jump to navigation

Boys Book Club December 6, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Some boys are reluctant readers, and when they do read, it’s not Junie B. Jones. Boys like non-fiction – dinosaurs, bats, and things that go bump in the night. Books with cool pictures of hairy cavemen carrying strategically placed clubs, or of a lion gutting an impala. Books with a high gross-out factor. You know, funny stuff.

Two years ago five boys in my room bought Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney at the school Book Fair. I’d never seen the boys so excited about reading. I’d recently joined a book club myself and suggested they could form a book club too. When I mumbled something about snacks, the boys were gung ho.

There was just one small problem. This meant I had to actually read Diary of a Wimpy Kid to come up with questions to discuss. It turned out the book was hilarious. Although the book is a 5.2 reading level per Accelerated Reader, my students seemed to understand most of it, so I thought it was worth a shot.

Author Jeff Kinney originally released Diary of a Wimpy Kid online on Funbrain.com in daily installments before he got a book deal. That should warm any blogger’s heart.

Boys Book Club met in the hallway outside our classroom. I propped the door open to keep an eye on the rest of the class while we discussed the questions. Our “signature drink” was apple juice, which is an excellent accompaniment to animal crackers. The boys were most excited because BBC (as it came to be known) did not involve bubbling in the correct answer like they have to on the weekly Open Court test.

As the boys discussed the questions, I learned way more about each boy than I’d known before. It was such a lively discussion that at one point I found myself thinking, “Wow!  This is why I became a teacher.” When we got to the question about nicknames, one of the two Korean boys only knew his nickname in Korean.  The other boy, whose English was much better, thought for a moment and then translated it into English as “Big Sweaty Boy.” We all laughed hysterically, as it was so appropriate. The questions for Diary of a Wimpy Kid at the end of this post. Feel free to steal them.

A few years ago, I stumbled upon Guys Read, a website devoted to getting boys excited about reading especially fiction. Guys Read was started by Jon Scieszka, the author of The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, of which I just happen to have an autographed copy. Everything on Guys Read is incredibly clever, just like everything Scieszka writes.  If you know a guy, big or small, check it out.

Boys’ Book Club
Discussion Questions  for

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

by Jeff Kinney

1.  What made you want to read this book?

2. Do you think the book would be as funny without the illustrations?

3.  When you think of someone who is wimpy, what do you think they’re

4.  Do you think that sometimes you are wimpy?  Why?

5.  The main character, Gregory, thinks his parents treat his younger brother
Manny better than they treat him.  Do you agree?  If you have a brother or
sister, do you think your parents ever treat them differently than you?

6.   Do you think it would be fun to make your own haunted house like Greg
did?  What would you put in it?

7.  When Greg takes wrestling, he’s paired up with Fregley (p. 83).  Have you ever been paired up with someone at school, who you didn’t want to be with? (no names, please!)  How did you deal with it?

8.  Greg told his brother not to circle all the expensive stuff he wanted for Christmas and just to circle a few medium priced gifts because he was more likely to get these.  Do you think this was smart advice?

9.  Greg’s brother, Manny, embarrassed him by calling him by his nickname, “Bubby.”  Do your parents ever call you a name that embarrasses you?

10.  The following expressions/idioms are in the book.  Do you know what they REALLY mean?

p. 18                  But no matter how many “noogies” I give him…
p. 19                  “take him under my wing”
p. 26                  “mopping the floor with him”
p. 30                  “caught red handed”

Turkeys in Disguise November 29, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Art.
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Did someone say, “Insufferably Cute?” After my last conference (yes, I went to school in my zombified state), I was on my way out the door and saw these. Those First Grade teachers are ruthlessly cutesy.

Students had to “disguise” their turkey, so it could escape the carving knife. There were lots of ballerinas and princesses. That one on the end said, “I’m a black hairy monster. My father is Big Foot. If you try to eat me, I’ll eat you first!” Be on the lookout for these turkeys in disguise!

Here is the Turkey Template:

The Party’s Over June 13, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Politics, Teaching.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


The notice was put in the teachers’ mailboxes today (Friday afternoon).  The bottom line – Due to the state of California’s severe budget crisis, the gates of Hell have been thrown open. We’d already been told that class sizes in September were going from 20 to 22.  But today we were informed that class sizes could go to 25, or as high as 31.   Oh, and that there could be layoffs of teachers as late as August 15th. There was no Happy Hour today.   The mood amongst teachers was bewildered, even somber.

My first year of teaching was in 1997, when the state had just reduced the class size in grades K-3 to 20 to 1.  Oh, the stories the veteran teachers could tell – of teaching 35 of those wiggley, “I’ve got to go to the bathroom!” first graders.  And they were still standing (the teachers that is).  I’m afraid that 20 to 1 is all I’ve ever known.  I did a stint of student teaching in the fourth grade where the class size is typically 30+, but those kids are big and can sit in a chair (okay, most of them).  It took me three weeks just to memorize all of their names.

I’m not worried about my job.  This is my fifth year with the district, but other colleagues, who are also my friends, aren’t so lucky.  When the first round of RIFs (Reduction in Force notices) went out on March 15, teachers lower in seniority were put on notice.  In years past, this was always a formality, and they were hired back come September, when the classes filled up.  But these are strange times.

According to the local paper, 160 students at a local Christian school are leaving due to their parents’ own budget crises.  I’m pretty sure those kids will be coming to a school near me,  and it will have the word “public” in in. But, how this will sort itself out is anybody’s guess.

It didn’t help that the news came after a long day of trying to pack up the classroom while keeping the students busy engaged.  I believe I am the only teacher in history to accomplish this without showing the students a movie.   A group of boys constructed an Amazonian forest in a huge cardboard box, while another group of students was busy “stitching” on their burlap flags. Stitching is not to be confused with “sewing,”  which is a girlie pursuit.   I fashioned “needles” out of paperclips and the kids went to town and did a surprisingly good job.  Only later another teacher informed me that there were in fact real big plastic needles the kids could have used.  Oh.  I’m big at reinventing the wheel,

I only mention this because none of these activities would be possible with 30 plus kids in the room.  Someone literally might poke their neighbor’s eye out with that paperclip due to lack of elbow room.  Come September, space in my classroom could be disappearing as rapidly as the rain forest in the Amazon.

This gives a whole new meaning to June Gloom in Southern California.

Photo credit:  The Unruly Birthday Party  by Jan Marshall.

Continental Thrift April 25, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Art, Teaching.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,


I’m still working on my epic post about teaching Sex Ed, but wanted to put up a new post just to show off  share the cool map my students made. They cranked it out in a day for our school’s upcoming International Day, and in case you’re geographically challenged, it’s South America.

I gave my students a pile of what I thought were G-rated magazines (Really, how racy could Family Circle be?) While I individually tested students’ reading fluency, the rest of the class sat out in the hallway tearing out pictures to match the colors on a physical map of South America in the atlas. (The finished map is 3′ x 6′.)

One boy took me aside to let me know he saw something “nasty” in one of the magazines. I asked him if he could be a little more specific. (I’m big on asking kids to be specific – that’s probably why one kid thought it was called the “Specific Ocean.”) The boy mumbled something about a naked woman. I told him it was probably health related and hoped I was right. But, in third grade, kids are easily grossed out. I was more grossed out by all the pharmaceutical ads.

That red strip is the Andes. I thought about sharing the story of Survived! with my students (a want vs. a need), but didn’t want to broach the subject of plane crashes and cannibalism – at least not before lunch.

Speaking of continents, (How’s that for a whiplash-inducing segue?) I found a rhyme that helps students remember the names of the continents.

The 7 Continents

North America, South America, joined in the West
Europe meets with Asia, and on Africa they rest.
Australia stands alone, floating down below
And Antarctica is the loneliest, where no one wants to go.

The best part is acting it out.  Ask for seven volunteers and assign each one a continent.  Have the “continents” line up (left to right): North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia. Antarctica sits in front of the group.

When we say “North America,” the child who is South America drops to one knee and the continents join by locking arms.  When we say “Europe,” the child who is Africa drops to a cross-legged position. “Europe” and “Asia” shake hands above Africa, then lean over and place an elbow (gently!) on each of “Africa’s” shoulders.

“Australia” drifts off to the right and pretends they’re floating. (All teachers have a kid who’s a natural Australia.) Antarctica crosses their arms and shivers. The audience loves to get in on the shivering action too.

At the end of the year, I give students the rhyme, and they can fill in the names of the continents.  Of course, then there’s the issue of spelling. Cue shivering.

Art Smarts #1 March 19, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Art Education.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Close-up of art by 8-year-old artist








Black construction paper.  White glue.  Chalk.  It’s that easy.  (Okay, I used pastels instead of chalk, which aren’t that cheap, but you can get a lot of mileage out of a couple of boxes). I’d seen the fantastic artwork done by second graders displayed in the hall using this process.  That art was simpler – a straight line, a curvy line, and a zigzag line, with the shapes colored in between.  Wonderfully abstract images.  Some of my third graders had already “been there, done that,” so I upped the ante.  Since we’ve studying fractions, I had them fold their paper into fourths.  (I’m big on killing one bird with two stones -better yet, pummel that bird with as many standards (er, I mean stones) as you can lay your hands on.

The directions were to draw a geometric shape (a triangle) in 1/4, an organic design in 1/4, and a spiral in 1/4. The last quarter was free choice (that always elicits a cheer). No drawing in pencil first either.  I drew a couple of examples on the board then turned my students loose.

Glue on paper before it's dried

Glue on paper before it's dried

The biggest problem was even though I’d checked the Elmer’s glue bottles, half of them were clogged.  I spent a fair amount of time bending paperclips to try and get the glue flowing.  Note to self.  Next time, have a student test all of the bottles ahead of time!  A few students were a little heavy-handed when it came to squeezing the glue, but overall it went quite smoothly.

I showed students how to carry their papers over to the floor like a tray of cookies, or else the glue would start running.  I hoped that if we laid the papers in front of my big fan, the glue might dry while we were at lunch. Wishful thinking.  This is a 2-day project.

I cordoned off the “drying” area with rope.  One student remarked it was like having an art gallery in our classroom. The children proceeded to crowd the rope to get a better view of their art.   Yes, it did look like a gallery – on the floor and laid out over several chairs.  When one boy decided he was going to be the museum “guard,” I sent them all back to their seats.





By the next day, the white glue had dried so that it was clear.  I gave a quick lesson in how to use the pastels.  Don’t use them like crayons; use the sides. Each table got a paper plate of various colors and  I suggested they complete 1/4 then walk around to see what other students were doing.  There’s always a couple of “Class Artists” who are only to happy to share their expertise.




Trouble Shooting:  1) There’s always those kids who just use the same old colors on the school rug-red, blue, yellow, and green.  I suggested they experiment with blending colors or working with only cool colors and then using one warm color.

2) A couple of kids paid no attention to the raised glue lines.  They just wanted to color in big areas and viewed the lines as “speed bumps.”   I had to get them to slow down and work within the lines.


Considering it was the first time I taught the lesson, I thought the results were stunning.  When the pastel goes over the glue, it takes on almost a metallic or jewel-tone look.  Ooooh!  Ahhhhh!

Bugs Don’t Bug Me January 14, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Gardening, Teaching.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,


I’ve always been fascinated by six and eight-legged creatures. Yeah, that’s me as a kid holding a jar with one of my insect friends.  On a hot humid day in Nebraska, there were bugs aplenty.  I spent a lot of time punching air holes in the tops of jars and stalking grasshoppers out by the tomato plants. I remember watching them “spit tobacco” and especially how my hands smelled after I’d handled them.

After I read Charlotte’s Web, I was all about spiders.  I can’t think of a better way to spend one’s time than to watch a spider spinning its web (though I have yet to see one write a cryptic message).  Did you know that most spiders take down their web every day only to spin a new one the next?   I relate to spiders.  Some days, I, too, feel like I’m back at Square One.

I’m always surprised when a student’s first impulse when they see a bug is to want to kill it.  At my old school, lots of nature wandered (or should I say crawled) into our classroom, as it was on the ground floor.  One of the most coveted class jobs was “Creature Comfort.” Job Description: “Gently return animal visitors to their natural habitat.”  

I hung a stuffed purple spider (with those wiggly eyes that make everything look cute) from the ceiling.  On the counter beneath it were the Tools of the Trade – a clear plastic cup and an index card.  I demonstrated how to put the cup over the insect and then slide the card beneath it.

By mid-year, I’d hear a student shriek then shout, “Creature Comfort!”   I didn’t let any of the girls, some who thought bugs were oh so yucky, off the hook either.  We’d set the cup on the back table and gather round to observe the bug. After a while, my students could identify most common bugs, and we kept a log of the number of “visitors” to our classroom. The bug was then returned to its “natural habitat” – a patch of weeds surrounding one very sad looking tree just outside our door.

I will admit that after living in New York City for 11 years, there’s no love lost between me and cockroaches (See Cockroach Confidential).   And I’m upfront with students about ants in the classroom.  When you see one, it’s the tip of iceberg.  That’s what shoes are for.  

I love to tell students how some indigenous people in South America wore live jewel-like beetles in their hair for decoration.  Bug barrettes but not so French.  How cool is that?  

My friend and fellow blogger, Catherine Sherman (who’s on my Blogroll) shares my interest in creepy crawly creatures and turned me on to Bug Girl’s Blog

According to her About Me page, “Bug Girl has a PhD in Entomology. Her bug research involves using pheromones to try to control insect populations without pesticides. Essentially, she makes male bugs horny, and then prevents them from mating. (Please don’t extrapolate from that more that is warranted.)”  

I have a feeling that Bug Girl has lots of jars with holes punched in the tops and also knows what your hands smell like after you’ve handled grasshoppers.  I’m hoping I just might run into her out by the tomato plants.

Let the “Screwball Games” Begin! June 13, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
Tags: , , , , , , ,

The entire school year I’ve tested my students ad nauseam, so what do we do on that last day of school?  We test!  But this test, aka “The Screwball Games,” gives kids the opportunity to show off those all important skills and talents that standardized testing overlooks.   Skills such as the vastly under rated ability to cross your eyes, which sadly I am unable to do.  So each June I’m humbled by these children who only come up to my armpits, yet can cross their eyes, do the splits AND wiggle their ears.    

Students work in small groups and are so eager to participate in this freak show, they actually work cooperatively!  But as the teacher, you must set clear standards for each skill so it can be accurately assessed.  For example, staring intently at your nose is NOT crossing your eyes.  

The “Screwball Games” also provide the opportunity for students to demonstrate overlooked talents, so truly NO child is left behind.  One year four boys came to the front of the class and belched an entire song. That’s got to meet some Listening and Speaking Standard!  Because it’s the last day of school, don’t waste your time on such mundane skills as cartwheels, armpit farts, or being able to do the crab walk.  Encourage kids to go for the gold!  You’d be amazed how many kids can flip their eyelids inside out, or pop entire portions of their bodies out of joint.  Talk about multiple intelligences! 

Want to play?  Here’s how it works.  Students receive the following form:

The Screwball* Games

*screwball- Definition: odd and eccentric

Group Members: 






Who can:

Wiggle their ears?

Do the splits? (in ANY direction)

Sit on the floor with the bottoms of their feet touching while their knees are on the floor?  (you can’t use your hands to push your knees to the floor)

Raise one eyebrow?

Cross their eyes?

Roll their tongue?  aka “Taco Tongue”

Snap their fingers?


Put one foot behind their head?  Two feet?

Separate their fingers two by two?  (Also referred to as the Vulcan greeting!)

Stand on one foot for one minute

Please list any other overlooked talents:


Give students about 20 minutes to meet with their groups so they can each demonstrate their special abilities to the other group members.  Have one person write down the names of those who can. Then have students return to their seats and name a category.  All of the ones who can do it come up front and demonstrate at the same time.  The effect is fantastic!  When all of the them are hopping on one leg while you man the timer, it’s like watching a deranged performance of “River Dance.”  One year I had three students who managed to get their foot behind their head, but failed miserably at getting it out from behind their it.  This required a calm demeanor to extricate them from this rather embarrassing predicament.  Note:  Tell the girls ahead of time to wear pants.

The “Screwball Games’ provides a good hour’s worth of hilarity,  and more importantly, the chance for you to sit back and be entertained.  So let the games begin!