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It's Spring! Or Is It Summer? Books for the Seasons

by Miriam Downey 25. March 2012 10:31

Every day for the past couple of weeks, I have heard people say, "Such crazy weather!" and "I can't believe it's still March." Old-timers in Michigan where I live are fond of saying, "If you don't like the weather, wait a few minutes."

FWU has excellent flashcard units on weather. If your children haven't done the weather flashcard units yet, this is probably the time to do them. In this posting, I have included a list of books and a couple of websites that will go with the weather units. I have grouped them by season. Most all of these books are available at your local library or bookstore. The books that are available online are linked to the website where they can be found. The books listed are most appropriate for elementary-age children. Another posting will include informational books and websites about weather for middle school children.

For fun, everyone should begin by reading Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs by Judith and Ron Barrett. After you read that crazy book, the real weather will never again seem so crazy!


Weather in General

A Drop of Water by Walter Wick. Experiments about water, clouds, rain, and snow.

Books by Seymour Simon: Lightning; Storms; Weather; Tornadoes; and Hurricanes. Lots of facts and great photographs about weather.

Eye Wonder: Weather by John Farndon. The power of the weather in photographs.

The Kid's Book of Weather Forecasting by Mark Breen. Everything any kid would want to know about weather forecasting.

Two Websites about Weather Resources

USA Today's alphabetical listing of hundreds of weather resources:

NOAA's weather website:


Twisters by Kate Hayden. Facts about tornadoes.

Come a Tide by George Ella Lyon. What happens in the spring when there has been a lot of snow during the winter.

And Then It's Spring by Julie Fogliano. This is a brand new, award-winning book.


Thunder Cake by Patricia Polacco. A summer storm is on the horizon and the little girl is afraid of thunder. Grandma comes up with a great solution.

Come on, Rain by Karen Hesse explores a summer drought and how the children celebrate the rain.

Peter Spier's Rain. Another summer rain story.

A Prairie Boy's Summer by William Kurelek. Also, A Prairie Boy's Winter. Life in the 1930s.

When the Wind Stops by Charlotte Zolotow. A summer day's story.


Hurricane by David Wiesner. The adventures of two boys when a hurricane knocks down a big tree in their yard.

Red Leaf, Yellow Leaf by Lois Ehlert. An explosion of autumn color.

The Story of Johnny Appleseed by Aliki. Why did Johnny Appleseed plant apple trees all over the Great Lakes states?

Picking Apples and Pumpkins by Amy Hutchings. What every child wants to do in autumn.

Why Do Leaves Change Color? by Betsy Maestro. An explanation of autumn weather.


The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. The classic story of a child and the snow.

It's Snowing! It's Snowing! by Jack Prelutsky. Poems about winter.

Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin. Wilson A. Bentley took photographs of snowflakes for many years and discovered that no two snowflakes are alike. Here is the website about him:

Katy and the Big Snow by Virginia Lee Burton. There is a wonderful You Tube video of this book that you can find here:

Blizzard: The Storm that Changed America by Jim Murphy is about the blizzard of 1888.

So, dear readers, enjoy the weather and everything it brings us.


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Memorize a Poem: Expand Your Brain

by Miriam Downey 7. March 2012 16:34

When I was a piano teacher, I required my students to memorize two pieces every year--one to play at the Christmas piano recital and one to play at the spring recital. I noticed two things from that requirement: 1) some children memorize easily and for others the experience is difficult, but all my students grew in their piano playing ability as they memorized their pieces; 2) whenever those children sat down at the piano recreationally, they played those memorized pieces. The experience of memorizing a piece gave them instant access to the instrument, and they were able to play their memorized pieces with a great deal more feeling than they could when they played them with the music.

I thought about this experience as I was working on last week's blog posting about the poetry in the FWU curriculum. Should school children be required to memorize poetry? isn't that just too old-fashioned? I suggest that there is as great a value in memorizing a poem as there is in memorizing a piano piece or lines for a play. These activities stretch and activate parts of your brain that are often dormant. And the thing about a memorized poem is that it stays with you your entire life. You can call it up whenever you need it.

Let me give you an example. Once for a presentation as a child, I had to memorize I thank you God by e.e. cummings. It begins like this:

i thank you God for most this amazing

day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees

and a blue, true dream of sky; and for everything

which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(e.e.cummings never used capital letters and hardly ever used punctuation. That was just his style. One of the things I had to learn about when I learned this poem was why he wrote that way.) Well, the point of telling you this is that for every morning all the rest of my life, I have recited that poem as a morning prayer. It has sustained me my entire life.

Here are some things children learn by memorizing and reciting poetry:

1) A richness of vocabulary

2) A feel for the English language in general. Important if they are going to speak, write, and read English with ease.

3) An enormous amount about order, measure, proportion, balance, symmetry, agreement, temporal relationships, and mood.

4) Rhythm and rhyme

5) An increased brain capacity. (The brain is not a quart jar that will be filled up!)

So...what to memorize? Here are some suggestions based on books that are in the Free World U library and some easily accessible poetry available online. For more suggestions of poetry books, see last week's blog posting.


Grades K-2

     Stevenson, Robert Louis: A Child's Garden of Verse. Look up The Swing. It is a good one to say when you are swinging on the swing set.

     Lear, Edward: The Book of Nonsense

     Milne, A. A.: When We Were Very Young.

Grades 3-6

     Milne, A. A. Now We Are Six.

     Silverstein, Shel: Where the Sidewalk Ends. Shel Silverstein has a wonderful website with a lot of his poems on it. check it out:

     Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth: The Children's Longfellow. Try out Hiawatha.

Grades 7-12

     American Poetry. Pick out something by Robert Frost. Perhaps...Stopping by the Woods or The Road not Taken.

     Shakespeare, William: The Complete Works.  Learn a speech from a play or a sonnet.

     The Works of Edgar Allen Poe. Try out The Raven.

If all else fails, which it might have with one of my children, have them memorize a joke or a riddle and practice telling it out loud. Your child will get the memorization practice and the speaking ability. All that will be missing will be the beauty of the poetry.

Here is an interesting essay about memorizing poetry: resources/


Beyond Mother Goose: Poetry to Please Your Student

by Miriam Downey 29. February 2012 10:37

 I had an interesting experience the other day. My infant granddaughter was sitting on my lap, and I felt compelled to recite the Mother Goose poem:

Little Robin Redbreast

Sat upon a pole

Wibble Wobble went his tail

And plopped into a hole!


Reciting this poem came automatically to me. She loved being plopped into the hole as I opened my legs to let her drop down. Her laugh told me that I needed to do it again. Following that, I told her:

 Jack and Jill went up the hill

To fetch a pail of water.

Jack fell down and broke his crown

And Jill came tumbling after.

These are the rhymes of my childhood and of my children's childhood. Whatever our cultural background, there are certain poems, rhymes, and songs that remain with us forever. I call them "forever poems." I know them instinctively. You probably know some of those poems or songs as well.

A professor of children's literature notes, "Children have a natural affinity for poetry, which is exhibited before they enter school by their love for nursery rhymes, jingles, and childhood songs."

Poetry is a part of the Language Arts curriculum for every grade at Free World U. And in every year of the curriculum, several different types of poetry are taught.

Narrative poems tell stories.

Lyric Poems are like songs.

Limericks are humorous poems that end with a joke.

Haiku is a very specialized poem with 17 syllables.

Concrete Poems are physically shaped like the subject of the poem.

Free Verse is usually un-rhymed and lacks a consistent rhythm.

The professor continues: "A poetry collection should include poems that meet the needs of children who are in the process of developing an appreciation of poetry. This means building a collection filled with a variety of poems to match differing tastes and levels of sophistication."

There are rich resources to supplement the FWU curriculum available through the FWU library. Most of the poems and poets taught in the curriculum have been around for awhile, so their poetry is available in the public domain and can be found online.

Below you will find a listing of the books of poetry currently available through the FWU library. I have connected the title to the link, so you can easily access them. I have also listed them by grade levels.

Happy reading!

Grades K-2

A Apple Pie     A Child's Garden of Verse     Hey Diddle Diddle    Johnny Crow's Garden

Mother Goose     The House that Jack Built

Grades 3-6

I See the Rhythm   Now We Are Six  Golden Treasury of Songs and Poetry  Poems Every Child Should Know

Where the Sidewalk Ends

Grades 7-12

American Poetry    Poems by Emily Dickinson     Poems Published in 1829 

Selections from Wordsworth and Tennyson  The Works of Edgar Allen Poe




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Blog | English

2012 Award Winning Books: Caldecott and Newbery Awards

by Miriam Downey 10. February 2012 10:06

Every year in January, the American Library Association announces the winners of the Newbery and Caldecott awards for the best children's books of the previous year. The Newbery is awarded to the author of the most distinguished children literature of the year. The Caldecott award is given to the best illustrated children's book of the year. That award goes to the illustrator, not the author.

I have followed these awards for most of my career. Some of the best books ever written for children have received the Newbery and Caldecott awards. Here are this year's winners and honor books.

 Newbery Award: Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos is a book about a boy named Jack Gantos, apparently no relation to the author. Smile It is very funny and both boys and girls will love it. The book jacket says it all: "...a sly sharp-edged narrative about a small western Pennsylvania town and a dead-funny depiction of growing up in a slightly off-kilter place where the past is present, the present is confusing, and the future is completely up in the air." (Grades 6 and up) Jack Gantos has written a lot of very funny books including the Joey Pigza series about a hyperactive boy with a very complicated life. (Grades 5-7)

 Caldecott Medal: A Ball for Daisy by Chris Raschka

I fell in love with Chris Raschka several years ago with the publishing of his delightful books Yo! Yes? and Mysterious Thelonius, both of which were Caldecott Honor Books. A Ball for Daisy, is brilliant in its wordless simplicity. The dog is playing with his ball and the ball breaks. Raschka said he got the idea for the book when watching his daughter playing with a favorite toy which broke. Her reaction to the broken toy inspired the award-winning book. The School Library Journal's review (Aug. 2011) suggests that: "Raschka's genius lies in capturing the essence of situations that are deeply felt by children." (ages 3 and up)

Newbery Honor Books

Inside Out and Back Again by Tahnhha Lai. This is the moving account of one girl's year of change, dreams, grief, and healing as she journeys from one country to another, one life to the next. (grades 4-8)

Breaking Stalin's Nose by Eugene Yelchin. Written for middle grade students, this short novel about a boy in the Soviet Union in the 1950s will thrill older readers as well. (grades 4-8)

Caldecott Honor Books

Blackout by John Rocco. What happens to the city when the electricity goes out? What do people do to entertain themselves? These issues are explored in the wonderful illustrations that move from color to black-and-white. (preschool-grade 2)

Grandpa Green by Lane Smith. Lane Smith is a well known illustrator, and his beautiful picture book Grandpa Green explores the life of a great-grandfather. (k-2) Lane Smith also illustrated the Caldecott Honor Book, The Stinky Cheese Man, which, by the way, is a very funny book.

Me...Jane by Patrick McDonnell is my favorite of this year's award books. McDonnell draws the comic strip, Mutts, so the illustrations have a signature comic strip quality. The remarkable story is about Jane Goodall and her special childhood toy chimpanzee named Jubilee. It is accessible to very young children. (preschool-grade 2)

Here are some more of the year's best books

Underground: Finding the Light to Freedom by Shane W. Evans (The Coretta Scott King Award) (grades 2-4)

Heart and Soul:The Story of American and African Americans by Kadir Nelson. (Coretta Scott King Honor Book) (grades 4-6)

Two other must-read books of 2011 and award-winners in 2012

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick. If you loved The Invention of Hugo Cabret, you will also love Wonderstruck. Graphic novel for middle grade students.

War Horse by Michael Morpurgo. While the movie was told from an adult perspective, the novel is told from the perspective of the horse. Excellent for grades 6-10.

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Blog | English

Finding Free Books Online: Project Gutenberg and Others

by Miriam Downey 3. February 2012 15:22

The library of Free World U is composed of three parts: a section for books available online, a section of recommended books that are available elsewhere, and a section of research websites. In creating FWU's library, I have utilized several sources to find the books that are important to the curriculum.

Today I would like to share some of my sources for finding books that are available free online. Although I have mentioned this in previous postings, copyrights for books last for 75 years. This means that a book is not legally available to be free online until it is 75 years old. The good news is that most literature we consider to be classic may be available online if it has been digitalized.

Occasionally, authors allow their out-of-print books to appear on book websites, or occasionally books by publishers that have gone out of business will also show up on free websites. This is particularly true of picture books. There are websites of of out-of-print stories as well.

Here are some places to find free ebooks

The most prominent place to find classic ebooks is Project Gutenberg. Thousands of out-of-print books and books whose copyrights have expired can be found on Project Gutenberg. For instance, if you are looking for a book of Mother Goose rhymes, you would would type in Mother Goose in the Gutenberg's book catalog search and up would come a listing of all the editions of Mother Goose Rhymes that are available in their database. There are many choices, and after you pick the one you want, you can either read the book online or download it to your computer or device.

Another way to access classic books is to go to Amazon and search for the title. Recently, I was looking for Wuthering Heights for my Kindle. I went to Amazon and was able to choose the free version which then downloaded to my Kindle. This process is the same as going to the Project Gutenberg website.

My favorite source for picture books that can be read online is We Give Books. For every picture book read online, a book is sent to a prominent charity. I am noticing more and more current books appearing on this website. For instance, the great children's book The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper can be found on We Give Books. Another site for classic books is Lit to Go.This site is sponsored by the Universitiy of South Florida, and it has a lot of Spanish editions as well as English editions. It also has books on audio.

Starfall is a website that has a lot of easy reader books for preschool, kindergarten, and first grade. Starfall utilizes phonics and simple stories to teach reading. The stories are cute, and the settings are fun.

Another great source for online reading is East of the Web. This is a site for short stories, which are arranged by categories, including children's stories, crime, fiction, horror, humor, nonfiction, romance, sci-fi, and interactive. It is very user friendly and a delight for the reader.

If your older child is really into science, history, or social science and you are having a hard time finding materials to satisfy his/her quest for knowledge, I've got a treat for you. One of the best kept secrets on the Internet is the World Catalog, which is a catalog of the holdings of most of the libraries in the United States. For instance, my brother is a fanatic reader of Arctic exploration. By access the World Catalog, he is able to borrow books about Arctic exploration from any library in the United States.

To use it, simply type in a subject in which you are interested and your ZIP code. The search engine will tell you the books on that subject available, beginning with books in libraries closest to you. You can write down the title you are seeking and take it to your local library. They will be able to get it for you using Interlibrary Loan. Swift and nifty.

Perhaps you have discovered another source of online literature that I haven't discussed. Send me a comment, and I will check it out and post it in this blog.


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English | Lessons

Expanding Traditional Fairy Tales: Picture Books and Novels that Tell the Story

by Miriam Downey 23. January 2012 15:32

The library section of FWU contains many Internet links to the traditional fairy tales of Anderson, Perrault, and the Grimm brothers. However, when you read these stories in their original translations, you will find that the stories are a bit ... well, grim! They are cautionary tales, primarily, and there is a lot of bad stuff that happens, like grandmothers getting eaten, children left out in the woods to fend for themselves, and houses getting blown apart.

Let me recommend the retelling of the stories as presented by Andrew Lang in his fairy tale books. There are twelve books in all, and they can all be found at Project Gutenberg. Both of the stories talked about below can be found in the Blue Fairy Book.

Fairy tales are a large part of the Western European heritage, but in the last century, they have been cleaned up and redone by Disney and others. They are great stories, basically, and children love them, gore and all. Many of FWU's language arts flashcards use these stories and have children expand upon them with their original writing.

Most fairy tales have modern versions, "fractured" versions (funny versions) that have wonderful illustrations and text. Most of them can be used by young children and teenagers alike. The old text can be used and new illustrations added, or some of the great illustrations can be used and new text added. Here are some books to look for when planning extension activities utilizing fairy tales. I have chosen two fairy tales for this blog posting. I will add more to this list at another time. I have also included the names of some movies which expand on the stories in a cinematic way.

Cinderella. There are many versions of the Cinderella story. Here are but a few:

Cinderella by Perrault illustrated by Marcia Brown (1954). This is a beautifully illustrated version of the traditional story. It won a Caldecott prize for the illustrations.

Cinderellis and the Glass Hill (2000). A novel written for middle-grade children features a lonely young farm boy who wins the hand of the princess. A good read aloud.

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine (1997) is written for 12-14 year olds and is a novelized version of the Cinderella story. A movie was made of this book in 2004.

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister: A Novel by Gregory Maguire (2001). An adult novel appropriate for older high school students. Written by the author of Wicked.

Cinderella stories from other cultures for comparison:

Yeh Shen: A Cinderella Story from China illustrated by Ed Young (1996).

The Rough-Faced Girl by Rafe Martin (1998) Native American

Mufero's Beautiful Daughter by John Steptoe (1987) African

Rogers and Hammerstein wrote a delightful musical theater version of the story. It was on television three times and all three are available in DVD format. I would recommend the original 1957 version with Julie Andrews as Cinderella, but there is a multi-cultural version from 2003. Of course, there is the classic Disney version of the Cinderella story as well.

Little Red Riding Hood: Another story with many versions.

Little Red Riding Hood illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman (1987) was a Caldecott Honor Book and is a retelling of the Grimm brothers classic version.

Little Red Riding Hood illustrated by James Marshal (1993) is done in a cartoon style which may be more palatable for younger children. It is a retelling of the Perrault version.

Carmine: A Little More Red by Melissa Sweet (2008) is a fractured retelling of the story and is also a very inventive alphabet book. Great for a read aloud.

Check out how George McClements retells the story in his book Jake Gander, Storyville Detective: The Case of the Greedy Granny (2002). Early Readers.

Wolf by Gillian Cross (1991) is a novel for middle readers and older.

Here are two cross-cultural versions for comparison:

Lon Po Po: A Red Riding Hood Story from China by Ed Young (1990) is a powerful retelling of the Grimm tale and received a Caldecott award.

Pretty Salma: A Little Red Riding Hood Story from Africa by Niki Daly (1998). A version set in Ghana.

The stories of Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and others are brilliantly retold in the musical Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim. The 1991 version of the musical is available on DVD, and there is a beautiful book of the entire story published in 2002 by Hudson Talbot.

You will be able to find all of these books at your local library and bookstore. Many of them are also available on Kindle or Nook as well.

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Teaching Values with Picture Books

by Miriam Downey 1. December 2011 14:11


The other morning I was reading my baby granddaughter a Little Golden Book version of The Little Red Hen,and it brought back so many memories of telling her mother the same story with its moral--only those who help should reap the rewards. Those old stories, Aesop's fables, fairy tales, and folk tales teach moral values in interesting ways. They don't hit the child over the head with the message. The story itself tells the message. These are the stories that we all know and remember. How many times have we said, "Are you crying wolf?" or "Slow and steady wins the race."or "You're really in the lion's den!"

Some picture books are written in what we would call a didactic style--they tell the reader: "You are going to learn this moral value" and then the book goes on to teach the value. There was a series of books that came out about 30 years ago that had cute characters, and each book taught some aspect of good behavior. They were cute for one reading, but none of my children wanted to hear them over and over in the way they wanted to hear Where the Wild Things Are or Horton Hatches the Egg, both books that teach by example.

The Veggie Tale books and videos are an example of some delightful didactic books that teach moral values. If you recall your Bible stories, however, you know that the values taught in the Bible stories we tell children are not taught in didactic ways; they teach by example. For instance, in the story of the little boy and the loaves and fishes, the value of generosity is taught by the child's example.

One of the best resources for books that teach moral values is Books That Build Character by William Kilpatrick (Simon and Schuster, 1994). Although the book is nearly 20 years old, it is of immense value in helping parents find books for their children.

Recently I came across a list of books that teach values and morals in non-didactic ways as they deal with the universal problems of childhood. Some of the books on the list are among my favorites; some were new to me. So, I am offering this list as a starting point in what I hope can be an ongoing list of books and an ongoing discussion on this blog. The author of the list says of the books: "These are the ones that know how to teach without preaching, that get to the heart of the problem in inspired, interesting, often quirky and unconventional ways."

So here goes! Most all of these books will be available at your public library. Certainly all will be available at the bookstore or Amazon. You can find the books listed in the FWU library in the Other Great Books section.

Henkes, Kevin. Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse. Value of apologizing.

Shannon, David. No, David! Boundary testing. Children laugh out loud at this book.

Meddaugh, Susan. Martha Walks the Dog. Bullying.

Hills, Tad. How Rocket Learned to Read. Value of practice.

Kilodavis, Cheryl. My Princess Boy. Value of diversity.

Brown, Margaret Wise. Runaway Bunny. Worry and separation anxiety.

McKissack, Patricia. The All I'll Ever Want Christmas Doll. Value of sharing.

Hoff, Syd. Sammy the Seal. Fear of the unknown.

Viorst, Judith. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. The title says it all. Every child relates. We could also include Alexander Who Used to Be Rich Last Sunday as a companion book.

Falconer, Ian. Olivia Acts Out. Value of making the best of a bad situation. Olivia is the best.

Latimer, Alex. The Boy Who Cried Ninja. The dilemma of lying.

Raschka, Chris. A Ball for Daisy. Value of moving on when things break.

Marx, Patricia. Meet My Staff. Value of problem solving.

Rathmann, Peggy. Good Night Gorilla. Sleeping in own bed.

Huget, Jennifer. How to Clean Your Room in 10 Easy Steps. Value of doing chores.

Dr. Seuss, Horton Hatches the Egg. Value of understanding adoption.

Thompson, Kay. Eloise. Lack of family structure. Besides that, the coolest heroine ever.

Sendak, Maurice. Where the Wild Things Are. Value of dealing with anger.

Moore, Julianne. Freckleface Strawberry. Dealing with differences.



Please join in the discussion. Which books do you and your children especially like that teach morals and values?





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Search Tools for Elementary Children

by Miriam Downey 22. November 2011 13:24



Children like to "look up stuff." I will never forget my absolute delight when our parents purchased a set of Compton's Encyclopedias when I was eight years old. At the same time, my father purchased a reel-to-reel tape recorder. I remember that winter very well; I read articles in the encyclopedia about famous people (people like Thomas Edison, Louisa May Alcott, Abraham Lincoln), and I wrote reports about them and then taped myself reading aloud those reports. Not for school--just for fun (a geeky researcher in the making, I guess).

Most "stuff" gets looked up on the Internet these days, and, of course, there are dangers attached with looking up stuff on the Internet. If Google is your search engine, the most popular sites come up first--not necessarily the sites with the best information. Many are commercial sites (dot coms). What you want for your children are easy to read sites, filled with pictures, and with as few pop-ups and ads as possible.


I decided to seek out information about groundhogs (woodchucks) on some recommended search engines for kids. We have a groundhog that eats our bird feed (see my posting about Wikipedia). I pretended I was a kid and wanted to know where that groundhog was living. Here are some suggested kid-friendly search engines and what I discovered.

Kids Search Tools. This is a gathering spot for kid's search engines. I used this as the basis for my search.

I first clicked on Fact Monster. This website has basic facts, dictionary definitions, and encyclopedia entries. Please note that most online encyclopedias, like World Book and Britannica, need a membership in order to be accessible. It was on the online dictionary in Fact Monster, however, that I discovered that groundhogs and woodchucks are the same thing. This website is a bit busy. Children might need some guidance.

Then I tried Kids Click. This site was a bit hard to navigate, but it was the search engine that I used with second graders when we were doing research projects in my school library. If a parent helps with the search, this search engine leads children to websites where they will find their information. I found groundhogs on the Animal Diversity website.

Another search engine for kids is Yahoo Kids. This search engine has an area called Studyzone. In that area, I easily found several sites about groundhogs. However, this search engine is very busy and has a lot of TV shows on the site as well as a lot of video games. The good part about it is if they get lost in video game land, the games are all kid safe.

The Awesome Library was very easy to navigate with many websites about animals and animal pictures. The one problem that I had with this search engine was that some of the recommended sites were not active. It looked like it hadn't been updated for a while. Children would need some guidance when using this site so that they don't get frustrated. Another warning: there are ads on some of the recommended sites, but they are for rather innocuous things, like hotels, etc.


I think my favorite search engine for kids was Ask Kids. Children formulate and ask the site a question. This serves a double purpose because it not only gets the child to some good websites, but it also teaches question asking skills. Up pops a bunch of proven sites where answers can be found. I had to go to "Groundhog's Day" in order to find the answer to my question, "Where do groundhogs live?" But then I was led to many websites with no advertisements. The site also has a lot of pre-written questions that children can research. Great for Exploring.

Most parents understand never to let a young child venture onto the Internet without guidance, and I would recommend that the computer your child is using be in plain site. That way, you can help if they are struggling to find the "stuff" they are looking up. Happy searching.

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How much wood could a woodchuck chuck? Using Wikipedia for research

by Miriam Downey 16. November 2011 14:47

I admit it...I love research. I love doing research and I love helping people with research. I also know that research is a daunting task for middle- and high-school aged students. Where to begin?

When we adults were in 7th or 8th grade and had to write a research essay about something, we would go first to the encyclopedia and look up our topic. But if we needed three sources (which most teachers required), what would we do next/ A book? A magazine? Go to the library and ask the librarian?

Doing research in 2011 is a totally different experience than it was even ten years ago. A world of information is available when we type in a search term on Google. And usually, the first source that comes up is Wikipedia. Because of, or despite, its immediacy, we have to ask: is Wikipedia the most reliable source?

Before we can discuss the value of Wikipedia as a source of information for a research project, we have to understand what Wikipedia is. A wiki is a "website that allows collaborative editing of its content and structure by its users" (1). So, for instance, a wiki would allow owners of a business to develop their business plan together, each person offering his edits for the entire group to see.

Wikipedia is a wiki that is an online encyclopedia which gives every registered user an opportunity to add the information that they know to a subject, any subject. Even though Wikipedia has a staff of editors and monitors, most of its content is written by users--ordinary people like you and me. This means that anyone can write or edit a Wikipedia entry, and there is a wide range of quality and reliability in its information. Just because it's there doesn't mean it's true. It just means that someone put it there.

This is not to say that Wikipedia shouldn't be used in research. It is a great starting point.

For instance, let's research my friendly neighborhood groundhog that is eating all the birdseed that falls from my bird feeder. Wikipedia has an extensive article about groundhogs (2). I actually looked on Wikipedia first because I knew that I could get a quick overview of the subject of groundhogs on Wikipedia. The first thing I learned was that groundhogs can also be called woodchucks.

This Wikipedia article looks reliable to me because most of the stated facts have references connected to them. If I were going to write a paper on groundhogs, I would first read through the article to get the basic facts, and then I would go immediately to the reference list (works cited) at the bottom of the article. At the bottom, I find an article from the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology Animal Diversity Web (3). I would consider this to be a reliable source (proof that the people who wrote the Wikipedia entry for groundhog knew what they were doing).

If this is going to be a research paper, The Animal Diversity Web source would be your first source, not the Wikipedia article. Then, continuing to utilize the references from the Wikipedia article, I notice that there are two or three books cited as well as articles from the Canadian wildlife service and the North Carolina wildlife service. These are also reliable sources. I would go to two or three of those sources to complete my research about groundhogs.

My friend, David Nurenberg, who is a high school teacher in Massachusetts, has this rule for his sophomore research students: "When citing your sources in your research paper, you must cite the actual source, not just Wikipedia in your works cited." He also teaches his students what he calls the "Three Rs" of research sources--relevance, reliability, and realization of bias. This type of critical thinking will help students write better papers and be more discriminatory in their research (4).

If you have questions about anything I have discussed in this blog posting; if you have questions about appropriate research tools; or if you need help finding information, please email me at Please also comment in the comment box. I know other readers would value your comments and your experiences about research as well as websites you have found helpful for research.

(1) The New Oxford American Dictionary, 2005.



(4) David Nurenberg interview

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Beyond Captain Underpants and Wimpy Kids: Why Read Books in Series

by Miriam Downey 31. October 2011 15:50



 Think back to your childhood reading. What were your favorite books? My guess is that for many of you, they were books that were part of a series. You most likely remember reading about Laura, Mary, and the other members of the Ingalls family in the Little House books as well as Nate the Great or the girls fromThe Babysitter's Club. Most of us also remember reading comic book series like Archie or Superman. Our parents were bemused and would shake their heads and say, "Well, at least they're reading!"

Research shows that the most important key to creating confident readers is for children to take pleasure in the experience of reading. As anyone who has taught a child knows, it takes practice to become a good reader. Children who read a lot by choice and enjoy it are far more likely to succeed at their schoolwork than those who dislike reading (1).

Catherine Sheldrick Ross notes: "Series books minimize the risks of reading, which is probably particularly important for novice readers who have not yet developed confidence in their ability to make book choices." She suggests that series books teach beginning readers about the process of reading itself--strategies for making sense out of extended text. She concludes that series book reading might be for some readers an essential stage in "their development as powerful literates" (2).

I watched my 12-year-old grandson plow through the Hunger Games series this summer just as another grandson was devouring the Percy Jackson series. He excitedly said to me, "Grandma, you have got to read these books. They will teach you all about mythology." I had to find an online list of Greek Gods in order to read through the first book, Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief. I had forgotten all my mythology and had to find a cheat sheet.

My twin granddaughters, who are 10, have been busily reading the Anne of Green Gables series. Even my son-in-law got hooked on the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin, and I couldn't wait to read the next Stephanie Plum book, Smokin' Seventeen by Janet Evanovich. (I've read them all.)

In my career as a librarian, I have noticed that the children who read books in series read the most. Those children actually devour books in the same way they devour hamburgers and fries. There is comfort in a set of characters with whom the child is familiar. For the youngest reader, there are fewer words to learn; they already know the words Amelia Bedelia or Frog and Toad. The middle reader wants to know what is going to happen next to characters they have grown to love. The older reader becomes hooked on the philosophy of the book--the consequences and the cause and effect.

A parent-educator might ask if there is literary value in books in series. Of course, like everything else, some series have more value as literature than others. Certainly the Little Women series have more literary value than the Choose Your Own Adventure series. I have posted on the Other Great Books library list some book series that I would recommend for educational or literary value (through grade 8). I have also included some websites of book lists that you might find valuable as you are helping your child choose books.

Email me if you would like some additional book sources, or if you would like titles of non-fiction books that might tie-in with the fiction series that your child is reading. For example, books on the frontier to go with the Little House books or fact books about frogs and toads to go with the Arnold Lobel books. My email is

Also, if you have a library or book store that you visit, remember to let your child browse and choose books on a variety of topics. Lifelong interests and lifelong skills grow from choosing and reading books.

So tell me...what series of books is your child devouring? What are your feelings about books in series?


(2) Ross, C.S., If they read Nancy Drew, so what? Series book readers talk back. Library & Information Science Research. Volume 17, issue 3. Summer 1995, Pages 201-239


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