Remembering Back-to-School Days

As I prepare to go back to school, the time of year which always marks a new year for me more than January 1 ever will, I find myself recalling the joy I felt in going to school as a child. It helps bring me to a more optimistic mindset, a point of view which cherishes the simplicity and the love my parents showed in helping with the preparation.
After the shoes were bought at Oak Brook shopping center, where seemingly thousands were tried on to fit my troublesome feet, the box was transformed into a school supply box. My mother covered it with yellow flowered contact paper, and my father cut a slit into one end through which the ruler could protrude.
Inside went the standard box of 16 crayons. “That’s plenty,” said my mother, “sixteen are more than enough,” as I would beg for the 64 count box. Crayons were not an item on which we could  be extravagant, but scissors were. “She’s going to have them for at least five years,” said my mother, “we are going to buy a quality pair.” No kid-friendly scissors for me, with a gently rounded tip and plastic handles. Instead, I had stainless steel sharper-than-sharp scissors which could easily cut through anything. To that end, my father saved a cork from one of his wine bottles into which the ends of the scissors could be stuck so that they would not hurt little fingers.
There were no glue sticks, then. Instead we had pots of glue with a little paddle attached to the lid with which to spread the paste on one’s project. Or, I had mucilage: a clear, brownish liquid which always formed a crust on the rubber tip of the bottle. Sometimes, the old dried glue would adhere to the paper along with the fresh, and the project would have a hidden lump. I hated that.
Perhaps one of the best parts of all were the brand new No. 2 pencils. After supper, my father would sit with his pocket knife (ever sharp, ever ready in his pocket) and whittle the ends of the pencils until they were sharp enough to write with. I liked it when he sharpened them, because the lead was exposed much more than if had they been put through an electric sharpener; it seemed to me I could write endlessly without needing them to be re-sharpened.
Finally, there was a square of oil cloth. By the end of the year, it would crack along the folds made so that it could fit into the school supply box. But mine was a cheerful red and white gingham pattern, and out it would come before Art so that my desk was protected from clay. Stray crayon marks. Mucilage crust.
What are parents buying today for their children? Little hand-held calculators. Dry erase markers. Colored pencils, crayons and scented neon washable markers. Instead of oil cloths there are disposable baby wipes. It’s a different world, and I try to embrace it.
But, a piece of me wants to take my black Ticonderoga pencils over to my parents’ house and ask my father, “Will you sharpen these for me? Just like you did in 1967?” And ask my mother, “Will you cover my shoe box and make it pretty like you always did?”
I’m sure they would.

Preparing for Poem In Your Pocket Day

I loved the idea: put a poem in your pocket and share it all day long on April 18. Share it in the classroom, in the hallway, in libraries, bookstores and offices. Just pull out the poem you have in your pocket, hopefully one of you favorites, and read it out loud.
Today I showed my children how to fold an origami “pocket” and told them they could decorate it however they wanted. I love opening doors to them, inviting them to “color outside the lines” as no teacher ever told me. But, I digress…
When they saw the pocket I made, they suggested I add color:
But, the pocket is not the important part of this project. The important part is to decide what poem one ought to choose. I considered using a kid friendly poem by Jack Prelutsky. My son and I used to love Captain Conniption and As Soon as Fred Gets Out of Bed.

Yet I felt that I wanted something a little different for grown ups. Something for us book lovers. Which is why I stuck in this little poem by Edgar Guest:

What poem would you choose? If you were going to participate in national Poem in Your Pocket Day? I’ll let you know what the children have chosen in a few days.

Quotes For Readers To Live By From A Third Grader

This morning, Matthew was telling us all about his medical procedure yesterday which was the reason he was out of class. Fortunately, he said, he had his emergency book.

“Matthew,” I asked, “what is an emergency book?” (Knowing full well, as I, too, carry one.)

“Pretend you’re going somewhere super boring and you only have two books. An emergency book is the second book you have in case you finish your first book and you have nothing to do. If you have a long book, such as Valeria is reading, you don’t need an emergency book. My emergency book is Middle School, The Worst Years of My Life,” he replied.

Something to remember the next time you’re somewhere super boring.

The Strange Case of The Origami Yoda

I’m always on the lookout for a new read-aloud for my third graders. Usually, I like to introduce them to classic literature no one else reads them such as Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio. Or, Edith Nesbit’s Five Children and It. But, knowing my great passion for origami they begged me to read The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger, and I have to admit that I enjoyed it almost as much as they did.

The strange case is that Dwight, an awkward and nerdy middle school boy, has an origami Yoda finger puppet which has a unique ability to give exactly the right advice when needed. So the strange case involves answering the question, “Can Origami Yoda be real?”  Each chapter is a little scenario where Origami Yoda saves the day.

For example, when Kellen accidentally leans across the sink in the bathroom he discovers that only the front of his pants is wet. It looks, unfortunately, as if he has wet himself. But, the Origami Yoda puppet on Dwight’s finger advises him to wet all of his pants before going back to class. Then the one spot is no longer conspicuous. This is the stuff that children love. It is too funny for words. Plus, what if Origami Yoda is real? At the end of the book, after reading many accounts of Origami Yoda giving sage advice, the reader must decide.

I can’t answer that. I can only show you the finger puppets which my third graders made, holding them up in all the appropriate places when Origami Yoda speaks

And, I can leave you with the suggestion that if you have an elementary or middle school child, “Read this book you should.”

(p.s. My favorite Yoda quote? “Do or do not…there is no try.”)

In Which I Cry With My Class Because Of A Poem


We were outisde
in the street
me and some other kids
kicking the ball
before dinner
and Sky was
chasing chasing chasing
with his feet going
every which way
and his tail
and his mouth
and he was
all over the place
smiling and wagging
and slobbering
and making
us laugh
and my dad came walking up the street
he was way down there
near the end
I could see him
after he got off the bus
and he was walk-walk-walking
and I saw him wave
and he called out
“Hey there, son!”
and so I didn’t see
the car
coming from the other way
until someone else-
one of the big kids-
called out
and I turned around
and saw a
blue car blue car
splattered with mud
speeding down the road
And I saw Sky
going after the ball
his tail
and I called him
“Sky! Sky!”
and he turned his
but it was too late
because the
blue car blue car
splattered with mud
hit Sky
thud thud thud
and kept on going
in such a hurry
so fast
so many miles to go
it couldn’t even stop
and Sky
was just there
in the road
lying on his side
with his legs bent funny
and his side heaving
and he looked up at me
and I said
“Sky! Sky! Sky!”
and then my dad
was there and he lifted Sky
out of the road
and laid him on the grass
closed his eyes

~Sharon Creech

An Origami Kiss for Valentine’s Day

Last year, I gave each of my students a Valentine bookmark. This year I’m giving them a kiss. If you want to give your Valentine such a kiss, here are the directions:

Fold a sheet of square paper diagonally, with the color inside.

Fold the triangle into approximate thirds along the bottom so that the overall shape resembles a house.

Fold the outermost point up to the top point of the flap. Do this on both sides.
Fold each point straight down. Do this on both sides.
Make little triangles off to the sides,
then fold each point sticking over the edge into a tiny triangle of its own.

Now carefully unfold the entire sheet of paper, but don’t press it flat. You’ll need the creases for subsequent folds.
Find the little triangle at the top of a corner and fold it down.
Now fold the sides down on the existing creases. This can be a little tricky, so play with the folds gently until you have them just right.
Do this on both sides.
Turn the paper over, and fold up on the horizontal line. Do this on the opposite side as well.
Pinching the two “lips” together, fold the whole thing in half while keeping them tucked inside
like this.
Leaving it slightly open, fold one point in.
Then, do the same for the other side.

Fold in half again on each side.
You’re done! By gently opening and closing the card, you can see the lips give a kiss.
Such a fun valentine!

To All My Teacher Friends

As I wind up the year in 97 degree heat, with no air conditioning in our building as you’ve all heard me complain about, it’s the little things which make the year worthwhile.

I won’t remember asking Jerod if he’d like to get out from under the table to join us for Spelling, or Te’Sean if it’s possible for him to lower his voice just a little bit. I won’t remember Jabril saying, “I don’t get it,” and when asked which he part, he’d look to the ceiling and say, “All of it.”

I won’t remember Field Day, last Friday, which was a never ending stream of “That’s not fair!” “He’s pushing!” “Jerod’s disqualified, and he won’t get out of the game!” “I’m hot!” “I’m thirsty!” “My thumb got jammed!” “Can I get a drink? Please?!”

I won’t remember the CBM (Criterion Based Measurement) scores we have to collect and analyse every month, or the Early Start Wednesdays when we have Professional Development and talk about things like Assessment for Learning and Target Goals. I won’t remember who’s on red, yellow or green according to the triangle of data. I won’t laugh about what I saw in education in 1984 now coming around again in 2011 as though it’s something new.

It’s the little things I’ll remember. Like the bouquet that Angelin and her mother made me from flowers in their garden which I found sitting on my desk this morning. Without a word, I knew it was from her as I looked up and saw her shining eyes over by her backpack. It’s each child’s individual effort, and unique spirit, that have made my year a special one.

As we look forward to a well deserved Summer Break, my friends, may you rejoice in all the good you’ve affected in the children around you. And, may they grow in all the knowledge and strength which we have tried to impart on them.

Time for Kids Big Book of How (Such a Great Book!)

It was so fun to teach today. Finally. It’s been more than a difficult year, Chez Bellezza, as I’ve adhered to the tenets of the National Core Curriculum (when has anything national ever been good?), the Illinois State Standards, and the binders and binders of ridiculous nonsense from which I’m required to teach.

Don’t get me wrong. I would never send the children in my class to fourth grade unprepared. I take their foundations of learning very seriously, and they have grown enormously in their writing skills, their reading comprehension and vocabulary, their mathematical problem solving. But, fun? We’ve been a little short on fun.

Last week, Goodman Media sent me The Time for Kids Big Book of How. Before I could even introduce it to my class, the boys were sneaking it off my desk to read behind theirs. I was constantly searching for that book, as I knew I wanted to develop a lesson from their section on ‘Buildings’.

“If I gave you eight marshmallows,” I said, “and fourteen pieces of spaghetti, how would you use them to design a bridge?” They spent last night thinking it over, and today we built models with mini-marshmallows and toothpicks.

Two hours of silence. Two hours of working. Two hours of hands-on, problem solving.

Then, I built the large one the book suggested. It was so much fun to have them gather around me, learn that the triangle and circle (of the spaghetti itself) are two of the strongest shapes, and see the book’s model of a bridge taking shape. We were even able to hang 72 play-money pennies in an origami cup I quickly folded. You could see the spaghetti slowly bend under the weight, (not pictured here) how flexibility and strength were both at play.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough for children. For parents. For teachers. It has exciting chapters which cover a myriad of topics, outstanding photographs, and best of all (to me) a How To section for each chapter. Now I’m all excited wondering what we’ll do next week.

Surely this is the way to teach Science. As well as read nonfiction.


Chapter 1: Animals

  • Do Elephants Communicate?
  • How Do Sharks Find Prey?
  • How Do Chameleons Change Colors?
  • How Does a Snake Inject its Venom?
  • How Did the Dinosaurs Die Out?
  • How Do Animals See At Night?
  • How Does a Spider Spin its Web?
  • How Do Honeybees Make Hives?
  • How do Beavers Build Dams?
  • HOW TO: Make Blubber
  • HOW TO: Mark Your Territory

Chapter 2: Be Prepared

  • How To Stay Safe in a Hurricane
  • How to Stay Safe in a Storm
  • How To Stay Safe During an Earthquake
  • How to Stay Safe in a Fire
  • How to Stay Safe During a Tornado
  • How Does a Search Dog Find a Missing Person?
  • HOW TO: Make a compass
  • HOW TO: Make a survival kit

Chapter 3: Sports

  • How Does an Arena Change an Ice Rink into a Basketball Court?
  • How Are Baseball Bats Made?
  • How Does Hockey Equipment Keep Players Safe?
  • How Do You Do a Skateboard Trick Called an Ollie?
  • How Do You Do the Snowboarding Trick Called Butter?
  • How do Ice Skaters Spin so Fast?
  • How can You ‘Stay Upright on a Surfboard?
  • How can You Prevent Sports Injures?
  • How Do Bicycle Gears Make You Go Faster?
  • How Does Motion Capture Technology Help Athletes?
  • HOW TO: Make a High-Bounce Ball
  • HOW TO: Find the Sweet Spot on a Bat

Chapter 4: Buildings

  • How Were The Egyptian Pyramids Built?
  • How Was Mount “Rushmore Built?
  • How Does the “Panama Canal Work?
  • How Was a Bridge Built Across the Colorado River?
  • HOW TO: Build a Spaghetti Bridge
  • HOW TO: Build a Pyramid

Chapter 5: Science

  • How Do Scientists Uncover and Remove Fossils From a Dig?
  • How are Oil Spills Cleaned Up?
  • How Are Birds Cleaned Up After an Oil Spill?
  • How do Roller Coasters Go Up and Down?
  • How Do Optical Illusions Trick Our Eyes?
  • How is a Fireworks Show Staged?
  • How Does an Iceberg Form?
  • HOW TO: Make a Rain Forest
  • HOW TO: Grow Crystals

Chapter 6: Transportation

  • How Do Submarines Work?
  • How Does a Hybrid Car Work?
  • How are Tunnels Dug?
  • How does a Maglev Train Work?
  • HOW TO: Make a Baking-Soda Boat
  • HOW TO: Make a Paper Airplane

Chapter 7: Home Tech

  • How Does a Microwave Oven Cook Food?
  • How Does a Lock Work?
  • How Does a Toilet Flush Away Waste?
  • How Does a Zipper Zip?
  • How Does a Refrigerator Keep Food Cold?
  • How Can a Virus Make You Sick?
  • How Does Wi-Fi Connect to the Internet?
  • HOW TO: Make a Camera
  • HOW TO: Make a Periscope

Chapter 8: Food

  • How Does Popcorn Pop?
  • How Does Bread Rise?
  • How is Chocolate Made?
  • How is Ice Cream Made?
  • How do Chili Peppers Make Your Mouth Burn?
  • HOW TO: Make Ice Cream
  • HOW TO: Make Pizza

Chapter 9: Space

  • How Can We Protect Earth From Big Space Rocks?
  • How Will the Juno Probe Uncover Jupiter’s Secrets?
  • How Do Astronauts Train?
  • How Does The Sun Stay Hot?
  • How Do We Know If There’s Another Earth Out There?
  • HOW TO: Build a Planetarium
  • HOW TO: Launch a Rocket

Chapter 10: The Human Body

  • How Does the Stomach Digest Food?
  • How Do We Cry?
  • How Do Medicines Work?
  • How Do Eyeglasses Help Us See Better?
  • How Does the Body Fight Germs?
  • How Does Loud Music Hurt Your Hearing?
  • HOW TO: Make a Stethoscope
  • HOW TO: Find Your Dominant Eye

Chapter 11: Going Green

  • How Are Computers and Other Electronics Recycled?
  • How Can You Make Your House Greener?
  • How Do Wind Turbines Make Electricity?
  • HOW TO: Make Your Own Landfill
  • HOW TO: Make Recycled Paper