Monday, August 31, 2009

Space Station Rat

Scritch-rip, scritch-rip… Jeffrey is the only kid on a space station where his parents are scientists. He’s stuck with Nanny, a robot who is supposed to take care of him, but turns out to be a deadly rat killing machine. Jeff winds up rescuing (and coming to love) a lavender lab rat (ingeniously named… wait for it… Rat) who has been genetically altered and trained to be a spy. Rat accepts Jeff’s friendship mainly as an escape to the outside world, and the freedom to play in the grass and sunshine. Eventually though, she discovers there is more to this kid than just a way out – maybe even a lifelong friend. Together they are challenged with destroying a robot, hiding from parents and scientists who want to kill or capture rat, and chowing on liverwurst. Ew!

There are so few science fiction books for kids – it’s great to find one so well-written and fun to read. And besides, what’s not to love about a cuddly lavender (not purple!) rat, who turns out to be witty and sometimes lethal-minded? This book is adventuresome, fast-paced, and packed with plenty of action. At the same time, it introduces kids to concepts like self-awareness, robotic and genetic (and human) ethics, and other issues commonly held to be “adult” topics, in a way that is surprisingly simple, not too deep, and overall perfect for kids, all without slowing down the plot of the book. I would recommend this book to kids from about third grade up, or any kid with a special interest in robots, space stations, spying, etc. More introspective kids will appreciate the story of growing friendship and trust between a young boy and a cute little rat. For teachers, it’s a great place to start a unit on space stations, since it provides a fun introductory knowledge of the topic.

Activities –

Space Station Map (Maps / Geography / Active Reading / Science) – Before you read, look up the real space station online. Using a large sheet of paper, draw the outline of nine rings to start your own Space Station map. Then, as you read, mark the location of each place mentioned as it’s described in the book. Some things might be general, for instance, marking the repair shop as just being on ring one, since that is as specific as the book gets.
By the end of the book, the outer ring will be the most filled in. Remind students that’s because in the book, as the old rings wore out and no longer functioned, they would build around it and move further and further out. Go back to your website about the real space station. See if you can find out if this is true in real life, and compare some similarities and differences you find between the real space station and the make believe one. You could also switch to teaching about literature at this point. Discuss how this is typical of the science fiction genre – there is a lot of real science mentioned, yet the author can take liberties and change things to make them more exciting, or to fit the plot of the story.

Velcro Boots (Math – Time Elapsed, Tables, Differences) – It takes Jeff a lot of practice to learn to run in a space-station. How hard could it be? Mark off a long section of hallway or classroom. Time students crossing from one end to the other in their regular shoes, and record the results for each kid in one column of a table. Then have them slip on special booties and try running it again, this time listening to the cool ripping sound, and taking “jumping” steps to imitate being in low gravity. Make sure they actually take slow, high jumping steps – the tape alone won’t slow them down, and you want this time to be different than the first. Record this time too – be sure to laugh at their efforts while you’re at it, and remind them this is why the parents in Space Station Rat didn’t run! Then discuss the different ways you could manipulate the information in your table. You could subtract the difference between the two times to see how much longer it took with the booties. You could then average the differences for all the students. You could use the table to make a bar graph, so it would be easier to see. See if the kids can think of any other ways to use the information.
To make the boots: The simplest way is to just wrap packing tape firmly around their feet, sticky side out. If they’re squeamish about it, you could have socks on hand, or just put it around their shoes. (I tried it, and the tape didn’t stick to my feet or hurt to peel off, even though I was clumsy and got it tangled up with the sticky side touching me. It did make a lot of noise against the floor though!)

Sound Words onomatopoeia (English) –
This book has a lot of onomatopoeias, words that sound like the sound they represent. See how many you can remember – then think of all the words we use that are onomatopoeias. Make some up!

Build-Your-Own Nanny (Science… or art… or um… whatever) – Water and alka-seltzer in small platic bottle with cork… disk (plastic bowl?) on top decorated to be robot… maybe would go forward on its own if you put it disk side up in water and shook the alk-seltzer into the water right as you let go? Who knows – not me! This, as you can clearly see, was an undeveloped thought… I just thought it would be fun to make a Nanny. Or I guess you could call it an art project and pull the old, decorate a brown paper grocery sack and pretend to be a robot trick.

Saturday, May 30, 2009


Olivia is the most awesome pig ever. She is talented, spunky, and very funny. And she is very good at wearing people out – even herself.

These books are a great mixture of incredibly realistic childhood behaviors and extremely grandiose exaggerations. The artwork is wonderful (if you don’t like it at first because it’s different from the cuddly pictures you’re used to, don’t worry, it will grow on you!). This book holds the distinction of being a Caldecott honor book.

I would recommend this book (and the other Olivia books) for young children and older children with a good sense of humor. The activities I thought of are more games and fun than lesson plans, but oh well!

Art – Paint Your Own, and Not on the Wall Please!

Canvas – white t-shirt, pillowcase, etc. or to be truly artsy, an actual canvas
Lots of paint-safe space – a clothesline works best, but a fence is also nice, or an easel if you don’t mind getting paint on it
Paint – choose several colors in a paint suitable for whatever your canvas will be

It would be best to sign your canvas before you get started painting – you never know it you’ll leave enough room to do it afterward. Hang the canvas on your clothesline. Dip the paintbrush in the paint, and use a flinging motion to make the paint fly from the brush to the canvas. Repeat. A lot. With different colors of paint. Great fun, terribly messy, awesome results.

Clothes Relay Race –

Gather up some red clothes like Olivia tries on: a hat, some mittens, maybe a coat or jacket, a shirt, socks, etc. Just whatever you can find around your house will work great. Size doesn’t matter, as long as it’s not really small. Fill two bags or boxes with clothes, putting an equal number of items in each bag. Designate a starting place for a short race and put the full bags there. Designate a turn-around place and mark it clearly.
Divide your players into teams and have them line up behind the starting point. As soon as you say go, the first person from each team should begin putting on all the articles of clothes in the bag as fast as they can. Then they run to the turn-around point, and take all the clothes off. They then have to carry all the clothes back and put them back in the bag for the next person. They can carry them all at once or make as many trips as needed to get all the clothes back to the starting point. Then the next person goes and so on. The first team to get all their players dressed, undressed, and back to the starting point wins.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Bears in the Bed and the Great Big Storm

This book is so adorable! I just love the illustrations, the picture of Baby Bear telling his daddy Bear about the storm outside makes me want to just scoop Baby Bear up and snuggle him close. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience at some point or another – there is nothing like snuggling under the nice warm covers with someone you love, feeling all safe and comfy while listening to the storm rage outside.

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a cute cuddly read. It would be especially good as a read-a-loud for young children, it has lots of opportunities for sound effects.

I don’t have any ideas for this book, I just wanted to recommend it because it is so precious.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Percy Jackson and the Olympians

I adore these books. I started reading the first one during book fair last year, and could not put them down until I had read all of them. Then, I frothed at the mouth until the next one came out. Now, I am anxiously awaiting the fifth (and unfortunately, supposedly last) book in the series to come out in May. I bought them for Tony’s birthday that year, and he read them almost as fast as I did, and still occasionally bugs me about not having the last one yet. As if I could do anything about it. Then, I bought the first three for Gabriel’s 11th birthday, and he made his mom go to the store right away to buy the next one, because he needed it right then. He even convinced his younger brothers to act it out with him and told them they were demi-gods.

Percy Jackson has always had bad luck in school. He’s never been to the same school two years in a row. In fact, he usually doesn’t make it all the way through the school year without getting kicked out for some sort of “incident”. It’s not that he’s bad – bad things just seem to happen while he’s around. And then he finds out it’s not his fault. His dad is a god. In fact, his dad is… oh wait, that would ruin half the first book. So he gets to go to a special summer camp, where he is taught all about being a demi-god, and has to go on a quest to return a stolen lightning bolt. In his many adventures he encounters pretty much every fantastical monster you could ever find in mythology. Very scary (without actually being scary), very dangerous, and very funny.

These books have it all – mythological creatures, action, adventure, random little tidbits of facts, humor. They are especially great for those reluctant boy readers because they get you hooked so fast – within the first chapter. They bring ancient mythology to life in a very vivid and unforgettable way.

Practical Uses:

Mythology: Gods and Monsters Made Modern
No specific ideas, but this series has a ton of mythological history in it. It would be great as a fun side note in any mythology study or even as fun reading to go along with Greek history studies.

Geography: Famous Places, Twice Over
This series mentions many, many national landmarks and attractions. The empire state building is pivotal to the story, the Hoover dam hosts a frightful battle, etc.
Have students find locations mentioned in the story on a map of the United States. Then have them mark those locations on a map outline. You could have one printed for them, or have them draw their own. They should mark the real landmark or city. Some of these locations are doubly famous in the books – the Empire State building is also Mt. Olympus. So of course, if the site has a mythological significance, they should write that in also. A fun way to incorporate art would be to have them draw a symbol representing what happened at that location in the story. This would also free up space on your map – they could just draw the symbol on the map, then draw the symbol on notebook paper and write a quick synopsis of the scene next to it. When they were finished, the notebook paper could be their key to the map.

Family Tree
Have students draw their own family tree, and compare it to a drawing (either their own or one you find in a book) of the family tree of the Greek gods and goddesses. They don’t exactly split the same way…

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Elephant and Piggie

These books are great fun for new readers – and older readers! As with all Mo Willems books, they are funny, easy, and enjoyable right from page one. As you get to know solemn, somewhat shy Elephant, and enthusiastic, outgoing Piggie, you will wonder how you ever survived without them in your life. All of them are great, but I will briefly overview two today.

“My Friend Is Sad” tells a sweet (and funny of course) story of friendship. Piggie sees that Elephant is sad, and tries to cheer him up by dressing up as all his favorite things. Elephant is at first ecstatic to see robots and such right there in front of him, but as each character leaves, he is sad again. Come to find out, Elephant was sad because he missed Piggie, and because he couldn’t share all these fun things with him.

“There Is a Bird On Your Head” is hilarious, and works great as a read aloud or reader’s theater. Two birds land on Elephants head. They build a nest. They lay eggs. Then there are lots of birds on elephants head. Piggie helps him out in the end, but then the birds land on his head instead. Mo Willems does a great job with the expressions on the characters faces! You can tell exactly how they feel about everything.

I highly recommend all of these books. They are very funny, and great for beginning readers because they are simple and mostly phonetic. Older kids enjoy them too, especially if they get into them or read them aloud with “voices”.

Practical Uses:

Check out for more ideas and tons of fun!

Literature: Reader’s Theater
Type up what the characters say.
Have students make puppets or masks of Elephant and Piggie (paper plates with paint sticks for handles work great).
One student will be Elephant, and one will be Piggie. If you only have one student, you can be the other character.
Have the students read their “part” and act out the story.
We did this at Apple Creek with the second graders, and everyone loved it. Us ‘big people’ had as much fun as the kids! This is the puppet I made to be Piggie. I will try to find the pictures I have of the actual ‘performance’ but I don’t have them with me today.

Art: The Many Expressions of Elephant and Piggie
Mo Willems is quoted to have said he won’t draw anything a young child couldn’t draw. In one interview, he said he actually has to redraw his characters sometimes to make them simpler. Yet, he always manages to convey just what they are thinking – through the way they are standing and there facial expressions. This could be two different activities.
Print, copy, or draw pictures of Elephant and Piggie with different expressions shown in their books. Write on the back of the picture what emotion they might be feeling in that scene. Use them like flashcards and see if students can interpret the picture accurately.
Write an emotion or scenario on the back of a piece of paper. Have students see if they can draw Elephant and Piggie with that emotion. Then they could play a guessing game with you or other students.

Math (and Art): Adding Birds
Start with a large sheet of blank paper. Draw four Elephants, going across the page. Under each Elephant, draw a blank line, and put a plus sign between each one and an equals sign between the last two. Read through the story, and have students put a bird on Elephants head each time another one is added in the story. It will look different from the book because you are only drawing the most recently added ones! The first picture should have one. Then one more joins, so the second picture should have one. Then the eggs hatch, so you draw in the little birds on the third picture. The last picture of Elephant should have all the birds on it. Then on the lines of course they write in 1+1+the number of little birds (I can’t remember and I’m not looking at the book right now). The last blank of course will be where they add the birds together and right in their answer.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Elephant Run

Nick is born in Burma, but moves to London with his mother when he is young. Now World War II is ravaging London, and his parents think he might be safer in Burma with his father. Nick is excited because he thinks he will be able to spend time getting to know his father and learning all about the plantation work elephants. They are all wrong. The family teak plantation is quickly taken over by Japanese soldiers, Nick’s father is forced to march to a work camp, and Nick is held captive to ensure cooperation. The plantation elephants and their trainers are forced to work on the Japanese railroad and building airstrips. An old monk who can work with even the wildest, most dangerous of the elephants seems to be Nicks brightest hope – can they escape the plantation, free Nicks father, and get to safety? This book has tons of action and was very interesting to me because it weaves in so much about the elephants, their training, how they were used, and the such like. We frequently tend to focus on Europe and the Holocaust when we think of World War II, but this book takes you to the jungles of Asia, and the power struggle between the Allies and Japan there.

I would highly recommend this book for adults and all but the very most sensitive of children, probably from second to fourth grade on. It is fast paced and easy to follow, with plenty of action. The author pulls you into the story right from the very start, and you are in love with the characters almost right away. Since death is an unfortunate reality of every war, this book does have one or two slightly gritty scenes, but the author handles them very well in the context of the book and you’ve moved right along without even hardly noticing it. This book would be excellent as part of any study on World War II.

Practical Uses

Encyclopedia Research: The Many Uses of Elephants

This is a very simple way to get students started using an encyclopedia. I’ve helped students as young as second grade do this sort of research. The basic prerequisites is they need to know how to read and write, but you could always read and write for them if you wanted to just ‘show’ a younger student how an encyclopedia works. If you want them to do everything by themselves, they will also need to understand alphabetical order.
Start by explaining that there are many different resources to choose from when you want to learn something new. If you just want to know the definition of a word, you should choose a dictionary. If you want quick, short answers to a specific question, you might try an almanac. If you want lots of diverse information about a broader topic, you might choose an information book from the library. If you want information about a specific topic, you could look it up in the encyclopedia.
An encyclopedia has several important parts the student should become acquainted with. Have them choose a random volume from the shelf. Point out the letter on the spine, and tell them all the words and topics in that volume start with that letter. Have them open the encyclopedia somewhere near the middle, and point out the key words on the page. Explain key words are in bold at the top of the page, and tell what the first or last word on that page. Have them look at the page and tell them each bold word is the start of a new topic, or entry. Tell them the topics are in alphabetical order to make them easy to find, and have them look closely at the page to observe this. Turn several pages at once, and show them it takes a lot of pages to get very far in the alphabet.
Ask the student what letter their encyclopedia should have on its spine to look up elephants, and have them get that volume. Challenge them to find the entry for elephant. Have them read through it and see if they can find at least three different topics about elephants, such as eating habits, environment, and what work they are used for. Then have them pick their favorite, and see if they can find three facts within that topic. Explain that a fact is a short, quick piece of true information about something. It should just be one complete sentence. Have the student write their facts down, with a title at the top of the page. Say they pick what work they are used for – their page might look like this:

Work Elephants are Used For

1. Elephants are used for logging.
2. Elephants are used to transport people.
3. Elephants can be trained for entertainment.

Tell the students congratulations – they have used the encyclopedia to find facts about a new topic and do research. (If you are interested at this stage, you should have them write their citation at the bottom of the page.)

Political History / Geography: A Changing Nation

Since Burma is not on current maps, this book would be a good starting place for a discussion on the many reasons a country might change it’s name. Start by discussing the fact the United States of America used to be the American Colonies. We were the colonies of England that happened to lie in North America. Then we had a huge war to gain our independence. We decided to set up our government into states that were united under a federal government. Thus we were the United States, and since we still happened to be in North America, we were the United States of America.
Then have students use an encyclopedia (or Google if they are advanced enough to sort through results) and look up Burma to see if they can find its history.

Literature / History / Research / Art / Just a Little Math: Historical Storyboard

You could do this two ways, depending on how much time you have for research. Students could either choose specific events from the story, or they could research them from the time period in general. Also, if you did the other encyclopedia activity, you might want to reinforce those skills, or you might feel you need a break from research. I will explain the longer way. Have students use an encyclopedia* or information book to find six events in World War II. Make sure these events can be dated or otherwise put in sequential order. Have students cut a piece of white construction paper in six pieces. On each piece they should draw one of the events they chose. Have them write in small letters at the bottom the “title” of the event and the date. They will then put the events in order on another piece of construction paper using glue or tape.

Things you could branch off and discuss more in-depth:
Story boarding in the media and as a planning tool
Story boarding as a comic strip
Sequential ordering
Encyclopedia usage
Cause and effect
How changing even one event in their storyboard would affect the rest of the war

Geography: Finding Nick

Before reading the book give students a map of Europe and Asia. Have them find these places and mark them on the map:
Burma (this will be tough since its not called Burma anymore)
-Bay of Bengal
As they read the book have students trace the route Nick might have taken, and mark any other places they find mentioned in the book.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Something to Tell the Grandcows

This book is hilarious. It tells the story of Emmadine the cow, who has nothing exciting to tell her grandcows. The best she can come up with is the time she swatted 13 flies at once – and who wants to hear about that? So she answers an advertisement to travel to the South Pole. This book is loosely based on a true story, Admiral Byrd’s expedition to the South Pole. He did in fact take several cows on his expeditions, but of course they did not wear udderwarmers, or teach the cowherd the hoochy-coochy. It talks about silly things like that, but it also talks about the supplies they needed to take, the sun staying up all summer (and down all winter), the president awarding the explorers when they got back, and other little details that make it almost (but not really!) like historical fiction.

The bottom line is I would definitely recommend this book. It is a very fun, silly pleasure read. In spite of the silliness, it would also be a good jump off place for a lesson on the South Pole, Antarctica , explorers, Admiral Byrd’s expeditions, etc.

I’ve decided that on the rare occasion I have any ideas on how to use the book in a lesson, I will put them at the end of the post, so here is the end of “Something to Tell the Grandcows”.

Practical Uses:

Literature: Fact Vs. Fiction
Explain the difference between fact and fiction. Discuss how some made-up books have real things in them. This book is easier for this than true historical fiction* because the fiction parts are obvious and somewhat ridiculous. Even the youngest children should be able to tell you cows don’t really teach people how to dance the hoochie-coochie. Have students point out things from the book that could and couldn’t have happened.

History: Shackleton’s Expedition, Explorers
No specific ideas, but it would be a great jumping off point to get discussion rolling on these topics before you dig into serious research.

Science: South Pole Sunlight
Use this book as an introduction to a lesson on the earth’s axis tilting away from the sun, causing solar regions to have ‘unusual’ patterns of sunlight. There is a very simple experiment to illustrate this point well.
You will need:
a flashlight – the sun
a styrophoam ball – the earth
a marker – for drawing vague continent shapes
and some toothpicks – your “axis”
Have students draw outlines of the continents on their earth (note the geography opportunity here ;)), then put a toothpick at the north pole and one at the south pole. Have them hold the earth by the axis while you shine the flash light straight at the earth. Make sure you are not shining at an angle. The student can then turn rotate their earth on its axis and observe how the sun shines on different parts of the earth.
If you wanted to get more in depth, you could then have students draw the equator and ask them how they think it got is name. Explain that the closer you get to the equator, the more equal the sunlight and darkness are.

Math: Graphs and Charts
If you did either the literature or science lesson, you could use the facts you gathered to make a graph. The facts and fiction graph would simple – say your students found three things that were fiction and four things that were fact, their graph would just have two bars - one 3 units hight, the other 4. For the sunlight, they would plot how many hours of sunlight certain days of the year had. Or they could plot how many days had 3 hours of sunlight, how many days had 5 hours, and so on. This might also work well with a line graph.

Geography: Route Planning
Have students use an atlas to decide on a route from their home to the South Pole. Depending on students’ general knowledge and research skills, this lesson could go several ways. Young students could be given a printout of a world map outline and asked to simply draw how they think they could get there. Older students could research (or just guess) what mode of transportation each leg of their route would require, and figure out approximately how long each leg of the trip would take to make. They could also list (and label on their map) all the countries and oceans their route would pass through.
You could discuss difficulties and advantages of different routes (more supplies needed for the ocean journey, more physical labor hiking down through South America, if you go through Cuba, you have to deal with hostile relations with the United States, etc…).

* One characteristic of historical fiction is everything in the book realistically could have happened to the characters in the book.