Sunday, March 27, 2011

Art & Max: story mountains

This lesson involved students creating a story mountain from the book, Art & Max, by David Wiesner. A story mountain is a way to look at the structure of a story and examine how the story has a main character with hopes and desires who gets into trouble or has a problem that is resolved by the end of the story. Grade 4 students have been working on story mountains in readers and writers workshops.

First, I asked students if they knew anything special about this author. David Wiesner has won 3 Caldecott medals and only one other writer has done this in the history of the Caldecott medal. One of the library standards in elementary school is for students to understand the purpose of children's and young adult book awards. In addition, Wiesner is a brilliant artist and I try to show his contributions to literature throught the medium of this work. The story in this book is about the creation of a piece of art and the exploration of the medium. I pointed out to students throughout the story the illustrations shift from acrylics, to pastels, to watercolor. Art also changes at the end and is inspired by Max's pointillism and creating an abstract piece of work on the cactus.

The objective of the lesson is to create a story mountain. To begin, I asked students to describe the two distinct character traits of Art and Max.  (This ties in with grade 4 language arts where they study how characters change from the beginning to the end of the story.) From the first page, Max is high energy and loveable in an annoying way. He flies across a double-page spread running over two assistants and knocking Art's paint brush out of his hand. Max is so excited to see Art paint he's a bit reckless in his enthusiasm. Art is the expert who has three assistants and is a bit of a snob. Art is annoyed with Max in the beginning but changes at the end when Max opens his eyes to new possibilities in creating a work of art.

The structure of this book is fairly easy to follow and the pictures are hysterical. Students were able to recreate the story mountain although there were debates in every class as to what the climax was in the story.  Art lets Max paint with him but tells him to stay out of the way. Max doesn't know what to paint and asks Art. Art replies by telling him to paint him. Max takes Art literally and paints him. The acrylic paint hardens and cracks on Art before exploding off the page to reveal pastels beneath Art. Max is fascinated by what the medium is doing while Art is furious with Max. Excited, Max rushes off the page with one finger in the air indicating he has an idea and that Art should just wait there for him. He comes back with a fan and blows the pastels off of Art who is feeling dry-mouthed from inhaling pastel dust. He asks for a drink of water and the medium turns into watercolors. Art drinks the glass of water and the watercolor washes off him completely leaving only his outline. Completely fed up with Max, Art stomps off the page while Max says "wait a minute" and grabs a hold of his outline. Art completely unravels so that he has disappeared from the page. Max holds the tangled outline in his hands and with a baffled look says, "Arthur?"

Max then sets to work with determination, his long lizard-like tongue hanging out of his mouth, as he concentrates on putting Art back together. His first attempt is quite comical and the students laugh the hardest at this page no matter what age group I read it to. Next, Max puts art back together and the students "ooh" and "aah" as the simple lines become more complex and Art becomes recognizable. Once he is back together Max holds his finger up because he has another idea. (Uh-oh, the students groan, along with the assistants who are shaking their heads). Max comes in with a vacuum cleaner and blasts Art with paint. Art looks completely different covered in dots to represent Pointillism. I then have a slide of famous paintings in Pointillism by Paul Signac and Georges Seurat. Last, I show a 2 minute video that Wiesner narrates about how he writes this book. [youtube][/youtube]

The last part involves writing a story mountain and we used the Epson projector for this part. I projected a graphic organizer and the students filled in the blanks. The climax was usually hotly debated by the students. Except for the class where the student yelled out dramatically at the point where Arthur has disappeared, "Oh-no! He killed him!"

I had a student videotape me giving this lesson and there were several things I would do differently. I should drop the Pointillism slide. It takes away from the story mountain. While the students found it interesting I think it was distracting and made the lesson too long. Children's picture books and how it relates to fine art is a personal interest of mine and while it adds to an appreciation of illustrators it muddied this lesson and the objectives. Also, I should have had students turn and talk to a partner before they came up to write on the Epson interactive whiteboard with the story mountain worksheet . In another class the answers were way off and I think I should have intervened with the correct answer sooner. It can be a challenge mastering the "art" of teaching.

Here's some highlights from the book when I was reading it to the students. [youtube][/youtube]

Monday, March 14, 2011

QR Codes

QR codes or Quick Response codes were developed during the 1990's but have only recently become popular with the increased use of  mobile phones. This lesson involves publishing book reviews and applying the QR code to the book so it can be read by other patrons. 

Fifth graders wrote book reviews in the classroom and saved them in Google docs or Word. I had students put the reviews on their blog, generate a QR code, and put the QR code on the book in the library. Using an iTouch, the students scan the QR code which then goes to the URL with their book review. 

  • Lesson Activity

Materiels: laptops, scissors, tape, iTouch, QR code example

 To begin, students put their reviews on their blogs. Many copied the URL incorrectly on this step. This only happened when we published the blogs and created the QR codes on the same day or during the same 45 minute lesson. Many students copied the preview page of the blog or didn't hyperlink to the book review page. I taught this lesson to six 5th grade classes and once I required students to check with me after publishing their review did the errors go down to a manageable amount.

The second part of the lesson involved students opening a QR code generator at (I used DyKnow to push the URL codes to the students which saved time.) There are many codes available, I just chose this one because the Jeff Utecht, instructor of our technology class, suggested it. This QR code generator has the http:// already in the link. Make sure students delete it. Many pasted their URL in the box and had two "http://"s which caused the code to not work. Also, tell students to choose the "S" for a small code. When printing choose the box "Pages 1"; otherwise two pages will print and quite a bit of paper is wasted. Have students who finish first help other students. I saw some nice peer mentoring going on with this lesson.

Make sure students check their QR code after it is generated. This is when they find out whether or not it works. Then students can search for the book, cut it out,  and paste it on the book .

To build on this lesson I'm thinking of having 4th graders find the QR codes on the books and read 5th graders book reviews. I will have to set-up stations for this because I only have one iTouch. According to Jeff Utecht's blog on QR codes, I could download a QR code reader that works with a webcam.

Below is a 30 second video showing students using the iTouch, finding their book, and taping the code onto the book.


Sunday, March 13, 2011

Evaluating Early or Easy Readers

I read an interesting book by Kathleen T. Horning  called,  From Cover to Cover (revised edition): Evaluating and Reviewing Children's Books. I particularly liked the chapter on evaluating early or easy reader books. I thought I had a good understanding of what consitutes an early reader book...    

Until I read Bink & Gollie, winner of the 2011 Theodor Seuss Geisel Award. This books shows that early readers are evolving and that there are similarities and differences from past winners.   


  • A Look at the History of Early Readers

The Theodor Seuss Geisel Award was created in 2006 to recognize authors and illustrators who have created quality books for children from pre-K through Grade 2.  The award follows criteria established in 1957 when Dr. Seuss published The Cat in the Hat; a story that used 237 limited first grade vocabulary of words  targeting early readers. Little Bear, by Else Holmelund Minarik, was published the same year and established the form in which early reader books were written using chapters with pictures that give clues to the text. According to Horning, early reader books were written taking into account the physical development of childrens' eye muscles. For instance, a beginning reader has to train the eye to travel from left to right across the text. Research shows that beginning readers see five letters; whereas adult readers see around 9 letters. Horning explains that this is the reason beginning readers find it easier to decode words with fewer than five letters. As the eye muscles develop, children can handle longer sentences and unfamiliar words. Eventually, children make the shift from decoding words as they read aloud to reading for meaning.   

Here's an example of using site words, limited vocabulary, and short five letter words in Cat and the Hat:   

"Now look what you did!"
Said the fish to the cat.
“Now look at this house!
Look at this! Look at that!
You sank our toy ship,
Sank it deep in the cake.
You shook up our house
And you bent our new rake.”

In addition, Horning expained how Arnold Lobel, in the 1970's, created the Frog and Toad series that combined both standards set by Minarik and Seuss using a  limited vocabulary with five letters, repetition, distinct characters, episodic chapters and humor. Below is an excellent example written in the book, Frog and Toad Are Friends:   

Then Toad went into the house
And stood on his head
"Why are you standing
On your head?” asked Frog.
“I hope that if I stand on my head,
It will help me
To think of a story,” said Toad.

Toad stood on his head
for a long time.
But he could not think
of a story to tell Frog.

Then Toad poured a glass of water
over his head.
“Why are you pouring water
Over your head?” asked Frog.
“I hope that f I pour water
over my head,
it will help me to think
of a story,” said Toad.

Toad poured many glasses of water
over his head.
But he could not think of 
a story to tell Frog.
Then Toad began
to bang his head
against the wall.
“Why are you banging you head
against the wall?” asked Frog.
“I hope that if I bang my head
against the wall hard enough,
it will help me to think of a story,”
said Toad.

Over the years, early readers have changed in pattern. In the 1990's, Harper Collins added the three step leveling system with reading progressing in difficulty with each level.  Horning suggests following these guidelines when evaluating easy reader books:    

Level One
17-20 point type
Average 5 words per line
Sentences 5-7 words
Words used are mainly sight vocabulary and one-syllable words of 5 letters or fewer
2-7 lines per page   

Level Two
Sentences are a little more complex with sight words greatly expanded
Multisyllabic words
5 words per line
4-14 lines per page
Evenly balanced with illustrations or white space   

Level Three
Controlled vocabulary
Greater frequency of compound and complex sentences resulting in language that begins to sound more natural.
8 words per line
Number of lines does not exceed 15.
Text may cover three-fourth's of the page
Illustrations appear only on alternating pages and function more as decorations.   

If you would like more in-depth information on early readers look at Elizabeth Ward's thesis paper at I believe that the 2010 award winning book,  Bink & Gollie, does and doesn't fit some of the criteria listed above. Will it end up creating a new standard? Will it become its own series? I hope so! Let's look more closely at the story.   

  • A Review of Bink & Gollie by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee, illustrated by Tony Fucile

At first I thought Bink and Gollie were sisters, but they are best friends who learn to get along even though they have differences. One lives in the house in a tree while the other lives in a house on the ground. Three adventures take place with no parents present in the story. Bink is short with hair that looks like a dandelion. She is energetic and carefree. Gollie, on the other hand, writes and speaks in sentences using big words that Bink can't understand half the time. She is smart, organized and looks neat. In the first adventure Bink buys a pair of bright socks that irritate Gollie so much she doesn't want to be with her if she is wearing them. They have to learn to compromise in order to solve their problem. In the second adventure, Gollie is pretending to climb the Andes Mountains in her room, but Bink keeps knocking on her door because she wants to be with her and have a peanut butter sandwich. Gollie eventually lets her in and the two pretend together. The third adventure has Bink buying a pet goldfish and Gollie is irritated or jealous that Bink wants it as a friend. When Bink has an accident with Fred (her goldfish), Gollie is the only one that knows how to save it.   

I love these characters. Bink is an active girl who wears a skirt and sneakers. I read the book to seven grade 1 and grade 2 classes and many asked if Bink was a girl or boy.  She has a strong character, is good-natured and doesn't get mad or give in when Gollie tries persuading her to not buy the bright socks and the goldfish. Gollie has a neat bob with a barrett holding her hair off her face. Her socks go over her knees and she likes to be dramatic and use big words. I must journey forth into the wider world. But where? Tasmania? Timbuktu? This book is reminiscent of Frog and Toad and their friendship; one where they irritate and adore each other. Like Frog and Toad, each chapter is complete in itself ; that is, the action at the beginning of the chapter is resolved at the end of the chapter. Unlike Frog and Toad, Bink & Gollie uses difficult words such as bonanza, compromise, gray matter, marvelous companion, outrageous, and more. The words repeat themselves and the illustrations help with children understanding their meaning.    

Tony Fucile, illustrator, did an incredible job that gives this book a unique look not found in any other easy readers. His illustrations give the girls their distinct characters such as Bink with her peanut butter sandwiches and the illusion of constant movement, to Gollie with her pancakes, staid personality and deliberate movement. Fucile worked as an animator on the movie, The Incredibles, and Bink reminds me of the character, Dash. Although according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune they are supposed to represent the two authors. The layouts are different than any books to date. A full page spread is followed by another that is divided into three sections that show Bink falling down with the goldfish. Other pages separate the story into scenes such as the example to the left.   

I wasn't sure if Fucile's illustrations would give young readers enough clues to help them work out the difficult words in the text or if the repetition in the storyline was enough for readers to figure out words not in their vocabulary. After reading it to seven classes I found that most of them were able to figure out all the difficult words in the text because of the clues in the pictures. I had more success with the grade 2 students. For instance, they were able to figure out the idiom of's either Gollie's way or the highway and the metaphor gray matter. The book is 96 pages and the first graders had problems staying with it. Except they loved the third adventure and it was able to pull their attention back to the story; however, they got a little restless during the second story. The double-page spreads are magnificent. The students laughed at Bink who has to take her fish to the movie theater and they gasped when Bink fell and the fishbowl seemed to fly out of the page of the book. The aerial view of Bink falling is marvelous. While this book looks like a level 1 reader and has a reading level of 1.5, it is really more appropriate for the level 2 reader because of the length and difficulty of the words.    

 Works Cited    

Pekka Niemi, et al. "Development of the letter identity span in reading: Evidence from the eye movement moving window paradigm." Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 102.2 (2009): 167-181. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 9 Mar. 2011.   
Ward, Elizabeth. "Do They Still Make Them Like They Used To?: A Content
     Analysis." University of North Carolina Library and Information Science.
     UNC, Apr. 2009. Web. 12 Mar. 2011. <

Horning, Kathleen T. From Cover to Cover (revised edition): Evaluating and
     Reviewing Children's Books. (pp. 121-148). New York: HarperCollins, 2010. Print. 


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