It’s Monday and here’s what I’m reading: Caleb and Kit, Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus


My students have been immersed in the world of nonfiction these last many weeks, but I’ve had a chance to branch out into some great fiction for when they surface from this particular unit.

Aven Green is a character who just made me want to smile.  She’s plucky, funny, good-natured and kind.  One would think that the disability she was born with (being armless) would have made her a shy and fearful sort of kid, but Aven’s parents made sure that would not be the case:

I think I can do all these things because my parents have always encouraged me to figure things out on my own-well, more like made me figure things out on my own.   I suppose if they had always done everything for me, I would be helpless without them.  But they didn’t and I’m not.  And now that I’m thirteen years old, I don’t need much help with anything.  True story.

But, when Aven’s parents up and move from Kansas (where she’s always lived and where she knows every single kid in her entire school), to a rundown western theme park in Arizona (which she knows not a soul), even she experiences challenges for which she needs all the help she can get.  Meeting Connor and Zion, one who has Tourette’s and the other who is shy and struggling with being overweight, is the first step Aven takes in making a new life in her new town.  The three friends stumble upon a mystery at the ranch, and Aven has a sneaking suspicion that solving it will also answer some important questions about her own life.

This was a charming book, and I already have a long list of students who want to read our classroom copy.  I love that the disabilities of these young characters are written about with honesty and humor, and I love that Aven is the strong and capable young lady that she is.  She’s funny, too, with a wise dry wit that is so endearing.

                             CALEB AND KIT by Beth Vrabel

Twelve-year-old Caleb has dealt with his cystic fibrosis as best as he can – he has good days and bad days, days when he can do as he pleases and days when he can only watch his perfect older brother Patrick do everything and do it well.  In fact, Caleb’s own father had had such a hard time dealing with all of Caleb’s medical issues that he wound up leaving their home for good.  Caleb’s life changes when he meets the mysterious Kit in the woods behind his house.  Kit loves adventure, believes in magic, and seems absolutely fearless.  Caleb is soon swept up in her adventures, some poorly thought out and dangerous.  But, he soon begins to wonder about his new friend: where is her mother and why does she so often look bedraggled and bruised? is she living so deeply in her world of magic that she is putting herself (and Caleb) in terrible danger?

This is a poignantly written story that sweeps the reader along.  I don’t often find that the issues written about in this story find their way into middle grade fiction, and I welcome the chance to share this book with my sixth graders.









Poetry Friday:“Crossing Jordan” by Langston Hughes

Poetry Friday is hosted by  Jan at Bookseedstudio

Every new day reveals what many of us, the majority of us, knew all along. The man elected to the highest office in our land is a racist.  Thursday’s news about his views regarding the people of Haiti and Africa, as far as I am concerned, was just more proof…if more proof were indeed necessary.

As a citizen of this great country, I am embarrassed and ashamed.  As an educator, I am simply sad.  I teach American history, I cover the founding of America from the early days of revolutionary talk to the seeds of Civil War.  Every day, we examine these founding ideals: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” And every day we discuss the events in our history, from its earliest days through national crisis after national crisis, and the way in which we have had to struggle to find “the better angels of our nature”.

It is so very sad for my students, who have grown up with President Obama in the Oval Office, to be living through a time in which racism, sexism, and every other type of vile -ism, lives openly in the White House.

On the eve of celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and work, on the eve of Black History month, I have to return to the voice of Langston Hughes.  Thanks to the vile man in the Oval Office, these are lonely days for many, folks…


“Crossing Jordan” by Langston Hughes

It was that lonely day, folks,
When I walked by myself.
My friends was all around me
But it was just as if they’d left
I went up on a mountain
In a high cold wind
And the coat that I was wearing
Was mosquito-net thin.
Then I went down in the valley
And I crossed an icy stream
And the water I was crossing,
Was no water in a dream,
And the shoes that I was wearing
No protection for that stream.
Then I stood out on a prairie
And as far as I could see
Wasn’t nobody on that prairie
That looked like me—
Cause it was that lonely day, folks,
When I walked all by myself
And my friends was right there with me
But was just as if they’d left.
Crossing Jordan! Crossing Jordan!
Alone and by myself.

– Langston Hughes, 1941

#Celebratelu: #justanotherordinarymiracle

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


I’ve been thinking about my OLW from last year and trying to remember what it was. Not a good sign.  So, in trying to make a wiser choice for this year’s OLW, I have been trepidatious… and also (I’ll be honest) indecisive.  I love reading about what other people have chosen, especially how they made their journies to their OLWs, but, that only seemed to make me even more indecisive.  Then, Franki Sibberson tweeted that she was opting for a #hashtag rather than an OLW (I wish I could remember where I saw this Tweet, for I would love to share…but I can’t seem to!), and I knew immediately that that was the direction for me.

But… what hashtag??? I was back at square one again.

I went for long walks, read many blog posts, but inspiration only struck while I was scrolling through Tammy White’s fabulous Instagram pictures.  Tammy runs an idyllic farm in Vermont which I aspire to emulate some day, she can be found here:

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 2.01.26 PM

She had shared a moving post about having to say goodbye to their beloved family dog, Jackie.  As is her way, Tammy found the gift of grace even in this grief – quoting from a Sarah McLachlan song she found “especially and perfectly meaningful”, she asked her readers to keep these words in mind in the new year ahead:

‘When you wake up everyday
Please don’t throw your dreams away
Hold them close to your heart
Cause we are all a part of the ordinary miracle.’

Since this song was unfamiliar to me, I went first in search of the song:

and then its lovely lyrics:

Ordinary Miracle
It’s not that unusual
When everything is beautiful
It’s just another ordinary miracle today
The sky knows when it’s time to snow
Don’t need to teach a seed to grow
It’s just another ordinary miracle today
Life is like a gift they say
Wrapped up for you every day
Open up and find a way
To give some of your own love
Isn’t it remarkable?
Like every time a raindrop falls
It’s just another ordinary miracle today
Birds in winter have their fling
They always make it home in spring
It’s just another ordinary miracle today
When you wake up everyday
Please don’t throw your dreams away
Hold them close to your heart
Cause we are all a part of the ordinary miracle
Ordinary miracle
Do you want to see a miracle?
It seems so exceptional
The things just work out after all
It’s just another ordinary miracle today
The sun comes up and shines so bright
And disappears again at night
It’s just another ordinary miracle today
It’s just another ordinary miracle today
(Songwriters: Glen Ballard / David Stewart / David Allan)
There they were, the words I knew were mine for the year: #justanotherordinarymiracle.  Not an OLW, exactly, more a #littlewords, but the right ones for me at this particular time in my life.  For, inspite of whatever does not go right on any given day, there are so many more ordinary miracle to take note of and find joy and comfort in:
*the way a student hands back a book to say it’s the best thing she’s ever read, and can she still keep it to read again?
*the excitement of another when the connecting threads of a history dicsussion come together for an ah-ha moment
*the way my dog greets me at the end of every work day, as though she’s missed me so much that it felt like forever
*the spiderweb I see glistening between two tall blades of grass
*that cup of tea my son made for me just because…

It’s Monday and Here’s What I’m Reading: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng


My resolution for the new year is to read fiction that is neither middle grade nor YA; luckily, I got a head start on that goal over Winter Break with this new, and much-heralded book:

I loved Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, also a wise and lyrically written story about families, parenting, and the ways in which society intrudes and often perverts.  Ng is a fearless writer and an honest one – Everything I Never Told You  was, at times, excruciatingly difficult to read for it made me think about my own efforts at parenting and how they went awry at times, as parenting is wont to do. 

Little Fires Everywhere is an equally brilliant book, although the scope widens to include class, race, and the politics of gender and poverty.  Here the book jacket synopsis:

In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colors of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.

Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother – who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenaged daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past and a disregard for the status quo that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.

When old family friends of the Richardsons attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town–and puts Mia and Elena on opposing sides.  Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Elena is determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs.

Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of secrets, the nature of art and identity, and the ferocious pull of motherhood – and the danger of believing that following the rules can avert disaster.

Shaker Heights is the mirror image of the town I’ve lived in for many years, and I therefore understood Elena Richardson and her children all too well.  Our town, too, is said to embody all that a perfect town should, and many of its residents (like those of Shaker Heights) have returned to raise their own families in its perfection.  Elena’s children reminded me of so many young people I’ve come to know over the years, who grew up within the entitled confines of perfection, often at a great distance from truth, introspection, and a sense of genuine empathy.  They live in bubbles of prosperity and a self-congratulatory contentment, and seek to find similar bubbles however far they may wander from home.

I love the way Ng is able to build each character little by little, and weave the sometimes interconnecting narratives expertly through surprises and tragedies.  Each narrative stands on its own quite beautifully, but running through and around each other as they do makes for a captivating reading experience.  I am looking forward to reading it all over again for a Voxer book group, I imagine we will have some lively conversations!


#Celebratelu: Celebrating the Zacks in my classroom

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

A couple of weeks ago, I read Eric Bell’s fabulous middle grade novel, Alan Cole Is Not a Coward, and I have been thinking about the main character’s best friend, Zack, ever since.  Zack is twelve, and as equally incapable of sitting still as he is of keeping his every thought to himself.  Zack makes and lives by his own happy rules, he notices everything – especially the stuff his friends and teachers seem always to miss, which often turn out to be (as we discover towards the middle of the book) the important things.  Here’s an excerpt that sums up the Zack’s inimitable “Zackness”:

“It’s funny.” Zack holds his plastic fork to the light like he’s waiting for it to sprout wings and dance the cha-cha. “You know how some things have names that fit them, right? Like, an orange is called an orange because it’s orange. Why is it called a fork?”

I swallow a big bite of the chicken sandwich I got from the cafeteria line. “Maybe the color came second.”

“The color fork?” Zack asks.

“The color orange. Maybe the color orange is called orange because it’s named after the fruit.”

Zack slowly lowers his fork. “Wow,” he whispers.

That should keep him quiet for a few minutes……

“If you want my honest opinion,” Madison Wilson Truman pipes up next to me, interrupting my thoughts again, “a fork is called a fork because it’s forked between the points. Haven’t you ever heard of forks in the road? Those are different paths branching off from the same point. That’s where the term comes from.”

Zack looks down at the plastic fork. “I never knew that. I’ve been using forks my whole life! I’ll never eat the same way agai—” He snaps his head to the left and swivels his neck as he looks up at the ceiling; his spiky hair, jutting out at all angles like an electrocuted porcupine, sways back and forth. “I thought I saw a dragon.”

I read this, and other such Zack moments, over and over again…always with a smile and a chuckle.   And, each time, I remembered the Zacks who have made their way through my teaching life year after year: the girls and boys who march to the tune of their own special kind of music.  These are the kiddos whose restlessness and tendency to blurt out their every thought is enough to drive even the most patient teacher to distraction, and yet…and yet…I know that my Zacks have taught me more about being a good teacher than all the un-Zacks in my teaching life.  They’ve taught me to:

~be patient and to be cautious about being over reactive; sometimes it’s wiser to pretend not to hear and see and just carry on.  Zacks tend to get so much negative reinforcement as it is, that it’s important to carve out some safe space – even if it’s the last thing one is inclined to do in a busy teaching day.

~find ways to capture the important ideas in their flights of thought, they need someone to help them pause and reflect, because they don’t know (yet) quite how to.

~honor so many different ways of arriving at solutions, conclusions, extensions, even ones that are delivered at the speed of light and at inopportune moments.  Zacks have a way of being not-heard and feeling not-heard.

~open my heart to that one kid in my room who seems least likely to get a chance anywhere else, even though it means risking that daily migraine…Zacks are worth it.

~believe, really believe, that I can learn from my Zacks, that in seeking to reach them I become a better teacher, a better person.

Today, as I was prepping for school on Tuesday, I re-read a poetry response from one of my current Zacks which began with a line from the poem we’d read and concluded with some theories about space travel and black holes.  I tried, and failed, to see the connections between the ideas…but something about this question will stay with me for a long, long time: wouldn’t it be cool to spin through the stars like a silver Ferrari, Mrs. Smith? 

What can I do but celebrate the Zacks in my teaching life?  They make each of my teaching days something their very own.

Poetry Friday:Christmas, 1970  by Sandra M. Castillo

Poetry Friday is hosted by Buffy Silverman at Buffy’s Blog

silver christmas tree

We’ve been reading Alan Gratz’s brilliant book, Refugee in our class these past few weeks.  As we go into the Christmas season, with Hanukkah just past and the New Year around the corner, our classroom conversation turned to the refugees of today – so many of them, and in such seemingly hopeless times.  I guess it is in that somber spirit that I share this poem today:

Christmas, 1970  by Sandra M. Castillo

We assemble the silver tree,
our translated lives,
its luminous branches,
numbered to fit into its body.
place its metallic roots
to decorate our first Christmas.
Mother finds herself
opening, closing the Red Cross box
she will carry into 1976
like an unwanted door prize,
a timepiece, a stubborn fact,
an emblem of exile measuring our days,
marked by the moment of our departure,
our lives no longer arranged.
there is a photograph,
a Polaroid Mother cannot remember was ever taken:
I am sitting under Tia Tere’s Christmas tree,
her first apartment in this, our new world:
my sisters by my side,
I wear a white dress, black boots,
an eight-year-old’s resignation;
Mae and Mitzy, age four,
wear red and white snowflake sweaters and identical smiles,
on this, our first Christmas,
away from ourselves.
The future unreal, unmade,
Mother will cry into the new year
with Lidia and Emerito,
our elderly downstairs neighbors,
who realize what we are too young to understand:
Even a map cannot show you
the way back to a place
that no longer exists.
Sandra M. Castillo, “Christmas, 1970” from My Father Sings, to My Embarrassment. Copyright © 2002 by Sandra M. Castillo. Reprinted by permission of White Pine Press.

Slice of Life Tuesday: Slicing about empathy

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers

image of 4 elements of empathy by Theresa Wiseman

Last week, as my kids were beginning to get caught up in the “I want-ness” of the holidays (an I-phone! my own laptop! tickets to Hamilton!), I asked my kids to step back a bit and think  about something else:

Slice of Life #11:

This week, we will think about something that we need to make more of: a tradition of empathy, beginning with right here at our middle school. Please watch the two videos, and then post about the following: what does empathy mean to you? what can you do to practice empathy here at the middle school? how can teachers be empathetic to students at our school (do NOT discuss homework in this context, think beyond the question of just homework, please )?

The videos (here & here) were created by and for middle school students, and I had a feeling that the scenes and stories portrayed would resonate with my sixth graders.  I was interested, too, in what they thought of us, the grown ups “in charge” of their school days.  We teachers are very adept at talking the talk about so much (not interrupting,  wearing school appropriate clothes, being kind) but not walking the walk.  Kids, as we know, notice everything…but they especially notice that.  So, as much as I was looking forward to hearing their thoughts about empathy, I really wanted to know their thoughts about us.  Needless to say, I was not disappointed:

They were able to articulate their ideas about empathetic behavior:

Romy: Empathy can change the world, but we have to make it happen. To me, empathy means a path to a better world in which people don’t have to feel invisible, hurt, or scared of everyone around them. Empathy is showing compassion and consideration for the people around you. People can be empathetic by showing kindness and respect each other, understanding that people are different and we should not judge others unless we are in their shoes. You have to care about others but to do so for your own self and not to get noticed.

Empathy is a choice we make and it comes from within. Empathy can always be improved, but we have to “practice” it. We can do this in our middle school by caring and being kind. For example, if someone is sitting alone during lunch or outside, we can invite them to join us. Also, if you seeing someone being made fun of, you can stand up for them and let them know that they are not alone and that you care.

Finally, our teachers can be more empathetic towards the students at our school. Teachers can do this by understanding that not all students learn the same and some students need more time to learn. Teachers can also be more patient when listening to students because sometimes students go through rough times and need to be able to talk to someone. This can make it hard to concentrate and teacher should be more considerate and patient because of that.

Isabella: To me, empathy means showing love, and showing care. It means that the simplest act of kindness like giving  a smile or saying “hi” can change a persons day, change there week, or change their life. They could walk through the door and see their parents fighting in one room, and siblings fighting in the next. At the end of the day no matter how terrible they feel they will remember that someone noticed them.

I think teachers here at the middle school could be more empathetic starting with student-teacher relationships. It should be our job to let our teachers know what we’re going through at home and how we feel. They’re not going to know if someone’s parents are getting divorced or someone passed away. I think if our teachers knew how we felt then we would all be understood a little bit better.

I believe that there is empathy in all of us deep down inside, and I think that we just need to step up, and show it.

They offered me perceptive advice:

Emilia: Teachers can also take part in helping. They should always be open to talking to the student who is feeling lonely or left out. They can also talk about more to convince students to have empathy. Another thing they can do is be more aware. Teachers can do that by keeping a better eye out at lunch. If they did that then they could catch students that are feeling alone or being made fun of.

Natalie: I think teachers can feel empathy for their students when a student is looking tired. Usually, teacher will say this “Please get to work,” what they should really do is walk up to the student and make sure everything is ok. If teachers really want their students to be honest with them they have to try to open up to the student.

 Ben: I think teachers at our school should be more empathetic to their students. If a teacher yells at somebody one day, they should put themselves in the children’s position. What if the child had family issues outside of school. What if they were being bullied that day. How would they feel if they got yelled at? The student already has enough problems to worry about, and the teacher is just making them harder to solve.

Norah: A lot of kids think that not giving homework is the only way for a teacher to show empathy towards a students, but it’s really much more than just that. Teachers should put themselves in students’ shoes by understanding that kids aren’t going to sit still completely quietly for the 7 hours of the school day. Some of my teachers are kind, but only a few, I feel, can really understand their students. Only a few are able to make some jokes to cheer up a student, or answer a student’s question, even if the teacher already answered it, because they understand how one little thing can make a kid’s whole day better.

And some clarified their thinking about what the word empathy really means:

Emily: Before watching this video, I believed that empathy was showing respect and kindness to another person. But when I finished viewing the two videos, my thinking completely changed. Now I think that showing empathy means to put yourself in that person’s place and to consider your actions.

As I read through and left comments for each of my fifty students,  I felt so much better about the “holiday I wants” – and I felt that I had learned a thing or two about being an empathetic teacher, as well.