Book Review: Duke (Dogs of World War II)

This is a book about a dog named Duke. I have a dog named Duke. How could I not read this? Kirby Larson’s novel for adolescent readers is less about Duke, however, and more about 11-year-old Hobie, who gives his dog up to support the effort in World War II, even as his father is flying Allied airplanes in Europe.

The Duke of Duke (Dogs of World War II) is a German Shepard, who comes home a hero, but not after Hobie regrets volunteering his dog for the war effort, particularly once he realizes that Duke and his new soldier friend are heading to the warfront in Asia. The novel follows Hobie as he grapples with the absence of his dog, and then his father, who is reported as a Prisoner of War, and helps his mother and sister at home.

The theme of the story emerges as things get worse before they get better and a kind uncle fills in as Hobie’s father-figure, as a well as the soldier whose life Duke eventually saves (and many more), letting Hobie figure out to be brave, and scared, all at the same time. Some side stories — such as the German immigrant family that moves into the neighborhood and the school bully who takes aim at Hobie — give depth to Hobie’s experiences as a fifth grader moving into sixth grade with uncertainty around him.

This book is a powerful narrative, aimed for upper elementary and middle school students, and if you have readers who love dogs and who are interested in World War 2, Duke is the book for them. Even my Duke approves.

Peace (among the heroes),

Slice of Life: Accentuating The Positives

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write on Tuesdays about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

So, this is not ideal, this learning situation many of us are in right now. I am remote until next week, when we move into a hybrid model. It’s taxing on us all — educators, students, families, administrators. So today, I am trying to make note of the positives of my situation after ten days with my sixth graders on Zoom and Google Classroom.

  • We’ve had near 100 percent attendance across our three sixth grade classes since the first day of school. I find this pretty amazing, given the remote nature of things. Each morning, before I start things up, I always wonder: Are they going to show up? And they do, day after day, ready for school. I celebrate my students repeatedly throughout the day.
  • With only a few minor glitches here and there, our access to Zoom for virtual classrooms, to Google Classroom and Apps for other activities, and other technology has mostly been seamless. Some students have spotty Internet at times, but we’ve been able to work through that. I credit our school district technology staff for the summer planning around Mac laptop distribution to our sixth graders — every student has their own Macbook right now. This makes a world of difference from the Spring, when a hodgepodge of devices made it difficult to troubleshoot with families.
  • We’ve done eight writing prompts in ten days, and my young writers have been enjoying the range of creative activities done both in their Writing Notebooks and in Classroom. We’ve done some story writing, some listening activities, and some reflection pieces. And our use of Breakout Rooms has been beneficial, pulling together small clusters for sharing ideas and stories.
  • Speaking of Breakout Rooms, I’ve been impressed by how respectful and collaborative my students have been in those rooms in Zoom. I can only pop around, joining one room at a time, but every time I do, I am so heartened by the positive energy of the discussions and sharing in the Breakout Room, as some students become leaders of the group and others recognize and encourage each other as writers.
  • One example of this is a four-day Fractured Fairy Tale Read-Aloud Play unit that we just wrapped up yesterday, with performances in Zoom in all the classes. I had three plays and three groups in each of my three classes, and Breakout Rooms allowed each group to practice and talk through their play and parts. It wasn’t ideal, but since Read-Aloud Plays are like radio shows, it worked fine. And it gave every student an opportunity to read out loud (for me to hear) with fun stories, as well as collaborate and then present to the full group.
  • I’ve been hesitant to get too deep into our reading/literature curriculum, which focuses in on novels, in this remote setting. We did send home class novels in the summer, along with textbooks, asking them to hold on to them until we needed them. At this point, I may wait until we are back in school and use the outside tents and grassy areas for reading. But we have been doing some short story reading and analysis, and some small non-fiction texts, so I feel as if I am honing in on some skills that will be important this year. Plus, there has been the read-aloud plays.
  • We’ve done a lot of reaching out to students to gauge their emotional well-being, through Zoom sessions and emails (including families) and end-of-week surveys, and I think that effort is paying off in the positive start many students are reporting experiencing. They feel connected, and supported, and heard. That’s so important after the Spring shut-down.

There’s probably more I could add here, but I like that this Slice has forced me to find a positive frame to see my teaching days, and to realize, there’s a lot of good things happening. Next week may be a different story, as we start moving our students back into the building in cohorts. I’ll keep looking for what’s going good instead of what’s not.

Peace (to us all),


Teaching in a Pandemic: Here We Are and Here We Go

Strange Times

We were holding a regular Zoom chat among grade level team members for our sixth grade as a way to check in with each other, do some planning and catch our breath. All of us are veteran teachers who have worked together for more than a decade (and some of us, nearly two decades.)

“I feel like I’m a new teacher again, trying to figure every little thing out,” one colleague muttered, and we all agreed.

The Pandemic, and our temporary shift to Distance Learning before going back in a Hybrid Model, has forced all of us to look at our teaching practices in a new light, and from new angles. Not that we on our team were ever just coasting — we’re not like that — but we realize now that we can’t rely on what worked in the past in the physical space of the classroom to work in the virtual element of the classroom.

Each night, after the school day ends, and each morning, before the first Zoom session of the day, I’m thinking and re-thinking the flow of every single lesson, of the meaning and value of every single activity, of what could transfer from how I used to teach something to how I will need to teach it now, given our current situation. I’m walking around with lesson plans unfolding in my head.

This re-evaluation of practice and pedagogy is never a bad thing, of course. It’s something we educators should always be doing, but admittedly, we don’t always do such intensive examination of practice. That reason is is that it is rather stressful, and demanding, to reconsider and re-evaluate everything, and it takes up a lot of head space. It’s easier to re-use what worked in the past, with some minor tweaks.

No tweaks are minor right now. Everything is always on the table.

And it does, indeed, feel like starting a teaching career from scratch, with all the exciting possibilities and the nervous unknowns — the technology, the range of learners, the social interactions, all of it forever in flux.

What makes it more difficult, in our situation, is the loneliness of it, too.

Working from home, as we are forced to be doing right now while our Internet gets an upgrade, has its benefits (the dogs like it) but there’s no unanticipated bumping into colleagues in the hallway to share ideas or vent frustrations. You can’t open the door between rooms to say hello. There’s no quick dart to ask a technical question or collectively gather to share insights or ask questions or express concerns about a student. Like a new teacher who may have a mentor but often feels like they are on a new journey, nearly alone, with a classroom of young people depending on them to know (or at least pretend they know) the way forward, we are all now navigating new waters.

But here we are … and here we go.

Peace (day by day),

Book Review: The Distance Learning Playbook

While I can’t say there is a lot of new thinking for me in The Distance Learning Playbook by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey and John Hattie, I can say that I appreciate the way the three of these respected educators have succinctly and structurally pulled together pedagogy ideas into the much-needed frame of a teaching shift into online learning.

My school district bought this book for the entire teaching staff, as some of us have started to teach with the Hybrid Model in the school and some of us (myself, included) are starting the year with Distance or Remote Learning before moving back into the building with students. All of us are grasping for ideas, strategies, and thinking on what teaching and learning looks like in the Pandemic.

At my school, we spent a few hours during one of our early Professional Development days, doing grade-level reading of the book and then jigsaw-sharing out with the entire staff. I then went back to the beginning of the playbook (since my grade level had a later chapter) and have read through it all, with appreciation.

Along with important information about community building, and teacher readiness and professionalism, and developing engaging tasks for online learning with fidelity and clarity, the later chapters around feedback and assessment in Distance Learning was helpful for my teacher brain. The book covers a lot of ground, but in a very approachable way, and it comes loaded with QR codes for about 50 videos of classroom teachers sharing experiences and strategies, and I still have to sit with the book and my phone to view them, but I appreciate knowing some teacher voices are in the mix.

There are also plenty of resources and charts and probing questions in each chapter, to allow for teacher self-reflection. In all, The Distance Learning Playbook helped me get my mind and my lesson planning ready for the first interactions with my new students, and is a resource I can turn to now and then for advice and strategies, and for that, I appreciate the authors and also, the leaders of my school district, for buying us the book.

Peace (distant but closing in ),

Audio Postcard: Second Week of School

DSC01722 (2) -01 DSC01722 (2) -01 flickr photo by suzyhazelwood shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

The First Six Weeks of School research project is tracking through audio postcards the experiences of teachers going back to school. I did an audio postcard on the first day of school and now, this second one is from the second week of school. I talk about community building and consistency of schedule, and how both are so vital in my mind to the beginning days of the year. The recording is done on my phone app, rather impromptu.

Peace (every week forward),

Slice of Life: Not Enough Standing

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write on Tuesdays about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

I’ve never been a sitter in the classroom. My chair at my desk rarely gets used when school is in full and regular session. I am always on the move, working with students on their writing or cruising the room to answer questions or to check on how things are going. When I write, I sit in a student desk in the midst of the kids and write along with them.

Or I’m standing, talking, dancing, jumping. Whatever it takes.

So this start to the year, at home for two weeks of Distance Learning to begin, at my kitchen table, it feels so sedentary and stuck, like I am glued to the wooden chair. Every sensory break in our Distance Learning schedule that we have, I am outside, playing with the dogs in the yard or walking at a brisk pace through the neighborhood. Anything to get moving. I wish I had a standing desk here at home, so I could get up and be on my feet.

And of course, I urge my students to do the same at every break we’ve built into the day — get away from the screen, get some fresh air, go run and jump and play, be active.

I don’t know how computer programmers or other office workers do it, sitting all day with a screen as companion. It will do for now, this situation, because of the Pandemic we are in, but this kind of teaching from a chair is just not good for the body.

Peace (on the go),

Upon The Pendulum Swings Hope

I had been working on a music track with hope in my mind when I learned of the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, so I quickly pivoted the song to honoring her and her words, and her voice. The Hope image comes from my friend, Sheri Edwards, and the colorful spectrogram running behind Sheri’s art was created from the audio track itself. Some of us in CLMOOC are working to create pieces of art related to the theme of Hope.

Peace (and hope),