Thursday, August 10, 2017


Earlier this summer, I read "The Death of Reading is Threatening the Soul," by Phillip Yancey. I found the article really troubling and and have been thinking about it ever since. I decided to put together a list of books that captures some of the reasons that I read. 

Books bring me joy. 

Plastic dinosaurs wreak havoc throughout a classroom. 

How-to text, each page features a different scene throughout the school year. 
Considering using this one as a mentor text with third or fourth graders for our first writing/creating project the first day of school. 

Kate and Jim McMullan

Kate and Jim McMullan, the authors of I STINK, I'M DIRTY, I'M BRAVE 
(and lots more) are back with a story about a school bus.

Books help me understand myself. 

For anyone who has ever tried out the diving board or faced a fear.

Books teach me how to treat others.

A beautiful wordless picture book about two strangers that build a tree house and become friends. 

Emily Pearson

A girl's small kindness creates a chain reaction in the world around her. 
I thought this was brand new, evidently it's a re-release of a book originally published about 15 years ago. Pair this with EACH KINDNESS

Books help me understand other perspectives. 

Perfect to think about perspective or introduce a unit on persuasive writing. 

Lane Smith

Short and funny, but also a terrific message about the impact our actions have on those around us. 

Books are a window into other times and places.

An Italian child is forced to leave a much loved sculpture and immigrate to New York when his family's safety is threatened by World War II. Be sure to read the author's note. 

Francesca Sanna

I'll be using this book with our middle schoolers, who begin the year with a unit on immigration.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017



A horrible screeching sound against the driver's side door.

What could I have hit?

I quickly stop the car in the narrow downtown parking lot. I have to push against the driver's side door to open it. Once open, I see the pole. Short. Bright yellow. Designed to keep people like me, I guess, from turning the narrow corner too tightly.

And boy, did it ever work. The evidence is clear on my car door.

This happened in May. Three months ago. I was racing downtown to attend a meeting for my boss. The meeting was at 9:30, a hard time to find a spot to park in downtown Denver, so I was trying to pull into a small lot about four blocks of my meeting. There was a short post, right when I turned the corner into the lot, not quite tall enough to be visible over the car window, and somehow I didn't see it. And I scraped against it, and dented up the whole drivers door.

And so all summer, people have been asking me what I did to my car. And it's kind of embarrassing to have to keep telling them how stupid I am.

Around July 1st, I went and got an estimate. $2500. $2500 for a moment's stupidity. I made an appointment on the first available week, which was August 14th.

And now I'm trying to decide whether I should keep the appointment.

This has been an expensive summer. $2000 to get a big tree trimmed back. Another $2000 into one son's car. $476 into the other son's car. I really don't have $2500 more.

The car still works fine. After the first day, when the door was a little hard to open, I don't notice any difference in the way the car drives. I could probably live without the repairs.

At the same time, it's so ugly. And people keep asking me what I did to the car. And it's embarrassing to have to tell them what really happened. And every time I look at the car, I remember how stupid I was.

But even so, $2500 is a lot of money.

A whole lot of money for one moment of stupidity.

Friday, July 28, 2017


I had the incredible opportunity of working with Donald Graves during my graduate level courses. Don probably taught me more about teaching and living than anyone before or since, he's definitely one of my most important teachers and mentors. Don loved poetry, and wrote and shared it pretty much every time we were together. One of the first poems he ever shared is still one of my favorite poems of all times. At this time of year, when I am thinking about going back to school, and wanting to provide teachers and kids with authentic, joyful, life-changing literacy experiences, it seems especially relevant. 

Greek Amphora, Photo by Sharon Mollerus, found on Wikimedia Commons

To be of use
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

Marge Piercy, "To be of use" from Circles on the Water. Copyright © 1982 by Marge Piercy. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved

Linda Mitchell is hosting Poetry Friday today. She has a terrific first line swap writing activity, I'm dying to try it, but it will have to be after work today

Friday, July 21, 2017


Sunset in Denver, Wednesday Night

We start a new school year on Monday. My school is undergoing lots of changes- interim principal, new leadership structures, several new teachers, or teachers in new grade levels- and I'm feeling more than a little anxious about what my role will be. And the neighborhood around my school, which is not far from downtown, is gentrifying rapidly, which means the population I have always served is being pushed out, and people who can afford $800,000 homes (and don't have school-aged children) are moving in. I worry about our enrollment and whether I will even have a job. I'm trying hard to breathe and be still and trust that things will work out the way they are supposed to work out…
Inside this new love, die.
Your way begins on the other side.
Become the sky.
Take an axe to the prison wall.
Walk out like somebody suddenly born into color.
Do it now.
You’re covered with thick cloud.
Slide out the side.
and be quiet. Quietness is the surest sign
that you’ve died.
Your old life was a frantic running
from silence.
The speechless full moon
comes out now.
– Jelaluddin Rumi
Kari, a middle school language arts teacher from Wisconsin, is hosting the Poetry Friday Roundup  at The Logonauts this week. I went over to get the link and found a new poetry book I HAVE to own! BRAVO: POEMS ABOUT AMAZING HISPANICS by Margarita Engle sounds like it would be a perfect addition to my dual language school's library.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017


Sometimes a book just hits a little too close to home. That's what's happened to me this week. I've been reading THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas. If you follow adolescent literature at all, you probably know that the book has gotten all kinds of accolades. Some people even think it will win the Newbery. I think it could. It's really well-written. And I had a really hard time reading it.

THE HATE U GIVE is the story of Starr, a 16-year-old African American girl, who lives with her family in her rough neighborhood. Her father owns a grocery store, her mother is a nurse, and somehow they have arranged for Starr to attend an exclusive, mostly white school in a much more affluent part of town. Starr is basically two different people living in one body. By day, she takes on the persona of her upper class Anglo friends, and at night she returns to her family and neighborhood.

The wall has built between her two worlds comes crashing down one night when Starr is at a party in her neighborhood. She runs into Khalil, who is one of her closest friends, but but who she hasn't seen in a long time. When shots are fired, Khalil and Starr escape to his car. The car is pulled over, and somehow, even though he has done absolutely nothing wrong, Khalil is shot and killed by the police. Starr is the only witness, and throughout the rest of the book, the reader follows her as she gives a statement to police detectives, appears on television and testifies before the grand jury.

The book is riveting, and I had a really hard time getting through it.

To some degree, that book is about my life, as the mother of two African American sons. No, I don't live in that rough a neighborhood. And no, I didn't send my boys to an affluent white prep school. But Starr's friend, Khalil, could easily be my boys, laying dead in the middle of the street. And because of that, I am terrified every single time those six-foot chocolate-skinned bodies walk out of the house.

I hate it most at night. Often the boys are doing something totally innocent, just running to the grocery store or to see a cousin that lives nearby.  Even so, I imagine the scenario- the police pulling them over, my sons being nervous and making a misstep, the police unnerved by my sons' size and physique, a gun fired, a bleeding body, the dreaded phone call.

Yep. I would really rather they just stayed at home. All the time. Where I know they are safe.

And yet I know I can't be like that. They are almost grown men. They need to be free. And so I try to act casual. Look up from my computer. Ask where they are going. When they will be home. Remind them to be careful. Drive safely. No pot or alcohol in the car. Tell them I love them.

Then I spend the next hour or two or five worrying about where they might be and whether they are safe. If it they are gone too long, or it gets too late, and they aren't home, we have a deal. I text, "Are you safe?" and they have to respond, even just by texting back "Yes," within five minutes. They don't have to tell me where they are, but they have to respond, so I know they are ok.

And I talk to them, over and over again, about how to behave if they are pulled over by the police. Hands on the wheel. No sudden moves. Tell the policeman what you are doing, "I need to get my registration, sir. It's in my glove compartment." Don't get out of the car unless the police tell you to do that. If they do, move slowly. Follow their directions. Don't give anyone any lip.  I hope my boys are prepared in the event that they do get themselves into a tough situation.

And still I am terrified every time they go out of the house. Sometimes a book just hits a little too close to home.


Yikes! Everyone else has moved on to Week 3 and I haven't responded to the Week 2 readings yet, even though I finished the actual reading last Wednesday. I'm teaching a summer class, and responding to their work is taking most of my writing time.

I have continued to think about DYNAMIC TEACHING. This week, I think my reading around a "Problem-Based Approach" really deepened, partly because at the same time as I am reading DYNAMIC TEACHING, I'm also reading Ruta Sepetys newest novel, SALT TO THE SEA. SALT TO THE SEA,  so far  is a really hard read. The novel is set in Germany, during World War II. It's based on an actual event involving a ship, but it's an event I had never heard of. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character, three of whom, as far as I can tell now, are trying to reach the ship in order to escape Russian-occupied Germany, and one who is a Nazi soldier- I can't tell yet if he is a good guy or a bad guy.  The early chapters are all structurally linked-- each chapter starts with a similar sentence and ends with the word bang. The bang I think, is connected to two of the four soldiers, a young Polish girl and the Nazi soldier, but I'm not positive

As a reader, I'm paying super close attention. I'm making connections-- so far the structure of this book reminds me of Anthony Doerr's, ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE, and I'm trying to remember how Doerr used the image of "light" over and over in that book. I'm having to read and reread, trying to remember each of the different characters. I'm paying careful attention to the details, knowing that at some point, but maybe not for quite a while, I will I know how all of theses pieces fit together. I know that there is a lot I don't know. 

Sepetys definitely puts readers in a state of "in media res." My current state fits with what I'm understanding of Vicki Vinton's "problem-based approach. "A problem-based approach… wants students to feel the  confusion and discomfort a text can spark, so they can also feel the sense of accomplishment and pleasure that comes from working their way out of it" (72). I'm wanting to keep reading. I want to understand the story. I want to know more about the actual historical event. I want to understand how these characters are connected. I know that if I hang in there, things will eventually sort themselves out.

I also know that I am more than a little confused. I'm having a hard time keeping the characters straight. I keep having to go back and reread, to remember exactly who is who, and what I know about them. I have even thought about jotting some notes in the front of the book, which I sometimes do for my book club reads. Vinton says, "Readers have to know they are confused or don't know something, and students who continue reading without actively connecting details or being aware of what they don't know often wind up being lost in books that are supposedly just right for them" (62).

I also know that I have strategies that I have learned from other books. Two or three years ago, I read Antony Doerr's, ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE. I loved this book, and loved how Doerr structured the chapters, alternating between each of his two main characters. I recommended it to everyone I knew. Interestingly, though, I didn't really pay that much attention to the images of light, at least not until Linda Baie said something about that being a part of the book she had especially appreciated, then I had to go back and reread. Now, as I read SALT TO THE SEA, I'm paying more attention to the images and phrases that repeat. This seems to fit with Vinton's comment, "The intention of any problem solving session is not just for students to get the text, but to give them a chance to build up the muscle to deal with problems that texts pose" (79), and also, "The important thing about a problem is not its solution, but the strength we gain in finding the solution" (81).

SALT TO THE SEA is also really pushing me to think about myself as a teacher. I've been thinking about Vicki's overarching goal for her readers (page 18). I shared it last week:
Readers bring their minds and their hearts to a text,
and as a teacher of reading,
that means I want students to be able to
analyze and interpret, reason and imagine,
critique texts objectively and  respond to them personally.
And I want them to do this with
real independence
and a strong sense of agency and identity as readers,
in ways that support
academic success and a love of reading. 
With that goal in mind, I have also been thinking about these two questions that were in the previous reading: 
  • What is this text really about?
  • What might the author be trying to show us about what it means to be human in this complex world of ours? (p. 12)

Vinton's chapter 5, about the "basics" seems to fit with the first question, "What is this text really about?"  I'm intrigued, and still thinking about how I could structure each  mini-lesson, or at least many mini-lessons around what writers do AND how readers respond. I wonder, could I create some kind of sentence stem, or graphic organizer or use colors that would help kids use and internalize this framework."

I'm also struggling with the reversal of gradual release of responsibility- you, we, I. Vinton says, "You can always jump in and offer more support if you see students really flailing, but you can't retract support once you have given it. So think about how much modeling you will offer as you plan, rather than just providing it as a matter of course, knowing you can't always see what students can do if you don't give them enough space to show you" (73). I teach mostly English Language Learners and a great deal of our reading work is done in pre-reading, primarily in the area of building background language and vocabulary, and I wonder what would happen if we didn't do that work. 

Vinton also caused me to think more about teaching as noticing and naming. "Noticing and naming is thus, a form of feedback-- and a powerful one at that. It helps build students' sense of agency and identity as readers, makes the invisible work of reading more visible, and by employing generalized language, turns one student's thinking into a strategy that both he and other students can use in other texts" (73, 74). I think I'm really good at doing this in writing, not so much in reading. 

Vinton's Chapter 6 linked really well with the second question from page 12, "What might the author be trying to show us about what it means to be human in this complex world of ours?" I want my intermediate grade teachers to read this chapter, because I think it would help us do a much better job with theme. I've used some variation of Vinton's know/wonder charts, but I wonder why I haven't done more with these. And I wonder how I can help myself and my teachers ask better questions and respond in ways that will help students grow. 

So much to think about!!!

Friday, July 14, 2017


Tabatha Yeatts is hosting Poetry Friday today. About a week ago, she sent out an email reminding Poetry Friday participants that today is National Macaroni and Cheese Day. Mmmmmm! I love mac and cheese, and that blue Kraft box is one of my favorite comfort foods.

As I thought about the topic this week, however, I kept envisioning two totally different snapshots. One had to do with how much I loved mac and cheese as a child, and how glad I was to be a "lunch at home" kid, because my mom often made box macaroni and cheese on cold days. Another image had to do with my sons, who I adopted at 7 and 9. At some point in their early years, they had evidently been exposed to real, homemade macaroni and cheese, which I don't think I had ever even seen. The first time I told them we were having mac and cheese, they were bitterly disappointed by my lack of culinary expertise. Somehow, those two images worked their way into this poem.

"Mother Love"

on cold winter days
I dash down Chelton Road
at lunchtime
knowing that my stay-at-home mom
will love us with blue box macaroni and cheese
and warm canned applesauce
mixed with cinnamon

i spoon applesauce
over fluorescent macaroni
then string gold orange tubes
onto the tines of my fork
and eat them one by one
while my mother fusses at me
not to play with my food
and reminds me
that I need to change into pants
for the afternoon's PE class

three decades later
stuck in rush hour traffic
i announce to my newly adopted sons
that we are having
mac and cheese for dinner
my boys draw threads
of some long held memory
and envision a steaming casserole dish
of stringy cheesy goodness
the likes of which I have never seen

later they wrinkle their noses
at my counterfeit chemical concoction
"This is not macaroni and cheese,"
they announce disdainfully
and for the millionth time
I wonder whether they believe
our cobbled, fatherless,
make-do family
is as artificial
as the blue box macaroni and cheese
of my childhood

(C) Carol Wilcox, 2017