Who’s in the cage now?

This morning I finally got to see our teaching partner from Lesotho again! Thejane, his wife Sophia and darling daughter met me for coffee and conversation.
It’s clear that teachers are the same everywhere. We care about our students and think about how to make lessons better.
When I learned that Thejane’s school not only does have heat, there’s no electricity either. He’s trying to convince officials to bring electricity there, but so far nothing happens. So, he brings technology tools to his students via his personal laptop and phone. When teachers are motivated, nothing stops innovation.
In the afternoon I went on a mini-safari drive at the Gauteng Lion Park. I learned it’s considered one of the top 100 tourist sites in the world.
I joined a group of others on a truck with steel caged walls and a solid steel top. We were sternly instructed to keep our hands and cameras inside at all times. It was quite a role reversal being the cage one in a lion park!
I couldn’t believe I was only a few feet away from lions chewing on their afternoon snack. We also saw zebras, wildebeests, springboks and African wild dogs which are quite endangered now.
What a way to spend a Saturday!

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Soweto: A City of Contrasts

 

Hurray! The waiting is over – I’m in South Africa! It was a challenging trip to be sure. The first leg from Seattle to Dubai was 14 hours of flight time, plus the two hours of being at the airport waiting to get on the plane. Leg number two consisted of 4 hours sitting around the Dubai airport and 8 more hours flying to Johannesburg. You can do the math, it’s a long trip. However, something quite magical happened in Seattle. I was upgraded to Business Class on the 14 hour flight with Emirates. A seat that lays out like a bed, white linen meals, a large TV screen – in other words all the comforts of home on a plane. I got it for FREE! If I never experience business class seating again, I am beyond thankful that I had the chance on a 14 hour flight!
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So, now I’m here in Johannesburg and the first day in, I hit the ground running.  Johan who owns African Timeout Tours gave me a private tour around the sprawlingly massive series of townships collectively called Soweto (South West Townships). Most Westerners looking in with only media hype as their frame of reference, view Soweto as a dangerous place of squalid living conditions. Yes, there are shacks and you will see women washing their laundry outside in a large basin, but that really isn’t the norm.

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What is in Soweto is a vibrant community of people, many of whom could live in other neighborhoods, but choose to live in Soweto because of its sense of community. Generations of black people have lived there from the gold rush era of the late 1880’s to now. This area is best well known for being at the forefront of the struggle against Apartheid. Vilakazi Street is the only street in the world where two Nobel Peach Prize winners lived (Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu).

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We visited Walter Sisulu Square in Kliptown, home of the Freedom Charter monuments. Parts of the square were brand new and I enjoyed holding hands with Nelson Mandela.

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All day long we drove to the historical places that make Soweto so famous – Orlando Towers, the Mandela House Museum, and the Hector Peterson Memorial and Museum, named after the 13 year old boy who was shot dead by the apartheid police with hundreds of other school children during the protests of June 1976.

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The history lesson was great, but my favorite portions of the day were witnessing everyday life in Soweto and having lunch with the locals. In the northern suburbs of Joburg, you don’t see many people walking around. Huge walls loom everywhere and it feels closed to me as a community. In contrast, when driving around Soweto people are everywhere.

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Whether they are selling their wares at an outside shop,  walking to buy groceries, visiting with friends, working or  taking the infamous taxi vans with the complicated hand signal system to work, you see people who give off the vibe of optimism and hope.

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Every house was a wall just like in the suburbs, but the walls don’t close people off from one another. It’s equally possible to see tin shacks with goats grazing nearby and then drive a block and view large affluent brick  homes with children playing with their iPad in the front. Apartment buildings are not common, and some of them are brand new, empty and waiting for tenants. My understanding is that most people want to own their own house on their own piece of land.

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We had a buffet lunch at Wandi’s Place. Wandi is a shrewd business man who has built up a very popular restaurant, but has also worked to improve the infrastructure of the area with new sidewalks, school upgrades and a neighborhood park. Lunch was typical South African food and we sat at tables covered with white linen.

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Reflecting on my day in Soweto, I realized that the experience was nothing like I anticipated. I hopped into the tour van with preconceived notions, and returned hours later with a new sense of life  in Soweto. Like anywhere else, it’s complicated.

Tech Tools in my Backpack

 

 

 

 

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It won’t be long now until I fly off  to South Africa for three weeks and visit the schools where we send books in our Books to Africa program. In my last post I listed the books that absolutely must go in my suitcase. I hope to read most of them with the students I meet and most of the  books will live in a South African school permanently.

For the past few weeks I have been researching, asking fellow educators and using my experience to decide what technology tools I need to make this trip more efficient and less stressful. I was inspired by Kurt Soser, a Microsoft Expert Educator from Austria, who wrote a post in April “Traveling Geek Style” listing what he was bringing on his trip to the E2 conference in Redmond. I’d never used some of the tools he was bringing and I was curious to learn if I needed to take some of his advice.

 

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A few dollars later, I think I have what I need. I love, love, love my Asus laptop computer. It’s fast, has a touch screen and Win 8.1. When I bought it three years ago, I thought it was a lightweight laptop and perfect for traveling. A few years later, cool tablets running 8.1 arrive on the scene and suddenly my laptop feels like it’s heavier than a boat anchor. I already have an iPad, but I don’t use it for heavy-lifting computing. Thank you Microsoft for timing the arrival of the Surface 3 to coincide with this trip! I now have what I need for presentations, blogging, video creating and reading. I can use my Bluetooth mouse and my digital pen.

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One frustration I have had traveling and attending conferences is battery life – or the lack thereof. Inevitably my tablet or iPad or iPhone runs out of battery in a place where I have no access to electricity. With a 26 hour travel time between Seattle and Johannesburg, I knew I needed to address this problem next. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a powerbank until I read Kurt’s post. Ta-da! Battery recharging to the rescue. The TechNet Powerbank has 15000 mAh, so if all the reviewers are right on Amazon, this has enough juice to recharge my Surface with no problem. The small RavPower recharger fits in my purse and is perfect for pumping up my phone when I’m on the run.

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I love to take photos, but prefer to travel light. As much as I would love to use a nice beafy camera with a big lens for super shots, I’m not ready for that stage yet. A camera shoved in a pocket or small purse works just fine for me. Between the Sony, Canon and iPhone, I should be great in the photo department. The Surface and iPad also have cameras, so if I have any photo issues, it’s my own fault. An extra SD card or two and a mini-tripod and I’m all set.

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Where there are electronics, there are cords. Masses of cords, cables, VGA adapters, plug-adapters, earphones, etc. Why can’t one kind of cord work to recharge everything? Is it really that hard? I understand the need for the country plug-adapter, but do there have to be so many? What works in the US or Europe doesn’t work in Africa or Asia. Go figure.

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The assortment of electronics opens up the problem of how to travel with it all and not loose something. I’ve lumped everything together in one bag before, but spent too much time sorting through the mess to find what I needed. I don’t know where I saw it, but somewhere in my research I stumbled across bags to organize all the cords, plugs, tablets, powerbanks, etc. Just what I needed! Of course when you call it an electronics accessories travel organizer, the price is $20.00 or more. If you call it a purse organizer, then the price goes down to under $10, it’s lightweight, fits the tablets, all the accessories, and fits inside  one section of a backpack. I’m pretty excited about this solution by Hoxis!

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Between the books and the tech, I think I’m ready for this travel party to get started! I’d better not forget to charge everything up first. If you have any other suggestions, let me know. I’m still wondering where those clothes are going to fit though!

 

Traveling with 25 Books

Two weeks from today I’ll be departing Seattle for Johannesburg, South Africa! Wow! The time is going by so quickly and I’m trying to find balance between relaxing after a stressful school year, doing the household chores that I’ve put off for months and getting ready for my trip.

attachment_58344953I’m a total planning freak with lists of clothes I’ll need, piles of books, and boxes of “should I take these items”. This week I made a OneNote notebook with all my travel arrangements, so I have all the details in one place online and have the ability to print them for my family. No more sorting through emails to find the details I need.

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If you have never tried Microsoft OneNote, check out here. Instead of having a physical notebook, this is an electronic notebook where you can include photos, written documents, files, etc. The possibilities are endless and it’s a FREE download from Microsoft. You can access your notebooks from any device or from the web. You can also share your notebooks with other people, which makes it really convenient for sharing travel plans.

Today I started the first part of what my friend calls the staging process. I set up a table and started organizing all the books I want to take in my suitcase. When you are a librarian, the anguish of deciding which books to take is real. I’m going to three different schools. Will I pick the right books for each school? I’ve had to forcefully tell myself, “stop it!” and know that whatever I take will work out just fine. The world is not going to fall off its axis if I choose a Piggy and Gerald and not Knufflebunny. The kids at school also gave me clear guidance as to which picture books they thought I should take. Here are the results.

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The Dot always travels with me. This story about how we all need to make our mark on the world inspired our Book to Africa project.

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When it comes to picture books, no other series are checked out more. Pete the Cat, Piggie and Gerald, and Pigeon made the final cut. I also included Underwear because I had a copy and face it. A book about underwear is funny to all kids under the age of …..! Hum…it looks like Pigeon himself is going to make the trip too. Imagine that.

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I’m also bringing a set of books that can be used in a small group reading session and an oldie book with puppets for a reader’s theater. The text is great for early readers and using puppets to act out the characters is a stress-free method to practice oral reading skills.

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Of course, you can’t forget non-fiction. This set from National Geographic highlights animals that aren’t common in this part of Africa AND they are light-weight! A double plus in my department.

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I love to use Gerald McDermott books to teach the importance of setting and how color is reflected in the illustrations. Raven and Zomo clearly showcase trickster tales from our different regions.  I’m not sure how many opportunities I will have to teach, but I have to have these just in case!

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For the emerging chapter book readers, we chose Magic Tree House because you can’t go wrong with Jack and Annie, they teach you about different places in the world, and we have student made book trailers available for viewing.

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The last two chapter books are treasured by both my students and myself. When I read The Honest Truth for the first time, I knew it was going to be a hit. To read my review and watch the book trailer click here. After sharing the trailer with my 5th graders, I quickly learned that only having one copy of the book wasn’t going to work. For the last few months of school, all four copies were checked out continuously. Jasmine, like many others, had to be coaxed to return her library copy. “It’s the BEST BOOK EVER! Can’t I keep it for a few more days….please????”

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Dan Gemeinhart, an author and librarian in Washington state, Skyped with our students this spring. They talked for weeks about how awesome it was to talk to a real author and ask questions. Dan gratiously sent me a signed copy which I am donating to the Highbury Preparatory School library.

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And then there’s Ivan. I had to save the best for last. Like so many other readers, this book holds a special place in my heart. I can’t give One and Only Ivan to a student without gently rubbing the cover and saying, “This book is my absolute favorite in the library. I hope you will love it as much as I do.”

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I hope to show the book trailer I made of this book and photos from when Katherine Applegate came to our school. I still pinch myself to think that we hosted a Newbery author at our school. There’s NO WAY this book wouldn’t be in my suitcase to hand to a new set of readers.

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Oh yes, I’m also going to bring a travel guide and a journal in my backpack for obvious reasons. I like to journal while I travel, if only to keep track of what I did and when it happened. I’ve learned from experience that the details that you thought you would never forget go flying out of your head in record time. 

I wonder if you are asking,  what am I reading on the plane?  I don’t know yet. I’ve been making that list too. I definitely will be downloading a bunch of e-books to read on my iPad or Surface for the 24 hours of airplane time I’m going to have each way.

So that’s it. Twenty-five books…and that’s the short list. In my next blog post, I’m going to cover what tech tools I can’t live without. Yikes! I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll have room for clothes in my suitcase. The good news is most of these books are staying in South Africa leaving me lots of room for souvenirs.

What books would you take? Please leave a comment and let me know. To keep following my posts about this South Africa trip more easily, you can subscribe to receive email notifications (see box on right side bar near top of this page) or look for the hashtag #bookstoafrica15 on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

 

 

Beating Down the Fraud Voice

Gävle library seatsCreative Commons License Wrote via Compfight

It happened to me again yesterday.

I was visiting the middle school when some of my former students walked into the library. They glanced at me as they walked in not giving me much notice. A few steps later, they stopped turned around and said, “Mrs. Hembree, what are you doing here?” I explained that their librarian and I were discussing some things. They nodded and went on their way.

Seeing my former students as they finished 8th grade, was not the problem. It’s awesome to see how they have grown and matured. The problem was that I couldn’t immediately access each person’s name from my memory bank. I wanted to be able to say, “Hey it’s great to see you Jane, Bob, Sue”, but instead I couldn’t fill in the name. I had to live with a generic greeting, which prompted the little voice in my head to begin the “You can’t even remember a student’s name from three years ago, what kind of teacher are you?” mantra.

What kind of teacher am I? If I can’t immediately recall every student’s name I’ve ever had over 28 years of teaching, does that mean I am less of a teacher than others? Am I a fraud?

The end of the school year is a vulnerable time for teachers. We’re almost to the finish line, yet the challenge in the last few weeks is like running the 50 yard dash every single day. I can’t speak for everyone else, but I know I’m reviewing the year’s library lessons and wondering if I have taught the topics the students need this year. Could I have done better? How can I change things to improve my program?

At the same time, I’m trying to get grades done, collect all the library books, finish the inventory, hold the summer used book sale and generally get the library ready for the summer. Once one item on the to-do list is crossed off, another takes its place. May and June should be named the time of the never ending task list.

I was meeting with a colleague recently and we were talking about the ups and downs of the school year. It doesn’t really matter what subject or grade you teach, we all feel the same way. We are tired and our positive energy barely measures on any scale. For me, this is when I beat myself up the most and begin feeling like I’ve been deceiving my students because I can see my weaknesses more than my strengths.

What if someone finds out that I know a lot about technology, but don’t have near the skillset of someone else? Numerous librarians post book reviews long before the book has even been officially published. Others have makerspaces or create book trailers that earn national acclaim. If it’s not happening the same way for me, what does that mean?

The answer is absolutely nothing.

What I do is good enough and in some circumstances,  may borderline on really good. I cherish those moments when a student walks into the library and announces that she has finished her third complete book series this year. I think I can take some credit on helping her become a passionate reader. We are our own worst critics and comparisons to others isn’t healthy…ever.

When I shared my fears with my colleague, she quickly reminded me that we all have gifts. None of us are perfect. We each need to look inside ourselves to find our gifts and celebrate the positive. She’s right. When we are vulnerable and worn down, it’s time to find the brightness in ourselves and not let the muck take us down.

So, to answer my question, “Am I a fraud?” the answer is no for me and for every other teacher who is feeling the weight of the school year. While it’s easy to sink down in the hole, now is the time to re-acquaint ourselves with what we do well. We need to remind ourselves of our purpose for being teachers. We are making a difference for our students, and really, that’s all that matters.

Succeeding Through Failure

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I sent off our last shipment of books this week to our partner schools in Lesotho and South Africa. It’s been an incredible year of fundraising, gathering donations and shipments. We raised a total of $2088.50. Sent 23 boxes of books and 1545 books altogether.  Wow! Taking that final photo yesterday made me wonder what will get to South Africa first. The boxes or my suitcase???

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Yes, I’m going to South Africa! Woo-hoo!

We have been involved with our Books to Africa program for three years. During this time, I have had the chance to get to know the teachers we work with quite well despite the fact that we live thousands of miles apart.  I am immeasurably grateful to the Microsoft Expert Educator program, which connected me with our partner teachers. If not for that program, I know I never would have met these teachers.

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It’s been my wish for a couple years to visit the schools where we send books. I applied twice for a Fund For Teachers grant to enable me to go to South Africa to study children’s literature and extend our partnership. Twice I was turned down. The second time it really hurt. I had put hours and hours of effort into my application. I revised it with advice from members of last year’s committee. I submitted a draft this year and got valuable feedback on what would strengthen my application. I put everything I had into the application and it didn’t work.

When I told one of my classes I didn’t know what I would do if I wasn’t accepted, one of my students said, “Why don’t you go anyway?”  I had all sorts of excuses for why I couldn’t, and I stuck stubbornly to the belief that I would get the “You are a Fund for Teachers 2015 Fellow” letter that day.  When I  got “we regret to inform you” letter, I was crushed. Immediately I thought I was a failure. I had tried my best and I still failed. How could that be? I had a very big pitty party for myself all afternoon. Yet, the words, “Why don’t you go anyway” kept ringing in my head. 

I also thought about how we teachers  are role models for our students. If we can’t accept failure, learn from it and move forward, how can we ask our students to do the same? So, after finding some amazingly priced airline tickets, and the “I’ll be disappointed if you don’t go” message from my husband, I took that failure and turned it into a success story.

In exactly 9 weeks I will be boarding a plane and flying to South Africa to visit three of the schools and teachers that we work with on our project! I am so excited.
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First, I will fly into Johannesburg (purple circle) and spent a couple days visiting some historical sights and recovering from 26 hours of traveling. From there I will fly to Polokwane (formerly called Pietersburg). I will spend 4 days visiting Pula Madibogo Primary School. Phuti Ragophala, the principal of this public school is trying very hard integrate technology into the classroom and  make changes for her students. I will have the chance to teach some lessons and work with some of the area teachers about how to get students inspired to read.

From there, I will fly to Durban on the Indian Ocean coast. I will spend a week in this area and visit two or three more schools. Our partner school Highbury Preparatory School is here. This is an all boys private school located in Hillcrest, South Africa.

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They partner with Ndlokolo Primary School, a semi-rural school near the Inanda Dam in the Valley of a Thousand Hills outside of Hillcrest, South Africa. They have had a ten year relationship with Ndlokolo Primary School, sharing visits between the two schools for 7th graders, an annual Easter egg collection and food collection project designed to collect food for the numerous children who attend school without having had breakfast. They also deliver the books we send to Highbury Prep.

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I may also have the opportunity to visit the all girls school in the area as well. St. Mary’s School is in Kloof, South Africa and a short distance from Hillcrest. I’ve never actually visited an all girls or all boys school, so that experience will very different than school in Washington.

Words can’t really fully describe how much I am looking forward to this trip. I’ve never been to Africa or traveled this far by myself. It’s going to be an adventure of amazing proportions. I’m crossing my fingers that I will be able see some of the Big 5 animals (elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard, and rhino) while I am there too.

Between now and July 15th, I’m trying to figure out what books to take and lessons to share. If you have any advice for me, please share it! There’s nothing worse about going on an adventure and then saying, “I wish I had thought of ….” or “I wish I had known….”. I will be sharing photos via social media and on this blog as much as I can or as internet cooperates. Look for the hashtag #bookstoafrica15

A Skype Visit with Dan Gemeinhart

coverWe are huge fans of the Wenatchee, Washington based author and school librarian Dan Gemeinhart and his first novel The Honest Truth. In late February Josa and his Mom gave me a copy of The Honest Truth with the message,“You have to read it Julie. Josa and I loved it. We think you will too.” So, I took it home and put it to the top of my book pile.

That was the beginning of our love fest with this book. I wrote a review and published it in early March. I couldn’t put the story out of my mind and it didn’t take long until I made a book trailer to show my students. It never gets old when an author tells you they like a book trailer you have made for them. He even embedded it on his website . Now our four copies are always checked out with a long list of fans waiting not-so-patiently for their turn. It’s become the norm to hear the students talking about the book and discussing their favorite parts. So say we are avid fans is probably an understatement.

When I asked Dan if he could Skype with us,  he willingly agreed. The students wrote down their questions on the white board so they could reference them during our Skype session. We had about a dozen students give up their recess to talk with Dan virtually.

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We learned that The Honest Truth is not a true story, but he did know someone who had cancer and that influenced his story.  He dreamed of being an author from second grade, but it’s only been in the last eight or nine years that he got serious about writing. He wrote four books before this one, but was rejected 99 times! The Honest Truth was his 100th submission to a publisher and it was accepted immediately. Thank you Scholastic Publishing! Apparently 100 is his lucky number. He emphasized that you have to keep trying to achieve your goals, and not stop because you fail once or twice. Use what you learned and move forward. Don’t give up and believe in yourself.

He and the students talked about their favorite characters. He did share that Beau and Wesley are his favorites in. He spoke about the importance of naming characters in a story and how the name Beau (the dog) came to him immediately. It’s not always like that, and right now he’s wondering if he has found the right name for the horse in his next book.

His new book Some Kind of Courage is coming out next winter, but it is not a sequel to The Honest Truth. The book is set in Washington again, but in the late 1890’s. It sounds like it’s a mixture of western realism, historical fiction and adventure.

Twenty minutes flew by in record time. After we finished the call, the students were so excited about their visit. They couldn’t believe they had just had the chance to talk virtually with a REAL author! Many told me they prefer Skype author visits over large in-person author visits because they are  so much more personal. The conversation evolves naturally and is controlled primarily by the students. I love how technology can bring the world into our library! Thank you Dan!

 

 

Poetry Collaboration

How did Poetry Month slip away so quickly? April was National Poetry month and once again we celebrated poetry in the library. Unfortunately I didn’t get our poems published on the blog during April. A little late is better than never!

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The theme this year was “Wild about Poetry” and most of the poems students wrote had an animal theme. We wrote some specifically for our friends at Benfer Elementary in Klein, Texas. This is our second year collaborating with our 1st graders for Poetry month. Last year we wrote acrostic poems and PaperBag style poems for each other. PaperBag poems are a mystery style poem. An object is placed inside a paper bag and students have to use describing words as they touch and feel the hidden object. Acrostic poems are written both vertically and horizontally.
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Written by the students at Benfer Elementary.

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Written by the students at Bell Elementary

This year the students at Benfer continued the tradition and wrote some new PaperBag poems for us. We shared poems through social media and our blogs.

benfer 1 benfer 2 benfer 3We also wrote our Wild Animal poems for them.

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Mrs. Camp and I both think our first graders did a great job in using describing words in their poems.  I wonder what we will write next year.

Developing Grit through Cup Stacking

Makerspace Monday continues to be a huge hit during our recesses. We have the usual Legos, K’Nex, Duct Tape and MagnaTiles. Then we also have the surprise popular item…..

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Freebie plastic cups!

When I found a cardboard box filled with 3 ounce plastic cups this year, and included them in our makerspace supplies, I never thought those cups would be second most popular makerspace items in the library. (First place goes to the MagnaTiles seen above.)

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The students rush into the library hoping to be some of the first to the containers of cups. Our makerspace rule is first come, first served AND everyone shares. It’s been an engineering stacking and building wonderland.  Everyday one group of students or another asks me to take a photo of their cup structure.

cup tower 3However, watching students learn how to collaborate as they play and build has been the most rewarding piece for me. Sometimes students in different grades construct something together. Other times it is groups of friends. What they are all learning is the importance of collaboration and perseverance. All too often the perfect tower is built and the last cup placed on top sends a cascade of cups to the floor. We are all used to the intermittent screams of frustration followed by, “Let’s try it again!” The groups scours the floor finding all the cups and then starts over again. Sometimes, they build the same structure using different techniques. Other times they build a modified structure based on what they learned through failure. What I never hear is, “I give up!”

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