Monday, November 28, 2011

The Power of Pets (and when they pass away)

Wilbur (front) & Orville (back)
I always take my library helpers with me when I go book shopping at our board's vendor fair. I should dedicate an entire post to that particular practice of mine but the reason I mention it in today's post has to do with my punctuality. I'm often late getting to my shopping destination for many reasons and I swore that this time would be different. I failed to begin as early as I had intended but this year I had a very good reason - I spent an hour before school at the vet with my pet skinny pig Orville.

Fudge the rabbit, dressed in holiday gear by a teacher
I have never owned a dog or a cat of my own but I can attest to the power of pets, especially the potential of pets in schools. Annie Slater, a teacher-librarian at Heritage Park P.S. and I will be presenting on this topic at the Ontario Library Association Super Conference in February. My school library has been home to several animals. I used to have a rabbit that I adopted from the pound that was specifically a school pet. We had an in-school contest to name him and he was christened Fudge. Fudge was absolutely delightful - he was huge and during some recesses when the library was quiet, we would let Fudge out of his spacious cage located in my office and let him roam the library. We'd have to watch him carefully to see that he didn't nibble any of the books. Fudge brought a lot of people into the library that never would have entered without him. The intermediate division science teacher was a big fan, as were several boys who would sit and read to Fudge. Our rabbit was a patient and friendly creature. Some of the newer teachers would sneak into the library, take him out of the cage, dress him up in clothes, and take pictures of him. Unfortunately, Fudge's fur caused some of our students to have sneezing fits, even though his cage was located in my office. These allergic reactions meant that Fudge had to find a new home. Unfortunately, my own son had an extremely bad reaction to the rabbit dander, so I couldn't keep him myself. Fudge ended up living with the family of a friend of my brother. He was renamed Sven and was spoiled even more so than he was at my school.

This picture of Max was taken by a student this year.
Another school pet introduced me to the wonders of a new type of animal - a skinny pig (hairless guinea pig). I adopted Roger the skinny pig from the pound for the purpose of being a school pet. The poor old boy only lived a few months but he intrigued me enough that eventually I bought one for my own home (named Monty). I really like skinny pigs because they are hypoallergenic, social and fascinating. Max the skinny pig is my current school pet and he is a charming little guy. He purrs like a cat when you pet him, calls to me when he wants attention, and is not flustered by the children.

L-R: Chita, Wilbur, Orville
At my own home, we own Chita & Chilli the chinchillas and Orville & Wilbur the skinny pigs. On Wednesday, November 23, my husband woke me up early in the morning to report that Orville was squealing in pain and limping around before lying unnaturally on his side. We rushed him to my veterinarian but he was not working that day. Skinny pigs count as "exotic pets" and even the city's animal hospital could not service him. The receptionist at my vet's office found another vet that could accommodate atypical pets and we rushed him over there. Orville improved a bit after he received oxygen and x-rays taken around noon showed no broken bones but in spite of the vet's best efforts, Orville died that afternoon.  

Julio the chameleon, circa December 2005
 Naturally, my own children were quite sad to hear that their pet had died. It reminded me about one of my other, more unusual school pets. Sir Julio Freaky Changini was a veiled chameleon. He belonged to relatives of an EA that worked at my school. She was dismayed to learn that these people didn't want to keep him and because chameleons are difficult to find new homes to take them, they chose to "solve their problem" by locking him in a closet and hoped he'd starve to death. The EA lived in an apartment and had no room to take him in, so my colleague and I told her we'd rescue him and let him live at school. Julio was a high-maintenance pet. He had special heat lamps and required live food like crickets and meal worms. The biggest challenge was that Julio's tongue would not work like a regular chameleon. We were never sure whether he had injured it on a sharp cricket leg or if he lost the ability to use it when he was starved, but it meant that Julio had to be hand-fed. My friend would manually open his mouth and I would inset a squirming bug using tweezers. Julio gained weight and regained enough of his health that he actually went into heat. We learned that chameleons have two penises when we discovered that Julio needed surgery to amputate one of his hemi-penises because it was infected. Julio defied the odds again by recovering from that operation and thriving. Unfortunately, Julio developed kidney failure and anemia. We gave him antibiotics multiple times a day but the vet said that we had done everything we could and he had to be euthanized. Julio was a popular school pet - the evening caretaker used to take Julio out of his cage to ride on his shoulder while he did his cleaning duties. My colleague and I made some special visits to each class at school. We read age-appropriate books like "The Tenth Good Thing About Barney" and "What To Do When A Pet Dies" and gave students time to ask questions and mourn in their own way. The children wrote their farewell wishes to Julio on chart paper and we took these with us when we took him in to be put down.
RIP Orville

Unlike Julio, Orville's death was sudden and unexpected, but these moments still provide an opportunity for us to talk with our students (or our own children) about tough issues that are a natural part of life. Lessons on fractions or mapping will be forgotten but spending time with other living things will not. When my students were interviewed for a study about school libraries, some of them mentioned that their favourite part of the library was seeing Julio & Fudge. At my Superconference workshop, I plan on going into detail about the benefits and research - however, today's post was more about retelling some stories about some of the animal companions with whom I've shared my library (and home) space. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Pressing a Pajama Thought

Recently, I had the honour of attending the official launch of Pajama Press. This is a new Canadian children's book publisher but the people behind the company are not new to the business and the three authors that are part of Pajama Press' inaugural collection are well-known authors of KidCanLit. Deborah Ellis, Marsha Skrypuch and Robert Laidlaw were all present at the launch and each writer spoke briefly to the assembled guests as part of the evening.

What resonated with me during the short speeches was the respect and admiration the authors have for Gail Winskill, the publisher behind Pajama Press. Marsha Skrypuch recounted that it was due to Gail's encouragement that she branched out from historical fiction to write this non-fiction book, Last Airlift: A Vietnamese Orphan's Rescue from War. Deborah Eliis discussed how her current title with Pajama Press, True Blue, might appear like a significant departure from her previous books, because it is a murder mystery, but that all her books deal with the choices people make and their impact on others; Ms. Ellis and Ms. Winskill have worked together often in the past while the latter was a publisher with another company, and they enjoyed the collaboration so much that they wanted to continue it.

Much later on, I realized that editors/publishers and teachers have a lot in common. Good ones challenge people to go beyond what they think they are capable of doing to create things that benefit others and themselves. Editors and teachers can inspire, support and nurture. Bad ones can shatter the self-esteem of the people they encounter, plague them with doubt and make listeners dread the barbed comments they have to offer. Good ones can provoke improvement through descriptive feedback and can detect good ideas even when they are buried deep. Teachers and editors are not so much admired for their power and influence as they are for their ability to make good things great. I'm going to strive to make the feedback I give useful, supportive and inspiring. I want students to feel glad that they consulted with me before or during a project because the end result was better because of my involvement. That's what any good teacher - or editor - would want.

This is a photo of the launch - I'm in blue. 
 P.S. I'd like to thank Pat Thornton-Jones, secretary/administration at Pajama Press, for sending me this photo of the launch for me to use in today's post, and for permitting me to use the various Pajama Press logos as visuals for this post.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Minecraft & Me

I like video games. Despite the fact that I'm not a very skilled player, I believe that games are fantastic ways for kids to have fun and learn, almost without realizing it. Some of my biggest influences have been my own family members, as well as Beth Gallaway (author of "Game On") and Melanie McBride (researcher and educator at EDGE Labs, associated with Ryerson University). Melanie pushes my thinking and follows the philosophy of James Paul Gee, who lauds the situated learning inherent in game play. Schools and video games don't always mix and Gee says that we need to transform the way education systems operate. I can't see the school system changing in the ways Gee hopes for anytime soon but I can't resist incorporating video games into my school library program whenever possible. I maintain a separate blog that documents the non-school, situated learning that my own children experience through their home use of games - it can be found at Family Gaming XP. For a long time, I felt pretty alone in my use of video games in school. However, I've expanded my Personal Learning Network and some of my newest virtual colleagues and I have embarked on an exciting adventure.

We play Minecraft together.

Minecraft, for those of you unacquainted with it, is an online co-op game in which you work with the natural world to build and create. Take trees and cut them down to use the wood to make all sorts of things. Three of us educators are playing Minecraft together on a server and we plan on starting Minecraft clubs with our students in the next couple of months. We have a wiki where we share tips, post photos and write journals of our experience playing. These are some of the things I've learned - about learning, Minecraft, and myself - as I've played this game.

1) Following your own interests make things more fun.

IRL (In real life), I like to scrapbook. In the game, I'm the player that takes the most screen shots. One of the other players created a gorgeous inukshuk-like statue near her online home. The third player is quite a tinkerer and just recently built a underground rail system with carts. The nice thing about Minecraft is that there's no one right way to play it and we can do all sorts of things there. Here are some "photos" I've taken.

This is a screen shot of my character in Minecraft.
2) Doing things together beats doing things alone.

I already mentioned that I'm a pretty weak video game player. This is especially true in Minecraft. On my first day of playing, I spent most of the time practicing how to walk. If it weren't for the kindness of my fellow players, I'd be doomed. Minecraft characters need shelter to hide from the spiders and creepers that come out in the night. I am not yet talented enough to build a house (or even a secure hole in the ground) to protect myself, but my fellow players have invited me into their homes to stay and be safe. They never mock me for my lack of crafting abilities - they applaud when I figured out how to feed myself or kill a pig for food. Despite the huge difference in our skill levels, we have fun playing together. One person built boats for us and we went sailing together. We learn from each other. We problem solve. We learn more when we're together - even our expert player is discovering things by interacting with us.

This is my character's viewpoint while boating.
3) Messing up is part of the experience

One of the "gameducators" playing with me is keeping a list of all the different ways she's died in the game. It's a pretty lengthy one so far. I died my first few minutes in the game; I walked up to read the welcome sign and a creeper attacked me. I've fallen in lava, been mauled by spiders and destroyed by creepers. Sometimes when I die, I laugh. Sometimes I holler. Sometimes I curse. The follow-up is always the same - I respawn and keep going. No one's perfect and that's okay.

This is a picture of me trying to kill a cow for food. I ended up hacking my boat to pieces in the process.
4) Research is good.

If I don't know how to do something, I ask someone or look it up. My own children helped me with this when I was online by myself and got stuck in my boat. They read the Minecraft wiki and found out what I had to do to exit my ship. I tried the tips out and if it didn't work, I searched for more information or re-read the instructions. Isn't this the essence of research - having an authentic question, seeking answers by accessing information found in resources, and doing something with the found/processed information? I like research. I don't like writing long lists of references in proper APA format but I like discovering things I didn't know before.

This was my inventory. I learned that I needed a crafting table with a 3x3 grid to make things.
4) It's fun

My husband doubted that I'd like playing this game because it's very different from the few games I do play of my own volition (like Just Dance on the Wii or Webkinz). However, he's noted that I seem to be enjoying myself even though this is something outside my comfort zone. (I'm taking Melanie's advice to "go to the places that scare you".) It's hard for me but it's been fun. There's something beautiful about a virtual sunrise and surviving the night.

Sunset (or sunrise?) as seen from a safe house in Minecraft
I've been talking about my Minecraft experiences through Twitter. The day after I first mentioned it, no less than five students approached me to say "I hear you're starting a Minecraft club at school. If it's true, can I join?" I have a feeling that, like my Just Dance Club, this will be a way for students and teachers to learn and have fun together. Big thanks go to Liam O'Donnell (@liamodonnell) and Denise Colby (@nieca) for being my Minecraft buddies and mentors. You'll hear lots more about this project as we continue to play.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Student-Led Learning in Kindergarten Library - Let Inquiry Reign!

We have three full-time kindergarten classes in my school. As part of my job as the teacher-librarian, I see these students quite frequently - three times a week for two groups, and five times a week for the third. On paper, I'm teaching them "computers", "library", "media" and "dance/drama" - but to be more accurate, the kids are directing the program and it would probably be more accurately described as "integrated literacy".

One day many weeks ago, I was reading the picture book "Grumpy Bird" by Jeremy Tankard, when one of the junior kindergarten students piped up and said "You know, we should turn this book into a play." Brilliant idea! We ran with it. We began to plan but ran into a problem - we had 19 students and, even if we performed "Grumpy Bird" and "Boo Hoo Bird", we still had more actors than parts. I can't remember who thought of this solution, but we decided to write a third, Jeremy-Tankard-style book so that all the kids could be actors. We polled the class for emotion ideas for the new book - Happy Bird was the winner and Scaredy Bird was the runner-up. A small group of students and I sat down and began to write our story. We soon learned that it's easier to start with a "not-happy" feeling so that at the end of the book we could have a happy finale. The students came up with the plot details and we mimicked the style of the other books. Our story has been written and we are thinking of illustrating it and sending a copy to the author/illustrator. Today we started to discuss the costumes for our play and some groups have ambitious plans involving wings, feathers, and headgear. I'll have to share the results later. This has turned into a major project.

An activity that involves all three kindie classes is playing Webkinz. I have been using this youth MMO at my school since 2007 but this year I chose to devote it solely to our youngest kids. I supplied the toy porcupine with the special activation code. We brainstormed names for this new pet, voted on the class favourites, and then had a final vote with the selections from each class. We learned about the words "vote" and "tie" and tried out different ways to make our selections (e.g. using stickers on a chart, putting paper clips in a bag). I was so impressed that several of the kindergarten students were able to read the paper clip graph I posted with the results. (I must post a picture here later. ETA - added photo on November 12, 2011.) The winning name for our toy porcupine was Princess. We logged Princess on the account today with one of the other kindergarten classes. The students lead what we do on Webkinz. We had an age-appropriate chat on adoption and the observant ones noted that our happy/health/hunger meters were all below 100 and so we had to do something. We fed our virtual pet some food, which helped our hunger problem but not our health problem, so then we had to brainstorm ways we could make our pet healthy that did not involve eating. We were beginning to run out of time so we went to put our newest pet to bed but we discovered that we have 5 virtual pets and only 4 beds. The kids had a great time thinking of solutions to this dilemma - and lots of jokes were made about sleeping in toilets (ahh, bathroom humour!).

These two examples show how the students can be even better than teachers when it comes to integrating subjects - these lessons involved reading, writing, oral communication, media literacy, data management, number sense & numeration, health education, drama, dance, visual arts, social studies and character education. It can be a bit unnerving to have very little pre-planned for our lessons because you never know what direction the class discussion will go, but the increased engagement is worth the risk!