It’s Monday and Here’s What I’m Reading: The Perfect Score, The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming, Jasper & The Riddle of Riley’s Mine

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It was a great reading week – of the four books in my reading pile, I managed to finish these three:


Set in the period directly after the Civil War, J. Anderson Coats’ The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming gives us a glimpse of  life from a unique perspective: the women  and children who had lost their menfolk in the war.

Jane Deming’s widowed father remarried a young woman before setting off with the Union Army.  When he dies during the Seige of Vicksburg, Jane is left in the care of her rather harsh and controlling stepmother, and with the care of her  baby brother, Jeremy.  Other women left in such a position were heading out to Washington Territory, where rumor has it that there were many prosperous single men who had made their fortunes and were in need of wives.  Mrs. D., as Jane refers to her, is convinced that this is her only option, and so they set sail hoping for their dreams to come true: a rich husband (Mrs. D’s) and the opportunity to go to school (Jane’s).

The real Washington Territory proves to be about as different from expectations as possible, and both Mrs. D. as well as Jane have to make adjustments and sacrifices along the way.  Jane makes for a wonderful narrator – describing the perils of the journey West, and the rough and tumble life of all those who ventured into its wilderness in the hopes of building a new life far away from the crowded East coast cities and factory towns.

The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming is rich in historical detail and fascinating characters, it’s a thoroughly engaging story.


I  read Caroline Starr Rose’s Jasper and the Riddle of Riley’s Mine in one sitting – I simply could not put down this rollicking adventure.  Eleven year old Jasper is having a hard time dealing with his mostly drunk and always broke father, who seems to have lost his way after his wife’s death.  Jasper is glad that he has Mel, his older brother, to keep him company in their common misery.  Someday, both boys plan to run away together, perhaps to prospect gold up in the Klondike gold fields where men are rumored to be making huge fortunes.

When Mel takes off without him, Jasper is determined not only to find his brother, but to prove that if Mel has dreams of gold, he cannot realize them without his intrepid younger brother.  Finding Mel proves to be easier than making the hazardous trek up steep mountains in the midst of blizzards in order to get to those fabled gold fields, but Jasper and Mel persist.

I simply loved Jasper, who proves to be the perfect narrator with his wry sense of humor and stubborn courage.  He part of a wonderful cast of characters, all of whom are beautifully crafted and great fun to get to know.  Like  The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming ,  this is a meticulously researched story, and one learns a lot about what it was like to be a part of the rush to find gold and strike it rich.  I know that my sixth graders will love this book, so my challenge will be to  have enough copies on hand to keep them happy! This would make for a hugely enjoyable class readaloud, too.


The Perfect Score  caught my attention because it was  about how students in one middle school plotted to outwit the state’s mandated test.  Now, there’s an idea!  But, of course, Rob Buyea does more with the story than just that, for The Perfect Score is also about the whole kaleidoscope of middle school life: adjusting to new teachers, dealing with the cafeteria, coping with bullies at school and at home, and learning what cooperative work is all about.

Buyea has become a master of storytelling through multiple perspectives,  which is a narrative style that my kids love.  I especially liked learning about Trevor, who is a mean bully at school because he is tormented at home by his awful older brother.  I think it’s helpful for our students to try to develop an empathetic understanding of all their classmates, even the bullies.  The Perfect Score would make a fabulous book club book, for it will spur conversations about so many important issues – middle school related and beyond.








#Celebratelu: Celebrating small moments

Celebrate with Ruth Ayres Writes …. because we need to celebrate moments in our lives every chance we get.

There were no momentous events this week in my living and teaching life, just a series of small moments that, strung together, seem to glimmer and glow never the less.


We spent Sunday night in the company of Neil Young, livestreaming from Omemee, Ontario’s Coronation Hall.  This was the music of my coming of age years, and the music we continued to play when we were raising our kids, so it is also the music of their coming of age.  My husband Scott and my son Ben sang along, (very wisely, I didn’t), and I sat back and rejoiced in the power of great music, family time, and the threads of memory that run between the past, present, and future.


In my classroom, we are reading aloud Alan Gratz’s brilliant book, Refugee.  Before beginning, we studied some infographs to learn a bit about refugees today using Kylene Beers’ and Bob Probst’s “3 Big Questions” (the anchors to so much of our thinking and talking work).  I walked around and listened in, feeling lucky to just be in the moment and recognizing the sounds of connecting and expanding thoughts; there is nothing better than being in the midst of kids pushing each other to think harder and ask big questions.


Our son has been home these past few months, very unwell and with no clear diagnosis as of yet.  Every day I am touched and strengthened by his spirit of courage in the face of physical discomfort and pain.  He never complains, and finds comfort where he can…as in this quiet moment with our dog Sophie.


On Friday, my kiddos made our grammar practice extra fun by imagining the above.  There was great hilarity in the room as they reenacted what this might have looked like and sounded like. There was laughter in the room, but love and a feeling of comfort, too.


Our first snowfall has begun, and we are caught between two seasons again: piles of leaves line the curbsides as the first flakes float down.  I try not to think of this will be like to move out of the way tomorrow, and just celebrate how lovely the leaves look in their soft new coats.

Thank you, Ruth, for giving us this place to collect and share our moments of celebration, big or small.

Poetry Friday: A Picture of the House at Beit Jala by Ghassan Zaqtan

Poetry Friday is hosted by hosted by Lisa at Steps and Staircases.

Today’s poem is in response to Trump’s action on Wednesday – recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.  So much for peace in the Middle East, so much for the Palestinians and their Palestine, so much for justice and the hope of freedom.


        A Picture of the House at Beit Jala by Ghassan Zaqtan

He has to return to shut that window,
it isn’t entirely clear
whether this is what he must do,
things are no longer clear
since he lost them,
and it seems a hole somewhere within him
has opened up

Filling in the cracks has exhausted him
mending the fences
wiping the glass
cleaning the edges
and watching the dust that seems, since he lost them,
to lure his memories into hoax and ruse.
From here his childhood appears as if it were a trick!
Inspecting the doors has fully exhausted him
the window latches
the condition of the plants
and wiping the dust
that has not ceased flowing
into the rooms, on the beds, sheets, pots
and on the picture frames on the walls

Since he lost them he stays with friends
who become fewer
sleeps in their beds
that become narrower
while the dust gnaws at his memories “there”
. . . he must return to shut that window
the upper story window which he often forgets
at the end of the stairway that leads to the roof

Since he lost them
he aimlessly walks
and the day’s small
purposes are also no longer clear.

translated from the Arabic by Fady Joudah


How to Read a Poem: Beginner’s Manual  by Pamela Spiro Wagner

Poetry Friday is posted by Mary Lee @ A Year of Reading 


The Friday before Thanksgiving, Laura Shovan shared a lovely poem called “Peanut Butter Cookies” (along with with delicious recipe, which you can treat yourself to here).  That poem lingered in my memory, and I carried around a printed copy of it for days.  I’ve just recently returned from visiting my parents, who are now in their nineties.  If you read the poem, it ends with a line that will strike a chord in all of us with aging parents, family, or friends – “the first taste of the last goodbye”.  For a poem that begins with “the salty aroma/of peanut butter cookies from the oven”, I found myself in an unexpectedly different place by the time I’d reached that last line.

For a week or so, I mulled over whether I should share this poem with my sixth graders. It was so well crafted, with just the sort of vivid sensory description and feeling that makes for deep reading and thinking.  But…that turn in the poem, which had so struck me, might be a bit much for them.  Even so, I went ahead with my gut instincts and assigned it for our Poetry Thursday poem.

Poetry Thursday was today, and the way my kids responded to the poem just blew me away.  My instinct had been right, this time.  Tonight, I sit with my stacks of poetry journals, read through their responses, and have to marvel at the way poetry moves through my students.  Each Thursday, they throw themselves into the poem of the week and have at it  –  savoring the words, delving for meaning, and wondering why they are touched by what they have read, as evidenced by what my Emily wrote, about that turn in the poem and the last line:

“I had seen my grandpa on Superbowl Sunday. He died on Friday.  The poem reminded me of this because it never said that the mom was sick. She out of the blue had a stroke. When I read this I started crying because I thought, “What if this happened to my mom?!”  This has since become my motto because, if you live life in fear, then you will never enjoy life. This poem is 100% my favorite.”

So, this Poetry Friday, I share a poem about poetry – and I thank my lucky stars that Poetry Thursday remains alive and well in Room 202.

How to Read a Poem: Beginner’s Manual  by Pamela Spiro Wagner

First, forget everything you have learned,
that poetry is difficult,
that it cannot be appreciated by the likes of you,
with your high school equivalency diploma
and steel-tipped boots,
or your white collar misunderstandings.

Do not assume meanings hidden from you:
the best poems mean what they say and say it.

To read poetry requires only courage
enough to leap from the edge
and trust.

Treat a poem like dirt,
humus rich and heavy from the garden.
Later on it will become the fat tomatoes
and golden squash piled high upon your kitchen table.

Poetry demands surrender,
language saying what is true
doing holy things to the ordinary.

Read just one poem a day.
Someday a book of poems may open in your hands
like a daffodil offering its cup
to the sun.

When you can name five poets
without including Bob Dylan,
when you exceed your quota
and don’t even notice,
close this manual.

Slice of Life Tuesday: Writing advice from author George O’Connor

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers


One of the very best things we can do for our young writers, is to invite in the voices of  gifted and passionate writers.  Many of our students (especially in middle school) are  quite vocal about how much they dislike writing, and it is always an eye-opening experience for them to meet writers who have given over their  lives to the very venture they wish to avoid: sitting at a desk, and writing, writing, writing.

Why? they ask.  Do you ever get mad and just hate it? they wonder.  Do you ever want to quit and just do something else? they persist.

I can see looks of skepticism, the old middle school talent of eye rolls to express disbelief., when it emerges that actually, no, the writer is doing exactly what he wants to do, even though there are moments of deep frustration.  But, and this happens every single time,  at the end of our time with the invited author, my students have come around to a place of belief in the idea that writing can be purposeful, enjoyable, and even life-sustaining.

Today, George O’Connor told our students that he first became interested in mythology, when he was in the third grade.  Obsessed with Hermes, Oconnor did his first ever book report on this Greek god, and delivered it to his class costumed as Hermes.  What struck me about this story was the way his teacher permitted him to write about a topic that was clearly his abiding interest – there was no injunction to rely only on whales or dead Presidents.  And O’Connor’s family was also accepting and nurturing of his passion to draw and tell stories, it was a family saying that, “Georgie is going to grow up and tell stories with pictures.”  With that kind of support, it’s no wonder that he did, or that he had the persistence to keep at it until his passion also became his life’s work.

O’Connor also made it a point to tell our students that they should not be so quick to erase their drawings: “I don’t erase, when you erase you eradicate your mistakes.  But, it is important to make mistakes and learn from them.  When I draw, I sketch quickly, then I go back to trace over just the lines I really like- the ones that really work.”   Listening to this, I thought of the application of this wisdom to the writing process, and how important it is to tell our students to cross out rather than erase – to value the first attempts because they gesture toward the final products, and reveal the path of our thinking.

O’Connor demonstrated his quick sketching, which is something of a marvel to behold.  I could see that my kids were impressed at the speed at which he worked, and the fact that the outcome (in under a minute) was pretty darn good.  When one student asked if O’Connor had ever thought of ditching writing because he was clearly so good at drawing, he said something that made my kids sit up a bit and pay attention: “Drawing is much easier for me, when I write something the work is much harder, but that’s what makes it more rewarding. ”  That hard work (which writing definitely is) can be rewarding  is a message my sixth graders need to hear time and time again…especially from an author they so admire.


It’s Monday and Here’s What I’m Reading: The People Shall Continue, and Family Poems For Every Day of the Week


#IMWAYR is hosted by  Jen at Teach MentorTexts & Kellee and Ricki at UnleashingReaders 

The People Shall Continue Cover

Simon Ortiz’s seminal children’s book , The People Shall Continue was first published forty years ago.  My tattered classroom copy can now be retired, as the publisher has just released a special anniversary issue. The People Shall Continue tells the history of Native and Indigenous people in North America, from their beginnings to the challenges they  have faced ever since the first European settlers arrived.

Ortiz tells this story in the way of the best oral narratives, and it is a moving experience to read it aloud with its sober cadences, repetitive phrases, and  powerful evocations of  bitter scenes, first of hope then of betrayal.  Sharol Graves’ illustrations to great justice to Ortiz’s writing, for they fit each segment of this story perfectly. I especially loved these pages, which tells the creation story of the people, and of the knowledge passed from one generation of the People to those who survive in the next:ENG_spread_1.jpg

In his author’s note, Ortiz writes movingly about the struggle of Indigenous People to maintain and honor their traditions: “Without any doubt, the endeavor to continue to live as Indigenous Americans is sincere and serious.  It is a way of living that engenders love, care, responsibility, and obligation.  It must be exercised and expressed as belief, commitment, and assertion of one’s humanity in relationship to others and all life beings in Creation, in order that the people shall always continue.”

We read this book just before the Thanksgiving break in my sixth grade classroom, which led to thoughtful discussions about the meaning of this “American holiday”.  It’s a book that belongs in classrooms, for it tells a story that must not be forgotten

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Family Poems for Every Day of the Week is a joyous whirl through the seven days we march though, endure, and enjoy.  I loved the way Alarcon wove his Latino traditions and family stories into each poem day.  The illustrations by Maya Christina Gonzalez were full of vibrant colors and feast for the eyes, as well.

Here’s what my reading week looks like:











Poetry Friday: The Cats by Ann Iverson

Poetry Friday is being hosted by Carol at Carol’s Corner


All day yesterday, as we were racing around the kitchen and dining room preparing for the Smith family Thanksgiving feast, Cat (so named because he embodies catness in all its glory) had his own agenda, as he invariably does.  He moved around rooms in search of the warmest sun spot, he busied himself with the tassels of sweaters and shawls draped here and there, he disappeared into travel bags in search of the mysteries of the outside world, and he sat on windowsills casting a look of bemused condescension at all the humans in his life busy with things such as setting the table or heaping attention upon a lifeless bird.

This morning, as we try to rouse ourselves from a feasting stupor, Cat is racing  around the house in single minded pursuit of something known only to him.  Oblivious to sleeping bodies or closed doors, I hear him bound up and down and all around.

I sip my tea and wait for the moment when he will saunter back into the dining room, looking calm and collected and pleased with himself.  Without so much as a glance my way to acknowledge the mayhem of the past half hour, Cat will find the warmest pool of golden sunshine, and curl himself into contented dreams.   Cats seem to know the secrets of living life exactly the way one wants to…how not to admire that?

The Cats by Ann Iverson

To find such glory in a dehydrated pea
on the tile between the stove and fridge.

To toss the needs of others aside
when you simply aren’t in the mood for affection.

To find yourselves so irresistible.

And always in a small spot of sun,
you sprawl and spread out the pleasure of yourselves

never fretting, never wanting to go back
to erase your few decisions.

To find yourself so remarkable
all the day long.