What I Know for Sure

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Although teaching a new grade level this year, there are some things that are essential in my teaching, no matter where the instruction takes place or with whom.  There will be:

1.  At least 20″ devoted to silent reading every day

2. A read-aloud by me every day

3.  Time to write on self-selected topics every day

Beyond that, I’m not sure. There are so many factors – curriculum guides, principal requirements, and most importantly, the students in the seats, determine what happens on any given day.  I also will only see my students every other day – a first for me and at this point, a real challenge for planning.

One teacher I admire does both a picture book and an ongoing chapter book every day. I wish I could do that but I’m not sure there will be time for both. I have found some wonderful opening picture books, though, thanks to https://www.choiceliteracy.com/ , some reading I’ve done over the summer, and my go-to faves. Here are my top 5 for starting the school year right:
1. That Book Woman by Heather Henson – a fictional tale of a boy who doesn’t know how to read who is frustrated by his sister’s ability to get lost in books. Then the book woman comes (based on the real Pack Horse Librarians of the 1930’s) and with her, the wonder of books. This one just might reach a reluctant reader or two. It also ties into the US. History that my 7th graders are studying.
2. The Memory String by Eve Bunting and Ted Rand. You just can’t go wrong with Eve Bunting, and with over 200 books and counting, there’s always one that will fit what you need. This is the tender tale of a young girl who has lost her Mother but has a string of buttons to remember her by, each one attached to a memory. Her stepmother becomes the hero of this tale (and how often does THAT happen?). I know it will get the kids thinking and writing about their own memories.
3. Nothing Ever Happens on 90th Street by Roni Schotter. I can’t imagine teaching any year without this book. As the protagonist complains that nothing ever happens to her so she has nothing to write about, the reader is treated to not only lots of story topics but some sage writing advice as well. Once the students hear this one, they never again say, “But I have nothing to write about…” and if they do someone invariably calls out, ‘Remember “Nothing Ever Happens on 90th Street!” ‘
4.  When I Was Young in the Mountains by Cynthia Rylant.  I haven’t found a book I like better to talk about place.  Even if the characters and events in Appalachia are foreign to the students, they understand what it is to love a grandmother and to have her love you back.  This book always sparks a great discussion about favorite places and the stories to be found in them.

5. The Lonely Book by Kate Bernheimer. I just found this one and boy, is it a keeper.  The book starts off as very popular, checked out so often it hardly knows the library.  But soon it is relegated to the surplus pile in the basement, waiting for the Book Sale.  Lucky for the book, Alice has not forgotten about it and the reunion is a happy one.  I may read this one first and ask if the students have a book like this in their own collection – if they do, I’ll know immediately they’re a reader!

So far, a mix of books about reading, writing, and history.  It’s a start.

I’m Not Ready

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I think my beloved black lab, Paddy, may be coming to the end of his life.  I’m not ready.  I’m not ready to come home and not have him be excited to see me, even if I was just gone to the mailbox.  I’m not ready to sit on the couch and have him not come and drop his head into my lap as if to say, ‘Thank goodness, it’s about time you sat down!’. I’m not ready to have my chair all to myself again, instead of him sneaking into it every time I get up.  I’m not ready for him to not be there when I pour out my heart to him and have him look at me with his soulful brown eyes as if he understands every word I’m saying (as well as the ones I won’t say).

We got him from the pound as a six inch puppy, a mass of black fur and big brown eyes.  He stayed that way for about 10 minutes and then proceeded to grow and grow and grow into an 85 pound shepherd/lab mix. (My Dad took one look at the puppy and said, “Look at those feet!”) He loves having his ears cleaned and hates having his feet touched.  He tolerates his sister, Molly, and loves lying in the backyard surveying his property, the breeze flapping his ears.  He smiles with his mouth and his tail.  Every morning for the past 13 years, he would come over and thank me for his breakfast with a head bump and a wag before he started to eat. Every single day.  I’m not ready to start my days without that head bump.

I want so much for him to know how grateful I am that I got to be his Mom. I want him to know that he has given me so much more than I would ever be able to give back.  I want him to know how his joy made my bad days brighter and my good days even better.  I want him to know how much I looked forward to seeing his face in the window as I pulled into the driveway, tail going a mile a minute in the background. I want him to know that he has made my life better. I want him to know just how much he matters to all of our family.

Today we are going to the vet for an evaluation. He developed diabetes about six months ago and she thought we might get another year with him, if we were lucky.  Lately though, he has gone blind and the arthritis has gotten worse so he can’t go down the back steps anymore.  He has trouble controlling his bladder. Walking even short distances seems to exhaust him.  I’m afraid of what she is going to tell us.

Those of us who have dogs know how lucky we are, we really do.  All they do is give and give and give.  In return, they ask for food, walks, and affection.  So little to ask for all they do.  And I’m not ready…

Nonfiction Confessions

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OK – I admit it, I’m not a real fan of nonfiction.  I know, intellectually, how important it is for our students to have loads of experience with it but given a choice on any given day to teach fiction, I’ll go with THAT! Now I do like a well-written biography (two I’ve read this summer are excellent – Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff and Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie) and I’ll read anything Tony Horwitz puts out, but aside from that, I’m just not that into nonfiction.  Magical realism is my favorite genre – can you get any further away from nonfiction than that?

I have to change this attitude.  The importance of reading and understanding nonfiction increases exponentially each and every day for our students.  They have to know how to dissect an informational piece and gain understanding of the content.  They have to know when to skim and when to focus.  They have to know text features that will help them with comprehension.  They have to move beyond their teacher’s comfort level and not be intimidated by any type of writing!

Faced with this need for change, I’ve spent some time this summer figuring out how to include much more nonfiction reading in my classroom this school year.  Luckily for all of us, there is a tremendous wealth of resources available for anyone with a computer and a mouse.  Three I added to my favorites bar are:


The subheading on this blog is ‘Two intrepid librarians review the best nonfiction books for children’ and it is a gem for anyone searching for nonfiction books on a wide variety of topics. The Nonfiction Detectives are Cathy Potter, School Librarian and Louise Capizzo, Youth Services Librarian.  They will review from 8-12 books a month but you can always look in the archives or do a search if you are looking for a particular topic.
The search feature is fabulous. I put in ‘World War II’ and got 8 pages of book reviews! They also provide the grade levels suggested for each book.


Sponsored by the National Center for Family Literacy, this site posts a fun fact every day.  (As of today, there are 658 facts to choose from)  Think how much fun your trivia obsessed students would have with this one! I can see starting class off with this a day or two each week.  How cool would it be to tie it into what the students are studying in history (# 536 – Who were the Tuskegee Airmen?) or science (#621 – How many flowers can a bee pollinate?) and then use it as a starter for writing? Or – ask the students what they wonder about and then find a match on this site and post it?


I’m not supposed to have favorites, I suppose, but this one is it.  The National Council for Social Studies has an annual committee that takes all the hard work out of reviewing childrens’ books for us.  They do the reading and reviewing and then compile a lovely and colorful pdf for us to use.  There are 10 strands and each book review includes grade levels, number of pages, and even the price.  The lists are available from 2000 – 2011 with the 2012 list available if you are an NCSS member. 

I spent yesterday morning in the library, going through the many suggestions they gave me for U.S. History after 1865. My commitment to nonfiction this year is centered around tying in content to what my students are learning in history so this was my starting point.  I learned so much! In Ballet for Martha by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan I learned that Martha Graham had the first integrated dance company in the United States.  In The Hallelujah Flight by Phil Bildner, I learned the names of the first African American aviators to make a transcontinental flight – in 1932 – James Banning and Thomas Allen. I learned the name of the first Seminole Tribe Leader, Betty Mae Jumper from a beautiful picture book, She Sang Promise, by Jan Godown Annino.

While grateful to learn about these fascinating people, I’m left wondering why am I only learning about them now?  Why were they not part of my instruction in elementary, secondary, or graduate studies?  I don’t want my students to miss knowing about these courageous and visionary people from our past and if I don’t teach it to them, they may end up like me.  Nonfiction is important.  I’m a believer now.

Thoughts on an Ideal English Classroom – Appearance

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So I’ve been thinking a lot about what an ideal reading and writing classroom should look like.  I’m also mindful that what seems perfect to my middle-aged brain might not be what middle schoolers will appreciate.  I’ve started assembling pictures I come across in Pinterest (http://pinterest.com/all/?category=education)  and I even have a notebook spilling over with notes, quotes, and pictures I’ve collected.  I have my color scheme of teal and lime green. (Even though starting a new job in a new school is stressful, it also comes with the bonus of starting with a clean slate, setting things up exactly as I want them to be.)

I know I will need more bookshelves.  At last count, I had over 1500 titles and am still finding books I want to buy.  The standard issue in my district is one small (3 shelf) bookshelf and one medium (5 shelf) bookshelf.  That is SO not going to cut it!  But I’m talking ideal here, not reality so here goes:

One wall is windows, on them (written in Crayola Window Markers) are quotes about writing and reading like these:

“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”  Ernest Hemingway

“The greatest part of a writer’s time is spend in reading…” Samuel Johnson

“Let the world burn through you. Throw the prism light, white hot, on paper.”  Ray Bradbury

“Writers live twice.”  Natalie Goldberg

“There area two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” Edith Wharton


As the year progresses, these quotes will be joined by ‘Golden Lines’ from the students’ own writing so they will feel the pull of being a ‘real writer’. I want it to be an interactive canvas AND a daily reminder of what we are all about in this classroom, the serious work of readers and writers.

Student desks are placed in 6 color coded cooperative groups, each with one extra desk in the middle to hold supplies. These teams are also the students’ Reading and Writing Groups where they will discuss what they are reading and provide feedback for one another’s writing. The teams are placed around a central rug and small couch, an adjustable floor lamp on each end. 

Two corners of the room are other reading areas. One corner has teal Adirondack chairs with soft green cushions, a small table and lamp between them.  Another corner has a Sisal rug with lots of body pillows and lapdesks (these have quotes by authors on them as well). A third corner has the computers (we get two per classroom) and the scanner the kids will use to check out books from the classroom library (I hope this part works as I’m tired of losing books each year!)  I’ve spent the summer loading all my books into Library Thing (http://www.librarything.com/) so it should be as easy as scanning the book, typing their name, and clicking. 

The Smart Board wall will serve three main functions; house the non-fiction and picture books (with an emphasis on books that relate to the history and science the kids will study this year), organize materials, and provide space for the ‘Parking Lot’ where kids can post questions or comments that we don’t have time to address in the moment. Also displayed here will be our current read aloud book and recommendations by students, displayed in plate holders (Michael’s has them for < $5.00 http://www.michaels.com/Easels/products-framing-tabletop-easels,default,sc.html ). High on the wall on either side of the Smart Board are my vinyl words (Thanks, Cricut! 🙂 Read like a writer.  Write like a reader.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten so far.  Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

Travel Applications – Part II

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So our trip to the British Isles is completed and I’ve returned home with some ideas for my classroom next year.  Here are the last five to complete my top ten:

6. Green = Good – As we were walking from our hotel in Dublin to the famous shopping area on Grafton Street, we turned into a lovely park called St. Stephen’s Green. It was acres of green grass, gorgeous flowers, ponds, waterfalls, trees, and swans. It was an oasis from the bustle of the city, just steps away. It was so calming to sit there and watch the people and hear the birds. As much as I fail at keeping plants alive, I will have them in my classroom this year. (Perhaps giving the care and feeding of them to a greener thumb should be part of the plan as well.)

7. Unfinished Art as Inspiration – I saw many beautiful paintings on this trip but two in particular stand out.  One was an unfinished painting The Turning Road, by Cezanne in the Cortauld Gallery in London.  Only the middle portion was completed but it was possible to see the brushstrokes and the movement of the paint on the canvas.  It made me wonder – what made him abandon this one?  I thought what was evident was lovely – but something must have made Cezanne move on to other paintings and leave this one unfinished.  Did he intend to come back to it?  My interest turned into a poem and perhaps a short story later on.  What would my students do with this?  I can’t wait to find out!

8. Art and Story as Inspiration– The British Museum, the Tate, has a gallery devoted to the paintings of J.M. Turner, one of my favorites.  As I was walking through the gallery, a British man approached me and asked if I would be interested in hearing a ‘talk’? So, two other lucky visitors and I got to listen as this Turner expert described the artist’s life and paintings with such enthusiasm and expertise that I left feeling as if I knew Turner personally.  One of the paintings, Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, will be part of my instruction next year as inspiration for writing. The story, as Turner told it, was that he had lashed himself to the mast of this ship during a storm.  Not true, said our expert, it actually had been done by another artist, and Turner took the story as his own!  I’m confident that either the art or the story will spark some student writing.

9. History as Story – One of our most memorable moments was on the tour given by the ‘Beefeaters’ (also known as the Queen’s Guard) at the Tower of London.  One of the reasons these tours are so memorable is that the guides did nothing but tell stories, one after another, many with surprising twists and turns.  From the polar bear who went fishing in the Thames to the disappearance of the two young princes (whose bones may have been found later in a staircase during remodeling) each story was as interesting as the one that came before.  My seventh graders will study history from 1865 to the present and my task will be to find those stories that help them retain the important information of that time period.  It’s much easier to remember facts that are tied to a fascinating story.

10. Global Citizenry – Much as Americans like to believe we are the center of the universe, there remains a big old world out there that is only tangentially interested in us.  That being said, people are much more alike then different.  The things that bind us to one another are very strong – family, friendship, beauty, etc.  Over and over again on our trip we met people who went out of their way to help us.  Clerks, bus drivers, pedestrians, all came to our aid at one point or another.  There was even a teenager who grabbed my suitcase on the way up a long set of stairs, left it at the top, and went on his way! So, my hope is to create an atmosphere of a caring community, accepting of our differences, and bonding with our commonalities, so that everyone can get what they need and give what they can, as writers, readers, and people.


Travel Application – Part I

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I’ve just returned from a 3 week trip to Dublin, Ireland, and London, England.  It was wonderful and much of what I saw and heard and felt while I was away is going to translate into my teaching this year.  Here are my top ten travel applications:

1.  Writing Matters – When we visited the Book of Kells at Trinity College in Dublin, I realized that people have used language in such important ways over time that we sometimes forget there was a time when we didn’t have a means of expressing what we know and how we feel except orally.  When the written word was established, people felt it was a gift from God.  It still is. I want to make sure my students understand how lucky we are to be able to communicate in this way and how the importance of this should be cherished.

2.  Oral Language Matters, too – The oral traditions are alive and well in Ireland.  (Of course, it helps to have it said in that lovely lilting musical language!)  From our cab driver telling us why he loves Obama to the people on the bus telling about their problems with their children, the stories we heard were amazing and oh, so memorable.  Storytelling will have a place in my classroom this year.

3.  Kindness Matters – After an 8 hour flight, an hour bus ride, and during torrential downpours, we dragged our luggage down the street we thought our hotel was on.  Block after block, we were looking.  When we reached the end of the street without finding the place, I hit the wall.  I sat on my suitcase and started crying (which no one would have known about because of the sheets of rain falling, too)! A security guard at a nearby business came and showed us the hotel, less than 100 feet away. He didn’t have to do that. He could have looked the other way.  This year I am going to be mindful of my student’s moods as I greet them at the door.  I won’t look the other way.

4. Perspective Matters – As we were paying for our merchandise at the Tower of London, my husband commented, “How wonderful for you to be surrounded by all this fabulous history all the time!”  The woman smiled and replied, “Ah, but you have your history in front of you now, don’t you?” That’s how it is with our students – they have it all in front of them and that is SO exciting! I want my students to feel excited about all that is ahead of them, too.

5. Quiet Matters – The people on the Underground in London rarely talk.  They are either reading, playing with their I-Pods, or sitting quietly. I found it really relaxing to ride the subway because of this.  We could hear what the conductor was saying, we could hear the next stop being announced, we could think our own thoughts because of this cultural courtesy.  I want to make daily quiet spaces in my planning for next year.