Archive for In the Classroom

Fairy Houses & Creative Learning at Home: A Conversation with Author and Children’s Librarian, Liza Gardner Walsh

 

 

“I miss my students.

I miss putting books directly in kid’s hands.

I am heartbroken

that we don’t get to finish the year together.” 

Liza Gardner Walsh

 

Liza Gardner Walsh embodies two of my favorite things in one person: no, she’s not peanut butter and jelly. She’s even better. Liza is an author and a children’s librarian. She’s also a certified, fully-authorized, bonafide expert on all things fairies. Liza visits today with some insights about getting kids outdoors, interacting with nature, using their creativity and imaginations, to make learning fun. Let’s meet her.

 

 

Liza, it’s nice to connect with you again! Usually we only see each other at the glorious Warwick Children’s Book Festival. I was very happy to come across an article featuring you, “How to Build a Fairy House.” The reporter, Aislinn Sarnacki of the Bangor Daily News, did an excellent job. It inspired me and I hope it might inspire parents, too. Let me quote the intro:

Fairy house building is a creative outdoor activity that can expand the imagination and bring to life the small things in nature that are easy to overlook. All you need is a small outdoor space and a few natural materials. Then — taking as much time as you want — construct a small home, fit for a fairy, frog or any other small creature that comes to mind.

This zero-cost activity is great for kids, families and even adults who are looking for ways to have fun in their own backyards. And right now, as people stay at home and practice social distancing during this stressful time, fairy house building may be just the thing to take people’s minds off the pandemic — even if it’s just for a few minutes.

 

Why do you think some children are so fascinated by the fairy world? 

This is the hardest question of all but I think this fascination with fairies taps into our innate “sense of wonder” as Rachel Carson coined it.  There is this immediate flood of curiosity that informs the magic of this hobby. Will the fairies come? Will they leave a surprise? What do they look like? Will they like my house? Do they take care of the world? Are they watching us as we build? Seeing the wide-eyed wonder and amazing willingness of children to take the leap into the imagination and the unknown is so incredibly rejuvenating. It celebrates that part of childhood that we as children’s book writers are so connected to and work so hard to intuit in our writing. And it reinforces all the good, trust, wonder, curiosity, consideration, persistence, patience, and laughter!

I love the idea for that activity, particularly in relation to these times, when schools are closed and the focus has shifted to online learning.

I have been watching kids and families make these little houses and worlds for years now and I am always amazed at how much creativity is unleashed. Every single creation is different. One of the premiere benefits is this sense of open-ended play because there are no step-by-step instructions like Lego kits. The materials that kids collect set the parameters. Another benefit is that it completely captures kids’ imaginations and it isn’t a one and done kind of a thing. You can wake up and check on your house and then go back and add another room or a playground. The next day, you can leave a note for the fairies or make a pathway to your sibling’s house. The possibilities are endless. I also like that kids can do this completely on their own and it becomes a way that they can be engaged safely and create a whole world of their own making.

 

I like how so many learning opportunities open up naturally. It’s a perfect jumping-off point for interdisciplinary activities: cooking, writing, reading, science (nature studies), engineering . . . 

I would say, though, that my all time favorite benefit is patience and perseverance. There are always problems to solve when building things out of materials that aren’t all the same or made with straight lines. Things fall apart when the wind blows or your dog might knock the whole thing down in one fell swoop. But a true fairy house builder will pick up the pieces and start again.

You work as a school librarian. How have you been adjusting to our “lockdown” reality in that capacity?

It’s been way harder than I ever imagined. I miss my students. I miss putting books directly in kid’s hands. I am heartbroken that we don’t get to finish the year together. Thank goodness for technology but zoom meetings are not the same. I do appreciate the creativity that distance learning is forcing on us and I have had some really fun connections with kids through video and zoom but I do spend a lot of my time worrying about our families and the isolation and economic challenges they are facing.

       

 

I had a friend complain about her disappointment with “learning-from-home-time” so far, the pile up of schoolwork her girls have received from each class. I’m certainly not here to criticize teachers, who are working very hard to figure out this brave new world. I do feel that our current situation presents new opportunities for creative, explorative, interdisciplinary learning. The idea isn’t so much to recreate what happens in the classroom — we can’t do that, especially on the social level — but maybe in some respects we can do something even better. 

Our principle has said the whole time that we are building the plane as we are flying it but I do appreciate the model we are using. We are offering activities, enrichment, and support but not requiring it. We have to keep in mind equity. Sometimes, worksheets are a benign way of making things accessible and easily transmissible through digital means. But I completely agree that this can be an opportunity for a paradigm shift. Kids are always learning. Literacy, math, science, art, movement are all so enmeshed in our everyday lives. I’m hoping that kids are building forts, planting gardens, watching birds, writing letters, and working on engines. Fairy House building is another way that kids can create, engineer, and collaborate. You can write a story about what happens in that house after you leave it. The key is following the curiosity and seeing what emerges. That is something that we don’t often have time to do in the public school day schedule and now is the perfect time to make it happen.

Can you give us a few quick tips? No one wants to build a house that displeases the fairies.

Of course! First, you need to find a good spot that will be safe from dogs, protected from wind, and that has some support. Bases of trees, stumps, and rock walls are all great. Next, grab a bag or a box and gather your materials. Fairy houses should be made from all natural materials. There are so many good things to collect like acorn caps, bark that has fallen off a tree, sticks, rocks, shells, dried beans, dried milkweed husks, the list goes on.

Once you have all your materials, you can begin to assemble your structure. People usually opt for a lean-to or a teepee type structure but the sky is the limit. And once you have a good house built, you can then work on adding some furniture to welcome your small guests. Fairies are very fond of naps so a bed is an essential. Tables and chairs with acorn cap bowls are also a nice way to welcome fairies. The final touches can include pathways, playgrounds, pools, and whatever else you can dream up. After you have built your house, pay attention for signs that the fairies have visited by looking for tiny footprints, fairy dust, and bent or torn leaves. But the most important advice of all is to have fun!

By the way, how tall are fairies, exactly?

I have “heard” they are about 2-3 inches tall, roughly. But some people describe it as a shimmer of light , almost like an orb, or a little puffball hovering by a flower.

So you’ve never . . . ?

No, I have never seen one. And I’m okay with that!

Well, I’m ready to build a fairy house right now. I only wish I still had a six-year-old at home with me. My Maggie, now 19, used to make them long ago. I wonder if she encountered any, I’ll have to ask. Do you have a new book in the works?

I have the last in the seasonal fairy series illustrated by Hazel Mitchell, The Fall Fairy Gathering, which is due out this summer. And I am working on a historical fiction novel but at a snail’s pace!

Thanks so much for stopping by, Liza. Be safe, stay home, and protect the vulnerable.

Thank you, James, for all that you are doing for kids, teachers, and families and for continuing to write such great stories.

 

Liza Gardner Walsh is a school librarian and an author of more than a dozen books. She’s worked as a preschool teacher and a high school English teacher, writing tutor, and museum educator. Liza lives with her family in Camden, Maine. And, obviously, she’s terrific.

 

 

 

 

 

Completed: I’ve Now Posted a Full Reading of JIGSAW JONES: THE CASE OF HERMIE, THE MISSING HAMSTER

Greetings, my dearly beloved Nation of Readers.

Both of you! I mean it, thanks for stopping by here of all places.

I don’t know if anyone cares or not — it’s never stopped me before! — but I’ve been slowly posting videos over at my Youtube channel. Maybe it’s helpful to some families and teachers during this time of closed schools and the uncertainty of online learning.

My apologies, I kind of take an everyman-downmarket approach to these videos. Nothing too spiffy, I’m afraid. I usually don’t even comb my hair. Hey, we’re in lockdown, folks. Just keeping it real.

Anyway, I’ve been honing my opening moments in these videos. Raising my game. This one, embedded below, is fairly ridiculous. My might enjoy it. I’m hoping that maybe some young readers will, too.

So, yeah, give it 30 seconds and then you’re good.

It might make you laugh. 

Or shake your head with pity. 

Your call!

And if you are interested in the complete book — which is out of print, by the way — go to my Youtube channel, click here, subscribe, and start with the first video. I keep them at around 15 minutes each, so this book took five videos to complete. 

Quick note on the “out of print” thing. I’ve written 42 Jigsaw Jones books. They all slowly, painfully went out of print. Then Macmillan stepped in and we’ve been bringing back new, revised, updated editions. If a reader enjoys this book, for example, there are 14 titles freshly available wherever good books are sold. 

               

     

My best. I hope that you and everyone you care for remains healthy and happy as you all continue to protect the vulnerable. There are days when this isn’t so bad at all, others when it feels awful. 

It won’t last forever. Better times ahead.

Until then, there’s always books.

 

 

 

Here are 6 Videos I Made for Teachers and Homeschoolers to Share with Young Readers

I posted a week ago about our collective struggle to find ways to do something meaningful, helpful, positive during this challenging time. As a children’s book author, my immediate goal has been to provide some online material that teachers and parents can share with young learners.

As of today, March 26, I’ve created six videos and posted them on my own Youtube channel (link below). I’ve also learned how to embed them here, also below. For me, that’s saying something.

Technology: ick.

But, as we’re finding in these days of physical distancing, a valuable way to connect.

Please feel free to share these videos with fellow teachers, media specialists, parents, students, children.  If you have ideas or suggestions for future videos, I’ll be happy to respond to that. Thanks for what you are doing.

Stay smart, keep safe, and enjoy the moments we are given. In my house in upstate New York, we are hunkered down with two of our three children, Gavin (20) and Maggie (19), along with my midwife-wife, Lisa (no age given). Our oldest, Nick (26), is in his NYC
apartment, working online. We miss him terribly. Each night, we’ve been enjoying lovely family dinners. We’re rotating who cooks and (purportedly) who cleans. In many respects, it’s been a beautiful experience. Trying to hold onto those positive feelings. Not worrying, for now, about all the lost income, the stress about bills, all the money stuff. There will be time to recover from that. For now, we embrace the now.

Here’s a link to my Youtube Channel.

I’ve included a brief description and target age level immediately below each video

 

THIS IS THE FIRST VIDEO I made, and the shortest, and it touches upon a theme I try to emphasize before every student I meet, regardless of age (though the delivery gets more sophisticated at middle schools): “You are unique. You have stories inside you that only you can tell.”

 

I MADE BOOKS WHEN I WAS a little kid. I sold them to my friends and neighbors. My mother saved one and I read it here. Kind of funny, I think. Hopefully this video inspires young people to make their own books. In the case above, I needed help with the words from my oldest brother, Neal. Ages 4-up.

 

FOR FANS OF JIGSAW JONES: Here I talk about what I was like as a kid — more of a spy than a true detective — and how I gave my favorite childhood toy to Jigsaw Jones. I read a scene from THE CASE OF THE BICYCLE BANDIT.

 

FOR GRADES 4-UP, JUST RIGHT FOR MIDDLE SCHOOLERS. THIS VIDEO LESSON centers around a writing tip first offered by Kurt Vonnegut Jr: make awful things happen to your leading characters! I discuss that idea and, to make the point, read two passages from BLOOD MOUNTAIN, my most recent middle-grade adventure novel and a 2019 Junior Library Guild Selection.

 

HERE’S ONE FOR THE YOUNGEST READERS, ages 3-up, where I read from WAKE ME IN SPRING. I also describe the creative process, the thinking, behind the story. And again, as always, I try to turn it back to the reader, to inspire their own creativity moving forward.

 

MY “SCARY TALES” BOOKS are often wildly popular on school visits. Though the books seem to hit that sweet spot of grades 3-5, I’ve met very young readers who are impervious to fear, second graders who love them, and also, by design, readers in uppers grades and middle school who have enjoyed this high-interest, low-reading level stories with the super cool artwork by Iacopo Bruno. For some, their first successful reading experience of a full-length book that is not heavily illustrated. Here I read from the first two chapters of GOODNIGHT, ZOMBIE. 

 

I’LL CONTINUE TO POST MORE VIDEOS — including a full reading of “ZOMBIE” — as time allows. Please, by all means, feel free to share these videos far and wide. Obviously, if I hear positive reports, I’ll be encouraged to do more. Thanks for stopping by.

Thought for Teachers (and Parents!) on a Friday

This meme speaks to a feeling that I experience on school visits every time I make a presentation, or even speak one-on-one with a child. And with that feeling comes an immediate identification with teachers, because I recognize that they must feel it, too, every single day.

As a parent, I’ve experienced it constantly

To the point where it must speak to the essence of what it is to be a teacher, to be a parent.

Scattering seeds to the wind.

On visits, I’ll have 45-50 minutes with, say, a group of 200 students. I’ll joke, tell stories, read something, explain my writing process, show photos of my dog, try to pass along my love of literacy, answer questions, maybe even impart bits of wisdom gained in 34 years as a published author. Then time’s up and they dutifully file out of the big room, shuffling off to what comes next.

And I wonder: Did I connect? Did my words make a difference?

Again, I could be talking about my four-mile walk yesterday with my son, Gavin, age 20. Did he hear me? Did I say anything of value? And also, along with that: What did I learn? Was my heart open?

In the end, we have to keep faith that our efforts have meaning. Yes, many the seeds will not thrive. In busy schools, the days are packed. There’s always the next thing, the next thing, the next thing. A flowing river of next things. But we also know that sometimes, for certain kids, those experiences miraculously do stick. A thought, a feeling, an idea clicks. Maybe not today. Maybe in five years it resonates anew.

And maybe the memory of that experience lingers for a lifetime.

Imagine that.

Imagine making that kind of impact on a life.

It’s what teachers do every single day.

The seed finds fertile soil. The rain comes down, the sun shines warmly. And one day a green sprouts lifts its head, says “I am,” and starts to grow. 

All we can do is keep scattering those seeds, doing what we can, hoping for ears that listen, hearts and minds that are open.

Every time I am invited to a school, I am grateful for that opportunity.

Look for All Welcome Here, by James Preller, illustrated by Mary GrandPre, coming this June.

 

Shades of Meaning: Hey, Teachers, Here’s an Easy Idea for Your Classroom!

I like it when I get to sit in real classrooms. I look around, check out what’s on the walls and in the bins, try to absorb all the details. I don’t often have the chance to do that on school visits. I’m usually in the library or the auditorium or the (dreaded) cafetorium, which smells of old cheese and ammonia, then maybe I’ll duck into a side closet to sign books.

Recently I visited the cozy Richmond Consolidated School in Massachusetts, a visit organized by a force of nature known as Rachel Kanz. Zipping from one spot to the next, we dashed into Rachel’s 6th grade classroom for a pit stop. 

I noticed this on the wall:

 

Are your eyes not what they used to be? I know the feeling. Here, step closer, take a closer look:

“Clever,” I commented. “Shades of meaning. I like it.”

“I got it from Lucy Calkins,” Rachel said, crediting the influential author and founding director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University. “Her idea. I just ran with it.”