Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Diamond Willow

Recently I read a review of Diamond Willow by Helen Frost and I just had to see for myself. It's about a twelve year-old girl named Willow who experiences all of the normal insecurities of adolescence. She lives in rural Alaska and wants her independence. Willow begs her parents to allow her to venture to her grandparents' house alone with the dogsled. When they finally give in, Willow is elated. She hooks up the dogs and is on her way. Willow makes it there okay, but on the way back home something terrible happens.

This story is told mostly in Willow's voice, and Frost wrote it in an interesting way. Each page of prose is written to look like a diamond, with a hidden message in bold print. Through the other voices that tell the story, Frost presents a whole new perspective about the intelligence and wisdom of animals. I loved this book, and can't wait to share it with my fourth graders!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

This makes me smile

This is my friend Tessa's son. He is not quite four years old.

Teachers in Vermont, watch out!

Seeing a child this young reading independently brings about so many questions. The biggest for me is, how do some children naturally pick it up while others face so many hurdles? It helps that Tessa is a rockstar mom and she TALKS WITH HER KIDS. Their home is full of books, paper, crayons, train sets and dinosaurs and all kinds of toys that encourage creative energy... but so many homes have that in place and their children still struggle as readers. What are we missing?

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

It took me a long time to pick up this book. I have to admit, it was because of its size!

But once I opened it, I was pleasantly surprised. This 500+ page book has over 200 pages of pictures! Chapter book? Yes. Graphic novel? Not quite. The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick reads more like a silent film than anything else. A series of pictures, then some storyline, then more pictures. It's fitting, since old time movies play such a huge role in this book. But this beautiful tale is more about Hugo himself. Hugo is an orphan boy who lives in a train station in Paris and maintains the clocks. He makes his way through life the best he can, until an old man catches him stealing from his toy shop. Then things get much more complicated...

Friday, March 13, 2009


As a reader, I love books that are straightforward, honest, and gritty. In fact, I seek them out. I love historical fiction most of all, especially when it allows us to see the ugly, truthful side of humanity. Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson does just that. Through Isabel's powerful story of struggle and survival, I not only found myself engrossed to the point of missing a couple of meals, but I also learned a great deal about New York City during the Revolutionary War. The realities of being somebody's property, the cruelties, the living conditions, the raging fire I never knew about, the human side of being a Patriot or Loyalist, the medical procedures... so many tiny details embedded in so much research. Wow!

As a fourth grade teacher, I might not add this to my public class shelf. I would keep it on my sought-after personal book shelf for the day when a child needs just the right book. A child who is mature enough, and interested enough to see slavery as it truly was, and war as it truly is.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Jack Adrift

I love books of short stories. You can read just one story, or you can read cover to cover. Jack Adrift by Jack Gantos is such a fun book of short stories! Each story chronicles an adventure Jack Henry had in fourth grade, and each story easily stands alone. Even the title pages have their own stories (in cursive!) that stand alone. And yet, the entire book tells a bigger story about Jack's struggles and triumphs throughout that year.
In typical Jack Gantos fashion, the descriptions are stomach turning. On page 7, younger brother Pete gets carsick and Gantos somehow manages to describe the vomit as both 'pretty' and 'toxic' at the same time. This book will have you laughing at Jack's clever antics and cheering him on as he struggles to get out of sticky situations.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Rechargeable batteries?

We are less than halfway through our state mandated test in my fourth grade classroom. The kids are working so hard, they are beginning to feel defeated, and their emotions are on overdrive. I realized this afternoon after consoling H and J (and nearly breaking down myself as I explained that it's ok that they ran out of time and said how proud I am of them), after G of all people sobbed twice before lunch and once after, after good friends J and F almost lost their cool on the basketball court...

They are completely drained, and they do not know how to deal with their feelings right now. We sat in a circle and compared our bodies to batteries. I identified the indicators of a draining battery. "If your brain is feeling tired, if you are getting upset or angry more easily than usual, if you are sleeping differently - those are signs that your battery is low." As they indicated their personal battery levels and they saw that their classmates also pointed to their shins, I could hear a collective sigh of relief. They opened up and talked about their nightmares, their jitters, and all of the other things they thought were abnormal. I told them to practice empathy toward their friends, and we talked about how to 'recharge' our batteries when we feel drained.

It was a great conversation, but I wish it didn't have to happen. I just don't think it should be 'normal' for a bunch of nine year-olds to feel this much stress.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Beauty by Bill Wallace was published in 1988, but it may as well have been written yesterday.
Luke's dad took off, and his mom was just trying to make ends meet. She got laid off from her job in Denver, and had no choice except to move in with Luke's grumpy grandfather in Oklahoma. Not the best situation! Luckily for Luke, his grandfather runs a ranch with horses and cows, and there is always something to do. Luke finds an unlikely friend in Beauty, a gentle old horse with a funny personality.
This is a story about friendship, but it is also the story of how Luke came to terms with his parents' divorce, and his father's absence.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Billy Hooten: Owlboy

The Guys Read book club at my school is reading Billy Hooten: Owlboy by Tom Sniegoski. I reluctantly borrowed the book from Kyle so I could talk with my students about it as they prepare for their next meeting.
I have to say, it was AWESOME! For anyone who has dreamed of being a superhero, this is your book. Last week I read chapter 1 to Paolo and Jordy as a way to introduce the book and help them get a feel for the author's voice. By the end of the chapter, I think the entire class was listening in, and they were clamoring for the book! The two boys were so excited to be the first to read it, and they are absolutely loving the book.
Billy is a normal kid who has normal problems at school and home... and everything changes for him once he answers a call for help coming from the cemetary. This book has such a realistic feeling to it, and yet it literally has an underground fantasy world! I'm so excited that it's part of a series, because once kids read the first book I think they will be hooked.

How to Steal a Dog

I just finished reading aloud How to Steal a Dog by Barbara O'Connor to my afternoon group. I had never read it before, and WOW. The students broke into applause when it was finished, and they were so impressed with Georgina's honesty in the end. They, like Georgina, didn't even care about the money after all was said and done.

How might I sell this book to kids? (She steals a dog; doesn't that sell itself?!)
Georgina is a girl whose family is going through some tough times. She, her mom, and her brother live in her mom's car and have to clean up at restaurants and gas stations because they don't even have their own bathroom. Georgina realizes that her family is in desperate need of money, so she cooks up this plan to steal a dog and collect the reward money. The reward money would be enough to get an apartment. Seems like the perfect idea, right?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Important Things

Here's a quote I found today at Creative Literacy:

"There's no such thing as the perfect lesson, the perfect day in school or the perfect teacher. For teachers and students alike, the goal is not perfection but persistence in the pursuit of understanding important things." (Tomlinson and McTighe)

There are so many 'important things' I teach my students every day. Like how to choose an appropriate book, how to decide what to write about, how to break down words into parts, how figure out an author's voice, or a main idea... how to make an inference, how to craft a piece of writing, how to have a friendly discussion, how to sharpen a pencil, how to organize a notebook, and on and on.

But when I really think about it, what are the most important things I want my students to understand this year? What do I want them to leave my classroom this summer with?

  • Reading is the most important gift you can give yourself.
  • Curiosity is a wonderful gift, too.
  • Don't be afraid to ask big questions. Don't be afraid to ask little questions, either.
  • It's okay if you don't know everything, or don't have all the answers.
  • Mistakes are learning opportunities.
  • Your peers can teach you as much as any teacher, book, or website.
  • Kindness is so much more effective than cruelty.

What others would you add?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Small Successes

I have been thinking a lot lately about my students as readers. Their strengths and needs as learners of course, but also their level of engagement. I remember clearly Nancie Atwell's message: put wonderful books in kids' hands. Make those books impossible to resist. Children learn best when they are engaged (duh!), and our first and greatest challenge is to get struggling readers to fall in love with books.

I observed my students a lot during the last couple of weeks, looking for ways I can engage them further as readers. Finally this week I conducted a 'reading engagement' survey, which Carol sent to me after I read her post about nurturing kids' reading hearts.

It was interesting to look through the completed surveys this morning. Most of my students feel pretty connected with reading, and most of their responses were positive. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of students who feel that they are able to talk about their favorite books, genres, authors. They confirmed my assumption that they love read aloud time. And of course I found some opportunities for improvement.
The biggest one is their sense of a reading 'future' - most of my students responded that they do not have any sort of wait list for books. I thought about myself as a reader - I have an entire book case full of "someday" books, and an extensive list of books I plan to buy or check out from the library. Why have I never shared that with my students? Why have I never explicitly modeled this very important habit - beyond showing sneak previews of our 'next' read aloud book?

That aside, I know we have something to celebrate. I remember in August I felt so sad about my afternoon group. The first weeks of school, they were so apathetic toward books, toward read aloud time, toward reading in general. I read so many books to them, and conducted so many book talks - I was enthusiastic almost to the point of exhaustion. My goodness, I even broke out lyrics and sang with them to get them reading! It took months to get them to read independently, to get books in their hands that they truly enjoyed. One student finally began reading (and loving!) a book last week. As I read through their surveys, it dawned on me that we have come so far. This class revealed that they don't want to quit when reading time is over, that they feel proud of themselves for reading for longer periods of time, they have favorite authors and series of books now. They look forward to read aloud time. (In fact, they stop me at 3:15 and make sure we don't miss read-aloud time!) Back in August, I couldn't even imagine this group of students saying they loved to read.

We have a long way to go. But I can't discount the small successes they shared with me this week.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Budding Authors

I've spent the majority the day grading student writing. The students have been working on their stories for weeks. They created characters, put those characters into sticky situations, plotted out story mountains with escalating problems, drafted stories and worked all of their ideas into a 'believable world' ... and finally we had the chance to celebrate all of this hard work at school on Friday. Their stories are about sibling rivalry, teen crushes, kids with secret superpowers, a robot who misses his parents, kids who want to fit in, adults who want to escape; these fourth graders have the greatest imaginations! You could hear a pin drop as the students circulated the room to read each others' stories on Friday morning. A true testament to their successes as budding authors!

It is a daunting task, reading so many stories, but I am so impressed! Here are a few snippets:

S sets up The Brother Chronicles with this lead:

Finally, my mom calls me and my brother to dinner. We're eating and as usual my brother always works at trying to make my mom think he's better than me. He says, "your food is way awesome, mom." With her familiar happy look she replies "well thank you, now Jon eat up that spinach." I try to come up with a reply to top his so I can get out of eating spinach. It's hard to come up with a compliment when you're gagging on wet green leaves but I have to top my brother. I say, "mom it is really gogggogg good," as I gag on the leaves. Houdini of course comes back with a "this is triple times better than ever." I can tell where this is headed so I get up and leave the room. He wins again anyway because now Mom is upset with me for not finishing my spinach. For once, I want to be as good as he pretends to be. I don't see why he gets so happy over bothering me! "What's up with that?"

W, who is great at using intentional humor, writes:

"Mom, I'm figuring out how to get super powers!" "Stop trying I'll buy you some later!" "You can't buy superpowers mom!" "Sure you can! They're half off at Wallgreens. Now let's go!"

N describes her car accident scene this way:

"Press the brake" yelled Michella as she was panicking. "Well it looks like she can't even tell which petal it is" said Cassie as she pulled one hand from her face. As soon as she made up her mind, she pressed one of the petals and then the car stopped. All of the girls just sat there. Silence. "We're going to get in so much trouble" said Cassie as she pulled her other hand away from her face.

J, a struggling writer, slows down his story enough to show us this:

In the elevator they heard a beautiful voice coming from the ballroom. When the producer got out of the elevator they followed the voice until they got to the ballroom where they found where the voice was coming from. It was Zach and Cody's mom Kari!

J describes her character's anxiety like this:

"Oh my gosh the cooking project! I totally forgot it." Jessi move to the front of the class slowly as a robot. Am so nervous my mind went blank. All I could think was sing "La La La La La!" .... Oh I thought in my head Why didn't I do my project "says Jessica." Even while the teacher was calling kids up so they could explain their homework and turn in homework. Can you please bring your homework says Mrs. Mcan in a really bad mood. Will will an an an amm "Where is it" says Mrs Mcan. "I left it at home" says Jessica. The teacher says "Well I gave you the easyest homework of this year." The whole classmates laughed, even the teacher.

I love the chance to take in stories like these. They help me realize that even while we have work to do, these kids are learning - they are writing, they are creating, and they are having fun with it!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Five Keys to Effective Literacy Instruction

Barbara J. Walker, current President of the International Reading Association, wrote an open letter to President Obama. It appears in the February/March 2009 issue of Reading Today.

I think it is well worth a read by literacy teachers everywhere!

Making the Most of Small Groups

Life changed for me as a teacher this year. I am at a new school, working with new colleagues and families. I am teaching a new grade level, and for the first time ever, I am teaming with another teacher - which means I am teaching only literacy to 52 students. My challenges this year are many. I think this year I am mostly struggling to keep up with the span of reading levels (from pre-K all the way to young adult level!), and to really get to know my students as individuals.

At my school we have Professional Development clusters. They give us an opportunity to learn together about whatever we as teachers need or want. This round I chose to read and discuss Making the Most of Small Groups by Debbie Diller (Stenhouse, 2005). I really want to do a better job with small groups, and I want to stop feeling so overwhelmed with the challenge of meeting the needs of every student as a reader. I started reading this book, and on page four I found this: "The focus in small-group teaching is on having the child do more of the work than you are." Debbie had me hooked!

Then came a gentle reminder: "Pay attention to your students, be open, and have fun. Small-group reading is a delight. It enables you to get to know your students better than you've ever known them before. They'll beg to meet with you." (p. 11)

I went on to finish the book in one sitting, and boy was it a lot to take... this book is packed with information! What I like about Debbie Diller's books is that she doesn't say anything that is entirely new or foreign to me - she reminds us about we already know. For example, when talking about comprehension, she mentioned that 'weak comprehenders may not recognize inconsistencies betwen what they read and their background knowledge.' (Isn't that the truth!) She goes on to explain that 'instead, they may ignore or modify information in the text so they can hold on to their current understanding, even if it is incorrect.'

This is not a book about guided reading, per se. It is more about how working with small groups fits in with the rest of the school day. The book is packed with sample lessons, teacher reflections, and even ideas for anecdotal notes from one-on-one conferences. The real treasures, though, are the appendices. There are lesson plan templates, possible lesson focuses for every aspect of literacy acquisition (comprehension, fluency, phonemic awareness, phonics and vocabulary!), and even ideas for organizing information and student assessments.

I can't wait to use some of her suggestions in my teaching.

Friday, February 13, 2009


The annual CCIRA Conference is one of many reasons why I am so lucky to live in Denver. It has been a week since the conference ended, and my mind is still churning about it.

Last week I had the opportunity to eavesdrop on the giants. Harvey Daniels and Stephanie Harvey spoke about the evolution of literature circles and the importance of authenticity in the classroom. They talked about how conversations and inquiries need to come out organically for the greatest student engagement and buy-in. "Smokey" also reflected about how much life has changed for educators in the last decade. He gave us the encouragement we need to continue to do what we know is best. Nancie Atwell talked about putting good books into children's hands, by 'selling' those books and making them irresistible. Tim Rasinski sang and laughed with us as he shared his newest ideas on fluency: accuracy, automaticity, and prosody. Lori Conrad demonstrated think-alouds to help us hone our own skills. Lauren Armour talked about background knowledge and it's correlation with vocabulary knowledge and how we can use that research to inform our teaching - realizing that struggling readers will not benefit from merely ‘reading widely.’ Mark Overmeyer led us through a workshop about assessment, and gave me some ideas that will save my sanity as a writing teacher. Nell Duke spoke about informational reading comprehension. Scott Murphy and Cyndi Branson – two local educators – spoke about intentional class culture and its impact on student achievement. Their research is right up my alley, and I’m excited to keep in touch with them and share what I’ve learned from the Northeast Foundation for Children.

I cannot forget the authors: Justin Matott, Tim Hillmer, and several others shared their personal stories to kick off the conference. Jane Yolen talked about the ABCs of great stories (and blasted some ‘not-so-great’ stories); Jack Gantos let us know the origins of his own great stories. Jon Scieszka spoke out as the Ambassador of Children's Literature, and he read aloud some of his wonderful stories. I had a chance to visit with Jarrett Krosoczka (and to read his two forthcoming books!), and to meet several other children's authors.

As I look over my notes and flip through the many hand-outs I collected at the conference, I realize that I only witnessed a fraction of all there was to learn. I would love to have listened to Laura Benson, Laura Robb, Nancy Harris, the Two Sisters, Jeff Anderson, and Ellin Keene (who got stuck in upstate NY!). I would love to have visited with Patricia Polacco, Julie Danneberg and Avi, among others. But alas, the conference lasts only three days and there will be other years.

Every year after the conference ends I feel not only exhausted from so much sitting, listening and thinking – but also energized, renewed, and ready to take on the rest of the school year. I love that CCIRA happens in February, because it is such a hard time of the year. State assessments are looming, the kids have cabin fever, and all of our springs are wound up a little tighter than usual. Spending a few days talking and collaborating with educators from all over really helps me focus again on what’s most important: the students.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Ask me...

Ask me about my profession, and I will tell you about my vocation. I have the privilege of teaching children. Each day I get to read with children, listen to their stories, and laugh with them. I get to share their curiosities and discoveries and I get to learn from their struggles and triumphs. I can't think of a more exciting way to spend my days.

All this I have to do within the realm of mandates and assessments created by people who have never met my students. I work hard to meet the standards placed on us as educators. I constantly question myself. I constantly reevaluate my teaching. I learn as much as possible from books, blogs, modeled lessons, conferences, and most importantly, my cohorts. I shamelessly eavesdrop on professional conversations. I wonder if I will ever find the balance between what 'they' think is right and what I think is best for my students.