Veteran's Day Reads for Real Life

Veteran's Day will be observed in the U.S. next week.  This holiday is intended to honor people who have served in the branches of the United States' Armed Forces.  As you prepare to observe this holiday with your students, consider adding some new books to your lessons.

Oftentimes, our discussions regarding Veterans Day tend to glamorize the military experience.  At my campus, we host an annual, star-spangled, bunting-bedecked sing-along in honor of local veterans.  In our efforts to honor and thank veterans, we focus on the pomp and prestige of being a military service-person but frequently miss the opportunity to devote time and attention to the sometimes challenging or even traumatic experiences of veterans and their families.  So many of our students have family members who have served in the military.  We can honor their real experiences more truthfully by including materials that address their challenges in addition to their triumphs.

Children's Experiences
Having a parent in the military often gives children a sense of pride, but the life of a military family can also include other feelings such as fear and uncertainty.  The following books depict the experiences of children whose parents are away while serving in the military.

Year of the Jungle by Suzanne Collins, author of Hunger Games.  This is the book that inspired me to write this post.  In this brief picture book, Collins describes the year that her father was away in the Vietnam War.  The story is a moving description of her emotions as she awaited her father's return from war, but the book is also approachable even with very young readers.
100 Days and 99 Nights by Alan Madison
Crow Call, a picture book by Lois Lowry
Love, Lizzie: Letters to a Military Mom by Lisa Tucker McElroy

Wounded Warriors
Sometimes veterans endure injuries during their service.  The books below address the experiences of children whose parent return from tours of duty after sustaining physical injuries.
Sparrow, a board book by Dorinda Silver Williams
A Sergeant in the House by Betty Turnbull
Is Your Dad a Pirate? by Tara McClary Reeves
Daddy's Different: A Look at Brain Injury Through a Child's Eyes by G. Forest

Post-traumatic stress disorder affects many combat veterans.  For children, this invisible mental health problem can be very confusing and distressing.  The following books can be used to help children understand this health condition.
When Daddy Comes Home: A Children's Book on PTSD by Maggie Hundshamer
The Impossible Knife of Memory, a young adult novel by Laurie Halse Anderson

Many children, especially those who live in large cities, may be very aware of the homelessness problem in their communities; however, they may not realize that a large percentage of America's homeless population are military veterans.  Sharing the books below can help students learn that homeless people are just regular people, sometimes veterans, who have experienced adversity in their lives.
The Veterans' Clubhouse by Kristin Zajac
December Stillness, a young adult novel by Mary Downing Hahn
After reading one of these stories, you can encourage children to collect socks for homeless people in your community as this is a persistent, widespread necessity and will provide a way for students to actively support those in need.

What stories do you like to share with students during patriotic holidays?


Rainbow Reading, Learning, and Fun

This year I decided to use rainbows to decorate the library, and it has turned out just as colorful and wonderful as I had hoped.
This once-in-awhile weather event reminds me to bring my own cheerfulness to each day, and it seems to make students happy too!  The bulletin board above greets library patrons as they approach the entrance.  Once inside, students are surrounded by lots more color and cheer.

To keep things organized, I assigned a color to each of our six tables and then labeled table supplies to match.  For the first time, I set up a parking station for each table's materials. 
 That way we can put things away when we don't need them, thereby eliminating the constant discussion about fiddling with supplies we aren't using right now.  Another thing I'm trying this year to help reduce disruptive fidgeting is providing stress balls.  Each table has a basket like the one below with enough stress toys for everyone.  This experiment has made me very popular, and for some students this has really worked.  In other classes I find students seem even more distracted than normal by the novelty of "toys" in the classroom.  But, it has been quick and easy to park the tub of stress toys on our supply shelf if they aren't working out and move right along.

I also carried the rainbow theme into some of our first learning stations of the year.
Among librarians, there's a running joke about patrons who come in asking for "that blue book" or some other, equally vague description that only a library superhero could fulfill.  I decided to dive right in to this silly way of classifying books with a Read the Rainbow reading station.  Students have enjoyed exploring books of all colors with the help of whisper phones and puppet buddies.

 At our science station, students have been experimenting and learning how rainbows are made.  I provided acrylic prisms.  Students tried making rainbows with flashlights, florescent classroom lights, a UV pen light, and sunlight from the windows.
 Once they discovered what worked best, learners could draw the rainbow they made.

Finally, I made a few totally self-indulgent purchases just to make my work space lovely.
A rainbow pillow for my teaching chair, a Choose Happy lamp for my desk, and a rainbow lanyard and keychain have helped me to remember to prioritize taking care of myself.  For teachers, it is very easy to give, serve, lead, and repeat without taking breaks to rest and recharge.  I am not an advocate of spending lots of money out-of-pocket to make a classroom look like a birthday party just to keep up with the room next door.  But I do believe we can sometimes make a worthwhile purchase that will significantly improve mood or workflow.

What tricks have you found to bring positive thinking and cheerfulness (for your students or for yourself) to your teaching space?

Find more ideas for rainbow learning and fun!


Perspectives on 4th of July

The Fourth of July is a great time for a conversation about varied perspectives.  These words from a speech by Frederick Douglass in 1852 can help students think about how different people may feel about various holidays.  The speech also illustrates the way primary documents can help us better understand history.  Check out this lesson on primary documents and perspectives for July 4th.


Fireworks Storytime

Fireworks are one of the best parts of summertime celebrations.  And, they make a fun theme for learning.  Check out these ideas for some festive fireworks learning.
Start by reading Red, White, and Boom! by Lee Wardlaw and Huy Voun Lee.  This picture book about Fourth of July celebrations includes diverse characters, beautiful cut paper illustrations, and brief rhyming text that helps readers explore the traditions of the holiday.
Older readers will enjoy Kama Einhorn's The Explosive Story of Fireworks! This 48-page non-fiction chapter book is part of publisher Simon Spotlight's History of Fun Stuff series.  You can get a boxed set of these engaging titles, called History of Fun Stuff to Go!, including the fireworks book plus five more.  This historical look at fireworks can also be used as a read-aloud, especially for children who are not ready to read this challenging text independently.  Daniel Guidera's colorful and playful illustrations will hold listeners' attention while they hear about firecracker displays of the past.

Then watch Fireworks ABCs from Sesame Street.
This quick segment shows each letter of the alphabet in a fireworks display.  It's a great way to review the letters using the fireworks theme.

For a fun science connection, head to Toddler Approved to learn how to make fizzing fireworks using a few basic household items.  During this activity, you can discuss the chemical reaction that happens when vinegar and baking soda mix.

You can practice lots of art and math skills by making fireworks hats.

Connie at Little Stars Learning explains in detail how to help little learners create these holiday hats while practicing skills such as pattern making and graphing.

Another fun craft is fireworks painting.  Grab some dark paper, paint, and cardboard tubes.  Make lots of cuts in one end of the cardboard tubes.  Then fold the fringey pieces back to create a firework stamp.
Let children stamp their tube into the paint and then onto the dark paper to create their own painted fireworks display.  We added a little glitter to our paint to make the fireworks extra sparkly.


While We're On the Topic of Family Separations

Two weeks ago, I shared some thoughts about how to help stop family separations at the U.S. / Mexico border and how to talk with children about immigration.  Since then, our country has rolled up its sleeves to pressure decision makers to find a better plan.  Many fundraisers have collected money for the ACLU and local organizations like RAICES who are working to protect immigrant families.  Yesterday, hundreds of rallies and marches took place across the U.S. demanding better treatment for our neighbors in need.  The collective passion and kindness around this concern is awesome and inspiring, and it creates hope that we can inch closer to compassion and inclusivity.

But, even if all border separations stopped today, our country would still be facing an urgent family separation crisis.  These heart-wrenching, recent scenes of children being ripped from their parents' arms are not unusual, unprecented, or un-American; rather they are part of a long-standing American tradition of dividing minority families to maintain or gain power and wealth.  At this time, 2.7 million American children are separated from their parents due to incarceration.  Non-white children are the most likely to have incarcerated parents.  Two-thirds of the parents are in jail or prison for non-violent offenses.  Research shows that having a parent in jail or prison can have dire consequences, from struggles in school to homelessness, for children.

Millions of additional children are separated from their parents each year when they are placed in juvenile detention.  Most of those juvenile offenders committed non-violent offenses.  In fact, 25% of incarcerated youth are held for very minor offenses that would not even warrant incarceration if committed by an adult (such as violating curfew).  10% of detained children are actually held in adult facilities.  Like their adult counterparts, incarcerated children are disproportionately people of color.  Only 14% of American children are black, but 43% of detained boys and 34% of detained girls are black children.  According the the Prison Policy Initiative,
Incarceration has serious, harmful effects on a person’s mental and physical health, their economic and social prospects, their relationships, and on the people around them. This is true for adults, of course, but the experience of being removed from their homes and locked up is even more damaging for youth, who are in a critical stage of development and are more vulnerable to abuse.
These are only the most recent examples of American family separation policies.  Until the 1970s, the U.S. took Native American children from their families and forced them to attend boarding schools where they were required to replace their native languages, religions, and cultures with "American" practices.  During WWII, thousands of Japanese Americans, including 30,000 children, were relocated from their homes into prison camps.  During America's long history of slavery, families were routinely divided through slave auctions, not just for profit but also to better control the heartbroken humans who were being held as property.  And, throughout our country's history, including the present day, poor children have been removed from their homes under the pretense that their parents are simply unable to provide adequate care for them, despite the fact that their removal often sends them to live in alternate, but equally or more deprived circumstances within our foster care system.  Of course, the ultimate example of systemic family separation can be seen in the American tradition of murdering unarmed, innocent black men and boys who are not even allowed to stand trial before being executed often based on accusations that would not even lead to incarceration if proven true.  Beyond the trauma inflicted on families of the deceased, research indicates that when unarmed black people are killed by police, the mental health of entire black communities is adversely affected.

All of that history to say, if you believe that Families Belong Together, the Mexican border should only be a fraction of your concern.  Facing these centuries-old systemic tragedies, you may be wondering, "what's a person with a conscience to do?"  The good news is that the same passionate energy that's influencing communities and their leaders to adjust immigration policy can also pressure elected officials to protect other American families.

Step 1: Write, call, and visit your elected leaders to let them know you are aware of America's legacy of family separation and to demand better policies.  Suggest laws that would end incarceration for non-violent offenders, reduce sentencing guidelines for those who are detained, reserve juvenile detention for only the most extreme circumstances, and eliminate incentives for expansion of the for-profit prison system.  Use this tool from the League of Women Voters to figure out who to contact.

Step 2: If you are able, financially support organizations that are devoted to improving the American justice system, including the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Step 3: Provide the children in your life with on-going opportunities to befriend people who are different from them and understand the life experiences of others.  Teach them to extend care and hospitality to those around them, and have frank, age-appropriate conversations about the systems in our country that limit certain people's opportunities to live freely with the families who love them.  Books are an outstanding resource for introducing people to new ideas and to the circumstances of others' lives.
A new picture book, called Something Happened in Our Town: A Child's Story About Racial Injustice, was written by three PhDs who've spent decades working as community advocates for children's health and social justice.  The book focuses on two families, one black and one white, as they grapple with a recent police shooting in their city.  The story and its appendices are meant to support parents as they have difficult conversations with their children about the scary examples of racism and violence that often dominate the news.

Which children's books are you using to start conversations with children about how we expect families to be treated in our country?


Taking Action to Stop Migrant Family Separations

For the last several weeks, the United States has been enforcing new policies regarding immigration across the border with Mexico.  The results of Attorney General Sessions' "zero tolerance" approach have included the suicide of a forlorn Honduran father and the traumatic separation of hundreds of small children from their parents during border crossings without concern for whether their parents have even committed a crime or might actually be legal asylum seekers.  The children who, of course, have committed no offenses against anyone, are being held in temporary shelters that are overfilled and unfit to provide them appropriate care. In several cases, children in the shelters have been prohibited from hugging or being held even though they had just been traumatically separated from their caregivers.  The president of the American Academy of Pediatrics visited a facility in South Texas and then warned that the separations are causing "toxic stress" and doing "irreparable harm" to the children involved.
As a longtime educator and a mother of two small children, I have been left speechless since the inception of this new family separation policy.  I have felt stricken with horror, anger, and heartache.  I've been afraid to let myself hear the evolving news about this new way of treating neighbors in need for fear that I might fall to pieces under the weight of the tragedy.  But, I've been unable to avoid hearing of the unfolding atrocities, and there is no way to stand by during this alarming treatment of human children.  Irreparable harm is not something we can wait out or make up for.
For starters, we have to know what is happening and then be able to explain why it defies human morals across cultures and eras.  Today, I finally emerged from the rock where I've been hiding in fear that the next policy whim could try to rip the children from my own desperate hands and got my thoughts together enough to begin contacting my elected representatives.  I decided to share my note here in case it may help anyone else articulate their own concerns.  Please find your voice to advocate for the helpless migrant children affected by these policies.  You can find out who your elected officials are by entering your zip code in this handy tool from the League of Women Voters.
I'm writing to ask you to take immediate action to stop the separation of children from their parents during asylum related border crossings.  This new policy is reprehensible.  As the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics has noted, these separation events are likely to cause permanent harm to the children involved.  Our country and state should be horrified and ashamed.  Seeking asylum is not illegal and doesn't warrant incarceration in the first place. Going further to knowingly terrify and traumatize the children of our neighbors who are asking for assistance during extreme circumstances is appalling.  Protect innocent children!  Defend the honor of our hospitable culture!  Please speak out quickly about how Texas will repair its role in this atrocity!
If you are able, the next step is to donate to established organizations that are already working to protect migrant families.  You can give to the ACLU which is fighting family separation in court.  For more ideas about where your contributions could make a difference, check out this Refinery29 list of organizations working to protect families affected by new immigration policies.
Once you have spoken out and shared what you can, hug your children and read to them about people whose lives are different from their own.  Several beautiful new books that share immigrant stories have recently been published.
We Came To America, by Faith Ringgold, explores the many reasons and circumstances in which families have moved to the United States over time.

The Big Umbrella by Amy June Bates illustrates the unlimited nature of inclusivity as a resource through a metaphor about an expansive umbrella.

Find more recommendations in this list from last year: Stories of Refugees and Immigration.


Bubble Fun + the Best Bubble Books

We recently held our annual Texas Reader's Club bubble day at school.  The celebration is for children who read widely across genres throughout the year.  This long-standing tradition is a favorite end-of-year activity, because BUBBLES!  Bubbles are so much fun with kids of all ages.  At our party, students travel in groups through several bubble stations.  After several years of hosting the bubble-themed party, I have refined our activities based on what works best and gets the most bubble bang with the least back-breaking effort.  Here are some of our favorites including the tools that we love most.

Big Bubbles
An easy activity that kids always enjoy is the big bubble station.  Students line up behind four tubs of bubble solution and take turns blowing gigantic bubbles.  The only special tools for this activity, other than the plastic tubs that we use for almost everything, are the giant bubble wands.  We have collected several plastic and metal versions over the years.  They all seem to work great as long as they have a nice long handle, so the kids can reach the bubble solution without ending up with their arms in the bucket.

Bubble Art
Bubble art is a super fun station that ends with a beautiful product.  Before students arrive, we set up four large pieces of paper by taping down the corners onto picnic tables or the ground using masking tape.  Any large, white paper will work as long as it has a rough-textured side that can absorb liquid. Next we prepare about four different colors of bubble solutions for each table by mixing several drops of food coloring or a packet of Kool-Aid Unsweetened Drink Mix into a cup of regular bubble solution.  Students use regular, small bubble wands to dip into the colored solution and then blow colored bubbles toward the big paper. We have collected wands over the years by saving them from regular-size bubble bottles.  The results are stunning, and the kids have lots of fun.  We have used these giant pieces of artwork to create posters to advertise the event in future years (as seen at the top of this post.)

A few things to keep in mind:
1. Yellow solution doesn't usually show up on the paper, so it's best to use other colors.
2. Red food coloring / Kool-Aid can stain clothes, so use your best judgement about the age group and temperament of your students when deciding whether you need smocks or if you just want to skip this color.
3. If you want to write a message on the poster, you can write with black crayon before students begin adding their bubble art.

Bubble Boogie / Bubble Swat
If you've ever spent time around kids and bubbles, you know that a favorite activity is just chasing and popping bubbles.  To turn this into an organized activity that doesn't require an adult to pass out from blowing billions of bubble to chase, get a bubble machine!  I especially like the Blitz Bubble Fantasia Machine.  Over the years, I have tried out several bubble machines with mixed results.  I believed, for a long time, that most bubble machines just couldn't stand up to the workload I demand (about 2 hours of non-stop use).  But this year, I made an important discovery: the type of bubble solution you use really matters!  The Blitz Bubble Machine had no trouble putting out huge clouds of bubbles for as long as we needed as long as we kept using the Blitz bubble solution that came with it.  When we tried to fill it up with other solutions, it just fizzled.  The 35 oz. bottle of solution that came with the machine was more than enough for our event, but you may want to order back-up solution if you're planning to use the machine all summer long.  The Blitz brand has large bottles in fun scents like Apple and Grape.
At this station, you can play music and invite students to dance among the bubbles, or you can encourage them to swat the bubbles seeing how many they can pop.  Children can swat the bubbles with long bubbles wands (these come in the larger bottles of bubble solution), fly swatters, or just use their hands.  As you set up this area, notice which direction the wind is blowing.  Kids will want to chase the bubbles, so make sure they have some space to run in the direction the bubbles will fly without running into anything.  Avoid areas with anthills, storm drains, or other obstacles to prevent injuries, since children will be looking up at the bubbles as they run.

Bubble Books
At this station, kids get to cool down and read books about bubbles.  When preparing this station, look through your personal book collection as well as your neighborhood public library for anything about bubbles, baths, soap, or bubblegum.  
Some of our favorite bubble-related books include
Bubble Bubble by Mercer Mayer

What are your favorite bubble activities and bubble books?