Friday, January 29, 2016


How To Be a Poet

(to remind myself)

Make a place to sit down.   
Sit down. Be quiet.   
You must depend upon   
affection, reading, knowledge,   
skill—more of each   
than you have—inspiration,   
work, growing older, patience,   
for patience joins time   
to eternity. Any readers   
who like your poems,   
doubt their judgment.   


Breathe with unconditional breath   
the unconditioned air.   
Shun electric wire.   
Communicate slowly. Live   
a three-dimensioned life;   
stay away from screens.   
Stay away from anything   
that obscures the place it is in.   
There are no unsacred places;   
there are only sacred places   
and desecrated places.   


Accept what comes from silence.   
Make the best you can of it.   
Of the little words that come   
out of the silence, like prayers   
prayed back to the one who prays,   
make a poem that does not disturb   
the silence from which it came.

Catherine, at Reading to the Core, is hosting Poetry Friday this week. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016


I have always told my boys
that your family
are the people that love you
and take care of your heart.

I have worked hard to help my boys find those people.
Team moms
and grandparents
and friends.
Those are their family.
The people who love them
and take care of their hearts.

And now I am having to take that advice myself.
This weekend life kicked me in the teeth hard.
Really hard.
The kind of hard
where you lay awake all night
then go to work the next morning
and try to function
but your eyes tear up
and your voice breaks
when least expect it.

Those kick in the teeth times are hard
when they come from people you don't know.
Who are not supposed to love you.
or care if they hurt your feelings
or break your heart.

But they are even harder
when they come from people you know.
The people you are supposed to love.
The people who are supposed to love you back
The people you are supposed to be able to trust.

And then you have to go to your real "family."
To the people who love you
and take care of your heart
to have the pieces put back together again.

Tonight I have book club.
And I will be with the people
who really are my family
The people
who love me
and take care of my heart.

Sunday, January 24, 2016


Almost a month later, I'm still wrapping up my CYBILS reviews. Today's book is another novel in verse.

RED BUTTERFLY, the debut novel of author A.L. Sonnichsen, is the story of Kara, an eleven-year-old girl in China.  Kara has a limb deformity, a malformed hand, that caused her birth parents to abandon her.  She lives with an elderly American woman, whose visa expired long ago. The Chinese government will not let the only mother Kara has even known adopt, because of her age, and so the two live a secret life, closeted away in a tiny apartment. The woman's husband and adult, Jody, live worlds away in Montana, and Kara wonders why they cannot visit or move there.

Jody comes to visit and suffers a medical emergency, which causes the family to be discovered. In the second section of the book, titled "Dissolve," Mama is deported and Kara ends up in an orphanage, where she is befriended by a physical therapist (whose name I failed to include in my notes- sorry!). Most of the children in the orphanage have much more intensive physical challenges, such as cerebral palsy and spina bifida, and Kara ends up helping, and befriends several of the children.

Kara's Montana family is not allowed to adopt her, because of their age. Eventually, she  is adopted by a family in Florida, who has several other children adopted from China. Kara has difficulty adjusting to her new life, away from the only mother she has ever known, and I love that this book does not sugar coat how hard that adjustment period really is.

Upper elementary and middle school kids will enjoy this story, as will adoptive families. I know I did!

Friday, January 22, 2016


Not quite a month ago, I wrapped up a stint as a first round judge for the CYBILS poetry category. This year, for the first time, novels in verse were included under poetry, and there were a lot of great ones, I think around 15. Today's offering, 5 to 1, by Holly Bodger, a dystopian story, is told in two voices, part novel in verse, and part prose. 

The year is 2054. In India, where gender selection has gone on for many years, there are now 5 men for every one woman. A group of women, tired of the inequality, have somehow managed to wall off an entire city and create their own country, Koyanager. Men in this city/country exist for one purpose-- to serve women.

"Boys are taught only useful things. Things that will help them serve the women in Koyanagar." 

Woman in Koyangar select their husband through a special process, that feels, to me, a little like THE HUNGER GAMES. Five men are involved in a series of contests. The winner of these contests becomes the lucky husband. Losers are sent away to serve as wall guards for Koyanagar. 

Sudasa, whose story is told in verse, is an unusual young woman. She does not want to select a husband this way.

I should be thankful.
Thankful my sex
guarantees me the life of a bird
A home?
Feels more like a cage.

She is even less pleased to learn that somehow, her contest has been fixed, and a cousin that she doesn't even like,  is included in her five choices, intended to be her husband. 

Kiran, another one of Sudasa's five choices, whose story is told in prose, is also more than a little unusual. 
When I was about to turn fifteen, I got up extra early so I could finish my chores and then listen to every minute of the tests. But after a few months, they all sounded the same. Different girl, different boys, but the rest: same same same. And still, the people here today have swarmed like flies to a rotting corpse. Someone should tell them they’re a bit early. The corpses come after the tests.
Kiran has plotted with his father to lose the contest, and then somehow escape from Koyangar. 

I thought the ending of the book would be predictable. I expected Sudasa to defy her family, and select Kiran. The two would then fall in love and live happily ever after. It seemed a given. 

You will have read the book yourself to see whether that really happens. 

"No, we cannot change

the mistakes we’ve left behind.
But there’s one thing we can do—
one thing I must do—
we can choose not
to repeat them."

This book seems perfect to hand off to THE HUNGER GAMES/TWILIGHT crowd. 

Tara, at A Teaching Life,  is hosting Poetry Friday today. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016


So I'm kind of wondering if I might be losing my teaching mind???

I have always thought of myself as someone who demanded, and got, a lot out of kids, but lately I'm really beginning to wonder. It has to do with this thing we are calling "rigor."

Because I'm kind of feeling like there is a fine line between rigor and ridiculous.

And somehow, I think we have crossed it.

 I look at the kids I teach. They are seven or eight or thirteen or fourteen. They read-- picture books and chapter books and graphic novels and poetry and social media and text books-- all the time. They seem to be developing as readers.

But then I look at the texts/passages we are asking kids to read on tests. And mostly, they seem ridiculously hard. Two or three or four years above what I would expect kids that age to read and understand. And I question whether this is really developmentally appropriate, really necessary.

And I look at the questions kids are being asked to answer. Minutiae. Teeny, teeny twists in language that separate the correct answer from the closest distractor. And I think of the English Language Learners I teach. And I question whether this is really developmentally appropriate, really necessary.

And I look at what we are asking kids to write. Forget personal narrative, or response to text. Kids are presented with at least two relatively long passages. Asked to compare point of view, or character change over time, or literary techniques. Often in a 45 minute time frame.  And I question whether this is really developmentally appropriate, really necessary.

I watch our third graders, who have only just learned to keyboard. Watch their faces scrunch as they think. Watch their hands stretch as they attempt to type. And I question whether this is really developmentally appropriate, really necessary.

I look at the way some of the test questions are constructed. And I wonder whether they are really measuring kids' reading and writing abilities, or their computer savvy. And whether we can really count one or two or three questions as an accurate measure of a child's mastery of a standard. And I question whether this is really necessary.

I wonder about all of this, but when I open my mouth to ask questions, people look at me like I'm a heretic. Like I don't expect enough out of kids. And I feel like the child who is pointing out that the emperor is wearing new clothes.

So I'm kind of wondering if I might be losing my teaching mind???

Tuesday, January 12, 2016


Our kids' first  day back after vacation.
Eighth grade lunch duty.
I make my rounds between the tables,
making my presence known enough to avoid potential disasters.
An ordinary day until she throws up on my feet.

No, not literally.

I am walking by her table.
Often she sits with three or four girls, but today there are just two of them.
Her friend gets something in her eye and leaves for the bathroom.
J asks if I will stand there with her until she comes back, so she won't be alone.
I oblige.
I have known her for a long time,  almost three years,
since I loaned her lunch money the first day of sixth grade.
That day, she was wearing a black t-shirt with a picture of a woman,
and a date, only a few months past.
I asked who the woman was, and she told me that it was her mother,
who died from a brain tumor.

We have been friends since that day,
in a kind of love/hate relationship.
I've cheered for her at sporting events,
sat with her in suspension hearings,
and helped with science fair projects.
Some days she likes me, and we are best friends.
Other days she can't stand me,
makes fun of my shoes,
badmouths me to her friends.

Today I ask, just kind of conversationally,
 if she had a good vacation.
And she throws up on my feet.

She tells me that it was her birthday.
That her dad was supposed to pick her up
(she lives with a family member),
but that he has a new girl friend
and the girl friend is pregnant,
and doesn't want J around.
The story comes out in a rush
and sits on the table between us.
Hurt, raw and deep, flashes across her face.

I am surprised.
I have never heard anything about a dad
or met him at parent teacher conferences,
or sporting events.
I did not know there was a dad in the picture.
She tells me that he used to pick her up every weekend
and call all the time
but now he doesn't.

in some situations,
I have the words.
I can comfort girls who have fought with their best friends
or broken up with their boyfriends.
I know what to say about dead pets.
I'm pretty good at helping kids regroup
after they have made a stupid mistake.
But today I don't know what to say.

I tell her I am so sorry.
Offer a story about one of my sons.
And the father that isn't there.
And how badly it hurts my son
to know that father has
a whole other family
a whole other life
about 15 minutes away from ours.

It isn't enough.
But it's the best I can do.
Teaching is hard
on the days when the kids
throw up on your feet.

Monday, January 11, 2016

WON TON and CHOPSTICK- Lee Wardlaw

I'm still reviewing CYBILS nominees. Today's offering WONTON AND CHOPSTICK by Lee Wardlaw, is a sequel to WONTON, a story about a shelter cat and the boy who takes him home. Wonton and Chopstick is  broken into chapters, just like the original. In the first chapter, WONTON has become very comfortable in his routines.

The Routine
Nap, play, bathenap, eat, repeatpractice makes purr fect.
One day, he senses something different in the house. A new puppy has come home. And the adjustment is a little difficult.
The Surpriseputhimoutputhimoutputhimoutputhim-- waitI said him,  not me.  
Eventually Won-Ton and the intruder become co-conspirators.
You shouldn't rummagethrough the rubbishbut what's doneis done so…Let's eat!
And of course, ultimately they become friends.
Your secret revealed.What kind of name is Basho?I shall call you…Friend. 

Sweet, predictable, one that the little guys are sure to ask for again and again.

* I'm not sure why, but Blogspot is being difficult today and won't let me do line breaks. My apologies to Lee Wardlaw!

Friday, January 8, 2016


I've spent the last two and half months as a first round poetry judge for the CYBILS award. We were charged with the task of choosing seven books from 48 terrific nominations, and The Popcorn Astronauts And Other Bite-able Rhymes by Deborah Ruddell was one of the seven finalists we selected. The book includes 21 poems about food, organized by season: spring is smoothies and guacamole, summer is, of course, watermelon, Fall is baked potatoes and brownies, and winter is popcorn, mac and cheese, and brownies. One of my fellow judges, Nancy Bo Flood, describes the book in this way:
"Delicious. Ridiculous. Funny. Engaging. Popcorn Astronauts offers a variety of “edible” poems that are as strange and crazy as the book’s title. For example, try a shake ordered to poetic specifications: “A frosty cup of moonlight, please … As mushy as a mittenful of slightly melted snow ….” If that is a little on the chilly side, then try “Dracula’s Late-Night Bite,”especially after he “flosses his fangs and he slides out the door for dessert.” Great poems to cause both laughter and interest in young readers and examples for writing one’s own delicious verse."
Nancy Bo Flood, ReaderKidz

Arrival of the Popcorn Astronauts
The daring popcorn astronauts
are brave beyond compare--
they scramble into puffy suits
and hurtle through the air.

And when they land, we say hooray
and crowd around the spot
to salt the little astronauts
and eat them while they're hot.

- Deborah Ruddell

And one of my personal favorites:

How a Poet Orders a Shake
"A frosty cup of moonlight, please"
the poet murmurs low.
As mushy as a mittenful
of slightly melted snow...

"And softer than a summer cloud
and paler than a swan
and pearlier than polar bears,"
the poet rambles on.

And let it be at least as sweet
as icing on a cake
In other words, my usual:
a small vanilla shake.
- - Deborah Ruddell

For reviews of the other six finalists, go to the CYBILS website.

Tabatha is hosting Poetry Friday this week at The Opposite of Indifference.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016


Pretty much every post I have read tonight talks about one little word.

I'm embarrassed to admit that I haven't chosen one. And that I might not choose one.

I can't remember what word I chose last year. I clearly didn't do a very good job living it, since I can't even remember what it was.

I have thought of several words. The one that comes to mind over and over again is ORDER. Or ORGANIZATION. Both of those things are sadly lacking in my life right now. Last summer, I bought the TIDYING UP book that everyone seems to be talking about. I started it. Then I lost it. Then found it again. And restarted. I really want to be one of those orderly, organized people with a clean house and clean closets and a clean car and a clean garage. But I'm not there yet.

I have also thought about BALANCE. I'm not very good at that either. For a couple of different reasons. I really love my job. And I love the people I work with. It really doesn't feel like work when you get to do something you love every day. But I definitely  could stand to work a few less hours.

I know I will work on my Spanish. But I don't have a word for it. BILINGUAL seems a very lofty goal, given my current state of Spanish.

 I have thought about CREATE. I'm really longing to do something artistic. Just not sure what. I have thought about taking a class in watercolors. That's something I have always wanted to do. I have also thought about taking a knitting class. But I think those would be a lot more fun with someone else, and I haven't found anyone to do it with yet. I want to redesign my blog. I tried that New Year's Eve, but I didn't get too far. And learn to create some of the fancy graphics that everyone else seems to know how to do.

There are other words I could choose. PATIENCE? That would be a good one. Or what is the opposite of PROCRASTINATE? That could be my word. Or the opposite of WORRY? That's another one  I could definitely use.

I haven't chosen a word yet this year.

I'm really not sure I will.

Monday, January 4, 2016


Ella and Penguin are good friends. It only makes sense, then, that when Ella gets a new package of extra special, glow-in-the dark stickers, that she wants to share them with her friend. The problem is, both Ella and Penguin are a little, ok, maybe a lot, afraid of the dark. And you can't really get the full effect of glow-in-the-dark stickers unless you go into a dark place. A sweet, sweet story about friendship and sticking together and facing fears.

Review copy provided by publisher

Sunday, January 3, 2016

AN AMBUSH OF TIGERS- Betsy Rosenthal

I love books that encourage kids to develop a fascination with words. AN AMBUSH OF TIGERS is definitely one of those books. In this rhyming picture book, author Betsy Rosenthal presents collective nouns in a way that kids are sure to enjoy. Did you know that a group of tigers is called an ambush? That giraffes come in towers? Rhinos in crashes? Leopards in leaps? Sharks in shivers? Porcupines in prickles? There are thirty-three different animal groups for kids to enjoy.

Does an ambush of tigers
quietly creep
past a bed of oysters
that snores in its sleep? 
Do leaps of lizards
jump into trees
while armies of herring
march in the seas?

And when all these animals
receive an invitation
to come together
for a huge celebration 
Would you call it a mob?
A sea? A crowd?
Whatever it is
it sure is LOUD!
Back matter includes a glossary.