Reading Out Loud With YouTube

Some of my earliest memories from childhood are from junior kindergarten, when Mrs. Fontaine, our teacher, gathered us around her on the carpet for story time. She would read a book to us, sounding out the text while showing us the pictures. While I don’t remember all the texts and titles we read, they were usually available in the classroom for the students to pick up and look through before and after story time as well.

Nowadays there are some pretty grim statistics about kids being read to out loud, even though the benefits of doing so have been well-documented. Some of this is understandable. A lot of parents are in the workforce, and time spent at school focuses on all sorts of curricula, not just reading, so there may be less time for reading in general. There’s also been a shift to using screens – computers, tablets, television, and so on – more so than ever before, especially in an educational way.

When I was a kid, there was reliably an episode of Reading Rainbow or Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood on TV most days. I don’t know what kinds of shows are on now, and whether they’re as widely accessible as PBS ones, but since the advent of the Internet other people have gotten into creating multimedia reading experiences for children online. I’ve found some examples of stories being read out loud on YouTube, for example.

I don’t think this is a perfect replacement for reading out loud to kids. For one thing, a child can’t see or touch the book the way they can if it’s available to them in real life. I remember examining illustrations in great detail before moving on to the next page if I could help it, and when being read to through a screen, a child doesn’t always have the option, since someone else is dictating the pace at which the story is read. Nothing quite comes close to holding the tangible copy in one’s hand. Still, I like how one can find a variety of readers and reading styles on the Internet – it’s a good way to get children to listen (and pay attention to!) all kinds of voices. It’s also a good way to “try before you buy,” if one’s budget is limited and you want to check out a book or two before committing to a purchase (especially if the book isn’t available from the library… or the library is closed).

I’ve chosen to link this one because it’s new and Christmas-themed. I hope you enjoy Great Joy by Kate DiCamillo, read out loud by Whimsical Tales for Children.



What other books do you want to see shared like this? What other online readers have you encountered?

Book It! Making Reading Material for Class

Hey, look what I found while cleaning my closet the other day!



This is a book I made a long time ago. This is twenty-two years old? Holy moly. Maybe I need to clean more often.


I remember this assignment coming up a few times during my grade school (and even high school) years. I loved making books for class. Every part of it was appealing to me. I loved writing out the story, and creating illustrations, and using contact paper to laminate everything.

(Can you see in the photos how crazy I got with the contact paper? That’s probably why this book has lasted so long.)

Part of the reason I bring this up is because in the ITERS and ECERS scales, in the section regarding books, it is clear how important having a diversity of topics, characters, and styles are when assessing classrooms. However, when schools and day cares have limited budgets, it can be difficult to hit all of these marks.

Just like I have difficulty coloring within the lines, apparently.


But I digress. The point I’m trying to make is this: it can be much easier to make what your classroom needs, instead of trying to find it. When making their own books, children can write about the topics that interest them, and create characters whose experiences can reflect their own. Alternately, they can get as imaginative as they want, and come up with fantastic characters, settings, and plotlines, to show off their creativity.

Or, in my case, my burgeoning sense of sarcasm.


What Is Weeding? Why Does It Matter?

The other weekend I got it in my head that I wanted to watch the entire Mummy series of movies, from the first (The Mummy) to the last (The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor). I went across the street to my local library branch and although I was able to find those two in the library system, the second entry in the series – The Mummy Returns – was weirdly missing. It’s without a doubt the worst in the series, but since it’s part of the series, it felt like required viewing for me… so I had to request it from another library and wait for its arrival in order to begin my movie marathon.

So what happened? The Mummy Returns was a popular movie when it came out, and obviously it’s newer than the first one. It may have been damaged or lost and never replaced, but it’s also likely that the DVD was “weeded,” or, in other words, removed from the library collection.

There are a lot of reasons for weeding. Most public libraries, for example, have limited physical space, and don’t have room to store every book ever written. In order to make room for newer, more relevant resources, they have to take things out of the collection once in a while. If certain kinds of resource are outdated or in poor condition, it’s probably a good idea to get rid of them in that case as well, since they aren’t going to be as useful as they otherwise could be. It makes it easier for most library patrons to find what they need. If a resource hasn’t been used for a while – my local library considers getting rid of items that haven’t been checked out or moved from the shelf in a year – then it’s also a candidate for the chopping block.

Which probably means I don’t get to watch my Mummy.

But what this also means is that sometimes books and movies that aren’t popular don’t get to stay at the library, regardless of how important it is they be accessible to the public. If they don’t get used within a certain span of time, librarians can’t predict whether or not they’ll be used in the future. Some libraries have policies to safeguard against getting rid of certain books and other resources, but policies can vary widely from one library system to the next, so it’s difficult to know whether any particular library will have a resource accessible.

My answer to this? Increase circulation! Every time I’m at the library I get a handful of books and movies out, even if I know I won’t have time to read or watch them all. I know I’m giving them a reprieve before they get weeded out. I live across the street from my local library branch, though, so this is an easy solution for me. What do you think might work? How would you make sure certain books stay accessible and available to the reading public?

Nappiness and Unhappiness: An Example of Controversy in Children’s Lit

I remember reading bell hooks in college and graduate school. A scholar, activist, and champion of intersectionality, she addresses issues of race, class, and gender in her work; I’d absolutely recommend looking into some of her scholarly articles. Needless to say, when I saw that she had written a book for children, I was immediately intrigued. Happy to Be Nappy is a fun read; the text lends itself well to being read aloud, and is accompanied by lovely illustrations by Chris Raschka. However, I had no idea when I found this book that it responds to a contentious debate, spurred by a particular event that occurred in the New York City school system in the late 1990s. This event was triggered by a white teacher’s use of the book Nappy Hair in a diverse classroom setting, and echoes of it still reverberate in classrooms today.

The short version of the story: In 1998, teacher Ruth Sherman read Carolivia Herron’s award-winning picture book to her Brooklyn classroom. Students loved it so much they wanted to take it home with them. Unable to oblige them all, Sherman made photocopies. The quality of cheap and quick Xerox copies, found by parents in their children’s book-bags and folders, did the illustrations little justice. Rendering a deceptively complex text and its colorful pictures into black and white does it no favors. From there, the events escalated, until the teacher transferred to another school, and Herron’s book was banned from classrooms all over.

It can be very challenging to teach a controversial book. It can be questionable even having it in a classroom. But what was at the heart of this issue? Herron maintains that her book was written as a celebration of nappy hair, but somehow a white teacher using it in her classroom appeared racist. The teacher was marked. The book was tainted. The topic was touchy. This is the atmosphere that bell hooks attempted to break through by creating a book of her own that addresses the same touchy topic of textured tresses, in an even more celebratory way than the original controversial text, but whether or not it’s been successful at addressing the controversy is hard to determine.

One could look and see how many copies each book has sold, whether they’ve been continuously in print, their placement on bookseller’s lists. One could check their local bookstore and see if they’re on the shelf. But the truth of the matter is I’ve never seen them on display in a classroom I’ve visited. Neither of them are on the shelves at my local library. I could find them through the library loan system, surely, but that’s not the easiest way to get one’s hands on a particular book – especially if the hands they need to get to are the hands of children.

Would you teach either of these books in your classrooms? If so, would you address them differently than you would other books? If you didn’t teach these books, would they still be welcome on your shelves?

Children’s Book Awards

When I was a kid I didn’t care a lot about book awards. If a book had some kind of animal on the cover, that was pretty much enough. Maybe some of the books I read were award-winners, maybe they weren’t. I certainly didn’t keep track. Besides, if it was up to kids to give awards, they would probably pick them according to completely different criteria, the way I did – dinosaurs on the cover get first place, ones with horses and dogs get second, honorable mentions to ones that have elephants.

The awards aren’t really there to help the kids; they’re there to help the curators. If a parent or a teacher has a choice between two books, one with a shiny medal on the cover and the other without, which one are they likely to choose? The medal indicates that this book has been through a panel of people who all decided it was pretty great for one reason or another, and that must mean something.

And it does – don’t get me wrong! It’s just that different awards mean different things, so if you’re trying to create a diverse, useful library for young readers, it’s important to pay attention while keeping track.

Perhaps the best-known book awards are the Newbery Medal and the Caldecott Medal. These longstanding awards, decided by the Association for Library Service to Children, to distinguished contributions to American literature each year. These are meant to determine the cream of the crop, but with thousands of new books coming out for kids each year, there’s no way this can be comprehensive!

Fortunately, there are a number of other awards that can also be helpful. The Pura Belpré Award recognizes great Latino literature for children. The American Indian Youth Literature Award does the same for books about American Indians. Other awards that specialize in this way include the Tomas Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award, the Americas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, and of course, the Coretta Scott King Book Awards for outstanding African American authors and illustrators.

Using awards to help fill empty shelves, or the empty spaces in those shelves, might be a useful way to get good literature into the hands of eager young readers. Do you use awards as guidelines when purchasing books for your classroom or library? I’d love to hear more about it!

Review & Recommendation: Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

The seventh and last book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, came out in July of 2007. Remember how sad you were when you read it all quickly and got to the end, and realized there was no more of that universe to immerse yourself in? That wasn’t just me, right?

I loved reading the Harry Potter stories, just as I loved reading The Chronicles of Narnia, Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness series and Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles as a kid. Something about fantasy novels would tickle my imagination like nothing else. But I always felt a twinge of sadness at reaching the end of a book (okay, let’s face it – I still feel this way when I finish a good one). When a book sets the stage for a possible sequel or series, that sadness is ameliorated a bit!

That’s just one reason I really enjoyed reading Nnedi Okorafor’s YA fantasy novel Akata Witch.

The premise is familiar; a young girl comes of age in challenging circumstances. That young girl, Sunny, is a social pariah for a number of reasons. Born in America to Nigerian parents, her family only relocated to their homeland just prior to the narrative. Not only that, but Sunny is an albino. She can’t even play outside with other kids, because she’ll burn too badly in the sunshine. Sunny manages to make a ragtag group of friends, and Even an inexperienced reader can probably recognize where this is going, but knowing the way doesn’t make the journey any less fun, engaging, and imaginative.

The coolest thing about this particular work is that it takes readers to a completely atypical setting with a relatable protagonist. Africa is often exoticised in the U.S., even in history and social studies classes, but Okorafor’s writing helps make it a real place in the minds of young readers, and one that’s not so different from where many American kids live. But whether readers focus on the similarities or differences between their experiences and Sunny’s, they’ll find a totally new kind of magical world built up on a mythology that hasn’t been overdone yet in media.

Sunny and her friends do face off against a truly terrifying villain – a serial killer motivated by black magic, or “bad juju,” which might make it inappropriate for readers younger than 4th or 5th grade, but older readers – even early high school students – should find a lot to enjoy about this novel. And my favorite part – the sequel, tentatively titled Breaking Kola, should coming out soon.

Akata Witch was also a finalist for the Andre Norton Award for Best Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy, An Best Book of the Year, a YALSA Best Book of the Year, and a Junior Library Guild selection, so you don’t have to rely on my word. But if you or your students do read it, drop me a line and tell me what you think!

Pedagogy and Power of the Pen, Part I

I was very fortunate during the past Power of the Pen season to judge every single possible round at the district, local, and state level. I was even tapped to judge the seventh-grade state finals (the prompt was a tough one; I don’t remember specifically what it was but they had to write in the style of Dr. Seuss). That’s a lot of reading, and there were definitely challenges with assigning scores and sussing out favorites, but it’s something I enjoy so much that it’s worth sacrificing a few Saturdays during the school year.

But, actually, let’s back up a little bit here. What is Power of the Pen in the first place? The Power of the Pen website describes it as “Ohio’s award-winning educational enhancement program devoted to excellence in creative writing at the middle school level.” I normally call it an alla prima creative writing competition for seventh and eighth graders.

However, neither of these definitions accurately describe what happens at a tournament, which can be chaotic and stressful and tons of fun.

Middle schools assemble teams of interested writers, and those writers come to the tournament bright and early and ready to write. The format is like a high school speech and debate competition, for those that are familiar – students are split into different classrooms in groups of five or six. One judge facilitates the tournament for that classroom during that round. This includes passing out the papers to write on (gotta get those carbon copies!), writing the prompt on the board, and keeping time. When time is up, the judge collects the stories and reads them all. The judge has to rank and score them and turn them into the tournament’s tab room, where they calculate students’ running scores throughout the day, and also the teams’ scores. Rinse and repeat for at least two more rounds, have lunch, and stay for awards, and there is your basic Power of the Pen tournament recipe!

I never competed when I was a kid (my middle school only developed a team in the past few years) but whenever I judge it is fascinating seeing how many different kids are involved, and how they operate during a round. Some seem laser-focused, jumping into the prompt immediately, sometimes generating pages and pages of material. Others take their time; they’re allowed some resources, like dictionaries and scrap paper, and they work more slowly and deliberately. Some clearly come in prepared with a story idea that they then have to adjust to fit to the prompt; others wait for new inspiration to strike each time. It’s obvious as a judge that many students change up their strategies from one tournament or even one round to the next, which I find fascinating. It’s getting to watch their writing process develop in real time! How cool is that?

That brings me back to the whole point of this post – what is the point of Power of the Pen? Sure, it’s fun, and yes, it’s always nice to get recognition as a kid, but does this sort of lightning-fast creative writing serve a pedagogical purpose?

I think it does. Having to write a lot in a short amount of time is certainly a skill that comes up a lot, especially in high school and college. There are definitely benefits to practicing creativity. But what, specifically, does Power of the Pen accomplish? Let me know what you think – I’ll be chewing on this question a bit for another post!