Tuesday, August 30, 2016

I Left My ❤️ in Kinston, NC--A long, slightly unrelated post...

...but there is a small book review embedded within the post...

We could also call it the "How I spent my vacation" essay

Sandwiched in between two extended family events on a road trip south, my husband and two kids spent two nights in "eastern Carolina." If you want to meet people who instantly friend you, hear sweet accents harmonize, enjoy delicious meals at every turn, and learn a little bit of history all topped with a splash of southern charm and hospitality, you must put a visit to Kinston on your bucket list. And for your sake, I hope it moves to the top.

Why Kinston? Ever hear of the show on PBS, "A Chef's Life"? Most people haven't. Kevin is proud to claim that it is his favorite show and surprisingly has never denied it once when I have claimed him to be Vivian Howard's (the show's creator) biggest fan. In fact, and he would hate that I am saying this, but his face lit up whenever he saw or heard references to the show throughout the town. 

The first site we saw when we pulled into Kinston--the farmers market featuring Brothers Farm

I emailed Beth a few weeks ago to make our reservation and I should have known from the start that it was going to be an unforgettable experience all around.  After a long drive from Charlotte, we pulled into the Neuseway Park to set up camp.  Although it isn't a fancy place, it has character.  It's on the river.  It's quiet and if we had more time we'd be able to go to the planetarium or even kayaking. Next time!  Plus, you really can't beat the price--$6 per night!

Our reservation at Chef and the Farmer was at 7:30.  Yum.  We ordered almost everything on the menu!  From bacon wrapped peaches for Kevin to fried ocra with ranch ice cream to brisket and cornish hen--it was all heavenly.  Our server, Jessica, became our friend instantly and gave me the recipe to my unforgettable cocktail as well as "found" an extra slice of the chocolate deliciousness that we really desired for dessert.  Kevin recognized one of the servers from the show and we saw the back of Vivian!  She was up on the next level having a business dinner.  Coming this far, it was just exciting to be only yards away.

We had a full day in Kinston on Thursday.  Since we were planning on having all our meals out, we didn't even pack our camp stove or coffee pot therefore our first stop was Middle Grounds Coffee House.  It was there we met Amber, our Barista and Sara Smith, the new Director of Marketing for Chef and the Farmer.  Poor Sara--she pulled up a chair and sat with us for so long that I'm sure her coffee was cold by the time she left.  I probably owe her a drink.

Mother Earth Brewery was our first stop.  Started by a couple of Kinston/Lenoir County guys (son-n-law/father-n-law pair), this brewery has a future.  It is the first environmentally sound brewery in the country from the architecture to the packaging and they give back to their own community.  You can tell that Kinston is proud of them.  RJ, our knowledgeable tour guide, also happens to be the percussion player for the local band, The Vanilla Gorillas.  We noticed the band from a poster at Middle Ground promoting an upcoming gig so felt like we were meeting a celebrity!

Who wouldn't want to work in a place that has a slide?!
Do they need a librarian and/or research scientist?

Even though the reviews were mixed for Olvera Street Taqueria, we went anyway and had a satisfying lunch.  My mahi salad was filling and loaded with guacamole.  The family enjoyed their tacos as well.

And our day isn't even half over!  Sara recommended a couple of arts places to visit and so we did. One place offers space for artists to work and Bruce gave us an extensive tour of the place.  Turns out Jane, the wife of Warren (of Brother's Farm) rents space there, too.  Lots of good Kinston art happening right there from pottery to painting. We also went to the Arts Council and had a fun docent as a tourguide.  She had the perfect Eastern North Carolina accent and she knew it.  I'm just sorry we didn't get her name.  Upstairs is a husband and wife art exhibit.  The husband paints local residents in action.  Guess whose painting we saw?! RJ's!

Notice the sculptures?  Kinston has a whole outdoor art trail!

Here's the LIBRARY part:

It was time to take a little break so where does a family like ours do that?  The library, of course! We were there long enough for me to find on display and read The Great Pet Escape by Victoria Jamieson.  Hamster, George Washington (GW) from second grade and Barry the Bunny from first grade team up to set free Biter from kindergarten.  But now that Biter is with the kinders, he has become a bit more zen, talking about his feelings, referencing the 70s soundtrack from "Free to Be...You And Me" and changing his name to"Sunflower."  GW, Barry and Sunflower meet up with Harriet and her mice minions from the upper grades.  A fight ensues in the cafeteria with jello flying everywhere.  Not exactly something I would want to find in the morning if I was the 6:00 am custodian.  What happens to the three classroom pets?  Do they survive the wrath of Harriet and the minions?  You'll have to go to Kinston or just your nearest library to find out in this laugh-out-loud-I-almost-cried graphic novel!  And happy news! A sequel should be out this winter!

What's a visit to a town if you don't pop into their library?

We were the only ones in the CSS Neuse Museum that afternoon, giving us full reign and even Zack the opportunity to dress up as a Confederate sailor. It was a great opportunity to get some Civil War education and see the remnants of a real Confederate gunboat.

The original gunboat

Sailor Zack

Before dinner we went back to the brewery to regroup, charge devices and rest a bit more.  It was there that we met Linda and Brian, two folks from Chicago who had also come to Kinston for the restaurant.  Instant bond! Friends for life!  Tari has dreams of going to college in Chicago (or at least to see "Hamilton" there) and we will definitely call them up!  They even spent the night at Warren's Bed and Breakfast!

Vivian and Ben's "Boiler Room" was our next destination.  Although none of us got the signature burgers or oysters, it was still delicious.  It was fried chicken special night and OMG!  Zack and Kevin both ordered it and Tari and I wished we did, too.  Oh and who do you think we saw there? Just our new friend, RJ.

As the sun got lower in the sky and tempers could start getting shorter, we didn't seem to find that with the Kinston folks.  Hour after hour, they were all still friendly and welcoming to this family of Yankees.  Maybe it was because there was a big announcement that day that "Baseball is back in Kinston" or maybe this is just how they always are.

We ended the evening with music in the park.  It was there that we ran into Linda and Brian from Chicago, Bruce the artist and saw our Arts Council docent rockin out.  I couldn't stand to have the day end so we went back to Chef and the Farmer to say goodbye to Beth.  We hugged.  I bought some swag (doesn't everyone need a C And F euro sticker?) and promised we'd return soon.

Our new friends, Linda and Brian, from Chicago!

And oh yeah, we ran into Amber the barista waiting for pizza.  "What did you end up doing today?" she asked.  I tried to sum it up in 140 characters or less, probably unsuccessfully.

The Next Morning

Although we filled up on coffee and food at Lovick's, recommended by Sara, we still had to stop in to Middle Ground to say our farewell to Amber and our new favorite coffee shop.  While there, Sara walks in!  We chat some more and thankfully her coffee isn't made yet.  Someone snaps a photo of all of us so we can keep this wondrous little town in our hearts for a very long time.

Pancakes bigger than his head!

Thank you Vivian, PBS, CreateTV, WHMT for sending us to Kinston.  To Kinston, we thank you for the memories and to all the people who were so sweet to us--we almost put a "For Sale" sign on our front lawn.

with Sara and Amber

Kinston could use a bookstore, especially with Vivian's new cookbook coming out in October--which happens to be published by Little Brown!
Could the store on the left work?

Vivian's cookbook hits stands on October 4 but you can preorder now!
That way, you can make one of her dishes that night!
Do you think my students would be into a book release party???

I will proudly wear this shirt around Castleton, Schodack, New York and beyond!

Monday, August 22, 2016

Pond Babies StoryWalk

Greetings from Carolina Beach, North Carolina. This is one last escape that includes reading on the beach till sunset, salt water galore and just plain rejuvenation before the start of another, what is already looking to be, an awesome school year. 

This morning we took a walk around a little lake that we learned last night was thought to be the closest fresh water lake to the ocean until another one was discovered. Hmmm...Interestinf bit of local history.  Isn't it always that way? But what was coolest about this lake was the story walk. I had heard about these and even reached out to PE last year to see if we could do one but had never followed one myself from start to finish. It was fun! Especially since there were a couple of opportunities to jump and leap! 

Let's start from the very beginning. First it's really cool that the book "Pond Babies" was published by Down East books! My parents used to live in Waldoboro, Maine, which is just around the corner from Camden! Anyway, each display has a page from the book to read and then a direction for something physical to do. Check out the first page!

Thankfully, we saw turtles and fish so...

...I did 10 jumping jacks!

Read a few more pages and check this out: 

And finally, the last pond baby is:

What a fun way to read a book! I definitely want to figure out a way to collaborate with PE and/or maybe music, our public library, the local state park and of course, classroom teachers do so something like this in our community. Thank you www.nhclibrary.org for the fun and inspiration! 

Friday, August 19, 2016

Hour of the Bees

Before I finished "Hour of the Bees" I received this text from my extraordinary volunteer, Mrs. Warland: 

She couldn't be more right. Right about the wow-factor and so right about the tissues. 

Rising 6th grader, Carol and her family go to the desert from Albuquerque for the summer with the intent to pack up and move her grandfather, Serge, "a crotchety, demented, thousand-year old man" off the family ranch to an assisted living home. While  Serge suffers from dementia, Carol struggles to figure out so much more. There in the openness of the ranch, Carol discovers that she is "...nothing...less than a smudge on the pages of the world's history, tiny on the number line of forever. The lost sheep, Alta, Serge's dementia, even junior high -- everything seems laughably small." 

The language in this book is incredibly rich and as beautiful as a New Mexico sunrise. I cannot believe that this is Lindsay Eager's first book. I can't even imagine what other "Once upon a times" are in her future. 

"Death hangs on Serge like a wet towel, tangled in his salty-white hair, dripping down his shoulders..." 

"Stories don't end," Serge says. "They just turn into new beginnings." And this book, my friends, is one story you will not want to end. Beware also to those around you, for if they don't give you time and space to relish in this novel tell them it will become "the witching hour."

This is one of those books that is not strong in just one story element. Not only is the setting vividly described and plot riveting, there is strong character development--a supportive and hard working mom, a dad who is trying to come to terms with his past in the present, an older teenage sister, Alta (need I say more?), an adorable baby brother, an adventurous grandmother and Grandpa Serge. Carol grows so much in this one summer that what she feared in June just doesn't seem important any more. "I don't think I've gotten braver; I think I've just found other things to be scared of than tripping in the lunchroom or walking down the wrong hallway."

The magic in this book seems so real that I almost forgot to mention it. It's there alright but weaved in so well that this book could define the magical realism genre. 

We had a great book group last night. The sun was setting. We were four people in a vast open parking lot munching on chips and salsa. Close your eyes and you could almost believe we were having a snack on the ranch while waiting for Mom's delicious Mexican themed dinner to be ready. And yes, Mrs. Warland joined us!

Three kids, three favorite characters: 
"Rosa because she is adventurous."
"Serge because he has great stories."
And Carol "because no matter what she'll never give up on Serge."
Mrs. Warland chimed in on how much she admired Mom.

And finally, I asked for words to describe the book:

Heart warming
Breath taking 
Tear jerker

...with two strong themes: "Live life to the fullest and be grateful for what you have." Personally, I can't even tell you how I truly learned those lessons this summer. Thank you, Lindsay Eager, for the beautiful reminder. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary School

Today was book group number three of my summer five.  I don't know how the next two can top this one.  Pinch me!  We met at the Castleton Public Library and skyped with Laura Shovan, the author! How lucky were we that she was actually available at the exact moment we were meeting and not only that, had a significant amount of time to spend with us.  Thank you! What a treat for my small but powerful group of fourth, fifth and sixth graders (plus a mom and a seventh grade sister!).

Writing our Skype questions

As soon as I started reading this book I was reminded of another fifth grade year long memoir, Rob Buyea's Because of Mr. Terupt.  Like Mr. Terupt, this book's narrators are all of the students in the class.  But unlike Terupt, all their voices are in verse.  More and more books are being written in verse these days and you know what? That's awesome!  Just in the past week I've read two--this one and Free Verse by Sarah Dooley--and I love it.  Let's get everyone hooked on poetry!  Isn't that so, Kwame?


With a backdrop of folk songs, the 18 diverse kids in Ms. Hill's fifth grade class wonder if there are "some things worth holding onto."  Unfortunately, their school isn't one of them.  Come June these kids will say goodbye to the walls that held their memories where they were taught how to read, write and do arithmetic to say hello to a shopping mall.  Yes, that hurts.  But it will not come without a fight with a side order of every form of poetry you can imagine.

It's summer and we were at the public library so we talked to Laura via the iPad mini.
It was mini, alright! Can you spy Laura?

Today when we got together to talk about the book, we started out by sharing what we were looking forward to in the coming school year.  The fourth graders are excited about having "three teachers" and "doing science with Mr. C" and one of the fifth graders said that he is looking forward to "a big field trip" at the end of the year.

Thank you, Laura!

We also discussed our favorite characters.  "I like Rennie because she is saving the school for her sister" said a fourth grader with a younger sister.  Another girl likes Sydney "because she likes sports and I like sports." Other favorite characters were Mark, Edgar and Katie.  I don't know who my favorite is--so many of them have qualities and characteristics that I admire and love.  Is it Rachel because she has Jewpanese roots like my own children?  Or Tyler because he is from Texas and you know how much I love Texas.  Or Newt because he grows from writing haikus to way more.  Or Jason because I grew from thinking he was kind of "meh" to really liking him in the end and I loved his concrete self portrait poem. Or? Or? Or? I could go on and on about all 18 of them.

We also got out sticky notes and followed Jason's instructions on how to make a Mr. Stick Guy flip book (p. 76).  That was fun!

I asked the kids to give me a one sentence review and here is what they came up with:

"I liked the poems" [YES!]

"I like the book because it had a realistic ending."

"I liked the poem, 'Time Capsule Rap'."

"I liked the book because the class was very different." That says a lot because our classes are NOT very different in Castleton.  I'm glad I can expose my students to different cultures and people through literature.

Along the same lines, "I like it because it had Spanish."

And of course, the simple, "It was funny." "It was interesting."  Well, it is summer, after all, and I'm just happy they read and chose to spend an hour with me on a beautiful August afternoon to talk about a book! Lucky me!

Check out Laura in Zack's hands!

Monday, August 8, 2016

Lily and Dunkin

I have been MIA for a few weeks but that doesn't mean I haven't been reading (or listening, in many cases, too).  One book that I can't stop thinking about is Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart.  I finished listening to it a couple of weeks ago and still can't shake any of the characters:  8th graders Lily (Tim), and Dunkin (Norbert), sister Sarah, best friend Dare, Mom, Dad and of course, Bubby.

Grab yourself a large iced coffee and a Boston cream donut and a lot of time.  You will not be able to put it down.  There are plastic pink flamingoes, knit wits, a tree called "Bob", a Bubby that works out more than many of us, blue nail polish and a 5 headed basketball player made up of Neanderthals. After Dunkin moves to Florida from New Jersey he befriends Tim (Lily).  Each of them has a secret--Dunkin's fueled by caffeine and Lily's with her struggle to be who she really is, this story comes together as beautiful and thoughtful as a November 15 day in Florida.

Every middle school library needs this important book with characters and stories we can all relate to. From Lily trying to convince her dad that she needs to take the hormones to Dunkin and his Mom moving in with Bubby after everything happened with his Dad with a side of environmental activism to rile any of us up to save "Bob" and "speak for the trees" as we learn from the classic The Lorax, our heart wrenches for all of them in this soon to be classic.

So stop what you are doing, order your drink, find a big tree and escape to Florida for the day.  You will not regret it.

Last week I was on vacation in Ocean City, Maryland and I passed this hotel.
I just couldn't help thinking about Lily and Dunkin and the mysterious plastic pink flamingoes.