Friday, August 28, 2009

R.I.P. Reading Rainbow

Book lovers, get out your black armbands. Today was the last broadcast of PBS's wonderful children's series Reading Rainbow.

For those of us weaned on The Electric Company and Sesame Street, the advent of Reading Rainbow occurred after we'd progressed from picture books to chapters. Even so, it was easy to get sucked in when a younger sibling or eventually a child of our own sat, rapt, listening to LeVar "Geordi LaForge" Burton (or even Kunta Kinte, for those of us old enough to remember watching all seven nights of Roots on broadcast TV) read aloud.

Reading Rainbow's approach was simple: pick a book, read it, make connections to people and places in the real world, encourage kids to hit the library. Those of us lucky enough to have parents who made library trips a priority don't realize how vital the show was for kids who never went. Now that I'm a teacher, I can tell the difference. Man, can I tell the difference.

There's a theory floating out there that a shift in the Federal Department of Education's priorities--from whole works of literature to phonics-based instruction--helped kill off a show that exulted in books in their entirety. I'd hate to think that's true, but the current slavering over "data-driven instruction" kicks holistic anything in the teaching world to the curb in favor of spreadsheets. Or things easily measured on spreadsheets. Read: standardized tests.

Of course, there's nothing standardized about learning to read. Or loving to read. I fell in love with words early, thanks to a steady diet of Hop on Pop, Go, Dog! Go!, Dr. Seuss's Sleep Book, and other childhood classics (I could hear my father's voice in my head when I read them to my own children). Too many kids with busy or absent parents never did. And now they no longer have LeVar's voice, either. That's a shame. Too bad for us that we're so obsessed with numbers that we overlook the magic of words. Too bad for the kids that they're paying the price.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Whooooaaaah...Back on the Chain Gang!!

Not really, but today is the first day of school! Kids are in and excited, and my feet are *killing* me!! That's what I get for wearing cute shoes with my Day 1 outfit, though. It's all my fault. I'll be back in Crocs tomorrow (the ladylike ones, not the clown shoes).

So far, pretty good, if you don't count the network crashing halfway through the day so we couldn't do attendance or anything. The kids were nice, I eased through the "wah wah wah wah" Charlie Brown's teacher monologues about the Code of Conduct and gave everybody homework. Yep, mimi means business right out of the box when she's in TeacherLady mode. It won't be hard...unless they think I'm kidding about the summer reading that's due next Friday. The phrase "world of hurt" will never mean so much!!

If you can judge the school year by the first day, this will be a good one. I'm looking forward to it. Probably not as forward as I'm looking to getting in my jammies, but you know what I mean. Happy 2009-2010 school year, everyone!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Dumbass, Party of One

Ever have one of those days? Today was mine. I'm ferrying Frick and Frack and a friend to a skating party on an end of town I try never to explore, if I can help it. Then, while trying to get turned back around in the second most badly-designed parking lot in the world, I get distracted and WHAM! I hit a curb, Inga lurches unbecomingly, scrape, curse, I manage to cut a hole in the sidewall of my tire. Hole in the sidewall means I have to buy a new tire. Let me remind you, August is ramen month for teachers. I don't have $136 and change for a new tire. Even if I did, I wouldn't want to spend it correcting an act of dumbassitude like hitting a freakin' curb--despite the fact that it was one of those stupid curbs in the middle of an ocean of asphalt. You know, the ones they put there for pretty, or something. Like the big white lines aren't enough to alert people to PARK THE CAR HERE.

And of course, it's a special order tire, so I can't get it put on until Monday. Poor Inga has to creep around town at fewer than 50 mph (her Fast is sooooo not liking that idea) with the full-size spare and its yellow Look! I have a FLAT! sticker. Gah. If I go back to bed, can I wake up to a re-do?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Blowout, Schmowout

Got my fresh back to school haircut today (yay!) and decided to let Ms. M, my hilarious Sicilian/Greek (how's that for a nice, quiet house to grow up in?) give me a blowout. mimi is usually all about the curls, but today, why not something different?

Know what? Me no likey. It feels fun, but MAN, is straight hair annoying. It's In. My. Face. In my eyelashes. In my mouth. Hanging over my eyes. And, since this is Florida and there's about as much water in the air outside as there is in your normal shower, it's already starting to curl back up. To which I say, cool.

It's taken years, but I've made peace with my curls. I know how to take care of them so I'm not tripping the hair frizztastic every day. They reflect my personality--I'm far more bouncy than sleek. The only qualm I've had with them is the whole curls + grey hair = frumpy (check out the thinking about letting your hair be the color it wants here and here). Now, not so sure. The blowout looks okay, but it is so not me.

So I have to wonder, what is it about the blowout that makes it the Holy Grail of Hair? I have curly friends who would kill rather than part with thier flatirons. One even got a blowout in a foreign country rather than go wavy/curly in front of a bunch of foreigners she'll never see again. I've already fought the haircolor war. Why are so many women willing to enslave themselves to gallons of product and a blowdryer every morning? My life's crazy enough without having to fight this hair--which fights back a couple of classifications above me, thank you very much--in the humidity which is my natural swamp. Or have I just, in one of the phrases I hate so much from women's magazines and the like, "let myself go"? Thoughts?

UPDATE: By suppertime, my hair resembled Marlo Thomas's in That Girl. We're talking full late '60s flip. By the 11:00 news, curl city. DNA WIN.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Newbery Update: 1940s

I'm noticing a shift in the kinds of books being selected for the Newbery Medal. Perhaps because WWII dominated the early forties, the books are much shorter than some of the ones I've already read. Also, there seems to have been a nudge (deliberate or not) to balance the list toward more "boy" books than the slew of girl-focused titles chosen in the 1930s, like Hitty, Her First Hundred Years, Invincible Louisa, Caddie Woodlawn, and Thimble Summer. That said, here's what bubbled up in the '40s:

Daniel Boone by James Daugherty - Non-PC biography of the renowned explorer and surveyor. The Native American tribes featured here are pretty darned bloodthirsty and stereotypical, and our intrepid hero quite intrepid. And unlucky. Great explorer, not the best follow-through.

Call It Courage by Armstrong Sperry - I saw this book once; it was called Cast Away and starred Tom Hanks! Not really--in this, Mafatu, the son of a Polynesian chief, is afraid of the sea that claimed his mother's life and nearly his. His journey to self-confidence and his becoming the promise of his name--Stout Heart--provides a peek at a lesser-known, yet fascinating culture.

The Matchlock Gun by Walter Edmonds - This one's suprisingly short and liberally illustrated. Basically, a retelling of a family story that's been handed down since the early years of the French and Indian war. At the center, a young Dutch-German boy, his mother and sister, and a Spanish-made matchlock gun. On the outside, the Indian war party his father's gone off to fight as part of the militia in New York's upper Hudson valley. You can guess the ending.

Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Gray Vining - Adam is the son of Roger, a traveling minstrel in medieval England. Adam wants to become as respected a minstrel as his father, but he's stuck in school. Worse, Adam and his father get separated, and a rival minstrel steals Adam's dog. Adam's journey provides a window into all levels of medieval life.

Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes - I can't believe I got to be this old without reading this, especially since I experienced the American Bicentennial in all its red, white, and blue glory as a child. Tons of historical information, well-written, and pretty engaging. Just not enough to make Johnny one of my favorites.

Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson - Written and illustrated by Robert Lawson (who also did the illustrations for Adam of the Road and DH's favorite book ever, Ferdinand), Rabbit Hill tells the story of the New Folks who come to the Big House and how the different animals react to their arrival. Watch for a cameo by St. Francis of Assisi. Written for the younger Newbery readers, but charming all the same.

Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski - My kids beat me to this one since they started elementary school in Florida. Birdie Boyer and her family move from North Carolina to the Florida hammock, where they try to raise strawberries despite interference from them mean ol' Slaters down the road. An interesting peek at Florida Cracker culture that sounded really, really familiar!!

Miss Hickory by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey - Miss Hickory, a twig woman with a hard, hard hickory nut head, is forced to adapt through a long winter when her neat little corncob house is taken over by a chipmunk family. Fanciful descriptions of New England woodland life, and a surprising ending.

The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois - Steampunk's origins, maybe? Professor William Sherman takes off from San Francisco in a balloon and is rescued a month later in the wreckage of twenty the Atlantic Ocean! Inventions, ballooning, diamonds, and Krakatoa. Very, very fun.

King of the Wind by Marguerite Henry - I adored this book as a child (still haven't outgrown my horse phase, actually), so it was a treat to "have" to revisit it. This is the fictionalized story of the Godolphin Arabian, one of the three foundation sires of all Thoroughbred racehorses, and Agba, the "slim brown horseboy" who accompanies him on his journey from Sultan Mulai Ismael's stables in the Kingdom of Morocco.

And my favorite is...

King of the Wind!

Maybe it's because I never really got over my horse phase, maybe it's because this was a beloved childhood book already, but I still think King of the Wind is the best of the bunch. Wesley Dennis's gorgeous illustrations bring to life the cultures of 18th century Morocco, France, and England, Henry's lyrical writing is a joy to read and packs in so much historical detail so beautifully, you don't realize how much you've learned until you find yourself nodding at unrelated books long, long after you've closed the cover of this one.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Best Seller ≠ Best Writer

mimi is obsessive when it comes to her reading. If I pick up a book, I generally finish it. Of course, that takes some vetting. I'll browse an opening chapter or back cover copy before I commit (mimi is not a reading ho). Once I commit, though, I'm in 'til the end. Normally, this is a good thing. Unfortunately, not so much with the book I finished last night.

The book in question was a paperback original by a New York Times bestselling author. I've read books by her in the past and enjoyed them. I actually got to meet her this past summer at a publisher-sponsored booksigning, and I'm sorry to say that her personality didn't match her work. One of the most humorless women I've ever met, and that's saying something. But I like books and I like reading and my sister likes her, too, so I went away generally happily with her books. Happily until last night.

The book in question featured a plotline I like, so that was fun. Interesting opening. Then I hit the swamp. Research dumped in, paragraph after paragraph. Brand names sprinkled hither and yon for no discernable effect except to have brand names. Clunky sentences. And I mean clunky. I read one out loud, and my ten-year-old daughter recast it better. An alpha hero who's really an asshat. Bitchy women wearing their "Spunky!" T-shirts who weren't fooling anyone. But I struggled on, and when I got to the end, I didn't get the sigh. Usually I get a sigh. Often, tears. But a sigh, at least, that everything worked out the way it should. This time, not so much. Our heroine wasn't a Mary Sue (although she was close, with all that "My life is so screwed up!!" flailing about), but he was still an asshat at the time he suddenly realized He Loved Her, and she took him anyway. Blech.

The lesson? "NYT Bestseller" on the spine of a book doesn't guarantee a great read, even if it's the type of book you usually adore. Some authors are mean. Having an author brand is no substitute for clean writing and characters who aren't asshats. Sorry, Ms. Author, but you've lost a reader. And mimi's learned some things to apply to her own writing career that she needs to go apply right now.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

I <3 School Supplies!


I don't know about you, but I've always been way more excited in the Office Depot or the Staples than I have ever been in the shoe department. Yes, I'm warped. But still, there's something about fresh, new Dixon Ticonderoga pencils, Pink Pearl erasers, and riffly sheets of notebook paper that just gives me the shivers. New school supplies mark the beginning of an unblemished school year, where I can teach everything perfectly and all my students soak up the learnin' like baby sponges. One week in, and it's all screwed to hell (so much for perfectionism), but right now, it's still perfect. And that makes me very happy indeed.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Ten Favorite Characters from Television

  1. Gil Grissom, CSI. He's brilliant but has issues dealing with people. Endlessly surprising.
  2. Sheriff Andy Taylor, The Andy Griffith Show. Just the kind of smart Southern gentleman we could use more of.
  3. The "It's..." Man (Michael Palin), Monty Python's Flying Circus. He's a favorite not for himself, but for what comes right after we see him.
  4. Julia Sugarbaker, Designing Women. Who wouldn't love to be able to tell off a jackass who so richly deserves it, and in that droll Dixie Carter voice, to boot?
  5. Oscar the Grouch. Classic.
  6. Peggy Hill, King of the Hill. She's the Texas State Boggle Champion and one heckuva substitute teacher.
  7. Betty Suarez, Ugly Betty. Cheering for Betty in that snake pit of an office is like rooting for the insecure seventh grade girl inside us all.
  8. President Jed Bartlett, The West Wing. Too bad real politics doesn't work out this well.
  9. Pee Wee Herman, Pee Wee's Playhouse. Because at Chez mimi, we never get enough of screaming when someone says the secret word.
  10. Blossom, The Powerpuff Girls. For obvious reasons. Obvious, at least, to my partners in crime. Hey, bossiness and ice breath come in handy.
I had to work to come up with this list, so I guess that's good. TV hasn't quite rotted my brain. Yet.

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