Monday, October 27, 2014

Counting by fives, scratching like a monkey, and running around the room.

Johnny is in first grade and, according to his teacher, he should already know how to count by fives. And he can do it. . . sort of. He gets the basic idea, but when he skip-counts to 100, he almost always leaves out a few numbers.

When I would suggest that he practice this skill, he used to object with vigor. But today, we found a way to make it fun. I'd go so far as to say that practicing counting by fives at our house is now a rip-roaring good time.

First, let me clarify that Johnny already understood the concept of counting by fives. To make sure that his conceptual understanding was solid, we looked at a number line that I had drawn. I had written in the multiples of ten (i.e. 10, 20, 30, etc.) and drew dots for the numbers ending in five.

Johnny had to think for a moment before he figured out which numbers belonged on the dots. (His first response was that the dot between 10 and 20 would correspond to 11. After he realized that it would actually be 15, we had a fun time figuring out where 11 would actually go.)

But skip-counting by fives is something that I wanted Johnny to be able to do effortlessly and without referring to a number line. He needed practice. And we needed the practice to feel like play.

So we invented . . . Silly Skip-Counting.

Since Johnny's most common mistake was going straight from 35 to 50, our first version of the game was to count by fives to 100 in the usual way, except that when we came to the number 40, we said it in the silliest way possible. The possibilities were endless: Wail 40 like a siren, make a silly face and waggle your fingers, roar it like a lion. And he never forgot to say 40 because he didn't want to miss out on the fun.

Then we were ready for something more challenging. We each took turns giving special instructions for two of the numbers. "You have to scratch like a monkey when you say 35 and run around the room when you say 80." Or, "You have to pretend to blow on a trumpet when you say 15 and wave your arms and cheer when you say 50." (We usually demonstrated for the other person.)

Once, when Johnny's challenge for me involved doing something hilarious (I don't remember what) at the number 40, I purposely skipped that number. This was a number that he had forgotten in the past, so I wanted to see if he would notice the omission. He did indeed notice, laughed delightedly at my subterfuge, and made me go back and count again.

When my husband Owen came home from work, he was enlisted in the game. Johnny and I teamed up together to think of a really good challenge, but Owen one-upped us. When he got to 80, instead of just scratching his armpit as he had been instructed to do, he stood on a chair, touched the ceiling with one hand, and scratched his armpit with the other hand. Hilarity ensued.

 . . .

I'm hoping that this approach will help with other sequences that Johnny may need to memorize in the future (e.g. days of the week, our phone number).

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Place value, fake money, and my first grader.

Johnny's first grade class spent quite a lot of time on place value this year, and it has given me a chance to renew my appreciation for this elegant and empowering concept. Using the digits 0 through 9, we can represent quantities that are as big or as small as we want, nearly effortlessly. Take that, Romans!

Johnny hasn't yet learned about decimals, and he's shaky on anything beyond the hundreds place, but even at a basic first grade level, there's plenty to discuss.

In order to reinforce the concept of place value and give Johnny a chance to practice his skills, I got out the fake money and told him that we were going to play "store." Since our goal was to better understand place value (i.e. as opposed to practicing addition or becoming familiar with U.S. currency), I set the $5 and $20 bills aside and used only $1, $10, and $100 bills. Those bills correspond with the three place values that Johnny is most familiar with: ones, tens, hundreds.

I drew a simple one-sheet catalog of sorts, with crude, hand-drawn pictures of things to buy.

I handed Johnny the three piles of money and told him that he could buy anything from the catalog. (Or rather, he could pretend to buy whatever he wanted.)

Since I prepared the activity in haste and didn't have any props other than the paper and the money, I wasn't sure how enthusiastic Johnny would be about my rather minimalist "store." But he was thrilled! He immediately declared that he wanted to buy everything on the list.

One at a time, he paid for every item. It was fun to see his mind work, and it was gratifying to see him really think about place value. For example, since 14 means 1 ten and 4 ones, he realized that the best way to pay me was using 1 ten dollar bill and 4 one dollar bills. We talked about the possibility of paying with all one dollar bills instead, but Johnny decided against it.

After he paid me $543 dollars for one item, we had a great discussion that led to a stronger appreciation for zero as a placeholder.

He had given me three piles of money: 5 hundred dollar bills, 4 ten dollar bills, and 3 one dollar bills.

This is $543 in fake money.

I took away the pile of ten dollar bills and asked him how much money remained.

This is $503 dollars.

He told me that there were now 5 hundreds and 3 ones. I asked him how he would write that number. He immediately said, "I'd write five, three." Then there was a pause, followed by an important insight. "Oh, that wouldn't work. That would be 53!" He thought for a minute and wrote down 503. The value of zero as a placeholder was brought home to him.

This activity is flexible, and the conversation can go in all sorts of interesting directions, depending on what the child is ready for.

At some point, I quickly jotted down a very short (three items), off-the-cuff fast food menu, thinking that smaller numbers might make it easier to talk about addition, making change, or regrouping.

Johnny started at the top of the list and wanted to buy the (admittedly very expensive) hamburger. I tried to steer the discussion in the direction of making change and asked him what would happen if he paid me with a ten dollar bill. His first response was that he would buy the $2 drink at the same time, so that $10 would be just enough.

I pressed the issue a bit, asking him what he would do if he only wanted the hamburger, and we had fun arriving at the solution together: I should pay him back $2.

Throughout the whole activity, Johnny was eager and enthusiastic. About a week later, we did a shorter version of the same thing, and he was just as happy to pick it up again.

We have not yet run out of new things to discuss. Next time, I'd like to explore addition with regrouping. If he wants to pay for two items at the same time (e.g. a $9 book and a $7 toy car), what's the best way to do that? Should he pay with all ones, or is there a better way?

And next time, I'll probably take a turn being the customer and while he runs the store. He'd love to put together a list of things to sell to me and decide on prices.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Ten wordless books.

Here are ten of my favorite wordless (or nearly wordless) books.

I have taken photographs of a few pages to give you a taste of what's in store, but they really don't do the illustrations justice. I've linked each book's title to its Amazon page, where you can usually peek inside the book.


1. The Journey, Aaron Becker

Lush illustrations tell the story of a lonely girl who uses a magic red crayon to draw a door into another world where she travels by boat (again, drawn by the crayon) to a fantastic castle filled with canals. Her adventure continues in a hot air balloon where she bravely confronts danger, makes a narrow escape on a flying carpet, and finally finds true friendship. Reminiscent of Harold and the Purple Crayon, but richer and deeper, this is a satisfying read for all ages.

2. Home, Jeannie Baker

This is a book you'll want to spend a lot of time with. Collage-style illustrations follow the life of a young girl as she matures to adulthood. Each two-page spread records the view out her window, at two-year intervals, beginning on the day her parents bring her home as a newborn. As we watch her grow up, we also see a story of urban renewal unfold as neighbors work together to transform the neighborhood.

The first scene out the window.

In this detail, we see the neighbors planting a tree in the empty lot across the street.

Here, the tree has matured, and the space has become a pocket of green.

The last window scene. The girl has married the boy next door, and together they will open a native plant nursery.
I recently acquired Window, another wordless book by Jeannie Baker in a similar style. This time it's a little boy who grows to adulthood. Instead of seeing an urban neighborhood change for the better, we watch as  his rural home gradually succumbs to suburban sprawl. I'm still a fan of Jeannie Baker's, but Window was depressing (probably intentionally so).

3. Flotsam, David Wiesner

Almost everything by David Wiesner is fantastic, and this is my favorite of his wordless books. A boy on a beach finds an antique underwater camera that has washed up to shore. He has the film developed, and the photographs reveal eye-popping secrets about life in the ocean. Tiny green people live on the backs of sea turtles in cities made of seashells. Sea creatures lounge in an underwater living room on old sofas and easy chairs.  . . Every page of this book delights me.

Notice the electric fish in the lampshades.

4. Anno's Journey, Mitsumasa Anno

This has been a favorite of mine since childhood. A lone traveler makes his way through countryside inspired by the author's travels in Northern Europe. The details in each two-page spread are captivating, and if we look closely, we find visual references to fairy tales, historical figures, and famous paintings. Be sure to check out Anno's other wordless books, including Topsy Turvies, Anno's Counting Book, and his other journey books: Anno's USA, Anno's Britain, Anno's Italy, and Anno's Spain.

Look carefully in the upper right corner.

Anno quotes Georges Seurat's painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grande Jatte.

Notice anything familiar in the upper left corner?

Here's a close-up of Don Quixote charging a windmill.

5. The Arrival, Shaun Tan

If I could recommend only one wordless book, this would be the one. As rewarding for adults as for children, this is a highly imaginative, richly illustrated book. A man leaves his troubled homeland and immigrates to a strange and unfamiliar country, temporarily leaving his family behind. Everything is different here: the homes, the food, the language, the architecture, modes of transportation. He eventually finds a job, makes friends, and acclimates to the local customs. At the end of the book, we see a joyful reunion with his family as they join him in his new home.

Honestly, though, the summary above feels like thin gruel compared to the book itself. Read it.

The oppression in the protagonist's homeland is symbolized by a dragon-like tail.
He must adjust to a way of life that is unlike anything he has experienced before.

Here he is in his bewildering new apartment.

Opening a box from home reminds him of his wife and daughter.

He finds a job in a factory.

6. Rainstorm, Barbara Lehman

A boy is stuck inside on a rainy day with lots of toys in his large house but no one to play with. That changes when he finds a mysterious key and a secret entrance to an underground tunnel that leads him to a sunny island and new friends.

It's difficult for me to decide which of Lehman's wordless books I like best. Trainstop is delightful, and  The Red Book won a much-deserved Caldecott Honor. (I haven't yet read The Secret Box or The Museum Trip.) The three that I have read share common themes without being formulaic: Each protagonist is a lonely child who goes on a journey and finds friends. I love stories like that.

All alone.
After much trial and error, our hero finds that the mysterious key unlocks a trunk - with a ladder inside!
At last, he emerges into open air.

This is by no means the end of the story . You'll have to see for yourself how it turns out.

7. The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher, Molly Bang

A long-limbed blue person follows a woman home from the market and attempts to steal the scrumptious  strawberries she just bought. It's amazing how much drama Bang is able to pack into the story. The grey lady's escape from the strawberry snatcher includes, among other things, a tree to be climbed, a daring swing on a vine, and a trek through a swamp.


8. Good Night, Gorilla, Peggy Rathmann

This book is not quite wordless (the characters say, "Good night," throughout the book), but the narrative is mainly told through pictures, rather than words. And for toddlers, this almost-wordless book is as good as it gets. A gorilla steals the zookeeper's key, escapes from his cage, and unlocks the cages of the other animals in the zoo. The zookeeper doesn't notice them as they follow him to his home and into his bedroom.

9. Polo: The Runaway Book, Regis Faller

This is a rollicking good time. Faller  makes use of comic-book style panels to tell the story of Polo's attempt to chase down an alien who has stolen his book. He makes friends with a princess pig in a castle made of clouds, a penguin who likes to knit, a  genie who grants him a wish, and a chicken who drives a pedal-powered hot air balloon. Even when they were toddlers, my boys were absorbed with all 80 pages of this book.

This is one of a whole series of Polo books.

Polo begins the chase.

The penguin and the chicken fall in love at first sight.

10. In the Town, All Year 'Round, Rotraut Susanne Berner

I find this book to be utterly irresistible. It's divided into four sections: winter, spring, summer, fall. Each detailed two-page spread shows a scene from a little town and its surrounding countryside. Then those scenes are revisited in each season of the year.

This is another not-quite-wordless book: The author prefaces each of the four sections by naming some of the characters and giving us clues about what to look for (e.g. "Where is Hannah taking such a large present?"). Some story lines continue throughout the pages of one particular season: In the winter pages, a girl and her father try to catch their escaped parrot. Other stories continue through the whole year. A new school is built. A baby gets bigger. A romance blossoms.

This is the moment that our couple of interest meet. On the next page, she will bandage his hand.

Three other books deserve an honorable mention:

Noah's Ark, Peter Spier

Peter Spier paints Noah and the animals with a sort of gentle humor that charms me in spite of my Noah phobia. This is a Caldecott Medal winner.

Deep in the Forest, Brinton Turkle

This is a fun twist on the Goldilocks story. This time, it's a little bear that makes its way into a human family's house, sampling their porridge, sitting in their chairs, and trying out their beds.

You Can't Take a Balloon Into the National Gallery, Jacqueline Preiss Weitzman and Robin Glasser

While a little girl visits the National Gallery of Art with her grandmother, her helium filled balloon escapes, taking us on a tour of downtown D.C.

What books would you add to the list?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Having fun spelling words with Bananagrams tiles.

My first grader has had only one list of spelling words to learn so far this year. They seemed pretty easy to me: I, we, here, like, play, school, little. But spelling is not something that comes naturally to Johnny, and he resented having to practice his words repeatedly.

Until we got out our Bananagrams set.


Any set of letter tiles will do, but Bananagrams tiles work well because there are so many of them that you're less likely to run out of the more frequently used letters.

Since Johnny was having a particularly hard time with the words play and little, I wanted to target those without inducing boredom and frustration.

First, I challenged Johnny to unscramble the word play.


Once Johnny could unscramble those letters with ease, I added distractor letters. I tried to use letters that might actually fool him into thinking they're part of the word. I started with one extra letter, then worked up to something like this:

We did the same thing for little.


Notice that the distractor letters below give Johnny plausible ways to misspell the word. Littil, lettle and littlle almost look right. (You could, of course, throw in something obviously out of place, like a Z or a K just for fun.)

This repetitive practice felt like play — no, it was play — and I was surprised at how well it worked. Johnny loved being challenged to unscramble the letters faster, or with even more distractor letters. He loved boasting that spelling was becoming "too easy." And when I brought out the bananagrams several weeks later for a spelling review, he was excited.

When we got tired of unscrambling letters, we also liked doing this:

But we liked this even more:

Trying to fit as many of his spelling words together as possible, Scrabble style, turned out to be a big hit. Johnny was fascinated with connecting the words, and I think that I may have a future Scrabble player in the family.