Thursday, July 30, 2015

THE WAY HOME LOOKS NOW- Wendy Wan-Long Shang

This is the second intermediate grade novel I've read recently where I've thought, "Holy cow, why haven't more people been blogging about this book?" It's by Wendy, Wan-Long Shang, the author of THE GREAT WALL OF LUCY WU, which I loved and reviewed here a couple of years ago.

When his much adored older brother, Nelson, is killed in a car accident, twelve-year-old Peter and his family are plunged into grief. Peter's mother reacts by withdrawing, sitting on the couch day after day, staring blank-eyed at the television. His pharmacist father, Ba, goes to work, and comes home and tries to care for his children. Peter looks after his little sister, worries about his mom, and misses his big brother. Nelson and Peter always loved baseball, and Peter decides that if he joins a team, perhaps his mother will come to watch him play. When there are not enough coaches at tryouts, Ba volunteers to coach a team.

At first, Peter is disappointed. He doesn't think his father knows much about baseball. This is demonstrated clearly when his father chooses one of the worst kids at tryouts as his first pick. And then his first practice goes horribly. And all of his teammates are sharing their opinions about his coach/father with Peter. And then there's a huge and very unexpected surprise, which threatens to shut the team down for the year.

And Peter discovers that his father does know something about baseball. And he also knows a little about character. And about life.

A great story about grieving and family relationships.  The book is set in the 1960's, with women's rights playing an important role. And like LUCY WU, the family is Chinese, so there's a glimpse into a different culture.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015


Yesterday was one of my last official days of summer vacation.

I spent it at the Drivers' License Bureau.

Maybe I should back up. My son moved back from Arizona about six months ago. While he was living in Arizona, he got a new driver's license. Except he really didn't. Somehow he managed to get an Arizona identification card. And then he came back to Colorado and went to trade in his Arizona identification card for a Colorado I.D. Because he didn't have an Arizona driver's license, they didn't give him a Colorado driver's license.  They gave him an identification card. It looks exactly like a driver's license except it says on it, "This is not a driver's license." My son didn't notice that, so when he got a speeding ticket, he got another ticket for driving without a license. When he went to court, the judge asked if he wanted a continuance so he could get a driver's license.

So yesterday was driver's license day.

It actually started Sunday night, when I reminded my son that we were going to go bright and early, to avoid what is usually a long wait. I've been teaching a class all month and had student projects to grade. I wanted to get in and get out quickly.

I also reminded my to be sure to bring his glasses, so he could pass the vision test.

"I don't have my glasses," said my son.

"Where are they?" I asked.

"I don't know," snarled my son.

I was pretty sure he couldn't pass the eye exam without glasses.

Change of plans. Get up early. Locate year long insurance plan on glasses. Grade papers for several hours. Leave house at 9:30. Drive to the mall. Wait outside glasses place until it opens at ten.

Order new glasses. Which are not covered by insurance because they were lost, not broken. Sit by a coffee place with my computer for an hour, while son scowls at the top of my head.

Drive to the bank to get cash to pay for the new driver's license.

Feed son.

Drive to Drivers' License place. Send son inside to find out how much new license will cost. Five minutes later he is back.

"There's no one to ask," he says. "Just forget about it. I'll do it a different day."

I think about my next week. I am teaching eight sessions of ELA about English Language Learners at the New Teacher Institute. The week is full, full, full.

I park the car and Son reluctantly follows me in. I figure out the number dispensing machine and we wait for an hour. It is almost nap time and there are at least 20 crying children. I get out my computer and try to work.

Finally they call Son's number. He gets in line. The line inches forward. Forty-five minutes later he has finally got his test. It takes him 30 minutes, then he goes back to the window. 15 more minutes. Back to the computer station. 30 more minutes. He finally passes.

Then he comes to me. "Do you have a piece of mail with my name on it?"

"No. Do you need one?"

"Yes." More snarls.

I cannot imagine he needs another proof of address. He already has an identification card, issued by this agency. Why would he need another id?

But he does.

We drive home. 20 minutes. Find a bank statement. Drive back. 20 more minutes. He goes back inside and I wait in the car, still trying to grade my papers. I have gotten through about 5 of the 50 I need to do.  Forty-three minutes later he comes back with his permit. He has to take the driving test next week.

And that is how I spent the last day of my summer vacation.

Monday, July 27, 2015


I first saw this book poking out of Elisabeth Ellington's Tattered Cover bag last week, then read it at the library on Friday. It's one I definitely have to own. A princess figures prominently. As does her trusty steed (who is short and roly poly and has eyes that go two different directions. The trusty steed also has a flatulence issue (should I admit that I will share that page with my boys when I bring the book home from the book store…

OK, so as the story begins, Princess Pinecone is eagerly awaiting her birthday…

In a kingdom of warriors,
the smallest warrior was Princess Pinecone.
And she was very excited for her birthday.

Most warriors got fantastic birthday presents. 
Shields, amulets, helmets with horns on them. 
Things to win battles with.
Things that made them feel like champions.

Princess Pinecone got a lot of cozy sweaters.
Warriors do not need cozy sweaters. 

This year it would be different. Pinecone made sure to let everyone
know exactly what she wanted. A big horse. A fast horse.
A strong horse. A real warrior's horse. 

And they tried their best. 

But the horse that Princess Pinecone receives, is ummm, not quite what she had in mind.

And yet, when it comes time to face Otto the Awful in battle, her stubby little pony proves a trusty steed indeed.

A great parody! Perfect for the first week of school, when kids are just remembering how to do school. Perfect for a compare/contrast lesson with the PAPERBAG PRINCESS! Perfect for talking about archetypes in a high school literature classroom.

And just perfectly fun! This is definitely one to own!

Saturday, July 25, 2015


OK, so I was supposed to have this read and written a post by the middle of the week and it's Saturday and I'm just now getting to it, but hey, better late than never, right?

Several years ago, my state encouraged teachers to use a new computerized assessment tool. This tool, which shall remain nameless, was touted as the be all and end all, it could differentiate, diagnose kids' reading needs, and prescribe instruction. I was teaching fourth grade that year. Every six weeks, we would march off to the library, where a bank of computers was set up, and children would take the assessment. Some children took it very seriously. I still remember Alicia's look of consternation as she told me, "I knew, right away, that I had chosen the wrong answer for the first question. But it wouldn't let me go back and fix it." That time she dropped two years, then made a remarkable gain, four years growth, six weeks later.

And I remember Taylor, a great big Saint Bernard puppy of a guy, who had never read a book but read his way through the entire STINK series that year, then graduated to BIG NATE. He finished in about three minutes every time. "I hate those tests," he said. "The words (font) are too little."

Mostly I remember the post-test data review meetings. We'd review the scores one child at a time. They varied wildly from one administration to the next. I was supposed to be able to tell why. And mostly I couldn't. I didn't think I was doing anything differently, except maybe worrying more, during the six weeks when kids did well, than I was in the six week blocks when they did poorly. I had other sources of data-- running records, reading logs, reading responses, anecdotal notes-- but those didn't hold the legitimacy of this test.

We gave those tests for two more years after I left fourth grade. I had moved to a coaching position and helped administer the test to everyone from kindergarten to fifth grade. I saw similar trends with the older kids. With our kindergarten and first grade kiddos, it was a disaster. They weren't used to headphones. They didn't know how to use the mouse. The test didn't measure, at all, what they knew about early literacy skills. Instead it totally measured their technology skills. We ended up using the DRA/EDL word analysis tasks to get the data we actually needed.

I thought of this experience as I read Chapter Six. On page 92, Franki and Bill state, "We must ensure that we are assessing students' growth as readers and writers rather than assessing isolated technology skills." So, so, so true. I would add, "And when we use technology, we must triangulate the data with information from other sources, just like we always have." 

And we must receive the data in a timely fashion. Like so many others, we administered the PARCC last year. We haven't seen any results. We don't have any information we can use.  So why are we giving it.

I do think, though, that there is a positive side to assessment with technology. On page 93 and 94, Franki and Bill share several tools. At my school, we have been using Google Docs for the past several years. We use it to compile data, to track progress in reading, writing and math, and to keep notes on behavior. I don't think we have arrived, though. Teachers dutifully enter the data, but I don't think they always see it as useful, or use it to guide their instruction. We have a ways to go in that area. I want to try Evernote and see if they like that better. And I bought an iPhone, so I can start taking pictures and videos of student learning.

As I read this chapter, I also thought about the whole aspect of monitoring student growth in using technology. We need to being the year by figuring out what role technology plays in kids' lives. For that reason, I loved the digital reading interview on page 89. If we really are helping our students to become college and career ready, they have to know how to use technology. They have to be able to do internet research, to analyze the credibility of sources, to annotate text, to compare sources, to use information they find, etc. They have to be able to collaborate, and to write and create. It seems to me that we need to somehow keep track of whether we are helping them do that.

And yes, I agree with Franki and Bill, that we have to bring families into the mix, just like we always have with "more traditional" forms of learning. We have to know what access kids have at home. I really couldn't say how many of my students have computers and internet at their houses, but most of them have smart phones. And they have social media accounts. This week, I was floored when a teacher showed me a fifth grader's Facebook page. This little guy is very, very shy. He struggles and struggles and struggles in school. And yet he creates incredible graphics on his Facebook page. And I wonder why we never knew about this strength. Or tapped into it.

I wonder how we can use social media with our parents. Our assistant principal created a Facebook page. I wanted to post on it several times a week this summer, but I haven't done as much as I had hoped. When we do post, we don't get lots and lots of hits from parents, so I wonder if they look at it, and if it's worth our time.

I would love to encourage teachers to set up websites, but I wonder about that too. This week, I watched a teacher update a class website. It was beautiful and looked pretty functional too. There was a button for a weekly newsletter, for class assignments, for kids' work. When I commented on her website, she said her principal requires her to have a website, but she doesn't think parents use it much. She teaches at one of the most affluent schools in Denver and I wonder what it would be like at my school, where the parents are far less educated.

Lots to think about in Chapters 6 and 7. I am left with many more questions than answers…

Friday, July 24, 2015


by Mary Oliver

It doesn't have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don't try
to make them elaborate, this isn't
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

"I Happened to Be Standing" 
by Mary Oliver

I don't know where prayers go,
     or what they do.
Do cats pray, while they sleep
     half-asleep in the sun?
Does the opossum pray as it
     crosses the street?
The sunflowers? The old black oak
     growing older every year?
I know I can walk through the world,
     along the shore or under the trees,
with my mind filled with things
     of little importance, in full
self-attendance. A condition I can't really
     call being alive.
Is prayer a gift, or a petition,
     or does it matter?

You can hear Mary Oliver read the rest of this poem here. 

And here is an NPR interview with Mary Oliver.

Margaret is hosting Poetry Friday at Reflections on the Teche today.

Thursday, July 23, 2015


A couple of years ago, I started listening to audiobooks. I was driving to Colorado Springs a lot more often and the 130 mile round trip was tedious. A friend suggested I try audiobooks and I was hooked. I listen read mostly adult books, with a little YA thrown in. I love nonfiction- biographies, memoirs, etc., but don't like books where I'm trying to learn nearly as much, because when I read those, I feel like I need to take notes so I can remember more. Depending on how much driving I am doing, I can knock out a book in two or three weeks.  This summer I've read a couple that I have thorougly enjoyed.

AN ASTRONAUT'S GUIDE TO LIFE ON EARTH is a memoir by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. From the time he was a very young child, Hadfield knew he wanted to be an astronaut, and planned his life accordingly, rising up through the pilot ranks of the Canadian Air Force and finally being selected as one of four people out of over five thousand who applied (talk about perseverance!). Between 1995 and 2012, he went to space three times, with his last mission being five months on the International Space Station. His stories of life as an astronaut are super interesting-- if I was trying to sell this book to middle or high school kids, I'd read the chapter about re-entry into the atmosphere on his final flight. There's also a little life philosophy thrown in. While he was in space, Hadfield also made a series of Youtube videos about life in space, in this one he makes a peanut butter and honey sandwich. And here's another one where he explains what it's like to cry in space. The audiobook is read by Chris, and I think it would be terrific for a family road trip!

My other recent audio read was WE ARE ALL WELCOME HERE, read by author Elizabeth Berg. Diana Dunn is a fourteen-year-old girl growing up in Tupelo, Mississippi in the 1960's. She is being raised by her mother, Paige, who had polio when she was eight months pregnant, and is paralyzed from the neck down, and Peacie, her mother's African American assistant. I loved Paige's indomitable spirit; in some ways she reminds me of a female Atticus Finch (and no, I haven't read the new Harper Lee book yet). This is a really fast audio read, only five discs. In an author's note before the book, Berg says the story came from a letter that she received from a woman who actually grew up in a similar situation. Quick and enjoyable- it would be a good mom and teenage daughter road trip book.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015


One of my favorite things about blogging is the people I meet.

Ok, well, mostly kind of meet.

On line.

Every once in a while though, I get the opportunity to actually meet one of those people face to face.

That happened tonight.

I've been reading Elisabeth Ellington's blog, The Dirigible Plum, for the past year or so. Elisabeth and I have a lot in common. For starters, we both did graduate work at the University of New Hampshire. Maybe more importantly, we are both charter members of AMOK (Adoptive Mothers of Older Kids). Both of us know the joy of coming to motherhood through adoption.

And we also know how stinking hard it is to be the moms of kids who have been through lots and lots and lots of trauma before they came to live in our homes. And try to help those kids heal.

Elisabeth writes eloquently about this experience at least once a week, in her Tuesday Slices or at Ruth Ayres' Celebration Saturdays. And every week, when I read about Elisabeth's experiences, I think, "Oh my gosh, she has been to my house." Sometimes Elisabeth's posts make me laugh. And sometimes they make me cry. The AMOK club can be very, very hard.

But tonight, it was very, very good. A couple of weeks ago, Elisabeth sent me a Facebook message that she was going to be in Denver today. We decided to get together for dinner. We met at a new restaurant, attached to the Tattered Cover. We ate yummy Detroit pizza (did you know there was such a thing? In case you are wondering, it's rectangular, and cheesy and very delicious). We shared our stories. Laughed. (I bet we could beat most other slicers at recognizing tennis shoe and sports gear brands and products). We also shared stories of how hard it is to help a traumatized kid heal. It's super hard. And sometimes super lonely.

But tonight, it was just really, really good.

I'm really thankful for this community.

And for all of the terrific people I have gotten to know.

If I didn't slice, I would never have gotten to meet Elisabeth.

Thank you, Slice of Life community.