Woo hoo! Back to School!

For those of you with school-age children, it is that time of year.. Back to school! Whether you homeschool or your child attends school elsewhere, it is really great to be able to talk about what to expect and what to look forward to in a new school year.

Since my oldest daughter has a December birthday, she won’t be enrolling in a traditional preschool class yet. I’m okay with that since I want to enjoy the time with her and my husband and I are still discussing what avenue of education to pursue long-term. In the meantime, we are combining some light homeschooling with her first outside class, a Nature Discovery course offered once a week this fall through the local Park & Rec. It is only one hour long and meets once a week, focusing on outdoor play and exploration, so it should be lots of fun! Plus a friend from church will be in her same class, so she will have a familiar face in a new environment. I am so excited for her! As we prepare her for this new experience, we have been reading several books about school.

The one I’m sharing today is I Love School! by Philemon Sturges. I like this book because it’s very general and works well for first-time and returning students. It has simple text and bright illustrations, with positive attributes of school. Although it centers on a traditional classroom setting, it could be easily adapted for use with homeschoolers. And it includes lots of school experiences, from play time to art to lunch/snack.

For another great back-to-school read, check out my previous blog post on Keisha Ann Can!

Best Ages: pre-k – 1st grade

For Parents:

  • If your child is going to school for the first time, ask what he/she is looking forward to doing. What information do you already know about the school and the teacher? (Such as the teacher’s name, room number, start and end of the school day, class pet.)
  • Ask your child if he/she is nervous about anything on the first day of school. Reassure him/her that it is normal to feel a little nervous but give them lots of encouragement that you know they will get through it and become more comfortable with the routine each day.
  • Check out this amazing and creative idea on creating a time capsule for your child as he/she enters the school year! Mariah at Giggles Galore came up with this for her twins as they entered kindergarten, but you could use the general idea for any grade level. Homeschoolers can use this, too!

For Teachers:

  • As a pre-reading activity, ask your students what they are excited about at school. Is there anything they are nervous about? Have a time of free sharing and encourage them that all their feelings about starting a new school year are normal!
  • Go through your daily routine or class schedule and compare it to the activities described in the book. Were there any differences?
  • Share Mariah’s idea for creating a time capsule with parents in your class newsletter. Or depending on the size of your class, allow students to make their own time capsule during the first week of school! Add to it throughout the year and have the time capsules be a neat surprise for parents at Parent Teacher Conferences, winter break or the end of the school year. A class photo would make a great bonus addition!

Summer Bike Rides & Means of Transportation

Our family is really into bike rides right now. As in, get in a ride to the park before church and then take another one in the afternoon when everyone wakes up from nap time. 🙂 Even though we live in the city of Chicago, we are close to the lake trail and a neighboring suburb that allow for safe and scenic biking paths. It’s a wonderful way to get fresh air, spend time together as a family and build some exercise into the day – especially my husband, who is pulling two kids in the bike trailer!

A candid shot of our daughters as they got in the bike trailer on Sunday afternoon.

In keeping with our biking craze, my daughters and I are having fun reading Bear on a Bike by Stella Blackstone. It has wonderful rhyming text that follows a pattern through the book, colorful illustrations and a couple of great vocabulary words like “prowl.” I enjoyed taking the opportunity to talk about means of transportation with my children as we read through this book, because Bear doesn’t only ride a bike… He is very creative in how he gets to the market, beach and other places, too!

Best Ages: pre-k – kindergarten

For Parents:

  • Take a bike ride with your child. Think about what you experience as you bike together and talk about it afterward: What did you see? Smell? Hear?
  • Remind your child of basic bike safety such as wearing a helmet and looking both ways before crossing a street.
  • Think of the ways that your family uses transportation to get around. Point it out this week as you ride the bus or train, drive in the car, take a bike ride or a walk. Do you have a favorite way of getting around?

For Teachers:

  • After reading, explain that “transport” means to “move.” Transportation includes all the ways that we move from one place to another. On the white board or easel, write down the means of transportation that your students say they use regularly. These could include the methods Bear used in the book and more!
  • Print out some of these fun (and free!) printables on transportation. Or check out this fun preschool song about transportation.
  • Remind your students of basic bike safety such as wearing a helmet and looking both ways before crossing a street.


Mom and Me

Books about the precious relationship between a mother and her child are always sweet. Mom and Me by Marla Stewart Konrad is extra special because of its beautiful photos of mothers from around the world that expose children to other cultures while showing that all people have a foundational and valuable tie to their mothers (whether those in mother roles are biologically related or not). The simple text in Mom and Me is ideal for a read-aloud with little ones or as practice for an early reader.

As a side note, the book is published by the non-profit organization World Vision. World Vision provides global relief aid and facilitates child sponsorships that allow children in extreme poverty to have proper access to medical, educational and other resources. They have a 3-star rating with Charity Navigator with a 100% score on transparency and accountability and are an Accredited Charity through the Better Business Bureau. From the time I was in 7th Grade until college, I sponsored a child in Guatemala using some of my babysitting money. It was an amazing experience for me to correspond with this young girl and watch her grow and develop until she finished her schooling and was able to get a sustainable job in her village. For more information about World Vision and child sponsorship, visit their website.

Best Ages: pre-k – 1st grade

For Parents:

  • After reading Mom and Me, discuss with your child which activities you do with your child that you saw in the book. Are there special things you do together that you would add?
  • One of the things the book touches on is helping Mom. Find something to do tighter today and allow your child to help you. It could be baking, dusting or putting laundry in the washer/dryer, setting the table for a meal, etc. Relax and enjoy the time together!

For Teachers:

  • As a pre-reading activity, ask your students what activities they do with their mothers or caregivers. What is special about their mom?
  • After reading Mom and Me, have students draw a picture (write a sentence if they are able to) about what they enjoy doing with their mothers.


Chinese Calligraphy

I find it important – and enjoyable – to read multicultural literature with my students and children.* As I stay home from work this year to be with my two daughters, I am intentionally searching for age-appropriate multicultural picture books to read with them. And this one is a winner! Liu and the Bird: A Journey in Chinese Calligraphy is written and illustrated by Catherine Louis. It has a rich and lovely story with calligraphy on each page to accompany the illustrations and text.

I love the way the story is told, almost like listening to your grandmother share as you sit in her lap. My preschooler liked turning the page to find out what would happen next as Liu journeyed to see her grandfather. We both found it wonderfully interesting how the modern Chinese calligraphy is shown on each page for a few of the words, which are also bold-faced in the text for the reader’s reference. The book creatively allows you to see how the calligraphy may have developed from a more obvious picture-like image of the word to its modern character.

*Click on the links to see two of the original novel units I created to explore Mexican culture (Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan) and Chinese culture (Spring Pearl: The Last Flower by Laurence Yep) with middle school students. These are available for purchase at Teachers Pay Teachers and helpful for either a traditional classroom or homeschool use.

Best Ages: kindergarten – 2nd grade

For Parents:

  • Ask your child what he/she enjoys doing with Grandpa. Do you travel far to see him like Liu did in the book? Or does Grandpa come to visit you?
  • Look back at the pictures and the calligraphy on each page. Discuss which modern Chinese calligraphy characters most resemble the word they represent. Which ones least resemble the word they represent?
  • If desired, choose a few of your favorite modern calligraphy characters and try to copy them!

For Teachers:

  • There are 4 excellent activity ideas provided at the end of Liu and the Bird: A Journey in Chinese Calligraphy so I used those rather than create my own! We decided to try the Bilingual Picture Alphabet Memory Game, using English and Spanish for our two languages.

Perspective in Children’s Books

Do your children or students ever ask you, “What’s that for?” Or come up with their own ideas about what an object’s function is, what a sign reads or what a word means? It’s comical and sometimes exasperating to hear what goes on in those little heads. Kids have a totally different perspective on the world oftentimes.

Here is something my preschooler tells me from time to time as we run errands in the car: “Mommy, when I’m bigger, I will drive you to the store and then you can sit in my carseat!” She says this with great enthusiasm and delight, as if it will be such a treat for me! I laugh every time she brings this up. If you hear wacky and cute things like that come out of a child’s mouth, you will appreciate the humor in the Minerva Louise books by Janet Morgan Stoeke.

I am fond of Minerva Louise because she is child-like in her perspective on the world. As a hen, she perceives every human as a “farmer” and believes that every single object and setting in the world relates to the farm and animals on the farm. The simple and cute illustrations only serve to underscore the hilarity of her perspective. My children and I loved reading what Minerva Louise at School and hearing what thought when she stepped inside a school for the first time! This makes a great back-to-school read.

Best Ages: pre-k – 2nd grade

For Parents:

  • Ask your child: Does Minerva Louise understand that she is not on the farm? How would you explain to her where she really is?
  • Walk around your home and think together about what Minerva Louise might think of various items or places. What would she think the bathroom sink is for or the cupboards in the kitchen? Have fun and laugh together as you try to imagine your home from a hen’s perspective!

For Teachers:

  • Write the word “perspective” on the board or easel and explain to your students that it is the way someone sees the world around them. Use a pair of sunglasses or turn off the lights to demonstrate that in either of those situations, everything in the room looks darker… That is one perspective. How does our perspective change when we take off the sunglass or turn the lights go back on?
  • Ask your students: What was Minerva Louise’s perspective? Was she in a school or on a farm? Why did she think that?
  • Create a T-chart with the categories of Minerva Louise and Our Class. Write down the perspective the hen had versus your perspective of each scene in the school. (For example: Minerva Louise thought the cubbies were nesting baskets. We think they are for storing our things.)


Caribbean Culture

For about two years, my husband and I had delightful neighbors from the island of Curacao, a small island just north of Venezuela. They are native Papiamentu speakers (which they describe as a somewhat antiquated version of Dutch) and some of the most welcoming, warm people we have had the pleasure of knowing. And naturally, I thought of them when my children and I recently read the colorful book Island in the Sun by Harry Belafonte and Lord Burgess.

The book Island in the Sun contains the lyrics of Harry Belafonte’s song of the same title, released in 1957. Belafonte was born in Harlem, NY, with parents who were born in Jamaica. The beautiful imagery of the lyrics remind us all that we have a homeland, a place in our hearts that is dear to us. My children enjoyed seeing the bight colors and hearing the rhythmic language as we read this book aloud together. I liked the rich vocabulary and the cultural insight the text and illustrations provide of Caribbean culture.

Best Ages: pre-k – 1st grade

For Parents:

  • Ask your child what an island is. Make sure he/she understands it is land completely surrounded by water and explain that people use boats or bridges to get on and off islands. Then use blue construction paper and tan, orange, yellow or white to cut out an island and glue on the blue “water.” Decorate and add to the picture as you like to give your child a more concrete image of what an island is.
  • After reading Island in the Sun, look through the illustrations and talk about the things that you do on a regular basis in your community. Are there more similarities or differences between where you live and the island described in the book?

For Teachers:

  • Harry Belafonte, co-author of this book and the artist who performs the original song, is of Jamaican descent. Show students where Jamaica is on a world map and check for understanding of the geographical term “island.”
  • Give students pieces of blue construction paper and tan, orange, yellow or white papers to cut out an island and glue on the blue “water.” Allow them to decorate and add to the picture as they create a concrete image of an island.
  • Go back through the pictures in the book and ask what your students would like to do if they visited this island (ride on a boat, dance to drums, visit the market, fish, etc.). Ask what people enjoy doing in the geographic area you live and during different seasons, if applicable.
  • Follow the title link to play the song Island in the Sun as performed by Harry Belafonte on black and white television. Ask students what they thought of the song – was it slow or fast? How did they feel when they listened to it? Did they like it? Why or why not?

Art and Storytelling

Does the name Don Freeman sound familiar? If you saw his signature on the cover of a book, like I did when my daughter handed me the small book The Chalk Box Story, you might immediately connect his name to the cover of the famous children’s book Corduroy. He is, indeed, the author/illustrator of both those books and many more.

The Chalk Box Story is interesting because the colors of a chalk box are personified and decide to work together to make a picture. But when the picture doesn’t turn out the way they expect it to, the colors all wonder if a happy ending is still possible.

My preschooler has “read” this book aloud to herself over and over again. She loves the fact that the colors talk and the picture evolves a bit more with each crayon’s addition. She also really enjoys the ending, but I will leave that for you to discover for yourself when you read The Chalk Box Story.

Best Ages: pre-k – 1st grade

For Parents:

  • Check out the interactive storybook version of The Chalk Box Story available through iTunes.
  • Ask your child: Did you expect the story to end the way it did? How would you choose to end the story?

For Teachers:

  • Prior to reading The Chalk Box Story, give students time to draw pictures of their own on blank white paper. When everyone is finished, hold up large pieces of construction paper of the following colors: red, green, yellow, purple, brown, white, blue and black. One color at a time, ask students if they used that given color in their picture. What did they use it for? (Example: blue for water, an umbrella, shoes/brown for a tree trunk, a house, someone’s hair.)
  • Compare what your students used each color to create with that which the colors in the book chose to draw.
  • Place large butcher-block paper down on tables. Set out coloring supplies for students to create a picture with their peers. Display the group artwork!


Promoting the Library

We adore the library. Wherever we have lived, we always visit the library at least weekly, and participate in story time or special reading challenges. We get to know the librarians and take advantage of the phenomenal resources the public library has to offer. When I taught professionally in Chicago, I walked to the neighborhood library with my students at specific times in the year for research projects and sessions with the librarian about what exactly they had to offer area students, such as check-out of laptops and after-school tutoring and homework help. I think the public library is a valuable part of every community, for parents and teachers and everyone else.

So when my family checked out Book! Book Book! by Deborah Bruss at – you guessed it – the public library, my daughters and I got a kick out of imagining the farm animal characters visiting our local library. How would our children’s librarian respond to the bored barn animals who follow Hen to town in search of something fun to do… and end up entering the public library after seeing “happy faces” there? Which books would they check out?

I really liked that Book! Book Book! pulled together fun animal sounds and alliterations while touting the public library as an accessible source of entertainment and enjoyment for all. I hope you and your little ones appreciate the book, too!

Best Ages: pre-k – 2nd grade

For Parents:

  • Prior to reading Book! Book! Book!, point out the different animals in the illustration on the first page and make each animal sound together.
  • After reading, ask: If these farm animals came to our library, which books do you think we should recommend to them? Why?

For Teachers:

  • As a pre-reading activity, point out the different animals in the illustration on the first page and make the animal sound together.
  • Pull out books you have read aloud to the class in the last week or so. Take a vote of which book from that selection that your class would like to recommend to the farm animals. (Aim for a small selection of 2-3 books per voting round and do it a few times with different options to get a final list of 3 books.)
  • The farm animals were bored in Book! Book Book! and ended up visiting the public library. As a class, brainstorm ideas your of what your students can do when they are bored – besides screen time! Share this list with parents in your next class newsletter or ask to visit neighboring classes to share the ideas.

Desperate Parents at Bedtime

What have you resorted to when you’re absolutely desperate to get your child to go to bed? My oldest daughter negotiated for a graham cracker at bedtime over a year ago and somehow it started a trend of having one EVERY. SINGLE. NIGHT. Let’s face it – all parents have experienced those last-ditch efforts to settle their kids into bed after a long day. Comedian Jim Gaffigan states it this way: bedtime frequently “becomes some hostage negotiation, but in reverse. Look, if you stay in there, I will give you whatever you want!” (start at 5:22 to hear it, but watch it all if you need a good laugh.)

Hallie Durand shows she is no stranger to those desperate attempts to get a less-than-willing child to bed. In her book Mitchell’s License, Mitchell’s father comes up with a ploy to get him to go to bed: a fake driver’s license and a vehicle to drive around the home on his way to bed each night. The catch is that Dad is the vehicle!

Mitchell’s License has an endearing and relatable plot and expressive illustrations. My family and I have laughed aloud every time we’ve read this book. I’m sure we will read it together and laugh many more times in the days to come.

Please comment to share something you have done in your desperation to get a child to bed.

Best Age: prek – 1st grade

For Parents:

  • Ask your child what he/she likes most about the bedtime routine in your home. (Haven’t started a bedtime routine or struggling to keep consistent? Check out this article from Parents.com for some helpful suggestions.) Then read the book together.
  • Mitchell uses his imagination to create a cookie gas station. What kind of gas station would you like to create?
  • Review car safety: When we ride in a real car, what do we always wear? (seat belt)

For Teachers:

  • Use a large toy car and have a student volunteer help you act out some of the actions Mitchell takes the first time he gets ready to drive his “car.”
  • Mitchell got a driver’s license at the beginning of the book. Create a print-out license for your students, with a square for drawing a self-portrait and lines for information such as the age of driver, color of their car, favorite place to drive, and what kind of “gas” their car requires. Display the driver’s licenses around the classroom or on a bulletin board with a print-out of the book cover. For children who are learning to write, use a die-cut of a car or print an outline of a vehicle and have students write their names and color their cars.
  • Review car safety: When we ride in a real car, what do we always wear? (seat belt)

All Kinds of Hats

My preschooler is in LOVE with the book Hat by Paul Hoppe. We brought it home from the library on Monday and have read it a million times already. (Okay, that may be a hyperbole.)

I think what she likes about the book is the way Henry, the main character, uses his imagination to think of all the ways he could use a stray hat found on a park bench. As for me, I am always cheering on books that inspire creativity and imagination!

So before we read this book for the hundredth time today, let me ask you a question : What amazing and fun uses can you think of for a hat?

Best Age: prek – kindergarten

For Parents:

  • With your child, pull out hats that your family has in the closet. What do you use them for? Do you like to wear hats or not really?
  • Look at some of the free printable of hats here. Ask your child which hat he/she likes best and why. Print off a couple of pages and color together and jam to this fun, upbeat song!

For Teachers:

  • As a pre-reading activity, show your students a large hat. What could they imagine using that hat for?
  • Read Hat by Paul Hoppe. Discuss all the uses Henry imagined for a hat – which ones were similar to the ideas your class had? Which were different?
  • Play this fun, upbeat song about hats. Allow students to dance, clap and spin around with the animated characters in the video!