Monthly Archives: December 2012

Mystery: It Does a Brain Good

We all need a little R & R—that is Reading & Relaxation—from time to time.  But I’ve found that my reading choices lately are starting to lose variety.  With busy schedules, I imagine I’m not alone in turning to books for entertainment…that time when I can curl up all cozy, turn off my brain, and escape into a good story.

But I remember a time when reading was where I learned about the world.  It was how I encountered words I didn’t know, and then added them to my own vocabulary.

I went through an especially long MYSTERY phase as a child.

Me and my granny

Me and my Granny

Looking back, I believe this helped me analyze and think about what I was reading.  As a detective, I had to look for clues and pay attention to sequencing.  It was necessary to read between the lines.  If I wanted any chance of solving the mystery, I had to think about characters’ motives, make inferences from what they said and did, notice discrepancies or gaps, and crunch the clues to draw conclusions.  That’s A LOT of critical thinking skills.  But as a kid, I thought I was just reading a great book!

I’ve been working on my own version of a detective story.  It’s a picture book involving Sarge, a German Shepherd, who feels a strong responsibility to watch out for his neighbors.  When suspicious dog behavior is reported, he launches an investigation to get to the bottom of things.  Quite surprised by what he finds, he learns you CAN teach an old dog new tricks.

To improve my story, I’m doing more “research,” which in this case means read and read and read mysteries for all ages.   So I thought I’d pass along the treasures I’m finding.


Hank the Cowdog

Hank the Cowdog Written by former cowboy, John R. Erickson
Interest Level: Grades 2-5, chapter book series
Plot Summary: Solving mysteries on a ranch
With almost 60 books, you’ve hit the jackpot if your 2nd-5th grader likes the first book: The Original Adventures of Hank the Cowdog.  This slightly-paranoid dog takes his self-appointed role as Head of Ranch Security very seriously.  But somehow, he always ends up on the wrong side of things and his owners, Loper and Sally Mae, just don’t understand all his hard work to serve and protect.  But Hank doesn’t let that get to him: “Every dog in this world isn’t cut out for security work.  It requires a keen mind, a thick skin, and a peculiar devotion to duty.  I mean, you put in sixteen-eighteen hours a day.  You’re on call day and night.  Your life is on the line every time you go out on patrol…The very people you’re protecting won’t understand.  They’ll blame you when things go wrong.  But that’s the price of greatness, isn’t it?”

Ace Lacewing Bug Detective

AceLacewing Written by David Biedrzycki
Interest Level: Grades 2-3, picture book
Plot Summary: Ace and his gal Xerces solve mysteries. 
“Bad Bugs Are My Business” reads the sign over Ace’s office. With this Dick Tracy-style character, kids will unravel a mystery in under 2,000 words, while learning a lot about insects in the process.

Detective Little Boy Blue

DetectiveBlue Written by Steve Metzger
Interest Level: Grades K-3
Plot Summary: Detective Blue solves nursery rhyme mysteries.
Boys and girls alike will enjoy spotting all the nursery rhyme characters in this detective story illustrated by Ted Arnold in comic book fashion.  And the ending will come as quite a surprise.  You only thought you knew those well-loved characters…

What REALLY Happened to Humpty?

Humpty Written by Joe Dumpty as told to Jeanie Franz Ransom
Interest Level: Grades K-3
Plot Summary: Humpty’s brother, Joe, is sure that Humpty was pushed.  And he’s on a mission to find out the truth.
This hard-boiled detective story weaves numerous nursery rhyme characters together in a mystery where everyone is a suspect.  Find out the truth behind the cover-up rhyme we’ve all been told.


Piggins Written by Jane Yolen
Interest Level: Grades K-3
Plot Summary: Piggins, the butler, is quite handy at more than just serving dinner.  He saves the day many a time with his attention to detail and observation skills.
This English hero resembles Agatha Christie’s detectives more than the trench coat and fedora-wearing inspectors of the 1940s.  All the detective work happens over a 2-3 page spread, so kids will really be challenged as they try to beat Piggins to the solution.

This was the extent of my library research this last weekend before the holidays.  I’ll leave you with another link that explores mystery books for preschool through ninth grade.  It supplies a wide variety of styles and interests within the genre.

That’s the beauty of mysteries.  Every child can find their interest, whether it’s sports, horror, humor, horses, monsters, fantasy, science, cars, etc…

So encourage your child to try a mystery, and pick up one for yourself, too.

Dog Files: Beauty, Not Brains

I haven’t posted any dog pics lately so here’s a treasure for you.  Bear and Jordan LOVE car rides.  But normally Bear lies down, hogging 85% of the backseat in my Honda.  Jordan is then stuck in the corner looking out the small window in the back.  But still, they get so excited to go. Go figure!

Normally Jordan is behind me and Bear is behind the passenger seat.  This is an important detail.  You see, my driver’s side window is messed up so I can’t put it down for her.  But this last time, somehow the two switched spots.

Car ride: BEFORE

So we’re going along and I put the passenger window down.  Jordan then makes a mind (and ear) – blowing discovery. She can stick her head kind of out the window and it feels really cool!  The sights, the smells, the wind in her golden hair…Ahhhh…bliss!

Ears Flappin'

Never mind that this is something every other dog on the planet already knows. I never said my sweet dogs were smart.

And just a side note, Bear hasn’t figured it out yet.  Shhhhh….Ignorance is its own form of bliss.  I can just see them fighting over their spot in the backseat.  Reminds me of car rides with my siblings as a child.

“Do I have to pull this car over?”

New Year’s Resolution: Part 2

“How can I help my child become a better reader?”  Great question!  Your child’s reading ability affects his learning in other subjects like math, science, social studies, and writing.  In the early elementary years, the focus is on learning to read.  As early as second grade, students begin reading to learn.  Your child reads great authors in order to learn how he can become a better writer.  Your child reads nonfiction to learn about history, people, and the world around her.

ANSWER:  Ask them GOOD questions about their reading to increase comprehension and stimulate critical thinking skills.

If you aren’t sure what I mean by “good,” you’re not alone. Read this excerpt from an article written by Stacia Garland at

We all want our children to use necessary critical thinking skills. Thanks to Bloom’s Taxonomy, parents can help develop and strengthen their child’s thinking skills at home. Unfortunately, teachers and parents are more likely to ask children questions at the Remembering level, which is the lowest level of thinking. This includes questions like: who, what, where, when and why. These types of questions only require children to use memorization in order to respond.

Article in its entirety:

The only reason I know how to ask good questions is because I took classes in order to get my Bachelors in Education!  But don’t worry.  You don’t have to have a teaching degree to glean some simple strategies to help your child today.

Since I taught second grade, I do want to add one thing before I lay out the levels in Bloom’s Taxonomy.  Please don’t SKIP the Remembering level all together.  There is value in asking those reporter questions: who, what, where, when, and why.  And it doesn’t take long.  I even had a RETELL story glove (it was a cotton work glove–$1.50 a pair at Lowes).  Each finger had a different label: characters, setting, problem, events, and solution.

I’d have the child wear the glove (purely for fun) and ask the beginner reader to answer those questions for the story or chapter we’d read.  If he knew the answers, great!  We would move on to the next level.  But what if he didn’t?  This was a good indicator that the child was struggling to decode, remember, or organize in their mind what they were reading.

A struggling decoder is easy to spot, but the “hooked on phonics” type kid can slip through the cracks.  He or she is excellent at decoding and reading aloud, but might not be able to answer a single question about the story.  This totally changes your approach with that child, whether parent or teacher.

So trust me, don’t skip any of the levels, but do adjust how much time you spend on the first level based on your child’s needs.

Now, what are the levels in this taxonomy?  I’m so glad you asked.

  1. Remembering
  2. Understanding
  3. Applying
  4. Analyzing
  5. Evaluating
  6. Creating

Bloom’s Taxonomy:
This link will show you a chart of the 6 levels PLUS key words, model questions, and instructional strategies.  Good news!  The work is already done for you.  You can pluck questions directly from here and engage your child today.  You’ll soon have a feel for your child’s exposure and capacity for critical thinking.

As you listen, be patient because kids get WAY more experience with levels 1-2 in school.  Thankfully, as a 2nd grade teacher, I did not have to administer a standardized test, but I wouldn’t doubt the following quote, from Stacia Garland again, has some truth to it:

Teachers state that with the big push of state testing and the pressure to teach to the test, it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to be able to take their time and teach at a higher level. As a parent you can help your child to use critical thinking skills and work on exercising their mind so that they will be a high level thinker.

The sooner you start this habit of reading with and to your child, the better.  I’ve already shown you the benefits for your child.  But here’s the benefit for you, the parent.  Let’s be honest here.  It is MUCH easier to read a 1000-word picture book with your young child and ask these questions because you’ve just read the book with him.   YOU KNOW THE ANSWERS!

And each day you do this, you are creating a strong foundation of critical thinking skills that your child will carry with her.  She’ll be able to apply this higher-level thinking to other reading because you’ve given her practice, which leads to confidence.

In my guided reading groups, we’d often be reading lengthy chapter books.  Yes, even in second grade—the wonderful fruit of great parents who read with their children.  But the thing was, this meant I had to take home a stack of chapter books each weekend and read the next week’s assignment!  How else could I ask (and know the answers to) these Bloom’s Taxonomy higher-level questions?

And so now your child is reading Magic Tree House or Ivy and Bean, between 5,000 and 10,000 words per book!  Unless you’re going for some Parent of the Year award, I’m guessing you don’t have time to read every book your child reads.  And I know I get uncomfortable asking questions that I don’t know the answer to.

Once you get past the Remember and Understand levels, there ARE no right answers!  We’re talking about higher level thinking here, so you want them to take the information and weigh it, arriving at judgments and conclusions for themselves.

So ask your child to retell the who/what/when/where stuff briefly (summarizing is always a good skill to practice).  And then take a few nuggets from what he says and springboard from there.

What would happen if [cause]…?  What would be the effect?
What do you think the motive was for [character]?
Which seems more appropriate: what [character] did or [character]?
How did [character] try to persuade [character]?
What ideas justify the conclusion?
Propose an alternative.  How else would you…?

Which statements are facts?  Which are opinions?
What’s the relationship between [animal] and [environmental force mentioned]?
How much change would there be if…?
What’s the main idea?

And maybe, once in awhile, curl up with one of the good books your child is reading—10,000 words and all—and enter that world.  You’ll be treated to the sweet conversations that follow between you and your child as you share in their experience.

In my next post, I’ll explore my own reading of late:
What? Mysteries
Why? I’m doing “research” for my dog detective picture book.
How can mysteries help your child? I think these types of stories encourage critical thinking in students of all ages.  I will provide a reading list for you, as well.

Need a New Year’s Resolution? READ to your child.

How about a resolution this year that will change your child’s life? Parents often ask, “How can I help my child become a better reader?”  The answer is two-fold and for this post I’ll address part 1, focusing on the word “reader.”

Answer: Your child must READ!

Set the expectation for your child that he/she will spend at least 20 minutes EACH night reading.  Period.  Read to your child, with your child, in front of your child, etc….

Kind of a no-brainer, right?  Read, so you can become a better reader.  However, schedules are jam-packed, even with good things.  It will take discipline to set aside and protect this time.  But there is just too much research and evidence to ignore the importance of reading daily, no matter the age of your child.

Here are just a few statistics:

  • Of the children who leave third grade reading below grade level, 74% never catch up.
  • Out of every 193 Americans that are in jail, 49% of them read at or below a 9th grade level.
  • Reading just makes “cents”: For every year that a person spends reading (either independently or being read aloud to), his/her lifetime earning potential goes up considerably. For a time investment of approximately 87 hours a year (20 minutes a day for 5 days a week), you can increase your child’s ability to support him or herself in the future considerably.

And it’s never too early to start.  Enjoy this poem from


Read to your children
Twenty minutes a day;
You have the time,
And so do they.

Read while the laundry is in the machine;
Read while dinner cooks;
Tuck a child in the crook of your arm
And reach for the library books.

Hide the remote,
Let the computer games cool,
For one day your child will be off to school;

Remedial? Gifted? You have the choice.
Let them hear their first tales,
In the sound of your voice.

Read in the morning,
Read over noon,
Read by the light of
Goodnight Moon.

Turn the pages together,
Sitting close as you’ll fit,
‘Till a small voice beside you says,
“Hey, don’t quit.”

Author Unknown

Here are a few more links that support starting this habit early to set the stage for future success.

Convinced yet?  “Yes, but how?” you might ask.

So you need help stealing 20 minutes from elsewhere in your schedule?  Here are some good ideas of time-wasters that can be turned into reading opportunities.

This article suggests ways to create a home atmosphere of reading that involves the whole family.

To those of you already doing this…BRAVO!  I’d love to hear your testimonies.  What does your child like to read?  How early did you start?  How do you fit it into your busy schedule?  What are your favorite books to read as an adult (modeling is important)?

My next post will address part 2 in answer to the question: “How can I help my child become a better reader?”   Once you’ve created an expectation for reading, you’re ready to help your child become BETTER at it.

I Would If I Could, But I Can’t So I Shan’t: Fostering Risk-taking in Learning

As a former teacher, one of the hardest things to foster in students was perseverance in problem solving.  Whether it was a math story, logic puzzle, or science experiment, I saw the same thing over and over.  Students want immediate solutions.  Often if they can’t figure out the “right” answer immediately, they give up.

This was even true for my advanced readers and mathematicians.  Interestingly, these students would not only give up, but also be critical of themselves or the activity itself.  I’m not completely unfamiliar with this reaction.  I remember being the same way as a child.  It seems possible to me that those deemed “smart” by others are used to figuring things out quickly.  To be unable to do so is unnerving and uncomfortable.

My solution was to always challenge the students to KEEP WORKING ON THE PROBLEM.  After I assured them repeatedly that there was no mistake in the problem or scenario, they would then attack it from a different angle.  And then another, and another.

Now parents, don’t fret.  I didn’t send your kids away with a “Figure it out yourself and leave me alone” attitude.  They would often sit at my desk and struggle through it, asking me questions intermittently.  I would ask questions back (really annoying at the time, I know) to help them think outside the box, but I absolutely would not give them the answer.

And you know what happened?  They’d figure it out.  And a smile as wide as Texas would spread from ear to ear.  You see—there is something extremely satisfying about delayed gratification and perseverance.  It presents us with an intangible reward: satisfaction and renewed confidence in ourselves.  And perhaps more importantly, the faith to take risks in the future and tackle the “impossible.”

My next posts will detail an often more palatable way to encourage this critical thinking in your child…through reading.  I’ll provide you with a handy tool to help you engage your child in higher-level thinking using pre-made questions from Bloom’s Taxonomy.  I’ll also direct you to Mystery resources for your child including picture books, I Can Read, and chapter books.