Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday: September 17th., 2014



   Alyson Beecher hosts this non fiction picture book round-up @  KidLit Frenzy.

all diff now

All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom is Angela Johnson’s beautiful story of Juneteenth – the day the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation finally came to slaves of Galveston, Texas – June 19th., 1865. Told through the experience of one little girl who woke a slave and went to bed knowing that both she and her people were now, truly,  “forever free”.  E.B. Lewis’ beautiful illustrations make this book a real treasure to read and share.

white house is burning

I teach the War of 1812 in my Social Studies curriculum – and this event always captures the attention of my sixth graders.  Jane Sutcliffe has written an arresting narrative of that day in The White House Is Burning: August 24, 1814, drawn from the first person accounts of those who were there – First Lady Dolley Madison, a British officer, and a nine-year-old slave. Paintings, political cartoons, and maps give this book lots of visual interest, as well, making this a wonderful text with which to teach history as well as the use of primary source documents.

Slice of Life Tuesday: The 9/11 assigned letter


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Last Sunday evening, I spent some time talking over the phone with my lovely niece Chloe. Our conversation shifted to the homework assignment she was working on.  I know no other 7th. grader who has as much homework as Chloe  – here’s what she had for just one night in language arts, day 2 of the school year:

  • Write 20 compound sentences beginning with “I am”
  • Compose a 20 line poem on any topic
  • Write 20 compound sentences using each of 20 spelling words
  • Complete 3 pages of vocab exercises (sentence completion, synonyms, antonyms etc) using a completely different set of 20 words to the 20 spelling words

On Sunday night, though, Chloe was grappling with a new assignment: write a four paragraph letter to the NYPD and the NYFD to thank them for their work on September 11th.  This seems to be an assignment  that crops up at this time of year in classroom after classroom.  Children who were not even born then, or who were just babies on that dreadful day, are asked to write letters and essays about the significance of those events.

Chloe had some meaningful things to say, but she definitely struggled – the assignment had to be four paragraphs long.  How many different ways to say “thank you”, “I admire your dedication”, “I will never forget”?  I saw immediately, of course (as a writing teacher), that the main issue here was that Chloe was struggling to write about something she knew very little about. She’s in 7th. grade, she lives in California, and what she knows about 9/11 all these years later is filtered through images and stories she hears most often just around that date. No unit of study was planned around the event, no thoughtful discussions had been had in class, there was just this assignment to be completed. Perhaps, collectively, these letters would make a nice bulletin board for her class’ back-to-school night?  Why do teachers assign these letters?

We brainstormed a bit, and then Chloe was off and running.  She wrote her letter.  But I still wish she had had a different writing assignment…or had been given the freedom just to read.

It’s Monday and Here’s What I’m Reading #IMWAYR: September 15th., 2014

Mon Reading Button PB to YA

It’s Monday, What are You Reading is a meme hosted by Jen from Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee and Ricki from Unleashing Readers and Sheila at BookJourney

Paul Acampora’s I Kill The Mockingbird is great fun to read. Here’s the cover copy:

When Lucy, Elena, and Michael receive their summer reading list, they are excited to see To Kill A Mockingbird included. But not everyone in their class shares the same enthusiasm. So they hatch a plot to get the entire town talking about the well-known Harper Lee classic. They plan controversial ways to get people to read the book, including re-shelving copies of the book in bookstores so that people think they are missing and starting a website committed to “destroying the mockingbird.” Their efforts are successful when all of the hullabaloo starts to direct more people to the book. But soon, their exploits start to spin out of control and they unwittingly start a mini revolution in the name of books.

This was a fast paced story, with many clever twists and turns.  The three main characters were literate and sophisticated, but managed to come across as funny and likable – very believable high schoolers with a bent for intrigue and a true love of books.  Once the “plan” gets going, I found myself completely caught up in the story, wishing for its success, but also worrying about its unintended consequences.  An 8th. grader borrowed my copy on the very first day of school, returning it two days later with a big thumbs up, but I’m finding that my sixth graders have difficulty becoming engaged with the story – so perhaps this is a book for the upper grades.

I discovered Peg Kehret this summer, first through her wonderful memoir:

in which she details the terrifying experience of contracting polio as a child, and her experiences with treatment and recovery.  This will be one of our mentor texts for our writing unit on memoir, and I can’t wait to share it with my students.

Kehret has also written a number of middle grade books, fast paced adventures in many interesting locales. Escaping the Giant Wave is set on the Oregon coast, here’s the jacket copy:

Thirteen-year old Kyle thought spending a vacation on the Oregon coast with his family would be great. He’d never flown before, and he’d never seen the Pacific Ocean.
Kyle’s perfect vacation becomes a nightmare while he’s babysitting his sister, BeeBee. An earthquake hits the coast and starts afire in their hotel. While fighting their way through smoke and flame, Kyle remembers seeing a sign at the beach that said after an earthquake everyone should go uphill and inland, as far from the ocean as possible. Tsunamis, giant waves that often follow earthquakes, can ride in from the sea and engulf anyone who doesn’t escape fast enough.
Can Kyle and BeeBee outwit and outrun nature’s fury to save themselves from tsunami terror?

I loved the way this story moved along quickly, establishing a sense of place and characters deftly so that once I began reading I could not put the book down!  And I can say the same for I’m not Who You Think I Am:

here’s the jacket copy:

Who is the strange woman in the white car watching Ginger? She appears at Ginger’s birthday party, at her school, and in front of her house, but Ginger has never met her before. When she confronts Ginger, she reveals a secret that will change Ginger’s life. And when the woman’s confrontations become threatening, Ginger is forced into a crisis of loyalty and honor—a crisis from which her family might never recover.

Suffice to say, that this was another gripping story that I read in one sitting, too! Both of these books are relatively short, and are perfect for those reluctant readers who need to be drawn into the marvelous world of good books and reading with a tantalizing story they will immediately fall into.  Both of these books have been in constant circulation in my classroom since they were book talked on the first day of school - that is success!

Thinking, reading, and responding…but, no arts and crafts.


Great books deserve thoughtful readers.

Last Sunday, Donalyn Miller wrote a thought-provoking post about our students’ reading lives, and what we (their reading teachers) could do/should do/should not do to ensure that our kids build rich reading lives.  I liked the post so much that I reblogged it, just to make sure that it was on hand to read and ask myself this question posed by Donalyn:

What are children really learning from us about reading?

I gather that this post earned Donalyn both “amens!” as well as some pretty harsh criticism – the latter so out of line that Donalyn was forced to screen comments before posting them.  Reading some of these, I was taken aback – why this level of incivility? Clearly, the post had touched a raw nerve.  Thinking it over, I realized that my own immediate response to the post was twofold:

  • on the one hand, I remembered the arts and crafts projects that my own children had been assigned during their school years, and the many trips to the store to purchase glitter, posterboard, etc. so that these “reading assignments” could be completed (and transportation for them could be arranged on rainy can’t- walk- to- school- days). My low point as a parent came during my youngest’s senior year, when she spent  more time making projects about her assigned reading than she did on her reading itself. Absurd.
  • on the other hand, I have also assigned projects about reading.  My sixth graders do love to “get creative”, and we have strayed into artsy responses to reading.  So, I read Donalyn’s post with no small measure of guilt … and resolved to do better.

I think that part of the issue here, for teachers in particular, is that we create these projects as a way to assess whether our students have indeed read the assigned book or their independent reading.  The assignment, therefore, is proof of their reading; it is something we can use a rubric to evaluate and then assign a grade for.  What these lovely, glitter-edged and visually beautiful projects rarely show, however, is their thinking about reading: how our students came to understand the text, how they navigated through the author’s craft in order to form their own conceptions of the characters, their actions, and the larger themes being explored.  That, really, is  the focus of the work we do in reading workshop.  But, what does this work look like and sound like? How can it be assessed? How can we create authentic reading assignments which capture this thinking work?

This past summer, two of my constant companions in my own attempt to find some answers to these questions have been these books:

readers front and center what readers do

Vicki Vinton and Dorothy Barnhouse have done amazing work in researching how we read, how we grapple with different types of texts, and how we can help our kids with “the process of meaning making.”  If we want to foster and encourage a love of reading in our classrooms, if we want our kids to become engrossed in the books they read and leave each filled with the wonder of some new discovery about themselves or the world they live in, this type of meaning-making work is essential.  Better yet, this type of work rarely involves investment in poster boards, cereal boxes, or glitter.

This type of work took on a greater sense of urgency in this new school year after I  read through my students’ reading surveys.  The bulk of my students, it seemed, lacked a strong sense of reading identity – they read because they were assigned reading, or because they were participating in a let’s- see- how- much- we- can- read this year book contest.  Very few wrote about loving to read, and many wrote that they regularly abandoned books because “they were really confusing.”  Reading conferences have revealed that although my kids can name strategies like “inferring” and “predicting”, they tend to (as Vinton and Barnhouse write about in What Readers Really Do) view these strategies “as ends in and of themselves…in identification or isolated strategy practice” (p.44).   

So, our first read aloud of the year has taken on even deeper significance – we are reading Lisa Graff’s Absolutely Almost not just as a community building experience, but also “to introduce the foundational thinking work of reading” (p. 69), and my task is one of “designing instruction that specifically builds a bridge between what is visible in texts and what is invisible” (p.69).

The work that Barnhouse and Vinton walk us through is thoughtful and complex, and I am only beginning to understand how to put it all into practice in my classes and avoid falling into the trap that Dorothy writes about in Readers Front and Center:

The bigger problem is one of instruction. I fell into the trap of thinking that teaching consists of teaching the text.  It’s a common trap and related to the idea of teaching as correcting.  How do we know the student is “getting it” if we haven’t read the book?  This assumes, of course, that there is an “it” to get and an “it” to teach.  This assumes that our job is to teach the “it” rather than the process of thinking that goes into constructing an understanding of an “it”. (p.22)

We’re following two thinking tracks in Room 202.  In one, we read and think about what we know from the text and what that makes us wonder about the story, or the characters (This is based on what I’ve learned from What Readers Really Do):

photo (13)

This is from my reading journal – I’m keeping one this year to document our thinking as a class – and these are our class notes.

And, we are also keeping track of how we are “noticing and naming” – the work Dorothy Barnhouse describes and expands upon in Readers Front and Center:

Noticing and naming how texts work – and doing so alongside students – builds their understanding that texts are problems to be solved and allows them to see how practicing something – in this case reading – helps them build an understanding of how that thing works – in this case books.

What can we take from our work with Absolutely Almost and use to deepen our experiences with the next book we read? How can our rich conversations about Absolutely Almost lead to equally meaningful conversations and responses all year long?  Dorothy Barnhouse makes this type of thinking visible through Book/Brain charts, which she explains this way:

“…the Book/Brain chart is a tool…meant to concretize the notice and name work you’ve done … teaching side by side with students…(it is) a tool that helps you and your students be aware of some of the invisible work of reading.” (p.66-67)

We’ve just begun this work with Absolutely Almost :

photo (14)


My hope is that these notes will help us learn more about what readers really do (to borrow that wonderful title!), which will help us respond in a much more meaningful way than through a diorama or a mandala (my daughter made two of these in her senior year) or a mobile.  I haven’t yet figured out how to:

  • assess this thinking work with a grade
  • clarify it with a SWBAT in my plan book
  • create some sort of culminating activity

but, I have a feeling that it will be a worthwhile beginning to our year of reading together.


Slice of Life Tuesday: Coming into focus


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Five days into the new school year, my kids are just beginning to come into focus.  Those new faces are morphing into the children I will come to know and love (and sometimes be driven to distraction by, no doubt), the children I will spend days teaching and learning with.

Five days into the new school year, I feel myself settling into the rhythm of the school day.  Those mellow summer days, days of choose-your-own-adventure, have given way to the clock-conscious school day.  Every minute has some scheduled purpose, every hour has a long list of must-do’s.

Five days into the school year, I settle into air traffic control mode – monitoring those incoming signals (children talking/sharing/questioning/needing help) and outgoing signals (children drifting off/getting anxious). By dismissal time, I, too, struggle with system overload.  That on-the-way-home stop at Starbucks for a double-shot latte becomes, once again, a habit.

Five days into the school year, my students’ voices become the soundtrack to my thoughts.  I hear M. chatting about his struggle with reading, and G.’s ideas about where he’s stuck in his writing.  I find myself parsing through what I’ve overheard and how that will shape my teaching.

Five days into the school year, I feel my sixth graders relaxing.  They walk into our room without trepidation, smile and greet each other, sink into the comfy reading chairs and muse about what the day will be like, what soccer practice was like, what they hope to have for lunch.

Five days into the school year, I feel my teaching life come back into focus.  I am glad to be back here!