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 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.