Category Archives: Books and Reading

Getting students to dig deeper into their reading through accountable talk.

Today was the start of the new school year for me as I attended a workshop with Maria Nichols. She has written several books about accountable talk from her experience as part of a demonstration school in San Diego. She was literally a teacher behind the glass, teaching students half the day with a hidden audience of up to 200 teachers and administrators, and processing the experience with them the other half of the day. That is courage!

Much of what she presented was familiar, but there is always something new and useful if I am paying attention. Today’s useful tidbit sounds small but could have a very large impact on my teaching. When I ask students an question about something we have read and give them thinking time, maybe even “turn-and-talk” time, almost all of them will have an idea they want to share. In the past I have tried to give most of them a chance to share their thoughts. This takes quite a bit of time in a whole class discussion. Nichols pointed out that if we want our student to think more deeply about their reading we need to realize and teach our students, too, that growing an idea is more important than hearing everyone’s initial ideas. As a teacher I need to help students take one beginning idea and respond to it, digging deeper until the group has created something that no one could have predicted when we started. Students in turn need to put their energy into listening to each other’s ideas and responding to them instead of trying to keep their own first thoughts in their memories. If their first thought was an important piece of thinking deeper it will naturally resurface even if it is temporarily lost. Meanwhile attention to and interaction with the ideas of others will help them develop their ability to think critically, something the state of Colorado’s current politics shows is desperately needed! (Sorry for the political aside, but it is pretty crazy around here, and this is only the primaries.)


Tags: , ,

Is the student able to apply his learning to a new situation?

As teachers, we all have those students who help us remember why we love this job. This summer I taught 5th graders in DPS’s Summer ELA Academy. I was pleased to have a few students I had taught this past year in my reading intervention groups. They arrived with smiling faces, glad to be in my class. (Admit it teachers, it’s not our job to be liked, but it sure is nice when we are.) A. appeared each day with a contagious smile and a notebook under his arm, even though there was no written homework. He looked the picture of a dedicated scholar. His hand was waving to answer almost every question. “What are the characteristics of a pourquoi tale?” “Who is the trickster in this story?” “How are fables and pourquoi tales alike?”

The summer program was four weeks long. By the end of the third week, A. was hinting that he was going to bring me a present on the last day. The hints continued, and last Friday as my class trooped up the noisy metal stairs into our mobile classroom he gave me his trademark friendly smile and handed me a soft bundle wrapped in white plastic bags like those you get at many stores. “Don’t open it until you get home,” he said. I think he also mumbled something about a teddy bear or stuffed animal.

I put the bundle in my tote and went about the activities of our last day, which included ice cream and cookies. The cookies were from the legendary  Neiman Marcus cookie recipe as we wrapped up our folklore unit with a mini-lesson on urban legends. Then the students were all gone and I had to pack up my classroom and turn in all my paperwork. Later that evening, I remembered A.’s present. I went to my tote, and it wasn’t there. I checked the car. Nothing. I searched my memory and realized that at one point I had taken it out of my tote so I could fit some papers in. Did I put it back in? Did I stick it in a cupboard? Worst of all, did I stick it in the trash, thinking it was just a bunch of plastic bags?

I had to wait until Tuesday because of the holiday weekend. I got up early Tuesday morning and drove to the school, hoping against hope that no one had gone out to the mobile to empty the trash yet. I managed to get the attention of a custodian, who unlocked the mobile for me. There was the trash can, not emptied yet, but no white bundle. I checked the metal storage units, my file cabinet, and my desk drawers. I went inside and checked the office. It had simply disappeared, and I was so upset with myself. I didn’t even get a chance to look at it. How was I supposed to write a convincing thank-you note?

This morning as I was cleaning up the kitchen after putting some peaches in the dehydrator I spotted a bit of white in my cookbook corner. Evidently I had taken the bundle out of my tote and put it on the counter without thinking. Eagerly I started to unwrap it… untying a bag and setting it aside…and another one…and another one…and one more…and I began to suspect….until I was left with the last empty bag. My relief at finding the “gift” was replaced by puzzlement. This didn’t seem like A. Why would he lead me to think he was giving me a gift and then just play a trick on me? Then I realized he had given me a very special gift. He had taken a concept that we had studied and applied it to something new. So, to use one of the sentence frames from our class:

A. is a very  clever student. For example, he studied trickster tales and figured out how to show his teacher that he understands what a trickster is.


Tags: ,

Publishing on demand thoughts

Yesterday I described the moderately mixed success my grandfather and my father had with self publishing. My grandfather used a traditional vanity press, and my father began by using a commercial printer and transitioned to doing it all with his own computer and printer. Dad’s cruising guides used a very simple binding technology that was easy to do at home: a spiral binding, which has the advantage of lying flat when in use. This post will describe my experience with on-demand publishing, a development that allows an author to publish a hardcover or paperback book without paying for a print run up front or investing in expensive printers and binding equipment.

The post WWII years were a time of radical changes in the way Americans interacted with the natural world. Our pioneer heritage taught us that the wilderness should be conquered and civilized. In the 1950s boy scouts still went camping in what is now the Indian Peaks Wilderness area and cut branches to lash into camp furniture, proudly leaving their mark on the land. A major influence on the transition from an attitude of conquest to one of preservation was the development of lightweight camping gear. I knew this connection first-hand from accompanying my father, Gerry Cunningham, as he gave talks and demonstrations promoting the “Leave No Trace” philosophy and showing how our family used Gerry equipment to backpack carrying less that 20 lb. each. After I moved back to Colorado in the late 1990s I realized that there was little awareness in Colorado’s outdoor community of the history that led to our strong outdoor culture. The history of the “Lightweight Revolution” on the GoLite company’s Web site at is a prime example of how oblivious today’s outdoor enthusiasts can be. I often thought about researching and writing about some of these developments. Then a man named Bruce Johnson with a passion for the history of outdoor gear appeared, and I no longer worried about this history being lost.

Bruce has a Web site with extensive information on a wide range of gear pioneers  at He has written books about three gear pioneers: Dale Johnson of Frostline Kits, Gerry and Ann Cunningham of Gerry Mountain Sports, and Roy and Alice Holubar of Holubar Mountaineering. He is using, a publish-on-demand site to publish them. I have all three, one in paperback format and two in hardcover.

The books are thoroughly researched and well written, though not as polished as books that go through the traditional editing and publishing process would be.  The layout is attractive and the reproduction of photos is excellent on the glossy paper stock. The paperback binding is well glued. The hardcovers have a sturdy cloth cover with sewn pages and a colorful dust jacket. Paying a vanity press up front for a small run of each book would require the kind of money most aspiring authors don’t have, so print-on-demand seems like an ideal solution. So what is the problem?

Price is the problem. The paperback editions are $27.95 plus s&h and the hardcovers are $39.95. Bruce Johnson’s books have achieved a certain amount of recognition (he was honored by the Boulder Heritage Roundtable on May 10, 2010) and are found in a few libraries with a particular interest in this field. However, most libraries won’t order them because they are expensive compared to other similar books from traditional publishers and because there is no discount available to libraries. Readers browsing the book sections of outdoor stores like REI would probably be interested, but these stores will never carry them because of the price and lack of distributor discount. I think it would be possible to find a traditional publisher, but that involved a huge investment in time and plenty of persistence. Right now Johnson’s time and energy for this project are taken up with his ongoing research. He is all too aware that time is running out for primary source research. Of the subjects of his first three books, only Dale Johnson is still living.

Leave a comment

Posted by on July 4, 2010 in Books and Reading


Tags: , , ,

Self-Publishing thoughts

A colleague recently introduced me to, a news & entertainment Web site, but forwarding a link to an article about how internet self-publishing opportunities will affect not only the publishing industry but also the experience of readers. (Article at In “When anyone can be a published author” Laura Miller, a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review, points out that without the editor’s function of wading through reams of manuscripts to find the worthwhile ones, readers will be faced with that daunting task themselves. In the end they will rely on various online sources to steer them towards worthwhile reading. In other words, if traditional publishing does disappear, as some believe is inevitable, the same functions will be performed by a different set of people. Whether the result is better or worse is still up for grabs.

My first experience with non-traditional publishing came from my family. Somewhere in the family archives I hauled back from Arizona is a copy of my grandfather’s self-published book that trained his photofinishing employees to produce the best possible prints for Cunningham Studios. He used the most innovative training technique of the time, self-paced instruction, in which content is broken down into small increments and learning is reinforced through frequent questions on recent concepts. This self-published training manual served its purpose, meeting the needs of his business.

My father, too, has self-published, most notably the various volumes of his cruising guides to the Sea of Cortez (a.k.a. Gulf of California) still available at Dad was not one to sit around waiting for someone else to believe in his ideas. He was willing to put forth the money and effort to do it all himself, including marketing. For years he and Mother had their regular annual circuit of West Coast boat shows and other sail gatherings where they manned the Gerry Cruising Charts booth and gave slide shows and talks about the Sea of Cortez. The most challenging part of this endeavor was dealing with printing costs. When the business started Dad would pay for a printing run, paying up front, and then hope to make enough money selling that stock to order a new print run. Any corrections or adjustments had to wait for the next printing. As computer technology became more sophisticated and came down in cost he enlisted the help of friend David Parker and later my brother Peter to do more of the layout and printing himself. Had they only been dealing with the 8 1/2 x 11 cruising guides it would have been simpler, but their printing operation also had to handle the larger format charts. Making a profit was a struggle, but self-publishing enabled Dad to share his passion for cruising the Sea of Cortez.

Tomorrow: Publish on demand using


Tags: , ,

Recorded Books vs. Print Books

On my way back to Colorado I listened to Thomas Cahill’s reading of the fifth book in his Hinges of History series, Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe. This is history the way I like it, a combination of broad perspective and detail told by a good storyteller in language that doesn’t talk down to me. Some historical figures whose names I recognized but about whom I couldn’t have told you much before listening to this book are now on my list for further investigation. The recording was abridged to six hours, helping keep me awake for a good chunk of my 17 hour drive.

I listen to audiobooks on road trips that I might not actually read through in the shorter chunks of time I spend reading when at home. I was feeling a bit guilty about this until I realized one of the advantages of listening to quality recordings. In the course of the book there were four different words that I recognized but for which, since I had only seen them in print, I had an incorrect pronunciation in my mind. (I would tell you what they were, but since I was driving I couldn’t write them down and after two days of in-service meetings to prepare for teaching summer school, I can’t remember except that one began with as—.) It took me back to sixth grade, when I was in the uncomfortable position of being teacher’s pet because my mother had forgotten to register me for school and all the spaces in the “smart” class were gone. I stood up to read from a textbook one day and came to the word debris. Now I could have told you exactly what it meant, but I had never actually heard the word, so I pronounced it just the way it looked. I was probably far more embarrassed than the occasion warranted, but I wasn’t used to making mistakes in front of that class.  Anyway, Cahill’s rendition of history was entertaining enough to listen to again and try to capture those four words and learn how to say them correctly.

Leave a comment

Posted by on June 28, 2010 in Books and Reading


Tags: , , , , ,

A reading family, bookplates for inherited books

My parents were avid readers. We read at the table, family members walked with open books from the dining room to the living room, we read while eating popcorn or ice cream sundaes for dessert, and we read in bed until we fell asleep. For us kids, that often meant a flashlight under the covers. My niece, knowing this about her grandparents, asked for some books that they had found interesting. As my brothers and I went through their bookshelves we also found some that other grandchildren or great-grandchildren might like. I placed a book-plate in each book that explains why it was chosen to be passed on. Here is the text of a few of them:

  • In Escapes and Rescues compiled by Margaret C. Scoggin (Knopf, 1960): This book is special because it shows how a Gerry tent played an important pert in saving the lives of some of the climbers of the 1953 American attempt to climb K2, the second highest mountain in the world.
  • In A Treasury of Mountaineering Stories edited by Daniel Talbot (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1954): From the time she was a young girl walking alone across the frozen St. Clair River to Canada to planning a world climbing and biking tour with her husband Gerry, Ann Cunningham loved adventure. The world tour never happened, but other adventures came her way. As this book shows, her appetite for adventure extended to her reading.
  • In Two Under the Indian Sun by Jon and Rumer Godden (Viking, 1966): Ann Cunningham was always fascinated by books about India, both fiction and nonfiction. This book was one that introduced her and her daughter Penny to the author Rumer Godden. Over the years they read and talked about many of Rumer Godden’s books.

Tags: , ,