Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Cover-Up, Mystery at the Super Bowl, by John Feinstein

I mentioned a couple months back that it was going to be nice to be looking for new, fantastic books now that I've gotten to know this particular batch of readers. Zipping through this book was a delightful rush, because every ten sentences I'd stop and think, "So-and-So, (fill in with one of my boy students' names,) will love this book." Even though it's still in hardback I might order two or three copies for my classroom library. Okay, just two.

Steve Thomas was working as an anchor on a tv sports news program for kids, but is fired cuz he lacks "star quality". He ends up attending the country's biggest sporting event anyway, covering the super-bowl for the Washington Times. He uncovers a steroid doping and cover-up story worthy of his reputation as a tough investigative reporter. His partner in this investigation is his former co-host/budding girlfriend, Susan Carol.

In addition to a "whodunit" and "can we prove it??" mystery, this book is also rich with insider details of both the reporting industry and of the NFL. The romance between Susan and Steve is totally PG, although there is some slightly colorful (PG-13) language.

I can't wait to recommend this to some boys who love football, who themselves are budding reporters, and who are just beginning to figure out romance and such.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Reading Results

This week my students took the Gates-McGinnity reading test for the second time this year. The first time was back in mid-September. The results, after three solid months of choice-driven reading workshop instruction??? Good. Very good.

A couple of my guys, who I had to fight to protect from getting pulled for "interventions" based on their damn DIBELS and CRT scores, did particularly well. They've both made substantial progress; both are up two whole grade levels!! Yeah!! I knew they'd become stronger readers quicker by reading lots and lots of cool books (not by reading boring fluency passages over and over). Here are some of the books these two particular guys have recently finished: Hugo Cabret, Cirque Du Freak, The Sea of Monsters, Holes, Esperanza Rising, Here B. Monsters, and How To Train a Dragon. No wonder they're making such great progress.

Honestly, I believe fluency interventions do have a proper time and a place. I've seen many kids make an impressive leap in their decoding skills after a few weeks of doing daily timed, repeated readings of short passages. But I think this specific strategy is best for kids who are around a mid-third grade reading level---it's not so great for fifth and sixth graders, even for those fifth and sixth graders who are "low". It's also best to turn right around and put those newly developed decoding muscles to great use---reading fantastic literature.

My current metaphor (and, again, I'm not dogmatic about this) is that if you want something you can grow in six weeks, like a dandelion, then stick kids in intervention pull-out groups where they read and reread contrived, boring texts. If you want something that takes 12 years to grow, like, say, an oak tree---or critical, habitual, responsive, lifelong readers--then put kids in year after year of strong reading workshops. I'm just super glad to have some data right now to support this metaphor and belief. I think it's fair for educators to be asked to back their "instincts" with results. What a nice December gift I've been given.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Seven Things Meme

Seven Things About Me As A Reader

1. I am currently zipping through The Diary of Anne Frank, for the very first time.
2. I learned to read before I turned 5 and have no memories of the process, just mom's stories.
3. It's only been in the last two years that I've started reading lots and lots of kid lit.
4. Contemporary mystery novels are my escpape books.
5. My all-time favorite book, a novel called The Brothers K, by a brilliant writer named David James Duncan, still continues to shape how I relate to the world. It's a deep well of hope and goodness to which I often return.
6. My reading interests are very broad: I like adventure books, fantasies, mysteries, realistic fiction, poetry, contemporary non-fiction on religion, science, and politics, biographies, funny books, and gothic, urban fantasy stuff. Here's all I need to get into a book: sentences that are well crafted and either a great story or some interesting ideas to explore.
7. Ok. I'll admit it. I aspire to be not just a reader of fine books, but also a writer.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Miss Spitfire, by Sarah Miller

I read this entire book on the plane on my way to the NCTE conference. I really enjoyed the conference and I especially enjoyed spending time with my brother and his partner. But reading this book was far and away the best part of the whole vacation. I'm a big time book lover and for a book to completely rock my soul, it has to speak directly to me and my personal experiences in a very intimate kinda way. I was so stunned and blown away by this book that I don't have any solid sense of how kids might respond to it. Can my students possibly relate to something that I loved as much as I loved this? I'm worried they can't, but I liked it way too much make reasonable predictions.

This is the story of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, told strictly from Annie's point of view. Episode after episode full of wonderful "teacher" moments were what captivated and enthralled me. I remember reading the play "The Miracle Worker" in seventh grade. I didn't like it much, although I can still remember reading the "water" scene--when Helen suddenly connects the hand-spelled word W-A-T-E-R to the liquid pouring out of a water pump. Miss Spitfire ends just after that epiphany--and everything that comes before made this same scene much more astonishing and powerful.

What makes a book really fantastic, for me, as a reader? When it takes the notes, melodies, and rhythms of my spirit and creates a magnificent symphony. I'm no Miracle Worker, but this book reminded me what I know about teaching; that it is hard, joyful, frustrating, passion-filled, mistake-ridden, impossibly tender, frequently painful, very discouraging, and incredibly nourishing work. That it demands almost everything and gives back even more. Thank you, Sarah Miller, for such an excellent book.

For a much calmer, but still quite positive review, visit Fuse 8, here.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

NYC Muse

At a district training last week a teacher had a very specific, heart-felt question about implementing the first book in Lucy Calkins' Units of Writing series. There was a little bit of discussion following her question, but as I was flying to NYC I thought of a few more helpful responses. I realized how interesting and useful and exciting it would be to have a blog devoted to supporting the growth of SLC teachers. At that same meeting our district literacy coach compiled an anonymous list, from a previous meeting, of all the teachers' written responses to an end-of-meeting reflection sheet. These responses indicated a well of desire to learn and reach students through a workshop model of writing instruction. But this list also contained a lot of trepidation, reluctance, and fear.

I don't really know if this particular blog space will grow into a location where SLC teachers can share book recommendations, writing triumphs, etc. etc. But give me a few months, it might, it really might. Like I wrote down in my notes from one of the great conference sessions this weekend, you can only create what you can imagine. Here's what I imagine: SLC teachers and coaches as a community of writers and professionals similar to the beautiful and powerful flock in NYC at Teachers College. It could happen! Instead of yearning to be part of such a community, maybe I can help create one in the city (and for the children) I love most.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

How To Steal A Dog, by Barbara O'Connor

This book is the most recent addition to my classroom library. The issue of homelessness, which effects the lives of about 15 percent of my students, is taken up in this story in very careful and thoughtful ways. Georgina, her brother, and her mom are living out of their car. Georgina finds herself plotting to steal a dog in order to secure the 500 dollar reward that would help her family get into an apartment.

There's nothing that perks my interest in particular titles like the fact that real life kids are choosing them. After I get back from the NCTE convention in NYC I'm planning to submit a "kid picks" article to The Edge of the Forest, a monthly children's literature e-zine. I hope that feedback from my class of readers will provide other folks with some valuable information.

I hope Broadway isn't closed down next weekend. I'm supposed to go see Wicked with my brother on Saturday night.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Thanks to Utah Voters

Dear Utah Voters,

In your sound rejection of an ill-conceived voucher program last night, you have given this Utah public school teacher a strong sense of community support. I've always felt a sense of stewardship when trusted with the education of our community's children, but your vote last night has reminded me that this stewardship in not just about the trust of my students' parents. There are also thousands and thousands of everyday citizens who are trusting me with these children, citizens who are also deeply committed to academic growth and future opportunities for my twenty-seven students. Your vote, in support of public schools, has energized and bolstered my passion for teaching in the public system. Thank you!

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Me and the Pumpkin Queen, by Marlane Kennedy

I am the sort of person who doesn't drive to county fairs, art festivals, or other such community events with any excitement or hope that I'll really enjoy the excursion. But I am often surprised when I'm actually at such events---surprised to find myself fascinated with some exhibit or performance. That's kinda what happened to me, reading this book. After the first two pages I was not really getting into it and was ready to give up, but after just a few more pages I was engaged with the main character, Mildred, with the rural setting, and with the plot of growing humongous pumpkins. The other main plot line: Mildred learning to grow up without her dead mom, was one of the things that I didn't feel excited about in the first couple pages, but this plot line plays out so subtly and realistically that I was able to jump into and enjoy the whole story.

Now that I'm teaching older elementary aged children (5th and 6th graders) I've reoriented my "transitional" book radar. It's no longer books that ease readers into the world of chapter books that I'm constantly searching out (a big priority as a teacher of "struggling" fourth graders). Rather, it's chapter books that are smack in the middle of the middle. Books that are harder than "easy" or "beginning" chapter books, but easier than those chapter books that fifth and sixth graders who are reading "on grade level" often enjoy. For lack of any better identifier, and I think it's pretty fitting, I'm gonna call these "fourth grade" books. This is one of those books, and I am very glad to have found it.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Cirque Du Freak and Letters To A Young Teacher

What would it be like to find horror books, right up the alley of Stephen King, but appropriate for fifth and sixth graders to read in school? It would be like discovering Darren Shan's Cirque Du Freak books. I've only finished the first book, but it was really scary, and bloody, and suspenseful. Yikes. I wouldn't want any kid younger than 10 reading it at night. I'm quite interested in continuing the series myself, and I'm super optimistic about lots of students getting into them as well.

Jonothan Kozol's Letters To A Young Teacher was a great, inspiring read. I was, as I've already mentioned, frustrated at some points when he we wrote about teacher-led activism. But, overall, I found his words comforting, motivating, and helpful. It also helped me realize that there are lots of fabulous things about working for the Salt Lake City School District. Our schools are somewhat segregated, with the whole East and West side divide, but certainly not as segregated as many cities across the nation. And our district services the whole city so overall we have a huge range of demographics. Even little old Washington Elementary has a nice blend of racial, ethnic, and economic diversity. I wish there was more economic diversity, but we do have some variety, ranging from extreme, homeless levels of poverty, to making-ends-meet poor, to a few families who are comfortably middle class.

Kozol provided a whole chapter on the voucher debate, which is a very hot issue here in Utah right now. We are going to be voting next week on whether to keep and implement the voucher program that the state legislature created last year or to dissolve the legislation and continue Utah's oddly progressive history of strongly supporting public schools. (When you have family sizes like ours, what choice do you have but to keep the public schools strong??)

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Sticky Note Essay Idea

I had this flash of inspiration in the middle of the night last night. In Writing Workshop, my students are on the brink of making "boxes and bullets" to outline a thesis with subordinate ideas for their personal essays. And then, following the Units of Writing model for essays, we're going to organize things physically by having three little "subordinate" folders, inside their big drafting folders. I know, this totally seems dorky, to have put so much thought into this, but those three subordinate folders (which are just gonna be 8 1/2 by 11 inch pieces of construction paper, folded in half) will be filled with sticky notes full of ideas, quotes, examples, and mini-stories which fit with the corresponding subordinate idea. Using sticky notes was the midnight flash of inspiration, because I realized how well they ought to stay in their designated folders (cuz they stick). And I also realized that when it's time to write drafts they can be arranged and rearranged, and moved from folder to folder, as my young writers experiment with different ways to order and organize their ideas. And they also come in lots of different shapes, sizes, and colors.

I remember when I used to set my night-time brain waves to work on complicated physics problems. I loved waking up with an answer to a problem I'd drifted to sleep puzzling over. So, this still happens, but these days the problems I puzzle out are far more complex and interesting.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Getting Parents into Books

For the first time ever, I've had several parents request my permission to keep a book that their child just finished, so that they can read it too. This can only be a positive indication that my students are becoming joyful, habitual readers at home. So much so that they're already spreading the luv....

Yes. Yes. Yes.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

My Superpower

Do you have any amazing abilities that you can't really explain? Any talents that are outliers compared to your other skill sets?

Here's mine: I can get "tough" kids to work hard, to feel positively connected to a class of their peers, and to care a whole lot about my expectations of and for them.

I honestly don't know how this superpower of mine works. It's very real, though. And it is truly one of my most special abilities.

I was perusing the files of one of my "tough" kids this week cuz I wanted to figure out why such a smart guy is so far behind academically. I found a series of suspension slips last year, at his school in California. One per month, starting in January, all the way through June. This year he's been working hard to learn, figuring out his place with the other kids in "appropriate" ways, and letting me in to his world so far as to let me know that his dad's gonna be "in Draper" for another few years. (Our inside language for the state penitentiary.)

One thing I really struggle with, though, is that I really want these kinda kids to develop a source of internal motivation to make good choices, but I often feel like they're over-dependent on me.

What's your superpower?

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Animal Adaptations

One of the blogs I like to read in the kidlitosphere is called The Miss Rumphius Effect. The author of this blog is a teacher educator who specializes in both poetry and science. A couple months back I started searching for books to support a unit on adaptations and through her site and some of her August posts, I found the following great books: Claws, Coats, and Camouflage, What Do You Do When Something Wants to Eat You?, Feathers, Fur, and Flippers, and Exploding Ants.

These four books present fascinating facts about a variety of animals. By organizing the information around types of adaptations, they skillfully keep the principles of evolution near the center of the stage. The result of these voice-filled texts, which are also full of many amazing pictures, is powerful enough to ALMOST make me wanna trade one of my math classes for a science class.

We get some bonus dollars added into our supply budgets this year if we go the extra mile on our school efforts to build school-to-home connections. I think three copies of each of these great books would be a great way to spend some of my extra $.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Read Alouds

Harry Sue went pretty well. I said the word "chest" in place of "boobs" a couple times, and had a long conversation about Grandma's racism and use of the "N" word---but the themes of this book are so powerful and good, that I think it was worth the very careful line I had to walk to pull it off. And, just like previous years at Washington, I have at least two students with parents who are incarcerated. Both of these students responded very well to the book. It helped open up tender connections and rich conversations. About two-thirds of the way through I was thinking that reading it was a bad idea. But now, looking back, I'm glad we read it, and I'm glad it was our first read aloud. The only thing I'll do differently, when I read it again, is give my students a little more front-loading about why we read books about "bad", real-life situations, and I'll carefully read each chapter the night before I read it in class.

Monday we started Bud, Not Buddy. What a fantastic read aloud. I LOVE Bud's narrative voice and I get way into thoroughly embodying his tough, sweet, funny, and observant character. I'm going to pull a sample of excellent essay writing from the first chapter, from the part when Bud discusses why it's rough being a six-year-old.

My student teacher is being the given the gift of teaching my whole class for five full days next week. The wonderfully rewarding, rich community building experience of reading out loud to my students will be the part of the day I most miss.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Skull-Encased Little Universes

In education we are constantly classifying children. "Gifted and Talented", "Learning Disabled", "English Language Learner", and "Emotionally Disabled" are a few of my least favorite labels. I understand the need to have some knowledge of our students in order to know how to best proceed with the dance of teaching them well, but so many of these labels are not treated as starting points, but rather as fixed categories that objectively capture a little person's essential selfness. Which is hogwash. Human beings are such incredibly complicated entities. Each little brain, I've come to believe, is as complex and unique and mysterious as an entire universe. The mixture of nature and nurture create explosively intricate and unquantifiably unique minds. There's not just "8 Kinds of Smart," more like 10,000. Which means there is the potential for trillions upon trillions of different "types" of humans.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Six Week Reflection

Mary Lee, one of two amazing teacher bloggers over at A Year of Reading, recently wrote about the frantic pace and steep climb of the first six weeks of school. She likes swimming metaphors. I like climbing metaphors. I totally agree with her observations. The first six weeks are such hard work. I've sometimes compared our teaching of routines and structures during this critical time as similar to pushing on a huge stationary round stone and slowly getting it rolling. The initial effort is backbreaking, but once you get that stone rolling, it'll have a lot of momentum to carry itself forward. And if you aren't vigilant and thoughtful during this sensitive time, you might have a huge stone rolling in the wrong direction.

We had our first Publication Party yesterday. It was incredible. All twenty-six of my students had amazing stories that they stood up and read in a group that included twelve of their peers, two or three parent guests, and two or three school staff members. Each circle of "readings" was facilitated by a carefully selected sixth grader. We rehearsed for the event on Thursday and also talked, (and talked and talked,) about trust, courage, and respect. On Friday, in addition to sharing these slices of their lives, they were also very kind and gracious listeners.

Yesterday I added a new "lecture" to my ever growing repertoire. Here it is:

When you say to other girls things like, "You're going to have babies when you're young," or "Your mom probably had you when she was 19 or something," you are A) purposely hurting another girl, which isn't ok, and B) giving power to a very terrible idea. That terrible idea is that women should be judged by the choices we make about when to have babies. We (women and girls in this world) need to honor the fact that we all make different choices about when and how to become mothers. When you use those particular words to hurt another girl you are adding to the power of a belief that hurts lots and lots and lots of girls and women. We can make the choice to hold off a while on having babies, if that's what we decide for our own lives, without thinking that all people who decide to have babies when they are "young" are bad.

Maybe that's the book I should write. 50 Important Lectures for 11 and 12 year Old Kids.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Some Observations From the Trenches

I really want to write a short, but powerful blurb about the book Peak, by Roland Smith. My student teacher gave it to me and it was such a great read. Briefly, it has: tons of action, intense survival situations, a detail rich plot that includes a climb up Mt. Everest, and great characters. There's also this surprising, but fitting and believable twist at the end with a moral to die for. Soooo good. I nominated it for a Cybil Award for middle grade fiction. But right now it's 9:00 and I was at Washington for more than 11 hours today. So that's all I'm gonna say about Peak. Just check it out.

Oh yeah, for future reference: the scene where Peak climbs a sky scraper and gets arrested at the top was a great "hook" for booktalking it.

I've realized that there aren't that many teachers who blog in the kidlitosphere and those of us who do have something valuable to offer: real live kid readers. Well, here's some data from my first six weeks of working with a class of fifth an sixth graders in a high poverty, high English Language Learning school:

Twilight and the subsequent books in Stephanie Myers' vampire series are getting passed around my room like wildfire. Boys and girls are liking it. I never even booktalked it.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid has been a huge hit and has already been finished by at least six of my students.

At least four kids have read and enjoyed: Clementine, Down Girl and Sit, Shug, Life As We Knew It, and The Lightning Thief.

At least one kid has deeply loved: Hugo Cabaret, Here B. Monsters, Sahara Special, Gilda Joyce, Walter Dean Myers' Biography of Malcom X, Flashcards of My Life, and Whales on Stilts.

This data is from mid-October, so I'll have to keep you posted as the year goes on. I love kids. I love books. I love watching kids get involved in great books.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

where i live, by Eilleen Spenneli

Oh my. What a lovely, tender, and unique book. Each page is a poem, most of the pages have soft-toned pencil drawings, and the poems and pictures hang together like two best friends in a hammock on a warm summer evening.

You know how great picture books are like poetry because each word is selected so carefully? Well, this book displays that same kinda economy of language---each word is amazingly powerful.

Diana is a budding astronomer and writer. She has to move away from her best friend Rose when her dad loses his job and her grandpa needs Diana's family to come live with him. Diana tells the story of her move in a series of lists and short poems.

This would certainly be a great read for kids who are actually experiencing the trauma of leaving a best friend and familiar place, but I think that Diana is so honest and the plot so captivating and true that it will get passed around my room of readers as fast as Clementine and Twilight. There are also many great writing lessons to mine through---including illuminating metaphors, an ending that precisely mirrors the beginning, and sparkly details from life's everyday flotsam.

Thursday, October 04, 2007


Here are some of my guiding light beliefs:

To grow strong readers: cultivate an environment where students read voluminously.

To grow strong writers: teach craft, write often, relish the process.

My dream for each student: that they will become curious, passionate, engaged learners. That they will become kind and thoughtful people. For life.

To be clear, some things I don't believe:

That it's possible to "fix" reading or writing problems with six to eight week "interventions".

That high scores on year-end tests are our most central or important goals.

I need to buy that Courage To Teach poetry book. Or better yet, create my own.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Shared Governance

One thing I really like about the Salt Lake City School District is that we have a contract that includes site-based decision making, with an expectation of shared-governance between the administration and faculty. The process of making decisions and working through problems is predictably messy and rough, but consensus is the ideal we strive for, and I'm very devoted to the process. One dimension of this process, that I've recognized recently is quite vital, is a foundation of shared commitments. And one reason I'm grateful for this particular writing space is that it helps me develop and clarify my own commitments. I'm not sure what to do when those shared commitments are missing. Move to a new building? IDK

We have our first "publishing party" scheduled for October 12th. I'm not sure how to plan a wonderful occasion to honor my young writers---but we still have more than a week to dream and plan.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Leaving September

Fall is my favorite season. There are still two more months of pumpkins, brisk days, chilly nights, and new pencil smells, but the season still seems to be slipping away too fast.

Speaking about books as a unique artistic medium, Roger Sutton recently pined, "The more involved you are in a work of art, the more deeply it's going to stay inside you."

An observation from the trenches of my 5th/6th grade classroom: In a very Taoist way I've learned to take great advantage of one of my unique gifts. I am an amazing oral reader. I can captivate kids with my read alouds like you wouldn't believe if you've never sat at my feet while enjoying a wonderful story together. (Inheritance from my mama, thank you very much.) So it shouldn't have been so surprising, but I've recently discovered that reading a short selection out loud is one of the most powerful spells I have in my particular arsenal of book talking weapons. And in contrast to librarians, who might come twice a year and want to talk about 15 books in twenty minutes, I also have the great luxury of time. If it takes 10 minutes to talk about two books today, well that's okay. We'll have another ten minutes tomorrow, and on Wednesday, and again on Thursday. In fact we'll have time, if needed, for book talks on each day for the whole rest of the year. Fortunately, book talking can be a bit different for classroom teachers. Each book can be on stage for a longer bit of time and each book talk can include a short reading.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Parent Conferences

Note to self:

Remember the way both Nick's parents were overjoyed and all smiles to see and celebrate how much he's been reading and how well he's been doing.

They (all the parents) are your best teammates in the thrilling adventure we call teaching. Treasure the opportunity to huddle with them.

Don't dread conferences. Don't dread conferences.

You end up loving them every time, so stop worrying. They'll not only be fine, they'll be super.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Writing Conferences

OHMIGOSH. I am having one of those teaching moments where I am totally like hitting myself in the head for not realizing something important much, much sooner. Of course one-on-one writing conferences are super valuable. My students' writing is improving in leaps and bounds and the daily focus lessons are a big part of this, as well as the time we devote to writing each week. But my one-on-one conversations with them are like the leaven of the whole bakery of writing time. I'm blown away by how much they have to say and by how well (with a little shoulder to shoulder guidance) they are able to say it. A student of mine that we'll call DeShawn had this outstanding story about a girl he knew whose mom was in prison and so she moved to California. He ran into her over the summer and was stunned by how much she'd changed. Her high heels, he particularly noted, were not something she ever wore when he knew her before. And she had a baby.

In addition to the value of conferences I'm also developing my very own understanding of this point Lucy makes about writing being a powerful way for children to author their own lives. This little DeShawn is seeing the real tragedy of this girl who lost her childhood so quickly. It's important to see. It's important to think about what we see. It's important to record the way we see things.

At the end of our one-on-one conference today, with no prompting or idea that I expected it (cuz I absolutely didn't), DeShawn said, "Thank you, Ms. Simbe."

Sunday, September 16, 2007

While We Wait for Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Part II...

There's this teacher who calls herself the "book whisperer" who has written a great series of articles about the art of hooking kids on books. Highly recommended reading. She works with kids near the same ages as my students and I've already requested several of the books she recommends. I can't wait for the list of 13 books you must read before you turn 13, which will be part of this week's installment.

If I could ask this fabulous teacher a question, here's what it would be: What do you do when a kid loves a book SOOOOO much, that they have trouble with all future books not measuring up? This is starting to happen to several of my boys who loved Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and I'm a little worried about the same phenomena with a few of the girls and the fact that they've already found their "best book I've ever read" favorites. The truth is, I don't know of any other books that are JUST LIKE Diary of a Wimpy Kid, but I am going to see if I can't get them excited about something different, but also funny, with the following booktalks on Monday: Sahara Special, No Talking, Whales on Stilts, Gilda Joyce, Psychic Investigator, and Diary of a Fairy Godmother. Even if they aren't the same as Diary of a Wimpy Kid, they all have great characters and lots of humor.

I just relized something else interesting about this situation: this is an issue that I have, as a reader, as well. I might spend the whole rest of my life searching for a book that I love as much as The Brothers K. But even if I never find another book that's THAT good, I'm still glad I found it in the first place, and I still find lots and lots of ways to enjoy my life as a reader.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Gilda Joyce: The Ghost Sonata, by Jennifer Allison

This is the third book in the series and it lived up to my very high expectations set by the previous two. I think Gilda Joyce will be the current generation of sixth grade girls' Anne of Green Gables. Like Anne, Gilda is precocious, imaginative, self-absorbed, kind, both mature and immature for her age, depending on whether you're talking about social skills, intellect, or emotional development. And she's also incredibly brave.

Yeah, I love these books. Two of my students are already moving through the series. And to be honest, I read and liked the original Anne of Green Gables, but never got into any of the other books. But the psychic investigations that propel the plots of Gilda's books forward are like fast moving trains. So you've basically got this brash, endearing, and hilariously earnest main girl character, AND fascinating, spooky, mysteries. All at the same time. I only wish there were already more.

I also have a goal to get at least two of my boys into this series.

Friday, September 14, 2007

A Standing Ovation

Yesterday afternoon I started to feel a cold coming on around 4:00. By 5:30 I had a fever and a headache and was very congested. I knew I had to get home and rest. As I was leaving Washington I passed by the gym. I looked in and saw about 25 upper grade students sitting on the top step that leads up to the stage. They are sitting so quietly, I thought, yet there isn't an after school teacher in sight. I walked in to say "Hi."

All the sudden about twelve of them saw me and started saying things like, "Hey, Look! It's Ms Simbe." Esteban stood up and said, "Let's hear it for the best teacher in the school." Most of them, even the ones that I don't even know well, stood up and started clapping and cheering. My face suddenly felt hot and red, but not because I was sick. I was so embarrassed by their sudden flattery. A few tiny tears tickled my eyelids (which I hid quite well) Their ovation turned me from feeling very rotten to very wonderful in a very short span of time.

And that, my friends, is my own "seed story" for my personal narrative writing. I've been assigning my class, for the last few nights to be story magnets, to look for stories everywhere. I've been trying to do the same thing and it was quite sweet and perfect to be able to share this particular story with them today.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Year Long Study of Lucy Calkins' Books

Even though I have a very real and severe case of ADD, especially in late afternoons---and I consequently find most professional development quite painful---I agreed to attend the monthly classes with other teachers in the district that will focus, again this year, on Lucy Calkins' Units of Study. Here are the reasons why I'm going to endure this torture: (I love Lucy's books, it's the sitting still for so long that kills me!)

#1 My own classroom practice will be better the more I reflect, and even this very post is pushed by my commitment to attend these classes.
#2 I am passionately committed to a workshop model of writing instruction and if I can do anything to help other teachers to learn and be successful with the model, I will.
#3 I like learning new things and hearing the stories of other classroom teachers.

I've been asked to talk tomorrow about the work Jen and I did over the summer and where my thinking is right now in regards to the Units books and Writing Workshop, in general. I'm trying to rake all my thoughts into one pile, but it's not easy.

Brainstorm: teachers need to be habitual writers because we need to understand the work we're asking kids to do (Find one of those crystal, explosively inspiring sections from MEM FOX on this). My experience *being* a writer: it was very hard at first to generate seed stories as I was working through the first two books. I had that very insecure feeling, that so many kids have, that I don't have any stories worth telling. Then, one day, I watched the ultrasound of Mama Jean's heart. I realized what amazing stories I'm surrounded by and I suddenly found myself in the habit of noticing them.

And this habit, or way of thinking, is very useful as a writing teacher. For example, today, when I was teaching my students how to generate personal narrative writing by thinking of one person, I was able to list very specific mom memories: I didn't write that we went to NYC together with grandma, but that she found me at Grand Central Station. Most students, in their efforts today, didn't zoom in so well. But I know I gave them a good example and I know where to push them in conferences.

Okay, that's a decent pile of idea leaves. Oh, yeah, a couple more important things: doing it with Jen is essential, and we're going to do the books in the order 1 then 3 then 2 (and why). And also maybe I'll tell the story about going all the way through the third book before I was convinced that is was an effective way to teach essay writing. And that actually doing the silly exercises was what convinced me.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Zach's Lie, by Roland Smith

This book is hard to classify. It's a thriller, a mystery, and a drama all rolled into one. Actually, they're not all rolled together very well. The book starts out with a couple great thriller scenes and lots of action and then slows WAY down for this middle-school-finding-your-identity-and-first-love drama stuff. The switch-up is a little disorienting. The tension from the beginning seeps along, throughout the whole book, but unlike most mystery books there isn't a good ebb and flow--it lacks that series of new discoveries that lead to new questions kinda pulsating rhythm.

I'm not only unsure what I felt about the whole weird ride, but I'm also very unsure what my students will think. In some ways it felt like a cheap trick. Like I was being hooked into a fast paced mystery that suddenly turned into a slow paced drama. The drama stuff isn't badly written, it's just not what you expect after the cliff hanging, violent tension in the fist couple chapters. I want it for my classroom library, though, cuz I'm pretty curious what my students will think of it. But I can wait for the paperback edition.

In other news: Robert, my DH, will be home Thursday. He was attending a wedding in Canada and then spent a week with his mom and dad in Fargo, ND. In the last day, or so, I've started missing him a lot.

I really do have a wonderful class. I'm not just saying that because I'm their teacher and of course I think they're wonderful. And the schedule we worked out, where I get to teach math 2 hours a day, to the sixth graders for an hour, and then to the fifth graders for an hour, and then teach reading and writing for the remaining 3 hours, is sooooooo perfect. For me, anyway. I'm working my ideal, dream job. I wouldn't change anything.I even like having a blended class. I think the positives outweigh the challenges.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Today's Gratitude List

Part of my new found meanderings in being an Epicurist is a ritualized (but very unforced) daily practice of naming the small things that fill me with gratitude. Here's today's list:

1. Real fall weather is on the tip of the Salt Lake valley's tongue. In a few days we will leave behind 90+ degree weather for three whole seasons.
2. Tiny threads of connection continue to form between me and my oldest daughter Clara.
3. I have lots and lots of wonderful students, with whom I am so looking forward to working for the next nine months.
4. The SLC downtown library, which is like a sprawling kingdom of books and people, continues to be a weekly destination my girls all enjoy.
5. Robert, my husband, has arrived safely in Tornoto, where he's attending his cousin's wedding.
6. My abdomen is 100 percent pain free.
7. I got over some bizarre hurdle and will now be able finish The Golden Compass in a few days.

Friday, August 31, 2007

The Seeds Finally Settle

I imagine all my frolicking in the kidlitosphere for the last year or so as a constant gathering of many small seeds. And now that school has started, the winds of self-selected reading time have finally arrived. The seeds have been scattered. And the rains of finishing first chapters have sunk these book seeds into the soil of ripe imaginations. These days, if you stand in my classroom and listen carefully, there is a gentle, but oh so beautiful, settling sound, as my 27 students dive deeper and deeper into many different story-lands. Here are a few that thrill me most:

A student for whom many parts of the story will resonate like crazy is reading Shug.
A high boy reader who had to be restricted from just reading manga is getting into All of the Above.
The chili pepper girls are all reading Franny K. Stein.
Two boys are already on their second Ziggy and the Black Dinosaurs book.
A girl I don't know much about is reading Flashcards of My Life.
Another girl is more than half way through Flush.
One boy is well into Stormbreaker.
Somebody already FINISHED the first Gilda Joyce, Psychic Investigator book.
And with no booktalking or pointing or anything, one of my highest readers is zipping right through Life As We Knew It.

Here's to sustaining this much book passion for 176 more days! And here's to all the bloggers in the kidlitosphere, who I hope know how valuable their book chatter is to me and my students.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Booktalking Blast Off

I didn't do any booktalking yesterday. I don't even know how I continued to stand up and be with my students for as long as I did.

But today was a new and much better day. Experiencing the intense, severe, frightening kinda pain I had yesterday, and then feeling pretty normal and ok today, makes normal and ok feel euphoric. I am so fresh off of the nauseating, turbulent sea of sickness, that the solid, normal land of sore feet and tiredness feels SUPER solid and refreshing.

Anywho. I have a very nice class. I have clusters of reading and writing abilities that are on the high end and one cluster on the low end, and not so many kids in the middle. Fortunately reading and writing workshop are instructional models that take into account many starting places and also many variables in learning and in aptitude.

Something surprising: I was all worried about not having enough booktalks ready to go. But I have plenty. I gave 4 today and I thought I'd want to give about 5 a day, for the first few weeks, so that kids would have lots and lots of good book choices right from the start. But most of them already have selected a "just right" book, which they're effectively using to transport themselves to THE READING ZONE. And so I feel fine only doing one or two a day. They don't need to be bombarded with too many choices all at once. And now I'm more motivated than I was towards the end of the summer to read lots of kid lit, cuz I'm starting to really know MY readers and have my eyes peeled wide for books that these particular kids will enjoy.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The "Trust" lecture put into immediate practice...

I gave my students this lecture I'd been composing in my mind for a couple weeks today. A short speech about trust. How my hope is that they'll keep my trust all year. That I'll be able to walk away from the room and always feel confident that they're reading or writing or doing whatever they're supposed to be doing. And not one hour later I was experiencing INTENSE abdominal pain and finding a ride to the hospital, while my student teacher made the best of things without me. What a first day for her. For me. For our students. I'm not sure they even realized anything was wrong, but I passed my first ever kidney stone and feel bizarrely fine now, given the intensity of pain I was having all day.

I'm not quite sure what to say to my students tomorrow. Thanks for being people I was able to trust, after only barely becoming acquainted.....maybe.

I kept putting off doing something about the pain because I thought it was just nerves. First day and all. But it reached such a sharp, explosive, unbearable intensity that I finally broke down and got help. I'd heard these things are painful. Comparable to labor pains. Well if that's the case, forget it. I'm going back on the pill tomorrow. I knew there was a reason I wanted all my kids to come to me via adoptions. And three is plenty.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Memoir Models

The final unit in the Lucy Calkins writing series is centered on creating personal memoirs. I have read other folks who think that this task is far too ambitious to ask of children---who haven't experienced enough life to reflect on and give over-arching shape to their "big time life stories". (A phrase coined by a student of mine when we dappled in this genre last spring). I agree with Lucy, though. I think it's not only doable, I think the process of creating memoirs can give students an ability to imagine and author their own lives in ways that are powerful and forever. That said, however, I think borrowing simple structures from published memoir-type books is an excellent way to slide into this type of writing. Here are two of my favorites.

, by Eileen Spinelli, is a memoir type book told in poems, but it breaks away from traditional memoir a bit, by imagining forward, as well as remembering backward. The narrator imagines things she will do "someday", like dig dinosaur bones, paint landscapes on the beach, and sit for tea with the president, but then follows each future dream with a "Today" poem that connects---today I paint the house with my dad, dig for coins in the sofa cushions, and have lunch with my cousin. I don't think the "rules" of memoir writing would be too horribly violated by giving children the chance to write about their imaginings of the future, as well as their experiences of the present. In fact, I think having a record of how I imagined my future self, from my 12-year-old eyes, combined with how I saw my world around me at the time, would be a very valuable treasure today to read back through today. If only. If only.

Another book that frames memoirs in a very accessible way is When I Was Young in the Mountains, by Cynthia Rylant. The title of the book is a repeated refrain that introduces detailed snapshots of the author's childhood. A student of mine used "When I Was Young in Mexico" and the result, while somewhat undeveloped (my fault), was rich with potential.

I happened across Someday for the first time this week, and I want to remember these two books next spring, when we write memoirs. But we're planning on writing essay pieces in October and I don't have any good models for that unit yet. I am in desperate need of strong mentor essay texts. Suggestions, anyone? Opinion/Essay pieces that ten and eleven-year-old kids can both relate to and mimic?

Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree, by Lauren Tarshis

Just like Clementine, I think reading the whole first chapter of this novel will work well as a "hook" for fifth and sixth grade readers. I, for one, was hooked by the end of the first paragraph.

What I loved about this book: I am not like Emma-Jean, at all. I could relate much easier to Colleen, the other character whose head you get to dwell in. Like Colleen, (but very much unlike Emma-Jean), I care a lot about what people think of me. I hate being bullied, and I HURT when people are cruel. But even though I couldn't relate that well to Emma-Jean, and she kinda seemed like a robot at times, I still adored her. It's a cool thing to realize you can really LIKE someone whose personality is very different than your own. I came to understand and believe in her reality and I wanted very badly for things to turn out well for her.

I wonder what kids will make of this book. If and when I get some data on that question, I'll let you know. And if I ever have a girl baby, I love the name Emma-Jean. A little Mormon history combined with a nod to my Dear Husband's mom. Perfect.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Three Days to Impact

All the Washingtonites got to come over and find their names on the class lists today. The lists were posted on the glass by the front doors. Our fifth and sixth graders already knew it was either me or Jen, but today most of them found out which. There is one student that I had in fourth grade and in fifth grade, who is going to have me again for sixth grade. Yeah, just call me Laura Ingalls Wilder.

I'm super excited about many of the things we have planned for our students this year. I can't wait to start writing workshop. I have a steadily growing shelf of 5 Star chapter books to talk up. The whole front of my room is full of math charts, graphs, fraction bars and calendars--all colorfully displayed and carefully organized. We've brainstormed some fun team building activities. I printed a short story for the first day by Richard Peck. All the kids that I know, I'm thrilled to have back. And the ones that I don't, I'm excited to meet.

My feet ache, I crashed from 4:30-6:30 today, and right now, Friday evening, I can barely move my exhausted body. I don't remember the first week back, before the kids even come, ever being this physically draining. I hope it's cuz it took them most of the week to fix the cooling system upstairs. That would explain a lot of my fatigue. I always wondered how I was going to do this job when I got "old" but I never thought I'd be "old" this soon. It's also gotta be cuz I'm adjusting to getting up early.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

This is a book that I first heard about on a kid lit site. On MotherReader, I think. After reading her blurb about it, I immediately requested to have it put on hold at the library, picked it up a few days later, read it, liked it, and I just ordered it off Amazon for my class.

That's the process most of my "5 Star" classroom library books pass through. The one blip that I'm not sure how to correct is after I've got a book home, I often can't get into it, and I wish, at that point I could remember who recommended it and what they said about it. There are lots of books that go back to the public library, unread.

This one was quite funny and honest and seemed to capture middle school from a boy's perspective, quite well.

I thought we'd got rid of that little mouse, but he just now scurried along the wall seven feet across the room from me. Damn.

Back to the book. It's an illustrated novel, rather than a graphic novel, because the text *could* stand alone. But the illustrations are great and there's at least one on every page.

Sunday, August 19, 2007


Oh bother. Tomorrow is my first day back to work and I only just started to figure out how to really enjoy the lazy pace of summer. I'm this super fanatical type A type person who thrives on stress and routine. The hardest part of the teaching profession, for me, is summer vacations. I have a hard time figuring out what to do with all that time. But in the last three weeks, or so, I started to really enjoy my empty canvass days and relish the time with my kids. And now, it's over. For nine and a half months. Oh well.

Summer goal update: I didn't write 20 new booktalks. But I wrote 15, and that's, like, a C--which, ever since my freshman year of college, I've been able to call "good enough." The important thing, here, is that I'm gonna actually do lots and lots of booktalking this school year. I've got over 30, including my own original 15, printed and pasted into a notebook. After I finish performing those, I think I'll be able to cut back on the need for a fully developed script. I'm hoping I'll be able to just make them up as I go along. This strategy has never worked in the past, so I'll still need to have a good hook written down, I'll need to have read the book myself recently, and I'll need to choose a specific passage to read out loud. With these three things in place, though, I think I'll get to where I can perform them off the cuff. I'll keep y'all updated on this effort as the school year progresses.

Summer goal update 2: read through Lucy Calkins' units of study and keep a writer's notebook. Check and Check. I did an outstanding job on this goal and feel lots of confidence about entering writing workshop from the stance of "fellow writer". I can't wait to work alongside my students as we all continue to grow as writers.

I can't remember any other big goals this summer. I got all three of my kids to read a lot, all summer. I spent a lot of time with siblings and relatives. I'm not pregnant, yet, but I'm still not worried about that fact. And, as already mentioned, I got to a place where I was able to enjoy my unstructured down time.

Friday, August 17, 2007

A Dream Come True

Feminist Mormon Housewives, a pretty widely read blog in Mormondom, published an essay I wrote! I have no idea how many submissions they receive, or how excited I should be, but who cares? I'm just gonna do a happy dance and state, emphatically, for the record in the sky, that yes, I have been published.

To further the story I started over there--the true story of the arrival in America of my adopted daughters, here is one small snapshot from those first few weeks.

Title: Easter's Very Loud Tantrum

"No, Mom! I refuse! I refuse!" Easter screamed pounding her firsts on the water. This outburst was Easter's response to my request that she get out of the small apartment swimming pool, which we were enjoying with her two sisters, less than two weeks after their arrival in the U.S. In the morning Easter had pleaded, passionately, "Please, Mum, never before did I swim in my WHOLE life."

I walked to the edge of the pool, grabbed her skinny black arm, and hoisted her light body onto the poolside cement. I wrapped her in a towel and started buckling on one of her white sandals, ignoring her blood-curdling yelps and flailing arms.

"I'm sorry," I said, "but it's time to go." Suddenly she kicked off her shoe, wriggled out of her towel, and leaped back into the pool. "I refuse, I refuse, I refuse," she screamed as she splashed away from me.

I looked in desperation at Harriet and Clara, who sighed knowingly and climbed in after her. Between the three of us we eventually got her out of the pool and into the car. She didn't stop kicking, punching, and screaming until we were driving away.

Throughout her entire tantrum I kept my cool. Thank you, god, for that student of mine named Alvin, I muttered, who almost caused me to quit teaching, but who prepared me for this moment. As we were driving home, I said, "Easter, when I told you to get out of the pool, you screamed and refused. Because of the choice you made we can't go swimming again for three days. I'm so sorry. You enjoyed yourself so much today, but now we have to stay home tomorrow. I know next time you will make a much better choice---to quickly obey and not misbehave."

So, we didn't swim for three days. But after that we swam almost everyday, all summer. And I know how lucky I am, and that it sounds way too good to be true, but that was Easter's first and only tantrum in the two years since her arrival.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Haiku and $100 for Clara

A meme designed to evolve as it gets tossed along....in the form of haiku poetry. How cool is that? The idea is to take the last line and turn it into a first line of a new poem. Here's mine:

rainy day surprise
spawned in spongy breeding grounds
vampire prick, itch

Thanks Deo Writer for keeping this one moving along. If you wanna play, take my last line and write a new haiku, either in the comments or on your own blog, or both.

Here's my daughter Clara's summer reading accomplishments:

And we just finished talking about Stormbreaker, which she both liked and understood. I sure hope she'll keep reading like this once school starts.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Educating Esme, by Esme Raji Codell

I read this book for the first time about five years ago. A pretty hard and fast rule of mine is that I do not reread books. I'm not sure why. Perhaps because the world is overflowing with great books and I don't believe I have a minute to waste with text I've already inhaled. Or perhaps it's my highly analytic brain that's just smug enough to believe that I always get the "gist" of a book, and so what would be the point of going back again?

However, Mary Lee, one of the teachers who blogs at A Year of Reading, mentioned that she rereads this book each August and I thought, what the hell. Maybe I'll break my rule and see what happens.

Well here's what happened: I appreciated it much more than the first time I read it. Which is saying a lot, cuz I liked it well enough the first time. Five years ago, I remember being bothered by Esme's naivete around race issues. But this sentiment was erased this time because I took into account her age at the time (24), the insanity of her situation (first year teacher in a horrible working environment), and her courageous honesty (people ought to be allowed to name what they see, even if they don't acknowledge bigger social contexts). This time through I particularly adored her wickedly brutal, but precise naming of stupidity, arrogance, and grandstanding. And I also loved how she captured that magical way that "performing" is often at the center of lively, effective classrooms.


I can see how writing gratitude lists could become a trite endeavor, particularly if it's somehow "forced". But, for me, this daily exercise is still a joyful way to hold up specific, tiny gifts from the heart of the universe and offer a brief but sincere thank you. Here's my list for today:

1. lightly salted cashews
2. casual conversations about high school and The Lord of the Rings, with my fifteen-year-old daughter.
3. calcium enriched, fresh orange juice
4. another whole day to spend at home, relaxing with my kids (we've only got about 7 more...)
5. Twitter
6. the friendly, patient librarians and workers at the Day Riverside branch.
7. Gwen, the best secretary on Earth, who works with me at Washington Elementary.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Cryptid Hunters, by Ronald Smith

What if animals like big foot and the Loch Ness Monster are real, but only a handful of super-adventurous scientists know about them? Grace and Marty are twins attending a boarding school in Switzerland. Their parents disappear in a helicopter crash in South America and so they are sent to live with their mysterious Uncle Wolfe. The twins quickly discover that their uncle is a cryptid hunter: a man who discovers mythic creatures, those animals that most people believe are just stories. Within a few short days Grace and Marty are swept up into an adventure in the jungles of Africa. There are signs that a real live dinosaur species is alive, hidden in the remote areas of the Congo.

But Uncle Wolfe isn't the only scientist searching for the dinosaur. His nemesis is a ruthless, trophy-hunting millionaire who doesn't care that Grace and Marty are only 13.

What I liked about this book: I got swept up in the adventure--which includes great chapter cliffhangers, narrow escapes, and surprising plot twists. I also like the character development of both Grace and Marty.

Hey, I only have 5 booktalks left now, to achieve my summer goal of writing 20. And, technically, I have all the way until August 28th. I'm so gonna make it.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

New Blog Ventures and a Great Quote

Via a splashy blog-hopping frolic that started at Feminist Mormon Housewives, I came across a very excellent, new-to-me blog called The Cultural Hall. The "middle-way" of Mormonism is the theme of this blog---which means a lot of things to a lot of different contributors and commenters. I might say more about my middle-mormon-way some other day. Or I might not. But I do want to share a quote I found there from Utah's very own Terry Tempest Williams:

“The human heart … is where we embrace our questions. Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole being, not just our minds? And offer our attention rather then our opinions. And do we have enough resolve in our heart to act courageously, relentlessly without giving up, ever? The heart is the house of empathy. Its door opens when we receive the pain of others. This is where bravery lives and where we find our mettle to give and receive, to love and be loved, to stand in the center of uncertainty with strength not fear. The heart is the path to wisdom because it dares to be vulnerable in the presence of power.”

I, for one, need to meditate on the essence of this message daily, particularly as I gear up for a brand new school year. Much of the art of teaching, while standing inside the 4 walls of a classroom full of children, comes quite naturally to me. I know what I believe, I'm pretty skilled at implementing those beliefs, I know how to be responsive and flexible, and I know how to nurture relationships with kids. But the rest of the job---all the stuff that goes on beyond the walls of my classroom---well, let's just say that empathy, patience, endurance, and generosity are qualities I need to nurture in order to survive. A few interesting math problems to puzzle out during the particularly inane moments in the next few weeks will also help me preserve some sanity.

Writing Mini-Lessons

I've been brainstorming ideas for the first two weeks of writing workshop. Our fifth and sixth graders have not had much time to develop as writers in a workshop model, so we're looking for ways to coax them into the playground of their notebooks. And also for ways to begin to deepen and quicken their thought-to-paper rivers, a.k.a. their "writing fluency." Here are a few ideas we might use:

1-You're a world class expert on being a kid in Salt Lake City in 2007. Nobody else on the whole planet imagines the world and experiences things the same way you do. Write your observations about daily events, capturing them like a camera with a YOU colored lens. I have some kid-writing samples for this and maybe I'll also use the picture book Can't Sit Still.

2-Map your heart and then write about some of those topics that are near and dear to you.

3-Lists: favorite days, favorite video games, favorite books, best field trips, strongest wrestlers, best life experiences, worst life experiences, injuries, etc., etc., etc., We'll keep a list of list ideas on the wall.

4-Place a noun in a circle and then draw a web with adjectives or phrases that describe that noun. Use the web to write a descriptive paragraph.

5-Think of an experience and then list the 5 W's and 5 senses of the event. Who was there? What happened? Where was it? When did it happen? Why was this happening? Write about the tastes, smells, sounds, feelings, and sights.

6-Create your very own metaphors. I'm going to introduce the concept of metaphors with the book A Sock is a Pocket For Your Toes. The pocket metaphor is so versatile. We'll then play with other types of _______________ is like ___________________ pharases. (I know this is, technically, a simile, but I think we'll just use the word metaphor at first.)

After the first two weeks, or so, we'll move into strategies to generate ideas for personal narratives and then continue right on through the first book from Lucy Calkins' Units of Writing: Launching The Writing Workshop. One big difference, that we'll have to calibrate into our workshop, is that our students will draft, revise, edit, and publish using Microsoft Word. But most of our movement down the path toward our first published narrative piece will follow closely in Lucy's steady footsteps.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Epicurean Indulgence

In most epochs, throughout human history,
And in many places in the world today,
My simple life would be recognized as the pure
indulgence and rich luxury that it is.

Late summer, in a house cooled by the quirks of evaporation,
Sitting before an ancient Greek stage of a big screen with surround sound,
Encircled by healthy children,
Enjoying the high and spectacular drama of J.R.R. Tolkien, as imagined by Peter Jackson,
Sipping seasonal, locally brewed raspberry beer.

Looking forward to an evening of friends who relish ideas,
who will sit down together for a meal of sweet and hot Thai,
And who will leave my home with renewed passions and energy.

In most epochs of human history,
And in most places in the world today,
My existence would be recognized as the sweet, luxurious, Epicurean indulgence,
That it is.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

2 Years

It's been a little over two years since my three daughters deplaned at the Salt Lake City airport. Fresh from Kampala, Uganda: eager, nervous, trusting, bald, and hungry. I've become quite a bit more relaxed in my mom-role lately. Yeah, there are tons of things that scare me and tons of things I wish I knew how to do more skillfully, but we're doing okay. Easter, Harriet, and Clara know they're loved and they are constantly learning and growing.

One of the few family traditions that we've established is an annual, summer Lord of the Rings marathon. I was so delighted the first time we watched it together---to observe how quickly they were engrossed. We're just embarking on our third year of this tradition, and I can safely say that we are still LOTR fanatics.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007


It's like quicksand, or a powerful whirlpool---the tug back into the fray of it all. I've been so happy, floating along all summer, thinking about many topics related to school, but in a very leisurely way. Suddenly, yesterday, I got swept up in a huge, urgent current fraught with scheduling, negotiating and politicking. How can I keep a quiet and unforced place for reflection while in the midst of all the day-to-day commotions? And also give my family the time and energy they need and deserve? These are the questions, for me, that stay open, unresolved, from September through May.

Yes, there's the circus-like feeling of turning the bend in my summer road that leads straight to the first day of school, but there's also something quite yummy at this juncture. Thinking forward to the sparkly excitement of students reading, writing, and puzzling out math questions is a heady, bubbly, delicious feeling.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Larger-Than-Life Lara, by Dandi Daley Mackall

If my class this year is really going to discuss and think through issues of moral reasoning (motives behind choices), then this book will be an excellent way to bring those abstract ideas to life. It could also be a gentle way to ask some difficult, but important questions. Like, how hard is it, really, to stand up for someone when you might become the next target of harassment? Where do people, including kids, find the courage to act on their values? What are some of the things that keep us from acting or that lead us to make hurtful choices? Maybe I'll just read some excerpts and tell slices of the story, but what I really want is to read the whole book out loud to my whole class. Why not? It's not very long.

I thought the device of having Laney, the narrator, talk a lot about elements of fiction was pretty witty, but it was sometimes a bit clumsy. I only noticed this awkwardness, though, because it got in the way of the story and the story was so good. It took on tough questions and moral situations that kids really face. I love authors who have the audacity to "go there." For the record: I didn't shed one tear while reading HP7, but this short book brought on the tears, twice. Real cruelty, real forgiveness, real redemption.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Perching Amidst Moutain Tops

Here they are, Clara and Easter, on the top of Table Rock, a mountain that summits a few thousand feet below the spectacular peaks of the Grand Tetons. They both hobbled back into camp after a whole day of hiking. I wonder if they'll want to hike a big mountain again, knowing, now, the rigorous physical demands and also the feelings of triumph and infinity on top.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Toad Rage, by Morris Gleitzman

Imagine the sad life of a cane toad in Australia. You are seen by humans as so ugly and disgusting that they don't think twice about smashing you flat on the road. You and your rellys are in constant danger. Everyone tells Limpy that this is just the way things are. Humans hate cane toads. Period. But Limpy is an ambitious and brave toad. He sets out to communicate with humans and let them know that toads are nice animals. They don't deserve to be smashed flat on highways.

What I liked about this book: learning some Australian words, like "rellys" for relatives. Also, Limpy is so earnest and quite funny.

What I think you'll like, my dear fifth and sixth grade readers: there's some fairly gross parts and Limpy is a hero you'll find yourself cheering for.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A skeleton I can dance with

I came up with an outline for an essay that I think will be instructive and inspiring and fun to write--the essay I'll use as a model as I'm moving with my students through the process of crafting their first essays. It's going to be about my 4 siblings. When I finally worked out a thesis and some subordinate ideas, I wrote, "Now there's a skeleton I can dance with." A skeleton's all I need for now, I'm gonna wait to flesh it out as I'm working alongside my students in October.

And now a quick story for a mini-lesson on crafting catchy titles:

There was this handyman who was having trouble drumming up business. So he changed the name of his company to "Rent-A-Husband." Nothing about his company changed except what it was called. What do you think happened? Yup, he had more calls than he could handle.
(adapted from Writing Through Childhood, by Shelley Harwayne)

Monday, July 30, 2007

Tag, I'm It!

I love to relish momentous occasions with a bit of fanfare and hype. Megan, at Read, Read, Read tagged me with a meme. So here it is, thwump, my first, official meme catch:

I am a good teacher because...
There's nothing else I'd rather be doing. I love teaching and don't ever fantasize about other professions or regret my decision to become a teacher. My heart is very much in my teaching work.

If I weren't a teacher I'd be a/an...
An anthropologist, a librarian, a scientist, a writer, a web designer, a circus clown, or a mathematician. Oh wait, I already am all these things. See? Teachers get to dabble in many interesting jobs.

My teaching style is...
Responsive, flexible, and creative.

My classroom is...
Exactly 900 square feet.

My lesson plans...
Start taking shape the second I wake-up.

One of my teaching goals is...
To sustain a strong writing workshop throughout the year.

The toughest part of teaching is...
It takes a helluva lot of stamina to keep my physical, emotional, and mental systems fully engaged day after day, week after week, month after month. Keeping enough energy pumped into all three of those critical realms is often quite tough.

The thing I love most about teaching is...
My relationships with so many spectacular children, and teaching math.

A common misconception about teaching is...
That all teachers can be lumped into one, easy-to-criticize, label, and "fix" group.

The most important thing I've learned since I've started teaching is...
That doing the job well is much, much harder than it appears.

And to celebrate this occasion I'm gonna indulge in a tiny fiesta. Fresh salsa and avocados for dinner tonight.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Writing Through Childhood, by Shelley Harwayne

I have been marinating so happily this summer in Lucy Calkins' model of teaching children to write. I've basked in her warm, supportive tone. I've relished the power of her very particular strategies, both in my own notebook entries and in my girls' writing efforts. And I've nurtured a vision of a classroom writing workshop informed by her poetic descriptions and practical tools.

When I first started Writing Through Childhood, I felt a bit jarred. I didn't want the assumptions of Lucy's writing model, that I haven't even put into practice in my classroom yet, to be called into question. But the more I read, the more I feel that the two authors, both of whom I admire greatly, are simply in the midst of a delightful, important conversation. Like this, maybe:

Lucy: We need to teach kids the tools real writers use.
Shelley: Yup, but we mustn't forget to value and recognize that our students are, in fact, children.
Lucy: A powerful focus of the units is on how writers structure completed pieces of writing.
Shelley: Of course, that's a very important focus. But don't guide kids there at the expense of playful, imaginative, self-directed entries that will convert them to writing for life.

I'm no longer frustrated that the two authors have different stances, or that they zoom in on different ingredients of a strong writing workshop. In fact, exploring the tensions in such a nuanced conversation will give my teaching a thoughtful and rich leavening. A question I scribbled in my own writer's notebook, while reading through Lucy's first three units was: "Where's the poetry!!??" Well, I think Shelley gives a precise and encouraging answer to that question: trust yourself. I know my kids and know they're going to benefit enormously from many of the mini-lessons, read-alouds, and poetry selections that Shelley suggests as ways to warmly welcome students to writing and to help them step out onto the shaky ice where they must trust their own ways of seeing and must learn to believe in their own incredible voices.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

My Five, Reconsidered

Perhaps my 5 most important values change depending on the context. The ones I would pick as most vital for my marriage, for example, would be different than the 5 most important values I'd like to cultivate as a teacher. Is this sort of flexibility acceptable? Well, probably not in Kohlberg's original model. But Kohlberg was harshly critiqued for many good reasons. If I value flexibility and responsiveness, my guiding lights can shift, as needed. The 5 qualities I consider essential for maintaining the health of my particular marriage are: patience, clarity, trust, compassion, and solitude.

The Book of Qualities was a rec I pulled out of the kidlitosphere a few months back. I can't remember from which blog. At first I simply enjoyed the poetic personifications of various states of being. But they've taken on a whole new meaning with my recent musings about moral reasoning and my efforts to define my own set(s) of important values. Not only is there a long list of many different values and qualities, but each one has a unique, carefully rendered character sketch to help a searcher remember and consider its particular quirks and hues.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Moral Reasoning

Rafe Esquith has a new book out called Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire. I read his first book, There Are No Shortcuts, last summer and both hated and loved it. The guy is a fifth grade teacher who works thirteen hour days. He's super passionate and articulate. Although I agree with a lot of what he's about, the reason I dislike both books can be summed up by the NYT review blurb on the back of the latest book: "Rafe Esquith is a genuis and a saint. The American Education System would do well to imitate him. These children's lives have been changed by their year with this man." What I hate is the way his story is held up as a beacon of how things could be better if only more teachers would be like him. Regardless of the number of hours I put into my job, and I have the tendency to put in way too many hours, I'm never going to say that I think my underpaid and overworked colleagues should also work for free. People deserve to be paid for every hour of their work. Lauding Esquith's insanity turns teaching into some kinda holy work, rather than a respectable profession.

But just like the last book, the one I just finished had some gems that made me grateful to the man's brilliant teaching, if not the ways his writings and practices might be misused. "WORK HARD. BE NICE." was our classroom motto last year, straight from his book. And this year I'm gonna add something new, related to the motto. Rafe teaches his students Kohlberg's model of moral development and helps them think about their motives for making choices. I modified the model, to include a feminist and cultural critique, but I'm also going to teach moral reasoning to my students.

Here's my kid-friendly version:

Why We Make the Choices We Make
LEVEL 1: Fear. I'm afraid of being punished or hurt.
LEVEL 2: I want a reward.
LEVEL 3: I want approval. I hope somebody else will like my choices.
LEVEL 4: Rules. I understand rules are good and important and I choose to follow them.
LEVEL 5: Love and Commitment. I care about other people and I am a thoughtful member of a community. This love leads me to develop a personal code of ethics, and I follow it.

It's powerful to have clarity about a personal code of ethics. I believe in being compassionate and forgiving. But until those values get kneaded into the very center of my selfness, it's rather helpful to be consciously committed to them. "This is who I am," I have to remind myself--until I really am. I noticed myself being more patient on the road and more able to connect with other people today, after meditating just a tiny bit on these levels and on my desire to truly live up to my values.

Here is a related study of middle-schoolers who kept "gratitude lists" for two weeks. The act of counting their blessings helped these kids become more grateful (and happy) people. Qualifying the short duration of the journaling project, the writer of the study supposes that "becoming a grateful person takes a prolonged consistent effort." But, he goes on, "the time to start practicing gratitude is when you’re young, and I think schools can play a vital role."

If YOU had to choose 5 values, your top 5, to list in a personal code of ethics, what would they be? My husband would list hospitality in his top 5. Hey, this is a great way to twist that catchy "My Five" phrase. Who's in your five? Patience? Justice? Peace? Loyalty? Honesty? Kindness? Gratitude? Well?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Bintou's Braids, by Sylvianne Diouf

My daughter Easter, a nine-year-old immigrant from Sudan, loves this book. She strongly relates to little Bintou. Like Easter, Bintou has an overwhelming desire to have her hair braided. Like Easter, she wants to be admired as a beautiful young woman, instead of seen as a silly little girl.

Based on my experiences, the portrayals in this book of a contemporary African village are very authentic. The whole story surrounds the celebration and blessing of a newborn baby. Not only are the land, clothing, and traditions very similar to those of the Sudanese people I know and love, but this book also depicts a uniquely African way of esteeming the wisdom of elders, and it also highlights the practice of using oral fables as tools that entertain as well as instruct. What I like most about this book, though, is the way these values and ways of being aren't foregrounded or played up. They're just part of the landscape. Having traditional African beliefs and values is simply a natural and lovely way to be.

I so wish there were more books like this to feed all three of my girls' emerging, fragile identities.

Table Rock

Table Rock

by Easter

“Keep on going! You are so close!” Uncle Jared said. After going up the boulders, I finally got to the top of Table Rock Mountain. I did not want to look down because I thought I might fall. Far off I saw a city. I was so high it was like I was on an airplane. Behind Table Rock was a beautiful mountain called Teton. It had snow. If you are climbing it, you need hooks and ropes. It took 6 hours to get to the top of Table Rock Mountain. We went through a deep forest and across a little river. Up on top of Table Rock I felt like I was dreaming. It was so hard, I was going to quit. BUT I DID IT!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Down Girl and Sit; Smarter Than Squirrels, by Lucy Nolan

Sometimes an author writes a story from the point-of-view of a character who very obviously doesn't know everything that the readers know. As I read the first chapter of this book, keep in mind that the dog who is telling the story understands things from a dog's point-of-view. Pick out some examples of things that we, the readers, understand better than the narrator.

Read Chapter 1

Discuss. One result of this POV: humor.

Some of my kids who are bilingual will need this extra explicit support to understand the tongue in cheek humor of this deceptively simple book. But once they finish this book and its sequel, On the Road, they will be well on their way towards understanding the narrative structure of Huck Finn. Do kids still read Huck Finn in high school? I hope so.

BTW: that's my 13th original booktalk. Only seven more to go to reach my summer goal. And I've linked to several, as well. I should have enough ready to go that I won't have any excuse not to do at least two a day until October. And by then my students ought to be able to contribute to the effort as well. A fact I'd rather not admit: this will be my first year that I am planning to earnestly engage in the difficult art of effective booktalking.

The Time I Gave Duncan a Shower

The Time I Gave Ducan a Shower
By Harriet

It was a hot summer sunny day. I was giving Ducan a walk. I was saying to myself, Ducan looks so dry and dirty. I should give him a bath.

When I got home, I tied him up and I put on my swim suit. I got the garden hose and started splashing. The most important thing about Ducan is he hates baths. I started spraying him. He started to bark really loud and I yelled at him. “Ducan shut-up,” I said.

I washed him with the dog shampoo and put on some conditioner. After, I dried him with a towel. I styled his fur with hair gel. Hee hee. I thought it was only for humans. Guess not in my world. Just joking.

I gave him another walk and lots of people wanted to pet him. He smelled good and his fur sparkled in the sun. I was proud of myself. I love Ducan he’s like my brother. He always smiles just like me.

Hip-hip-hooray for Lucy Calkins' Units of Study for Teaching Writing Books. I sure love this model for teaching writing. I hope it goes as well with a class of students as it has been going with my three daughters during the summer.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Doubt; a history, by Jennifer Michael Hecht

This is a history book that tells the story of doubt, beginning with ancient Greek philosophers who doubted the existence of the gods of Olympus and ending with many thinkers of modernity, including Einstein, Woody Allen, and Elizabeth Cady Staton. It was a whirlwind journey, to be sure. The book could also have been called "a brief history of philosophy..." I skimmed through some of the stories that didn't interest me, but I also read carefully and reveled in the humor and beauty of many splendid tales--including vignettes from the life and writings of Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Paine, and Emma Goldman. The over-arching theme of this book was a brash privileging of all minds that doubt, question, search, and rebel.

I found myself nodding adamantly when Hecht took on multi-cultural relativism in regards to Islam. Pointing to the work of the doubter Ibn Warraq she writes, "Diffusing the present global threat should be understood as dragging Islam through the same process that her older sisters have undergone: separation of church and state, an increase in gender equity, recognition of other religions as partaking in the same truths and a willingness to have secular standards of conduct applied within their ranks." Like the free-thinkers she admires and describes, she demonstrates an ability to voice an unpopular truth. Harshly critiquing not just "fundamentalist" Islam, but the religion in general, is, I believe an admirable act of courage.

In one of her departing paragraphs, Hecht sums up the lessons of doubt thus:

From doubt's beginnings, it has advised that if you create your own desires and model them after what you actually experience, you can be happy. Accept that we are animals, but ones with special problems, and that the world is natural, but natural is just an idea that we animals have in our heads. Devote yourself to wisdom, self-knowledge, friends, family, and give some attention to community, politics, money, and pleasure. Know that none of it brings happiness all that consistently. It's best to stay agile, to keep an open mind. Anyway, if you live long enough, you'll find yourself believing something that you'd never believe today. Or disbelieve. In a funny way, the one thing you can really count on is doubt. Expect change. Accept death. Enjoy life. As Marcus Aurelius explained, the brains that got you through the troubles you have had so far, will get you through any troubles yet to come.

Nice, huh? Anyway-books lead to new books and new questions and new interests. The teachings and practices of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus are a new interest of mine. And I'm also gonna reread The Tao of Pooh.