dare and then pulls it off to perfection."
I listened to the audio version of the book, and Simon Prebble carried out Lansing's words brilliantly. His voice rose and fell with the intensity of the situation (and there were times when I thought he couldn't possibly get any more animated, but I was wrong). He made each of the characters come alive with different and distinct voices. In short, he was the perfect narrator for this story.

I fully intend on buying our family our own copy of this book. Even though my oldest child is only six years old, I've already started collecting ideas for when he is in middle school or high school and looking for new reading material. This is one book I want to have readily available and on our shelf. It is exciting and intense without being dark or disturbing. (I keep wanting to compare it to Unbroken, but where I wouldn't feel comfortable with a 13-year-old reading that, I would be completely okay with a 13-year-old reading this. Man vs. nature is infinitely easier to read about than man vs. man.) With a home full of boys, I have a feeling our copy will be quite battered and bruised in ten years.

Early in the book, Alfred Lansing quotes this praise: "For scientific leadership, give me Scott; for swift and efficient travel, Amundsen; but when you're in a hopeless situation, when there seems no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton." Now that I've read this story, I can see why someone would say such a thing. Although not a perfect person by any means, Shackleton knew how to keep up morale and how to make impossible decisions. It was an unbelievable, but very inspiring, story.

(Oh, and if you're feeling a little down about January, this book does wonders with helping you see you actually don't have it so bad.)

Jan 26, 2015

Skills Overload

I'm not shy about admitting that I have a least favorite stage of early childhood.

It runs from approximately eight to eighteen months. It is the stage of constant motion and no sense; tantrums and whining; and BIG messes. It requires constant supervision. It is an exhausting time of life (and not just for the child).

I thought Clark was going to give me a few months of leeway. For weeks he has had little interest in moving (believe me, there's plenty of entertainment around these parts without moving a single inch). In fact, he was perfectly content to just sit on the floor surrounded by a half dozen toys (and since the other three boys all learned to crawl before they could sit up, it was a stage I was fully relishing).

And then . . . Clark learned to do practically everything in the span of a single week.

I'm still reeling.

Last week, Clark learned how to:
  • go from lying down to sitting up all by himself
  • roll over with the rapidity of a steamroller
  • spin around in circles
  • chow down on finger foods
  • pivot from sitting to hands/feet and back to sitting
  • pull himself to standing
  • perfect the downward dog position
  • scoot forward and backward
  • cough-cry and blink his eyes whenever he's upset
  • only be satisfied with cords, paper, and iPhones as play toys
  • crawl on hands and knees
None of my other boys ever learned so much so fast. In true fourth-child fashion, Clark caught us all off guard and pulled a fast one ("You think you know everything about babies? Well, watch this!"). Seriously, when he started crawling on Saturday (like, the real hands-and-knees deal), all I could do was gape. We thought we still had weeks, if not months, before we had to worry about the troubles that come with a baby in motion, so we have literally been scrambling to baby-proof the house.

Oh, and did I mention that Clark decided to learn all these things on little to no sleep? He went from napping 4-6 hours during the day to a whopping hour (or less).

When I put him in his crib, it's as if he doesn't know what to do with all his new-found energy and skills. He sit up; he lays down; he stands up; he falls down; he rolls around; and he cries and complains the entire time. One afternoon last week, I peeked in on him after he finally quieted down and found this:

Unfortunately I didn't feel like I could leave him in that position, so I laid him back down, and he woke up (of course).  

So say hello to the new Clark. I think he just lost his status as favorite child.

Jan 23, 2015

KidPages: Red Sled + Extension Activities

Remember long ago when I used to write up my lesson plans for Max's (and before that, Aaron's) preschool? I actually still have a few that I want to put up (my Olympics-themed lesson from last February was pretty awesome. But who cares about the Olympics in 2015? No one.), but no promises that it will ever happen.

You might wonder though why I haven't been writing up the lesson plans from this year's preschool. Well, it's a long story.

After Clark was born, I decided that I wasn't really interested in participating in another preschool co-op, at least not for this year. I think I was just a little burned out, and having a new baby gave me a great excuse. But guess what? June is not a good time to start registering for preschool. In fact, it's a little embarrassing because everyone's like, "Don't you know you should have registered back in January?" Plus, there are zero slots available.

In spite of putting Max on a couple of different waiting lists, August rolled around without any options. So when a friend told me about a preschool co-op in my neighborhood, I jumped at the chance to participate.

It is the most laid-back, relaxed preschool co-op I've been a part of. It meets once a week for ninety minutes. In some ways, this is great: planning is a snap and my turn only comes up about once every six weeks. But in other ways, I'm missing the structure and the extra time to run errands with only two kids during the week. Still, it's something, and we're enjoying it.

But anyway, I no longer have the long, extensive lesson plans of years past. However, I do have short little extension activities, and today I thought I'd share the most recent ones with you.

One of our favorite wintertime books is Red Sled by Lita Judge. In it, a little child props a red sled against the house at the end of a long day of sledding. A passing bear sees the sled and decides to take it for a joyride. Pretty soon a moose, rabbit, possum, (two) raccoons, porcupine, and mouse have all joined in on the wild ride. The next morning, the child can tell that something crazy (and wonderful) (and exciting) happened during the night.

It is mostly a wordless picture book (with just a few exclamatory remarks from the animals as they fly down the hill). There is little need for words because the animals' expressions capture it all: the joy, the thrill, and the fun. (I have two favorite illustrations--a closeup of the porcupine hanging onto the moose's antlers while his quills blow back in the breeze and one with a tiny silhouette of the entire group all towered one on top of the other.)

It's a pretty lively tale and one that I knew all the kids in our group would love.

After we read it, I taught them a little finger play called "Here's a Hill."
Here's a hill (tilt one arm to make a hill)
And here's a hill (tilt the other arm to make a hill)
All covered with snow (bring hands gently down like it's snowing)

I'll put on my coat (pretend to zip it up)
And jump on my sled (hold onto a pretend rope or jump)
And zoom! down the hill I will go! (clap hands and make hands slide down)

Then they made their own red sleds. I free-handed a sled to look like the one in the book (although my kids thought it looked more like a robot) and then gathered together all our red craft supplies: sequins, paint, foam letters, glitter glue, markers, crayons, yarn, and beads.

Then the kids filled in the white space with all things red, making it a red collage of sorts.

Finally, the title of the book, Red Sled, naturally lent itself to a rhyming game. I borrowed this game from my Snowmen at Work preschool lesson (and I originally got the idea from No Time For Flashcards). I already had all the sticks made, and I just added one more group of rhyming words to go with the -ed ending.

I passed out a stick to each child and then, one by one, I helped them figure out which jar to put their stick into. Most of them needed quite a bit of help. I narrowed it down to two choices: "Do you think "car" sounds more like "tar" or more like "Ted"? And then, if they needed a little more help, I would squeeze the words together: "Car-tar? Or car-ted?"

My four-year-old absolutely loved this game, and I need to just get it out and let him sort all the sticks by himself.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on Red Sled or other winter picture books. Please share!

Jan 22, 2015

Nancy and Plum by Betty MacDonald

We have long been fans of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (click here for our reviews of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's Magic), but did you know that Betty MacDonald wrote another book for children, not at all connected with Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's cures and fixes? I certainly didn't until it showed up last month on Erica's list of Christmas Chapter Books to Read Aloud. I was intrigued and thrilled when our library had a copy (it helped that it was re-released in 2010) and immediately checked it out, hoping to have time to read it to the boys over the holiday break.

Although Christmas factors prominently in the story (that's how it begins and then ends, one year later), we weren't sad to have our reading of it extend into January. In fact, I think you could enjoy it during almost anytime of the year (although December is certainly the most magical).

Nancy and Plum (her real name is Pamela) are sisters and orphans. When their parents died when they were little, little girls, they were left in the care of an uncle who, unfortunately, knew absolutely nothing about children and was quick to pass them off to the care of Mrs. Monday, mistress of a despicable boarding house. Mrs. Monday is the quintessential villain: she feeds the children burnt oatmeal and prunes, makes them do inordinate amounts of work, and takes away any fun they are looking forward to. (One day, when my four-year-old was mad at me, he said, "You are so mean. You are even meaner than Mrs. Monday." It was the worst insult he could possibly think of.)

One day, Nancy and Plum find a box in the attic. It is addressed to them. Although it is empty, they can tell that it once contained two dolls--one blonde, the other dark. It seems suspiciously coincidental that Mrs. Monday's niece (the repulsive Marybelle) received two such dolls for Christmas.

But the ultimate injustice comes when Uncle John arranges a visit to the boardinghouse, and Mrs. Monday deliberately keeps Nancy and Plum away. The two sisters have had it, and they decide to take their fate into their own hands.

First of all, this is exactly the kind of book I would have loved as a child (forgive the italics--I'm currently reading Emily Climbs, and I just can't seem to help myself). The camaraderie shared by the sisters, Mrs. Monday's cruelty, the thrill of the escape, and the happy ending all would have spoken to the heart of my little girl self. So if you know any nine-year-old girls (or boys!), hand this to them immediately.

Aaron and Maxwell loved it. In fact, after the girls run away, there is a chapter called "Back to Mrs. Monday's," and the boys could hardly stand having to go to bed when it was obvious that something quite awful was going to happen in the next chapter. And when Plum dumps the goldfish bowl on Marybelle's head and then apologizes by saying, "I'm sorry I put that little goldfish bowl on your head. I wish it had been bigger and with a shark in it," oh, how they laughed. (I had to read it twice.)

Okay, now that I've spoken from the children's perspective, I'm going to give you the mom's perspective, which is this: Nancy and Plum are not all docile and innocent. They are feisty. There are several nods to Frances Hodges Burnett's A Little Princess (Miss Minchin and Mrs. Monday seem to be long-lost evil twins), but there's one major difference: Nancy and Plum do not have Sara Crewe's same respect for authority nor her same aptitude for kindness. 

They are kind to the other children (except Marybelle) and also the adults who show them kindness and love (Miss Appleby, Old Tom, the Campbells, etc.), but when it came to the difficult personalities, they never took the higher road. I was rather disappointed by that. I wanted them to stand up for themselves, but I wish they'd done it in a respectful way. There was even one character (Mrs. Gronk, their Sunday School teacher) who wasn't even mean to them--she was just a grumpy old lady with a cold--and they made so many rude comments behind her back.

I'm not saying they weren't driven to it a bit. Given their treatment, their actions were certainly justified. And I really did like their (especially Plum's) spunk. I didn't want to tamp down that indomitable spirit. But I think I kept wanting to cheer for them a bit more, and it was hard to do when they kept calling Marybelle names and complaining and saying other nasty things.

So that's my take on it. My kids loved it, and for the most part, I loved it too.

P.S. And if there were ever characters you just wanted to give a giant hug to, Mr. and Mrs. Campbell would be it. You should read the book just so you can get to know those two.

Jan 19, 2015

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

Even though I've been wanting to read a book by Jojo Moyes for quite some time now, I was kind of avoiding her on purpose. I had an inkling from reviews I'd read that I wouldn't be completely comfortable with some of her content.

But when my book club chose this book for January, I knew this was my chance. It just gives a book a higher purpose when you know you're going to be able to discuss what you liked and didn't like with other people. Plus, out of all the books Jojo Moyes has written, this is the one that most interested me.

Sadly, my inkling proved correct: it was full of language and a few (thankfully, not very explicit) sexual scenes. For that reason, it's probably not going to be one that I recommend very often (if at all), but there was a lot to think about and discuss.

Will Traynor has his life exactly where he wants it: he is successful and wealthy, athletic and adventurous with a beautiful girlfriend. But one day, while simply crossing the street to catch a taxi, Will is hit by a motorcycle and becomes paralyzed from the neck down.

Two years later, Louisa Clark is looking for a job. The little cafe that she has worked at for the past six years is closing, and there aren’t many other jobs in Lou’s little tourist town. But one day a job is posted asking for someone to be a companion for a disabled man. The position doesn’t require medical training, so Lou applies (and is subsequently hired).

Of course, you can probably already guess that the disabled man is Will (not the elderly gentleman Lou is expecting). He is cynical, rude, and arrogant. Lou spends the first couple of weeks telling herself to just hang on and endure. The position is for six months only, and Lou’s parents are really dependent on her income so she knows she needs to stick with it.

But then a couple months into the job, Lou discovers why she was only hired for six months, and she becomes bent on helping Will rediscover his will to live in spite of his permanent dependency.

If you had presented Will’s choice to me before the book—live with his disabilities or willingly end his life—it wouldn’t have even been a choice. Given my religious beliefs, life should always be chosen. We were sent to earth to experience trials and experiences that help us learn and grow and ultimately become more like God. We do not get to choose when we die, only how we will live.

But wow, if you take religion out of the equation (which this book effectively does, even though both Will’s and Lou’s mothers are somewhat religious), the choice becomes so much grayer and harder to define. Will is living a life vastly different from the life he wants to live. He can’t do the things he loves, even little outings are huge ordeals, people stare at him, and he is constantly at risk of infection, illness, or other complications. I could turn off my own convictions for a minute, and yeah, if you didn’t believe that there was more to your life than this short little blip on earth, then I could totally see why you might not want to put yourself through years of torture and misery.

But then, at the same time, I couldn’t. Even looking at it from a purely secular point of view, there was still so much more to consider than just one person’s selfish interests—things like family and friends and living for others instead of just yourself and the challenge of learning new things and creating a good life with what you have.

Lou’s life is a striking contrast to Will’s. She’s 26-years-old and has lived her entire life in a tiny little tourist town with almost no ambitions, and yet she is physically able to do anything. Will has done almost everything a person can do but now is confined to a wheelchair without even the use of his hands and arms. So really, this story becomes as much about Lou making the most of her life as Will making the most of his. And I really liked that aspect of it (although I found Will's attitude of "You need to make something of your life!" rather aggravating since he refused to make anything of his).

My least favorite character in the book was Patrick, Lou's long-term boyfriend. I felt like he was created for the sole purpose to dislike so that everyone would be so happy when she fell in love with Will instead. Making him so disagreeable, self-centered, and oblivious to Lou's happiness seemed totally unrealistic. They'd been in a happy relationship for seven years, but a few months before the book starts, Patrick becomes obsessed with building his body for extreme sports and doesn't give Lou very much time or thought. The whole thing was turning sour as just the right time, and it felt a little contrived to me.

I already admitted in my 30 things post that I dog-ear pages. When I read something I like, don't like, or want to remember, I gently turn a little corner down. Then, when I sit down to write my review, I go back through all the dog-ears, and it helps me focus and organize my thoughts. Usually the book is riddled with dog-ears, but when I went back through Me Before You, I found only three (and two of them were on the same page and reserved for a different post I want to write). For some reason, that's really telling to me. I liked the book, I found it thought-provoking, but in the end, I guess there wasn't much I particularly wanted to remember.

If you've read this book, I'd love to hear your opinion of it!

Jan 16, 2015

Bradley's Signature

There's something so magical about writing your own name. I'm sure I'm not the only one who, at 14, practiced my signature over and over again, tweaking it here and there to give it just the right flair.

When I started dating Mike, I often found myself doodling in the margins when I was supposed to be taking notes: my first name followed by his last name--just to see what it might look like.

With each of my children, it has been an exciting milestone to see them learn to write their own names. It gives them a sense of ownership to be able to see in print that thing that is so crucial to their identities. Even if someone else has the same name, no one else has the same signature. It is one of the few things that is uniquely theirs.

Ever since reading Brown Girl Dreaming late last year, I've been thinking about how being able to write your own name opens the door to a whole new world of possibilities. This poem, entitled "On Paper," made me think of my three-year-old's primitive signature, still wobbly and unsure but definitely all his own: 
The first time I write my full name
Jacqueline Amanda Woodson

without anybody's help
on a clean white page in my composition notebook,
    I know

if I wanted to

I could write anything.
When he first began writing the letters of his name, I thought about taking the easy route and shortening his name to "Brad." The extra three letters required to make it "Bradley" just seemed unnecessarily daunting. But we so rarely call him Brad that it didn't seem fair that he couldn't be Bradley on paper as well as in person. So we went for the full seven letters.

I still find myself coaching him through the letters ("a circle with a tail," "a line and a little hump," etc."), but I no longer guide his hand. I love seeing his name scrawled at the bottom of a page or arranged haphazardly across the middle of a picture, and I'll be a little sad when those letters eventually tighten up into something the rest of the world can recognize.

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