Wednesday, July 20, 2011


My computer has been in the shop since Monday morning, so I'm sitting at Kinko's typing my post (after spending an hour discovering that my new iPad is not very compatible with blogger). Evidently Kinko's computers are not super compatible either, because I can't download the iamge of Patrick's book, but I have loved hearing what people are thinking, and I want to try to participate, at least a little.

I had the privilege of studying with Don Graves at the University of New Hampshire in the mid 1990's. Don was not easily impressed by fancy theory, big words, or glitzy packaging. He would listen closely (his abilities in this area could probably rival Patrick Allen's) and then simply ask, "What's it for?" That question, "What's it for?" has guided my practice for the last fifteen years.

In these chapters, Patrick quotes Don, asking that same question, "What's it for?" Patrick suggests, "Perhaps we could build something grand and long lasting-- independent and engaged readers who walk away from conferences with the strategies and tools to help them become confident, effective, and deep readers" (p. 156).

If you were to ask me about my one walk-away from this week (aside from 'you need a mint'), this would be definitely be it. If every child who walked out of my class could be an INDEPENDENT, ENGAGED reader, who had the strategies and tools to become CONFIDENT, EFFECTIVE, and DEEP readers, I would absolutely feel that I had done my job. I'm going to post this goal right next to Don's question, which has hung over my desk for many years.

Some other thoughts that really struck me:

  • Conferences are an elegant example of how assessment can actually become one with instruction (Daniels and Bizar, 2005, p. 230, as quoted in Allen, p. 171). So often it feels like we assess and assess and assess, but don't use the data to really think about what kids need.

  • We need to get back to the business of knowing children, of knowing readers. If we want children to remember, understand, extend meaning, and make their reading experiences memorable, they have to be in a classroom where there is time for that to happen (p. 181). Amen, amen, and amen!

  • I confer with a "difficult" student the same way I do with any other student; perhaps a bit more patiently, but with hope nonetheless (p. 184). As the mom of two very different, but very "difficult" students, I can't even tell you how often I wish there was a little more "hope" involved in conversations about my sons.

  • Why teach a strategy if you're not going to give students time to practice, learn and apply it in their own reading? (p. 188). Andrea Butler, who was one of the first literacy gurus I ever heard or read always said that American kids were the most taught and less practiced kids in the world. Kids don't get good at stuff if they don't have time to work with it. A line from a poem that has stuck with me for many years, "It takes a lot of slow to grow." And the more kids struggle, the more time and practice they need. Unfortunately, it's often those kids, who are so busy jumping from interventionist to interventionist to interventionist, that they have almost no time to practice.

And now, because I am at Kinko's, and because the meter is running, I will end.

Laura is hosting the cyber conversation at Camp Read A Lot. I look forward to reading what everyone else has to say.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


We are in our second week of Cyber PD on Patrick Allen's CONFERRING: THE KEYSTONE OF READER'S WORKSHOP. For this week, we read Section Two, "What Are the Essential Components of Conferring?" Today's conversation is hosted by Jill Fisch at My Primary Passion. Stop by and see what everyone else has to say.

Again this week, I'm hugely struck by Patrick's theoretical grounding. Over the course of these two chapters, he quotes Donald Murray, Laura Benson, Don Graves, Deborah Meier, Ellin Keene and Susan Zimmerman, Daniel Pennac, Gordon Wells, Peter Johnston, Bronson Alcott and Arthur Costa. He also draws in the work of several colleagues from his teaching career. I wonder, like I did last week, about how clear I am at articulating my beliefs for others. I think about all the young teachers I have worked with. Have I done a good job sharing my theoretical grounding with them? Do people around me really know why I do what I do? How can I communicate my beliefs and theory more clearly?

In this section of the book, Patrick identifies his essentials. He has a really clear and specific format for his conferences. I think I have a similar format- I sit down next to a child, and usually start with an opening question, e.g. How's it going? I usually ask kids to begin the conference by telling me the title of their book, and also giving me one or two sentences to tell me what is going on. For me, the middle section of the conference totally depends on the child. I usually teach something related to comprehension or surface structure, but it varies from child to child, and from week to week. I always end up setting some kind of goal with the reader.

I was also struck by Patrick's ability to listen and trust his readers. He goes into each conference with the belief that the child has knows and has important things to say about him/herself as a reader. Patrick is open to the child's leading. Even though I would like to believe those same things are true about me, I'm not sure they really are. I don't think I'm a "question bombardier," but I think I usually do have an agenda, and I don't think I'm always great at listening to kids. That's something I really want to work on this year. (As I write this, I'm struck by how much teaching models life-- I don't think I'm always great at listening to my boys either. I always wish my boys would talk more to me, but maybe they would talk more if I was a better listener, and less slow to push my agenda off on them).

Finally, Patrick had me thinking about data collection, which is always a huge struggle for me. I had to laugh when he talked about the sticky computer labels. I've done that computer label thing too. Unlike Patrick, however, I didn't do four labels per conference. Instead, I tried to squeeze everything onto one label. I started with labels that were about 1 inch by 4 inches, and wrote really, really small. Even though I was much younger, the labels were still really, really hard to read. I think I gradually worked my way up to labels that were about 4 inches by 4 inches. Those were definitely more readable, but like Patrick, those quiet times of sticking labels into kids' individual assessment pages and reflecting on what the data actually meant were few and far between.

As I think about what I want record keeping to look like this year, I know a couple of things. First, I want it to be really, really simple. I'm thinking I will get one of those fat spiral notebooks, the kind with the durable plastic cover, and tab a section, four or five pages for each kid. I will probably use a format similar to the one Patrick's RIP format. I envision myself having some kind of a class list/calendar clipped to the front of the notebook, where I will keep track of how often I have conferred with kids (I am not even going to tell any of the stories of my early years of conferring, when I would get to report card time, and realized I had notes from eleven conferences with some kids, and only notes from two different sessions with other kids).

I have one hangup with the notebook system, however. Like Patrick, I really want kids to walk away from their conferences with some kind of a goal. I want them to review those goals every day, however, not just on the days when they meet with me. I'm thinking, then, that the kids have to somehow also keep track of their own reading goals they. I'm not sure whether I want them to write those goals down in a special section of their readers' notebook (I am still debating what I want the reading and writing notebooks to look like) or whether I want each child to have an individual goal notebook or ring of index cards where they write the goal, as I write it in my notebook. I really don't want things to be any more complicated or unwieldy then they have to be…

Lots and lots and lots to think about. Lots to go back and reread. Is anyone else's book falling apart from overuse? I think I have to go to my local print shop and get a spiral binding tomorrow…

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

MIDDLE SCHOOL- THE WORST YEARS OF MY LIFE by James Patterson and Chris Tebbits

On Friday I ran to the grocery store to buy dog food. And for some reason, there is a book display on the end of the dog food rack. And of course I had to stop and look. Which is, of course, very dangerous for someone who is not supposed to be spending any money on books. Anyway, there was this book by James Patterson. And even though it specifically said MIDDLE SCHOOL in the title, and even though am not going to be teaching middle school in the fall, and even though I have read way too much YA this summer, I picked it up. And about fifteen minutes later I remembered that I had run to the store to buy dog food because we were completely out. So then I had to buy the book because I didn't want the dogs to starve to death.

Rafe Khatchadorian is a sixth grader at Hills Village Middle School. During the principal's back to school read aloud of the HVMS Code of Conduct, Rafe decides he will make history by attempting to break every. single. one. He determines that there are 112 rules in the handbook. He assigns points to each one. Some, such as talking in class or chewing gum, are categorized as easy, and are worth less points. Others, such as pulling the fire alarm (which Rafe does the first day) fall into the advanced category, and are worth lots more points. He calls his project "Operation R.A.F.E." (Rules. Aren't. For. Everyone.) and keeps track of his points in a notebook illustrated by his best friend, Leonardo the Silent.

This book belongs in a basket with WIMPY KID and ORIGAMI YODA. There's plenty to draw the attention of the "not yet thrilled with reading set." The plot is a little bit racy, and has lots and lots of black line, humorously labeled illustrations. At the same time, there is some complexity to the characters and plot. Rafe is not a typical flat "bad kid." He cares about other people-- in fact one of the first rules of OPERATION R.A.F.E. is that none of his pranks can injure anyone. He also cares about disappointing his mom, and tries several times throughout the book to reform.

There are a couple of things about this book that I think might be a little confusing to kids, especially kids who are not particularly good readers. First, there are several twists involving Rafe's friend, Leonardo. I'm not sure that struggling readers would totally get these twists without a little extra support. Also, when Rafe gets in trouble and has to face an authority figure, he imagines himself meeting with a kind of alter ego, e.g. "The Dragon Lady" or "The Lizard King." Those chapters might be a little confusing, unless someone kind of walked them through the first one. Kids who aren't especially strong readers might benefit from just a little support in these areas.

A few years ago, I heard James Patterson speak at a conference, right after MAXIMUM RIDE had come out. He talked about how his interests as an author had shifted when his son got to middle school and stopped reading. He was trying to find books and write books that would be interesting to kids like his son, who didn't like to read. I think he has definitely done that with MIDDLE SCHOOL: THE WORST YEARS OF MY LIFE. It's definitely going to make the rounds in middle school, and maybe even some intermediate grade classrooms!

Monday, July 11, 2011


Do you ever think about all of the important stuff that has never occurred to you to think about? I guess that is kind of a weird question-- but really, do you ever come across a book, or article, or something that makes you stop and say, "Hmm, I never thought about that, or at least I never thought about it in that context, but it really is kind of important."

Take bicycles, for instance. Have you ever stopped to think about the role bicycles played in the women's rights movement? I hadn't, or at least I hadn't until I read WHEELS OF CHANGE: HOW WOMEN RODE THE BICYCLE TO FREEDOM (WITH A FEW FLAT TIRES ALONG THE WAY) by Sue Macy.

In WHEELS OF CHANGE, Macy traces the history of the bicycle, from its earliest times, but focuses particularly on how it has impacted women in the United States-- everything from transportation/freedom, to women's health, to women's clothing (long bulky hoopskirts simply weren't very practical on a bicycle, thus the invention of the bloomer and/or shorter skirt lengths).

WHEELS OF CHANGE is a typical National Geographic book- gorgeously designed with tons of interesting photographs (I especially loved the one of four African American bicyclists riding their bikes on the Alameda Avenue bridge in Denver), paintings, and publications from that era, as well as glossaries, a timeline, etc. Short features between each chapter provide additional information- biographies of famous women cyclists such as Madame Curie, cycling slang, and how the bicycle was used in advertising. I also loved the forward about how bicycles have changed the lives of women in modern day Africa.

This is a definitely a book for upper grade/middle/high school or older readers. It's pretty long (over 90 pages) and densely packed with great primary source information. If I taught high school American history or women's studies, I could see reading aloud different chunks and talking about other inventions that have had a similar impact on history.

I also think, however, that younger readers would enjoy looking at the great photographs and memorabilia from that time period. I loved the shorter, usually one page pieces between chapters. The biographies of Amelia Jenks Bloomer, Frances Willard, Alice Austen (sometimes compared to Civil War photographer Matthew Brady) and Denver cyclist Dora Rinehart would be great mentor texts for intermediate grade writers. I could also see myself using some of the other shorter chunks of text to help kids understand text structure.

When I see National Geographic on the front of a book, I know the book will be terrific- accurate, interesting, and lots of great visuals. WHEELS OF CHANGE definitely fulfills all of those expectations.

Review copy provided by publisher

Friday, July 8, 2011


For more than a decade, I have been a literacy coach, assistant principal, or district curriculum specialist. This year, I will be teaching fourth grade. I'm really excited about having my own classroom, but also more than a little nervous. Do I still remember how to set up a classroom? Can I keep track of all of the details teachers have to remember? Do I still know how to teach math?

Poetry Friday is one ritual I know we are going to have. I have lots of great poetry books (not to mention files and files and files of loose poetry!) but I'm always on the lookout for more. This week at Tattered Cover (Denver's independent bookstore), I found a book that's new to me.

WEIRD? ME TOO! LET'S BE FRIENDS is a collection of poems about friendship. There are poems about making friends, sharing ice cream, fighting, and making up. There are lots of poems for two voices and even one for four. And on many of the pages, Sara has kind of a "conversation" with kids, leaving a line or two of suggestion about a poem they might want to try.

The poem I chose for today is not the most "kid-dish" poem in the book. It's probably not even the first one I would share with kids. I just loved this poem because it kind of captures what some folks have done for me in this time of transition.

Walking On
the Boundaries of Change
Sara Holbrook

Day by day
a tightrope,
walking on the boundaries
of change.
One step--
firm, familiar.
The next step--
shaky, strange.

Some friends will
mock or push each step.
Some friends
knock your confidence.

Real friends
form a net.

Elaine, at Wild Rose Reader, is hosting Poetry Friday today.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


I'm trying to get ready to teach fourth grade, so I have been reading lots of novels this summer (and no, I'm definitely not saying that I'm not going to use picture books in fourth grade!). The last couple of days, however, I have spent some time in bookstores (it's almost football season, you know, and there are lot of pre-football meetings and practices!) and have gotten the chance to read a bunch of great new picture books. Here are some mini-reviews:

Originally, I went into Tattered Cover because I wanted to look at the latest installment in Mo Willems' Elephant and Piggie books. I love, love, love this series! In this book, Gerald buys an ice cream cone. He feels like he should share it with Piggie, but he really doesn't want to…

Mary Lee reviewed this at Year of Reading today, then I happened to see it on the shelf in the book store. It's a picture book, done graphic novel style, with 24 nursery rhymes hidden within the pictures. I think it would be PERFECT for a strategy study on activating schema/background knowledge. If you don't know the nursery rhymes, you won't be able to find them, nor will you get all of the humor. I think this would make for a really interesting discussion with intermediate grade kids.

AL PHA'S BET by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Any time I seem something with Amy Krouse Rosenthal's name on it, I know I will love it, and this one is no exception. The 26 letters have just been invented, and the king issues a challenge for his subjects to decide on their order. Al Pha bets himself that he can figure out the problem, and sure enough, he does. Rosenthal's usual quirky humor shows up again and again (you can probably figure out why P ended up where it did). I think kids of all ages are going to love this one.


Kids love a good butt book and when CHICKEN BUTT came out, I think I read it about five hundred times. I'm sure this one, full of word play about butts and underwear and lots of other naughtiness is going to be just as big a hit. I can't wait to share this one with kids.

EDWIN SPEAKS UP- April Stevens and Sophie Blackall

Mrs. Finnemore is headed for the grocery store with a whole brood of ferret kids, including Edwin. The trip is full of misadventures- Mrs. F leaves her pocket book on top of the car, for starters. The only one who seems to notice any of the mishaps is Edwin, but he still speaks in "baby language" (Figbutton noo noo POCKY BOOKY froppin ROOF= your purse is on the roof) and nobody understands him. As they walk into the store, she says, "Now don't let me forget the sugar for Edwin's birthday cake." You can probably guess who remembers the sugar…

FARMYARD BEAT- Lindsey Craig and Marc Brown
Franki reviewed this a couple of days ago. She thought it would be a great book for shared reading, and I totally agree! I also loved the collage illustrations and the fact that the farmer was female.

WIENER WOLF- Jeff Crosby

A little dachshund has a cushy life- a granny that knits him sweaters, a warm bed by the fire, a full food dish, etc. One day he gets a little bored and decides he will head for the wild side. At first he loves his new life with the wolves, then things get to be a little too much, and he heads home to Granny, who promptly knits him a brand new sweater. Jeff Crosby's illustrations, with Wiener Wolf hanging out with the wolf pack are really funny, but interestingly my eyes kept wanting to go back to his beautiful paintings of the wolves.


Stella's dad tells her it's time for bed but her stuffed animal friends just aren't ready to go to sleep. Stella takes the animals on different adventures-- and one by one, they fall asleep. Each adventure has its own little poem (maybe they are even supposed to be songs?) that goes along with it. Finally all of the animals are asleep and it's Stella's turn. A sweet, going to sleep story…

When I taught first grade, ROSIE'S WALK was one of the first books most kids learned to read. My six year old readers loved the simple text, but even more, they loved tracing Rosie's journey across the barnyard. ALONG A LONG ROAD is a ROSIE'S WALK kind of book, except that it doesn't feature a chicken, instead, the main character is a bicyclist, making his way around town. The illustrations are all shades of turquoise, red, black, and white, but the bicyclist's road is a kind of a shiny gold. I picture kids running their finger over that road again and again and again. This one is going to be a winner with the little guys, but I can also see older kids enjoying it.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


I'm participating in a little "cyber PD." For the next four weeks, anyone who wants to is going to be reading and discussing Patrick Allen's CONFERRING: THE KEYSTONE OF READER'S WORKSHOP. Each week, a different person will "host" the discussion. Today's discussion of the first section of the book is hosted by Cathy Mere at Reflect and Refine. Hop over there and see what other people are saying.

“The purpose readers set for themselves affects comprehension …

Tovani, as quoted in Allen, p. 69

I am going to have my own classroom for the first time in many years. And I have to confess, I’m really excited, but I am also absolutely terrified. Do I still know how to teach? Can I still manage the nine zillion details that go with a classroom? I’m spending the summer rereading professional books- books that I have read as a literacy coach or administrator, but that I am now reading through an entirely different lens. One of the first books I picked up was Patrick Allen’s latest book, CONFERRING: THE KEYSTONE OF READER’S WORKSHOP. I loved this book when I read it earlier this spring, but now, reading it as a classroom teacher, I’m viewing it through a somewhat different framework

First, I’m struck by Patrick’s theoretical grounding, what he calls his “ashlars.” Patrick has spent years learning at the feet of masters, brilliant thinkers like Don Graves, Shelley Harwayne, Debbie Miller, Laura Benson, and Randi Allison, and his practice is solidly grounded in theory. He translates this theory into tools that he uses in his own classroom, e.g. his template for planning a strategy study, on page 79 (a tool which I am so going to steal and use in my own classroom this year). It’s even more interesting to me that Patrick is able to translate that really complex theory, e.g Gallagher and Pearson’s Gradual Release of Responsibility, into language and concepts that kids can understand and apply to their own reading and writing. I have used gradual release for years and years, I’ve talked it about it lots with teachers and graduate students, but I am not sure I have ever explicitly named it for kids, and I want to try it.

Secondly, I’m struck by the elegance and precision of Patrick’s language. I’m fairly sure that Patrick and I use similar structures in our reading and writing workshops- we both start with a mini-lesson, followed by an independent work period, then a final wrap up. Patrick, however, labels these three components of his workshop much more elegantly than I do, and the precision of his language really communicates the significance of each period of time. Patrick calls his first block (which I typically call a mini-lesson), crafting- it’s a time when he makes the craft of reading explicit for kids. The independent work period is called Composing- it’s when kids actually put the craft lesson to work in their own reading. It seems likethat language would really drive home the idea of readers being active constructors of meaning, as opposed to passive “couch potatoes.” Patrick calls his final block reflecting and describes it as a time for readers to share, "Here's what I learned about myself, and this is what I plan to do with that learning." Wow, wow, wow! And I am so going to be borrowing/stealing his early workshop discussions (pp. 82-89).

Finally, I loved Patrick’s discussion of stamina/endurance. I’ve worked on those concepts with kids, but I have always worked on them in the context of fluency, talking with kids about entering more deeply into their “reading zone” and staying in that zone for increasing periods of time. I love how Patrick uses picture books like WALK ON, and SKYBOYS and WILMA UNLIMITED to help kids get a picture of what stamina/endurance look like in a variety of settings.

Readers adjust their purpose depending on who they are reading for. Right now, I'm reading CONFERRING for myself, a brand new fourth grade teacher. And I'm loving every minute of it! Thanks so much, Patrick!

If you are interested in jumping into the discussion, here is the schedule for the next few weeks:
July 13th: Part II: What Are the Essential Components of Conferring?
Hosted by Jill Fisch at Primary Passion
July 20th: Part III. What Emerges from Our Reading Conferences?
Hosted by Laura K at Camp Read-A-Lot
July 21st: Join us for the final conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #cyberPD.

Monday, July 4, 2011


Not much blogging going on right now. It's not that I am not reading, because I actually have read quite a bit. Think it's more that most of what I have read has been recommended by other bloggers, and since they have already blogged about it, I wonder what I would have to say that is new or different. Which makes me wonder why I am bothering to blog at all, but that's probably a whole different post. Anyway, as far as what I have been reading lately…

AFTER EVER AFTER by Jordan Sonnenblick
Jeffrey is an eighth grade leukemia survivor. The lasting effects of chemo have shaped Jeffrey as a learner and a human being. He struggles with math, for instance, even though his dad is an accountant and math whiz. Nerve damage in one foot has left him unable to participate in physical education, or play the drums with his beloved older brother, Steven. Because of his struggles, Jeffrey is totally surprised when Lindsey Abraham, a hot new eighth grader from California, becomes interested in him. His delight in this new relationship is overshadowed by worries about passing the state math test and/or being retained in eighth grade, missing Steven, who has taken a year off to go to Africa and play the drums, and concerns about his best friend, Tad, who is also a cancer survivor.

Jordan Sonnenblick is an author that's new to me. I don't teach middle school and probably won't use his work a lot in my classroom. Even so, I enjoyed AFTER EVER AFTER tremendously and think middle school kids would love the real-life issues and relationships, also how Sonnenblick moves in and out of various teen friendly genre- email, instant messages, bulleted lists, etc., to tell the story. I have gotten recommendations from Twitter buddies for a couple of more that I want to read.

JAKE by Audrey Couloumbis
It's Saturday morning, the week before Christmas, and Jake and his mother are at the grocery store when she slips on the ice and breaks her leg. The hospital social worker asks Jake for the name of a relative. Aside from Mrs. Buttermark, a grandmother-ish neighbor and family friend, the only person Jake can think of is a grandfather, his father's father, who he hasn't seen since his dad passed away many years earlier. A sweet story about relationships and reconnection-- I especially loved the connection between Jake and Mrs. Buttermark, because I know so many kids who rely heavily on neighbors, or people who aren't biological family, for physical and moral support.

WAR & WATERMELON by Rich Wallace
Brody Winslow is going through a lot of changes. He's starting seventh grade and will be going to a new school. He's trying out for the football team. And trying to figure out the girl thing. Maybe most importantly, his older brother, Ryan, has just graduated from high school, and is trying to figure out what to do with his life. He's not sure he wants to go to college, at least not right away, but the Vietnam War is in full swing, and if he doesn't go to school, he will probably go to war. Brody is caught right between his parents, who love their son and don't want him to go to Vietnam, and his brother, who doesn't want to go to school, but also doesn't want to fight a war he doesn't believe in.

I enjoyed this book. I grew up during the Vietnam War. When I was about eight, my cousin, Greg, who was a junior in high school, came to live with us for a couple of years. I remember many, many similar conversations around our dinner table. I think this book would be perfect during a study of that era. If kids didn't have some background knowledge, however, I'm not sure that they would really "get" the historical aspects of WAR & WATERMELON.

THE GREAT WALL OF LUCY WU by Wendy Wan-Lung Shang
Lots of people have been "talking" about LUCY WU. Mary Lee's brother, Dave, reviewed it on YEAR OF READING a couple of weeks ago. Karen reviewed it on LITERATE LIVES. Lucy Wu thinks she is going to have a perfect sixth grade year. Her sister, Regina, is leaving for college so Lucy will finally have her own room. She loves basketball and is eagerly looking forward to the start of a new season. Things change, however, when Lucy finds out that her great aunt Yi Po is coming to stay for a few months, and will be sharing Lucy's room. Lucy's parents decide she should attend Chinese School, which meets at the same time as basketball practice. And the class bully, Sloane (whose mom is President of the parent organization), does her best to make Lucy's life miserable.

Like Dave and Karen, I loved this book. Wendy Wan-Lung Shang really gets the life of a sixth grader, and especially a sixth grader from a different cultural background- that balance between trying to fit in, trying to be your own person, and yet also still retain your family's rich cultural history. And Shang teaches kids a heck of a lot about the Cultural Revolution in a way that is interesting and not preachy or forced. This one would definitely be on my shelf if I taught upper intermediate grades or middle school.

And right now? Well right now I'm rereading Patrick Allen's CONFERRING, in preparation for an online PD experience (thanks to Cathy Mere for organizing this) and am also reading he adult novel, ROOM, by Emma Donoghue.