Saturday, February 26, 2011


"So what do you think we should do tomorrow?" the fourth grade teacher asks as we consider the next day's writing workshop. He glances down at the plan we made three weeks earlier.

We are two days away from the big event (which shall remain nameless) and writing instruction has reached what feels like a fever pitch. We have written and written and written to prompts- one pagers, four pagers, narrative, description, persuasive, favorites…The kids have done it all.

"I don't know," I respond, "Let me look at today's writing and think about it tonight."

That night I read through the stack of 30+ four-page (ok, many three page) essays. The prmpt was to write about something they had learned to do.
  • A remains enamored with Robert Munsch. Every day he does some weird twist on the Munsch theme, repeating phrases, putting his own name into Munsch's stories, adapting Munsch's stories just a bit so that he can call them his own.
  • K writes a beautiful story about his older sister (who passed away in a car accident 18 months ago) teaching him to ride his bike. Midway through the story, however, he switches narrators from first person, where he is telling the story, using the pronoun I, to third person, where he uses his name as a character in the story.
  • M loves dialogue. The piece she wrote about learning to cheerlead is so dialogue heavy that it's hard to follow what is going on.
  • Many of the other students are also using dialogue. Reading through their work, I decide that teaching kids to punctuate dialogue is somewhat like teaching long division. There are a million different ways you can get it not quite right.
  • Yesterday, during our skills block, the teacher reviewed contractions. Today R writes yes, ye's.
  • We have also been reviewing nonfiction text features. Today Q decides to use subtitles instead of transitions in her fiction piece.
  • Z and P both write pieces that are absolutely beautiful for about a page and a half- great lead, dialogue, rich details. Then, evidently, they get tired or run out of time, and cram the middle and end of the piece into one paragraph using none of the tools that they have displayed earlier.
  • K writes about learning to play the saxophone with his mother. The piece rolls along beautifully for about a page, to a point where K is talking about one of the songs he and his mother taught themselves to play. At this point, for whatever reason, he decides it would be a good idea to include the full text of the words to the 16 line song.
  • S, who is one of the best writers in the class, writes a three paragraph conclusion. Basically she just repeats herself, juxtaposing the sentences in three different ways.
So what am I going to teach them the next day? I riffle through the stack of papers again and decide to get up early and think about it in the morning when I am fresh. By the next morning, I have decided. I will teaching them nothing.

We have written and written and written all year. We have taught and taught and taught all year. At this beginning of the year, these kids usually produced about a half of page of text. They didn't know anything about a lead or a conclusion. They didn't write with details or dialogue They didn't use paragraphs.

And now they are using all of those writers' tools. Granted, there are a lot of approximations. It's not perfect. But they are experimenting, and growing and writing their way towards becoming proficient writers. And basically, their growth as writers has been phenomenal.

And so, during the mini-lesson, I tell them that. I leaf through the stack of papers, acknowledging all of the good stuff I saw last night. I tell that every single kid wrote to the prompt. Most kids gave their work a title. I read them three different kinds of leads. I share several really terrific details and examples of dialogue. I admire the circular endings that several kids have chosen to use.

And then, I review how to punctuate dialogue. And I send them back to their seats. To write. To experiment. To grow. To learn. Because that is what writers do.

And if they are not ready by Tuesday…

Monday, February 21, 2011

DO YOU KNOW WHICH ONES WILL GROW? by Susan A. Shea, illustrations by Tom Slaughter


I love books where kids have to think a little before they make predictions about what will come next.

I loved Q IS FOR DUCK.

The kind where kids are sitting on their knees by the second page, dying to see the pictures so they can predict what will come next.

DO YOU KNOW WHICH ONES WILL GROW is another book I'm going to put into my "predict-a-little, think-a-little, kids are for sure going to love this one" category.

The first two page spread is an introduction:

If you look around
you'll see,
Some things grow,
like you and me.

Others stay the way
they're made,
Until they crack or rust or fade.

Do you know which ones will grow?
Think, then answer,
YES or NO.

From then on, each half of two page spread contains a couplet.
The left hand page is a living thing,
the right hand side is non-living.

If a cub grows
and becomes a bear,

Can a stool grow and become…

Now, here comes the really fun part, and the part I know that kids are totally going to love. Each right hand page is a fold out, where you have to lift a flap to see the answer. And each flap is a different size or opens a different direction. The flap on the stool page, for example, lifts from the middle of the page up, and the stool becomes a chair.

Another one of my favorite pages:

If an owlet grows
and becomes an owl…

Can a washcloth grow and become…
(Pretend you are lifting the full page flap that's attached at the top)

a towel?

Tom Saunders' illustrations really complement the text. They are bright colored and eye catching- simple shapes placed on top of other shapes, in kind of a collage-ish effect.

You could use this book as an introduction to a unit
on living and non-living things.

You could use this book for teaching reading strategies. It'd be a great book for teaching readers how to cross-check pictures against beginning sounds.

You could give it as a baby present.

Or you could just read it aloud.
Because it's way fun.
And kids are going to love it.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


On Friday, Mary Lee had an amazing post about thinking out of the box. If you haven't read it, hop right over to Year of Reading and do it now. Really. Be sure to take the six minutes to watch the video. It's amazing.

Mary Lee's video and the accompanying poem gave me a new lens for thinking about an event that had occurred on Thursday in a class that I was working in:

I've been fussing a lot lately about how important it is to have a solidly grounded, theoretically based teaching philosophy and to make curricular and pedagogical decisions based on those beliefs. In a few less words, "I believe X, so I do Y." When I do that in my own teaching life, that's when kids learn best. Take this situation from last Thursday, for example.

I am working with the fourth graders on writing fiction, specifically, writing fiction to a prompt. Many of my students come from homes where lots of stories are told, but few come from homes where many stories are read aloud. I try, then, when I write narrative, and particularly fictional narrative with kids to read them lots of great stories. One of my favorite authors for this is Robert Munsch. Munsch was an oral storyteller before he was a writer. Munsch's work is sophisticated enough that older kids enjoy the content, and his writing style is easy for them to imitate. Munsch draws heavily on the the traditions of oral storytelling, e.g. things that happen in threes, events that repeat three times, repeating phrases. Because he uses these tools so masterfully, they are easy for kids to recognize and duplicate.

A. approaches at the end of independent writing time. He is a sweet, sweet guy, an English Language Learner, who is super eager to please. When he came to fourth grade, A rarely wrote more than a paragraph. The writing was simple, the language was simple, and his use of conventions was simple. A is a kid who has really taken off as a writer, however, in the past few month. He regularly writes two, and occasionally even three well-developed pages during writing time. He knows how to use several different leads, including a question, a sound effect and what we call "setting the scene." He uses what we call "rule of three" (have three events, add three details to make a picture in the writers' head/give three examples to support your thinking). He can write dialogue, and punctuate it pretty close to correctly. He knows how to end a piece without saying, "And that's the end of my story." Most importantly, he can evaluate his own work, and tell you what he has done well, and what he wants to do on the next piece of writing.

One thing I know about A, however, is that he is not usually a writer or learner that grasps a concept or technique on the first try, or often not even the second, or third. Usually A needs to approximate, get feedback, approximate again, get more feedback, approximate, and get more feedback. It takes him four or five or ten tries. A is persistent, however, and eventually, he gets the hang of whatever we are working on.

Today, A can't wait to show me what he has done during writing time. The prompt was to imagine you woke up with a new body part, e.g. antlers, or a giraffe neck, or wings. A. has taken Robert Munsch's story, PURPLE, YELLOW, GREEN, about a little girl who begs her mom to buy her markers, first washable markers, then smelly markers, then indelible, never wash off until you're dead and maybe even longer markers, and basically inserted his own name into it. He's used Munsch's details and even his language. He tells me that he is going to have himself draw bunny ears on his head, but at this point, he is almost two pages in, and has not yet reached the prompt. That's a teeny bit of a problem given that the assigned length for this story cannot be any more than four pages.

We are at the point in the year where we have four teaching days until kids have to be able to show that they are proficient writers. And when I look at A's piece, my heart jumps into my throat. A four page piece that has not hit the prompt after two pages is probably not going to cut it. I take a deep breath. I remember what I believe. I try to practice what I have preached.

First, I acknowledge what A has done. "Wow, A, you really loved that Robert Munsch story that we read today, huh? And you have used his ideas and his words in even your own work." A beams from ear to ear and has to read the piece aloud to me again, just so I can get the full effect of Munsch's words in his story. I make myself breathe deeply again, then I try to honor A's approximation, "I love how you listened during the mini-lesson and how you used Robert Munsch's thinking to help you write your own story." A is still beaming, and again has to read me several lines lifted pretty much directly from Munsch.

Then I provide feedback to push A forward. I gently remind him about the prompt we are writing to. He tells me that he is going to use Robert Munsch's markers to draw bunny ears on his own head and talk about what a day would be like with bunny ears. "Ohh, I get it," I say. "That's a great idea." We talk a little about balance, and about how the beginning probably can't be quite as long as Alex has made it, and about how the people who grade prompted writing need to know pretty quickly that you are writing to their prompt, and then A., still smiling goes back to work some more on the piece. He is still incredibly pleased with his efforts, and I'm not totally sure he has heard anything I have said. I'm thinking he will draw the bunny ears on himself pretty soon, but either the piece will be four pages and be totally beginning heavy, or he will have a six or seven page story, that's way too long for a prompted writing.

I make myself take a a few more deep breaths. And try not to think about how much more teaching will need to go on before A. is proficient at using this technique vs. how many days we have left before he needs to be proficient. A is becoming a proficient writer. Whether it takes three more days or three more weeks or three more months, I need to keep doing the same things Don Graves taught me to do a hundred years ago. Listen to the writer. Celebrate the message. Honor the approximations. Think about the one thing that will help the writer move forward. Teach that one thing. And then send the writer back to learn from his/her writing.

Teaching should not be about trying to cram children into little boxes. Teaching should be about celebrating who children are as learners, and honoring who they are becoming. However long it takes.

Friday, February 18, 2011


Kristine O'Connell George has always been one of my favorite poets- The Great Frog Race, Toasting Marshmallows, and The Little Dog Poems. Last week at TATTERED COVER I found her newest book, EMMA DILEMMA: BIG SISTER POEMS. I stood at the poetry shelf and read it cover to cover.

EMMA DILEMMA is narrated by Jessica, a fourth or fifth grade girl who is the big sister to Emma. Jessica is a good big sister, but she gets tired of the pesky younger sister who ruins her things, makes messes in her room, and follows her incessantly. As someone who is the oldest of three girls, I could so relate to every. single. poem in this book.

A great addition to a classroom or library collection, also a great "big sister" present!


She's not even
in real school
but Emma insists
she has to sit with me
and do her homework.
Emma brings paper and crayons.
I move over, give her plenty of elbown room,
because the pictures inside Emma's head are bigger than the kitchen table.

Kristine O'Connell George

Poetry Friday is here.

Monday, February 14, 2011


For the past three years, I have had the honor of serving as a panelist for the CYBILS awards. In 2008, I was on the YA nonfiction panel. In 2009 and 2010 I did nonfiction picture books. We started out with about one hundred books in mid-October (I think the exact number was 112) and whittled it down to seven of our favorites (NOT an easy decision!). A second round of judges had the incredibly difficult job of selecting the best book from those seven books.

As I was frantically reading nonfiction picture books, other panels were reading in other genre- picture books, easy readers, poetry, graphic novels, intermediate grade novels, YA novels. I have loved, loved, loved serving on the committee. There is nothing more fun than getting to talk books with extraordinary teachers, librarians, and booksellers from all over the world.

Anyway, today the winners were announced! THE EXTRAORDINARY MARK TWAIN, ACCORDING TO SUSY won the nonfiction picture books. Some of my other personal favorites won too- these- included INTERRUPTING CHICKEN (fiction picture books), YUMMY (graphic novels), and ORIGAMI YODA (intermediate grade novels).

Head over to the CYBILS website to check out all the other winners!

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Ruth is excited when her father buys a new car. It's supposed to be for his job, but first the family is going to use it to travel from their home in Chicago to Alabama to see Ruth's grandma.

The trip starts out as a grand adventure, but soon the reality of life in the south in the 1950's sets in. No one will let Ruth and her mother use their restroom, so they have to go into the woods. They can't eat at restaurants or stay in a motel.

The second day of their trip, Ruth and her family stay with a friend of her father's who tells the family to look for Esso stations, because that company is friendly to blacks. At one of the Esso stations, a clerk shows them THE NEGRO MOTORIST GREEN BOOK, a publication that tells Blacks about places they can eat and stay. Ruth's family relies on the book to help them for the rest of their journey.

RUTH AND THE GREEN BOOK is fiction, but THE NEGRO MOTORIST GREEN BOOK was actually published from 1936-1964. Pair this book with SIT-IN, another terrific read about life in the segregated South.

Sunday, February 6, 2011


Today I found one of those "absolutely perfect" picture books. UNDERGROUND, by Shane W. Evans, is the story of the Underground Railroad. The text on each page is very sparse, usually no more than two or three words a page, e.g. the text on the first page is, "The dark." The text on the second page, "The escape." And the third page, "We are quiet."

The illustrations are line drawings, set on a background. Dark shades of blue, with a few lighter blues, a little white for the stars, and an on occasional bit of yellow or gold for lanterns or flames, perfectly capture the nightime journey of runaway slaves. As the journey progresses, and the slaves get closer to freedom, there is more yellow and gold and white. It's a hard book to explain, but the illustrations are gorgeous, absolutely perfect for the subject. This is a book I could see winning the Caldecott.

I hadn't seen UNDERGROUND or read anything about it before I saw it at the bookstore this afternoon. When I looked for it online, I was surprised to read a review that said it would be a perfect book for introducing the Underground Railroad to young children. I guess you could use it that way, but when I read it, I pictured myself using it with older students, maybe fourth, fifth, or sixth graders. I think it would be a perfect book for introducing the Underground Railroad. I think it would also be a great book for a study on inferring.

I also think it would be a really interesting mentor text for writing. UNDERGROUND is so, so, so succinct, but captures, perfectly, the intensity of the slaves' journey. I wonder how kids might create similar texts about other historical events, or peoples' lives.

UNDERGROUND is a book you definitely want to own…

Saturday, February 5, 2011


On Thursday at our state reading convention, I heard Jeff Wilhelm talk about the texts kids, especially middle and high school kids choose. Wilhelm talked a lot about video games and how boys use those as kind of heroic journeys. I have been thinking about his talk all weekend, both in terms of my own sons (Son #2 is a video game addict) and also in terms of a book I've just finished.

NO PASSENGERS BEYOND THIS POINT, by Gennifer Choldenko, is an epic/heroic journey/fantasy tale. At the beginning of the book, sibling trio India, Finn, and Mouse Tompkins find out that their mother has lost their house to foreclosure, so their family will be moving to Colorado, to live with an uncle until the mom can get back on her feet. The mom, however, is a teacher, and has to finish the school year, so the kids will be traveling by themselves, with their mom joining them later.

At this point, the book takes a surprising turn. The plane "lands" but when India, Finn and Mouse disembark, they are not in Denver, where they were planning to land. Instead, they are in a deserted and unfamiliar airport. They are met by Chuck, a strange chauffeur who drives a shocking pink taxi covered with white feathers. Chuck explains that the children are not in Fort Baker, a small city outside of Denver, but have instead landed in a town called Falling Bird. At first, it seems like Falling Bird might be a perfect place to live. Each of the kids starts out in a house designed especially for that person- India's has all kinds of teenager delights, Finn's highlights his love of basketball, and Mouse gets to indulge in her love of science. Soon, however, the children discover that these delights are only temporary, and they set out on a problem-filled heroic journey to get back to their mom and to their new life in Fort Baker.

To me, this book feels a little like the action movies I sometimes see with my sons. There is a lot going on, lots of action, lots of adventure. There are symbols that keep appearing and reappearing- puzzle pieces, a white cat, and magical watches. I kept waiting for something to happen with those symbols, but for the most part they were just important for a few chapters, then faded away. Sometimes that bothered me a little, but I don't think it would bother kids, especially not those who are fast moving and just like a good plot. I'll be interested to see what my fifth and sixth grade readers think of this book.

Friday, February 4, 2011


A week of bone-chilling, record-setting cold in Colorado this week. I'm longing for spring…


For it was February in Florida,
the air of instruction thick with tanning butter.
Why, my students wondered,

did the great dead poets all live north of us?
Was there nothing to do all winter there
but pine for better weather?

Read the rest of the poem here.

Poetry Friday is at DORI READS.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Bonnie Campbell Hill National Literacy Teacher Leader Award

My dear friend, Laura Benson, has recently made me aware of a

new award for Teacher Leaders.

If you, or anyone you know, is interested in applying for this award, you can go to Bonnie's website for more information. The application is on the left side bar.

Bonnie Campbell Hill National Literacy Teacher Leader Award

The Children’s Literature Assembly (CLA) will honor two outstanding teacher leaders. These may include a classroom teacher, literacy coach, or teacher educator dedicated to improving the teaching and learning of reading and writing in real world contexts in grades K – 8. The US $2,500 grant is intended to be used for professional development (not for materials, except professional books for a book study). In addition, recipients will receive a coupon for up to $500 of professional books published by Heinemann Publishers. Applicants must be members of both NCTE and CLA. The grant is supported by Bonnie Campbell Hill and her family.


Your application materials must include five items:

  1. Completed application form.

A professional development plan (three-page maximum) for the 2011-2012 that outlines why you would be a strong candidate for these monies and your vision for how this support would allow you to improve and enhance teaching and learning for students and/or teachers. Funds may be used for, but are not limited to, the following examples: attending the Annual IRA Convention, attending the Annual NCTE Conference, attending Teacher’s College Training, or a reputable children’s literature conference, conducting literature-based research with teaching implementation potential (i.e., Kerlan Collection), buying professional books for a book study among colleagues. Funds may not be used to buy classroom materials. The plan should address key elements that are listed in the attached rubric. A specific plan for how the $2,500 and $500 in professional books would be spent must be included.

  1. A resume showing professional experience and leadership accomplishments/activities.
  2. A letter of recommendation from a supervisor detailing the applicant’s leadership skills, collaborative interactions, effective teaching practices, successful teaching/learning relationships with students and teachers and an understanding of the intentions and/or support of the project detailed by the applicant.
  3. A follow up report describing how the award was used and how it helped the recipient carry the ideas forward: Due May 1, 2012.

An electronic copy of the complete application must be submitted to Dr. Nancy J. Johnson, committee chair, by May 15th, 2011. An example of the evaluation criteria is included with this letter.

Announcement of the winners will occur on or before August 21st, 2011 for the 2011-2012 school year. The award will be presented at the November NCTE Convention. The recipients of the Bonnie Campbell Hill Literacy Teacher Leader Award are cordially invited to attend the CLA Breakfast where they will be introduced by the Awards Committee. All conference expenses (transportation, meals, and housing) will be borne by the winner or paid for out of the initial award. Professional books must be purchased during the 2011-2012 school year by contacting Jeanne Durost, Director of Customer Service, Heinemann Publishing, Phone: 800-225-5800 x1310, Email: The winner must submit a report to the committee about how the funds were used by May 1st, 2012 with information about what the winner learned and the impact of this project on student learning and professional development.