Sunday, August 30, 2009


One of my favorite authors, C.S. Lewis said, "We read to know that we are not alone." When I think about books, and when I think about my students, that's certainly one of the messages I hope kids will take with them- you are not alone, other people have lived the life that you are living, they have survived, and you will make it too. This weekend, I found LISTENING FOR CRICKETS, a gem that I know I will be handing to many, many kids this year.

Ten-year-old Jake has a rough life. His mom and dad are like a lot of my students' parents- in marriages that are barely making it, struggling financially, and sometimes numbing those struggles through drugs or alcohol. Jake's parents are not able to provide much support for Jake, or his second grade sister, Cassie. His father, trapped in a series of low end jobs, is frustrated and abusive and often unkind to his children and his wife. Jake and Cassie share a room, and every night, Jake makes up stories to distract Cassie from their parents' loud and sometimes violent arguments. And as if the struggles at home weren't enough, Jake can't read very well, and has to go to a special reading class every day.

This is a sad book, but it's also a book with a message of hope. Jake receives support from a smart and intellectually stimulating best friend, his reading teacher, and a crusty old woman who lives next door. It is those people who give Jake the strength to deal with everything that is going on at home.

The kids I teach have hard, hard lives. I'm so glad to have a new book to remind them that they are not alone.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

GORILLA'S STORY- Harriet Blackford

Today at the library (notice I did not say bookstore!) I found a really lovely new picture book. GORILLA'S STORY traces the life of a young silverback gorilla from the day he is born until the day he assumes leadership of his own family of female gorillas. It's told as a story, tracing the life of the gorilla, but it's totally based on fact, and it has tons and tons and tons of really detailed information about gorillas embedded on every page. At the end of the book, a letter from the author explains that the silverback is an endangered gorilla, and tells kids what they can do to help. The illustrations by Manya Stojic, are beautiful, beautiful, full color page-covering paintings.

When I looked for this book online, it said the intended audience was children from ages 3-6. I totally disagree with that. This is an EVERYBODY book. It's a fairly long story, and I don't know if I'd use it much before kindergarten, but I think kids from kindergarten to fifth grade would enjoy the story and would learn a lot about gorillas (I especially liked how Blackford explains how a young male comes to adulthood and is driven out of his father's family, then has to find drive away an aging male to take over his own group of females). I also think this would be a terrific mentor text for the dreaded "animal report." Kids could start by listening to GORILLA'S STORY (or Blackford's TIGER'S STORY or ELEPHANT'S STORY, that I have never seen, but am definitely going to look for now). Think I'd probably read it one time, so kids could just enjoy the story and illustrations. The next time through, I would give kids clipboards, and ask them to list all of the facts they hear embedded in the story. Finally, I'd let them try writing their own animal stories, using facts they had learned about animals they were studying.

A really lovely new "nonfiction-ish" picturebook.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Second Week of School

This year, I'm writing a newsletter, "COMMENTS FROM YOUR COACH" to my teachers. I'm not sure whether it will be every week, or every other week, but here is the feature article for this week (I'm posting it here because I am having a hard time keeping up with school, and football, and work, and blogging, so this piece is going to do double duty.

In order to get better at reading, kids have to read A LOT. When I say read, I mean actually read- sit in the chair, eyes, minds, and hearts glued to the book. Many kids (and adults) don’t understand what it means to engage deeply with a book. The first thing, then, that I want to do with my students is to teach them this very important habit of engaging with a book.

High school teacher and author Kelly Gallagher asks his students if they have ever been so absorbed in a television show or movie that they are completely unaware of what is going on around them. Most students have had that experience, so Gallagher explains to kids that he wants them to engage with books in that same way. Nancie Atwell talks to her students about entering the “reading zone.” I used the idea of “reading zone” with my fourth and fifth graders last year, and it seemed to make sense to them.

Gallagher suggests that three things have to occur for kids to enter the reading state. First, they have to have EXPOSURE/ACCESS to great books and lots of them. Next they have to have PLACES to read Finally, they have to have TIME to read.

• Are you reading aloud to kids every day (hopefully more than once a day)?

• Are your read alouds carefully selected:
o books you love and can’t wait to share with kids
o books around a certain theme (e.g. back to school books, books around a certain character trait, making friends, solving problems)
o books in a certain genre
o an author study
o a series you think kids will enjoy reading independently

Choosing Books for Independent Reading
• Is your library organized in a way that KIDS can find books they want (e,g, if an eight-year-old wants a book about football, or a book by a certain author, or a book that’s really scary, will he/she be able to locate that)?

• Are books that you think kids will especially enjoy displayed in a way to make them appealing to kids (when you go into a bookstore or library, which books do YOU pick up first?)

• Are you doing book talks on great books, authors, or series every day? Jim Trelease, author of THE READ ALOUD HANDBOOK, says that teachers need to do commercials for books just like McDonald’s does commercials for hamburgers.

• Do your students know that readers choose books for a variety of reasons, e.g. they are interested in the subject, they like the author, another reader recommended the book, the book has an interesting cover, the blurb on the back or on the inside cover sounds interesting?

• Do kids know how to find a book that is just right for them? The five finger rule is one tool. You may also want to teach older kids that if a book is just right, the reader can make pictures in her head while she is reading. He can hear what the characters “sound like” when they are talking. He feels like he is right there in the book.

Establishing a place/time to read
At this point in the year, I don’t give kids a lot of choices about where they will read. Everyone reads in their seats. Later, after they get better at engaging with books, I will give kids more freedom about where they can read.

I use these guidelines for independent reading with my students:
• Select a book (this procedure will vary from grade to grade) BEFORE independent reading time begins (for younger children, early in the year this may mean having a few books in a pile ready to read, or having a bin of books on the table). Later on children will probably read from their book bags or their poetry notebooks
• Read ends are super-glued to chair
• Eyes and mind glued to book
• No talking (the younger students all read aloud any way, so it’s not necessarily a silent time!)
• No one does anything that would distract or disturb another reader (or take them out of their zone). No one gets up. No one goes to the bathroom. No one makes noises with their mouth, fingers, or feet.
• I set a timer. Start with a time where you are sure kids can be successful, e.g. 8-10 minutes. Depending on how it goes, increase a minute every few days. I want my primary kids to build to 20-30 minutes, and third graders to read a MINIMUM of 30 minutes (last year my fourth and fifth graders were doing 45 minutes by the end of the year).
• At the beginning of the year, I read when the kids read, because I want the room to be absolutely quiet. Later on, after kids are good at getting into their reading zone I use the time to confer with individual readers or work with kids in pairs or small groups.
• When the timer goes off, tell kids to get to a good stopping point., then pull them together to evaluate how independent reading time time went. You may want to work with students to create some kind of rubric or tool that the class or individual students can use to evaluate themselves.

Independent reading time is so, so, so critical to kids’ growth as readers, that it’s important that we get it absolutely right.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Today is the first day of school- my favorite day of the year. So much promise! Yesterday I was working in the kindergarten classroom, helping Mr. E. set up his classroom library. Mr. E has taught for about ten years, but he has always taught intermediate grades. This year, he is going to hang out with the five-year-olds. One of his former students brought her little brother, who is going to be in E's class, to meet him.

Mr. E has a ladybug puppet on one hand and a bumble bee on the other. He takes T over to the basket of beginning of school reads, hands him the bumblebee, and says, in a Mrs. Doubtfire-ish kind of voice, " T, what book do you think we should read first?"

T: I'm a bumblebee. I don't read books. I like to sting people!

At this point, I start to laugh, and have to duck down behind the bookcase. E is much more composed than I am.

E (still speaking through the ladybug puppet): I don't like my friends to hurt me.

T (gets that really serious thinking face that five year olds are famous for): OK, I'll just be a friend who reads books with you.

It's going to be a magical year. I can't wait for school to start!

Monday, August 17, 2009


A couple of weeks ago, I finished HOLDING ONTO GOOD IDEAS IN A TIME OF BAD ONES. It truly is one of the best professional books I've read in a long time, and I've been carrying it around since then, trying to put together a coherent post. Unfortunately, given that it's the beginning of the school year, not to mention the fact that we've just finished two weeks of two-a-days at football, I've finally decided the coherent thing is just not going to happen. But I loved this book, and really, really want people to read it, so we can talk about it, so I thought I'd just pull out a few of the quotes I loved, as teasers, and maybe those will make you want to read the book for yourself. So here goes:

"In my experience, excellent instruction rarely feels rushed. As a learner, you feel there is time to explore, there is the tolerance of silences, there is the deliberate buildup to an activity, there is the mental space to work in. This space is harder and harder to create" (11).

Newkirk argues that teachers must continually exercise what he calls "situated judgment." The teacher must have a repertoire of strategies but must "harmonize" these strategies in different ways, in different situations. The technical term for this kind of judgment is called kairos or timeliness, 'the ability to make judgment which is accurate in meeting occasions as they arise and rarely misses the expedient form of action" (25).

Newkirk believes that teachers' decision making process can be compared to that of doctors and nurses, who walk into a situation, and have to draw on a number of different sources of information (microtheories), such as knowledge of that specific child, knowledge of teaching and learning, knowledge of group dynamics, and knowledge of school culture, to make decisions. He says, "Each situation is, to a considerable degree, a unique experience that can't be anticipated by a preset procedure" (27). It makes sense to me!

"Readers comprehend for a reason. We discuss novels; use information in newspapers to form opinions, which we share; use our reading in our writing-- reading (or reading comprehension) is a means to a more public expressive act. We act on what we learn, and learning research shows that by acting on it, we retain it, something any writer can attest to. To view individual comprehension as an end is to confuse the part with the whole, it is to fail to see reading embedded in other language activity; it is to separate reading from its public uses" (61)

In a chapter on Expressive Writing, Newkirk talks about how young writers are expected to achieve "well-controlled" organization and "tightly controlled" language very early on. He compares young writers to young athletes, saying, "Promising young athletes, in my experience, rarely have their abilities in total control; they try moves or passes that are often beyond their current ability; they may expend too much energy on a play that has little chance of success; they are often not "smooth and natural- and this daring is actually a measure of their promise" (71)

Saturday, August 15, 2009


Last year, I used Barbara O'Connor's HOW TO STEAL A DOG as the first read aloud for one of my intervention groups. My fourth and fifth graders absolutely loved this book about Georgina, a girl whose family was living in their car. Desperate to help her mother make enough money to pay the deposit on an apartment, Georgina, a really good kid in a really hard situation steals a dog. My students loved this book and it came up in our discussions again and again. Several kids read other books by Barbara O'Connor. Sadly, three of the six kids in the group were homeless at one point or another throughout the year, and Georgina became a sort of compass, a beacon of hope in dark times.

I just finished ALSO KNOWN AS HARPER, and it's another book I want my students to have in their hands and in their hearts. Harper Lee Morgan's alcoholic father has abandoned his family, and her mother is working two jobs to keep a roof over her family's head. The financial burdens become too much, and Harper, her little brother Hem, and her mother end up living in a motel. Harper, a budding poet, is heartbroken, because for the second year in a row, she misses the school's poetry contest.

I loved this story. In these very difficult family times, I'm grateful to have yet one more book to place in kids' hands to somehow say, "You are not alone. Other kids have been here. They have gotten through this, and you will too." I love the community that Harper and her family find at the motel; Lorraine, a selective mute girl about Harper's age, who stopped talking after a horrible house fire, and Miss Dorothy, an elderly woman who wanders the edges of the motel, appearing to be homeless. I love the small kindnesses sprinkled throughout the book, e.g. the hotel maid who doesn't repair a broken lock, so that homeless people can take showers. I love Harper's poetry. And of course I love the fact that one of my all time favorite books, HOW TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, plays a prominent role in this book.

I'm pretty sure ALSO KNOWN AS HARPER will be the first book I read aloud this year.

Saturday, August 8, 2009


OK, so I'm interrupting my blog to do a bit of what can only be described as shameless commercial promotion for my two readers from Colorado. My boys (see above, aren't they handsome, even if they won't smile for pictures!!!!) started football at East last week, so besides being chief cook (anyone who knows me knows me very well knows that there is actually not much of that), bottle washer, and chauffeur (lots of that), I have also been thrust into the role of family fundraiser. The team is not selling gift wrap, or stale chocolate, or butterbraids that expand and take over your trunk if you forget about them (not that anyone would ever do that, but just in case…). Instead we are selling "Adrenaline Discount Cards." The cards cost $20 and have lots of 2 for 1 and discounts, e.g.
  • Black Eyed Pea- buy two dinners, get a free appetizer or dessert
  • Black Jack Pizza- buy one large pizza and cinnabread, get a large pizza free
  • Carl's Junior- Buy one sandwich and drink, get another of the same sandwich for free
  • Domino's- Buy one large two topping pizza, get a second medium one topping pizza for free
  • Fat Burger- Buy one Big Fat Deal and get a free baby fat burger
  • Joe's Crab Shack- free appetizer with a purchase of an entree
  • Johnny Rocket- free burger with the purcase of a double burger and fries
  • LePeep- Free entree with purchase of one entree and two beverages (not good on Sundays)
  • Popeye's- free three piece combo with purchase of a three piece combo
  • Subway- free six inch sub with purchase of six inch sub and large drink
  • Sonic- Free Sonic burger with purchase of Sonic burger
  • Texas Roadhouse- free baby blossom with purchase of two entrees
  • KFC- 10 percent off
  • Jiffy Lube- $5 off signature service
  • Grease Monkey- $5 off full service oil change
  • Best Buy- $2 off of any regular priced CD, DVD, video game or computer software
  • Brunswick Zone $1.99 per game.
To the best of my understanding, these discounts can be used any time you go to these places any time between now and August 2010. The card also includes three one time offers- $5 off a $25 purchase at TGI Friday, six wings with the purchase or 12 at Buffalo Wild Wings, and a 2 for 1 adult lift ticket at Loveland. We have to sell 20 of these (ten for each son) by next Saturday, so if anyone is interested, drop me an email or call or leave a comment here. Otherwise, wave when you go by the corner of Colfax and Colorado because I may set up a little booth to sell them there.

OK, now back to the real stuff.



Ten-year-old Mary McHugh lives with her father and mother in Cripple Creek, Colorado in the late 1800's. Mary is at school one day when a siren goes off, indicating that there has been an accident at the mine. After school, Mary discovers that her own father has been injured. He survives, but is no longer the happy, wood-carving, piano-playing daddy that Mary knew before the accident, and Mary and her mother must find a way to help him work out of his deep depression, and also help the family survive without its previous income.

FAMILY REMINDERS would be a terrific read aloud for anyone doing a unit on life in the mining towns. I can also see myself handing the book to some of our second, third, and fourth grade readers, think LITTLE HOUSE books, but a little easier. And I love Mary and her mom, plucky heroines who make lemonade when life hands them lemons. They're great models for today's tough economic times.

Friday, August 7, 2009



Louis Jenkins

I take the snap from the center, fake to the right, fade back...
I've got protection. I've got a receiver open downfield...
What the hell is this? This isn't a football, it's a shoe, a man's
brown leather oxford. A cousin to a football maybe, the same
skin, but not the same, a thing made for the earth, not the air.

Read the rest of the poem here.

POETRY FRIDAY is at Miss Rumpius Effect.

Thursday, August 6, 2009


Abby is a sixth grade girl who lives on a farm in the heartland of Illinois. She likes a few things about school- the climbing wall in gym, the grilled cheese sandwiches, and hanging out with her friends. She does not, however, like much about the school part of school, so much so that midway through sixth grade, her counselor tells her she probably will not be able to go on to seventh grade with her class.

Abby makes a deal with her teachers. She will complete all homework for the rest of the year, get a B average on tests, and do a penpal project for extra credit project in social studies. Abby selects Afghanistan (because of the mountains) for her penpal project and begins writing to Sadad, a sixth grade boy in a mountain village on the other side of the world. Actually, she writes to Sadad's fourth grade sister, Amira, because cultural norms in Afghanistan prevent a young man from corresponding with a girl. Amira is not yet totally fluent in English, so Sadad's teacher asks him to help Amira with writing to Abby. Sadad helps Amira, but also adds his own "two cents worth" to the letters. Because of the male/female restrictions, Abby can't respond directly to Sadad's questions and comments, but figures out a way to weave her responses into her letters to Amira.

There's a lot to like about this book. Clements does a really clever job weaving geographical and historical information about Afghanistan throughout the book, and he does it without being preachy or teacher-ish, it's just there, as part of the story, and readers (me included) learn a lot about a very different part of the world (I could see pairing it with THREE CUPS OF TEA). I love how Abby and Sadad use letters to correspond- a great example of a real world use of writing. I love the friendship that evolves between Abby and Sadad. From a teacher standpoint, I could use this book to teach kids how readers think when an author alternates characters in different chapters. The book also lends itself to some great conversations about inferring.

I'm looking forward to sharing EXTRA CREDIT with DiAnthony, and other kids in the Andrew Clements' fan club, when we return to school on August 19th.

Saturday, August 1, 2009


It's August 1st, and I'm starting to think about school (OK, actually I don't think I ever stopped). I don't know why, but I always spend more time thinking about the kids who don't like reading than those who do. I imagine my classroom. I pick my first read aloud- it has to be terrific, the one my kids will still be talking about in May. I think about what books will stand up on the top of the bookshelves, inviting readers to visit. I peruse the sale flyers, sure these cool CU Buff beanbag chairs will invite a kid or two to read.

I think a lot about the conversations we will have those first few days and how they will shape us as reading community. This morning, I read Donalyn Miller's column, "Every Reader Tells a Story." In the article, Miller talks about how her mom banned bedtime reading after Donalyn burned her ear one night when she fell asleep reading with a flashlight. Miller believes that every reader has those "stories of origin." She will begin the school year by telling her stories, and inviting her students to share theirs.

I totally agree with Donalyn. All readers have stories. Communities begin with stories. It makes sense, then, to start the year by asking our readers to tell their reading stories. I'm not sure, yet, what story I will tell. I might talk about the day I remember actually learning to read- when I could read the words on the last page of HOP ON POP. Or I might talk about going to visit Mrs. Holly at the bookmobile each Monday afternoon. Or maybe I will tell the story of my family's hot summer road trips. I was ok with being crammed between my sisters on the hot vinyl seats in those pre-air conditioning days, because I knew when we got to Chicago, my grandmother, a Chicago librarian for many, many years, would have a pile of wonderful books waiting for me. And then there is the story of the day my mom took me to the doctor, sure I had a fatal disease, because I had created a bald spot on my head from twisting my hair like Ellen Tebbits did. Or I could tell about how I always hid a book in my lap and read when the action was a little too slow in school.

I'm imagining myself telling these stories, and inviting kids to tell their stories. I'm thinking however, that my story telling might begin a little differently. I've thought a lot about the role of picture and image this summer. I've been especially taken by the number of children's book illustrators using collage as their medium. I'm imagining, then, that I will begin my intervention groups with stories, but they will be stories told in collage. I'll start by telling one of my reading stories, creating a collage as I go along. I will show the kids other samples of collage, e.g. illustrators like Mo Willems' Knufflebunny books, and the work of David Diaz and Lauren Child. Then I will invite the children to select one of their reading stories and create collages, using a bunch of materials- construction paper, magazines, markers and crayons, and whatever else I think might grab them. Afterwards, we will tell these stories, then maybe write them, and display them for everyone. I'm trying to get brave and take the plunge with a class wiki this year, so maybe the reading stories will even be our first post on our wiki pages.

Lots to think about in August…