Monday, June 29, 2009

The Best Lead Ever, Or: Summer Reading

"That book has the best lead ever!" my nine-year-old says to me this evening.

If you ever do any narrative writing, you are always looking for the best lead. At least I am, so I was curious. The lead itself?

"I was born with water on the brain."

He was referring, of course, to Sherman Alexie's book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. This is a book I got him last winter, and if you've read it, then you know that it is not "appropriate" for nine-year olds. It is definitely a YA (Young Adult) book. Not appropriate, except that he loved it, and I'm not very interested in censoring my kids' reading (well, excluding pornography and other truly, truly inappropriate books).

My nine-year-old went on to tell me that even though the Alexie book is not "totally appropriate," you could still tell it was a kids' book because it had a happy ending, and he said, "the real world isn't really like that, you know?" I told him that happy endings were one of the things I loved about kids' books, but as he moved into the YA genre he would find more books that didn't have happy endings.

What can I say? I love kids books, but I don't like YA realistic fiction very much, and I think that the difference is the happy ending. These days, I read fiction to escape and to have fun. I find the "real world" frequently painful and can only stand to read the nonfiction version of reality. (I do read a fair amount of nonfiction.) For fiction, these days, my tastes run more to fantasy, mystery, and. . . kids' books.

One of the best things about being a parent? License to read kids' books, which I love.
One of the best things about summer? A little more time to read. Or maybe it's not so much time that is lacking during the school year, but energy.

If you are bored with your usual summer fare, and are looking for a few more kids' books, here are a few ideas. (These are mostly elementary-school-ish age. I love picture books but would have a hard time being selective.) I hope at least one of these is new to you.

Al Slote's Finding Buck McHenry. Perfect summer reading and it features a barely-disguised Ann Arbor. (And he has many other books too, but this one is my favorite.)

The Avion My Uncle Flew. by Cyrus Fisher and Richard Floethe. Fantastical post-WWII story with a lot of French thrown into the mix. I find this book very funny.

Louise Erdrich's Birchbark House. Set in the northwoods by Lake Superior, and featuring an Ojibway family. The setting makes it perfect for a family camping trip in the U.P.

Jill Paton Walsh's The Green Book. One of those books that falls into the science-fiction category, but doesn't feel like science fiction. This is a quick read but it is very thought-provoking.

Ida B...And Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and (Possibly) Save the World by Katherine Hannigan. My daughter told me she cried but I think she has read it at least ten times. This is the one book on this list that I haven't read--too much reality--the mom gets cancer. [My daughter and I do not necessarily agree on genres. At all.]

My new favorite book for the summer, this book reads like fiction but it has a fantasy element, and it is a YA book BUT it has a happy ending: The Secret Life of Sparrow Delaney by Suzanne Harper. Bring it to the beach! Or to upstate New York, where the book is set.

In a similar vein (reads like fiction with a fantasy element), but for a slightly younger audience, there is The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson.

I will read anything by Eleanor Estes, but for summer reading (ideas for what to do when you are bored) I recommend The Moffat Museum.

Wants that happy/sad mix (but with a happy ending)? Try Julia Alvarez's How Tia Lola Came to (Visit) Stay.

And for YA fantasy, I love Tamora Pierce (sorry, can't pick a favorite book). Or you could try Peter Dickinson's The Ropemaker. [Or, I will read Tolkein's The Hobbit. Over and over. But you already knew about that book.]

And I will also go back, again and again, to Jean Craighead George and My Side of the Mountain.

IF you are driving, and like to listen with your kids to books on tape, then I've found the reader makes all the difference, and we all love the Sammy Keyes mystery series (Wendelen Van Draanen). The woman who reads them is amazing! So, too, is the reader for Christopher Paul Curtis's Bud, Not Buddy--and that is set in Michigan.

While I'm on the topic of books--I've been thinking lately about a book that I read many times as a kid, about a poor girl who grows up to be a ballet dancer in the Czar's Russia and ultimately, during the revolution, runs away with the royal family--but I can't find it, and if any of you bookworms out there can, let me know the title!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Ken King and some thoughts about homeschooling

Ken King died recently.
In addition to being a regular presence at the Ann Arbor Farmers' Market and an influential local organic farmer, his death reminded me of a tape I received when my kids were pretty young. The King Brothers (Ken's and Cathy's kids) made the tape For Kids By Kids before they were adolescents, and it is good music. Fun percussion and engaging voices had us singing along to "This old man, he played one, he played knick-knack ..." over, and over, and over. (As the parent of a toddler, it is always a blessing when you like the songs that they want to hear over and over and over.) You can listen to the King Brothers on MySpace right here. (Although my favorite songs are not on the MySpace playlist--my favorites were the ones that were based on nursery rhymes.)

What caught my eye, then and now, is summed up in this description taken from the MySpace site:
Preteen pop duo that delighted the Ann Arbor area with their innocent renditions of Elvis Presley tunes and surprisingly mature originals in the late 80s, early 90s. Starting at ages 11 and 7 and recording out of a small travel trailer, the brothers released five cassettes and performed at many respected venues in the area including the Ark. Most remarkable was the fact that the brothers received no assistance in the studio or otherwise in creating their music.

At the time I got For Kids By Kids, I was a year or two away from having a child in kindergarten, and I was fascinated by homeschooling, but I didn't really think that I could manage it. I was particularly interested in the idea that with homeschooling, I could really take advantage of the "teachable moment"--that kids could find something they were intrigued in, and pursue it, and pursue it.

I think I saw the notice of Ken King's death at the same time that an intense discussion of homeschooling occurred on the Teacher, Revised blog.
(See here, here, here, and here--these links are not in order, sorry--but you can always just go to the web site and search on home schooling.)
I'm not really sure why some people are so sure that public (or private) school is always superior to homeschooling, or vice versa. There are many paths. . .
Ultimately I decided that homeschooling would not be a good thing for me, but I admit that I am frequently jealous of those for whom it works. [And many parents find that it works for some number of years, and not for others. More power to them for discerning the best ways to educate their kids.]
In any case, if you want to see an example of how homeschooling can work (really well), the King Brothers tapes are an impressive place to start. And if you like what you hear, stop by the Frog Holler booth at the Ann Arbor Farmers' Market, and let them know.

History through Cemeteries

On my way home from high school, I generally walked the shortest route--straight through the cemetery. The cemetery had (readable) graves from the 1700s, and many of the early prominent families were represented. In fact, there was a smaller, single-family cemetery just on the other side of the brook, and sometimes I would take a detour and visit that one too. Morbid? Scary? Not to me. To me the cemetery felt comfortable, and I was curious about the lives of the people who were buried there.

The other night, when I was at Beach Middle School in Chelsea for a kid's baseball game, I noticed--and wandered through--a very cool older cemetery--Oak Grove Cemetery. There is a Civil War memorial there, and the oldest grave I could read had an 1848 date.

One of the best places to learn about and understand local history and culture is in the nearest cemetery. I hope that some of those middle school teachers are using that cemetery as a teaching resource. Come to think of it, though, I don't think any of my kids has ever gone to a cemetery with a public school class. Have yours?

Maybe it is time for some grave history. Find your local cemetery, here.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


The OMB on Race

The Census on Race

What I've been thinking about lately: We collect a lot of data on race and ethnicity. We put people in boxes. When is it useful, and when is it not? It's useful when we work to combat racism, but then again, that means racism still exists, and that by itself is very painful. Is it possible to combat racism, and not put people in boxes? If so, how? And how would we know what we were doing was working?

Thoughts triggered by these comments, told to me by two different people:

"What is your race?" (Required question I asked someone for data collection purposes.)
"I'm in the human race."

"When I think about 'race' I think of winners and losers." (Former track team member.)

Which just made me wonder: how do we get to win-win solutions? Is tracking race and ethnicity necessary? Obviously the answer is "sometimes," but how do we discern when it is most useful? And how do we disentangle the effects of poverty, class, education?

Monday, June 22, 2009

State Budget Perspectives: Back to 1965?

Here are a few perspectives worth reading.

Peter Luke: Stark cuts by Michigan Senate demonstrate extent of state budget problems

Jack Lessenberry: Paying the Piper (there is also a link to listen to the audio version)

Blogging for Michigan: Draconian Budget Cuts Have Senate Republicans Admitting Need For More Revenue

In the Blogging for Michigan piece, I particularly like this paragraph:

You are supposed to ignore the fact that we have cut to the point where we are taking in just a little over half the revenue that Dick Headlee thought was appropriate to fund our government, that current revenue numbers "put us back to 1965 when adjusted for inflation" according to Bob Kleine, that Michigan's 4.35 percent income-tax rate is "lower than it was under most of Republican Gov. John Engler's 12 years in office", that the current administration has resolved $6 billion in budget deficits and trimmed "more from state government than any governor in Michigan's history." We have cut taxes and government to the point where we can't sustain a decent quality of life, and the national recession now threatens to drown us all. Ignore the facts.

So--if you don't like where this is going, then join me in telling our legislators, "Really, it is okay if you raise my taxes a little to keep this state running."

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Back to the Future?

This brings us back to FY 2006-2007.
See this earlier post for more information.
Is it time for sackcloth and ashes? Gnashing of teeth? No, don't mourn--organize.
Seriously--invest in education now, or welfare and jails later.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure (Ben Franklin).

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

MEAP Results

I will have more to say about this at some point, but for now I thought you might just be interested in seeing the 2008 MEAP and MME results for the county. [These links are from the WISD, and I'm not sure why charter schools are not listed.] No surprise that the results mostly track closely to numbers that assess poverty, like free and reduced price lunch.

1. Background information on what was assessed. Note that you will also find the links to past years right there.

2. 2008 MEAP results

3. 2008 MME results

Although the results came out a few weeks ago, I couldn't find them on the AAPS web site (there is, however, a detailed analysis of 2005-2006). Nor could I find them on the Saline Schools web site. The Ypsilanti schools web site links directly to the state (and that is a good solution, I think, because the state updates the data every year and so it is immediately available). I stopped looking when it became clear a lot of school systems have not updated their web sites (yet).

Or you can go to, here is the Michigan MEAP link. (And at you can also look up information about the free lunch program, race/ethnicity, student/teacher ration, and more.)

Monday, June 8, 2009

Homework Policies

Teacher, Revised had an interesting interview with Sara Bennett about homework.

I'm not necessarily as anti-homework as Sara Bennett is, but I do think there's an awful lot of homework that doesn't contribute to anything. I think that a lot of teachers feel pressure to assign homework. And all of that pressure adds up to a lot of kids having a lot assignments, often non-contributing to actual academic achievement. It's also interesting to me that Sara Bennett gives math as an example where homework is unnecessary, while other people have said to me that they think that math is the one class where homework is necessary. (That tends to be the side I fall on.) But in fact, a lot of homework assignments are given in the hope that the students will learn to "organize" themselves. Do lots of small bits of homework (a worksheet here, a worksheet there) make you organized? More importantly, do they make you learn? What about "read half an hour a night" homework?

I really liked Sara Bennett's description of how she negotiates with teachers/affirms her role as a parent. Being a successful parent in the schools requires negotiation skills. Although I have to admit that my older kids almost never want me to talk to their teachers, I realized the other day--when a teacher actually called me--that that teacher had not gotten much feedback from parents, or kids. [The reason for the phone call had to do with my child giving this teacher some feedback. Yes, she was polite. It's just that I don't think he had heard that feedback before.] Schools like to create an aura of invincible power, and when we question that, we take back our power as parents, and also open up a line of communication that is important.

In other words, don't leave your critical thinking skills at home (and don't let your kids leave theirs at home, either) when you engage with the schools.

My favorite types of homework are project-based and more holistic in nature. In other words, the point of homework should be to integrate knowledge. What do you think about homework? Did you find it essential? What kinds of homework are most essential?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

School to Prison Pipeline

There's no doubt that this presentation will be thought-provoking.
Monday, June 8th, 6-9 p.m., Unitarian-Universalist Congregation, 4001 Ann Arbor-Saline Road

The ACLU of Michigan Washtenaw Branch will hold its annual Jerome Strong Awards with special guests
Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn who will speak about
Juvenile Justice and the School-to-Prison Pipeline.
In addition, the Jerome Strong Civil Liberties Award will be presented to Representative Alma Wheeler Smith, the Community Leadership Award will be presented to Derrick Jackson and Rosemary Sarri will receive the Civil Liberties Champion Award.RESERVE YOUR SEAT TODAY! Admission is free for ACLU members. Join online or at the door and your admission is free. Admission is $20/individual, $30/couple, $5/students. Join or register for this event at more about Bill Ayers & Bernadine Dohrn at

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

H1N1, Discrimination, Staying Home

I heard from a Latina friend that there have been many cases in southeast Michigan of Latino/Hispanic kids being ostracized around the swine flu, particularly because it appears to have originated in Mexico. I haven't directly heard of any cases, but ever since the ICE raids (immigration service, used to be INS) there is a lot of reluctance--even on the part of legal residents and citizens--to draw attention to the Latino community. IF you hear about this kind of bullying and ostracizing, PLEASE share it with all levels of school administration, and the public health department--especially if the comments are coming from kids, and even more so if the comments are coming from staff. Have you heard about any cases? Because ethnic intimidation still happens in our communities, and the only way to stop it is to speak up about it.

On the east coast, my nephew came down with a slight fever. Despite the fact that his parents don't think he has flu--and unless the doctor excludes flu by either testing or confirming a different diagnosis (say, strep throat)--he has to stay out of school for seven days. Yes, even if the doctor doesn't think it is flu. And no, they are not routinely testing kids over age 5 for flu, so it probably can't be excluded. Which means major child care problems for his parents, and well--it seems excessive to me.

Tappan Gardens, Slow Food

Have you seen the garden at Tappan Middle School? It is on the upper field, and it is beautiful. Every school needs a garden like this, a well-tended garden that kids can work on. Yes, I took this picture of the ripening strawberries there. I believe this gardening project was inspired by Alice Waters and the Slow Foods movement. Tappan is not the only Ann Arbor school with a garden. I know, for instance, that Ann Arbor Open has a garden, a mini-greenhouse, and a gardening elective for 7th/8th graders. See this older post for more information about Ann Arbor school gardens--some of them are flowers though, not vegetables.