Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2009 BABY

I have spent a lot of the last year living by the first half of the serenity prayer. I not only accepted but actually learned to love a lot of things I knew I could never change. This ability to accept things was a good place to spend some time. Detaching is a way to gather strength and get perspective. I learned to laugh at myself and eventually learned to see the bigger picture of my dysfunctional situation. In the last few months I've switched to the second half of the serenity prayer, the courage to change the things I can. And I've learned a lot about how much courage it takes do that.

Given that it's the turn of the new year, I am determined and resolute. I'm also terrified and nervous and more humble than I've been for years. I feel like I'm walking blind, but holding onto an intricately carved wooden railing. Often I get startled and realize I'm walking in complete darkness, but then I hold onto that railing and regain my footing and confidence.

Here are some things I think would be a lot of fun to aim for in 2009: run the Centerville 5 K on the 4th of July, summit Timpanogus, hike Lisa Falls, find a city rec softball or basketball league, write five polished poems, fill 2 writer's notebooks, read 50 books, make sure Clara gets her driver's lisence before June, take the girls to 4 live theater or dance type of events, listen to Easter read more, have regular family prayers and family fun times, find a way to learn more Spanish and relearn Ilongo, start a women's poker group, gather more excellent poems for me and for my students, and keep on "getting along" with everyone at work.

Welcome to Earth, 2009

Monday, December 29, 2008

Endings and Beginnings

Deep, deep breath. Inhale. Exhale.

Dear Blog Readers,

Sorry for the very long interlude. I promise that I will be posting more regularly. I've had some big upheavels in my personal life. When major fault lines get shaken it's scary and not so easy to sit still and write, (or sit still and read for that matter). But I am back. The changes are all good. And I'll likely talk more about them later.

I've always reserved this space for an eclectic mix of book reviews, teaching reflections, and even some personal stuff.

Tonight I had a "dance party" with my three daughters. We used to do this often, the first year they were here, but haven't for a long time. We hooked Harriet's ipod up to the sound system and jammed to Soulja Boy, DJ Unk, Missy Elliot, and T-Pain. Clara showed me how to krump, E rolled around on the floor making a big fool of herself, and Harriet used her new video toy to record the whole thing. I so love my daughters. I deeply adore their amazingly strong, gorgeous spirits. And I am so blessed to have them as my daughters.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Reading Journals

Every year that I've taught (this is my 7th year), I've had my students keep reading journals. These spiral bound notebooks are letters back and forth, primarily between me and each individual student, all about their reading lives.

If I had to choose one structure that captures my philosophy and passion and essence as a teacher, it would be reading journals. Things I love about them: our letters back and forth make for a very authentic writing experience, they are full of my students' personal, thoughtful responses to books, and they position my students in a relationship with me that is about "fellow reader" and "fellow thinker", setting up an apprenticeship learning model that I know they learn well from. I am often blown away by the originality and quality of their thinking in these letters.

A few choice lines from this week's batch of letters:
"I think that was really thoughtful of you to give me a wonderful book." (Life As We Knew It)
"It made me sad when Tally's boyfriend died." (Pretties)
"Smiles To Go is about the teenager named Will Tuppence and he really likes science which ties into my own life because I like science."
"If I could be any character I would want to be Bella because she is a really special girl who has the perfect life other than her boyfriend's a vampire and her old best friend/arch enemy is a werewolf." (Twilight series)
"I give Twilight fives stars because it's a gripping non able to stop book and also because it's a novel and one of the best selling books in America."
"If I could be one of the characters I would be Annabeth or Thalia, because they're both strong and smart." (Percy Jackson series)
"This is one of my favorite books because my mom read it to me when I was little." (Green Eggs and Ham)

Aren't my students amazing??
Love 'em.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Poetry, Like Bread, is for Everyone

I have the class this year that I imagine many teachers only ever dream about. They listen. They read. They are decent to each other. They do their math homework and study their spelling words. It's my 7th year teaching and I sorta feel like the universe has given me a sabbatical year---very low stress. No rough diamonds. Nobody who needs to sit often in a private office. Just hard working, earnest, good, good, good kids.

The most exiting new thing I've been doing this year: poetry. Every single day we've read a poem together. I'm so glad I spent time over the summer getting this ready. My "roughest" boys love poems. They see the connection, I believe, between good poetry and the process they are all in the very middle of: figuring out their fledgling identities.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Elvis and Olive

I thought this was a fantastic book. I loved the characters: book smart, lives-in-her-mind, socially reserved Natalie, and "feral cat" Annie (Natalie's description). The opening scene is their very strained but hilarious first encounter. They become fast friends and immediately form a secret club, with secret names (Elvis and Olive) and the secret mission of uncovering as many "good" secrets about their neighbors as possible. The two girl spies are good at their self-assigned task and manage to uncover some secrets that lead to tricky situations and more power than they know how to responsibly handle (including secrets about each other). The lessons they learn about friendship and privacy and community are rich and are very well earned by the careful story development and true to character writing. Stephanie Watson zooms in on what it's like to be a 10-year-old girl with that same sweet accuracy as Jenny Han does with her 12-year-old characters in Shug.

I hate that this great book about ten-year-old girls will be a rather hard sell with my eleven-turning-twelve-year-old students. Sixth graders are fussy like that. I think I can make the hard sell, and I'll put some serious effort into it because the reading level of the text is right at the "enjoyment level" of my students, because it's a story I think they'll delight in, if they give it a chance, and because I think it's far better written than those silly vampire books that my students can't get enough of.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

7 Things I Adore About this Class

It will take me a few years of teaching straight 6th grade classes to tease apart which of these are attributes of generic 6th graders, and which are simply unique traits about my current class, but here are my 7 favorite things, so far, about my current students:
  • They can work in small groups, for 40 minutes, with no major hitches. They can work together to complete at least a full page of written instructions.
  • They are already readers and writers.
  • They have a lot of self-awareness. They know what kind of books they like and what kind of writing pieces they prefer to work on.
  • Most of them know all of their basic math facts.
  • They're brave. They've already shared things during our Community Circle time that fourth graders would never share until December (specific fears and hopes).
  • They have "good student" habits, like returning homework and studying their spelling words.
  • They're very compliant and easy to manage. Nobody's had to go to another class for "think time" yet and minus a couple of small ADD issues, there are very few interruptions related to poor behavior/choices.
We've been reading Tangerine as our first read aloud and it's going well. I wish the plot was faster at the beginning, but we're already past that initial steep slope and we're currently enjoying the very thoughtful main character and complex themes.

I've been scrambling a bit to find enough new choice reading books for all the students who I had as fifth graders. That will be my fun, on-going challenge this year.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Teaching Priorities

Teachers are constantly getting pulled, stretched, and worked over, just like the salt taffy made back in the day by the Utah pioneers. " Squeeze in this new reading program." "Integrate the arts." "Teach 180 minutes of language arts each day." "Can we come talk to your students about a haiku contest? about their dental health? about safety around power lines?"

One way I manage to feel less stretched and calm, despite all these well-intentioned efforts to steal away my teaching time is that I have very clear priorities. In no particular order, here they are:

Math--everyday---no matter what. I'll shave off some time, if needed, but we "do" math every day, usually for an hour.

Poetry---this is a new one for me, but I haven't missed a day yet and I am luvvving the Nancie Atwell "Naming the World" model.

Independent Reading---between 30 and 50 minutes, every day. Every day. All year.

Writing---at least 4 days a week I make sure my students have a 50 minute writing workshop.

There are other things that I do each day, like spelling, vocabulary, and "punctuation practice", but they're not on my list of things I can't ever skip. I also teach science and social studies, but I like to do three week units and alternate between the two; we're still learning about Egypt, but by the last week in September we'll be studying microbes during that same hour each day.

I was raised in a religious culture with an expectation that certain daily practices would become habitual and so intrinsic to my identity that I wouldn't ever miss a day. Well, I'm not such a devout mormon these days, but independent reading, writing workshop, and math are such high priorities of mine that I do them each day with religious devotion.

What are some of your teaching practices that spring from beliefs so deep and powerful that you never skip or cancel them?

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

full throttle

When will I feel completely caught up and able to relax deeply and not start "to do" lists every time I sit down long enough to think? Oh yeah, that will be next June.

But, despite the stress and fatigue, things are good. I have 29 students, but none of them need to be given a Private Office to do their work, and as long as the count stays under 30, I'm feeling okay.

The new literacy coach was so impressed by our DIBELS scores that she's anxious to come and see how I do reading workshop. I really like our old coach, so this makes me a bit nervous.

I'm moving back and forth between the Lucy Calkins Units of Study narrative books and the mini lessons from Nancie Atwell's Lessons that Change Writers. So far--this weaving is working well.

I have shared a poem everyday and this is a goal that I think I'm gonna be able to meet (one-a-day everyday all year) because my students are so INTO the poems. Their enthusiastic responses are fueling my motivation. The best part of the model (from Nancie Atwell) is having the kids "rate" the poems after we're done with them each day. When I forgot this final step today, they were quick to remind me.

I'll try hard to share more detailed and specific stories later. For now---yes---things are going well.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

My Summer Ends

Were my summer goals met? Well, I gathered a nice big bunch of poems and read the teacher guide book to the Nancie Atwell Naming The World poetry resource book. And I am super psyched to start *doing* poetry with my students each day. I am a bit scared of the performance part of the routine, but I'm convinced it's critical and I'm sure excited to try it out.

I completed a unit plan for Ancient Egypt and I gathered and ordered all the resources I'm going to need for a unit on microorganisms.

I only found a few excellent short stories but I might use some of the stories in the basal we've been given and part of my Donors Choose proposal for literature groups has been funded, so I'm optimistic about having enough resources to run strong small groups.

My other big accomplishments this summer? I took my 3 girls to Yellowstone for their first time. I won The Legend of Zelda on the Wii. I visited my sister in Fresno for a week. I started reading more adult books than I have for the last few years. And I watched every episode of all 5 seasons of The Wire. I learned to enjoy my summer vacation so throughly that I'm actually having a hard time getting my passion for teaching up to its normal levels of intensity. Please don't get me wrong. I still love teaching and I'm excited to be going back to work soon. But I've also learned how to really enjoy my time off. What I'm hoping is that my ability to RELAX well will mean that I'll be able to stay in this wonderful profession for many years to come.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Home Visits

Last year, for the first time ever, I dropped by the homes of each of my students before the first day of school. This evening I finished these visits again, and it's a tradition I'll likely continue to the end of my teaching career. Why? It's wonderful to have such a positive first contact with both my students (who are happy to get their little Welcome Back gift bag,) and also with their parent(s), who like to get the supply list and are most often tickled and grateful to have me stop by, and either introduce myself, or if I already know them, to just say "Hi." There was one mom last year and then another one this year who seemed annoyed---but the huge majority of parents seem to sincerely appreciate the gesture and they make it well worth my time and energy.

And--I guess it goes without saying--I learn stuff about my students that I might not ever otherwise learn; if they have younger siblings they care for, if they live in an apartment or in a house, and sometimes whether or not they have grandparents or aunts or uncles or cousins living with them. I'm about to start my seventh year of teaching and I've spent all my years at the same school. I love the neighborhood where I work and walking and driving around the area helps me feel even more connected to the wider community.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Making Good Use of Volunteers--how??

I had such a thoughtful comment on my last post that I felt it worth throwing another question out into our lovely little cyber-teacher-lounge.

I teach at a Title 1 School and my students have a wide range of abilities and backgrounds. I'm firmly committed to reading and writing workshop models of language arts instruction. For the first time ever, last year, our school had an abundance of adults from local businesses and church groups, who were willing to spend an hour or so each week volunteering. Most of them want to work directly with kids. I wanted them to work with my middle and high readers, but these kids got understandably annoyed when I asked them to read their choice reading books out loud to the volunteers.

What are some of your ideas and experiences in making good use of the time and efforts of adult volunteers (parents or others)? Particularly as a support for reading instruction of older elementary school kids?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Read-A-Thon Musings

Yesterday and today, next to a cool blue pool in sunny California, three friends and I have been reading The Brothers K, my all-time favorite novel. We planned this read-a-thon event months ago, and it is kinda like a dream come true. Reading my favorite book, along side a handful of thoughtful readers, interrupted only to enjoy a dip in the pool, a fruity drink, or a delicious meal--I honestly couldn't dream anything better.

A couple observations---we're all "good" readers. Duh. But we read at very different paces. The big range in our reading speeds has become quite pronounced as we've all 4 been reading the same book. There comes a point, between 3rd and 6th grade, me thinks, when the darn DIBELS booklets ought to be flushed down the toilet. Perhaps they have a very limited utility, but PUH-LEEZE. They are even better than AR tests at obliterating thoughtful reading and beneficial teaching.

I was imagining a lot of rich and exciting discussions between the 4 poolside readers, but I have realized that the joy of shoulder to shoulder reading is more about the companionship of carrying on 4 separate but simultaneous conversations between each reader and David James Duncan. Yeh--it's cool, of course, to read funny lines and nod in agreement at well crafted scenes. But this kinda talk has been about ten minutes of our sixteen hour read-a-thon. The joy of doing it together is just in knowing these characters and this story are dwelling not just in my imagination at this instant, but in Julie's, Lisa's, and Connie's as well. And eventually, I'm sure, we'll feel comforted in sharing the grief of a sad story, and the final joy of a triumphant story--but sharing that sadness and joy doesn't take a whole lot of talk. It's more about sympathetic head nodding and back patting. When we're all finished I'm sure we'll all have some thoughts to exchange. But the true beauty of this experience has been rather simple--reading a good book right next to a friend or two who are reading the same good book.

I know we're expert readers here in California today and what I'm extracting from this as far as classroom teaching goes isn't so much that we don't need small reading groups or literature study. But the focus of these groups and of most of our reading mini-lessons ought to primarily be about how to have that rich conversation and experience with the author and the text. For many books, it's not great use of reading time or that interesting or instructive to have belabored discussions with peers. (Maybe??)

I'm still figuring out how to balance independent, choice reading and individual conferences with small group work. I had a great year, last year, putting into practice Nancie Atwell's Reading Zone model. But I do believe there's a value to small group instruction and I want to get that part of reading workshop down this year. I'm still not sure how I'm going to do it though, probably with lots of short stories and shortish novels that the students read in their entirety before we all get together to talk.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Memoir Monday

My sister Lisa and I were in our early twenties. We both still lived in Salt Lake City and spent time together often. One Sunday afternoon we took a trip together to the the downtown library.

Once inside the library, we went our separate ways. I was working part time at an alternative high school and found myself looking through stacks of books for young adults. About an hour later we passed each other going opposite directions on the escalators. Lisa whistled--a quick high note, a quick low note--our secret signal. I went back down again and we started sharing our book finds.

"There's this one book I really want to read, but can't find," Lisa said, holding up a scrap of paper. Written in pencil were the words, Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson. "I read about it on the internet and really want to read it. The computer catalog says it should be here, but it's not on the shelf."

I shifted the stack of books in my hands and pulled a hard back from near the bottom of my pile. It was the very book she was looking for. "How'd you...." Lisa started with a puzzled look.

"I thought it looked good," I shrugged. We both shook our heads in silent amazement. We've always had our brain waves set near the same frequency, I thought, but this is incredible. Of all the books in this five-story building, we both found and decided to read the exact same one.

Ten years later: she's a young adult librarian and I'm a sixth grade teacher. And we swap book recommendations often.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Ancient Egypt Unit

As per a few kind requests, here's a basic outline and links to resources from my unit on Ancient Egypt.

For this, and all of my sixth grade social studies units this year, my big picture purpose can be captured with this lofty vision:

A knowledge of world history informs our understanding of and our ability to participate thoughtfully in an increasingly global society.

Along side this worthy goal, lifted straight from the Utah State Social Studies Core Curriculum:

Help young people develop civil competence, with the ability to make informed decisions for the public good.

The essential questions for this unit are quite a bit more down-to earth:
  • How did geography influence Ancient Egypt's emergence as a strong and distinct region?
  • What were the main features/achievements of Ancient Egyptian culture?
  • How were the government and economy structured?
In the spirit of backward design, my next step was to think about assessment; the particular concepts I want students to know and the particular things I want them to learn how to do. For this first unit I want them to take some first, solid steps in content literacy and research skills. They'll follow a model they can use later by taking notes on 5x7 index cards, and learn how to put ideas from primary and secondary sources into their own words and how to reference these sources. Rather than written reports or poster presentations, for this first unit, they will give short oral presentations based on their research notes.

The specific vocabulary and concepts that I expect them to master are: archeology, pharaoh, scarab, sphinx, obelisk, sarcophagus, hieroglyphics, scribe, North Africa, the Middle East, papyrus, and cartouche. Grades for this unit will be based on participation in group activities, oral presentations (including research note cards), completion of class work, and a short quiz.

Introductory Activities: A short power point imagining a visit to modern Cairo (Mrs. Frizzle style). Clips from a movie available to Utah educators on Pioneer's eMedia called Beyond our Borders. KWL charts.

"A Day in the Life" lessons straight from PBS, here.

In groups of 4 mummify apples.

In the same groups of 4 students will research assigned topics, using books and internet sources, as well as topic folders compiled from this Primary Source kit. I have some ideas for these topics, but will also base them on the students' interests as demonstrated on their KWL charts.

Final art project (and to break-up oral presentations over three days): make our own 2-D sarcophagi including cartouche and burial masks.

Additional resources which I'll soon have linked on my class web page and might use during this unit:

Mummies of Ancient Egypt
Gift of the Nile
BBC Ancient Egypt (includes two great interactive activities)

Please let me know if this compilation of resources and unit outline is useful. The process of putting a unit together is important, as it forces you to think through the interaction of literacy and content goals as well as sift through lots and lots of resources and activity ideas to select the ones you think will work best for you and your students. Also, feel free to recommend additional ideas or resources.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Brendan Buckley's Universe and Everything in It Brendan Buckley's Universe and Everything in It by Sundee T. Frazier

Brendan, according to his gram is "chocolate milk"---chocolate from his dad and milk from his mom. He's a good kid with a good stable family. One day when he's walking around the mall with his gram he sees this old man at a table full of rocks. He strikes up a conversation but when his gram happens up on them she goes bezerk. Turns out the old man is his grandfather, his mom's father, who he's never met. His other grandpa recently passed away and so Bren is determined to learn more about his grandpa and to find out why they've never met.

Strong writing. Nice amount of allusions to things like the internet and video games---makes the setting and story more real, but not over the top. Just part of the story.

The only thing I didn't love was the ending. A little bit too After School Special-ish for my tastes, but those feel-good-endings were my tastes as an 11 year old, so there ya go.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


A wide u D I wood E N c E ?

I found this very cool letter/picture tool via Sarah, via Two Writing Teachers. What a fun app.

Spell with flickr.

About audience....

I read Seedfolks a few days ago. It was published during this window from about 1990-2001 when I wasn't such a huge reader of kit lit. I know, I know. I missed a lot of great books during those eleven years. But I read a lot of good adult books during that time and, among other pursuits, I also finished high school and college.

At first I was set to buy 8 copies because it seemed like really rich material, perfect for literature groups next year (which i'm determined to have more often). But...there was a tug of doubt in the back of my mind, a tug full of constantly percolating questions, like, how many kid readers do I know who will actually like this? find it painfully boring? hate it? I never bat 100 when answering these kinds of questions, but just asking them means I don't believe Seedfolks has nearly enough kid appeal. Not only is the plot boring (i believe, for 12-year-olds) and lack any real, dramatic conflict, there also isn't enough sustained character development, and the book is painfully didactic. I liked the feel good "we-can-overcome-stereotypes-and-form-communities" message, but there are lots of other books with similar themes, many of which don't hit you over the head with it AND have enough "kid appeal" to keep my student readers enthusiastic about their reading assignments.

It's such a balancing act: teaching books with content worth investing classroom time and also finding books with the illusive ingredient: kid appeal. But my barometer for finding such books is at least somewhat reliable. Earlier this summer I read more Horrowitz Horror, and I knew these scary stories were oozing kid appeal. So I ordered the original Horrowitz Horror, and the sequel. This afternoon I was eavesdropping on my high-schooler as she very dramatically retold one of these deliciously dark tales to a friend on the phone.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

finished with Egypt, for now

I'm just learning another reason it's good to be a Site Teacher Educator for the University or Utah. (That means I am a teacher who hosts student teachers. ) I am motivated to get tedious but critical work done early, so that I will be prepared to teach the budding teacher. Today I finished my "backward design" unit for Ancient Egypt and it's very good. It not only looks nice, but it also has clear objectives, interesting essential questions, and engaging activities. You see, I've gotta make sure my new student teacher will have a model of what I want him to help me do for our next two social studies units, one on Ancient Greece and one on The Silk Road. And I want to be very clear about what I expect for the units he'll be planning by himself for the three months he's going to be in charge.

Science and social studies are my least favorite subjects to teach, but being well planned does wonders for *my* engagement.

And I really love the backward design curriculum planning model. It helps me think about process and content and "big ideas" all at once. I made a one-page unit planning template that I'm going to use (or have my student teacher use) for most of the science and social studies units for the year.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Radio West Summer Reading

Doug Fabrizio hosts a "summer book show" on my favorite local radio program.

The consensus from our local bookselllers: high gas prices and a sluggish economy are good for book sales.


Tuesday, July 08, 2008

My New Hero

Kate Braestrup is a UU minister for the search and rescue troopers and game wardens in Maine. I heard her interviewed by Krista Tippets last week on Speaking of Faith and now I simply can't get enough of her amazing theology. She articulates a way of being a faith filled person that is entirely centered on love between humans. I'm excited to read her book, Here If You Need Me.

Sharing with you this particular video of Kate talking about her husband Drew, the stern state trooper and gay rights advocate, is my feeble response to the involvement of the LDS church in the California ballot initiative. I still claim a tenuous affiliation with mormonism, and I have been so disappointed and sad since learning of the church's formal involvement in California. I don't believe it's wrong for them to take political stands or get involved in the political process. In fact, I think they have a responsibility to do so. But they are definitely on the wrong side here.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Summer Fun

Our last day of summer school was today. Maybe next year I'm going to look for something else, besides teaching, to do during the weekdays all summer. I go a bit batty just staying home, but I was so ready to not be teaching after two weeks of summer school. Which means that for half of summer school, those students of mine didn't have a very enthusiastic, happy teacher. It's also hard to bond with kids you're only with for sixteen days. Oh well.

I'm not going back to my classroom until August 12th. I've already finished gathering 120 poems. More than half are from the Nancie Atwell book Naming the World. The rest I scavenged up from books, anthologies, and Poetry Friday blog posts. I am so much fussier about the poems I share with students than I am about books. If a poem is at all obtuse or coy or flaunts its diction, I won't teach it. I am so determined not to squelch the playful, joyful deliciousness of good poetry, that I won't risk teaching poems that I don't love. The format that Nancie uses in Naming the World to teach the poems is also quite powerful. I feel excited and ready to teach poetry next year.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Making a Family

You don't get much closer than this book to the story of my three daughters and the bizarre circumstances that made us a family.

About the book: Abela is a nine-year-old girl in Tanzania who loses her dad, her mum, and finally her baby sister to the sickness that shall not be named, which continues to ravage the continent. There are scenes of Abela at her mum's side, during mum's death, and they are sad, sad, sad. But despite the horrible tragedy of her family, Abela wants to live and grow. She, in fact, chooses to live.

Meanwhile, Rosa, a thirteen year-old English girl, cannot understand why her mom is considering adopting another kid. Isn't she enough? Haven't she and her mom always been splendidly close?

These two stories don't come together until the end of the book, but come together they do. I wish I'd known, before reading the book, that the beginning of this new family wouldn't occur until the end of the book. It was inevitable that they would come together and I was very anxious to see how things would work out.

I've been reimagining this blog as of late. Goodreads has come to serve the main purposes for which I originally intended this blog space. I catalog, review, and record every book I read over there. I'm not really sure yet how this blog will evolve. Maybe it will become a focused place for both teacherly and motherly reflections?? We shall see. We shall see.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Two Favorite Math Activities

The first one is a game. You need coins: pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters. Plastic or paper coins both work fine. And you also need a partner and one six sided die. The game is super easy to learn, and pretty easy for most kids to play.
  • Put all the coins in the middle, this is the "bank"
  • Take turns rolling the die
  • Whatever number you roll, that's how many pennies you get from the bank
  • Whenever you can, trade your coins in for higher valued coins. You have to say the words, "I can trade (number) _______s for (number) ________. For example: "I can trade two nickels for one dime."
  • The first player that can trade in for a quarter is the WINNER.
There's lots of wiggle room in this game for different levels of math thinking. If I have seven cents and roll a 3, I can just give the bank my seven cents and take out a dime. But if I'm not ready to see why that would work, I can take three pennies, and then make the trade. I especially like the required talking in this game, which is helpful for kids still learning coin values, and is also good for reinforcing the mathematical thinking that's happening as kids become more sophisticated at quickly trading up their coins.

Variations: roll two dice and/or declare the winner as the first person to reach 1 dollar.

Another one of my all time favorite math activities is skip counting around a circle or down a line and finding shortcuts to figure out what number we'll end on. When you skip count by 25 you can put everyone in the circle into groups of 4 and quickly figure out what number we'll end on by counting the groups of 4 as worth 100 each, just like counting quarters. Counting by big numbers like 500 or 5000 helps expand students' understanding of place value and scale. And counting by 1/2 or 1/3 helps with both adding and eventually multiplying fractions. Every skip counting exercise can be connected to a multiplication and division problem. To manage this activity I let the kids know who will be first and what we'll be counting by. I always say "Zero" and then the first kid says whatever number we're counting by. If somebody says the wrong number, we start over. If anybody is side-talking, we start over. The repetition helps the kids find and remember patterns, and they have to pay attention so they know what number to say on their turn.

Our district just adopted a new math text book. At first I was pretty upset, cuz I've loved the Investigations materials I've used for the last six years. I've always supplemented the Investigations program, of course, but the activities in the fourth, fifth, and sixth grade materials were perfect for getting kids to develop a solid framework of mathematical concepts and relationships which leads to strong number sense and problem solving abilities. I'm not upset these days, though, cuz I've come to see every new textbook as just another "resource" and I'm still the artist that puts it altogether.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Cool Resource

Teachers can register for free and then access and download lots and lots of videos and other resources at this very cool site:

There are video clips on all kinds of science and social studies topics. And did I mention it's all free? I've got a bunch of those "YOU TRY IT" clips from the PBS program ZOOM already to go for next fall.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

48 Hour Wrap and Summer Plans Meme

First. I'm throwing in the towel an hour and a half early. It's 5:20 on Sunday evening, here in Salt Lake City, and I just finished the last book I'm going to read for the 48 Hour Reading Challenge. Here's my summary.

Books finished:
  • Game, by Walter Dean Myers
  • Greetings from Nowhere, by Barbar O'Connor
  • Yellow Star, by Jennifer Roy
  • Teaching for Comprehending and Fluency, by Fountas & Pinnell
  • No Good Deed, by Laura Lippman
  • more Horowitz HORROR, by Anthony Horowitz
  • An Inmate's Daughter, by Jan Walker
  • Smiles to Go, by Jerry Spinelli
  • Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's, by John Elder Robison
So that's 9 books. About 1,278 pages, when you don't count the pages I'd read in a few of these well before my 48 Hour start time, and I totaled about 10 hours of reading.

The best of these nine books, that I'm very happy to have read this weekend: Yellow Star, Smiles to Go, and Horowitz Horror. The Laura Lippman mystery was also a great, adult indulgence.

Second. Franki and Mary Lee at A Year of Reading have officially started the Summer Goals meme. Ironic, that they noticed my ramblings in the last post and decided to go ahead and get this meme going. I'm on record as being officially against most kinds of goal setting, (eternally lazy manatee taoist that I strive so hard to be). but... well.... The grandest joy of summer, for me, is traipsing around in the wilderness of new ideas and growing a vision for next year's teaching. A little bit of direction in this summer splashing gives me a boost of energy and some useful plans and blueprints come September.

So, this summer I plan to:
  • fill one writer's notebook with seeds from both the Lucy Calkins Units of Writing books and from the Nancie Atwell book for middle schoolers called Lessons That Change Writers
  • gather 120 poems to share with my class next year, from a very wide variety of sources.
  • select 12 powerful short stories to use as texts for guided reading groups
  • organize my classroom library, and try to scrounge up a nice new bookshelf or two
  • sift through the amazing array of resources recently posted by Tricia at Open Wide, Look Inside
  • outline units for: Microbes, Ancient Egypt, Space, and Ancient Greece
  • write two more DonorsChoose project grants
  • plan (not necessarily write) 20 new booktalks
  • browse around leisurely and find out what new resources are available at Read, Write, Think and through our new math textbook publisher
  • Reread Lifetime Guarantees, and Radical Reflections
That's more than enough to keep me satisfied and productive. I'm also flying to Fresno in August for a poolside read-a-thon with my sister and her girlfriend and some other new friends who I only currently know via Twitter. We will all be reading the best book that has ever been written, which I'll be reading for about my eighth time: The Brothers K, by David James Duncan.

I tag Sarah, at The Reading Zone, for this one, (when your school year is finished).

Yes---Summer is so very, very sweet.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

48 Hr. Update

I've slept a lot, and read a lot.

Books finished:

Teaching for Comprehending and Fluency, by Fountas & Pinnell
Smiles to Go, by Jerry Spinelli
More Horowitz Horror, by Anthony Horrowitz
An Inmate's Daughter, by Jan Walker
Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's

There are blurbs on all of these over at goodreads. I'm almost at my halfway mark. I won't be sleeping as much in the next 24 hours of this endeavor. But I don't think I'll be setting any reading records, either.

I am feeling ready for the "whatcha gonna learn and think about this summer" meme to start making the rounds. Especially the Teaching for Comprehending and Fluency book made me want to start a list of summer goals. I know, I know. Breathe. Take a break. But summer dreaming and learning is one of my most favorite parts of the yearly teaching cycle.

Friday, June 06, 2008

48 Hour Read-A-Thon, GO

I am still recovering from an "all-nighter" this week. I spent almost all of Tuesday night creating and burning 30 copies of the 2008 Washington 6th Grade Video. I love iMovie, but making a movie is a very intense process. Our "Sixth Grade Promotion" was Wednesday morning and it was quite beautiful. Lots and lots of tears. They were such a great bunch and I will really, really miss them.

I am relieved that it's finally summer, though. I'm teaching 16 fourth and fifth graders for four weeks of summer school starting Monday, but the whole set up and curriculum and everything is very low key. It's some extra money and a nice way to get my own 10-year-old daughter some solid, structured summer learning time.

This weekend is MotherReader's 48 Hour Read-A-Thon. I am probably still going to be catching up on some sleep and reveling in the official start of summer, so I'm not aiming too high on the contest side of this event. But I am still participating and I'm starting my official clock now. 7:02 p.m. Utah Time.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Spirituality and Reading

From an interview on Speaking of Faith:

"You know, we don’t usually think of reading as a spiritual exercise, but I think it is, because in order to hear a story you have to quiet yourself, and you have to empathize with the characters in the story. And isn’t empathy part of the spiritual life? Isn’t quietude part of the spiriitual life?

And you also discover in the story that you don’t have control. You might like the characters to do one thing or another. You might wish they would make one decision or another. But you can’t control the situation. And part of the spiritual life is learning that we are not always in control.

Also, if we are truly listening then all the details matter. It matters what the color of her hair is or what he’s wearing or what the time of day is. Paying attention to the details of life is part of a spiritual life.""

-Sandi Sasso

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Series Series Series

My students read lots of series. Some of my students' favorites this year have been: the Twilight series, the Uglies, Pretties, and Specials series, the Warriors series, the Deltora series, the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, the Cirque Du Freak series, the Percy Jackson series and the Hank Zipzer series. Yeh, my kids are all over the map on both their reading and interest levels.

I don't have any questions about the value of reading series. Of course I know they're rarely spectacular literature, but they hook kids into reading, build their vocabulary and fluency, and I think they're actually quite wonderful for my kids who are still mastering English because they are fairly predictable and you don't have to learn new characters and settings for each book. A Children's Literature professor once had us put our heads down and answer two questions: Did you read series books as a kid? Are you an avid reader today? Usually, adults who answer yes to one question, answer yes to both.

For the series that my students love I often wonder how many books in each series I ought to read. I like to be able to talk to my students about the books they're reading, but I can usually only handle one or two books per series, and once I've read enough to "hook" my kid readers, I don't feel motivated to read the entire series myself. What about you?

Also, what are some of your favorite series, or ones that are big hits with kids you know?

Monday, May 12, 2008

A Getting to Know Me MEME

A fun meme from Megan at Read, Read, Read.

What were you doing ten years ago?

I was looking forward to coming home after being in the Philippines for 16 months.

What are five things on your to-do list for today (not in any particular order):
1. scan baby pics of 6th graders for the promotion video
2. brainstorm and research great speeches for same promotion event
3. turn in form to order sack lunches for two year-end field trips
4. read with Easter
5. grade spelling tests
6. conceive

What are some snacks you enjoy?

  • Haagen Daaz Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream
  • blueberry muffins
  • Dove chocolates with almonds
  • Hot Cheetoes
  • oranges
  • taquitoes

What would you do if you were a billionaire?
1. Take my girls to Disneyland
3. Make a college scholarship fund for all my students
4. have a bigger classroom library
5. pay to develop roads, hospitals, and schools in Yei, a village in South Sudan

What are three of your bad habits?
1. impatience
2. leaving lights on
3. being unorganized

What are five places where you have lived?
1. West Bountiful, Utah
2. Centerville, Utah
3. Salt Lake City, Utah
4. In the WIND RIVER MOUNTAINS in Wyoming
5. In the WASATCH MOUNTAINS above Park City, Utah

What are five jobs you have had?
1. Teacher
2. Physics TA
3. Boys and Girls Club Director
4. Bookseller
5. Babysitter

What six people do you want to tag?
Um, whoever wants to respond!

Friday, May 09, 2008

May Blooms

We've had a helluva winter here in Salt Lake City. Snow storm, after snow storm. I swear, I woke up to find my tulips dusted with snow flakes just two weeks ago. But we've finally landed on the other side of the gigantic winter chasm and spring is really, truly here to stay.

This week we've also landed on the happy (read: FINISHED) side of all of our high-stakes testing. And we did fine. Just fine.

This is a really satisfying time of the year with a class of sixth-grade students. They've worked so hard, all year, and they're still learning each day, but not with the same stress-filled urgency as a month ago. They are a community of friends and peers who know how to be gentle and kind with one another and as long as they don't get completely overwhelmed by their fears of middle school they constantly delight in finishing off both a good year and a whole life season as they say goodbye to elementary school. These days my students are making memoir collages, still reading lots and lots of great books, building toothpick bridges, looking forward to field trips and year-end rituals, and solving interesting math puzzles.

Me? I can't help it. I always start dreaming about next year during May: day-dreaming, imagining forward, growing a vision of how things will be. This summer I can't wait to dive into the Nancie Atwell Writing Workshop materials that I recently received. And, I'm really looking forward to MotherReader's 48 Hour Book Challenge, which is coming up the weekend of June 6 - June 8, 2008. I've started a list of books to read and I'm trying to temper my fierce competitiveness.

I'm also posting lots of book blurbs over at GoodReads.

Happy May, y'all.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Six More Weeks

I really can't believe this school year is almost over. Our high stakes testing starts Tuesday. I'm actually looking forward to the math tests. I find teaching the grade level math core to all kids a more straightforward and easy endeavor than teaching reading and writing. It's less messy and the year-end tests, I believe, are much more indicative of what the students have learned all year. I think this is the first time I've discussed math instruction on this blog, but if you know me in real life, you already know---I love math, and I really love teaching math. Growing up with amazing math instruction (at home) and then getting an incredible physics teacher in high school were two of the reasons I decided to become a teacher myself. Teaching math, for me, is the kind of work where my instincts take over and I just get totally immersed and know where to go next, both with the whole class and with individual kids.

In December I wrote a Donors Choose proposal for $500 of math manipulatives, and it was funded this month. My new proposal is for book sets for Literature Circles.

Here's a very cool tool my brother found for math teachers or mathematicians at any level:
Wolfram Demonstrations Project. You have to download the player first, and then when you download the open source math visualization files you can interact with them.

I am hitting my wall in writing workshop right now. I don't know how to keep it going for another six weeks. My mind is already on next year and I just don't have the energy left to pull off a strong memoir unit. I'm tempted to just let all the good work we've done this year be enough. Hopefully I'll find a way to keep it going. I've been trying to come up with ways to let a poetry compilation be our memoirs, but I don't know how to stay ahead of that game. I had some lofty ambitions of several things to pull together this weekend, but instead I worked in the yard and read and rested.

Oh yeah, the main reason my lamp oil is running so low is because we just finished our annual Shakespeare production. The sixth graders put on A Midsummer Night's Dream. It's such a wonderful, magical thing---putting on a play like this, but it also takes a ton of work. By the way, one of the reasons I've really come to enjoy blogging is because I know I can say things like I've said in this post, especially about the work it takes to pull off a decent student theater production, and there will be teachers out there who UNDERSTAND. It feels so nice to be understood.

A final slice of goodness: Kadir Nelson wrote me back!

Tangerine, by Edward Bloor

This is an excellent sixth grade book. It's a little bit slow, for the first twenty pages, which is why I abandoned it the first time I attempted to read it. However, I'm very glad I gave it a second chance. The pace really picks up and the story and characters are quite well done.

Paul learns many things in this story. He learns what really caused the damage to his eyes when he was young. He learns there are many more ways to live than in the gated, pricey communities he's always taken for granted. He learns to sit on the sidelines, to be a loyal friend, and to stand up for himself. He learns a lot about what kind of a person he wants to be, but here's the thing you've got to trust me on: these lessons are all very tightly woven in the fabric of a wonderful, believable story. There's no explicit moralizing or talking down to the reader. The narration is just Paul, writing in his journal, about a series of experiences that change him.

The plot includes race and class tensions, sibling hatred, less than perfect parents, a couple horrible deaths, and several great soccer games. The resolution is satisfying and the setting (Florida citrus tree lands) is like a subtle but strong character. Lucky for me, Washington has a class set of this book, which I'm looking forward to reading with my sixth graders next year.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Comfort Books

I've been sick for almost three days. Fever. Stomach ache. And a constant head ache. Maybe it's exhaustion. I don't know. As usual, I still worked, while sick, until this morning. This morning I came home around 11 a.m., crawled in bed, and have been sleeping and reading all day.

I started reading Waiting for Normal around 1 p.m. and I'm almost finished. Hunkering down in bed with such a wonderful book feels just like getting warm milk and toast prepared for my sick body by my gentle mom. So comforting.

In fact, reading it is much more pleasant than being on the internet, so, I'll just say this: it's realistic fiction. The main girl character is 12 and her life is sad and poor, but she's blossoming anyway.

Also, I started Painting the Wind, by Pam Munoz Ryan, and it was so good I didn't want it to end, so I stopped after about six chapters. And so now I'll have even more comfort reading for later this evening.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Sweethearts, by Sara Zarr


Sweethearts reminded me a bit of Fighting For Ruben Wolfe and I Am the Messenger, because it felt much more mature than lots of young adult literature; right at that crossroads into adult fiction. It wasn't mature because of any explicit content. It was the particular types of problems and the way the characters responded to things. It was all more on the adult side of the adolescent galaxy, the side where questions can stay open, where people are impossibly complex, and where resolutions aren't tidy.

This is a story about a girl and boy who were best friends in late elementary school. They were both the "losers" of the class and had a very deep and tremendously strong bond. Cameron disappears one day and Jennifer, who later turns herself into Jenna, has to figure out how to go on without him. She ends up abandoning the self she was at that time of her life and when Cameron shows up again when she's seventeen, Jennifer/Jenna has to figure out how to honor both their friendship and the little girl she tried so hard to bury.

This was a great read. Not really for most middle-schoolers, though. I just don't think they'd really get it. Also, I hate the cover. It doesn't even begin to represent anything meaningful about the story.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Phone Call From Cameroon

"Are you there?"
"Yes, it's us! Hi Lauren. I'm going to put you on speaker phone."
"Okay, my whole class can you hear you now. How is Cameroon?"

A reverent silence descended on the room. And then, for about ten minutes, our very own Peace Core Volunteer partner spoke to us. My students raised their hands and asked many urgent questions: What animals do you see? What's the worst disease there? Are you getting homesick? Did you get our letters?

Her answers were so clear and patient and loving.

I ended the call by telling her the truth: we are so proud that she is representing our country in this capacity.

I've been thinking a lot lately about moral education and about teaching children ethics. I never thought such subjects would be all that important to me, as a teacher, but I'm coming to believe that digging for answers to the question, "How should I live my life?" is at the heart of much of my work with children. I come at this question from lots of angles, and hardly ever head-on. For example, we have a class motto that we repeat often: WORK HARD! BE NICE! (ROCK ON! was added by the kids this year.) My classroom management system is entirely based on making thoughtful choices. I have a growing repertoire of "little lectures" that are useful ways to illustrate important moral lessons about such topics as the harmful effects of gossip and the strength it requires to walk away from a fight.

Partnering with Lauren this year, however, has been my very favorite way to quietly teach my students to become more thoughtful young people. In September, before she left, Lauren visited our class. We all remember this young, nervous woman who left the shelter of her home less than two days after she visited us. And now her whole life is completely devoted to caring for other people. Hearing from her often and writing her letters has led us to think about people in another part of the world. It's helped us imagine our own futures as people who will work hard to help others. I want my students to continue becoming people who are kind and moral. I love having a partnership that so effortlessly helps all of us stretch in that direction.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Dear Kadir Nelson

Mr. Nelson, if you're out there, I really want to tell you about this kid I love.

He lives in the homeless shelter in Salt Lake City. He has a really rough home life. Dad's in jail. Mom's on drugs. This year, by some amazing graceful miracle, this ten-year-old has learned to LOVE books. I think reading has become his refuge. First, he read and took very good care of my precious, signed copy of Malcolm X, By Any Means Necessary, by Walter Dean Myers. It took him five minutes to read each page back in September, but he was so determined to read that book. Finishing it took him about six weeks. In December he discovered Darren Shan and has since read every single Cirque Du Freak and Demonata book.

Last week I handed him We Are the Ship and he carries it around school and back and forth to the shelter like it's a million dollar prize. He comes up and shows me the illustrations and stories and can barely contain his admiration for those players. His is a fierce admiration that is settling into the deep roots of his tender little soul.

I can only speculate here, but this is what I believe: I believe those stories, of determination and triumph in the face of horrible adversity and discrimination will give this kid deeper wells of strength than any other forms of "help" that I can imagine.

Teaching kids with such steep slopes all around them can sometimes be very difficult work, but with books like yours and children like this one, I consider it a great privilege to be working out in the trenches.

From the very bottom of my heart: THANK YOU!!!

(This true story/letter actually started out as a comment at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.)

Tuesday, March 04, 2008


My sister-in-law is also a kid lit aficionado and her biggest critique of this blog is that I don't write more negative reviews. I totally get it. Negative reviews are much more fun to write and more entertaining to read.

For this space, however, I simply want to share books that I think are worth sharing. I'll sometimes qualify my positive assessment of a book or specify an audience that I think will enjoy a particular book, but I don't slam or hate on books here, at all. The book blurbs here serve two main purposes: a resource where fellow teachers can come to browse some excellent titles, and a catalog for me, so that I can remember enough about a book to talk it up to my students.

I abandon lots and lots of books. If I don't get sucked in quickly, I usually don't finish books. I also, however, sometimes, read books that I don't like. I also read lots and lots of books that I just don't get around to writing about here. That's why I've totally fallen in love with Goodreads. It's a great way to keep track of ALL the books I've read and over there I write negative and more critical reviews. Each book gets 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 stars and my stars and blurbs over there are more about what I really think. The other great thing about Goodreads is that it's a social networking site, so you can see what your friends are reading and make comments and join book groups, according to your interests. Lots of good book fun, and not just for kid lit lovers.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Do The Math, Secrets, Lies, and Algebra, by Wendy Lichtman

Tess loves math. She likes the way it is predictable and leads to single, correct answers. She maps her friendships with Venn diagrams and she thinks through problems with her peers by considering what makes someone's power over another person less than, greater than, or equal to.

When her mom discloses some suspicions about the death of her coworker's wife, Tess is sure that the single, correct answer to this situation is to inform the police. Her mother and father disagree with this solution and Tess has promised not to talk to anyone about it. She is trapped in a problem with an answer that is "D.N.E."--"does not exist".

The characters in this novel were thoughtfully developed and even though Tess has a particular, mathematical way of viewing the world, she still has many universal middle-schoolish struggles. She's trying to define her own morals and she relies on her best friends to help her figure things out.

The resolution was a surprise and the situations that push Tess to make difficult choices keep the plot moving right along. Even though some of the math references are beyond sixth grade, I think many of my students will enjoy this book.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

How Teachers Grow

My current student teacher had a formal, half-day observation by her supervisor yesterday. At the conclusion her supervisor said she's doing great and this will probably be her last observation. I remember feeling quite frustrated when I was a student teacher and I felt as if I'd been "checked-off" by my university supervisors because I was already "good enough". I wanted them to do more to help me improve. Even if I was already good, I wanted to be great.

With the wisdom of a few years, I now believe that most of the substantial growth that we do as teachers comes about as a matter of self-reflection and that "greatness" comes over time. I really value colleagues who have shared commitments and similar philosophies, because they can foster conversations that encourage self-reflection. But at the end of the day, teaching is a very solitary profession. Most of our day-to-day work is done in isolation from other teachers and our growth depends on how often we look at our kids and our lessons and ask ourselves how things are going and what we might change.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Original Poetry

A Classroom is…

A noisy zoo,
with smellls galore.

A great chef’s kitchen,
with a swinging door.

A galaxy,
with orbits precise

An engine,
revving and full of life.

An outdoor market,
with negotiations,

And the sparkle of hope
For many a nation.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Lunar New Year

The temperature stretched all the way up to 50 degrees today. It's not supposed to be so warm again for a while, but with such promising signs of spring I'm in a much more "renewal" and "forward-looking" mood than I was back in January. For teachers, coming back off winter break means mid-year-testing, parent conferences, and digging back in with a firm resolve to keep working hard for five more months. Today, though, feels like a really great time for new year celebrations and visions. I can actually imagine what spring might feel like and so new starts and fresh seeds feel very well timed. Here's to the lunar calendar, which sets New Year in a good place for both teachers and for North Americans who look forward to spring.

At a district literacy workshop this evening I presented the assessment rubric/tool that Lucy Calkins and some other Teachers College folks presented at NCTE. I really do not like presenting to teachers. It was okay, though. As we were leaving I realized that the more I learn about growing young writers, the more I realize that I have so much more to learn. It's humbling to realize how much you need to know and how much experience you need under your belt, before you even begin to approach the level of "expert writing teacher." And, of course, the learning and conversations are always evolving and it's the process and thinking that keeps my teaching nimble and rich.

Also, one thing I've learned about myself recently is that when it comes to trying new things with my students, particularly new things that I really believe in, I am quite fearless. Looking back, with some of the knowledge and experience I've acquired this year, I can see how clumsy many of my initial attempts were at implementing Writer's Workshop. I would be horribly embarrassed if anyone could see my stumbling attempts to teach writing a few years ago. BUT---you can't ride a bike the first time you get on. Every journey starts with one step. The only way to become good at something, is to let yourself be bad at first. I'm sure you can think of your own cliches. Fortunately, kids are very generous and forgiving people and I am able to have lots of courage when I am working along side them. This is one of the reasons I love my job.

Here are five things I want to do before next Lunar New Year: take a community ed. class, start the National Board certification process, write three narrative pieces to add to my Writing Teacher Toolkit, write a few essays on my mormon/spirituality/philosophy interests, and push, prod, coach, pull, and MOVE my daughter Easter to a "grade-level" reading landmark.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

We Are the Ship, by Kadir Nelson

I love Kadir Nelson as an artist, and in this book the man proves he's got some writing talent as well.

This is a non-fiction account of the Negro Baseball Leagues, and black baseball players from the 1800s on.

You know how some topics can be mildly boring when you first consider them, but when someone who is super passionate pulls up a chair and talks to you, it's impossible not to develop your own interest and appreciation. Okay. That's how this book was for me. It's not as if I have zero interest in black baseball history, but Nelson is so enthralled by his subject and so loving in his writing and art that it's impossible not to get swept up in the story and carried along by the husky, fierce energy. They loved the game. They were ballplayers. And theirs is a rich and complex story. They were privileged, relative to many black folks of their time, but they were victims of a racist country that wouldn't let them play and get paid with their white peers.

The text is told with a collective voice, with lots of "we" and "our" pronouns, as if one of the ballplayers is telling the story. It was a little awkward, this point of view, but I liked it a lot better than a third person, dry, "objective" voice. I imagined sitting on a porch, next to the rocking chair of one of these players now in his nineties, as he slowly told me this amazing swath of American history. My dad is a sports fan and history buff and it was because of him that Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson were not completely unfamiliar names to me. Today, at Sunday dinner, I'm going to loan him my just-finished library copy of this fine book.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

How Far Kids Fly

A student teacher that I worked with for a few months at the first of the year, moved into a 2nd grade class in December. After watching our grade level team attempt to implement a strong Writers' Workshop, she went on, with the support of her new mentor, to implement a wonderful Writing Workshop with her class of eager second graders. Her students recently celebrated the publication of their very first pieces. I went into their room today and admired their work. Their little books were lovingly illustrated and proudly displayed.

I'm going to be very honest here. I was stunned. I have very little experience with such young writers and learners. It is unbelievable to me how far kids move in three short years. These little seven-year-olds will be big ten-year-olds soon, VERY SOON, and I've been teaching in the same building long enough now that I can be sure---they will make HUGE leaps between now and then. They had very cute little stories, but they are still learning lots and lots of basic skills. (Of course this is true, I just never realized how MANY things they learn between second and fifth grade.)

The next time I see an eleven or twelve year old who is struggling, I'm going to remember these proud second graders and I'm going to have lots and lots of faith in the power of strong instruction over time. I've loosened up quite a bit recently about all my precious ideals. Reading and Writing Workshop models work really well for me, as a teacher. Many of the students that come to me haven't ever been taught how to *be* writers in a workshop setting. But, they've been taught lots of other important skills and it's not that hard to build from where they're at. Although, right now, I am cautiously excited about the enthusiasm that this student teacher and her second grade writers are stirring up among many of the teachers throughout our lower grades.

How have cross-grade and whole school conversations broadened or deepened your understanding of reading or writing development? How much growth will I experience, as a writer and as a teacher, between now and the time I get these precious second graders as older grade students?

Thursday, January 31, 2008

A Crooked Kind Of Perfect

This title made several splashes around kidlit land before I finally got the audio version and enjoyed it while commuting for a week.

A Crooked Kind of Perfect is contemporary realistic fiction with several zany, complicated characters and with many believable problems. With wry humor and tender self-awareness, Zoe tells the story of her family, her clumsy navigations of sixth grade social circles, and her adventures learning to play the Perfectone Organ.

As I imagined scenes from the last few chapters, when Zoe competes in the PERFORMARAMA, I kept remembering this great video, which I stumbled across a few weeks ago.

This book is a great bridge into more YA-ish titles, for our young, but very strong readers. The vocabulary and writing style are fairly high, but the themes and plot and events are still very appropriate for children as young as nine.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

This Is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness

The premise of this picture poetry book is that there's a sixth grade class who models their own poems on William Carlos Williams' famous apology poem about eating all the plums. The sixth graders come up with a wide variety of poems. Each character and poem is crafted with an attentive eye to the experiences, struggles, and personalities of 12-year-olds, and in my experience, I'd say Joyce Sidman has strung the various harp strings of this age group beautifully.

In response to each poem of apology, the second half of the book is full of poems of forgiveness. Yes, each problem is solved and the students are all valued and loved, but that's exactly the sort of world that kids this age crave deeply. A world where they can make mistakes, try on new hats, and still have friends and be loved.

Someone on Goodreads wrote that this book will most likely be read by students as part of school work. Yes. I, agree. But---that's okay. I'm always looking for great resources and just like this year's Newbery, I think many children will read and value this book as it's carefully knitted into their reading lives by many a thoughtful teacher.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

True Story

A science writer found out that his carefully crafted words had been cut and pasted directly into a trashy romance novel. The writer describes this experience in this hilarious account, and in the end he wants us to remember the real tragedy---the endangered meerkats. I couldn't help but also note the racist and sexist representations of American Indian men and 19th Century women in the culprit romance book. YUUUCCCK. Do people really read this crap?

So. Let's all do our part to teach kids not to plagiarize or stereotype. Yeh. Duh.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Frog Princess, by E.D. Baker

When she finally agrees to kiss the frog who swears he's a prince, 14-year-old Emerelda ends up as a frog herself. At least now she won't have to deal with that pathetic suitor with whom her mom's been making arrangements. With the help of some creature friends, including the still-a-frog prince she kissed, Em has to figure out how to become human again and how to survive as a frog in the meantime.

There are some solid, if rather predictable themes about friendship and courage, but the reason I really enjoyed reading this book is because the tone was very light-hearted. I hate fantasy books with narrations that sound like bible readings. The narrator, here, is simply an enchanting storyteller. Often funny, sometimes very dramatic, but never pretentious. The tone reminded me of Hunky Dory.

This is the first book in a growing series. The end of the chapter scene when Em kisses her prince and becomes a frog herself would make a great booktalk. Another Books of Wonder rec.

Friday, January 18, 2008

A question or two

I adore picture books and find that older kids, who actually read them, often enjoy them, too. But this year my big, beautiful, collection of picture books has been collecting dust. I desperately need some sort of plan to get those books off the shelf. I need a solid plan for some sort of picture book reading experience with a younger grade class. How might that look?

I went to the "transition" meeting this afternoon, where the middle school teachers come to talk with the sixth grade teachers from feeder schools. The talking was okay and I feel like my students will be in good hands, but the middle school library, where the meeting was held, was dismal. I worry that everything I've done this year to promote lots of choice reading will be wasted if they don't have a library brimming with excellent, high-interest books. The City Library here is fabulous, though, so I'm trying to think of a way to get them over there a few times before the end of the year. I want them see what a great place it is for finding great books. Getting over there isn't the challenge---it's making the visit positive and increasing the chances that they'll go back on their own. How do I do that?

Monday, January 14, 2008

And the winner---was on my DESK!

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! by Laura Amy Schlitz was sitting on my desk at school this morning with a stickie note on it that I'd wrote that said, "For Middle Ages unit." My student teacher is planning a sixth grade Middle Ages unit soon and I'd bought this book for us off of some highly reliable rec, that I can't remember now, so that she'd have at least one good book to work with for that unit. I'd trusted whoever rec'd the book, and I skimmed through enough of the poems to see that it was indeed strong writing, good information, and would make a nice resource. I was totally surprised, though, to get a text message from my library sister in Philly this morning, as I was driving to work, that said this book just won the Newbery . So, I haven't, in fact, read the darn book, but I did buy it! And was planning to use it with my students. So there ya have it.

I wish I had a better system for remembering or recording recommendations. I'd really like to know right now who I trusted enough to buy that book, skipping my usual library filter.

Saturday, January 12, 2008


I really hate new year's resolutions and goals and such. I've just never been a very goal driven kinda gal. I love working hard to puzzle out interesting problems, but I hate diets, Stephen Covey, and self-help books. My book-related goals for the summer ended with a shrug, an "oh well, I tried" and a C-.

BUT--I am still a human and feel some weird thrill when looking up a steep slope. I read about this cool challenge out there in cyberspace somewhere. To read 8 books in 8 different categories in 08. The Triple 8 Challenge. I'm not going to officially enroll in the on-line challenge. I can't even remember how I happened upon it. But I'm going to do it---challenge myself to complete the 64 books before the calendar flips to 09. I like how it'll push me to read in new genres and broaden my repertoire of good choices for all my student readers. In addition to reading all the books, I'm also gonna try to write here about at least two of them from each category.

So, here are my 8 categories:
Kid Fantasy, Professional Development, Popular Kid Series, Picture Books, Graphic Novels, Science Non-Fiction (kid or adult), Sports Novels, and YA.

I know there is potential cross-over between my categories, but I don't want to double count any books. I have some ideas about some of the books I want to read, but I'd also love suggestions. And if this challenge sounds fun--let's do it together. Leave a comment. Join in!

Happy New Year, everyone.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

The True Meaning of Smekday, by Adam Rex

Wowsers. This was book was such a rollicking read. An eleven-year-old girl journeys with a Boov alien in a flying car, all the way from Florida to Arizona---and together they save the planet from the Gorg aliens. The two main characters, Gratuity, the human, and J. Lo, the Boov, were amazingly well-drawn and believable. I can't think of any other non-human character that I've ever enjoyed knowing as much as J. Lo.

I also loved how deep questions regarding cultural imperialism, language, identity, and what it means to be human were all tossed around in very playful, yet thoughtful ways.

So--you've got great characters, a wild, gyrating, plot, and a style so funny and sarcastic and self-aware that the real life author Adam Rex, must have invented some sorta scientific contraption to actually channel the voice of a sassy, thirteen-year-old girl. (The book is Gratuity's entry, as a thirteen-year-old, into an essay contest titled The True Meaning of Smekday.)

I am amazed this book hasn't shown up on more of the blogs I follow. I wonder why. Oh, I almost forgot to mention, there are illustrations---many polaroid camera shots of the characters and also a few comic book inserts that reminded me a bit of Dragon Ball Z. There was some PG-13 language. But not much.

Much thanks to the nameless booklover at Books of Wonder for this incredible find. And if you decide to "push" this book in your classroom, or if you just want some more info on the Boov invasion, here is a great place to start.

By the way, that's what I wanna be called: A Kid Lit Pusher. Watch out for me, all you not-yet-addicted children, once you get hooked, there's no turning back.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Books of Wonder

Last fall, somebody in Kid-Lit-Land blogged about Books of Wonder, an independent children's bookstore in NYC. My dear brother helped me find this amazing little store when I was in New York last November for the NCTE conference. I roamed around the shelves for a while and watched a guy reading a picture book to a group of six-year-olds who were having a birthday party.

I thought the store was pretty cool, but after about ten minutes I was ready to leave. As I was looking around for my brother, I happened to overhear one of the booksellers talking to a thirteen-year-old girl. The bookseller went on and on, recommending book after book and responding expertly to the girl's interests and responses. I was very impressed by the conversation and when they finished I asked the bookseller if she had any recommendations for two "teacherly" requests: easy chapter books with great fantasy stories, and good books for kids who read at a YA level, but appropriate for me to shelve in my elementary school classroom. We talked and chatted about many different books. I was thrilled to hear that she (like me) didn't like Twilight or its sequels that much. I told her some titles I love and she filled my arms with a huge stack of books, talking, in detail, about each fantastic title.

Forty-five minutes later I ended up buying over a hundred dollars worth of books and having a sack full of books for my second carry-on for the plane ride home. I'll write about some of them over the next week or two. For now, cheers to Books of Wonder, and a knowledgeable booklover who gave me the gift of many excellent recommendations.

It's most often the people (not the programs or even cool settings) that make places amazing and wonderful.