#IMWAR: The Unicorn Quest & Jabari Jumps

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


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Generally speaking, I tend to stay away from fantasy series, but I found myself thoroughly enjoying  Kamilla Benko’s The Unicorn Quest,   the first book in an exciting, brand new series.  

Claire and her family move into Great Aunt Diana’s treasure-stuffed mansion for the summer, hoping to box its contents up for an estate sale.  No one knows what happened to Great Aunt Diana, who spent her life traveling the world and collecting beautiful and rare things for her home, Windermere Castle.  Claire hopes that this time together will help restore her close relationship with her older sister, Sophie, who has just recovered from a serious illness.  But, their summer gets off to a terrifying start when Sophie convinces Claire to climb up the ladder hidden within a fireplace in one of the mansion’s most daunting rooms.  That ladder leads to another world – one that is both enchanting and terrifying.

Sophie and Claire barely escape from their first foray into this world, so when Sophie is missing Claire knows that she must travel there, too, and rescue her sister.  Claire discovers that Arden, the name of this magical land, is in the midst of great troubles: the Unicorn Harp has been stolen and her very own sister has been accused of the crime.  But, where is Sophie? And how can Claire, who knows nothing about the complicated customs. laws, and geography of Arden, find her?

I love the way Kamilla Benko is able to write the world of Arden into existence, so that bit by bit it becomes very real to the reader.  I know that my sixth graders will love the twists and turns in this story, as well as the engaging and well crafted characters.  They will be looking forward to the next book with just as much anticipation as their teacher!

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Gaia Cornwall’s Jabari Jumps is one of those  lovely picture books one can read at any age and fall completely in love with.  Jabari is not quite ready to jump off the diving board.  His father reassures him that it’s okay to feel a little scared when trying something new, and that sometimes trying something scary can feel like a surprise.  That convinces Jabari to try, because he loves surprises…and he learns that he loves diving, too! 

This sweet story is enchantingly illustrated,  and I can see reading it aloud in classrooms of all ages and extrapolating on the central idea: we learn all sorts of important things about ourselves when we are brave enough to try.

we learn all sorts of important things about ourselves when we are brave enough to try.




#celebratelu: Focusing on the culture of our classroom

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

A very long time ago, my business man turned professor father shared that the wisdom attributed to  Peter Drucker (“Culture eats strategy for breakfast”) had held true both in his business as well as in his classroom.  It took me some time to figure out how culture played out in my own sixth grade classroom, and how essential it was to cultivate and shape that culture from the very first moments my students walked into our room. These first two weeks have been all about this kind of slow, bit by bit, holding onto patience, work.

*We are learning what it means to have a “slow” start and end to our learning time together – that it’s quiet time to get ourselves organized and settled, perhaps read or write or check out the next book, and collect ourselves so that we can be our best learning selves.

*We are getting used to really listening to each other and being comfortable enough to ask questions and wonder aloud.

*We are figuring out what it means to be an active learner, to care about what is said and done in our classroom, and to ask why.

*We are trying to adjust to the notion that learning is about taking risks and making mistakes we can learn from.

*We are beginning to see that the aim of our year together really does reflect that quote on the door of our classroom: “…whatever we learn has a purpose and whatever we do affects everything and everyone else, if even in the tiniest way.” (The Phantom Tollbooth)

Slowly but surely, we are getting there…and I celebrate that.

Poetry Friday: Morning by Mary Oliver

Poetry Friday is hosted by Michelle Heidenrich Barnes at Today’s Little Ditty 

Rushing around  on a Friday morning, feeling that I had already fallen behind on the tasks of the day, I happened to catch a glance at our cat. Cat (that’s his name, since our family could never arrive at a friendly consensus on any other name) was stretched out by the back door, luxuriating in a patch of sunshine warmth.  Something about his serene stillness made me pause, take a deep breath, and take a few moments to enjoy the peaceful tableaux right in front of the rushing around me: a silky black cat, divinely contented with the breakfast he’d just had and pleased to lounge in the warmest place he could find.  Sometimes, it takes a cat to show us the way…

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Slice of Life Tuesday: My teaching philosophy – summed up in two Tweets

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers

I’m a week into the new school year, a time of excitement, trepidation, and exhaustion. It always takes a few weeks to regain teaching stamina, and I’m not even close to being there yet.

The new Smithlings are settling into life in our classroom: we know each other’s names, we share our stories, we chime into discussions about reading and writing and politics, and we laugh.  I love the laughter…it will see us through the year, it will be among what we  remember best.

I’m slowly learning about the children I have the privilege of teaching this year – it’s a watchful, close listening time for me, a time of observing small gestures and quick glances, for there is so much to be learned about my kids by simply being quiet and listening to them.

My slice of life today is really anchored by two Tweets.  I came across each of them at the end of my block teaching time, when my kids had left the classroom but echoes of our time together were still reverberating in our space.  At times like this, I sometimes feel a sense of panic: the work of a school year is so enormous, the responsibility of being part of what shapes a child’s progress as a learner and as a person is so great.  Am I up to this task? And what is it that I truly want to accomplish as an educator – beyond just “the skills”.

So, these Tweets spoke to that sense of panic:

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Yes, what my kids need to know from me is that I am here for ALL of them – I choose to teach ALL of them: no labeling, no sidelining, no ignoring.  Each child deserves to feel that she has a place in our learning community, each child deserves to know that I’ve got his back.

And this:

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I happened to see this Tweet after a particularly wrenching discussion about Charlottesville.  My students had many questions and opinions, but mostly they were scared and wanted some form of reassurance that the world is still a good place.  Listening to them, I was reminded of the words of Anne Frank: “It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”  Children want to know that good is good, and evil is evil, and that the grownups they trust will work to ensure that it stays that way.   To care about what I am saying and what they are getting from what I am saying…that’s part of my work, too.

I found these messages reassuring and empowering – they helped anchor my teaching thinking in these early days.  For that I am grateful.


It’s Monday and here’s what I’m reading: The PS Brothers, and Be A King

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

I had a varied reading week – two very different books:

Maribeth Boelts’ The PS Brothers is a hilarious read, and yet it is a story with tremendous heart.  Russell and his best friend Shawn are tired of being at the bottom of the pecking order at their middle school…but they have a plan.  Having a big, fierce looking dog, they think, one they could train to protect them, would guarantee safety and peace of mind…but they have no money.  Russell has been living with his Uncle Cory ever since his father was jailed for robbery, and Uncle Cory barely scrapes by.  Shawn’s father is disabled and his mother has a hard enough time juggling two jobs to keep a roof over their heads.  So, neither boy has two spare cents with which to purchase a puppy, step one in their game plan.  Not to be deterred, the boys come up with a Pooper Scooper business plan (hence the P.S. Bros.) which gets off to a great start until the boys make a discovery that puts their whole project into jeopardy.

There’s lots of fun to be had in reading  this book, but underlying all the hilarity are some thoughtful lessons about honesty and what really makes up a “real family”.  This would be a wonderful read aloud or book club book – lots to discuss!

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Be a King: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream and You  is an unusual and beautiful call to action for children who have grown up learning about his place in history and are searching for ways to live his words of compassion and justice.  Each stanza opens with the words, “You can be a King”, followed by a form of action to speak out and stand up for what is right.

James Ransome’s evocative paintings weave scenes from Dr. King’s life with those of a classroom preparing to honor his legacy making the past, present, and future come together in a moving and powerful way.  This would be a wonderful book for any classroom to share aloud and discuss; each of  Carole Boston Weatherford’s stanzas would also be meaningful writing prompts for students to ponder over and write about.





#celebratelu: A new year begins!

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

One of the many things I love about teaching is that every new school year is a new beginning: we get to take the lessons we’ve learned and try once again to be our best teaching selves. That’s a gift.

New beginning were on my mind on Tuesday, as I sat waiting in my classroom for a new batch of sixth graders who were, at that very moment, bounding up the stairs and racing down the sixth grade hallway.  I had a list of names…now I would have the chance to begin to know the actual factual kids!

They dribbled in slowly, cautiously.  “Is this room 202?”, “Are you Mrs. Smith?” and then, “Where should I sit?” and “What should I do with all my stuff?”.  In those first fifteen minutes or so, before the official first bell of the first day of the new school year, we took our first measures of each other.   They looked around at each other, at their new classroom, and their new teacher.  I walked around, greeting each of them, answering their questions.

Once the bell had rung, we began to get to know each other in the way I’ve come to believe we do so the best – through our work, and the interactions we need to foster to accomplish our work:

The marshmallow challenge


the room tour, and some book talks


and some chart talk about what we hope for the year, ourselves, the teacher


By day’s end, I could feel the beginnings of a settling in, a sense of “I think I’ve got this!” among my kiddos…a feeling of easing into the promise of a  new journey with a brand new community one has already begun to feel comfortable with.

I celebrate that!

#IMWAYR – It’s Monday and here’s what I’m reading: She Persisted & Our Story Begins

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

The last of my summer reading included two important new books for my classroom library:


I loved Chelsea Clinton’s anthology of women who had the courage to persist every bit as much as I’d hoped I would.  Although these women came from many different backgrounds and chose different career paths, they all encountered the same resistance from the powers that be that women have faced from the beginning of time: they were told that their womanhood was enough to preclude them from their dreams.  But, they persisted…and they succeeded.  The artwork is stunning, too, and I loved the way Alexandra Boiger concluded each woman’s story with a gorgeously illustrated quote to linger over.

I am always on the lookout for books about writing by authors my students adore, and so I was thrilled to discover this book:

our story beginsBeloved authors such as R.J. Palacio and Rita Williams-Garcia have dug into their old storage boxes for drawings and stories they created as children, and shared how these early  efforts grew into their life long passions, and their careers.  These thoughtful snippets of wisdom would be so meaningful to share with the young writers and artists in our classrooms, as they begin to explore the power of storytelling in all its forms.  Here, for example, is what the writer and illustrator Eric Rohman has to say:

I have always made pictures. I drew what was around me, what I liked, and what I cared about. Drawing was how I found my way in the world. That’s because drawing requires looking closely, so closely that you begin to see details you’d never see in a glance. You begin to see variations in color and shadow. You begin to see patterns and connections. But as I drew more and more, I discovered something else. Drawing isn’t just about seeing. It’s about feeling. A picture is not just a description, but a doorway into my thoughts and emotions.

I can imagine sharing this with my students and discussing the way writers and artists take notice of the world around them to find those doorways to important stories that need to be told.  Our Story Begins is a must have for every writing workshop.