Monthly Archives: December 2013

My Very Favorite Christmas Book of All Time

Today I wanted to give a shout out to my very favorite Christmas book of all time.  No, it isn’t How the Grinch Stole Christmas (she says with some guilt and an apology to that wonderful classic and to Dr. Seuss himself); it’s The Red Ranger Came Calling, by Berkeley Breathed.

I was as surprised as any fan of Opus the Penguin and Bill the Cat to find a Berke Breathed book that centered on, well, human beings.  But loving Bloom County, I picked it up to thumb through it.  The book passed both of my tests for successful picture books: it brought me both tears and chills in the middle of the bookstore.  Wiping away the tears, I hurried to the counter and bought it immediately.  I’ve read it a gazillion times to classrooms, friends and individual students, and I wipe away tears every time.

The book is a wonderful piece of family folklore.  Told in the first person, the main character is the boy who would grow up to be Breathed’s father.  Breathed’s love for his father and his childhood experience of wonder listening to this story infuse the book with a palpable aura of joy.

The first-person narrative nails the voice of a cranky, curmudgeonly little boy raised during the Depression, trying desperately not to feel any more disappointment than his already cynical self has experienced.  Breathed manages to layer in the perspective of a wiser, older self reflecting back on the story without minimizing or patronizing his young narrator at all.

The story centers on said curmudgeonly little boy’s adventures to disprove the existence of Santa Claus, in particular to expose a fake whom locals claim is the Real Deal.  After all, the boy explains, “It took folks far more fruity than the Red Ranger of Mars to be tricked into believing such twaddle.  Like many my age, I knew that Santa Claus and the tooth fairy and the Easter Bunny were just that many more promises hatched by those who weren’t very good at keeping any.”

Illustration of  The Red Ranger

Illustration of The Red Ranger

The rich illustrations glow with magic.  They match and magnify the tone of the narration perfectly.  Half the fun of reading the book comes from giving voice to the main character.  The other half comes from letting kids study the evocative pictures.  The combination makes The Red Ranger one of my favorite read alouds.

To say that the boy discovers the true meaning of Christmas would be too clichéd to mean much, but I will tell you that he gains a new understanding of faith, belief and love, and just what those untrustworthy grown-ups are really trying to express with their twaddle.  And as he does so, I can promise you that (if you are anything like me) you’ll find yourself wiping away tears and chills each time you reread this book to those you love.

Developing Details in Writing: Beyond Visualize and Verbalize Part II

So, you’ve been working with a kiddo whose spelling is great, grammar is excellent, but who melts down when asked to write in class; the more open the assignment, the more panicked the student.  You’ve been using Lindamood Bell’s Visualize and Verbalize program  to help connect the pictures of the right side of the brain with the words on the left side of the brain.  Maybe you have started supplementing that with the Guess the Animal game I described in Part I of this series.  But now you are looking for some other activity to continue developing both receptive and expressive language, all while building comprehension and writing skills.

In Part I, we made sure we had scene builders, folders and pattern blocks in our tool kit.  What, you may have asked, could those possibly be for?  I’m glad you asked!

robot scene builder

Build A Robot from Mudpuppy

For this activity, you can use any type of scene builder: felt, magnetic, cling-on…I am a big fan of the Mudpuppy Magnetic Figures because they are quirky and fun.  The key is that you need two exact sets.

First, show your student that you have the exact same set he does.  You tell him the game is for one of you to build a scene in secret behind a folder, and describe it to the other person while building it, so that at the end, the two scenes look exactly the same.

I always let the student choose whether she wants to build first or have me build first.  The shyer ones, or the ones who don’t quite get the activity yet, let me build first; the ones who grab hold of the idea want to build right away.

While they are building and describing, I make sure to ask clarifying questions if there is a little ambiguity (“How far from the moon does the monster head go?  Do you mean the green leg with scales or the smooth one with a boot?”)

Once they are done, we do a drum roll and the Big Reveal!  I remove the folder with a flourish and we compare results.

After a bit of oohing and ahhing, we debrief, um, briefly, with comments like, “Oh, I see the arm is pointing up.  I saw it pointing down,” or “You really helped me see the angle of the space ship, but I thought it was a little closer to the edge.”

The great thing about this game is that it works on both receptive and expressive language.  You can also target specific types of language (to the left of, on top of, or specific vocabulary) and the Visualize and Verbalize structure words.

Afterwards, you may want to ask the student to write a description of their picture.  They have great support: a visual right in front of them, verbal rehearsal of the description, and the debrief to focus on anything that was unclear.

I’ve also used  pattern blocks for this (which, by the way, is an excellent geometry exercise as well) or simply blank paper where we drew something and directed the other person to draw the same thing.  You can really use anything that gets built, drawn or made, as long as you have two sets of it.  Pander: use the special interests of your student (Legos?  Perfect.  Fashion dolls?  Fabulous.  Angry Birds?  Absolutely.  Dolphins?  Of course.).  Go nuts!