The last quarter of 2016 went by so quickly that the year ended with books still on the to-be-read stack. This week, we review some of these books we’ve been reading in January that are just too good to miss.
All the World a Poem. Gilles Tibo. Trans. Erin Woods. Ill. Manon Gauthier. 2016. Pajama.
Poems about poems, written from children’s points of view, describe their feelings and experiences of reading and writing them. Some of Gilles Tibo’s poetry is decidedly child friendly (“I love poems sweet and silly. / I love poems long and frilly— / All the poems dreaming on the shelf.”) and some is sophisticated (“To write poetry / is to pluck silence like a flower / and press it gently between the pages / of a notebook / made of light.”). Manon Gauthier’s collage art featuring childlike drawings of girls and boys cut out and placed on mixed-media backgrounds will draw the attention of young children to this picture book that invites them to explore the world of poetry through both reading and writing.
Lucky Lazlo. Steve Light. 2016. Candlewick.
Lazlo is in love, and he is lucky to buy the flower seller’s last red rose, which he plans to present to his lady love, who is starring as Alice in the production of Alice in Wonderland at the Peacock Theater. On the way, Lazlo has some bad luck. He runs into a post and drops the rose. A cat snatches it up, and the chase is on through the stage door and past actors, musicians, and stagehands backstage. Both the cat and Lazlo have moments on stage. The cat disrupts the Mad Hatter’s tea party scene, and once Lazlo recovers the rose that the cat drops to pursue a mouse, he steps on a ball and steals the show by wobbling on it across the stage. All ends well with Lazlo presenting the rose to his Alice (and winning a kiss) and the cat having caught the mouse. In an author’s note, Light explains theatrical superstitions shown in his intricately detailed pen-and-ink illustration that have been broken by the cast and crew and challenges readers to find them.
Story Worlds: Nature. Thomas Hegbrook. 2016. 360 Degrees/Tiger Tales.
“Every picture tells a story. What do you think that story is?” on the title page leads readers into this oversize volume, in which Thomas Hegbrook creates scenes from the world of nature that are wordless stories. A note on the publication page suggests how to explore this book: Observe each scene, inquire by becoming the narrator for each visual story, and wonder about the amazing animals and their behavior the scenes reveal. The arrangement of the 100 scenes vary, with a few spreads, some full-page scenes, and pages with two to five rectangular panels in different layouts on a page. After telling their own stories, readers can refer to Hegbrook’s notes identifying the animals and explaining the scenes. Readers of all ages will enjoy exploring nature in this intriguing wordless picture book.
Teddy & Co. Cynthia Voigt. Ill. Paola Zakimi. 2016. Alfred A. Knopf/Random House.
In a magical community, the lives of lost toys (a deep-thinking paraplegic teddy bear, two charming pigs, a hungry snake, an elephant who bakes, and a hermit penguin) revolve around baked muffins and gentle (a picnic at the beach) and not-so-gentle (a dangerous trek that reveals they live on a small island) adventures until a rabbit, who is not what he seems, washes up on shore followed by the arrival of a bossy, beautiful doll who declares herself queen—and demands a castle. These distinct characters with childlike personalities slowly meld into a community, with some of them evolving a little, and others a lot, in their individual journeys of self-discovery. All the toys learn that it is OK to be who they are as long as they respect one another’s differences. The short chapters, complemented by black-and-white illustrations, can serve as stand-alone stories perfect for reading aloud in one sitting.
The Dog, Ray. Linda Coggin. 2016. Candlewick.
Twelve-year-old Daisy dies in a tragic car accident and finds herself in an afterworld job center. Although she is assigned to return to Earth as a dog, she still thinks like the human Daisy. Beginning her new life as Misty, she is adopted and mistreated by a boy named Cyril but escapes from her collar after being abandoned by him at a park. Driven to locate her paralyzed father who, she reads in a newspaper, survived the accident, she longs to be reunited with her parents. After meeting Pip, a runaway boy, who renames her Ray and who is also looking for his father, they join forces and are assisted by a kind elderly woman in locating Pip’s father. After surviving a string of unfortunate events, Daisy realizes that her human memory is quickly fading while her dog nature takes over. Although Daisy’s dreams don’t come through in the way she first imagined, Pip’s do. This is a heartfelt story for readers who will appreciate the authentically voiced first-person girl/dog points of view.
Time Traveling With a Hamster. Ross Welford. 2016. Schwartz & Wade/Random House.
The novel begins with “My dad died twice. Once when he was 39 and again four years later, when he was 12.”On his 12th birthday, Al Chaudhury receives a letter from his dead father with a mission to go back to 1984 to prevent the go-cart accident that will lead to his death at 39 (when Al is 8). However, life for Al has changed. His mom is remarried, his stepfather tries to relate to him through sports (which Al hates) and gives him a hamster named for a sports hero for his birthday, and a stepsister doesn’t like him at all. Al must get to his former home, circumvent the current families living there, and locate a time machine hidden in a bunker. Concerned about him, Grandpa Byron teaches Al the Indian Memory Palace method to keep him rooted to present times. As Al travels to the past several times to carry out his father’s instructions, he uses his hamster to help keep track of when he is and the Memory Palace to keep track of what he is doing. If he can’t prevent his father’s childhood accident, or if he runs into his (younger) grandfather in the past, will Al even exist? This complicated time-travel story ends with a quick twist that will surprise readers.
League of Archers (League of Archers #1). Eva Howard. 2016. Aladdin/Simon & Schuster.
Twelve-year-old Ellie Dray’s mother sent her to the local nunnery and then was hanged. Orphaned Ellie and her friends, members of the League of Archers (a kind of Robin Hood fan club), meet up to hunt in secret. Imagine her horror when a stranger she meets one night in the woods is shot by a poisoned arrow and dies shortly after she drags him back to the convent—and he turns out to be Robin Hood. Imagine her surprise when her beloved abbess (who turns out to be Maid Marian) is arrested and sentenced to death by the nefarious Baron. Imagine her shock when, as the scapegoat, she is charged with the murder, and the villagers turn against her. Ellie ends up on the run, with the League helping her to free Maid Marian and find the murderer of Robin Hood. As the League of Archers learns that some of the actions of their hero and his Merry Men had serious repercussions that ended in his death, they vow to fight the Baron’s injustices and care for the villagers, just like Robin Hood did.
Merrow. Ananda Braxton-Smith. 2016. Candlewick.
Twelve-year-old Neen, an orphan who lives on Carrick Island in the Irish Sea, seeks to learn who she really is. She knows that people consider her different because she suffers from a scaly-skin disease, and they whisper behind her back that her mother, who mysteriously disappeared after Neen’s father’s death, was a merrow, or mermaid, who returned to her people under the sea. If that is true, is Neen a merrow, too? Her stern Auntie Ushag, with whom she lives, never speaks of the past, and Neen suspects she knows more than she is telling her. Neen gathers every clue she can, including revelatory information from Skully Slevin, the blind fiddler, and when she explores a local cave, she is more confused than enlightened. After an earthquake cleaves the cliffs and exposes unexplored territory, the answers it brings Neen aren’t the ones she expected. The beautifully written prose, sometimes with a raw edge, in this historical fantasy will resonate with readers who are also trying to discover their own identities in this confusing world.
The Door That Led to Where. Sally Gardner. 2016. Delacorte/Random House.
Almost-17-year-old Londoner AJ Flynn failed major exams so he can’t qualify for college, but he has been offered a job as a junior clerk at a law firm where others know more about him, his dead father, and his mother than he does. After overhearing a conversation between two men (one of whom is found dead the next morning), finding a mysterious key with his birthdate on it, and learning more about his family history from an eccentric professor, AJ’s life makes a 180-degree turn. When he opens a door with the key, he steps into 1830 London, discovers the missing son of a neighbor, and unexpectedly meets the love of his life, Esme. On subsequent trips to the past, he takes along two troubled childhood friends who have fallen on tough times. In a dangerous turn of events, they help him solve mysteries involving murder and smuggling to clear AJ’s family’s name before deciding to make the 1830s their home. Free to return to the law firm, AJ must choose the century he wants to live in, with, or without, Esme. This time-travel mystery will intrigue thoughtful readers. What happens in 1800s doesn’t always stay in the 1800s!
Heartless. Marissa Meyer. 2016. Feiwel and Friends.
In this prequel to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Marissa Meyer tells the story of Lady Catherine (Cath) Pinkerton, whose love of baking and dreams of opening her own shop with her maid are at odds with the intent of her mother, the Marchioness of Rock Turtle Cove, to have her become the Queen of Wonderland. In Meyer’s fantasy, many of the characters from Carroll’s classic tale, including the Cheshire cat, the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and the Jabberwock, have roles to play as Cath’s abhorrence of the bumbling King of Hearts’ courtship intensifies after she falls for the king’s new court jester, Jest. The subsequent adventures, or rather misadventures, of Cath in Wonderland reveal how she becomes the tyrannical and heartless “off with their heads” Queen of Hearts.
Nancy Brashear is Professor Emeritus of English from Azusa Pacific University, in Azusa, CA. Carolyn Angus is former director of the George G. Stone Center for Children's Books, Claremont Graduate University, in Claremont, CA.
These reviews are submitted by members of the International Literacy Association's Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG) and are published weekly on Literacy Daily.
I know what it’s like to feel overwhelmed when meeting students’ literacy needs, to lose touch with my family because of long hours at school, and to drop into bed exhausted at the end of every day—I had to take a break from teaching because the stress of being an educator was affecting my health. However, the innovation of web-based technology, cloud coaching is showing promise as an effective inquiry-based intervention to reduce stress, improve instructional practices, and increase students’ academic performance by creating the conditions for having quality conversations and empowering literacy leadership.
The rise of teacher stress
A recent Pennsylvania State University report found 46% of teachers say they have high levels of stress on a daily basis, which is affecting their health and their ability to teach effectively. Mark Greenberg, a professor of human development and psychology at Penn State, explained the stress is causing “between 30 and 40% of teachers to leave the profession in their first five years,” which costs taxpayers billions of dollars a year to train new teachers. Teacher burnout isn’t plaguing just U.S. schools. A survey of 4,000 teachers in England report 82% of educators felt the workload expected of them was unmanageable and 73% said their health was being affected. As a way to reduce stress and retain teachers, school districts are integrating web-based technology to provide cloud coaching for mentorship, professional development, and instructional support.
What is cloud coaching?
Cloud coaching, also known as virtual or online coaching, uses the Internet and a webcam to create a collaborative partnership between two or more individuals in a digital environment. The coaching takes place through a variety of online platforms that are free, like Skype and Google Hangout, or require a small monthly fee, like Zoom and Gotomeeting. This online coaching experience cultivates leadership skills by engaging a teacher in quality conversations about possibilities, targeting effective instructional methods, and providing implementation support as the teacher takes action to systematize classroom literacy routines. The frequency and structure of cloud coaching is differentiated to meet the needs of each individual teacher.
Examples of cloud coaching
Executive coaching for administrators: Once a month, administrators from a small, rural school district spend one hour individually receiving cloud coaching with Dr. Ray Jorgensen. The focused inquiry process creates a shift in thinking, which allows the administrator to see situations from a different perspective, triggering new ideas and creating the conditions for more effective leadership.
Content-focused coaching for educators: The University of Pittsburgh has implemented an eight-week online workshop to develop pedagogical knowledge of effective literacy routines. This is followed by one-on-one cloud coaching to support the implementation process. Results suggest cloud coaching has been effective at improving reading comprehension instruction and students’ reading achievement in high-poverty elementary schools.
Literacy leadership for instructional coaches: I provided cloud coaching to instructional coaches who were responsible for designing and conducting school-embedded English Language Arts professional development. Meg Rishel, a K–5 instruction coach, said, “Cloud coaching helped me grow as a literacy leader. I went from talking at teachers to talking with teachers. Additionally, I went from telling what I know to listening to what others know.”
Each coaching session began with a guided inquiry into educators’ successes and challenges as they implement effective literacy routines. After needs were identified, we collaborated to build an action plan that included gathering resources, generating an interactive presentation with open-ended questions that created the conditions for quality conversations among teachers.
Academic coaching for students: Students of all ages receive the same benefits from cloud coaching as their teachers. An 11th-grade student shared, “Before cloud coaching, I rarely thought I was good enough in school, and I would often shut down and stop being productive because of it. Coaching helped me organize the work I was doing, and more important, helped me to be proud of my work and to not limit myself. Now I feel much more capable and motivated to get things done!” Every Sunday I met with students to help them break down their academic workload into manageable chunks, provide feedback on essays, and suggest strategies to improve their study habits.
At a time when school districts may not have the resources to hire a full-time instructional coach or afford ongoing professional development, cloud coaching is an effective and innovative alternative to reduce teacher stress and empower literacy leadership. I learned it’s never too late to ask for help. Engaging in the inquiry-based process of cloud coaching not only improved my effectiveness as a literacy leader but also helped me reduce my stress by creating the conditions for quality conversations and relationships.
Julie B. Wise, an ILA member since 2000, is an international coach and consultant. Her research examines cloud coaching as an inquiry-based intervention to reduce stress so that individuals and organizations can cultivate literacy leadership. You can subscribe to her newsletter to stay up-to-date on mindfulness, literacy, and technology.
This article is part of a series from the International Literacy Association’s Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE-SIG).
As educators in British Columbia, we never set out to be app designers.
Our school district challenged educators to be innovative in the classroom, and they were finding a lot of pressure was put on the school system to get up to date with technology. At the same time, they were struggling with the cost of new technology and how to justify it as it applies to student achievement. Does technology make a difference?
The other pressure on schools concerning achievement was focusing on foundational skills, particularly skills in literacy and comprehension. Schools were noticing a significant lack of growth in literacy results after grade 4. A conversation started between Gloria Ramirez, an education professor from Thompson Rivers University, the district literacy coordinator, and me to address the drop in literacy at the grade 4 level. A plan began to form.
We knew that at about grade 4 the curriculum and structure of learning shifted in our school system, with a greater focus on nonfiction reading and literacy and an increased use of subject-specific academic language and vocabulary.
We turned to the school district to ask if they would allow us to work with a small group of teachers and target academic- and subject-specific vocabulary instruction. We also wanted to focus on rural and high-risk classrooms in grade 4. We were fairly certain that targeted support in vocabulary at grade 4 would make a difference but wanted to prove our theory. The other part to our plan was almost an afterthought. The district, as well as our education research team, wanted to know if using technology would help. Wanting some advice on how best to approach introducing technology into the classroom, we invited a technology professor from a local university to join us.
From there, we started our study. Using a number of classes in grade 4, we compared classes on the basis of the following parameters:
But even with support from Musfiq Rahman, a technology professor from Thompson Rivers, we ran into challenges right away.
We struggled with finding applicable apps to match the instruction in the classroom around vocabulary. We found most of the commercial apps were too standardized in their approaches. In other words, the vocabulary selection did not match the specific academic and subject vocabulary introduced by the teacher in the classroom, so it lacked relevance.
Also, the way the apps introduced vocabulary was not always using high-yield strategies on how we learn and comprehend vocabulary. Finally, the information gathered by the apps and shared with the teacher was subject to privacy issues.
Even with all of these challenges around using technology and finding the best app, we were pleasantly surprised to discover that classes using technology showed greater improvement than those that didn’t.
Excited to discover that technology makes a difference, but also frustrated with the flexibility of available commercial apps, we asked if it was possible to design an app, LearningApp, to meet the needs of our teachers and perhaps even produce better achievement results than what we found in our initial study.
The answer was yes!
Rahman set out to bring some of his programming students to help design an app that could be customized by the teachers and integrate some of gaming features students would find engaging.
Students and educators from the university started working with classroom teachers and students from the elementary school to design an app that would meet their needs. If you want a lively discussion, you need only to ask your class what video games they enjoy and why. You can engage a whole class by just talking about their gaming experience. Even before the prevalence of video games, games from cards to board games have captured the attention of children and even involve learning. If only we can tap into that motivation!
We learned that the use of technology allowed for increased opportunities to individualize learning. This was especially helpful in isolated rural areas or where a child’s opportunity for exposure to diverse vocabulary might be limited.
We have currently developed a back-end platform with a number of capabilities requested by teachers and students:
The back-end platform was designed to allow expansion of more complex instructional tasks. It can also be hosted on a secure server at the school board office to address privacy issues. Finally, it is a web-based program that can be used on all devices capable of accessing the Internet.
The next phase of the project is developing a gaming platform to work with the back-end platform and present students with a gaming experience. We are involving students in helping design a game that will work with the instructional components of the program and allow students to access the motivational aspects of gaming technology.
Once the app is completed, we will be able to follow up with action research to determine the level of impact on student achievement. With our initial research, in addition to what we know about gamification of learning and individualized instruction, we are positive we will see great results.
Michael Bowden is principal at Raft River Elementary in British Columbia, Canada.
The International Literacy Association (ILA) cosponsored the amicus curiae brief filed with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan last week as part of a pending class action litigation that was initiated last fall on behalf of students in the City of Detroit’s public schools.
Latin for "friend of the court," an amicus brief is a supplemental pleading by persons who are not parties to the underlying case. Its purpose is to place additional pertinent facts and precedents on the record for the court to consult as it renders its decision. Moreover, the court can accept or not accept the brief, in its discretion.
Counsel representing the plaintiffs, five students from the lowest performing public schools in Detroit, drew national attention to the case by asserting that access to effective literacy instruction is a federal constitutional right their clients had been deprived of by the state’s neglectful administration, inadequate support, and poor oversight.
For ILA President of the Board William Teale, supporting the class action plaintiffs was an obvious choice. “ILA knows the critical importance of literacy, and we work around the globe to promote it,” Teale said. “Our mission compels us to support the children and families of Detroit in seeking reading and writing education that enables full participation in a democratic society.”
Marcie Craig Post, ILA’s executive director, agreed. “This important lawsuit casts light on the critical issue of educational access as a central component to becoming literate,” she explained. “We simply have to address these inequities, or we run the risk of continuing to perpetuate future generations of people who are not literate.”
To support the plaintiffs’ claim, the complaint cited the persistent and pervasive failure of the city’s public school students to achieve grade-level results on standard literacy assessments as compared with students in other districts and schools in the state.
Lack of reading material and online access, unfocused teacher professional development, high levels of teacher turnover, and ineffectual intervention were also alleged.
The defendants—the governor of Michigan and a number of state education officials—filed a motion to dismiss the action last December on the grounds that a right to literacy cannot be found in the actual text of the U.S. Constitution or in any U.S. Supreme Court decision.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court has never declared literacy to be a constitutional right, it opened the door for a future ruling on this point by commenting in the 1973 case San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez that some “identifiable quantum of education”—some small piece—might be a constitutionally protected prerequisite to the meaningful exercise of other legal rights.
Both the amicus brief ILA signed on to and the underlying complaint argue that basic literacy is the “identifiable quantum” contemplated in Rodriguez, the indispensable skill required to exercise First Amendment and other rights.
The brief further asserts that the development over the last 30 years of reliable measures of literacy attainment needed for things like getting a driver’s license, reading a W-2 form, or applying for employment provides the court with an appropriate standard for judging whether the dismal performance of Detroit’s schools rises to the level of a constitutional violation.
A ninth-grade Flesch–Kincaid or Lexile Framework reading level was suggested to the court as the minimum level for exercising constitutional rights, participating fully in the political process, and taking advantage of numerous other legal benefits.
Also joining the amicus brief were Kappa Delta Phi, the international honor society in education, and the National Association for Multicultural Education.
Dan Mangan is the Director of Public Affairs at the International Literacy Association.
After 25 years in the education “business,” I’ve learned that visionaries are rare. I’ve also worked with resume-padders, limelight-grabbers, and narrow-minded ninnies. Some were more concerned about their own personal agenda than about personnel.
When you do find that visionary with whom you connect, it’s best to listen, learn, and trust as you absorb as much of their vision as you can. Visionaries look at the big picture and delegate ideas, suggestions, and concepts to the team. The strength of the vision should be in the trust that the work will be done. That trust becomes contagious as we all work together for the commonality of the vision.
Although we appreciate that our school has come a long way in creating a common belief system, we also realize it is just the beginning of our journey. To become the school we want to be, we need to ask ourselves, “Are we working for the covenant, or are we working for the contract?”
The covenant is the promise we make in our mission/vision statement to our colleagues, our parents, and our students that we will do what we say we are going to do and that we will be held accountable for the sake of the greater good. We will support colleagues so they develop into knowledgeable and compassionate professional educators. We will respect and communicate with parents to form partnerships that are enduring and trustworthy. Finally, we will create authentic opportunities for learning that give our students the hope they deserve and the consideration they need. In short, the covenant keeps all of us working together to cultivate the best educational experience for our peers, our parents, and our students.
When the covenant becomes too demanding or when the vision has not been made clear to all stakeholders, it is inevitable that the contract will become the purpose. If teachers don’t envision themselves growing, if parents don’t value the relationships, and if students become disengaged, our practice suffers, our relationships deteriorate, and our children fail. It is that simple.
Standing up for the covenant begs the question, what do you stand for? When you are able to answer that confidently and with purpose, you are on your way to building a better school. Become a visionary who develops a confident team of teachers, a thankful legion of parents, and a considerate class of students.
Peg Grafwallner is an instructional coach with Milwaukee Public Schools.Learn more about Peg on her website.