Kid Lit Review: Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan



Pam Munoz Ryan has written a lyrical Historical Fiction/Fantasy novel that begins and ends with a fairytale.  Three sisters have been cast out at birth by their monarch father  because only when the eldest progeny is a boy can his family, and not his brother’s, inherit the kingdom.  The midwife spirits each daughter to a witch’s “tumbledown shack,” where they live in servitude with only each other and their music as comfort. The king dies and when the midwife reveals the truth, the girls’ brother and mother goes into the woods and finds them.  Just as they are about to take the now joyous sisters home, the witch erupts in rage and casts a spell on them.  The girls find themselves in a place where “time does not pass” until their spirits “in a woodwind born” must “save a soul from death’s dark door.”

A harmonica with a red “R” threads the characters of Friedrich and his family in Hitler’s Germany, Pennsylvania orphans Mike and Frankie during the Depression in and Ivy, dealing with issues related to World War II, migrant workers and Japanese internment, together.

This book would be a wonderful read aloud with many opportunities to provide historical background information or launch discussions on themes as overcoming adversity or how we make a difference in the lives of others.  It would also appeal to independent readers who enjoy historical fiction or are musically inclined.

Finding pleasure, comfort and resilience through music is a central theme of the book.  The songs that are referenced in the book gives texture to the reading and amplifies the plot.  For example, the song, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” is referenced during a time when characters are worried about their own sons coming home from war, the ebullience and hope in the song played in my mind’s ear, and made me think of how the music of a time is so closely twined to the experiences of a particular time  Music saves many characters in this book, including saving one from “death’s darkest door” and it would be interesting to find out from students how music impacts their lives.

I created a SoundCloud Playlist of songs mentioned in the book here

.  I imagined that if a song was mentioned during a Read Aloud of this book, students may discuss how this particular song relates to the plot or  write a response in their Reading Journal with that music playing in the background.   The book takes place in several distinct settings so enjoyed I created this YouTube playlist of videos related to the various settings  here.  I would play the Trossingen, Germany video without sound but it gave such a visual overview of the town that I included it.  Make sure to check out the videos of the Hohner Harmonica Factory and Albert Hoxie and the Philadelphia Harmonica Band!  Such a treat!

One reason to read Echo this summer is because it’s 585 pages and you probably won’t have time during the school year!  Tthe real reason to read Echo, though,  is because there is so much to savor.  It’s a beautifully crafted lyrical story whose melody stays with you long after the last page has been turned.  Read it so you will be able to read it aloud or recommend it to your students!

Guiding Questions:

  1.  How does a harmonica connect characters and events in Echo?
  2. Who has power in this story?  How do you know?
  3. How do the characters deal with adversity?
  4. What is prejudice?  How does it impact the story?

Writing Challenge:  Craft a short story, poem or play that weaves music throughout.

VR Is Here But Is It Safe for Our Kids?

IMG_0367As an experienced educator with a passion for teaching yg, learning and thoughtful integration of technology into the classroom, I have carefully noted the recent explosion of “Virtual Reality” into our real world.  What is “Virtual Reality?”  Think of those headsets, either the Google Cardboard ones or the higher-end Samsung, which cover a person’s eyes and half of their face.

If you are the person wearing the headset, you may have, in the case of Google Cardboard, loaded your iPhone into a slot within the headset, and held the device up to your eyes.  Before you, the viewer acts as a “stereoscope, a device for viewing a stereoscopic pair of separate images, depicting left-eye and right-eye views of the same scene, as a single three-dimensional image.”  Think of the View Masters of our youth, which use the same underlying technology as the VR viewers.  As you peer in, you may be looking at, say, a video or image of the underwater ocean except, unlike a regular video or image, the experience of viewing is much more immersive.  You feel as if you are actually swimming among the underwater fish and fauna.  This is reinforced by the magic of 360 degree video/images, that if you turn your head to the right, you are able to actually “swim” right, left, up, or down, and view the entire ocean panoramically.

Cool, huh?

Yes, it is cool but is it safe for our children?  Through my personal explorations this summer of the educational applications of this technology, I was extremely happy to see that these VR images don’t require a headset to view.  They can be viewed without a headset on a SmartBoard, iPad or a laptop and navigated by touch or arrows.  Viewing the VR images this way retains much of the benefits with none of the drawbacks that I encountered when using the free VR NY times viewer that came with my newspaper subscription, namely a feeling of light eye strain and a slight dizziness.

This made me think about the suitability for these viewers in the classroom.  Some quick research greatly surprised me as none of the headset manufacturer’s recommend use of the headsets by children under age thirteen except Google Cardboard, which recommends, “adult supervision” and “frequent breaks.”  My recommendation would be that school districts set guidelines for the use of these headsets in their classrooms, along with obtaining parental consent before student use, especially for children under age 13.

The local news was agog over the new “Pokemon Go” phone app, which operates as an augmented reality scavenger hunt where fictional creatures are caught by walking through and throwing “poke balls” from your screen when the creatures pop up virtually as you walk through your real world.  The 6 o’clock news was covered with stories of players, from pre-school to mid-thirties, head down as they walked around parks, museums and through the streets, trying to catch the creatures with their eyes glued to their phones.  While local news trumpeted this app as a way to get kids out of the house and moving, the level of player distraction seems to pose some safety issues.  It is important to look away from any digital screen in order to minimize eye strain.  What steps are being taken to keep our children safe and healthy with these new VR apps?

Virtual reality is here in the hands of some of our children right now and will be moving into more of our classrooms.  There are many benefits with  virtual reality from increasing student engagement, building content knowledge and expanding empathy by experiencing other’s worlds.  Let’s capitalize on these benefits but exercise due diligence on the health and safety drawbacks and set some common-sense recommendations for our homes, classrooms and communities.  Looking forward to the conversation…




Thinglink Summer VR Challenge: Week One

IMG_0653I am really enjoying being a part of the Thinglink Summer Challenge.  In addition to creating “My Digital Self,”  Susan Oxnevad, the leader of the Thinglink Summer Challenge, asked us to explore the VR editor this week and create some tags for a panoramic picture.  Here’s my first Thinglink-tagged 360 VR panorama.  What do you think?

I was lucky enough to spend two days in Ogunquit, Maine, so wanting to try out some real-world applications,  I thought I would try to make a “travel-rama.”

Here’s how to make one:

1.Take a 360 photo  using the 360Panorama app and send to your camera roll. Then, Import as Video using the VR editor.

2. Record ambient audio in your vacation spot using Garageband. Import into iTunes as an MP3 file. Then, upload the audio into your Thinglink project.

3. Make a photo slideshow using Animoto. Copy the embed code.  Then, create an embed tag in your Thinglink project.

4. Add an image to your Thinglink project and in the “add some description” section, add a journal entry describing your vacation.

I could imagine students using an app smash of Thinglink, 360 panoramas, Garageband and Animoto with photos and research entries to create research-oramas.

Here’s my first “travel-rama”! What do you think?  Is this a worthwhile application of these tools?  What are some practical applications for your classroom, do you think?



Thinglink Summer VR Challenge

Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 5.53.53 PM.pngI am so excited about participating in the Thinglink Summer VR Challenge!  Thinglink is a tool to add content to digital images or videos.

Every week, the technologically talented Susan Oxnevad will post a challenge.  This week’s challenge is “Design Your Digital Self” which helped me learn how to add links and customize buttons.Design Your Digital Self: Week One Challenge.

I can envision students and teachers using Thinglink after reading a book. Students could  create a digital avatar of a character and create “thinglinks” to show the setting, theme, plot , etc. using some of the “rich media tags as resources or creation tools. Teachers can use the digital image of a book the class/ individual has read and link a book quiz using Google Docs!

PD Book Review: Who’s Doing the Work?

Who's Doing the Work

The latest book by Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris is a clarion call to all reading teachers and administrators to rethink reading instruction.  Over the last few years, there has been an emphasis on leveling readers and books in the classroom and a growing reliance on basal reading series as the cornerstone of reading instruction in a growing number of classrooms.

“I’m an N,”  is a comment that I heard  more than one student make (referring to the fact that their reading level was judged to be at the beginning of third grade) as I pushed into classrooms for the first time this year and used a newly mandated reading program, after many years using a literature-based approach to reading intervention.

This carefully crafted book starts with an overview of the reading process and highlights the need for a smooth interaction between print and meaning strategies in reading.  It underscores the fact that our end goal is to create readers that successfully integrate print and meaning strategies independently.  The book elegantly demonstrates how the essential and equally valued teaching structures of read aloud, shared reading, guided reading and independent reading need to be considered as a whole, with information gleaned from students informing all of the overall framework of instruction.  It also asserts and supports the essential need for read aloud in the classroom, for more thoughtful (and less) teacher talk and greater focus on understanding the reading process.

So much truth, here, in this book, and so much beauty in the ideas presented that underscore that our students can do more then we’ve been asking them to do and perhaps our unbridled concern at covering content has come at the expense of our teaching.  After reading the book, I am more mindful of what I am saying to students and how much I am saying.  One of the prompts that I would regularly use with students after they made a miscue would be, “Does that sound right?”  After reading the book, I will now simply say, “Read that again.”  The difference is that the latter prompt puts the responsibility on the student to reread and to identify and correct the miscue.

If you are looking for a summer read that will make you rethink your reading framework, ponder your use of levels in the classroom or refine the amount and type of teacher talk during reading instruction, you need to put this book in your summer pile.

Favorite Quote:  “In next generation guided reading, it is critically important to allow students to puzzle through their struggles and make decisions about how to solve problems without prompting, or confirmation, from the teacher-neither of which will be available when they read independently.”  (Burkins & Yaris, p.90)

Here’s links to the book at Stenhouse: Who’s Doing the Work: How To Say Less So Readers Can Do More, a Facebook group that is discussing the book this summer, and a list of fantastic teaching prompts that was started on Facebook and that I added to and organized as I was reading.