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.