The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Archive for July, 2013

Summer Reading VII: The Phoenix Conspiracy

Being a fourth grade teacher, I tend to mostly read books that I think my students would be interested in reading. There are so many wonderful children’s books being written every year and I want to keep up with them. I have colleagues through various online networks who are constantly recommending books and I add them to my ever-growing pile of “Books To Read.”  Sometimes a book will get moved to the top of the pile. Sometimes a book never makes it into the pile because I start reading it immediately. And some of the books stay in the pile for far longer than I would wish.

I am jealous of those colleagues who have the time to participate in the summer reading program, started by  a teacher on Twitter, called #bookaday. It is quite simple: Every day of the summer, a different book. I could do that if I limited myself to short stories and picture books. But, again, being a fourth grade teacher, I mostly read longer chapter books.

When I am not reading juvenile fiction (sometimes called YA literature, although I feel that is more appropriately used when referring to adolescents and not young children), I am often reading any number of professional texts in an effort to be more effective in my teaching. What I have not read much of in the past year or so have been fiction books written for adults. I honestly do not remember the last novel I read that wasn’t for children. Until just recently, that is.

As you are quite likely aware, my wife and I are moving from Champaign to Savoy this summer. (In just two and a half weeks, in fact.) With all of the summer conferences, workshops, and other activities I have undertaken, we knew that I wouldn’t be home much in June or July, so we started packing our things back in May. The first thing to get packed was my wife’s extensive collection of Snoopy & Peanuts paraphernalia. Second to go was my 2,000-volume library. All of my books, packed in boxes and stored in the garage for three months.

To get me through the separation, I have been relying heavily on eBooks available through the Champaign Public Library and also through the iTunes store. I recently browsed all the free selections on the iTunes store and downloaded  a few dozen to my phone. I finally read one of them this past week while I was on Lake Ontario.

It is called “The Phoenix Conspiracy,” the first in the series of the same title, by Richard L. Sanders. I’d never heard of Mr. Sanders before. Certainly never read any of his books. The only criteria I had for selecting to read it when I did was that it was free, it was fiction, and it was written for adults.

I enjoyed this book! Setting aside the few random typographical errors that made their way into the eBook format, the story itself was interesting. It is a science fiction novel, taking place in an undefined future in which humans have conquered most of the galaxy and have establish a galactic empire. They have an uneasy alliance with the Rotham Republic, which is made up of lizard-like aliens. However, the human empire is definitely the dominant force in the galaxy.

I am going to share the plot summary/hook provided on the author’s website, as I think it does a great job of introducing the story.

On the surface, the galaxy seems peaceful. The war is over. An era of trade and prosperity has begun. But to those who can read the signs, it’s clear something is wrong. Long, dark fingers are pulling strings inside the military, making deals across empires, and orchestrating something foul.

Calvin Cross is an intelligence agent for the Imperial government. He’s young, his methods are unorthodox, but he gets the job done. So when a former military hero steals a warship and goes rogue, threatening to start a war, Calvin is sent to find and eliminate him.

But as he chases his prey across the stars, he realizes they are both pawns in a shadowy chess game that shakes kingdoms, breaks empires, and endangers civilization everywhere. And if he is to uncover the mystery and expose the conspiracy he must tangle with the darkest elements of the galaxy and throw himself, his career, and everyone he loves into the line of fire.

Conspiracy, intrigue, mystery, spaceships, an overly dogmatic executive officer clashing with an overly relaxed ship’s captain, and a cast of supporting characters who add depth to the story all combine to make this a very pleasant read. I was able to read the entire book over the course of about five or six days. I would recommend it to anyone who is looking for a good sci-fi series, written by a new author who is primarily self-publishing through eBook and audiobook formats. I am going to look for the other books in the series soon!

Lake Guardian – Day Seven

Sorry for the lateness of this post. Our research cruise ended on Saturday morning, then I spent all afternoon and evening with two other teachers at Niagara Falls State Park. I got on a train shortly after midnight, rode to Chicago, waited for six hours in Union Station with no wi-fi, then rode another train back to Champaign. Immediately upon getting home, I cleaned up and went with my wife to her parents’ house for dinner. Yesterday (Monday) was my first full day back home and I spent all day packing until we ran out of boxes and then cleaning. We had some friends over in the evening, and then I went to bed.

So this morning is the first chance I’ve had to actually blog about the last day of the Lake Guardian Shipboard and Shoreline Science Workshop.

Saturday morning was spent wrapping things up. We had returned to the Coast Guard Station in Youngstown, New York, and after breakfast had time to clean up our cabins and pack our belongings. Then we got together for one last time. All of us had time to share our final projects. As mentioned earlier, I worked with the two other teachers from Illinois, one a high school science teacher and the other an education specialist at the Shedd Aquarium, to design a debate format for students to discuss Great Lakes issues. The adaptation for fourth graders that I shared was an opinion writing assignment, which ties in directly with the Common Core State Standards that we have implemented in our district and our state.

Other teachers shared data about the Great Lakes, such as the dissolved oxygen levels in Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, others shared ways to create specimen collecting tools using recycled household items, and others shared ways that they will integrate Great Lakes literacy into their teaching in the coming years.

After everyone shared, we were given parting gifts from the two Sea Grant folks who made this whole thing possible. I was given a certificate of completion and a sturgeon pin which I now proudly wear on my backpack. And then we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways.

This entire week has been such a remarkable experience! I am so glad that I applied and was accepted. While the workshop is held every year, rotating through the Great Lakes, I found a lot of worth participating in a workshop with teachers I’d never have met otherwise. I spent a week working side-by-side science teachers from New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Minnesota! I went to a part of my country I’d never been to before. And I also got to working with top researchers in fields of environmental science, limnology, and biology. The crew members about the ship were fantastic! One has even offered to make a trip to Urbana to talk to my students about his role on the EPA research vessel! So many fantastic opportunities for me and my students have been opened up through this once-in-a-lifetime experience. (Sadly, I will not be eligible for any other research cruises because the EPA stipulated in their grant that they have to take a different set of teachers each year. But I will find my way to Lake Huron and Lake Superior eventually, so I can say that I have been to all five of the Great Lakes!)

And on the off-chance parents of potential students are reading these posts: Be prepared to learn, through your children, more about the Great Lakes than you ever knew possible! By the end of the year, my fourth graders will be experts on Great Lakes ecology! It is going to be an exciting year!

Lake Guardian – Day Six

Six days down, one more to go! By this time Sunday, I should be home! Of course, just because we are approaching the end of our time together, doesn’t mean we haven’t been working as hard today as we have every other day this week! (more…)

Lake Guardian – Day Five

Wow! I can hardly believe it is already Thursday evening! Another night, another day, a night, and a morning and then our weeklong workshop is officially over! But don’t worry; we are still working hard every day. Our team of teachers continue to come closer together to learn, to teach, to talk, and to have fun!



Lake Guardian – Day Four

[Note: The following post was co-authored with two of the teachers aboard the Lake Guardian, Alex Stavropoulos and Laura Tedesco. It was originally published on the official CGLL blog.]

After two days at sea, we went into port in Clayton, New York, where we got to walk on land for the first time since first departing Youngstown. Our day began right after breakfast with a visit to the Thousand Islands Biological Station, staffed by researchers from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. We broke up into small groups and were ferried from the Clayton dock to Governor’s Island, where the station is located.


Dr. John Farrell got us started with a lecture providing an overview of the St. Lawrence River water system. We learned the history of the region and the impact of the St. Lawrence Seaway (the shipping channel that runs parallel to the river) on the ecosystem. We were surprised to realize that invasive species in the water system include the viruses and bacteria that travel with other species, such as the zebra and quagga mussels. As a result, one species can actually introduce up to seven different invaders!

After lining up by height and breaking into four groups, we visited several different modules on the island: fish spawning, wetland floral biodiversity, local freshwater organisms, and the history of the St. Lawrence River System.

At the fish spawning module, we learned about some of the native species of fish in the river system, including muskellunges and channel catfish. It was a very hands-on station, as we got to pet a catfish! The two graduate students in charge of this station shared their work in helping to improve the struggling muskie population. They recently released 5,200 juvenile muskies into the river. It was incredible to realize that something so small can grow to be such a large animal!
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Dr. Farrell led the module on wetland floral biodiversity, showing us different native and invasive plant species. This was another hands-on station, with teachers holding and smelling different algae and cattail samples. He taught us that the way to identify non-native cattail species is by examining the flower portion of the plant. Non-native cattails have a gap between the male and female parts of the flower. The freshwater organisms module gave us the opportunity to look at living samples, including several larval and adult insects,  minnows, snails, and microscopic plankton.


Dr. Michael Twiss, from Clarkson University, spoke to us about his work on the St. Lawrence River. He focused on the history of the St. Lawrence Seaway, especially the social and political development of the area. What really struck us was that everyone at TIBS, including the undergraduate students, was very passionate about what they were doing and were very willing to answer any questions we threw at them!

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We had a few hours in Clayton to eat lunch and explore the town. Several of us chose to visit the Antique and Classic Boats Museum. Others visited the Thousand Island Historical Museum and the Muskellunge Hall of Fame. Then it was back on the boat for a riveting presentation by Lee Willbanks, the Upper St. Lawrence Riverkeeper. He t0ld us why updating the water management plan from the 1950s and 1960s is so crucial to preserving the vitality of the river system.

Following dinner, the boat left port and we returned to Lake Ontario, where we resumed water sampling!

Summer Reading VI: Queen Bees & Wannabes

My principal had recommended the book Queen Bees and Wannabes last year, but I never had time to read it. So when I saw it at a garage sale a few weeks ago and found out that the books were free, I immediately snatched it up (along with a few dozen other books). I started reading it in the evening and then read almost the entire book during my train ride to New York (including the eight hours at Union Station in Chicago.) I recently signed up to Goodreads, incidentally, and posted a review of this book by Rosalind Wiseman. It is as follows:

Queen Bees and Wannabes is a MUST-READ for any parent, teacher, or concerned adult who has or works with adolescent girls! The first two chapters do a fantastic job of explaining the different social roles that girls often adopt, and how parents fit into a girl’s world. I would recommend every parent and daughter read these two chapters together and discuss the content.

The remainder of the book takes the reader through different situations girls may experience, such as being excluded from a group, peer influence, boys, dating, sex, drugs, parties, and assault. My one major complaint about the book is that Rosalind Wiseman takes a somewhat defeatist attitude toward adolescent girls’ use of drugs, alcohol, having sex, and going to parties. Rather than encourage them to avoid these negative behaviours, she essentially says, “Oh, well, girls are going to do these things anyway, so the only thing you can do is teach them how to do them responsibly.” Also, Ms. Wiseman’s chapter describing boys and their roles noticeably lack any positive roles for boys.

Overall, though, I enjoyed the book. It was an easy read, written in very plain language, and gave realistic suggestions for working with adolescent girls. One of the more important features are Ms. Wiseman’s “potential landmines”: things that parents and teachers can say that inadvertently set off teens!

Lake Guardian – Day Three

Today was the third day of my voyage, second day actually at sea. And really, today was much like yesterday, but not quite as busy. We had four sampling stations instead of six, and because we are all old pros at running the stations, things seemed to go much smoother. I still haven’t gotten to use the PONAR, though. Yesterday it was too shallow, then they had too much from previous samples, then it was too dark. Today it was too shallow and then too shallow again. Maybe tomorrow or Thursday I’ll finally get to do it and play in the mud! (more…)

Lake Guardian – Day Two

Today was our first day at sea! (more…)

Lake Guardian – Day One

Several months ago, a friend of mine who works for the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant shared with me an awesome professional development workshop that she thought I, or maybe some of my colleagues, would be interested in. It is the Center for Great Lakes Literacy’s Lake Guardian research cruise. The premise was simple: fifteen teachers working along scientists to collect samples and data about the ecological health of one of the Great Lakes. Each year, a different lake. [Edit: The last teacher workshop cruise took place five years ago in 2008. The Lake Guardian goes out all the time, cycling through the five Great Lakes.] I had to fill out an application, write a letter of intent, and submit a letter of reference from my principal. This year’s research cruise was scheduled to take place on Lake Ontario, which happens to be one of the unhealthiest of the Great Lakes, due in large part to the flow of deposits from Lake Superior, Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, and Lake Erie down the Niagara River. (more…)

Summer Reading V: How To Be Popular

I am very fortunate to have a large number of nephews and nieces whose ages range from 16 years to a few months. Every time I visit them, I ask for book recommendations, especially from the older ones. All of my nephews and nieces who know how to read do read and quite a bit, actually. It is great when I can get a solid recommendation out of one of them!

About a week ago, I was visiting my parents and other family members, including some of my nephews and nieces. I asked my niece, who is going into sixth grade, what books she’s read recently that I should read. She gave me two suggestions: Between the Lines by Jodi Picoult and her daughter, Samantha van Leer, and How To Be Popular by Meg Cabot. I immediately checked with my library and found the latter available as an eBook, so I downloaded it and read it.

After I finished, I asked my niece if she’d be interested in writing a review that I could share here. She was eager to do so. Here is what she submitted to me, with no changes other than a few typographical correction:

How to Popular by Meg Cabot is about Steph Landry, Becca and Jason. Three teenagers who are all best friends. Main character Steph is trying to be popular because of her bad reputation. In the sixth grade she spilled a big red super gulp on mega popular girl Lauren Moffat. Read the book to find more. I really liked the book and I love Meg Cabot.

Here is what I have to say about How To Be Popular by Meg Cabot:

Steph Landry is a teenage girl, dealing with the typical struggles of a teenage girl: relationships with boys, relationships with her best friends, relationships with her family, and relationships with her classmates, particularly those in the “A Crowd.” When Steph was in 6th grade, she accidentally tripped and spilled her Big Red Super Gulp on the most popular girl in school, Lauren Moffat. Lauren, rather than accepting Steph’s apology (which included buying her a new skirt), targeted Steph with an ongoing cruel prank of coining the phrase “pull a Steph Landry,” used any time a person does something really bone-headed.

Steph discovers a book in her best friend’s grandmother’s attic that teaches how to be popular. The summer before 11th grade, she uses her personal savings to buy new clothes and seeks to remake her image by joining the “A Crowd” at school. What follows is a delightful tale of self-discovery, personal worth, friendship, love, and conquering your enemies without destroying them.

Now, this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, but I never experienced any of the things a typical teenage girl experiences, due to the fact that I was never a teenage girl. As such, I really enjoyed this book because it gave me insights into some of the struggles that girls in my classes experience. (Even though I don’t teach teenagers, many of these “girl problems” start to form in grade school.)

A huge thank you to my niece for recommending How To Be Popular! I can hardly wait to read Between the Lines. In fact, I may make a trip to the library today to pick up a copy! In the meantime, you should make a trip to the library to read Meg Cabot’s fantastic story!