Monday, January 25, 2010


I've been doing "Poetry Friday" with the fifth graders at school all year long. Most Friday afternoons, I go into the fifth grades classes for an hour, and we read poetry and share poetry and write poetry. Sometimes we have a theme, e.g. poems about friendship, or poems about Christmas. Sometimes we read poems by a particular author. Sometimes we look for poems where the poet has used a certain poet's tool, e.g. repetition. And sometimes we just read and share poems.

I love connecting with kids in this way. I love watching the fifth graders fall in love with poetry. I love watching them read poetry and perform it. I love when C, a tough gangbanger wanna be, shyly stands at my shoulder to show me an alliterative poem he describes as "kind of a tongue twister. " I love when J, a tiny nine year old who lost his mom last year, stops by my office, writers' notebook in hand, to share a memory poem he has written.

For years, I have talked to kids about how readers prepare themselves to open a book- how they think about whether the book is fiction or nonfiction, and what they know about the author or topic. Recently, I have worked with kids a lot on nonfiction text structure. We talk about how the author "built" the text-- whether it is a house (all about one thing), a duplex or triplex (comparing several different things) or an apartment (a little bit of information about a whole bunch of different but related topics (e.g. all about bears, with one page devoted to grizzlies, and one page devoted to polar bears, and one page devoted to brown bears). All of this prereading work has seemed to really support kids and help them become more active readers.

For the past couple of weeks, I've been messing around with a kind of framework to help the kids think about poetry. I've been calling it "Poet's Purpose," mostly for lack of a better term. I want kids, before they ever start to read, to consider why the poet might be writing.

  1. Entertain or make us laugh- I started with this one, because these are the poems that kids love first. Humorous poets like Shel Silverstein, Jack Prelutsky, and Kenn Nesbitt are a doorway for children to enter into the world of poetry.
  2. Play with language- Language play is another category my kids love. They love concrete poems in books like SPLISH SPLASH by Joan Bransfield Graham. They love Betsy Franco's MATHEMATICKLES. They also love the language play- made up words and rhyming twists- in Doug Florian's dinosaur poems.
  3. Story poems- Poems that tell a story are another category that kids seem to find really accessible, both for reading and writing. Don Graves' "BASEBALL, SNAKES, AND SUMMER SQUASH" is a book I revisit again and again.
  4. Capture a feeling- Sometimes I share a feeling poem or two. Poems about being lonely, or sad, or lost seem to really resonate with the kids. Often, the poems they bring to share with me are feeling poems.
  5. Capture visual or sensory images- We talk a lot about how poets create images in our heads, or help us smell or taste or feel things. These seem harder and less interesting to the kids, but I keep trying.
  6. Compare two things- Poets often compare two things that I would never, in a million years, think of comparing. Jean Little's poem, "Clothes," where she talks about the difference between new and old clothes, or new and old friends, has been a terrific for this. Last week, the kids loved "December Leaves," where poet Kay Starbird compares the leaves on her lawn to cornflakes in a bowl. Valerie Worth is another poet who does this all the time.
  7. Teach a life lesson- Poetry often teaches important life lessons. Some, e.g. those of Shel Silverstein, are easy to pick out, other are much more difficult. I usually just kind of let the discussion go where it may, and the kids often have huge insights. Sometimes, at the end, I'll say, "Some people think…" and show the kids support from the text for this thinking. The fifth graders listen respectfully to my ideas, but don't see these as any more valid or legitimate than their own thinking, which is exactly what I want them to do.
This framework is not intended to be all inclusive (poets probably have a million or more reasons why they write), and a single poem could definitely have more than one purpose. Shel Silverstein's "Jimmy Jet and His TV Set" for example, is a story poem, but it also has a life lesson. I also don't want the framework to become so all encompassing that it turns the reading of poetry into one of those gosh-awful poetry dissection exercises that most of us remember from high school or college lit classes, where one person, the teacher, knows what the poet means, and everyone else takes turns guessing what the might be in the poet and/or teacher's head. I just wanted to create something that kids might use, if they found it helpful.

I'd love to hear what people think…

Friday, January 22, 2010


My oldest son turned 16 this week. And I am watch in amazement as this sweet guy turns the corner toward manhood. I am so blessed to be his mom…

"To a daughter leaving home"

When I taught you
at eight to ride
a bicycle, loping along
beside you
as you wobbled away
on two round wheels
my own mouth rounding
in surprise when you pulled
ahead down the curved
path of the park…

Linda Pastan

Read the rest of the poem here.

Poetry Friday is at Liz in Ink. In case you didn't know, Liz's book, ALL THE WORLD, which was illustrated by Marla Frazee, won a Caldecott Honor Medal this week. Congratulations Liz and Marla!

Sunday, January 17, 2010


WARNING: This post may be offensive to some people. It doesn't represent the views of anyone but me.

It's the eve of MLK Day. I know we are supposed to celebrate the accomplishments of this great man, but I think it's also a time we should take stock. I'm not quite sure we are quite as far down the road as we think we are. Here are three quick stories:

Every Sunday, our newspaper, has a feature they call "Student Athletes." The paper recognizes two kids, one boy and one girl, who are outstanding athletes, and also have outstanding grades. I read this feature every week and I think it's great that the paper honors kids in this way. However, 95% or more, of the kids that they honor are Anglo kids. I can't help but believe that there are other kids-- African American, Hispanic, Asian, etc., who also meet the qualifications. I wonder why they aren't honored. Then there's the Constitutional Law team at the boys' very diverse high school. Although well over half of the student body is non-Anglo, the Con Law team is 95% white. And I wonder, are we really as far along as we think we are?

My sons attend a high school that has open campus at lunch. This means that every day, at 11:30, approximately two thousand starving teenagers leave the school grounds and descend on a two block strip of restaurants, convenience stores, etc. On Friday, my son, an athletic, handsome (ok, I'm biased, but he really is cute) African American teen and his best friend, who is Hispanic, were stopped by a man with a video camera, who asked if he could interview the boys. His questions, or at least the ones my sons could remember, were all about teen fathers*. He asked the boys how they would feel if they found out that they were going to be dads. My son said he would be surprised and that he knew he would be in big trouble with his mom.

I gotta tell you that these questions offend and concern me more than a little. First, although my preferred method of birth control is definitely abstinence until marriage, I'm not so naive as to believe that my boys feel the same way. We do talk about safe sex and pregnancy prevention on a regular basis. My boys also know that in the event that they got a girl pregnant, they would be responsible for providing for the child emotionally and financially for the next 21 years. Mostly, I want to know why this man, whoever he was, picked my kid out of all the kids at East. Did he talk to kids of all different races, or did he assume that because my son was black, he was sexually active and also irresponsible? And where is that film going to show up? I'm not excited about having my son's face smeared across You Tube as the face of teen fatherhood. And I wonder, are we really as far along as we think we are?

One more story. This weekend I got some really disturbing news. On Friday, January 8, a family that we know, lost their house and all of their possessions in a fire. We are not super close to this family, but my boys have played football with them, their dad is a terrific coach and athletic trainer (my younger son says, "All Coach E has to do is touch whatever is hurt and it feels better) and we've spent countless hours together at practice fields and games. Their middle son is a nationally titled Junior Olympic boxer. I found out about the fire yesterday, and only then because another coach posted a request for clothes and shoes on his Facebook page. To the best of my knowledge, this fire has not been on any news channel, or in the newspaper. We see human interest stories like this all the time, and I wonder why this family's story has not shown up. Is it because the family is not Anglo? Is it because they live in a lower working class neighborhood? And I wonder, are we really as far along as we think we are?

Maybe tomorrow, a day when we stop to honor an important American, we all need to stop and think about whether we are really as far along as we think we are.

Friday, January 15, 2010


Jamie McKenzie

Some kings rule their kingdoms sitting down,
Surrounded by luxury, soft cushions and fans
But this king stood strong
stood proud
stood tall…

And when some spit out hate
He stood there smiling
spreading love
Until it rolled like the sea across the land
Sweeping away Jim Crow
Breaking down the walls
Ringing the bell
For freedom.

The rest of the poem is here.


Monday, January 11, 2010

The Long Snapper- Jeffrey Marx

Things my sons like: sports, girls, video games. Things my sons do not like: school, deep conversations with their mother, reading. As a mom and a reader, this breaks my heart, and I'm on a never-ending quest for "the book" that will turn them into readers. Add this title to that list.

Brian Kinchen is teaching his fourth period class at Parkview Baptist Middle School when he gets a call from the New England Patriots. They are two weeks from the playoffs and their long snapper is hurt. They want Kinchen, a retired 13 year veteran of the NFL, to try out for the position. Kinchen wins the position, and ultimately ends up as the snapper for the Patriots game-winning Super Bowl field goal.

In the six weeks in between the tryout and the Super Bowl, however, Kinchen goes through a horrific slump. During his 13 years in the NFL, he was known as a perfectly accurate and dependable snapper, but now, all of a sudden, his snaps are going everywhere but where they need to be. Kinchen does everything he can- watches himself on film, consults coaches, other players, practices every night at his motel, prays. He is terrified that his inconsistency will lose the big game for his team, and at one point, three days before the Super Bowl, even goes so far as to call the coach who brought him in for the tryout to tell him that he needs to find another long snapper.

This is a great story about passion and purpose and self esteem. My favorite lines from the book actually come from the movie Cool Running, about the Jamaican Bobsledding team. In the movie, it is the night before a big race, and the coach is talking to his team's driver. "A gold medal is a wonderful thing," he says. "But if you're not enough without it, you'll never be enough with it."

It's funny how sometimes books you read for other people end up speaking loudly to you…

Saturday, January 9, 2010


I got to know G. last April. when our school piloted a literacy intervention program for first and second graders. I told the second grade teacher that I needed three of her lowest readers for half an hour each day. G's name was the first one out of her mouth. "He cant' read at all," she said. "And he's very shy. It's really hard to know what he knows, because he doesn't talk. And he is really resistant to working with anyone. I don't even know if we will get him to go with you. " In the first few weeks that we worked together, all of those things were true. G scowled when I walked into the room each day and protested coming across the hall to our group. He read only the very simplest kindergarten level books. His writing was almost unreadable. He talked only when spoken to, and even then his voice was so, so, so quiet I often had trouble hearing him.

Eight weeks later, when school ended, G was starting to make a little progress. I had to take my sons to football conditioning three afternoons a week, so I asked his mom if I could continue working with him. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoon, I drove to his apartment, waded through the 15 or 20 students shouting my name and begging to ride in my car, knocked on G's apartment door, and took him to the tiny public library a few blocks east of his home.

I had anticipated that G and I would spend most of our time in the easy reader section of the library. There were lots of great easy reads- Dr. Seuss and crew, David Shannon, Mo Willems' Elephant and Piggy series, Jon Scieszka's Trucktown series, etc. G had other ideas, however, "Do they got any books about lowriders?" he asked that first day. We made our way to an area I came to call "Car Corner" and G paged through car book after car book after car book. He couldn't read most of the the words, but he picked out the important ones- Chevy Impalas, hydraulics, chrome, classics, and custom interiors. When we had exhausted our branch library's supply, we got on the computer and borrowed thirty lowrider books from other libraries. We read cars and talked cars and drew cars (OK, G drew cars and I mostly admired the cars he drew). G wrote his own lowrider book and illustrated the book with pencil and crayon sketches, supplemented with color photographs we printed off the internet.

Although cars, and specifically lowriders, were definitely his topic of choice, G also had other interests. He loved books about the Transformers, and drew on extensive background knowledge, probably gained from hours spent in front of the television, to read words like Optimus Prime and Decepticon. He loved pop up books and returned to them again and again, carefully examining how they were put together, and fussing if anyone had mistreated them. He liked reading about jaguars and sharks and snakes.

G grew and grew and grew over the summer. I wasn't sure, however, how much of his growth would translate to the classroom. Would he talk at all? Would he even try reading? Thankfully, he has an amazing third grade teacher. That very first day, Mrs. D made sure that the book tub on G's table was full of easy books about cars, and Transformers, and sharks. She made a special time, even in that craziness of learning names, meeting parents, and sorting school supplies, to pull G aside and read his Lowrider book. She seated G next to his best friend and encouraged them to work together and help each other. I continued to support G with a daily 30 minute intervention group. When it came time for our school-wide special interest classes, G and I taught a class on lowriders. We read his book to the kids the first day of class. He taught them how to draw lowriders. He was in charge of the display at our lowrider celebration in December. And somewhere along the way, his reading took off.

Shortly before Christmas, I began hearing rumors that the family was going to leave. G's stepfather didn't have the right papers and needed to return to Mexico. It would probably be permanent. When G was at school the day after winter break, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Yesterday, however, G told me that he and his family- his mom and stepdad and four younger siblings had their bus tickets and would be leaving for Mexico this weekend. I was heartbroken. I packed a bag of books, gave him a hug, and went back to my office and cried. I will miss that little guy.

Teaching G to read (or maybe it would be more accurate to say accompanying him as he taught himself to read), has brought me back to some of my most important truths, the ones that are so easy to forget in our test-crazy, measurement-crazy world. First, G reminded me that it's so, so, so important to take time to listen to kids, to learn about their passions and their interests and to use those as a doorway into literacy. Before I started working with him, I had little or no interest in learning about low riders. I would never have thought of using lowriders as a tool to teach a child to read. And yet lowriders are the topic that has brought G into reading and writing.

Second, G reminded me that we have to be willing to enter kids' worlds, not just ask them to enter ours. I have never been a teacher who bought books about Transformers or Hannah Montana or other pop culture icons. G reminded me, however, that learners start where they are, with what they know best. Fortunately or unfortunately, for most of the kids I teach, that is stuff from the world of television and pop culture. It's ok to have that be a starting place for their journey into literacy.…

Finally, G reminded me that teaching is always, always, always about believing in kids, caring about them, establishing relationships with them. These truthsseem so basic, and so stupid, but sometimes I get so wrapped up in finding mentor texts and figuring out minilessons and monitoring progress and assembling bodies of evidence that I forget to take time to notice new tennis shoes or hair cuts, inquire about sick grandparents, or acknowledge things kids are doing well. When I forget to do those things, kids forget to learn.

Never underestimate the power of a low rider…

Friday, January 8, 2010


A found poem from C.S. Lewis, one of my favorite authors, after a long hard week of bitter cold, long and icy commutes, and difficult teenagers…

"I Thank Him for the Winter"

As the winter in my heart
slows from the cold of pain,

the sun still shines,
and reminds me,

that He is coming
and He brings Spring,
with Him

and so I thank Him for the winter.

I don't understand
the cold
of my snow-frost

maybe it is to dull the pain,

or maybe this blizzard
is the last stand
of an Enemy

who knows
his tyranny
is kindle

for an unforgiving
blazing end
that is soon to come

and maybe
it is for us
to understand

How He
who has sustained us


being so far

from us…

and so I thank Him for the winter.

C.S. Lewis

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


Sunday morning. I'm on a post church, pick up a gift, run through of a local bookstore. I know exactly what I want and have no reason to go further than twenty feet inside of the store. Even so, the siren song of the children's book area calls to me, and I head to the back of the store, just for a minute.

I'm immediately drawn to the pale blue, sprinkled with white sparkles cover of MY LITTLE POLAR BEAR. I open it and know that I have found a new favorite. This book, a dialogue between a mama polar bear and her cub, works on a lot of different levels. First, it's a really sweet RUNAWAY BUNNY kind of story about the love between a mama and her child- it would be a terrific baby present. I'm guessing that could quickly become one of those bedtime ritual books that young children would ask for again and again. The illustrations, all done in shades of blues and grays and whites, are quiet and soothing.

This seemingly simple bedtime story, however, could be used in a whole different way. On each two page spread, the cub asks for reassurance as to whether it is really a polar bear. Rueda uses specific factual information, "Your feet are large and padded. You can walk on snow and melting ice, just like a polar bear. You smell seals from far away." I could see using MY LITTLE POLAR BEAR, then, as a model for research reports for primary grade students. Even kindergarteners with a few good facts could write a really nice little research report using MY LITTLE POLAR BEAR as a mentor text. I can't wait to try it.

A beary nice find, perfect for this time of year…

Monday, January 4, 2010


There was a kids' author named Scieszka
For two years he served children's lit-cha
Our case he did plead,
These kids gotta read,
Today we're saluting this Ambassada!

There was a young boy named Jon,
Who grew up with five brothers to pick on,
They did five person vomits,
And off roofs flew like comets,
"Knuckleheads!' said their dad when he caught em.

There was a young teacher named Scieszka
To be an author was all that he want-a,
That book sold really big,
And changed kids' lit for a whole lotta ya.

There was an author named Scieszka
And books he has written a-plenta,
Whether it's science or math,
Kids just gotta laugh,
In his books that happens, you betcha!

There was a kids' author named Scieszka
For two years he served children's lit-cha
Our case he did plead,
These kids gotta read,
Today we're saluting this Ambassada!

Thank you, Jon Scieszka, for your tremendous efforts to connect kids and books!

A round up of all of the posts is at YEAR OF READING. Thanks Franki and Mary Lee!

Friday, January 1, 2010


Happy New Year! And new decade! Welcome to 2010!

Today is a big day! The CYBILS SHORTLISTS have been published. Lots of fabulous titles! I can't wait to get to the library and start reading!

And of course it's Poetry Friday! I googled January poem and found one I had never read. I liked the middle best, so that's what you're reading.


…The unattended resolutions of the past are rushed
to the door, like an unwelcome guest who stayed
over a little longer, House needs a cleaning now.

Every year a battle is lost unfought, unthought
a select and delete all command works well
on a forgotten past, just as it did the last year.

I wish no questions were asked about the past
no grades to be given, no scores to be kept.
A new slate, new pen and a new poem to be written…

- Nikunj Sharma

The rest of the poem is here.

Poetry Friday is at A YEAR OF READING.