Reading Magic – Mem Fox

en español

Reading Magic - Fox 2008

I recall attending a workshop on multicultural children’s literature. The presenters had a table displaying a large number of books. I instantly recognized a couple of them from a distance, but it wasn’t until I got closer that I realized that every single book was depicting African Americans in the illustrations. I recall wondering at the outset of the workshop why they were depicting only one culture in a workshop about multiculturalism.

Mem Fox indicates that “The more we read aloud to our kids and the more they read by themselves, the more experience they’ll have of the world through the things they encounter in books. And the more experience they have of the world, the easier it will be to read” (2008, p. 104). If we are only exposing children to books of their own culture, how are we going to help children to get that greater experience of the world?

The workshop presenters teach in a classroom with all African American children. They discussed the metaphor of books as both a mirror and a window, allowing children to see themselves as well as to open their eyes to new experiences. They presented these two images as side-by-side, with one graphic showing a full-length mirror and the other graphic showing an open window. As I considered this, I wondered if it might be more appropriate to consider books as a closed window, where one can see one’s own reflection in the glass imposed on a new landscape.

The challenge of finding appropriate multicultural books, then, is one of finding books which both speak to the experiences of a child while at the same time introducing them to new worlds they have not yet seen. A closer examination of the books in the workshop revealed that they all accomplished this. Fox states, “Entertainment is the teacher. Subtlety is the key” (2008, p. 53). Though the themes represented a wide variety of subtle concepts, they were all entertaining to the presenters’ students partly because they all depicted characters that the students could connect with.

This is where I have a dilemma. While books depicting African American characters are not as common as those depicting white characters, it has become possible to find a significant number of them. But in my classroom, the majority of my students are Vietnamese. Very few books depict the experiences of a Vietnamese child growing up in the United States in a way that allows children to connect with them. On top of the cultural disconnect, there is also the issue of language.

Having books in the languages that children speak are immensely valuable as well, not only for the ability of children to connect to the text, but also for children to build a foundation of understanding of the written word. As Fox reveals, “The more we know about a language… and the more of that language we know, the easier it is to read it” (2008, p. 87). Books that are not only bilingual but also bicultural are very valuable, but also very rare. I have in my classroom books that were written in English, and later translated into another language due to the popularity of the book. Much fewer are the books originally written in both languages by authors who represent the cultures. Most of the books that I have in my personal children’s library that meet these conditions tend to be very text-heavy and written for older children.

Fox tells us that “if every parent—and every adult caring for a child—read aloud a minimum of three stories a day to the children in their lives, we could probably wipe out illiteracy within one generation” (2008, p. 12). But this entails there being books available to read to the children. Not just three token books, but three genuinely engaging books because “It will do more for a child’s literacy to own one much-loved, beautifully written, trouble-filled book than to own lots of tacky, unappealing books in which the child shows no interest” (2008, p. 135).

My challenge, then, as a teacher, is locating such books. Given the scarcity of these books, I decided that I needed to remedy this. I approached a Vietnamese friend of mine with a proposal to create a children’s book together. With his expertise in Vietnamese culture and my understanding of what is appealing to children, we have drafted a book together that my students could connect with. But then we were faced with the problem of illustrations. Neither of us is very skilled at drawing.

This presented a major dilemma, as Fox reveals that “The pictures tell a thousand words and help unlock the action of the story” (2008, p. 58). I know that many publishers provide beginning authors with established illustrators to help increase the visibility of the book, but I worried about the lack of Vietnamese illustrators. How would someone unfamiliar with the culture depict a Vietnamese household? And what would we do if we are not able to find a publisher?

With the help of another one of my Vietnamese friends, I located a couple of artists in Vietnam who seemed interested in the project, but they quickly removed themselves from the project when they realized the intensity of work involved in illustrating an entire picture book. I decided to take my cue from one of my favorite children’s authors, Nina Crews, and utilize photographs to depict the backgrounds. At the time of this post I have currently completed illustrations on about 15% of the book using computer-generated character illustrations imposed on photographic backgrounds.

The text has already been translated into Vietnamese by my co-author, and I once asked the mother of one of my Vietnamese students, Danny, to read it to him. As she began to look at the text, she started to tell me that it would be too difficult for him. I found that interesting because the very same text had raised concerns from my co-author about possibly being too simple. As Danny’s mother began reading, I saw the excitement of recognition in his eyes as she read words to him that were unintelligible to me, but occasionally elicited excited exclamations from him in English that demonstrated understanding of the story. Fox tells us, “there’s no doubt that little kids—and big ones—love being read aloud to” (2008, p. 26). If this story, unillustrated, can provoke such enjoyment in Danny, I can only imagine what his response will be when the illustrations are added.

I have mentioned in a previous post my attempts at reading to the children in Vietnamese. Without my understanding of the language, my attempts met with humorous excitement from the students, but I am now fairly certain that they were just humoring me when they told me my pronunciation was right. Even if I was pronouncing it accurately, Fox makes it clear that “Reading isn’t merely being able to pronounce the words correctly, a fact that surprises most people. Reading is being able to make sense from the marks on the page” (2008, p. 79).

I have taken multiple steps to help remedy this. On one account, I recently began learning Vietnamese after assisting my co-author in developing a free online course for Vietnamese speakers to learn English. My fieldwork getting translations in various dialects helped build my awareness of resources available in my neighborhood to learn Vietnamese. But not all of my students speak Vietnamese, and after Micah, an Amharic-speaking student, raised his objections to my offering to read a book in either Spanish, English, or Vietnamese, I invited his mother to come read the book to the class in Amharic. Ever since then, our weekly trip to the library has usually been accompanied by a different parent come to read to the children. At times other children in the library have sat down to listen to the reading as well.

It’s wonderful to see such engagement from the children in the reading process. As Fox makes clear, “if we’re able to raise happier, brighter children by reading aloud to them, the well-being of the entire country will ramp up a notch” (2008, p. xii).

Next month I will most likely be discussing the book Learning and Not Learning English by Guadalupe Valdés (2001). If you have a book that you would like to see me discuss in this blog please comment on the Recommended Reading page.



Fox, M. (2008). Reading magic: Why reading aloud to our children will change their lives forever, updated and revised edition. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Publishing.

Valdés, G. (2001). Learning and not learning English: Latino students in American schools. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Pensamiento y Lenguaje – L.S. Vygotsky

(in English)

Pensamiento y Lenguaje - Vygotsky 2012Llegué en un templo para celebrar el Año Nuevo Lunar.  Había estado allí por unos pocos momentos antes de una de mis estudiantes corrió hacia mí y me dio un gran abrazo.  Todas las personas en el templo hablaban vietnamita, pero, sin mi estudiante, no los podía entender.  Vygotsky dice que, “La función primaria del lenguaje es la comunicación, el intercambio social” (2012, p. 21).  En este ambiente no puedo participar en tal intercambio social.  ¿Cómo debería sentir mis estudiantes en mi aula cuándo no hablan inglés?

Es por esta razón que también utilizo los idiomas de mis estudiantes en mi aula.  Los estudiantes que hablan vietnamita me enseñan palabras del idioma, el cuál es hablado por la mayoría de mis estudiantes.  Cantamos algunas canciones en vietnamita, y utilizo las pocas palabras que sé cuándo puedo.  Como Vygotsky expone, “El éxito en el aprendizaje de una lengua extranjera es contingente de un cierto grado de madurez en la nativa” (2012, p. 131).  En esta situación, por mis estudiantes, la “lengua extranjera,” no es extranjera, pero tampoco es la nativa, aunque tiene similitudes con ambas.

Lo importante es que está siendo utilizado como medio de comunicación.  Vygotsky declara, “la función prmaria de las palabras, tanto en los niños como en los adultos, es la comunicación, el contact social” (2012, p. 35).  Y en mi aula la comunicación es muy importante.  Una actividad más importante es la dramatización de los cuentos que habían sido dictadas por mis estudiantes.  Aunque todos de mis estudiantes hablan otras idiomas en sus casas, en mi aula prefieren contar sus cuentos en inglés, porque inglés es la idioma común en mi aula.  Y entonces, a veces pueden contar cuentos juntos.  El siguiente cuento se dictó por dos estudiantes, Nhung, quién es vietnamita, y Maxine, quién es china:

Once upon a time there was a monkey go in the princess house. Because the princess fall down, the baby cry and Mommy helpeded the baby. And then ’cause the window fall on the people. Danny eat food with his Mommy. And then the baby cried.

[Érase una vez había un mono ir en la casa princesa.  Porque la princesa se caer, el bebé llorar y Mamá ayudodado al bebé.  Y entonces porque la ventana caer en la gente.  Danny comer comida con su Mamá.  Y entonces el bebé lloró.]

El cuento contiene errores, pero es comunicativo.  En esta historia las estudiantes están explorando los conceptos de peligro y de ayudar.  ¿Qué es el significado de caer?  ¿Cómo afecta a la gente?  El bebé lloró cuando la princesa se cayó, entonces la madre ayudó al bebé, pero no a la princesa.  Y cuando la ventana se cayó sobre la gente, el bebé lloró otra vez, pero Danny y su madre comieron, inconscientes de la ventana.  El bebé fue la personaje más importante del cuento, y las palabras las ayudan describir esto.

Y también las niñas descubrieron que las palabras escritas son diferentes de las palabras orales.  Vygotsky manifesta que, “En el lenguaje escrito, como el tono de la voz y el conocimiento del tema están excluidos, nos vemos obligados a usar muchas más palabras y de modo más exacto” (2012, p. 166).  ¿Por qué el bebé lloró?  Porque la princesa se cayó y entonces la ventana cayó sobre la gente.

Y estas dos estudiantes de culturas diferentes encontraron algo común en esta tema.  En ambas culturas, los bebés lloran y las madres los ayudan.  Para Nhung, también pudo traducir la palabra “baby” (bebé) en vietnamita.  Maxine no pudo traducir la palabra en el momento, pero después vendría a disfrutar de traducir palabras al chino.  Y hacía.

Y las palabras son muy importantes.  Vygotsky nos dice, “el uso de la palabra es una parte integral del proceso de desarrollo, que mantiene su función directriz en la formación de los conceptos genuinos, a los que conducen estos procesos” (2012, p. 101).  Porque palabras son tan importante para el desarrollo, es importante que los niños las encuentran frequentamente en su idioma nativo.  Tengo libros en todos los idiomas de mis estudiantes.

Éste será la tema del próximo mes, donde hablaré del libro Reading Magic por Mem Fox.  Si hay un libro que le gustaría que yo discutirse en este blog, por favor comente en la página de Recommended Reading.


Fox, M. (2008). Reading magic: Why reading aloud to our children will change their lives forever, updated and revised edition. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Publishing.

Vygotsky, L.S. (2012 [1934]). Pensamiento y lenguaje (J. Itzigsohn, Tran. & Ed.). Mexico City, Mexico: Ediciones Quinto Sol.

Teaching in 2 Languages: A Guide for K-12 Bilingual Educators – Reyes & Kleyn

(en español)


Teaching in 2 Languages - Reyes, Kleyn 2010Since I first began teaching more than seven years ago, I have had students who have spoken more than a dozen languages.  My students over the years have spoken Amharic, Arabic, Cantonese, English, French, Hebrew, Hindi, Korean, Mandarin, Polish, Punjabi, Spanish, Tagalog, Urdu, and Vietnamese.   According to Sharon Adelman Reyes and Tatyana Kleyn, “All teachers can and must find ways to show students that their languages and cultures are not just valuable tools for learners, but valuable parts of who they are” (2010, p. 39).  I have always valued the diversity of my students and sought to learn bits of their languages while they were in my care, and in more recent years have encouraged my students to do the same.  By demonstrating an interest in their language, I am also demonstrating that it has value and helping to curb the attitudes such as those found by Josie Freeman and Rebeca Madrigal in which “Not all of the families believe that learning their native language is an asset to their academic and personal growth” (2010, p. 124).

Because of my investment in connecting with my students and learning the languages spoken in my classroom, I am generally able to find parents willing to mentor me in their language.  But one year is not enough time for me to become fluent in a language from these few bits and pieces picked up from students and their families before they move on to another classroom.  Greater depth is needed and, while my community may predominantly use one culture or another, it is always but a pocket within an English-speaking world and my encounters with my mentor parents are too sporadic to be effective.  The act still held value in that “When we consider carefully what families bring, by conducting home visits or even just by asking questions, we find that parents can contribute to a wide range of content areas by sharing their real-world experiences” (2010, p. 146), but for my personal path as a language learner it was not enough.  I used to speak Spanish fairly well in early childhood, but even that language has eluded me through these basic interactions.  As Reyes and Kleyn reveal, “when there are aspects that differ from one language to the next, explicit instruction becomes necessary” (2010, p. 98).

However, language instruction programs usually require either attending classes (which can be complicated to work into a schedule that already includes both college and teaching), or paying a great deal of money for programs like Rosetta Stone.  However, just over four months ago I discovered a free program called Duolingo.  It was created only about a year before I found it, and its educational model uses translation of sentences to teach the language.  As you become more advanced you are encouraged to help translate articles from the internet (regular readers may have noticed over the past several months that I have been adding comments to my older posts which read “Thanks to the assistance of the Duolingo language community, this post is now available in Spanish / Gracias a la comunidad lingüística Duolingo, este publicación está ahora disponible en español”).

I was skeptical of the instructional model in the beginning.  After all, based on my knowledge of language instruction I feared that translation-only instruction was not an effective pedagogical method.  Elizabeth Silva indicates that it is also important to “incorporate links to prior knowledge, preview unfamiliar vocabulary, and provide visuals” (2010, p. 129).  However, as I was making a dedicated effort to learn the language, and I didn’t limit myself to Duolingo’s pedagogical strategies, I found it to be quite an effective primary learning tool.  I continued to follow my usual course of trying to learn all the languages of my students, including Spanish, by talking to them and their families.  I would also occasionally call up my Chilean relatives, play games like Scrabble in Spanish, and engage in online conversations in Spanish with other Duolingo users.  I found that as time went on I was able to communicate more and more effectively with my Spanish speaking students and their families.

I vividly remember the moment one of my students came up to me out of the blue and asked me, “¿Qué estás haciendo?” to which I replied, without even realizing the student had spoken in Spanish, “I’m putting away the food.”  We both laughed when we realized what had just happened.  Not only does this moment reflect a defining point of progress in my own development, it also represents one in that student’s as well.  When I first met this student they had attempted to deny that they spoke anything other than English.  Since that time the student has not only acknowledged that they speak Spanish, but even gotten to the point of code switching in the classroom.  Reyes and Kleyn reveal that “The extent to which a person actively alternates between cultures determines the ease with which competency in both cultures will be maintained” (2010, p. 33).

In addition to the language learning strategies I have already mentioned using to help me learn Spanish, I have also taken to reading to myself in Spanish.  At first it was a few books from my collection of children’s books, but the vocabulary in those books was rather limited.  While I realize that, as Reyes and Kleyn reveal, “learning vocabulary, unlike learning the phonological or morphological system of a language, is a never-ending process” (2010, p. 76), I wanted to do as much as I could to facilitate my vocabulary growth as I reached the more advanced stages of the structural knowledge I gained from Duolingo, so at a certain point I made a decision that I would find something with more advanced language that would also captivate my interest.  After asking a few bilingual teachers and getting suggestions that only partially appealed to my interest, I discovered that a book written in Russian and translated twice into English, and one that was the topic of the post that launched this blog, was available in Spanish as well.

As I read Vygotsky’s Pensamiento y Lenguaje (2012) in the classroom during our independent reading time, many children have taken to looking at it as well.  The idea that “children need to read to learn and not only learn to read” (2010, p. 69) is reinforced when the children see me reading an informational text and they decide to pick it up themselves, not because it has exciting pictures as the other books in the classroom do (which it does not), but because reading is an inherently noteworthy act.

It is my hope that, after taking a trip to Mexico to solidify my conversational skills this summer, I will obtain my bilingual endorsement and begin truly learning yet another language spoken by my students.  Duolingo has helped me to see that it is possible to learn a complete language rather than just a few simple words and phrases that are useful in the classroom.  Seeing how much I have learned from Duolingo in Spanish, I am constantly in search of bilingual people to help Duolingo develop courses for some of the other languages spoken by my students.  Currently it only offers courses in four of the fifteen languages mentioned at the beginning of this post, with bilinguals currently contributing to two others.  That leaves another nine languages with no foreseeable means to learn them in the same manner as I have now learned Spanish, but perhaps by the time I have learned those six languages the other nine will either be available or I will have discovered another free pedagogical source as effective as Duolingo.

In the meantime, I will continue reading and learning in Spanish.  I hope to have finished reading Pensamiento y Lenguaje in time to make it the topic of my one year anniversary blog post next month, which I hope to write in Spanish as well.  If you have other books you would like to see me discuss in the future, please comment on the Recommended Reading page.


Reyes, S.A. & T. Kleyn. (2010). Teaching in 2 languages: A guide for K-12 bilingual educators. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Vygotsky, L.S. (2012 [1934]). Pensamiento y lenguaje (J. Itzigsohn, Ed. & Tran.). Tlaxpana, México: Ediciones Quinto Sol.

Nature Education with Young Children: Integrating Inquiry and Practice – Meier & Sisk-Hilton

(en español)

Nature Education with Young Children - Meier, Sisk-Hilton 2013We are taking our weekly walk to the library, when Jason, typically a very rambunctious 4-year-old child, suddenly halts in his tracks.  As I’m holding his hand, I stop as well and glance at him quizzically.  He points up at the branches of a tree next to a garage.  He whispers, “Mr. Jeff, a squirrel.”  The whole class pauses and watches in silence as the squirrel hurries along a branch of the tree, jumps toward another tree, and misses, falling to the sidewalk.  Whispered exclamations of “Oh no!” can be heard, along with sighs of relief as the squirrel picks itself up, runs to another tree, scampers up, and successfully leaps to the roof of a house.  Upon arriving at the library, the children are anxious to tell the librarian what they saw.

Anna Golden points out that “It doesn’t take very much wild space to capture the interest of young children” (Golden 2013, p. 124).  We see in this example a group of Pre-K students managing to find the bits of nature that exist on a neighborhood city street, and becoming enraptured by it.  As with the preschool attended by Stephanie Sisk-Hilton’s daughter, “The elevated train tracks and commuter parking lot are more noticeable than anything one might call ‘nature.’  And yet the toddlers and preschoolers who attend this school are deeply connected with the natural world” (Sisk-Hilton 2013, p. 13).

But such spontaneous connection to the wonders of nature can easily fade away in a word full of touchscreens and mobile electronic devices.  As Gita Jayewardene puts it, “young children’s biological attraction to nature diminishes very quickly if significant people in children’s lives do not nurture it” (Jayewardene 2013, p. 100).  Our own squirrel encounter came just a week after having observed a squirrel burying nuts in the park, as I guided them to remaining silent and moving slowly so as not to scare the squirrel off.  The children then began taking notice of the sounds made by squirrels in the treetops, and how the squirrels began making screeches that sounded like desperate calls for help as the autumn weather continually dropped.

Daniel Meier reveals that, “inquiry has the wonderful potential to happen all the time, popping up here and there across the totality of nature teaching” (Meier 2013, p. 32).  As a teacher I nurtured this spirit of inquiry among the students.  Every time the children would pause to note the squirrel behavior, I found myself pausing along with the children to make the discovery alongside them.  At times I would extend the children’s curiosity and pose it as a question to the class as a whole, but often it was enough to simply acknowledge that the question existed, and the children would take the initiative to explore it on their own.  As Meier & Sisk-Hilton state, this is “what really matters in nature education—calling on children’s powers of attention and focus, of wonderment and joy, analysis and reflection, individual exploration and collaborative discovery, and sifting and sorting of information, data, and concepts over time” (Meier & Sisk-Hilton 2013, p. 2).

Following these series of squirrel encounters, we decided to use the sand table to build off of the idea that squirrels bury nuts for the winter.  The original plan was to bury different kinds of nuts, but there was concern about minute nut particles mixing into the sand and causing problems for any future students that may have nut allergies.  However, as Jean Mendoza and Lillian Katz make clear, “There are reasons to be cautious with nature, but fear need not overwhelm understanding and enjoyment” (Mendoza & Katz 2013, p. 168).

With this in mind we altered our plan to use nuts and instead added sunflower seeds to our sand table, remembering the squirrels we had seen stealing sunflower seeds from birdfeeders over the summer.  The children enjoyed pretending to be squirrels and burying the seeds, using the containers that the seeds came in to scoop them up and fill with sand, then dump them out over the seeds or mixed along with the seeds..  As Mabel Young observed, the children “could hone their investigative skills in any indoor or outdoor environment” (Young 2013, p. 78).  When sieves and funnels were added to the sensory table the children explored how to use these new tools to uncover the buried seeds and sort them from the sand.

Brian initially tried picking the seeds out one by one, but Jason was content just filling and dumping the sand/seed mixture.  When he did this into one of the sieves, Maxine excitedly noticed the sand falling out of the bottom.  Maxine and Jason then took the lead in organizing the children at the sensory table to use cups, seed containers, and funnels to transfer the seeds to the sieves, which were then carried to another table where the sorted seeds were dumped out.   Mendoza & Katz reveal that “children become motivated to master basic academic skills, e.g. beginning literacy and numeracy skills, in the service of their intellectual pursuits” (Mendoza & Katz 2013, p. 156), and for my students their fascination with squirrels drove them to master the cognitive skills related to understanding cause-and-effect relationships as well as the mathematical skill of sorting, and nutrition concepts as we later washed, shelled, and cooked the seeds to make sunbutter.

Had the seeds in the sand table activity been introduced devoid of our nature experiences, I can only wonder whether the children would have wanted to “play squirrel” and bury those seeds, or what meaning it would have had for them if they did.  Darcy Campbell and Shawna Thompson state that “The most powerful forms of learning in and about nature are not those in which the learner passively receives a multitude of facts.  Rather, they involve direct contact and connections, in which the learner becomes the protagonist of a story” (Campbell & Thompson 2013, p. 108).  The direct contact with the small animals within our community allowed the children to become motivated to enter into the world of squirrels themselves through their classroom play.

It also gave them a sense of connection with life in general that can be very valuable.  The week after we saw the squirrel with the missed jump Jason discovered a dead bird lying in the grass.  The children gathered around to inspect it further and discovered that the bird had no head.  Jessica suggested that we pick it up and take it to a veterinarian.  While on the one hand I didn’t want to risk exposing the children or myself to any diseases that might be present in the bird’s blood, on the other hand I felt the same obligation that Jayewardene describes when she states that “we should encourage our young students to respect all living things and be compassionate towards them” (Jayewardene 2013, p. 90).  I convinced the children to let me call somebody to get it instead.  The children got excited about the idea of me calling a “bird ambulance,” and listened anxiously to my end of the phone conversation with the city.  Unfortunately, we had to leave before they arrived.

Our experiences with small animals demonstrate that nature can come in all sizes.  While I agree with Golden in that “Ungroomed, wild spaces in particular hold mysteries just waiting for a child to come along to discover” (Golden 2013, pp. 135-136), such mysteries can still come in wild places that have a small degree of grooming as well, as long as teachers do not restrict children’s exploration of the bits of wild that may remain within their urban environments.  In the words of Marty Gravett, “children have an intuitive sense in experiencing nature, a natural approach to the wild that will reveal their understandings if we adults can listen deeply” (Gravett 2013, p. 139).

If there is a book you would like to see me discuss in this blog, please comment on the Recommended  Reading page.  Next month I will most likely be discussing the book Teaching in 2 Languages by Sharon A. Reyes & Tatyana Kleyn (2010).


Campbell, D. & S. Thompson. (2013). Naturally speaking: Parents, children, teachers in dialogue with nature. In D.R. Meier & S. Sisk-Hilton (Eds.) Nature education with young children: Integrating inquiry and practice (pp. 105-122). New York: Routledge.

Golden, A. (2013). Preschool children explore the forest: The power of wild spaces in childhood. In D.R. Meier & S. Sisk-Hilton (Eds.) Nature education with young children: Integrating inquiry and practice (pp. 123-136). New York: Routledge.

Gravett, M. (2013). Putting the forest on the map: Using documentation to further natural inquiry. In D.R. Meier & S. Sisk-Hilton (Eds.) Nature education with young children: Integrating inquiry and practice (pp. 137-152).

Jayewardene, G. (2013). Overcoming our fears: Embarking on a nature journey. In D.R. Meier & S. Sisk-Hilton (Eds.) Nature education with young children: Integrating inquiry and practice (pp. 83-101). New York: Routledge.

Meier, D.R. (2013). Nature education and teacher inquiry. In D.R. Meier & S. Sisk-Hilton (Eds.) Nature education with young children: Integrating inquiry and practice (pp.26-45). New York: Routledge.

Meier, D.R. & S. Sisk-Hilton. (2013). Nature education with young children: Integrating inquiry and practice. New York: Routledge.

Mendoza, J.A. & L.G. Katz. (2013). Nature education and the project approach. In D.R. Meier & S. Sisk-Hilton (Eds.) Nature education with young children: Integrating inquiry and practice (pp. 153-171).

Reyes, A.R. & T. Kleyn. (2010). Teaching in 2 languages: A guide for K-12 bilingual educators. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Sisk-Hilton, S. (2013). Science, nature, and inquiry-based learning in early childhood. In D.R. Meier & S. Sisk-Hilton (Eds.) Nature education with young children: Integrating inquiry and practice (pp. 9-25). New York: Routledge.

Young, M. (2013). Promoting nature study for toddlers. In D.R. Meier & S. Sisk-Hilton (Eds.) Nature education with young children: Integrating inquiry and practice (pp. 63-82). New York: Routledge.

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature – Steven Pinker

(en español)

The Blank Slate - Pinker 2002 I have recently engaged in several conversations with people from outside of the field of early childhood education in which the conversations turned to the topic of nurturing.  These conversations have caused me to stop and think.  What does it mean to be a nurturing teacher?  How does that differ from the role of a nurturing parent?  How does my maleness impact both my ability to be nurturing as well as society’s interpretation of the nurturing role that I play?  What forms of nurture occur outside of the family and instructional environment to impact children’s growth and development?

A Nurturing Family

In his book, The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker argues that there may be no impact of nurture whatsoever on a person’s personality development.  He suggests that “the nongenetic component of personality is the outcome of neurodevelopmental roulette” (2002, p. 397) and that personality is shaped largely by random chance and not by any environmental factors.  While the idea that environment has no impact on personality may seem a bit extreme, Pinker makes the point that we need to view children not as “lumps of putty to be shaped,” but instead as “partners in a human relationship” (2002, p. 399).

Does this mean that we should not nurture our children?  Of course not.  Pinker suggests that a nurturing parental role is an essential part of this human partnership.  As a teacher, I see my students as my family, my children.  I see the children’s parents as extensions of my own personal family.  This bond is so strong that I am still in touch with the families of students even from my first year of teaching, now nearly seven years ago.

Pinker warns that “Family love indeed subverts the ideal of what we should feel for every soul in the world” (2002, p. 245) because “the balancing of competing interests that governs all human interactions does not end at the door of the family home” (2002, p. 251).  But he also suggests that, as with my extension of my students as part of my family, human beings in general have this capacity to widen their circle of definition for family, and that this capacity can ultimately serve a globally unifying purpose.

According to Pinker, “The observation that people may be morally indifferent to other people who are outside a mental circle immediately suggests an opening for the effort to reduce violence: understand the psychology of the circle well enough to encourage people to put all of humanity inside it” (2002, p. 320).  In answer to the question of what it means to be nurturing, I see it as having the emotional sensitivity to widen that circle and provide care for others as though they were family.

The Male Nurturer

With this definition of nurturing in mind, it should come as no surprise that human males have nurturing capabilities, particularly when Pinker points out that “the male of Homo sapiens differs from the male of most other mammals in a crucial way: men invest in their offspring rather than leaving all the investing to the female” (2002, p. 252).  In other words, one of the characteristics of our uniquely human nature is the nurturing capacity of our males.  This would seem to run counter to many of the ways men are encouraged to view themselves.

If asked to list the characteristics of masculinity, most people would probably be unlikely to include ‘nurturing’ on that list, whereas it would likely be one of the first characteristics of femininity.  In fact, if the two lists were to be put in a Venn diagram, the overlapping section would likely have little, if anything, written in it.  The reality, as Pinker points out is actually strikingly different.  “Men and women have all the same genes except for a handful on the Y chromosome, and their brains are so similar that it takes an eagle-eyed neuroanatomist to find the small differences between them” (2002, p. 344).

So why, then, is there a fear of men in nurturing fields?  I have repeatedly been advised to be wary of physical contact with children.  Sometimes it has come in the form of cautionary warnings, and other times it has come in the form of direct mandates not to allow the children to sit in my lap or not to change diapers or assist at potty-time.  It always comes from a benevolent place where they are providing me these cautions “for your own protection,” but I can’t help but wonder what message it sends to the children when the men who care for them are not engaging in a number of inherently nurturing acts that are regularly engaged in by women in the same position.  If people are trained from childhood to view gender roles in this manner, the discriminatory values will be passed on to the next generation.

While I disagree with Pinker on a number of his interpretations of contemporary cognitive theory, there is one point he makes that I absolutely agree with him on.  “One ought not to assume that the default human being is a man and that children are an indulgence or an accident that strikes a deviant subset” (2002, p. 358).  When we delegate nurturing roles solely to females, particularly in a society that, by and large, does not place value in those roles, we are creating a division that promotes discrimination and subjugation.

Next month I will be discussing the book Nature Education with Young Children, edited by Daniel R. Meier and Stephanie Sisk-Hilton.  If you have a book that you would like to see me discuss in this blog please comment on the Recommended Reading page.


Meier, D.R. & S. Sisk-Hilton. (2013). Nature education with young children: Integrating inquiry and practice. New York, NY: Routledge.

Pinker, S. (2002). The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Making Content Comprehensible for English Language Learners: The SIOP Model – Echevarría, Vogt, & Short

(en español)

Making Content Comprehensible for English Language Learners - EJust over a quarter century ago, I was attending a grade school which specialized in language instruction.  My sister was in the French track and I was in the Spanish track.  My parents both spoke Spanish, but when I was in third grade my family moved to a different neighborhood, necessitating my transfer to a different school the following school year.  My new neighborhood was predominantly Puerto Rican, and I remember being excited at the start of fourth grade when I had learned that the new school offered ‘bilingual’ instruction.

But the term was a misnomer.  It was unidirectional language instruction for only native Spanish-speaking students learning English.  Native English-speaking students with some Spanish background like myself were excluded from these classes, and my classmates in the non-‘bilingual’ classes did not speak Spanish in the classroom or in the social settings in which I interacted with them.  As a result, my Spanish proficiency suffered.  Jana Echevarría, MaryEllen Vogt, and Deborah J. Short reveal that “students have a greater chance of mastering content concepts and skills when they are given multiple opportunities to practice in relevant, meaningful ways” (2013, p. 175).  My second elementary school denied me such opportunities, and I am now trying desperately to regain the language that I lost so many years ago.

As a teacher I always make an effort to learn some degree of the languages of the students in my classrooms.  While I do not do so with the expectation of attaining fluency before the children leave my care, I feel it is important for my students to have exposure to languages beyond English, and the more I can do to help facilitate children learning the languages of their peers the better.   As Echevarría et. al. point out, “When we know students’ backgrounds and abilities in their native language, we can incorporate effective techniques and materials in our instructional practices” (2013, p. 4).

Of course, as an early childhood educator, I have students that may not have complete mastery over their native language either.  Certain academic terms, such as the days of the week, are still difficult even for native English speakers in my classroom, due to the nature of the concepts to which they refer.  These are some of the items that I focus on learning in the children’s home languages.  As Echevarría et. al. suggest, “if we can give them the gist of what they will be learning in English beforehand through their native language, we can then build on that (new) prior knowledge, and, with careful lesson planning, advance their language skills and strengthen that content knowledge” (2013, p. 47).

Such efforts to learn the students’ home languages have added benefits beyond merely the instructional purposes in the classroom.  Echevarría et. al. point out that “teaching from a culturally responsive perspective is especially important” (2013, p. 66).  By learning some basic elements of students’ home languages I am able to take limited steps toward crossing some of those cultural barriers, and the students’ families certainly take notice, as can be seen in the following reflection I wrote following a home visit with a 4-year-old Vietnamese student:

Jason’s home visit today was a little bit awkward in the beginning.  The language barrier impeded, but his mother’s English skills were sufficient that it wasn’t an extreme impediment.  I think when I used the little bit of Vietnamese that I know (to say the days of the week when I was counting with Jason how long until the field trip) helped her feel more comfortable knowing that she wasn’t the only one who was struggling with a new language.  She was impressed by the little bit that I did know.

For Jason’s family, the fact that I had taken the effort to learn even a small degree of their language made a huge difference in the remainder of the home visit.  However, for this to happen, the challenge arises as to how to learn those bits of the language.  I spoke in my August blog post about my attempts to learn Amharic by attending Ethiopian restaurants.  But sometimes resources can be much closer at hand in the form of co-workers and even students with more advanced English skills.  Echevarría et. al. support the need for “clarification of key concepts in students’ L1 by a bilingual instructional aide, peer, or through the use of materials written in the students’ L1” (2013, p. 157).

The use of written materials is an important element.  Even though my preschool students are as yet unable to read, exposing them to the written forms of their home languages is crucial.  When, in a home visit with Jason’s classmate Jessica, her Ecuadorian mother asked her what her favorite book at school was, Jessica responded that her favorite book was Nieve (Mayer, 2006), a Spanish language book that I had recently read to the class as written while also translating key elements of the book into English for the students who did not speak Spanish.

Indeed, I make many efforts to include books in the classroom that represent a wide variety of languages.  I recall at one point having three versions of Bill Martin Jr.’s Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do You See (Martin, 1996) in the classroom, including one which had Vietnamese translations alongside the original English (Martin, 2003).

Echevarría et. al. state that, “Students should be active in developing their understanding of words and ways to learn them” (2013, p. 75).  I decided to take advantage of the classroom’s diverse literature to help build the children’s awareness of language and activate their curiosity and exploration of linguistic features.  We did not have a Spanish version of Brown Bear, but one day as I read the English version to them, I translated as much as I could into Spanish, asking Jessica to help me fill in the names of the animals that I didn’t know.  A few days later, I made an attempt at reading the Vietnamese version of the book.  While I could not understand a single word that I read, I relied on the fact that Vietnamese is mostly phonetic in its written language.  Every time I paused to check my pronunciation, Jason confirmed, amid his laughter, that he could understand everything I was saying.

By engaging in readings in multiple languages, I was helping the students to make associations between their native languages and other languages they encounter in their daily lives.  By doing so in relationship to books that the children enjoy, I was also exposing children to “Authentic, meaningful experiences [which] are especially important for English learners because they are learning to attach labels and terms to things already familiar to them” (2013, p. 43).

Next month I will most likely be looking at The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker (2002).  If you have a book that you would like me to discuss in this blog, please comment on the Recommended Reading page.


Echevarría, J., ME. Vogt, & D.J. Short. (2013). Making content comprehensible for English learners: The SIOP® model, Fourth edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Martin, Bill Jr. (1996). Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see? (E. Carle, illus.). New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.

Martin, Bill Jr. (2003). Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see? English and Vietnamese Edition. (E. Carle, illus.). London, UK: Mantra Lingua.

Mayer, C. (2007). Nieve: Observemos el tiempo. Portsmouth, HN: Heinemann.

Pinker, S. (2002). The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Learning About Language Assessment: Dilemmas, Decisions, and Directions – K.M. Bailey

(en español)

Learning About Language Assessment - Bailey 1998As I read my way through Kathleen M. Bailey’s book about assessment (1998), I was reminded of a nightmare I had during my student teaching experience in a multilingual third grade public school classroom:

I was back in Berkeley.  An anti-abortion group calling itself NWEA had called for a protest at the house a teenage girl who had been raped.  This was an organization known for terrorizing not only abortion providers, but people who get abortions as well.  They used strategies that had been developed and perfected by the KKK in the height of the Jim Crow era.  There was therefore a call by others for people to come out and support the family.  I arrived early but didn’t see the house as I approached.  It looked to be a vacant lot between two office buildings, but when I came to the corner of the office building and looked into the lot, I could see the small dilapidated house tucked back and hidden away, blocked from view by the high rises on either side.

Right around the same time as I approached, so too did a parent of a former student who I’m “friends” with on Facebook [someone who I actually never friended on Facebook though I got to know them well from having two of their children in preschool and/or afterschool continuously over the course of about three years] .  The parent was asking me about my Facebook post asking for a pen.  I explained to her that I had posted that several hours earlier in the day and that I had already found a pen that I could use.  It was a friendly exchange, but I noticed that she went to the area that the NWEA members were gathering, so I left her and walked up to the house.

I took my shoes off on the front porch and went inside.  The father was very protective.  He was an African American preacher who spoke with a southern accent.  He eyed me warily as I entered.  I told the family that I was there to support them and asked them what I should do.  As I spoke I saw the expression on the teenager’s face.  It was one I had seen before.  Years ago a co-worker of mine had come in to work with a black eye and bruised all over from having been attacked by a serial rapist, and she wore that very same look for several weeks.  It was a look of fear and dread, but also a look of determination.  A look that said she didn’t know who she could trust and that if it turned out it wasn’t you, then you would live to regret it.  A look that amplified when the chanting began outside before any member of the family could answer me.

I went back out and put my shoes on as I saw two groups of people marching in rectangles across from each other.  One group was chanting, “NWEA, don’t say ‘Nay.’”  As I was contemplating the meaning of that chant, my 6am alarm rang and I woke up.

I woke from the dream with my heart pounding.  I immediately wrote down the dream and considered what my subconscious was mulling over.  Somehow I had transformed a standardized test (the NWEA) into a hate group.  The expression on the raped girl’s face reflected how I expected the students to be feeling about taking all of these tests so early in the year.  They had already done the BAS test, assessing their guided reading level; the BOY test, where they had to figure out a character trait about the narrator in a story about a girl named Jess; and now they would be doing the NWEA literacy test, and all this within the first month of the school year.  Three different tests examining literacy alone.  Just as the girl in the dream was being inundated with so much at once, starting with the horrible trauma and it being compounded by becoming the focus of so much attention, so too are our students being inundated.

Bailey describes a challenging dynamic in which “we are often faced with new classes in which we must use assessment devices to gather information, while at the same time we wish to establish a positive environment” (1998, p. 8).  This is a challenge that must be worked out by teachers in their own way, however, too often teachers are not given the opportunity to work them out in their own way.  Of the three major literacy tests that had been given in this classroom in that first month, only the BAS test had a direct impact on my instructional strategies.  Standardized tests in public schools tend to be used more for funding than for instructional purposes.

This is likely what made the public attention of the raped girl in my dream so salient.  I’m sure the chant that I was hearing at the end of the dream was some bastardization of a chant that I had heard coming from the strike rallies that filled the downtown streets with teachers just a few weeks prior.  The issue of standardized tests that had been such a point of contention in the negotiations and which had raised questions about the legality of the strike is something that affects the children in ways they are likely not even aware of.  Why do school funding and teachers’ performance evaluations have to be based around an arbitrary measurement standardized among a group that may not be well-represented in any given school?

As Bailey points out, “Teachers often see a mismatch… between the skills they address in their classrooms and the material that is covered in exams, especially standardized multiple-choice tests” (1998, p. 148).  She eschews multiple-choice tests in general, though she nonetheless devotes an entire chapter to explaining how to develop one, explaining that, “my goal in discussing the multiple-choice format is not to promote its use, but rather to caution you about the dilemmas presented by this approach” (1998, p. 130).

This chapter was particularly eye-opening for me, as she exposed, and to some degree even seemed to be condoning, some rather insidious test-development procedures.  Bailey reveals that, ”in terms of item analysis, the assumption is made that the student’s total test score on a specific exam is the best estimate of how good a student he is in terms of whatever knowledge and/or skill that particular exam is measuring” (1998, p. 135).  She then goes on to cite research describing how an item that is answered correctly by low-scoring students which is missed by the high-scoring students must be reevaluated because there would have to be something inherently wrong with the question to lead to such a result.

The problem with this perspective is that it assumes that all learners are alike.  By determining that such items must be inherently faulty, Bailey is denying that the so-called ‘low scorers’ may process the information differently and actually hold some capabilities that exceed those of the so-called ‘high scorers.’  The fact that she cites multiple other sources to corroborate this test-refinement technique reveals that there is actually a systematic push to make low-performing students perform even lower.  ‘Low scorers’ end up scoring low on standardized multiple-choice tests because these tests are particularly tailored to make them do so.

This revelation drives home, more than anything else in my mind, the point that, as Bailey puts it, “Important decisions should not rest on simple test scores” (1998, p. 204).  Testing is not the be-all and end-all of education.  In fact, Bailey tells us that “testing often (though not always) lags behind teaching, and is in some regards inherently conservative” (1998, p. 141) and that “While our pedagogic emphases have swung from a strongly product-oriented to a largely process-oriented approach… our evaluation procedures have lagged behind our pedagogy” (1998, p. 186).

In preschool education, most teachers I encounter generally rely on observational assessments as our primary mode of determining our students’ capabilities.  Perhaps this is something that needs to be done to a greater degree in the primary grades as well.  As Bailey says, “there is much to be gained by watching learners learn when they are not being taught” (1998, p. 55).  Perhaps it is time for teachers to take a step back and find out what our students know by just letting them be themselves.

Next month I will probably be examining Echevarría, Vogt, & Short’s, Making Content Comprehensible for English Learners: The SIOP Model (2013).  If there’s a book you would like to see me discuss in this blog, please comment on the Recommended Reading page.


Bailey, K.M. (1998). Learning about language assessment: Dilemmas, decisions, and directions. Cambridge, MA: Heinle & Heinle Publishers.

Echevarría, J., ME. Vogt, & D.J. Short. (2013). Making content comprehensible for English learners: The SIOP® model. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.