Sharing Early Literacy Learning Journeys

Archive for the ‘Literacy’ Category

Grab, split, burst, crush, mince

A female Pine Grosbeak gobbles plump, red, nutritious, almost transluscent, highbush cranberries for breakfast. The shiny, bright berries, like tiny, taut balloons about to burst, glow midst the greyness.

The skin splits. Pink pulp and pale seeds burst sideways as she crushes the berry with her powerful beak. Like a child devouring every bit of sugar candy, she methodically minces the berry not wanting to lose any of its fruity treat.
Another berry: grab, split, burst, crush, mince.
Another berry: grab, split, burst, crush, mince.

Pine grosbeak

Must be like eating an apple without using hands. She makes it look easy.
Another berry…

A new bird on the block…reminds me of classroom life

Early Monday morning. Cool 10C. Cloudy. Dull. Grey. Intermittent light rain. Slow start today.  Curl up on the living room couch. Sip vanilla hazelnut coffee. Gaze out the picture window at a small wood bird-feeder in the front garden. Framed by two dwarf Alberta spruce trees. Chickadee arrives. A black-capped chickadee with ‘black cap, black bib and white cheeks’ (Peterson, p. 119).

Chickadee feeds. On niger seeds. And a mixture of other small seeds. Feeds again. Zings to a big, blue spruce tree nearby.  Another small bird lands on the cedar perch.

Pecks at seeds. Red-orange breast feathers – some might say cinnamon. Blue-grey back and wing  feathers. Black and white stripes at head.
New bird on the block! What is it?
Flies frantically  fast over the roof of the house. Chickadee returns. Leaves immediately when the ‘new’ bird appears. Heirachy is established.

Reach for the bird books. In the old, black, barrister bookcase – handed down through the family. Part of our large home library. Organised. Know exactly where to look. Second shelf from the top. Next to wood heat, wilderness and trees. Open the bird book. Look for the name of  the ‘new’ bird. In the chickadee family? Wren family? Finch family? Search the index.

Reminds me of classroom life. Searching for information about Harry’s frog. A green frog. Children observing and describing the frog. Sharing what they know. Getting frog books from the frog ‘basket of books’. Thinking aloud and demonstrating ‘finding information’. Going to the index. Looking up names. Green frogs. Tree frogs. White-lipped green tree frog.  That could be it. Turning to p.25. Reading headings. Finding out…

Do the same with the bird book. Search the index. Look up names. Examine colourplates and written descriptions. A nuthatch?

A nuthatch is a ‘small, chubby tree-climber, with a long bill and a stubby tail’ (Peterson, p. 120).  Is that a long bill? The bird nudges the small seeds around with his pointy beak as if he’s searching for a particular seed. Many seeds drop to the green grass below.

More information. Reddish breast. ‘Black line through eye’ (Peterson, Plate 44). Definitely a black stripe through his eye. Is that it?  A red-breasted nuthatch?

This nuthatch is skittish. He pecks and quickly turns his head from side to side. Constantly looking round… for enemies, I suppose. Blue Jays? Red-tailed hawks? Humans?

In the next half hour, we see two black-capped chickadees and the red-breasted nuthatch taking turns at the bird-feeder. Two small, brown sparrows also come and go. We take photos – but the birds are fast! Chickadees peck, peck, peck and flit, flap, fly fast to the protection of the big, blue spruce. Hide in the thick, prickly boughs. Sparrows quickly disappear over the house roof. Nuthatch returns. Eats.

A rare moment. Nuthatch and chickadee are at the feeder at the same time. Nuthatch eats with his tail in the air. Chickadee hides at the side.

My favourite part in learning about a bird is to look at the illustration and immediately check for similarities on the real bird out the window. It’s like a puzzle. Find a clue. Does it fit? Double check. I love this way of learning – reminds me of classroom life. I’ll know this bird forever…

Peterson, R.T. (1947).  A Field Guide to the Birds: eastern land and water birds. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Unexpected Visitor, Number Three

“When a pine needle falls in the forest;
the eagle hears it,
the deer sees it, and
the bear smells it.”
…an old First Nations saying.

“Look! Down the end of the road,” shouts our neighbour.
Straining our eyes and peering into the distance we see a smudge of brown against the grassy slope.

Suddenly a car noise. The deer turns sharply to take off back into the forest.
It’s hard to focus the camera.

A few minutes after the car passes, the deer reappears. Crosses the road towards the opposite green belt, stops.

A long way away. Three hundred metres at a guess. I steady the camera against the big, blue spruce at the front of the house. Try for another photo. Digital zoom. Focus.
Not perfect. But the best I can do. The deer moves off. Into the trees.
I walk down the road. Quietly. Slowly. Optimistically. Hoping the deer may stop to browse on willow leaves.
No luck. No deer. Maybe she saw me, smelled me, heard me.

Later that day, a neighbour asks if we saw a fawn running up the greenbelt next to our house and I wonder if the fawn belonged to the deer we saw earlier at the end of the road.

No. Missed it. I was inside folding laundry!

Unexpected Visitor, Number Two

“Hey Honey. Grab your camera. Will’s got a bird at his front door.”

For the second time in four days. A photo opportunity. And a learning opportunity. Excitedly I cross the road and see a small hawk on the lawn.
Is his wing broken?

He struggles and flaps his wings trying to get away from the admiring humans. He runs towards the open garage but stops on nearby bags of soil –
a higher vantage point perhaps?

Note the strong, sharp talons!

From there, he walks to the patio, watching us all the time.
I see his sharp, hooked beak and his ‘fierce, free eyes’ – as Byrd Baylor (1976) describes Rudy Soto’s hawk in Hawk, I’m Your Brother.

I see a droopy left wing, stopping him from flying as a hawk is meant to fly: soaring, gliding, diving…

One last photo, then we leave him in peace…

I phone and leave a message at a wildlife centre to see what we should/could do with a young hawk with a possible broken wing.

An hour later the hawk goes from Will’s front yard. When he leaves and where he goes, we do not know. It’s up to Mother Nature now…

As for me…
I re-read and relish Byrd Baylor’s wonderful book, Hawk, I’m Your Brother.

I also aim for ‘just-in-time-learning’.

I look up ‘hawks’ in the index of A Guide to Field Identification, Birds of North America (1966) by Robbins, Bruun and Zim and flip through sixteen pages of vultures, hawks and falcons (all of whom are in Order Falconformes) and learn that they are ‘diurnal flesh eaters and most take live prey.’  In addition, they ‘all have a heavy, sharp, hooked bill, and toes with strong curved talons’ (p. 64). However, I am not sure which hawk this one is…

I Google. But there are many, many choices…

I’ll settle for ‘hawk’ for the time being!

Can you share your information about hawks?  

An Unexpected Visitor

“Hey, Honey. Get your camera. Come out here. Quick!” my husband calls.

I grab my camera and race out the sliding doors onto the back deck. In the middle of the right hand side of the back lawn sits a snapping turtle – about a foot across the shell.

A rounded, grey head protrudes from her shell – not tucked within as I have seen with other turtles – and her triangular, spiked tail sticks out the back.

Old neck folds wrinkle and gather between her head and shell.

Four grey, scaly legs protrude from the shell and get lost in the grass – ready to be cut. In fact, Bill was cutting the grass when he saw her…

We look. From front, back and sides. Grey, muddy shell. Almost smooth. Unclear markings. Round head. Not pretty. Pre-historic. Zig-zag edge at the back of her shell, from which a ‘dinosaur-like’ scaled, tail protrudes.

She is plopped on the ground – and looks at us. Alert. Wary. Sand is in her right eye and she rubs her right front leg across her eye as if to clear it: “All the better to see you with, my dear!”

Why is this snapping turtle on our back lawn?

Where has she been?

Where is she going?

We assume she laid eggs (in the greenbelt woodland area behind? under our back cedar trees?) and is now returning to the lake 200-300 yards in front of us… in an easterly direction.

I stop taking photos and retreat to the back deck. Give her space.

Soon, she rises slowly and walks. Lumbers really. In a straight line between our house and a neighbour’s house – no fences here. Makes it easy for her… slow and steady wins the race.

Seeing the snapping turtle heading for water reminds me of Lynley Dodds’ book (1985), The Smallest Turtle  when turtle babies hatch on the beach and hear the water calling: “To the sea! To the sea!” with illustrations of hatchlings racing, stumbling and scrambling over the hot, white sand to the cool, clear sea… racing to avoid being picked off by seagulls overhead.

I run to the front of the house and peek around the corner. She’s lumbering with a steady gait, rhythmical, almost swinging. Not ungainly. Each time she sees me, she plops and stops.

I hide. She continues walking on the grass. Two neighbours come to look. She plops again. Head moving. Watching us. Each time we move out of sight, she walks – but the minute she sees one of us, she plops!

How wide is her peripheral vision?

Finally, we let her go. To get on with her task. Her walk. I hope she accomplishes her mission and reaches her destination…  but first, there’s a road to cross.

From behind a low juniper tree I watch her traverse the ditch by the side of the road and go onto the road.  Steadily, rhythmically and safely she strides across the bitumen, with speed it seems – no cars come along at the time. Maybe the hard surface is easier to walk on than soft grass and ground?

She goes up the ditch on the other side of the road, onto a neighbour’s grass. I watch her until she’s out of sight; swallowed by shadows of distant trees. Three more lawns to go, a small road, woods and then the lake…

I hope she makes it!

No wonder these signs are on highways around here.

This is the first snapping turtle I have ever seen, so I want to find out about it. ‘Just in time learning’ I call it – learning when one needs it. When information is meaningful and relevant.

How much learning in your classroom is ‘just in time learning’?

When children bring tadpoles, caterpillars, a green tree frog, a butterfly, a bird’s nest or almost anything from nature, we take the time to look, talk and share – both knowledge and experiences. Sometimes, the shared item grows into a ‘mini-unit’ or a ‘short study’ with drawings, photos, sentences, vocabulary, sounds, word work, writing and reading. And, there’s always research… books, charts and internet. ‘Strike while the iron’s hot’. ‘Just in time learning’ occurs for children and adults. We learn interesting things together.

Later, I find out that a snapping turtle’s plastron is ‘yellowish, small and cross-shaped: legs and underbelly are not well protected’ (
But I had to look up the word, plastron: the under portion of the shell of a turtle or tortoise that is made up of several, often hinged, bony plates joined to the carapace by bridges located between the animal’s legs (Encarta Dictionary).

Learn more about snapping turtles:

Tell me about a turtle you have seen.
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