Archive | Teach It Forward

My Word for the New Year

As in past years, in lieu of a New Year’s res­o­lu­tion, I’ve cho­sen a sin­gle word to frame the year ahead. There are numer­ous web­sites and blogs that cel­e­brate this idea. This is my favorite. The fol­low­ing sen­ti­ment from the site real­ly sums it up beau­ti­ful­ly; My One Word replaces bro­ken promis­es with a vision for real change. When you choose a sin­gle word, you have a clar­i­ty and focus. You are mov­ing toward the future rather than swear­ing off the past. 

Drum roll, please … PERSPECTIVE. That’s my focus and goal for 2020. When I chose the word “per­spec­tive” I hon­est­ly didn’t even make the con­nec­tion with the num­bers in the new year, 2020. It seems so fit­ting that “20÷20” vision means visu­al acu­ity, the clar­i­ty and sharp­ness of vision. For me, gain­ing per­spec­tive is all about expand­ing my under­stand­ing of sit­u­a­tions, of oth­ers and of life so that I have mul­ti­ples lens­es with which to view them.


Once my word was cho­sen, I began con­tem­plat­ing how I would add more per­spec­tive to my think­ing, feel­ings, beliefs and, ulti­mate­ly, my actions. It will come as no shock to my friends, col­leagues, and faith­ful Teach it For­ward fol­low­ers, that the ulti­mate answer lies in the pages of my many books.

While lis­ten­ing, real­ly lis­ten­ing, with the heart and not just one’s ears, is an essen­tial way to gain per­spec­tive, I believe that vora­cious read­ing is also an espe­cial­ly impor­tant approach to gain­ing and focus­ing on per­spec­tive. Find­ing myself lost in a book that takes me to anoth­er place or time, with char­ac­ters so real they feel like long-lost friends, is def­i­nite­ly one way I will keep per­spec­tive in the fore­front of my mind through­out the year ahead.

When I read books for plea­sure, whether it be for my month­ly book club, from a rec­om­men­da­tion from one of my book enthu­si­ast friends (join our Face­book group here) or a title I’ve dis­cov­ered from the many book blogs or sites I fol­low, I often find myself think­ing about my stu­dents. I share my read­ing life with them reg­u­lar­ly, but I also want them to hear about how and why the books I read change me and make my life bet­ter.

One idea I have for pro­mot­ing the idea of per­spec­tive is to not only offer insight about what I’m read­ing, but also to offer kid-appro­pri­ate book rec­om­men­da­tions that con­nect to the themes and top­ics of my books. Fol­low­ing is a list of books I have on my “just read,” “cur­rent­ly read­ing,” or “to-be-read” lists and the children’s or mid­dle grade titles I would pair with them. My hope is that as I gain per­spec­tive from read­ing, I can share that goal and ben­e­fit with my stu­dents, inspir­ing them to be life-long read­ers.

Giver of Stars and BiblioburroThe Giv­er of Stars by Jojo Moyes + Bib­liobur­ro: A True Sto­ry from Colom­bia by Jeanette Win­ter

Both books fea­ture sto­ries of trav­el­ing libraries, with books deliv­ered to read­ers in remote loca­tions by horse­back and don­key. Five fierce women in the late 1930s impact the lives of the moun­tain folk in rur­al Ken­tucky as well as expe­ri­ence dra­mat­ic change in their own lives, thanks to FDR’s New Deal. In Colum­bia, a boy named Luis decides to share his love of books by deliv­er­ing sto­ries to chil­dren in far­away vil­lages with his bur­ros, Alfa and Beto. Read­ers of these books will gain per­spec­tive about the deter­mi­na­tion of some very spe­cial librar­i­ans who are will­ing to go to the extreme to spread lit­er­a­cy to all cor­ners of the world.

This is How It Always Is and Julian Is a MermaidThis is How it Always Is by Lau­rel Frankel + Julián is a Mer­maid by Jes­si­ca Love

Both books invite the read­er to imag­ine what it is like to yearn for a trans­for­ma­tion even when that change risks ridicule and requires a great deal of courage. Frankel shares the heart wrench­ing yet uplift­ing sto­ry of a child named Claude, a family’s secret and the lib­er­at­ing free­dom that comes from hon­or­ing the truth. Love’s ten­der sto­ry about a boy, his secret desire and his grandma’s uncon­di­tion­al love and accep­tance is sim­ply exquis­ite. Read­ers of these books will gain per­spec­tive about being the par­ent or grand­par­ent of a pre­cious child who is deal­ing with a desire to be who they are meant to be (along with per­spec­tive about being that child).

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate + For­ev­er or a Long Long Time by Caela Carter

Both books explore the com­plex and unre­solved feel­ings that some­times impact kids in fos­ter care or orphan­ages. Wingate’s saga is based on actu­al events from the Ten­nessee Children’s Home Soci­ety orphan­age and reveals the incred­i­ble bond that can nev­er be sev­ered among sib­lings. Carter’s poignant sto­ry por­trays the strug­gle of build­ing trust when your life has been a nev­er end­ing series of good­byes and start­ing over. Read­ers of these books will gain per­spec­tive of the need to explore one’s past in order to see the future. 

The Day the World Came to Town by Jim DeFede + Tow­ers Falling by Jew­ell Park­er Rhodes

Both books exam­ine the after­math of 911. The adult book fea­tures the true sto­ry that inspired the hit Broad­way musi­cal Come from Away about a small town in New­found­land that wel­comed 7,000 strand­ed pas­sen­gers fol­low­ing the cri­sis. The mid­dle grade book intro­duces Dèja’s point of view, a fifth grade girl search­ing for answers about the ter­ri­fy­ing event that impact­ed her fam­i­ly and com­mu­ni­ty in so many ways. Read­ers of these books will gain per­spec­tive about how we can find some­thing about human­i­ty to trea­sure even in the midst of tragedy.

The Atom­ic City Girls: A Nov­el by Janet Beard + Sadako and the 1000 Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr

Both books are based on true events and shed light on a tough and sen­si­tive top­ic, the atom­ic bomb. The first title delves into life in Oak Ridge, Ten­nessee, lat­er known as “Atom­ic City,” where peo­ple worked unknow­ing­ly on the Man­hat­tan Project dur­ing World War II. The sec­ond book is a trib­ute to a young Japan­ese girl who was just two years old when the bomb was dropped in Hiroshi­ma and was lat­er diag­nosed with leukemia. Read­ers of these books will gain per­spec­tive about the dev­as­tat­ing effects of war.

Edu­cat­ed: A Mem­oir by Tara West­over + Schooled by Gor­don Kor­man

Both books present a nar­ra­tive about learn­ing in an unortho­dox man­ner. West­over shares the sto­ry of her incred­i­ble jour­ney of learn­ing which start­ed as a child in Ida­ho with her sur­vival­ist par­ents and even­tu­al­ly led to a PhD from Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty. Korman’s mid­dle grade nov­el fea­tures a young boy, Capri­corn (Cap), who has lived most of his life in a com­mune with his grand­ma. Iso­lat­ed from the real world until his grand­ma is hos­pi­tal­ized, Cap is sud­den­ly thrown into an unfa­mil­iar world and the harsh real­i­ties of mid­dle school. Read­ers of these books will gain per­spec­tive on what it’s like to assim­i­late into a soci­ety that seems for­eign while try­ing to under­stand the life and fam­i­ly you’ve left behind.

A read­er lives a thou­sand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who nev­er reads lives only one.” ― George R.R. Mar­tin, A Dance with Drag­ons


I love that you always find a bookstore!”

After post­ing pho­tos on Face­book of a recent trip to Chica­go, my friend Joanne post­ed the above com­ment. My heart soared a bit, know­ing that my pas­sion for books and book­stores gar­nered such a love­ly, pos­i­tive obser­va­tion. It’s no secret that just about any­time I find myself traips­ing through a new town, I am eager to check out the local book­store. It seems fit­ting that as 2019 comes to a close, I recap my book­store adven­tures from the past year and share a few high­lights from five favorites.

Riv­er Lights 2nd Book­store
1098 Main Street
Dubuque, IA

Why it’s worth the vis­it

Dubuque is my home­town and though there are three col­lege book­stores, Riv­er Lights is the only inde­pen­dent book­seller in the city. The quaint and com­fy estab­lish­ment is con­ve­nient­ly locat­ed on Main Street and it’s open sev­en days a week. What I love most about it is the qual­i­ty and quan­ti­ty of rec­om­mend­ed titles and how they are dis­played. The space is not huge, but they make use of the space in a most charm­ing man­ner. Floor to ceil­ing shelves with a cool slid­ing lad­der pro­vide plen­ty of oppor­tu­ni­ty for explor­ing. There’s also a cute lit­tle nook espe­cial­ly for kids.

River Lights Bookstore

Riv­er Lights 2nd Book­store, Dubuque, Iowa

If I still lived in Dubuque, I would be thrilled to take advan­tage of the many book clubs spon­sored by Riv­er Lights; Chow Bel­la for food groupies, Slight­ly Creepy — a hor­ror book club, Page and Palette for art lovers, the lunch time book group, and the “read and be empow­ered” fem­i­nist book group. I’ll con­tin­ue to vis­it Riv­er Lights when I return to Iowa for fam­i­ly events and I hope any­one pass­ing through or stop­ping by Dubuque for a longer stay also checks it out.

Riv­er Lights has a great web­site fea­tur­ing a cal­en­dar of events, book sug­ges­tions, local author fea­tures and more. They offer an edu­ca­tor dis­count of 10% and a 30% dis­count to edu­ca­tors buy­ing books in bulk.

Chang­ing Hands Book­store
6428 McClin­tock Dr.
Tempe, AZ

Why it’s worth the vis­it

I’m for­tu­nate to head south mul­ti­ple times a year to vis­it my daugh­ter (and get a break from the Min­neso­ta win­ters!). Chang­ing Hands, billed as “Arizona’s lead­ing inde­pen­dent book­store,” has two loca­tions in the val­ley, one in Phoenix and one just a few miles from my Ari­zona retreat. The expan­sive space offers a mul­ti­tude of new and used books to peruse along with lots of adorable gift buy­ing options. There’s a great cof­fee shop con­nect­ed to Chang­ing Hands and there is always a “side­walk sale” with bar­gain books tak­ing place out­side.

Changing Hands Bookstore

Chang­ing Hands Book­store, Tempe, AZ

If I lived in Tempe, I would espe­cial­ly appre­ci­ate the many work­shops and events (more than 400 per year) spon­sored by Chang­ing Hands. Their doors first opened in 1974, as “a social­ly respon­si­ble, envi­ron­men­tal­ly sound busi­ness that would also be a com­mu­ni­ty gath­er­ing place” and after 45 years, two of the orig­i­nal own­ers con­tin­ue to make it their mis­sion to raise aware­ness of social jus­tice issues, pro­mot­ing inclu­sion and a love of lit­er­a­cy. I pre­dict my next vis­it to Ari­zona will include a stop at the Phoenix Chang­ing Hands loca­tion which also includes the “First Draft Book Bar,” a unique venue fea­tur­ing cof­fee, wine, beer and snacks.

Chang­ing Hands has an impres­sive social media pres­ence. Their web­site offers a week­ly newslet­ter, ideas, events, staff book picks, and my favorite, the “B.I.T.” and “LILB.I.T.” book picks. Tweens, aged 8 – 12, com­prise an élite group of book review­ers who offer their opin­ion on books pri­or to release dates or “Before Its Trendy.” This impres­sive fix­ture in the Ari­zona lit world offers an edu­ca­tor dis­count of 10% and a wide range of oth­er ben­e­fits and pro­grams for teach­ers and kids.

Indi­go Books
1033 Rob­son St.
Van­cou­ver, BC, Cana­da

Why it’s worth the vis­it

While not an inde­pen­dent book sell­er, Indi­go (Canada’s lead­ing book retail­er), is led by two pas­sion­ate women who are intent on spread­ing a mis­sion of joy, con­nec­tions, expe­ri­ences and pas­sion. With 89 super­stores and 111 small stores in all 10 Cana­di­an provinces, chances are if you love books and have spent time in Cana­da, you’ve heard of Indi­go. Last year they opened their first store in the U.S. in Short Hills, New Jer­sey. I stum­bled upon the Indi­go store locat­ed in Van­cou­ver while trav­el­ing to Alas­ka last sum­mer. Though I man­aged to make my way through most of the numer­ous rooms, sec­tions and floors in less than two hours, I could have eas­i­ly spent two days in this lit­er­a­cy haven.

Indigo Books, Vancouver, BC

Indi­go Books, Van­cou­ver, BC

If I vis­it Cana­da again, I would seri­ous­ly plan my trip around anoth­er vis­it to an Indi­go book­store. I also know that should my trav­els take me out east, a stop in Short Hills, New Jer­sey, would be a pri­or­i­ty. The smart dis­plays, beau­ti­ful mur­al paint­ings, and cre­ative­ly designed depart­ments at Indi­go give it a hip, con­tem­po­rary feel. Though it is far dif­fer­ent from the inti­ma­cy of small inde­pen­dent book­stores, I still felt a sense of allure and delight as I explored the 29,000 square foot space.

For book enthu­si­asts who are inter­est­ed in Indi­go but may not be able to trav­el so far to check them out, the Indi­go web­site pro­vides lots to check out and the “about us” page is espe­cial­ly inter­est­ing. The Indi­go Love of Read­ing Foun­da­tion is ded­i­cat­ed to help­ing high-needs ele­men­tary schools in Cana­da pro­vide stu­dents access to books. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, order­ing online from Indi­go brings with it hefty inter­na­tion­al ship­ping charges so I sug­gest vis­it­ing in per­son if at all pos­si­ble.

Par­nas­sus Books
5 Creek Street
Ketchikan, Alas­ka

Why it’s worth the vis­it

My first trip to Alas­ka last July began with a stop in the rainy, lit­tle vil­lage of Ketchikan. Strolling through the pic­turesque down­town board­walk, one can­not miss the ide­al­ly locat­ed Par­nas­sus Books. The native pride that emanates from the shelves and dis­plays is also easy to spot.

Parnassus Books, Ketchikan, AK

Par­nas­sus Books, Ketchikan, AK

If I am lucky enough to go on anoth­er Alaskan adven­ture, I would def­i­nite­ly want to vis­it Par­nas­sus Books again. I loved find­ing sev­er­al MN authors fea­tured in the tiny but well-stocked children’s sec­tion and my pur­chas­es that day made ter­rif­ic sou­venirs for the grand­kids.

Ketchikan is a pop­u­lar stop for tourists and cruise ships. My hope is that all who spend time in this love­ly place also make their way to Par­nas­sus Books. The book­store is active on their Face­book page where new books and vis­i­tors to the store are fre­quent­ly fea­tured in posts. You know you’re in good book-lov­ing com­pa­ny when the own­er shares a mes­sage like this:

Win­ter Hours 
Tues­day-Sat­ur­day 10 – 5
Sun­day 12 – 4
CALL 225‑7690 to grab a book after hours as we may be in the store clean­ing.

Harvey’s Tales
216 James St.
Gene­va, IL

Why it’s worth the vis­it

If you love books and Bernese Moun­tain dogs, this book­store is a must for your buck­et list! Locat­ed in the his­toric city of Gene­va, Illi­nois, just 50 min­utes east of Chica­go, the trans­formed two-sto­ry is one of the most fun book­stores I’ve ever seen. A recent girl’s week­end with col­lege friends brought me to the bustling streets of this gem of a town.

Harvey's Tale, Geneva, IL

Har­vey’s Tale, Gene­va, IL

The own­ers of Harvey’s, Chuck, a retired teacher and Rox­anne, a retired real estate pro­fes­sion­al, along with their friend­ly staff, go out of their way to make sure shop­pers find what they are look­ing for. More than a book­store, Harvey’s Tale is a last­ing trib­ute to a beloved pup who passed away last year. The family’s new addi­tion gets spe­cial men­tion as the name­sake for Hazel’s House, an adorable book room and a Birth­day Club, both devot­ed to young read­ers. The well-designed space in the large house offers some­thing for every­one and even man­ages to fit in a cof­fee café which fills the store with deli­cious aro­mas.

I will def­i­nite­ly return to Harvey’s Tale as it was a high­light of our girl’s week­end. The vari­ety of books and book-relat­ed gifts was incred­i­ble. Such an excep­tion­al assort­ment of book-themed socks, t‑shirts, cards, bags, posters, book­marks, and more! Their web­site show­cas­es their fam­i­ly-based phi­los­o­phy and how they strive to impact their com­mu­ni­ty in many ways.

Who knows, some­day I might just find myself emu­lat­ing the retire­ment plan that Chuck and Rox­anne put togeth­er… Wel­come to Rome’s Read­ers Book­store has a nice ring to it!


Pass the Ps Please – an Evening with Dav Pilkey

Pos­i­tiv­i­ty, prac­tice and per­sis­tence… a pow­er­ful approach to over­com­ing a mul­ti­tude of chal­lenges and unbe­liev­ably bad school expe­ri­ences. The one and only, Dav Pilkey, shared sev­er­al heart­felt sto­ries to inspire kids (and adults) dur­ing his recent stop in St. Paul as part of his “Dog Man, Do Good Tour.”

Dav Pilkey's Do Good Tour

With humor and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, Dav explained that as a kid with both ADHD and dyslex­ia, read­ing was any­thing but pleas­ant. To make mat­ters worse, his 2nd and 3rd grade teach­ers showed lit­tle com­pas­sion or under­stand­ing for fid­gety, day dream­ing, class clowns like Dav.  One of those teach­ers actu­al­ly made fun of him in front of his class­mates for read­ing slow. Unbe­liev­able, but true.

Dav Pilkey and several of the boys from Room 212Giv­ing tremen­dous cred­it to his mom for instill­ing the three “Ps,” Dav point­ed out that we all need some­one in our life who believes in us. Some­one who makes us want to be bet­ter peo­ple. Some­one who ulti­mate­ly helps us make the world a bet­ter place. Dav’s mom taught her son to ask him­self one impor­tant ques­tion any­time he was faced with some­thing bad, “How can I turn this into some­thing good?”

With an obvi­ous tal­ent for draw­ing and lots of time in the hall­way after being removed from the class­room, Dav did just that. Tap­ping into his cre­ativ­i­ty, famil­iar­i­ty with unkind teach­ers and a pen­chant for pulling pranks, he would go onto to make a mul­ti­tude of books loved by kids every­where (80 mil­lion have sold world­wide!).

Although it makes my heart hurt to think that he, and oth­ers like him, have to suf­fer through so many mis­er­able years at school, being a part of Dav’s audi­ence was indeed a treat. And although I sup­pose some teach­ers take issue with the neg­a­tive car­i­ca­tures of the evil edu­ca­tors found in his books, I am grate­ful for Dav and for his work. I am grate­ful that kids who deal with ADHD and/or dyslex­ia can see them­selves and all of their tremen­dous poten­tial, in some­one like Dav Pilkey.  I am grate­ful he had such a wise and car­ing mom.

I was for­tu­nate to be able to share this momen­tous event with six boys from Room 212. Their lev­el of excite­ment, smiles, screams and sheer delight, could quite eas­i­ly be com­pared to the thrill and fren­zy of fans who greet­ed the Bea­t­les on a Feb­ru­ary day back in 1964. The pho­tos and mem­o­ries are price­less and I can only hope that Dav’s mes­sage leaves a last­ing impres­sion. We could all use a gen­er­ous help­ing of the three Ps!

Several of the boys from Room 212


Ask Me About … My Amazing Students!

New year. New grade lev­el. Same class­room filled with same amaz­ing kids from last year (along with sev­er­al love­ly new addi­tions). Just wrapped up the sev­enth day of school and the same ques­tion keeps run­ning through my mind… how did I get so lucky? “Loop­ing” (mov­ing up a grade lev­el) with a class that you absolute­ly adore from the year before is pret­ty much like win­ning the “teacher lot­tery.” Wel­come to anoth­er year of “Teach it For­ward” and a peek into the teach­ing and learn­ing from Room 212!

One of the main chal­lenges and goals in a loop­ing sit­u­a­tion that includes adding a few new stu­dents to the already formed group, is to fig­ure out a way to build and rebuild the com­mu­ni­ty that has already tak­en shape the year before. I searched online, look­ing for fun games and ice-break­er ideas. I asked col­leagues for their best back-to-school, first week team builders. I com­piled my list of must-read pic­ture books for our “class­room book-a-day.” I had plen­ty of fun activ­i­ties to fill those first few days, but I was still try­ing to come up with some­thing spe­cial that might fos­ter more col­lab­o­ra­tion.

What do you do with an Idea?And then it hap­pened! I was stand­ing at the copi­er on day #2 print­ing stu­dent pho­tos from day #1, and it was as if a giant light bulb explod­ed over my head. See­ing all those smil­ing faces slide through the machine inspired a com­plete­ly new idea that made me feel gid­dy! There was a bit of serendip­i­ty in the air as the next-up, class­room-book-a-day title hap­pened to be “What Do You Do With an Idea?” by Kobi Yama­da.

The plan would be to ask stu­dents to think about top­ics, peo­ple, places, basi­cal­ly any­thing they love to talk about. Next, I would give them a name tag design fea­tur­ing “Ask me about….” Once stu­dents fin­ished writ­ing their list, I would tape it to the back­side of their pho­to and lam­i­nate it. And voila! A sim­ple but cre­ative way to do a new greet­ing dur­ing our morn­ing meet­ing.  Stu­dents would part­ner up to exchange their pho­to con­ver­sa­tion cards and use the “Ask me about” lists as con­ver­sa­tion starters.

After shar­ing the idea with my stu­dents, they seemed excit­ed and will­ing to give it a try. Over the years I’ve shared a vari­ety of writ­ing activ­i­ties that involve stu­dents mak­ing lists of top­ics they might like to write about in the future. With­out excep­tion, there have always been kids who strug­gled to gen­er­ate ideas and sat with pen­cil in hand, blank paper star­ing back at them. This time, how­ev­er, the lists came togeth­er in record speed. Maybe it was because I asked them to think about what they want­ed to talk about, rather than write about. Maybe it was because they were eager to share their sum­mer mem­o­ries. Maybe it was because the major­i­ty of the class expe­ri­enced a ton of Joy Write last year and they were more com­fort­able with tak­ing risks. What­ev­er the rea­sons, I was delight­ed with the results. More impor­tant­ly, the kids couldn’t wait to share their pho­to con­ver­sa­tion cards.

I have a feel­ing those “Ask me about” lists will come in handy for some, if not many, of the kids when it comes to writ­ing. I also envi­sion an expan­sion of the idea, with kids cre­at­ing pho­to con­ver­sa­tion cards for their favorite book char­ac­ter friends. I can hard­ly wait to see what Kek (Home of the Brave), Ada (The War That Saved My Life), Mia (Front Desk) or Peter (Pax) might add to their “Ask me about” lists.

Home of the Brave, The War That Saved My Life, Front Desk, Pax

And to top it off, my teacher heart was filled with pride and joy to see so many kids add book relat­ed top­ics to their “Ask me about…” lists! Here is a sam­pling of what we’ll be talk­ing about in Room 212 in the days to come




Suc­cess. Thesaurus.com offers more than fifty syn­onyms for the word “suc­cess”… accom­plish­ment, fame, hap­pi­ness, progress, tri­umph, and vic­to­ry all have a place on the list. With test­ing hys­te­ria mak­ing the rounds in schools and class­rooms every­where, the def­i­n­i­tion of suc­cess as it relates to read­ing, has like­ly weighed heav­i­ly on the minds and hearts of many teach­ers. How do we mea­sure read­ing pro­fi­cien­cy? How do we mea­sure suc­cess? I firm­ly believe that it is both illu­sive and dan­ger­ous to decide whether a child has been suc­cess­ful by turn­ing only to a score on a high-stakes read­ing test.

Sad­ly, in Min­neso­ta, our leg­is­la­tors have deemed a pro­fi­cient score of 350 on the third-grade read­ing MCA such a sig­nif­i­cant mea­sure of suc­cess that for years our state has used it as a way to reward schools with what they call “Lit­er­a­cy Incen­tive Aid” which is explained in A Pub­li­ca­tion of the Min­neso­ta House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives Fis­cal Analy­sis Depart­ment (p. 48):

Schools are eli­gi­ble for addi­tion­al aid based on how well stu­dents in the third grade read (called “Pro­fi­cien­cy Aid”), and how much progress is being made between the third and fourth grades in read­ing skills (called “Growth Aid”). Pro­fi­cien­cy aid is cal­cu­lat­ed by mul­ti­ply­ing $530 times the aver­age per­cent­age of stu­dents in a school that meet or exceed pro­fi­cien­cy over the cur­rent year and pre­vi­ous two years on the third-grade read­ing por­tion of the Min­neso­ta Com­pre­hen­sive Assess­ment, mul­ti­plied by the num­ber of stu­dents enrolled in the third grade at the school in the pre­vi­ous year. Sim­i­lar­ly, Growth aid is cal­cu­lat­ed by mul­ti­ply­ing $530 times the per­cent­age of stu­dents that make medi­um or high growth on the fourth-grade read­ing Min­neso­ta Com­pre­hen­sive Assess­ment mul­ti­plied by the pre­vi­ous year’s fourth grade stu­dent count. [124D.98]

Let’s think about that for a moment. Basi­cal­ly, this “read­ing boun­ty” that is placed on the heads of our stu­dents offers schools with few­er Eng­lish Lan­guage Learn­er stu­dents, schools with few­er stu­dents who receive free or reduced lunch, and schools with few­er Spe­cial Edu­ca­tion stu­dents, a hefty finan­cial boost for every stu­dent who attains that score of 350. There seems to be lit­tle regard for the fact that stu­dents from these demo­graph­ic groups already face a seri­ous oppor­tu­ni­ty gap and that gap is a pre-exist­ing con­di­tion that is fur­ther exas­per­at­ed by this mod­el of school fund­ing. In oth­er words, the rich get rich­er, while the poor con­tin­ue to strug­gle.

How I wish I could con­vince our leg­is­la­tors that defin­ing read­ing pro­fi­cien­cy or suc­cess as a score of 350 on the read­ing MCA is sim­ply not the only, and espe­cial­ly not the best, way to deter­mine whether a diverse group of eight- and nine-year old kids are suc­cess­ful in terms of lit­er­a­cy. I am con­vinced that I have plen­ty of data in addi­tion to the MCA score, both the “hard” and “soft” kind, that paints a bet­ter pic­ture of whether or not my stu­dents have attained lit­er­a­cy suc­cess. You name it, I’ve got it. Sum­ma­tive, for­ma­tive, for­mal, infor­mal, flu­en­cy CBMs, anec­do­tal con­fer­ence notes, run­ning records, NWEA MAP data, essays, opin­ion writ­ing, research reports, writ­ing in response to read­ing … the list goes on and on. A 350 is cer­tain­ly not the only way to mea­sure lit­er­a­cy suc­cess in Room 212. Just as impor­tant (if not more impor­tant) are the con­ver­sa­tions, deep-think­ing, and per­son­al reflec­tions my stu­dents share with me and each oth­er on a dai­ly basis.

Front DeskAs easy as it is to be dis­cour­aged and feel like I’m the one who has failed when some of my bril­liant, hard-work­ing and oh-so-wise stu­dents come up short of that mea­sure of suc­cess, aka a 350, I need only to call up mem­o­ries of a recent read-aloud moment in Room 212. The book, Front Desk, by Kel­ly Yang, tells the sto­ry of Mia Tang, a deter­mined, resource­ful and coura­geous ten-year-old who dis­cov­ers the pow­er of the writ­ten word. Mia and her par­ents are Chi­nese immi­grants, work­ing end­less hours at the Calivista Motel under the scruti­ny of the heart­less own­er, Mr. Yao in the ear­ly 1990s. Mia befriends Lupe, anoth­er immi­grant in her class, whose fam­i­ly came to the Unit­ed States from Mex­i­co. The two girls dis­cov­er they were both hid­ing sim­i­lar secrets that were attempts to cov­er up the harsh real­i­ties of their lives. Once they real­ize they could be vul­ner­a­ble with each oth­er, they share a great deal more about their inner most thoughts and feel­ings. Much like my reflec­tions and won­der­ing about what it means to be suc­cess­ful, Mia shared the fol­low­ing:

I was curi­ous what Lupe thought of as “suc­cess­ful.” Every­body seemed to have dif­fer­ent cri­te­ria. I used to think being suc­cess­ful meant hav­ing enough to eat…

When I asked Lupe, she put two fin­gers to her chin and thought real hard. “I think being suc­cess­ful in this coun­try means hav­ing a liv­ing room with­out a bed in it,” she decid­ed.

After read­ing that excerpt to my incred­i­ble kids, we dug deep­er into the con­ver­sa­tion and opin­ions shared by Mia and Lupe. There was a con­sen­sus that Mia was right about peo­ple hav­ing very dif­fer­ent ideas about what it might mean to be suc­cess­ful. Some kids shared their def­i­n­i­tion and oth­ers were very qui­et. I invit­ed the class to think more about the top­ic of being suc­cess­ful and to con­sid­er writ­ing about what it means to them. A num­ber of kids accept­ed the invi­ta­tion.

If only that “Lit­er­a­cy Incen­tive Aid” could include cri­te­ria beyond an MCA test score of 350. I would like to believe that the thought­ful reflec­tions shared by my stu­dents would con­vince our leg­is­la­tors that pro­fi­cien­cy is more than a num­ber derived from a bunch of cor­rect answers to mul­ti­ple-choice ques­tions about read­ing pas­sages stu­dents may have lit­tle inter­est in read­ing. 

Two of my favorite stu­dent respons­es:

success is

Suc­cess­ful means that you do some­thing you’ve always want­ed to do and it went how you want­ed.

success is

Suc­cess­ful means hav­ing a house and a dog, hav­ing a tree­house, hav­ing a gar­den, learn­ing a lot, going to col­lege.

After all, isn’t being a suc­cess­ful read­er as much about what read­ing does to our heart as it is about what read­ing does to our head? I doubt there will ever be a stan­dard­ized test that can ade­quate­ly mea­sure the impact of read­ing on one’s heart. How­ev­er, if there were such a thing, there is no doubt that all of my stu­dents would sur­pass a 350.


Teaching Is an Art

I recent­ly received a mes­sage from my friend, Amir:

Mau­r­na, I want­ed to get your feed­back on this arti­cle. I taught Eng­lish for 8+ years and my final M.Ed. project was on read­ing, so this is a pas­sion of mine. When I used to pre­pare NYC pub­lic school teach­ers for their licens­ing exams, they would like­ly do bet­ter on the read­ing pas­sages if they had more back­ground knowl­edge, even though that knowl­edge was not need­ed. I won­der if we are being unre­al­is­tic in our teach­ing of read­ing?”

The arti­cle, “Why We’re Teach­ing Read­ing Com­pre­hen­sion in a Way That Doesn’t Work” was writ­ten by Natal­ie Wexler and pub­lished by Forbes mag­a­zine a few months ago. The title and Amir’s won­der­ing about whether we teach­ers are out of touch or imprac­ti­cal struck a nerve and launched weeks of fur­ther read­ing, reflect­ing, writ­ing, rewrit­ing, and rest­less nights. I felt my ini­tial response was too defen­sive and I was deter­mined to find a lev­el-head­ed way to share my take on the arti­cle. I gained empa­thy for my stu­dents who strug­gle dai­ly with writ­ing — it has always come eas­i­ly for me but not this time. I felt like the kid who gets so frus­trat­ed with their writ­ing that they scrunch their paper into a wadded-up ball then chuck it into the garbage can only to retrieve it, smooth it out to read it over, and try to fix it one more time. I reached out to my lit­er­a­cy-guru teacher friends and asked for their hon­est feed­back on my writ­ing. And final­ly, I decid­ed to try start­ing over in an effort to find my voice and say what real­ly needs to be said.

The arti­cle by Wexler, like much of her writ­ing over the years, sounds the alarm for all the things woe­ful­ly wrong with today’s edu­ca­tion sys­tem. Her laun­dry list of com­plaints includes dan­ger­ous­ly inad­e­quate teacher edu­ca­tion pro­grams, teach­ers and pro­fes­sors who ignore the need to under­stand and teach phon­ics, teach­ers who present les­son after les­son on com­pre­hen­sion strate­gies instead of build­ing back­ground knowl­edge, teach­ers who focus on inde­pen­dent read­ing lev­els instead of push­ing text that is much more sophis­ti­cat­ed and advanced, teach­ers wast­ing time on things not endorsed by the Nation­al Read­ing Pan­el, and, final­ly, teach­ers who chal­lenge or flat out refuse to con­sid­er sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly-backed research on how read­ing pro­fi­cien­cy is acquired and should be taught. It is quite the list.

At first, I thought the best approach was to pick apart Wexler’s writ­ing, first by sum­ma­riz­ing it and then offer­ing my stance on whether I agreed or dis­agreed with her asser­tions. In order to accom­plish that, I exam­ined just about every link or ref­er­ence in her arti­cle (more than two dozen). This is where I encoun­tered the most dif­fi­cul­ty in my ear­li­er attempts to com­pose an answer for my friend Amir.

There was just so much that didn’t sit right with me. Wexler, along with her col­league Emi­ly Han­ford, and many oth­er “edu­ca­tion writ­ers” refer to The Nation­al Read­ing Panel’s report from 2001 to strength­en their case for empha­siz­ing the “sci­ence” of teach­ing read­ing. Yet an arti­cle writ­ten by Joann Yatvin, a mem­ber of the NRP, decries the report for being huge­ly mis­in­ter­pret­ed and mis­used. Yatvin might hold the “minor­i­ty view” of the NRP, but her exposé of the panel’s report as “nar­row, biased, and elit­ist” can­not and should not be ignored.

When con­sid­er­ing Ms. Wexler’s arti­cle title about why we’re teach­ing read­ing in a way that doesn’t work, I con­sid­ered shar­ing a snap­shot of what she or any­one vis­it­ing my class­room might find hap­pen­ing in Room 212 when it comes to lit­er­a­cy learn­ing:

  • Kids writ­ing let­ters to authors of books they’ve fall­en in love with.
  • Kids doing research and writ­ing about a wide range of self-select­ed top­ics such as home­less­ness, African Amer­i­can mol­e­c­u­lar biol­o­gist Ernest Everett Just, and ancient civ­i­liza­tions (to name just a few).
  • Kids with voice and choice beg­ging for more time to read inde­pen­dent­ly.
  • Kids ask­ing to stay in from recess, so they can do more writ­ing.
  • Kids per­form­ing lit­tle plays for younger stu­dents.
  • Kids doing art.
  • Kids engaged in joy­ful learn­ing.
  • Kids learn­ing how to be cre­ative prob­lem solvers, open-mind­ed risk tak­ers, and kind, com­pas­sion­ate peo­ple.

I would love to ask Ms. Wexler to explain what it is exact­ly that isn’t work­ing in our vibrant learn­ing com­mu­ni­ty?!

teaching writing

What about Amir’s ques­tion: are we being unre­al­is­tic in our teach­ing of read­ing? My answer would have to be, “Yes.” In my opin­ion, edu­ca­tion writ­ers like Wexler and Han­ford, leg­is­la­tors all across the coun­try, and even school admin­is­tra­tors are being unre­al­is­tic when they sug­gest that the best or only answer to improved read­ing pro­fi­cien­cy (aka bet­ter read­ing test scores) is a script­ed, pack­aged, read­ing cur­ricu­lum that is hell-bent on push­ing core knowl­edge or huge dos­es of phon­ics. Wexler believes that the bright spot on the hori­zon is the uptick in “ele­men­tary lit­er­a­cy cur­ric­u­la designed to build stu­dents’ knowl­edge.” What a sad state­ment on so many lev­els. Insist­ing teach­ers fol­low a man­u­al for a pro­gram that touts “sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly-backed research” is not the answer. A one-size-fits-all approach to teach­ing read­ing com­pre­hen­sion is not the answer.

I must acknowl­edge that I, too, am being unre­al­is­tic. I have a deep pas­sion for teach­ing and for lit­er­a­cy. It’s hard for me to admit, but I know not all teach­ers share that pas­sion. Not all teach­ers have had the same good for­tune I’ve had to learn from won­der­ful men­tors. Not all teach­ers are encour­aged to take risks and feel con­fi­dent in what they can accom­plish with their stu­dents. For many dif­fer­ent rea­sons, it is sad but true, there are adults in teach­ing roles (luck­i­ly in my expe­ri­ence, I’ve met only a few) who see them­selves as babysit­ters, are not inter­est­ed in life-long learn­ing, and occa­sion­al­ly act like they don’t even like kids. I wish I had an answer about how to guar­an­tee all teach­ers were high­ly qual­i­fied, filled with pas­sion, and loved kids. But I would bet my bot­tom dol­lar that the vast major­i­ty of teach­ers strive to achieve these qual­i­ties, despite being blamed so often for all that’s wrong with edu­ca­tion.


Wexler, along with oth­er edu­ca­tion com­men­ta­tors and researchers seem to know all about “the sci­ence” of read­ing. They vol­un­teer as tutors. They test stu­dents to deter­mine whether they are pro­fi­cient read­ers using their own cri­te­ria or high stakes tests that are rid­dled with bias. They are quick to point out all the things that are wrong with today’s teach­ers and class­rooms and then they offer their easy-to-fix-it solu­tions (“buy a bet­ter read­ing cur­ricu­lum, teach more con­tent so stu­dents gain more back­ground knowl­edge”).

The glar­ing prob­lem from my van­tage point, how­ev­er, is what they don’t do.

  • They don’t seem to get it that spend­ing 165 days a year with a group of 25 – 30 won­der­ful­ly diverse and bril­liant kids might gar­ner them more street cred.
  • They don’t seem to get it that improv­ing vocab­u­lary and back­ground knowl­edge starts with improv­ing the severe eco­nom­ic and racial divides in our soci­ety that cre­ate class­rooms filled with “haves” and “have-nots.”
  • They don’t seem to get it that the kids who lack ade­quate vocab­u­lary and back­ground knowl­edge are often kids who have not had the ben­e­fit of attend­ing pre-school.
  • They don’t seem to get it that while the “sci­ence” of teach­ing read­ing is impor­tant, the “art” of teach­ing read­ing is and should be of even greater stature.
  • And final­ly, they real­ly don’t seem to get it that we teach kids before we teach read­ing, writ­ing, math, sci­ence, or any oth­er sub­ject.

teaching science

No, Ms. Wexler, our teach­ers and schools are not fail­ing because we are ignor­ing the research and are not impart­ing enough knowl­edge. How­ev­er, we teach­ers, the major­i­ty of us who invest extra time, our own mon­ey, our heart and soul, who spend day after day, year after year, with dozens, even hun­dreds of kids (who for many of us become a sec­ond fam­i­ly), we teach­ers have a pletho­ra of knowl­edge that only teach­ers have. It’s knowl­edge that can’t be learned until you begin your first day on the job. We do what­ev­er it takes to know, real­ly know, our stu­dents. We also know that kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. And that kind of knowl­edge won’t be found in any lit­er­a­cy cur­ric­u­la. That kind of knowl­edge is what I believe makes teach­ing read­ing a work of art.

A final note to my friend, Amir. You men­tioned help­ing teach­ers pre­pare for the teach­ing exams and not­ed that they did bet­ter if they had more back­ground knowl­edge. I can­not dis­pute the fact that more back­ground knowl­edge comes in handy when tak­ing a test and it most def­i­nite­ly makes a dif­fer­ence when it comes to com­pre­hen­sion.

There is a seri­ous need for stu­dents, espe­cial­ly Eng­lish lan­guage learn­ers, to gain as much back­ground knowl­edge and vocab­u­lary as pos­si­ble.

All kids must have a sol­id foun­da­tion that includes phon­ics and phone­mic aware­ness so that sol­id decod­ing will lead to flu­en­cy which opens the door to greater com­pre­hen­sion and vocab­u­lary. The goal is to not only teach kids how to read, but to instill the desire to want to read. The sci­ence is there but the art is achieved by inspir­ing kids to devel­op a love of read­ing.


Book Memories

Maurna Rome Halloween costume The Four PuppiesMy first mem­o­ry of falling in love with books takes me way back to the ten­der age of five. The lit­tle “Gold­en Book Gold­en Hours Library Clock House” that I received for Christ­mas that year helped me become the pas­sion­ate read­er I am today. I cher­ished the col­lec­tion of twelve lit­tle books and one in par­tic­u­lar was extra spe­cial; The Four Pup­pies. It’s a sweet sto­ry of grow­ing, learn­ing, chang­ing sea­sons and find­ing some­thing to cel­e­brate along the way. It’s filled with opti­mism, wis­dom, and the love­li­ness of shar­ing life’s ups and downs with oth­ers who care about you. A few years ago I replaced my orig­i­nal Gold­en Book clock house (which was lost long ago) with what is now con­sid­ered a “vin­tage” collector’s item. I even fash­ioned a Hal­loween cos­tume to hon­or the book that first filled my heart with book love.

Gold­en Books Clock House

My first mem­o­ry of dis­cov­er­ing a read­ing com­mu­ni­ty takes me way back to the sum­mer just after my sixth birth­day. I eager­ly wait­ed for the Carnegie Stout Pubic Library book­mo­bile to roll into our mobile home park each week.  For me, it was a mag­i­cal ves­sel on wheels. The library ladies (as I used to call them) who rode along with all those fine books always wait­ed patient­ly for lit­tle girls like me who took longer than most to make their selec­tions from the rows and rows of options. My fond­ness for book­mo­biles will stay with me for­ev­er.

My first mem­o­ry of long­ing for a book takes me way back to sixth grade when the wait­ing list at my school library for Are You There, God? It’s Me, Mar­garet stretched for weeks and weeks. I still remem­ber the thrill of final­ly get­ting my hands on that book. I felt like I had found a friend who strug­gled with the same ques­tions and inse­cu­ri­ties that I was expe­ri­enc­ing, which many 12-year-old girls were expe­ri­enc­ing. Mar­garet would join my list of oth­er “book friends,” Ramona, Pip­pi, and Ency­clo­pe­dia Brown, to name just a few.

As a teacher and a grand­ma, I am intent on try­ing to pro­vide these mem­o­rable expe­ri­ences: falling in love with books at an ear­ly age, dis­cov­er­ing a nur­tur­ing read­ing com­mu­ni­ty, and long­ing for a cer­tain book that brings a new friend into your life. These three sig­nif­i­cant book mem­o­ries help define me as a read­er. They form the foun­da­tion for my life-long love of read­ing and they are three of the rea­sons why I am so pas­sion­ate about lit­er­a­cy. If only all chil­dren could make mem­o­ries of this kind, I am cer­tain the world would be a bet­ter place.

If I win the lot­tery one of these days, you might just see me pulling into your neigh­bor­hood in my very own book­mo­bile. Now that would be the tick­et for cre­at­ing book mem­o­ries far and wide!



I love the word “serendip­i­ty.” I also love when I actu­al­ly expe­ri­ence the feel­ing of serendip­i­ty. It shows up unex­pect­ed­ly in moments when I feel a sur­pris­ing con­nec­tion or hap­py coin­ci­dence between two seem­ing­ly sep­a­rate things. It makes me believe in the pow­er of the uni­verse and often leaves me ques­tion­ing whether these occur­rences are more than a fluke. I espe­cial­ly love when serendip­i­ty shows up in my teach­ing, learn­ing, and lit­er­a­cy life.

Engaging ChildrenA book I’ve been read­ing the past cou­ple of months has filled me with more serendip­i­tous moments than any oth­er I can recall. Start­ing with the beau­ti­ful blue cov­er and its title Engag­ing Chil­dren, all the way to the last page of Appen­dix G; “Essen­tial Con­di­tions for Engage­ment,” I have felt an over­whelm­ing sense of awe because it seems as if this book was writ­ten espe­cial­ly for me! More than any of my oth­er pro­fes­sion­al books about teach­ing (and trust me, I have an exten­sive col­lec­tion), this trea­sure of a book by Ellin Oliv­er Keene, feels like a cul­mi­na­tion of my teach­ing career as well as a per­fect reflec­tion of my edu­ca­tion­al phi­los­o­phy, my most pas­sion­ate hopes and dreams for kids.

The first chap­ter enti­tled “Let Me Enter­tain You!” imme­di­ate­ly grabbed my atten­tion with the first sen­tence: “A pie in the face: What does it take to moti­vate?” Just days ear­li­er, we had kicked off an excit­ing Rea­dathon fundrais­er at my school and one of the chal­lenges for kids was to meet a cer­tain dol­lar amount to win a chance to toss a pie at our beloved prin­ci­pal. Keene opens her lat­est book with a replay of a con­ver­sa­tion she shared with edu­ca­tors about exter­nal and inter­nal moti­va­tion as it relates to kids’ read­ing. She calls on her read­ers to rethink moti­va­tion. She pon­ders whether our attempts to moti­vate stu­dents, though well-intend­ed, are actu­al­ly fail­ing kids. She also shares research from Mari­nak and Gam­brell about the pit­falls of extrin­sic rewards (some­times hand­ed out in the form of points, piz­zas, or pies in the face) and how these incen­tives have actu­al­ly been shown to decrease moti­va­tion for some kids.  From there, Keene offers var­i­ous def­i­n­i­tions of moti­va­tion and explains impor­tant dis­tinc­tions between four pro­files that impact learn­ing; com­pli­ance, par­tic­i­pa­tion, moti­va­tion and engage­ment.

At this point in my read­ing (still on Chap­ter One!), I was so excit­ed about what this book was offer­ing that I couldn’t keep it to myself. I start­ed tex­ting my teach­ing “soul-sis­ter” Kris. I sent her screen shots of sev­er­al pages of the e‑book, mar­veling at all of the coin­ci­dences I was encoun­ter­ing. In addi­tion to the pie sto­ry, there was a ref­er­ence to moti­va­tion being described as attain­ing a “flow”; in oth­er words, find­ing one­self so immersed in a book or activ­i­ty that all sense of time and place is lost. The term “flow” also hap­pens to be the title of the month­ly newslet­ter our dis­trict super­in­ten­dent sends to staff. Then Keene brought up read­ing logs, a very rel­e­vant top­ic giv­en the recent con­ver­sa­tions Kris and I had shared about our mixed feel­ings and ques­tions about using them effec­tive­ly. Yet anoth­er con­nec­tion popped up when Keene rem­i­nisced about being a third grad­er who loved maps… my bud­dy Kris has often pro­claimed her own love of maps and we both teach third grade! Serendip­i­ty sur­round­ed me as I read on and final­ly stopped tex­ting Kris so she could enjoy her Fri­day evening.

It wasn’t just that this book res­onat­ed with me because it con­tin­u­al­ly referred to top­ics and ideas that were famil­iar and rel­e­vant. It was so much more. You see, through­out my teach­ing career, I have always main­tained that pro­mot­ing an excite­ment for learn­ing was the tick­et. All this time I believed that moti­vat­ing kids was one of the most impor­tant approach­es to teach­ing I could embrace. And now, here was a new take on moti­va­tion. Rather than just hope kids would catch the moti­va­tion bug, I could actu­al­ly teach engage­ment using strate­gies that help kids rec­og­nize when they become dis­en­gaged so that they can reen­gage.

Room 212 White Board

our white­board in Room 212

So that’s exact­ly what I decid­ed to do when we returned to room 212 the fol­low­ing Mon­day. I start­ed by intro­duc­ing my stu­dents to the four pro­files: com­pli­ance, par­tic­i­pa­tion, moti­va­tion and engage­ment. Next, I accept­ed Keene’s chal­lenge to share with my stu­dents some of my most mem­o­rable and engaged learn­ing expe­ri­ences. Since that first attempt to put Engag­ing Chil­dren into prac­tice, we con­tin­ue to talk about the impor­tance of all four pro­files and how to dis­tin­guish the dif­fer­ences between them. I strive to weave engage­ment into our dis­cus­sions on a dai­ly basis. Kids are encour­aged to share their own sto­ries of engage­ment, to offer exam­ples of how they know they are expe­ri­enc­ing engage­ment. I’ve already noticed a dif­fer­ence in how my stu­dents take own­er­ship of their learn­ing and this is just the begin­ning!

Keene has put togeth­er an exten­sive and pow­er­ful col­lec­tion of prac­ti­cal ideas and use­ful tools from which all edu­ca­tors and stu­dents can ben­e­fit. I am con­vinced that Engag­ing Chil­dren has the poten­tial to trans­form the learn­ing tak­ing place in our class­rooms. The appen­dix is full of check­lists, rubrics, record-keep­ing forms, engage­ment reflec­tion guides for book clubs, and so much more.  Please don’t just take my word for it, though. Bet­ter yet, check it out for your­self. Get your hands on this book and see if you dis­cov­er a bit of serendip­i­ty for your­self!

In clos­ing, I offer a few quotes from the book and the uncan­ny con­nec­tions they have to past arti­cles I’ve writ­ten for Teach It For­ward. This my friends, is serendip­i­ty at its finest!

In a large group les­son, a craft­ing ses­sion, for exam­ple … I ask stu­dents to pay atten­tion to what they think, feel, believe and are com­pelled to act upon.” (pg. 84) “Win­dows, Mir­rors, Slid­ing Glass Doors, and Maps

Engage­ment is often born of an emo­tion­al res­o­nance for ideas – engaged chil­dren can describe expe­ri­ences when a con­cept is imprint­ed in the heart as well as the mind.” (pg. 115) “It’s All About the Heart

Chil­dren will devel­op a sense of agency and inde­pen­dence — and engage in learn­ing — if giv­en time and prop­er scaf­fold­ing.” (pg. 71) “The Beau­ty of Imper­fec­tion


A Match Made in Heaven

A lit­tle more than two years ago I shared a Teach it For­ward col­umn enti­tled “Books for my Grand­ba­by and Me.” As I cel­e­brat­ed the arrival of my first grand­child and mar­veled at the joy of becom­ing a first-time grand­ma, I embraced the chance to share my love of read­ing with this most pre­cious future book lover. It was a match made in heav­en … a lit­tle one to hold gen­tly on my lap while shar­ing book after book. We would read, read, and read some more.

Grandbaby No. 1

A year lat­er, a sec­ond sweet­heart would arrive and the hap­pi­ness in my heart would expand even more than the room on my lap for anoth­er pre­cious lit­tle read­er. My sum­mer break from the class­room would be filled with week­ly vis­its to see grand­ba­by #2. Anoth­er match made in heav­en … anoth­er lit­tle one to hold gen­tly on my lap while shar­ing book after book. We would read, read, and read some more.

Grandbaby No. 2

And just like that, my heart is filled with even more grand­ma joy as grand­ba­by #3 makes his debut. This grandma’s heart and her read­ing lap know no lim­it and yet, again, we will dis­cov­er a match made in heav­en … anoth­er lit­tle one to hold gen­tly on my lap while shar­ing book after book. We will read, read, and read some more. 

Grandbaby No. 3

Show­er­ing my beau­ti­ful grand­ba­bies with love and lit­er­a­cy is one of the most exquis­ite expe­ri­ences I know I will encounter in this life­time. As a read­ing grand­ma I also know there is some­thing sort of mag­i­cal that hap­pens when you com­bine a pas­sion for grand­ba­bies and a pas­sion for books. The rest of the world and all its demands fall to the way­side and float on by. All that mat­ters is the lit­tle one on my lap and the time we have to read, read and read some more.

book coversIf you’re a read­ing grand­ma like me (or you know some­one who is), you might be inter­est­ed in the fol­low­ing list which comes high­ly rec­om­mend­ed by my absolute favorite almost 1‑year-old and near­ly 2½-year-old. These are the books we read, read, and read some more!

First 100 Words Book by Roger Prid­dy

Pic­ture Me with My Grand­ma by Cather­ine McCaf­fer­ty

I’m Wild About You by San­dra Magsamen

Elmo Says by Sarah Albee and Tom Leigh

Dog­gy Kiss­es 1 2 3 by Todd Parr

The I Love You Book by Todd Parr

Glob­al Babies by The Glob­al Fund for Chil­dren

The Dog I Love Best Fin­ger Pup­pet Book by Par­ragon

I Love You Through and Through by Bernadette Ros­set­ti-Shus­tak and Car­o­line Jayne Church

Baby Touch and Feel Ani­mals by DK





The Beauty of Joy Writing

If you dropped into Room 212 for a vis­it between 11:00 a.m. and 12:00 p.m. you might won­der what kind of “Writer’s Work­shop” was under­way. It’s not that you wouldn’t find evi­dence of writ­ing … the ques­tions raised might cen­ter on the gen­res of writ­ing you would be hard pressed to detect. No per­sua­sive essays. Not a sin­gle five-para­graph essay. Zero per­son­al nar­ra­tives.  And where are the friend­ly let­ters?

What you would dis­cov­er in Room 212 is a refresh­ing approach to Writer’s Work­shop that is intent on cul­ti­vat­ing JOY among the two dozen aspir­ing writ­ers spread around the room. What you would also dis­cov­er is a cel­e­bra­tion of indi­vid­u­al­i­ty, cre­ativ­i­ty, choice and voice …

An anniversary wish to an amazing school cook on 25 years of service

An anniver­sary wish to an amaz­ing school cook on 25 years of ser­vice


An eclectic list of favorite bands

An eclec­tic list of favorite bands


A sincere and well-thought out list of “Things I Hate”

A sin­cere and well-thought out list of “Things I Hate”


a heartfelt note to a friend praising their virtues

a heart­felt note to a friend prais­ing their virtues


Joy Write Ralph Fletcher

Ralph Fletcher’s lat­est con­tri­bu­tion to the world of teach­ing writ­ing, Joy Write, is one of the loveli­est approach­es to Writer’s Work­shop I’ve ever encoun­tered. It’s about set­ting aside the for­mal, com­mon core, stan­dards-based, often ener­gy-drain­ing ways we sti­fle kids in the Writer’s Work­shop. Instead, teach­ers are encour­aged to be inten­tion­al about cre­at­ing a “green­belt” space (an anal­o­gy relat­ed to com­mu­ni­ty plan­ning and land man­age­ment) that allows kids the free­dom to make writ­ing “per­son­al, pas­sion­ate, joy­ful, whim­si­cal, play­ful, infused with choice, humor, and voice” and best of all, “reflec­tive of the quirk­i­ness of child­hood.”

In addi­tion to extend­ing an abun­dance of ideas on what to do to dur­ing Writer’s Work­shop, Fletch­er cau­tions teach­ers on what NOT to do, such as cor­rect, grade, assess, quan­ti­fy pages or cri­tique messy hand­writ­ing.

If this peek into the Writer’s Work­shop in Room 212 leaves you won­der­ing just what the teacher could and should be doing to pro­mote the beau­ty of joy, you must get your hands on a copy of Joy Write, by Ralph Fletch­er, pub­lished by Heine­mann (down­load a free chap­ter of the book).

As my wise 3rd grade friend Will points out, “Joy Write means to write fre­aly. you don’t haft to write per­fect­ley. it doesn’t mat­ter now mat­ter what!”



The Beauty of Imperfection

As I reflect on the start of my 27th year of teach­ing, I am struck by what an unusu­al first week of school it was. Room 212 was filled with a sense of calm that doesn’t usu­al­ly accom­pa­ny my first few days of a new school year. The fact that our school build­ing was closed all sum­mer due to con­struc­tion projects meant that I had just three days to set up a class­room before twen­ty-four eager learn­ers walked through the door. Exam­in­ing my beliefs helped me pri­or­i­tize my actions.

Cul­ti­vat­ing a class­room com­mu­ni­ty based on stu­dent voice, col­lab­o­ra­tion and kind­ness tops my list of what I val­ue as an edu­ca­tor. Cre­at­ing an abun­dance of authen­tic lit­er­a­cy expe­ri­ence is a close sec­ond. Fig­ur­ing out how to make both of these a real­i­ty from Day One was eas­i­er than I could have ever imag­ined. All it took was a healthy dose of embrac­ing the beau­ty of imper­fec­tion. 


In past years, I would have been fraz­zled try­ing to get every last detail of my class­room set up with so lit­tle time. The class jobs would have been post­ed. The birth­day poster would have been filled out. The bath­room pass­es would be hang­ing up. The take-home fold­ers and home­work bas­ket would be labeled. And every sin­gle bul­letin board would be filled with clever themes and designs. But not this year. This year I was hope­ful that my solu­tion to deal­ing with lim­it­ed class­room set-up time would not only avoid becom­ing stressed out but would actu­al­ly con­tribute to a deep­er sense of stu­dent agency. Again, all it took was a healthy dose of embrac­ing the beau­ty of imper­fec­tion.


I dis­cov­ered that involv­ing my stu­dents in the orga­ni­za­tion and design of our learn­ing spaces sim­ply meant that the things might take a lit­tle longer to com­plete. The words on the lists, signs and walls might not be care­ful­ly spaced or aligned and they aren’t spelled cor­rect­ly. We might have used more tape than was nec­es­sary and the recy­cling bin may have end­ed up with some extra messed up paper. How­ev­er, the beau­ty of imper­fec­tion has led to a num­ber of refresh­ing and pos­i­tive out­comes.

Engage­ment… check. Empow­er­ment… check. Enthu­si­asm… check.

As I look around the class­room, the sweet evi­dence of a student’s touch can’t be missed. I am over­whelmed with an even sweet­er sense of sat­is­fac­tion for our class­room com­mu­ni­ty that is being built with authen­tic and pow­er­ful imper­fec­tion. 


Read-Alouds That Leave a Lasting Imprint

The gift of a favorite teacher read­ing aloud an unfor­get­table book is an expe­ri­ence like­ly to leave a last­ing imprint on a student’s heart. For me, it was Ramona the Pest, intro­duced by my sec­ond-grade teacher. I’ll always remem­ber Tam­my Burns, the girl in my class who had beau­ti­ful ringlets just like Ramona’s class­mate Susan. And just like Ramona, I was always tempt­ed to give those curls a good tug to see if they would go “boing.” I was enchant­ed by Ramona, and want­ed to be just as feisty and bold. She quick­ly became my first “best book friend” and her clas­sic series would make me the vora­cious read­er I am today.

Dur­ing my three decades as a teacher, I have savored many chap­ter book read-alouds with my stu­dents in upper ele­men­tary class­rooms. And like teach­ers every­where, it is my great­est wish to make a last­ing impact on stu­dents. I believe shar­ing the very best of mid­dle grade lit­er­a­ture is a sure-fire approach to achiev­ing this goal. The gems on my list of must-have titles pos­sess tremen­dous poten­tial for enter­ing and remain­ing in the hearts of teach­ers and stu­dents alike.

Sahara Special  

Sahara Spe­cial
writ­ten by Esme Raji Codell 
Dis­ney-Hype­r­i­on, 2004

Puz­zling, Time Trav­el and World Explor­ing, Mad Sci­ence, Read Aloud, Read Togeth­er, Read Alone, Art of Lan­guage. Not your typ­i­cal 5th grade dai­ly sched­ule, but it is what Sahara gets with Madame Poiti­er, aka, Miss Pointy. Labeled as an under­achiev­er who actu­al­ly has seri­ous writ­ing tal­ent that she keeps hid­den, Sahara has opt­ed out of spe­cial edu­ca­tion class­es and is instead repeat­ing 5th grade. With help from her eccen­tric teacher, she final­ly finds the kind of sup­port and encour­age­ment that might help her over­come her fears, accept her­self and embrace her gifts. Share this book to build empa­thy and bring humor to your read aloud.


Home of the Brave  

Home of the Brave
writ­ten by Kather­ine Apple­gate
Square Fish, 2008

A beau­ti­ful sto­ry of one boy’s strug­gle to adapt to a new life in Min­neso­ta. Far from his home­land of Sudan and the school expe­ri­ence he had at a refugee camp, this exquis­ite book is a per­fect choice to pro­mote win­dows and mir­rors with stu­dents. Writ­ten in free verse, read­ers will be drawn to Kek and his desire to adapt to the frigid Min­neso­ta win­ter and life in Amer­i­ca. He is deter­mined to learn of his mother’s fate as he remains hope­ful despite his old­er brother’s pes­simism. Applegate’s descrip­tive writ­ing, rich with idioms, brings atten­tion to what it’s like to try to make sense of a new sur­round­ing and strange lan­guage. Share this book to raise aware­ness of and appre­ci­a­tion for the refugee expe­ri­ence, mak­ing new friends and hang­ing onto hope when you have lit­tle else.


Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane  

The Mirac­u­lous Jour­ney of Edward Tulane
writ­ten by Kate DiCamil­lo
Can­dlewick Press, 2006

This fan­tas­ti­cal adven­ture fea­tures a stuck up, ego­cen­tric chi­na rab­bit who is trans­formed through repeat­ed episodes of loss and love as his sto­ry spans decades. Although at first meet­ing, he is a heart­less char­ac­ter, Edward’s jour­ney is about recap­tur­ing his humil­i­ty and dis­cov­er­ing the true pow­er of love. It all begins with a fall over­board and con­tin­ues through a series of res­cues and aban­don­ments. Edward and his read­ers will face a wide range of emo­tions as the tale unfolds across unex­pect­ed set­tings with a unique ensem­ble of sup­port­ing cast mem­bers. Share this sto­ry to explore mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives and oppor­tu­ni­ties for engag­ing in char­ac­ter analy­sis. 


The War That Saved My Life


The War That Saved My Life
writ­ten by Kim­ber­ly Brubak­er Bradley
Dial Books, 2015

Win­ner of numer­ous awards, includ­ing a New­bery Hon­or, this unfor­get­table WWII saga tells the sto­ry of Ada, a bright but severe­ly neglect­ed nine-year-old girl, liv­ing in Lon­don. Born with a club foot and unable to walk due to lack of treat­ment, Ada has been locked in her cru­el mother’s shab­by sec­ond sto­ry flat her entire life. When the city’s chil­dren are evac­u­at­ed to the coun­try­side as Hitler’s bombs begin to fall, Ada fol­lows her younger broth­er and grasps her only chance to escape her dis­mal exis­tence. TWTSML is the kind of read aloud that cap­tures the lis­ten­er and holds on tight. Share this his­tor­i­cal fic­tion title to offer stu­dents com­pelling insight into the lives, strug­gles and hard-won vic­to­ries of two resilient chil­dren and the woman who res­cues them.


Out of My Mind  

Out of My Mind
writ­ten by Sharon Drap­er
Run­ning Press Kids, 2010

Fifth grade, spelling extra­or­di­naire Melody pos­sess­es a pho­to­graph­ic mem­o­ry and is like­ly the bright­est stu­dent in the entire school. She is fun­ny, feisty and fierce. Yet no one knows any of these things about her because she is trapped and unable to demon­strate any of her tal­ents or traits. Born with cere­bral pal­sy, Melody yearns for the abil­i­ty to com­mu­ni­cate and expe­ri­ence friend­ships like oth­er kids her age. The arrival of “Elvi­ra” trans­forms Melody’s life and the world around her. Share this book to delve into the dif­fi­cult yet nec­es­sary top­ic of bias towards oth­ers who are dif­fer­ent­ly-abled.


The One and Only Ivan  

The One and Only Ivan
writ­ten by Kather­ine Apple­gate
Harper­Collins, 2012

The poignant, inspired by true events, sto­ry of the shop­ping mall goril­la, Ivan. A beau­ti­ful blend of friend­ship and faith, art and humor, is sprin­kled through­out the pages of this endear­ing tale. A favorite New­bery Medal win­ner, Ivan has found a home in the hearts of read­ers in thou­sands of class­rooms. A gen­tle giant, Ivan learns about the essence of life from inside his glass walls dur­ing his 27 years of cap­tiv­i­ty. He finds strength, courage and love among his small but mighty group of mall friends; Julia, the mall custodian’s daugh­ter, Bob, the spir­it­ed dog, Stel­la, the wise, old­er ele­phant and Ruby, the new­ly arrived baby ele­phant. Share this book to inte­grate fan­ta­sy fic­tion and non-fic­tion accounts of the incred­i­ble sto­ry of Ivan, encour­ag­ing research and ani­mal rights advo­ca­cy.


A Long Walk to Water  

A Long Walk to Water 
writ­ten by Lin­da Sue Park
Clar­i­on Books, 2010

Anoth­er book based on a true sto­ry, this heart-rend­ing sto­ry of the “Lost Boys of Sudan” presents the par­al­lel sto­ries of two unfor­get­table chil­dren. Alter­nat­ing the third per­son nar­ra­tives, Park shares the dif­fi­cult sto­ries of Sal­va, a Din­ka boy escap­ing the hor­rors of the Sudanese civ­il war in 1985 and that of Nya, a mem­ber of the Nuer tribe, who devotes the major­i­ty of her time to retriev­ing water for her fam­i­ly in 2008. While both trag­ic and uplift­ing, share this book to raise aware­ness of the strug­gle for sur­vival due to war and lack of basic nat­ur­al resources such as water.  


Hello, Universe  

Hel­lo, Uni­verse
writ­ten by Erin Entra­da Kel­ly
Green­wil­low Books, 2017

Hel­lo Uni­verse by Erin Entra­da Kel­ly

The 2018 win­ner of the New­bery Award, this enchant­i­ng sto­ry is sure to become an all-time favorite. The sto­ry of sur­vival in both small and very big ways is woven togeth­er from the very dif­fer­ent life expe­ri­ences of four mis­fits – a bul­ly, a psy­chic, a deaf girl and a shy but kind boy. The uni­verse works in mys­te­ri­ous and some­times epic ways as this charm­ing tale of friend­ship and courage will attest. Share this book to launch a unit about fam­i­ly sto­ries, under­stand­ing and stand­ing up to bul­ly­ing, how var­i­ous cul­tures are rep­re­sent­ed in lit­er­a­ture or the idea of fate ver­sus free will.


Ms. Bixby's Last Day  

Ms. Bixby’s Last Day
writ­ten by John David Ander­son
Walden Pond Press, 2016

Three sixth grade boys with noth­ing much in com­mon oth­er than a shared out­cast sta­tus and an affin­i­ty for their beloved Mrs. B, hatch a plan to deliv­er “the per­fect last day”.  As teach­ers go, Ms. Bix­by is “one of the good ones”, a teacher who under­stands the impor­tance of rela­tion­ships, respect and rec­og­niz­ing spe­cial qual­i­ties in each and every stu­dent. When she sud­den­ly takes a med­ical leave to deal with a seri­ous ill­ness, the boys embark on a com­i­cal and at times heart­break­ing quest to see her at least one more time.  Filled with a per­fect mix of hard truths and much need­ed humor, this adven­ture will keep lis­ten­ers beg­ging for just one more page. Share this book as a per­fect end-of-the-year selec­tion that leads to an emo­tion­al and mem­o­rable con­clu­sion!




The Gift of Books:
Terrific Titles for the Classroom Library

As teach­ers across the coun­try take to the streets to push for ade­quate com­pen­sa­tion and work con­di­tions, it’s a won­der we still have young peo­ple enter­ing this noble pro­fes­sion. And yet, at col­lege and uni­ver­si­ty grad­u­a­tion cer­e­monies every­where, new teach­ers will be receiv­ing their cre­den­tials as they embark on what will like­ly be one of the most chal­leng­ing and reward­ing career choic­es pos­si­ble. Thank good­ness we still have peo­ple who are brave enough, smart enough, strong enough, and kind enough to become teach­ers. Where would we be with­out the next gen­er­a­tion of edu­ca­tors (aka heroes)?

If you know of some­one who is just join­ing the ranks, the titles on this list of trea­sured books in my per­son­al library might be just what he/she needs to start things off in the class­room. Or maybe you know of a teacher who is fin­ish­ing up their first or sec­ond year in the class­room, what a love­ly “you sur­vived so far” gift one of these books would be. Or per­haps you should treat your­self to your own “Teacher Appre­ci­a­tion Day” gift? Regard­less of the rea­son, I am con­vinced any or all of these books would be a delight­ful addi­tion to anyone’s col­lec­tion. Be sure to check out the links pro­vid­ed for ter­rif­ic resources relat­ed to each title.

Be Who You Are!  

Be Who You Are!
writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Todd Parr
Lit­tle, Brown, 2016

With col­or­ful, charm­ing illus­tra­tions, Parr reminds us that cel­e­brat­ing and embrac­ing our unique selves is the tick­et to a hap­py life. Share this book on the very first day of school to cre­ate a cli­mate of accep­tance and com­mu­ni­ty.


Duck! Rabbit!  

Duck! Rab­bit!
writ­ten by Amy Krouse Rosen­thal
illus­trat­ed by Tom Licht­en­held

An abstract con­cept made sim­ple for kids of all ages to grasp … the wit­ty visu­als clear­ly sup­port the notion that accept­ing and hon­or­ing mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives is an impor­tant and wise idea. Share this book to help kids see things from anoth­er person’s point of view, pro­mot­ing empa­thy and under­stand­ing. 


Let Me Finish!  

Let Me Fin­ish!
writ­ten by Minh Lê
illus­trat­ed by Isabel Rox­as
Dis­ney Hype­r­i­on, 2016

Who would have thought that a sim­ple desire to read with­out inter­rup­tions could turn into such an adven­ture? This sweet sto­ry not only tells the tale of an avid read­er, it also offers up illus­tra­tions that will gen­er­ate plen­ty of pre­dic­tions, oohs and ahs! Share this sto­ry ear­ly on in the school year to estab­lish suc­cess­ful expec­ta­tions and shared agree­ments for inde­pen­dent read­ing time.   



The Word Collector


The Word Col­lec­tor
writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Peter Reynolds
Orchard Books, 2018

A per­fect pick for fos­ter­ing a love of words. Share this book to cel­e­brate the joy of dis­cov­er­ing new words and expand­ing one’s vocab­u­lary. Jerome will delight read­ers with his pen­chant for col­lect­ing words. Chances are he will also inspire at least a few logophiles along the way. 



writ­ten by Sta­cy McAn­ul­ty
illus­trat­ed by Joanne Lew-Vri­ethoff
Run­ning Press Kids, 2016

A play­ful book about girls, how­ev­er it’s def­i­nite­ly not just for girls. In addi­tion to some fun, it presents plen­ty of wise words to con­sid­er. Share this book to rein­force the beau­ti­ful mes­sage to all chil­dren that girls can be and do any­thing. Also a great choice for teach­ing the com­pre­hen­sion strat­e­gy of visu­al­iz­ing. The men­tal imagery that is gen­er­at­ed from a text-only read-aloud will like­ly be dif­fer­ent from the illus­tra­tions when revealed.


Elephant & Piggie Biggie!  

An Ele­phant and Pig­gie Big­gie
writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Mo Willems
Dis­ney Hype­r­i­on, 2017

A col­lec­tion of five favorite titles fea­tur­ing the endear­ing duo cre­at­ed by Mo. Two lov­able best friends help kids learn a lot about life and impor­tant themes includ­ing fac­ing fears, per­se­ver­ance, shar­ing, adven­ture and so much more. Share this book to encour­age flu­en­cy prac­tice with part­ner read­ing or per­haps some read­ers the­ater per­for­mances.



Shaking Things Up  

Shak­ing Things Up:
14 Young Women Who Changed the World
writ­ten by Susan Hood
illus­trat­ed by Sophie Black­all, Emi­ly Win­field Mar­tin, Shadra Strick­land, Melis­sa Sweet, LeUyen Pham, Oge Mora, Julie Morstad, Lisa Brown, Seli­na Alko, Hadley Hoop­er, Isabel Rox­as, Erin Robin­son, and Sara Pala­cios
Harper­Collins, 2018

A won­der­ful col­lec­tion of poems and stun­ning illus­tra­tions, fea­tur­ing diverse trail­blaz­ers who will inspire a new gen­er­a­tion of girls to change the world for the bet­ter. Share this book to teach biogra­phies and con­nect to a vari­ety of social stud­ies, math, art and sci­ence top­ics includ­ing pre­his­toric ani­mals, WWI and WWII, school inte­gra­tion, med­ical dis­cov­er­ies, and space explo­ration.


The Important Book  

The Impor­tant Book
writ­ten by Mar­garet Wise Brown
illus­trat­ed by Leonard Weis­gard
Harper­Collins, 1949

An excep­tion­al men­tor text for inspir­ing young writ­ers. Fol­low­ing a sim­ple pat­tern and fea­tur­ing every­day objects, this clas­sic title demon­strates how to cre­ate a poem or para­graph focused on what mat­ters most to the writer. Share this book in a les­son to launch writer’s work­shop, teach deter­min­ing impor­tance or as a clever way for new class­mates to intro­duce them­selves with a class book enti­tled “The Impor­tant Book about Our Class.”



Ideas Are All Around
writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Phillip Stead
Roar­ing Brook Press, 2016

A per­fect choice for help­ing chil­dren reflect on the won­ders and ideas that fill each day. Over­flow­ing with pos­si­bil­i­ties for extend­ing the sto­ry, this first-per­son nar­ra­tive from the author, reminds us that small moments can tru­ly become big inspi­ra­tions. Share this book and its mixed media illus­tra­tions to offer an engag­ing art and writ­ing les­son.


Jabari Jumps  

Jabari Jumps
writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Gaia Corn­wall
Can­dlewick Press, 2017

Every­one needs a bit of encour­age­ment now and then. Kids will eas­i­ly relate to Jabari, brave on the out­side, a bit ner­vous on the inside, as he pre­pares to jump off the div­ing board for the first time. With sup­port from his patient dad, Jabari shows read­ers how to be a risk tak­er and achieve suc­cess. Share this book to intro­duce or rein­force what it means to have a growth mind­set and over­come one’s fears.



Gifts from the Trenches

Gifts from the TrenchesLife in the trench­es, a/k/a the class­room, is not for the faint of heart. In pre­vi­ous Bookol­o­gy arti­cles I’ve shared my take on many of the chal­lenges faced by teach­ers in today’s edu­ca­tion­al cli­mate. Lack of mean­ing­ful oppor­tu­ni­ties for the teacher’s voice to be heard, mount­ing pres­sure to pro­duce stu­dents who per­form well on high stakes tests, dis­trict man­dates to teach from a script­ed cur­ricu­lum, a desire to be all and do all for stu­dents, the list goes on and on. And that list can be exhaust­ing. Yet so many of us con­tin­ue to pur­sue the some­times elu­sive and ulti­mate goal; to make a pos­i­tive dif­fer­ence in the lives of our stu­dents. At times, it feels like the bal­ance between give and take is incred­i­bly lop­sided.

Yes, lop­sided. Com­plete­ly dis­pro­por­tion­ate. It’s not even a con­test when I com­pare how much my buck­et has been filled to the num­ber of buck­ets I may have filled. You see, in my 30 years as a teacher, the gifts I have received far out­num­ber those I have been lucky enough to share with oth­ers. And so, in the spir­it of the sea­son, rather than share a list of what I wish for this Christ­mas, I invite you to take a peek at the trea­sures that have been bestowed upon me. The high­lights that have inspired me over the years and have kept me going. My gifts from the trench­es.   

The Kids

The first cat­e­go­ry of gifts comes from the rea­son we all entered the hon­or­able pro­fes­sion of teach­ing in the first place. The kids. Every sin­gle cherub that I’ve encoun­tered on my teach­ing and learn­ing jour­ney has a place in my heart. How­ev­er, despite my desire to nev­er play favorites when sur­round­ed by kids in the class­room, I must con­fess that when I look back, there are some that stand out just a bit more. These kids have pro­vid­ed some of my great­est gifts, my proud­est moments and mem­o­ries as a teacher.

First, there was the sad lit­tle guy who had lost his moth­er as a kinder­garten­er and was often in a fight or flight mode. Yet thanks to a class read-aloud of The Lemon­ade Club by Patri­cia Polac­co, he became the dri­ving force behind the “Lemon­ade Stand Project” my group of first graders launched in an effort to raise mon­ey for a very sick boy in our com­mu­ni­ty. When­ev­er I think back to those busy days with six- and sev­en-year-olds who were so intent on doing a good deed for some­one they didn’t even knows, my heart melts. This extra­or­di­nary expe­ri­ence reminds me that when mag­ic hap­pens in the class­room, it most like­ly does not come from a text­book or piece of cur­ricu­lum. It comes from the heart and usu­al­ly the heart of a kid.

The Lemonade Club

The Lemon­ade Club

Then there was a qui­et, freck­le-faced, sec­ond-grade girl who shined with cre­ativ­i­ty and kind­ness yet strug­gled to read with suc­cess. I didn’t know much about dyslex­ia at the time but my instincts told me I need­ed to learn more so I could help fig­ure out the source of her dif­fi­cul­ties. I found and read the book Over­com­ing Dyslex­ia by Yale neu­ro­sci­en­tist Sal­ly Shay­witz. I shared the book and my con­cerns with this bright young lady’s par­ents who were eager to do what­ev­er they could to help her. That con­ver­sa­tion led them to lots of research, a for­mal diag­no­sis, and enroll­ment in a school that spe­cial­ized in work­ing with dyslex­ic stu­dents. Over the next decade we stayed in touch and I was thrilled to hear of my for­mer student’s con­tin­ued suc­cess. The best gift came when I received this mes­sage last spring from that cre­ative and kind young woman:

Hi Mrs. Rome! I hope all is well with you! I just want­ed to share some excit­ing news with you. I have been accept­ed into a few dif­fer­ent grad­u­ate schools to earn my Edu­ca­tion­al Psy­chol­o­gy license to become a school psy­chol­o­gist … I think of you and how for­tu­nate I was to have you as my sec­ond-grade teacher, and how dif­fer­ent my life would have been had I nev­er met you. You changed my life. I don’t think I would be pur­su­ing grad­u­ate school, let alone be attend­ing col­lege, had you not sug­gest­ed that I might be dyslex­ic …

Words can­not express how much a mes­sage like this means to a teacher. Goose­bumps and a lump in my throat instant­ly mate­ri­al­ize every time I re-read this mes­sage. What a life-chang­er this future school psy­chol­o­gist and her fam­i­ly were for me. No ques­tion that the bal­ance between give and take is lop­sided, and this sto­ry illus­trates just how much one stu­dent can give to a teacher.

The Col­leagues

In addi­tion to gifts from many spe­cial kids, I have also been blessed with some of the finest col­leagues any­one could ask for. I was a mem­ber of one par­tic­u­lar­ly spe­cial team that will always have élite sta­tus in my book. We dubbed our­selves The Dream Team, not because we want­ed to be boast­ful, but because it was like a dream come true for each of us, to feel such a sense of har­mo­ny and col­lab­o­ra­tion.

The Dream Team

The Dream Team

Although our time togeth­er was far too short, just one school year, it was like noth­ing I had ever expe­ri­enced in all my years of teach­ing. I mar­vel at the engage­ment and inspi­ra­tion our joint efforts cre­at­ed for our stu­dents as well for each oth­er. The many gifts that I enjoyed with my Dream Team includ­ed:

  • a shared com­mit­ment to putting kids first
  • a mutu­al love of lit­er­a­cy
  • dai­ly “col­lab time” to share ideas, ques­tions, and con­cerns
  • hon­est com­mu­ni­ca­tion
  • an abun­dance of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty and trust
  • a desire to learn and grow togeth­er

I hon­est­ly don’t know if these attrib­ut­es can be cul­ti­vat­ed or if they sim­ply hap­pen when the stars are aligned just so. I do know that it is a rare and beau­ti­ful thing to love not only the work you do, but also the peo­ple you get to do it with. What a gift these ladies were!

The Authors and their Books

The last of my gifts from the trench­es is a trib­ute to the lit­er­a­cy heroes that have impact­ed me, both per­son­al­ly and pro­fes­sion­al­ly. Much more than just a list of favorite authors and books, these writ­ers and their char­ac­ters have had a pro­found effect on my teach­ing and learn­ing:

  • Mo Willems, author of Pig­gy and Ele­phant books, changed the way I help kids build foun­da­tion­al skills like decod­ing and flu­en­cy but, more impor­tant­ly, these play­ful gems teach us lessons about friend­ship, loy­al­ty, courage, and fun.

Mo Willems

  • Patri­cia Polac­co, mas­ter sto­ry­teller, offers rich tapes­tries of fam­i­ly tra­di­tions, strug­gles and cel­e­bra­tions, year after year. Thank you, Mr. Falk­er cap­tures Polacco’s ago­niz­ing efforts to learn to read. It is a sto­ry that res­onates deeply with teach­ers and is one many kids can relate to.
Patricia Polacco

Patri­cia Polac­co

  • Kwame Alexan­der, leg­endary poet and word­smith, brings a lev­el of pas­sion and excite­ment to a day at school that is beyond one’s wildest expec­ta­tions. Thanks to a gen­er­ous grant I received from Pen­guin Ran­dom House and dozens of copies of Crossover donat­ed by Scholas­tic, my Dream Team and I wit­nessed the trans­for­ma­tive pow­er of a great book, one that actu­al­ly can change lives.
Kwame Alexander and the Dream Team

Kwame Alexan­der and the Dream Team

I must admit that there is one thing that remains on my Christ­mas wish list. That wish is for every teacher read­ing this essay to receive his or her own gifts from the trench­es. May your kids, your col­leagues, and your favorite authors and books, bring you the con­tent­ment that comes from know­ing you make a dif­fer­ence every sin­gle day!


It’s All About the Heart

And now here is my secret, a very sim­ple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see right­ly; what is essen­tial is invis­i­ble to the eye.” 
― Antoine de Saint-ExupéryThe Lit­tle Prince

Orig­i­nal­ly this install­ment of Teach it For­ward was going to offer my take on how to fos­ter inde­pen­dence and pro­mote sta­mi­na in the class­room. Late­ly, I’ve been hear­ing a lot from teach­ers about these two top­ics and the chal­lenge they present. The strug­gle to cre­ate a class­room filled with autonomous stu­dents who can sus­tain pur­pose­ful learn­ing seems to be uni­ver­sal. As I cap­tured my thoughts about how to help teach­ers, I came up with a list of cre­ative strate­gies that worked for me over the years. Along with my reper­toire of ideas, I sprin­kled in lots of encour­age­ment and upbeat advice such as “Look for what you want to see in your stu­dents… the rest will fol­low.”

frustrated student

How­ev­er, after sit­ting with my words for a few days, I real­ized that my attempt to sim­pli­fy such a com­plex under­tak­ing would like­ly only make mat­ters worse for teach­ers. How could one brief arti­cle ade­quate­ly address some­thing so per­plex­ing and yet so essen­tial as fos­ter­ing inde­pen­dence and sta­mi­na in the class­room? The answer to this predica­ment came from a wise col­league who recent­ly chat­ted with me about the dis­tress teach­ers face when it seems impos­si­ble to devel­op self-dri­ven and engaged learn­ers. She sug­gest­ed we all do a bit of soul search­ing by start­ing with the heart, not the head, to find the answers to these ques­tions:

  • What are my beliefs about how my class­room should oper­ate?
  • What is my “why” for being a teacher?
  • How do the kids know that I care, that I am pas­sion­ate?

remembering the heartThe Lit­tle Prince reminds us of the impor­tant role the heart plays in under­stand­ing what lies below the sur­face. We must be will­ing to be vul­ner­a­ble with our stu­dents if we want them to be vul­ner­a­ble with us. As men­tioned in the col­umn “Food for Thought” a few months ago, I believe reach­ing the heart is a pre­req­ui­site for reach­ing the head. Before we can enable stu­dents to be inde­pen­dent learn­ers for extend­ed peri­ods of time, it is cru­cial to con­vince them that what is invis­i­ble to the eye is what mat­ters most.

It starts with the first of four com­po­nents from Cul­tur­al­ly Respon­sive Teach­ing (Teach­ing Tol­er­ance), referred to as The 4 Rs, which is rela­tion­ships.

From there, we strength­en con­nec­tions with stu­dents by bring­ing real­ness, the sec­ond of the 4 Rs, into our lessons.

Next, we con­sid­er the rel­e­vance of what we teach to make sure stu­dents see the “why” of what we are ask­ing them to do.

And, final­ly, we infuse rig­or, the fourth and final “R,” into our teach­ing as we strive for high expec­ta­tions of all kids.

Which favorite teacher comes to mind when you think of The 4 Rs? I eas­i­ly return to 6th grade and fond­ly recall my very best teacher, Mrs. Frett. Although I can­not remem­ber one stan­dard or learn­ing objec­tive that she taught me, I can eas­i­ly recall sev­er­al mean­ing­ful con­ver­sa­tions we had more than 40 years ago. Her secret was sim­ple: she focused on our hearts before going after our heads.

In the words of beloved poet and writer, Maya Angelou, “… peo­ple will for­get what you said, peo­ple will for­get what you did, but peo­ple will nev­er for­get how you made them feel.” 


From Gridlock to Road Trip


If you were stuck in bumper to bumper grid­lock, head­ing south on Hwy 100 last week, you may have noticed a woman laugh­ing all alone in her car as she wait­ed patient­ly (with eyes on the road) for things to start mov­ing again. The very next day you might have caught a glimpse of that same lady wip­ing a tear or two from her cheek, again, stay­ing atten­tive to the traf­fic. This emo­tion­al dri­ver wasn’t react­ing to the road con­ges­tion or the fact that her time behind the wind­shield was dou­ble what it should be. The source of her amuse­ment and sad­ness was com­ing from her car radio speak­ers, more specif­i­cal­ly, the audio­book Gone Crazy in Alaba­ma, writ­ten by Rita Williams-Gar­cia, nar­rat­ed by Sisi A. John­son. That cap­ti­vat­ed listener/careful motorist was me, mak­ing the most of rush hour by savor­ing a sto­ry that begs to be heard in audio for­mat.

Gone Crazy in AlabamaThe Gaither sis­ters, Del­phine, Vonet­ta and Fern, along with Big Ma, their grand­moth­er, and Ma Charles, their great grand­moth­er, joined me for the com­mute down Hwy 100 for about a week. The com­bi­na­tion of exquis­ite writ­ing by Ms. Williams and enthralling nar­ra­tion by Ms. John­son trans­formed sev­er­al days of dif­fi­cult maneu­ver­ing on the inter­state to an extend­ed road trip with some of my very best friends. There was even one morn­ing when I final­ly arrived at the school park­ing lot only to have to pull myself away from my vehi­cle, after telling myself “Just five more min­utes to fin­ish this chap­ter!”

In addi­tion to Gone Crazy in Alaba­ma, I have enjoyed near­ly three dozen oth­er audio titles in the past year. My top rec­om­men­da­tions stand out for their mem­o­rable and engag­ing nar­ra­tions. Oth­er than The Hate U Give (most appro­pri­ate for age 12+), these audio­books would be great addi­tions to mid­dle grade (4th-6th) class­rooms.

All Amer­i­can Boys by Bren­den Kiely and Jason Reynolds

Crossover by Kwame Alexan­der

Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Esper­an­za Ris­ing by Pam Muñoz Ryan

The Hate U Give by Angela Thomas

Listen, SlowlyLis­ten Slow­ly by Thanhha Lai

One Crazy Sum­mer by Rita Williams-Gar­cia

P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Gar­cia

Refugee by Alan Katz

Reign Rain by Ann M. Mar­tin

Stel­la by Starlight by Sharon Drap­er

The War that Saved My Life by Kim­ber­ly Brubak­er Bradley

My all-time favorite audio­book adven­ture was Echo, by Pam Munoz Ryan. With a run­ning time of ten and a half hours, this mas­ter­piece is well worth every minute spent tak­ing in the cap­ti­vat­ing tale of mag­ic, mys­tery and har­mon­i­ca music. The fate of three chil­dren is inter­wo­ven from Ger­many to the Unit­ed States, from the Rise of Hitler to post-Pearl Har­bor as the har­mon­i­ca plays an inte­gral role in the char­ac­ters’ con­nec­tions and the book’s con­clu­sion. I am con­vinced that the audio pro­duc­tion of Echo offers a unique and mem­o­rable expe­ri­ence that is beyond com­par­i­son to either the read aloud or inde­pen­dent read­ing option. Whether Echo becomes your first audio­book or lands at the top of your exist­ing “to be lis­tened to” list, you will not be dis­ap­point­ed (well, per­haps you will be, but only because it has to come to an end).

If you are look­ing for oth­er great audio picks, con­sid­er the award win­ners cho­sen by YALSA and ALSC.

The Odyssey Award spon­sored by YALSA (Young Adult Library Ser­vices Asso­ci­a­tion) rec­og­nizes the best audio­book pro­duced each year for chil­dren and/or young adults. In 2016, the Hon­or Record­ing was Echo.

In addi­tion to the Odyssey Award win­ners, a longer list of exem­plary audio record­ings are offered annu­al­ly on the Notable Children’s Record­ings list, select­ed by the ALSC (Asso­ci­a­tion for Library Ser­vice to Chil­dren). In 2011, One Crazy Sum­mer was rec­og­nized.

Late­ly, I’ve been reflect­ing on a pow­er­ful quote from Kylene Beers from Notice & Note: Strate­gies for Close Read­ing; “Non­fic­tion lets us learn more; fic­tion lets us be more.” This is what I want most for young read­ers and I bet you do as well.  Yet, like me, you might won­der just how many of our kids have ever expe­ri­enced this pow­er­ful aspect of fic­tion? I believe that for some, if not many, excep­tion­al audio­books may be the tick­et to help­ing kids be more through the books they expe­ri­ence. There was a time in my teach­ing career when I didn’t give audio­books and their lis­ten­ers the cred­it they deserve. I have come to appre­ci­ate the aur­al read­ing expe­ri­ence both per­son­al­ly and pro­fes­sion­al­ly. I hope you feel the same.

Resources that pro­mote access to audio­books:


Epic! is the lead­ing dig­i­tal library for kids, with unlim­it­ed access to an incred­i­ble selec­tion of 25,000 high-qual­i­ty books, learn­ing videos, quizzes and more. You can access Epic! on any device, includ­ing your smart­phone, iPad or com­put­er — FREE for edu­ca­tors!


Bor­row eBooks, audio­books, and more from your local pub­lic library — any­where, any­time. All you need is a library card.


Scribd is a read­ing sub­scrip­tion that is avail­able any­time and on any device. Enjoy access to 3 books and 1 audio­book each month — plus unlim­it­ed access to mag­a­zines and doc­u­ments — for $8.99/month.


Sky­brary is a care­ful­ly curat­ed, ever expand­ing inter­ac­tive library of dig­i­tal books and video explo­rations designed to engage young read­ers and fos­ter a love of learn­ing.


Capitulate vs Conquer

Students readingAs I eager­ly gath­ered up my ideas and insights for a fol­low-up arti­cle about last month’s “Mys­tery Read­er” top­ic, I found myself try­ing to nego­ti­ate two seem­ing­ly incom­pat­i­ble schools of thought regard­ing effec­tive lit­er­a­cy teach­ing and learn­ing. I am a huge pro­po­nent of stu­dent choice and voice (instead of teacher- or cur­ricu­lum-dic­tat­ed text selec­tions), teacher exper­tise (instead of reliance on script­ed pro­grams), and fos­ter­ing a life­long love and moti­va­tion for read­ing (instead of seek­ing the holy grail of high test scores). How­ev­er, late­ly I find myself grap­pling with the ide­al world of what lit­er­a­cy teach­ing and learn­ing could and should look like and the real­i­ty of the world most teach­ers live in, one filled with con­stant pres­sure to meet the stan­dards and pro­duce read­ers who show what they know by pass­ing high stakes tests. Search­ing my the­saurus for just the right words to describe this mixed feel­ing, I set­tled on “capit­u­late” and “con­quer.” Allow me to elab­o­rate.

Capit­u­late, in the strongest sense of the word is to say some­one is cav­ing in. A milder form of the word means to come to terms with some­thing that is per­ceived as unset­tling. It rep­re­sents the neg­a­tive side of the coin. Con­quer, on the oth­er hand, rep­re­sents vic­to­ry. It describes the abil­i­ty to over­come or avoid defeat. Def­i­nite­ly the pre­ferred side of the coin for most folks.

So what do these two oppos­ing words have to do with pro­mot­ing reflec­tion and enhanc­ing com­pre­hen­sion through ana­lyz­ing mis­cues of stu­dents’ oral read­ing (the essence of Mys­tery Read­er)? In shar­ing my enthu­si­asm for such a tech­ni­cal aspect to lit­er­a­cy instruc­tion, I must con­fess that I expect some excep­tion­al edu­ca­tors to dis­miss it because it sounds too dry, too focused on judg­ment of a reader’s per­for­mance, with not near­ly enough empha­sis on ignit­ing a pas­sion or pro­mot­ing read­ing joy. To those who might ques­tion the Mys­tery Read­er approach, it just might feel a bit like capit­u­lat­ing, like accept­ing a prac­tice that tries to quan­ti­fy a process that shouldn’t be used for any kind of mea­sure­ment, espe­cial­ly that of chil­dren.

But here’s the thing, with more than twen­ty-five years of expe­ri­ence as an edu­ca­tor, I can still vivid­ly recall just about every sin­gle for­mer stu­dent who need­ed more than his or her peers to dis­cov­er what it means to be a read­er and to find plea­sure in that expe­ri­ence. For some kids, con­nect­ing them with the right book is para­mount but equal­ly impor­tant is pro­vid­ing effec­tive instruc­tion that builds nec­es­sary foun­da­tion­al skills and strate­gies. Skills and strate­gies that won’t mate­ri­al­ize hap­haz­ard­ly. And that’s why I encour­age you to con­sid­er shar­ing this activ­i­ty with your stu­dents, enabling them to learn and under­stand the ben­e­fits of a pow­er­ful form of feed­back. Flip the coin, choose to con­quer the bar­ri­ers that keep some kids from know­ing what it feels like to get lost and found in a great sto­ry. And while it’s true that not all things that are mea­sured real­ly mat­ter and not all things that mat­ter are always mea­sured, I am con­vinced that run­ning records and mis­cue analy­sis deserve a place in our lit­er­a­cy teach­ing and learn­ing.

As promised in the first install­ment of Mys­tery Read­er, I have a few sug­ges­tions for col­lect­ing audio record­ings of anony­mous stu­dent read­ers to share with your mis­cue ana­lyz­ers. The first is a free app I’ve used exten­sive­ly, called VoiceRe­cord­Pro. With just a bit of explor­ing, I found the app to be user-friend­ly and per­fect for col­lect­ing oral read­ing sam­ples. Once record­ings have been cap­tured, it is easy to rename them, add notes and share them via drop­box, google dri­ve, or email. These options make it pos­si­ble to quick­ly swap record­ings with col­leagues in oth­er grades and schools to ensure anonymi­ty when shar­ing Mys­tery Read­ers with stu­dents.  VoiceRe­cord­Pro can also be used for all sorts of mul­ti­me­dia projects. My stu­dents first uti­lized it when illus­trat­ing and per­form­ing the poem, “If You Give a Child a Book” by Dr. Pam Far­ris. Check out our YouTube video here.

Anoth­er option for col­lect­ing oral read­ing sam­ples is using the “run­ning record” assign­ment tool from Read­ing A‑Z/Raz-Plus. Though I am not one to plug com­mer­cial, for-prof­it sites, I have to say I am a huge fan of this fea­ture and how it lends itself to Mys­tery Read­er. A free two-week tri­al is offered for the Read­ing A‑Z/Raz-Plus site that may be best known for its vast col­lec­tion of ebooks and print­able black­line mas­ter books. The annu­al cost for an indi­vid­ual teacher is close to $200, which is pricey, though dis­counts are offered to schools or dis­tricts sign­ing up for 10 or more sub­scrip­tions. The run­ning record fea­ture on the site allows teach­ers to access a pow­er­ful way to record and ana­lyze run­ning records as well as col­lect oral retellings. Stu­dent record­ings can be saved and shared with par­ents to demon­strate stu­dent growth over the year or they can be used with stu­dents dur­ing read­ing con­fer­ences or inter­ven­tion ses­sions.

I invite you to sub­mit ques­tions or con­tact me for more infor­ma­tion about how to use either method, VoiceRe­cord­Pro and Read­ing A‑Z/Raz-Plus to imple­ment Mys­tery Read­er.

A third col­umn relat­ed to Mys­tery Read­er will be shared in Teach it For­ward next month, with a focus on expand­ing the activ­i­ty to include reflec­tions and con­ver­sa­tions with stu­dents about read­ing con­fer­ences.


Mystery Readers

In this col­umn, I’m pleased to share a brief overview of Nur­tur­ing the Devel­op­ment of Reflec­tive Read­ers,” a ses­sion I attend­ed at “Echoes of Learn­ing,” the lit­er­a­cy con­fer­ence at Zaharis Ele­men­tary in Mesa, AZ. Kris-Ann Flo­rence and Megan Kyp­ke, sec­ond and fourth grade teach­ers, shared how they pro­mote reflec­tion and enhance com­pre­hen­sion by using a stu­dent ver­sion of mis­cue analy­sis to help read­ers under­stand the impor­tance of mean­ing-mak­ing. In kid-friend­ly lan­guage, it’s sim­ply called “Mys­tery Read­er.” Kris-Ann and Megan show­cased the pow­er of this engag­ing and fun approach to lit­er­a­cy learn­ing by demon­strat­ing it in action. They were assist­ed by an eager bunch of brave stu­dents who vol­un­teered to spend part of their Sat­ur­day show­ing what they know in front of a group of con­fer­ence atten­dees. The activ­i­ty is usu­al­ly intro­duced and shared with the whole class. How­ev­er, it could cer­tain­ly be done with small groups of stu­dents who need extra guid­ance and sup­port with decod­ing, flu­en­cy, self-mon­i­tor­ing, com­pre­hen­sion, or choos­ing good-fit books.

Teach­ing kids how to effec­tive­ly par­tic­i­pate in mean­ing­ful dis­cus­sion about what it means to be a read­er is the ulti­mate goal of “Mys­tery Read­er.” You might agree that being respect­ful and sen­si­tive about cor­rect­ing errors and offer­ing sug­ges­tions for improve­ment requires a degree of tact and finesse that may not be refined in most sev­en- to eleven-year-olds. To counter this, Kris-Ann and Megan stressed the impor­tance of shar­ing audio record­ings of oral read­ing that guar­an­tee to keep the iden­ti­ty of the read­er a mys­tery. They rely on an inven­to­ry of record­ings of anony­mous stu­dents from years gone by as well as excerpts col­lect­ed from audio swap­ping with teacher friends from oth­er schools or dis­tricts.

I was so cap­ti­vat­ed by this unique idea! And as much as I love work­ing as an instruc­tion­al coach, the thought of set­ting up this “Mys­tery Read­er” as a rou­tine lit­er­a­cy prac­tice made me real­ly wish I had my own class­room again. I’m hope­ful that next fall I can sup­port teach­ers who are inter­est­ed with this inno­v­a­tive approach to fos­ter­ing inde­pen­dent, con­fi­dent, and moti­vat­ed read­ers.

Mystery Reader

The steps to imple­ment­ing “Mys­tery Read­er” are sim­ple. I’ve out­lined them as if I were pre­sent­ing them to stu­dents.

First, set the pur­pose. 

In this activ­i­ty we will lis­ten to some­one we don’t know read a short pas­sage as we fol­low along with a copy of the text. We will learn how to take notes about the read­ing so that we can talk about what we noticed and give advice to the read­er. “Mys­tery Read­er” helps us under­stand the text and the read­er. It helps us become bet­ter read­ers because we also learn about how each of us reads on our own.

Mystery Reader

Sec­ond, explain and prac­tice mark­ing the text with stu­dents. 

  • When we read aloud it is impor­tant to read with expres­sion, to sound the way the char­ac­ter would real­ly sound. We’ll call that using “voice.” Any time a mys­tery read­er does a great job of using voice, we will write a “V” on the paper at that spot.
  • When a read­er fix­es a mis­take all by him or her­self, we’ll call that a “self-cor­rect” and will write down an “S/C.”
  • Some­times read­ers pause because they are stuck on a word or are think­ing about the text. Oth­er times read­ers will repeat or reread a word or sen­tence to make it sound bet­ter. If either of these hap­pen, we will write down a “P” or an “R.”
  • If the read­er skips a word, we will write down an “S.”
  • Final­ly, we will lis­ten and watch care­ful­ly for any words that are not said cor­rect­ly. These are called “mis­cues.” If that hap­pens, we will cross out the word and we will write the word the read­er said instead above the one we just crossed out.
  • Lat­er when we talk about the mis­cues, we will decide if the word the read­er said changed the mean­ing or not. If the mean­ing was not changed, for exam­ple say­ing “home” instead of “house,” we will write “QM” for “qual­i­ty mis­cue.” But if the mean­ing did change because of the mis­cue, we will write “MCM” for “mean­ing chang­ing mis­cue.”

Guiding Questions

Third, prac­tice, reflect on, and dis­cuss the process using guid­ing ques­tions.

This year we will be prac­tic­ing, think­ing about, and talk­ing about “Mys­tery Read­ers.” We will share things we notice about what makes each read­er a good read­er. We will real­ly focus on whether the read­er is mak­ing mean­ing or under­stand­ing the text and we will decide if the text was a “good fit.” 

And final­ly, stu­dents demon­strate greater aware­ness and com­pre­hen­sion in their own read­ing. 

As we get more com­fort­able doing “Mys­tery Read­er,” we will see how it helps us with our own read­ing. We will be able to use voice to show good expres­sion when we read aloud. We will also get bet­ter at self-cor­rect­ing our mis­cues. And if we do have mis­cues when we read, we will be able to fig­ure out if they are qual­i­ty mis­cues or mean­ing-chang­ing mis­cues. All of these things will be impor­tant ways to help us learn how to choose “good fit books” and gain mean­ing from the texts we read.

A final note about “Mys­tery Read­er”… For as long as I can remem­ber, I have strived to cap­i­tal­ize on time spent with stu­dents in one-on-one ses­sions involv­ing read­ing con­fer­ences or tak­ing run­ning records. When class­rooms are filled with 25 – 30 stu­dents who range sig­nif­i­cant­ly in their read­ing pro­fi­cien­cy, self-mon­i­tor­ing abil­i­ty, moti­va­tion, and self-con­fi­dence, it is imper­a­tive that teach­ers bring effi­cien­cy and a sense of urgency and fun to the table. “Mys­tery Read­ers” has the poten­tial to do all of these things in one sweet and sim­ple swoop.

The next Teach it For­ward col­umn will offer addi­tion­al ideas for imple­ment­ing “Mys­tery Read­er.” Sug­ges­tions for col­lect­ing oral read­ing sam­ples and adding a com­pre­hen­sion con­fer­ence por­tion to the activ­i­ty will be offered.


The ori­gins of this approach date back to 1996 with “Ret­ro­spec­tive Mis­cue Analy­sis” by Yet­ta Good­man. To learn more, check out these arti­cles and hand­outs:

Ret­ro­spec­tive Mis­cue Analy­sis: Revalu­ing Read­ers and Read­ing” by Yet­ta Good­man and Ann Marek

Ret­ro­spec­tive Mis­cue Analy­sis: An Effec­tive Inter­ven­tion for Stu­dents in Grades 3 – 12,” pre­sent­ed by Sue Haer­tel


Spring Break 2017

I’m still rel­ish­ing the mem­o­ry of spring break. Sur­round­ed by moun­tains and plen­ty of sun­shine, I stum­bled upon a lit­er­a­cy oasis that up until then, I had only vis­it­ed in my dreams. Almost a month lat­er, I am still intrigued and inspired by what I expe­ri­enced. I knew instant­ly that this mag­i­cal place would be the top­ic of my next Bookol­o­gy con­tri­bu­tion. In fact, I believe I have enough mate­r­i­al for a year’s worth of arti­cles about this very spe­cial sanc­tu­ary of learn­ing. I invite my read­ers to relive the day with me, now and in the com­ing months, as I share my take-aways from Zaharis Ele­men­tary School, a place where peo­ple “clam­or to bring their chil­dren… because of [a] unique approach to teach­ing and learn­ing.”  

Donalyn Miller and Maurna Rome

Don­a­lyn Miller and Mau­r­na Rome

Thanks to the won­der­ful world of Face­book, I seized an oppor­tu­ni­ty that I knew I couldn’t pass up. A few days before I was sched­uled to kick off spring break by board­ing a flight to Ari­zona, Don­a­lyn Miller post­ed that she was also head­ing to the desert to present at the Zaharis Lit­er­a­cy Con­fer­ence, Echoes of Learn­ing, in Mesa, Ari­zona. Those of us who have read The Book Whis­per­er or Read­ing in the Wild or are Nerdy Book Club mem­bers knew that this would be worth inves­ti­gat­ing! I looked up the school’s web­site and quick­ly dis­cov­ered that for just $50 I could attend the one-day con­fer­ence that fea­tured Don­a­lyn along with keynote address­es from Pam Muñoz Ryan and Dr. Frank Ser­afi­ni. I’ve had the priv­i­lege of see­ing all three of these high­ly respect­ed lit­er­a­cy gurus in the past and knew that I couldn’t go wrong. Spring break or not, I would be going back to school on my first day of vaca­tion. If the con­fer­ence had con­sist­ed of just these three excep­tion­al peo­ple it would have been enough. I had no idea that so much more await­ed me.

From the moment I strolled through the front doors and scanned the hall­ways, I could tell that Zaharis Ele­men­tary was not your aver­age, run-of-the-mill kind of school. Through­out the day, lit­er­a­cy con­fer­ence atten­dees were encour­aged to take tours, vis­it class­rooms, and mean­der through the hall­ways to get a clos­er look at the school and how it oper­ates.

The very first thing I noticed was a beau­ti­ful mur­al of two kids read­ing while sit­ting on a pile of books. A pletho­ra of author’s auto­graphs filled the spines and cov­ers of the paint­ed books; Jack Gan­tos, Pam Muñoz Ryan, Patri­cia Polac­co, Grace Lin, Mary Ama­to, Michael Buck­ley, and more than a dozen oth­ers. Clear­ly, I had dis­cov­ered a place where lit­er­a­cy was alive and well.

I round­ed the cor­ner and spot­ted a huge wall filled with framed 8 X 10 pho­tos of Zaharis staff mem­bers. Maybe not such an unusu­al dis­play, until you con­sid­er the large head­ing paint­ed above the frames: Our Lega­cy – A Love for Lit­er­a­ture. Every staff mem­ber was hold­ing their very favorite book in their school pic­ture. “Huh!” I thought to myself, “What a sim­ple and inex­pen­sive way to pro­mote a love of read­ing.” There is a rea­son Scholas­tic Par­ent and Child Mag­a­zine select­ed this school as one of the “25 Coolest Schools in Amer­i­ca.” 

Our Legacy Zaharis Elementary School

Once I signed in for the day and met Nan­cy, one of the friend­liest sec­re­taries ever (she hails from the Mid­west, hav­ing lived in Wis­con­sin and Min­neso­ta), I wan­dered from room to room and vis­it­ed with sev­er­al extra­or­di­nary teach­ers. I learned quite a bit about this amaz­ing school and real­ized that my first impres­sion was accu­rate… this was tru­ly a place where pro­mot­ing a love of lit­er­a­cy gets top billing. I have to admit, it didn’t take long for me to think about pol­ish­ing up my résumé and mov­ing south!

Anoth­er notable dis­play worth men­tion­ing was a wall filled with framed book cov­ers. Cap­tioned Our Men­tors, this siz­able col­lec­tion of pro­fes­sion­al learn­ing titles show­cas­es the com­mit­ment Zaharis staff makes to hon­ing their craft as teach­ers and learn­ers. Since open­ing their class­room doors for busi­ness in 2002, teach­ers at Zaharis have engaged in book stud­ies with near­ly three dozen men­tor texts. Includ­ed are such gems as On Sol­id Ground by Sharon Taber­s­ki, In the Mid­dle by Nan­cy Atwell, Going Pub­lic by Shel­ley Har­wayne, Teach­ing with Inten­tion by Deb­bie Miller, About the Authors: Writ­ing Work­shop with Our Youngest Writ­ers by Katie Wood Ray and Lisa Cleave­land, and of course, Read­ing in the Wild by Don­a­lyn Miller.

Our Mentors - Zaharis Elementary School

In between break­out ses­sions that were led by class­room teach­ers, I took part in a guid­ed tour of Zaharis led by school prin­ci­pal, Mike Oliv­er.  Mr. Oliver’s unpar­al­leled pas­sion and exper­tise eas­i­ly qual­i­fy him as one of the most sol­id lit­er­a­cy lead­ers I’ve ever encoun­tered. His refresh­ing approach to teach­ing and lit­er­a­cy learn­ing tugged at my heart­strings as I wish every edu­ca­tor and every child could ben­e­fit from this type of mind­set. His words res­onat­ed so strong­ly with my per­son­al beliefs:

What is a read­er? What does it mean to be a read­er? That’s a ques­tion that we ask all the time. The rea­son that ques­tion is so impor­tant and our response to it, is it large­ly deter­mines who our chil­dren become as read­ers, whether or not they pick up a book of their own choos­ing and how suc­cess­ful they are, real­ly resides in our response to ‘What does it mean to be a read­er?’ You look at schools across the coun­try and in so many of them, they drown in a sea of work­sheets… 5 – 6 per day is over 1,000 work­sheets a year. Yet there’s no research that shows that there’s a cor­re­la­tion between how many work­sheets kids do and how suc­cess­ful they are as read­ers.” 

I was also quite enthused about Mr. Oliver’s phi­los­o­phy of how to recruit and hire top-notch teach­ing tal­ent. As we paused in front of the Our Men­tors wall dis­play, he explained that the first sev­er­al inter­view ques­tions always cen­ter on read­ing. Can­di­dates are asked to share what they are read­ing for per­son­al plea­sure and for pro­fes­sion­al growth. If unable to respond eas­i­ly and ful­ly, the inter­view is, quite frankly, over (though the remain­ing ques­tions are still shared out of respect). As Mr. Oliv­er point­ed out, how can we expect some­one who doesn’t appear to val­ue read­ing to be respon­si­ble for instill­ing a love of lit­er­a­cy in chil­dren?

Mr. Oliver's Office

Mr. Oliv­er’s Office

Over­sized class­rooms that look more like fur­ni­ture show­rooms, com­plete with sec­tion­al sofas, cozy read­ing nooks and floor to ceil­ing book dis­plays would make any kid or teacher swoon. As much as I love the idea of relaxed, homey learn­ing envi­ron­ments like those at Zaharis, it might be a tall order to trans­form most tra­di­tion­al class­rooms into such well-appoint­ed spaces.

Primary Classroom, Zaharis Elementary School

Pri­ma­ry Class­room, Zaharis Ele­men­tary School

First grade classroom, Zaharis Elementary School

First grade class­room, Zaharis Ele­men­tary School

How­ev­er, the real heart of the learn­ing that hap­pens in this lit­er­a­cy oasis locat­ed in the Ari­zona desert, comes from the care­ful inte­gra­tion of kids and books, skill­ful­ly woven togeth­er by the teach­ers, not from a script­ed pro­gram or pre-select­ed cur­ricu­lum. Please check back next month for the next install­ment on Zaharis Ele­men­tary, a fea­ture on using pic­ture books with first graders to teach a civ­il rights time­line and an inno­v­a­tive approach called “Mys­tery Read­ers” to help 2nd through 5th graders learn how to ana­lyze oral read­ing.

I’ll close with the words that com­prise the Zaharis mis­sion and val­ues, every bit as elo­quent and uplift­ing as it is child- and learn­ing-cen­tered! 

 Our Mis­sion

Learn­ing, car­ing, rejoic­ing and work­ing togeth­er to cre­ate a more just, com­pas­sion­ate, insight­ful world.

At Zaharis…

Our school is a fam­i­ly. We care for one anoth­er and val­ue each other’s voice.

We are all learn­ers and our pas­sions are con­ta­gious. We unite as we cel­e­brate each other’s growth, achieve­ments and suc­cess­es.

It is impor­tant to share our sto­ries. This is one way we merge heart and intel­lect.

We val­ue children’s bril­liance. Their feel­ings, ideas, gifts and tal­ents are respect­ed and shared.

Smiles and laugh­ter make every­thing eas­i­er. Love serves as a moti­va­tor until desire to learn is cul­ti­vat­ed.

 We under­stand that when learn­ing trav­els through the heart, it inspires greater mean­ing and pur­pose.

Learn­ing is a social expe­ri­ence. We make mean­ing togeth­er through col­lab­o­ra­tive dia­logue.

We learn through inquiry. The learn­ing in our class­rooms mir­rors the work that read­ers, writ­ers, math­e­mati­cians, sci­en­tists and social sci­en­tists do.

Stu­dents and teach­ers have time – time to think, time to won­der, time to explore, and time to share their find­ings — togeth­er.


Isn’t It Time to Listen to the Teachers?

Recent head­lines are sound­ing the alarm:

Star Tribune articleMore Min­neso­ta teach­ers leav­ing jobs, new state report shows
One-fourth of new teach­ers leave with­in first three years, accord­ing to a new state report. 

The statewide teacher short­age described as an “epi­dem­ic” has Min­neso­ta school dis­tricts search­ing for strate­gies that will increase teacher reten­tion. A Feb­ru­ary, 2017, Star Tri­bune arti­cle offers a star­tling sta­tis­tic that should be stop­ping school boards, admin­is­tra­tors, leg­is­la­tors and most impor­tant­ly par­ents in their tracks:

The 2017 ver­sion of the Min­neso­ta Teacher Sup­ply and Demand report issued Wednes­day found a 46 per­cent increase in the num­ber of teach­ers leav­ing the pro­fes­sion since 2008.”

While I believe a num­ber of oth­er issues also deserve our atten­tion (increas­ing the num­ber of teach­ers of col­or, improv­ing teacher train­ing, and clos­ing the achieve­ment gap), we can­not ignore the fact that the future of edu­ca­tion is uncer­tain at best. Some might even say the future is bleak.

How­ev­er, as a self-pro­fessed cham­pi­on of pos­i­tiv­i­ty and on behalf of the hun­dreds of col­leagues I have worked with over the past 26 years, I have com­piled a short list of requests. Invest­ing in these five straight­for­ward con­di­tions would send a strong mes­sage that we are seri­ous about address­ing the need to attract and retain high-qual­i­ty teach­ers for our chil­dren.

Isn’t it time to lis­ten to the teach­ers when we ask for the fol­low­ing? 

#1. High qual­i­ty train­ing in class­room man­age­ment and engage­ment

Ask any first year edu­ca­tor what he/she learned about these essen­tial com­po­nents of teach­ing in their under­grad­u­ate cours­es and the answer will like­ly be “Lit­tle, if any­thing.” The sad truth is that our col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties are not doing an excep­tion­al job of prepar­ing new teach­ers for the chal­lenges they will face when it comes to cre­at­ing class­room envi­ron­ments that are con­ducive to learn­ing. We must do bet­ter. Before the degrees are grant­ed, as well as once new teach­ers are stand­ing in front a class­room full of kids, learn­ing how to estab­lish a cli­mate where kids can and want to learn is essen­tial. 

#2. Rea­son­able class sizes

And speak­ing of that class­room full of kids… Despite the stud­ies that insist class size doesn’t real­ly mat­ter all that much, 99.9% of teach­ers will tell you, CLASS SIZE MATTERS! A lot! Last year I taught two sec­tions of Lan­guage Arts. My first sec­tion had 31 stu­dents, my sec­ond sec­tion just 22 stu­dents. The amount of time I could devote to small group read­ing with stu­dents in the sec­ond sec­tion was obvi­ous­ly much greater than with stu­dents in the first sec­tion. Excel­lent teach­ers strive to cre­ate mean­ing­ful rela­tion­ships with stu­dents, they believe in pro­vid­ing rel­e­vant feed­back, and they under­stand the impor­tance of con­nect­ing with par­ents. Accom­plish­ing these goals is pos­si­ble with 22 stu­dents. Mak­ing it hap­pen con­sis­tent­ly with 31 stu­dents is a feat that most teach­ers find over­whelm­ing.

#3. Ample class­room library and sup­ply bud­gets

There is a joke often shared on social media that teach­ing is the only pro­fes­sion where you steal from home and take things to work. Sur­veys have shown that the aver­age teacher spends at least $500 out of their pock­et for every­thing from Kleenex to snow boots to gra­ham crack­ers. We not only wor­ry about keep­ing stu­dents healthy, warm, and fed, but we also invest heav­i­ly in putting books on our shelves year after year. Many teach­ers I know dream of win­ning the lot­tery in order to stock his/her class­room with the basic essen­tials. Rather than make us wait for our lucky num­bers to hit, how about if the school boards, admin­is­tra­tors, and school finance gurus help us meet the needs of stu­dents today! We’re not ask­ing for mil­lions, but $500-$1,000 per year would help a great deal.

#4. Time in our class­rooms dur­ing “back to school work­shop” days

Every August it’s the same old sto­ry. Teach­ers sit through hour after hour, day after day of meet­ings and work­shops that are sup­posed to help us become the best teach­ers we can be. The inten­tions are hon­or­able. Most of us real­ize this. But here’s the thing, our minds are else­where dur­ing this cru­cial time peri­od. It is tough to get or stay engaged in talk about inter­ven­tions, effec­tive math rou­tines or even worse, new rules for using the lam­i­na­tor, when more than two dozen lit­tle peo­ple and their fam­i­lies will be walk­ing through the door for open house in 48 – 72 hours. Give us the time we need to get our class­rooms ready. Make it a pri­or­i­ty to lim­it those August work­shop ses­sions in favor of sup­port­ing us in a sub­stan­tial way – with ade­quate time to be in our class­rooms prepar­ing for our learn­ers and the adven­tures that lie ahead. 

(l. to r.) Mau­r­na Rome, Meghan Mal­one, Lynn Sear­le, Ash­ley Hall, Kali Gard­ner, all sec­ond grade teach­ers at Peter Hobart Ele­men­tary in St. Louis Park, MN. Team mem­bers not avail­able for pho­to: Suzanne Knauf and Mol­ly Borg

#5. Ongo­ing, job-embed­ded, teacher-dri­ven pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment

The ben­e­fits of “one and you’re done” or “sit and git” work­shop train­ing days are min­i­mal. Often­times there is lit­tle change in beliefs or behav­iors after attend­ing this type of PD. As an instruc­tion­al coach, I am priv­i­leged to be in a dis­trict that val­ues invest­ing in teacher devel­op­ment and growth. I have worked in sev­er­al oth­er dis­tricts that have not approached pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment in the same way. Hon­or­ing teacher voic­es in this process is the way to fos­ter sys­temic change and sus­tain improve­ments. Recent­ly I joined a group of teach­ers as they col­lab­o­rat­ed on cre­at­ing a teacher-friend­ly guid­ed read­ing les­son plan for­mat. It was so impres­sive to see how they bounced ideas off of one anoth­er, dis­cussed their ratio­nale and insights, or offered dif­fer­ing opin­ions on how to approach the plan. There was a love­ly mix of syn­er­gy, respect, and affir­ma­tion. They knew what they were doing and they were doing it well. The next day, they decid­ed to put in a request for half-day subs so every­one on the team could dig even deep­er into their under­stand­ing and imple­men­ta­tion of the new approach to guid­ed read­ing. This is the type of pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment we need. No one at the dis­trict office or State Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion could do a bet­ter job of pre­scrib­ing or design­ing effec­tive train­ing.

Ask the teach­ers. And most impor­tant­ly, lis­ten to them. They know. Trust me. They know. Trust them. They real­ly know.


Do Over

The notion of a “do-over” is alive and well on school play­grounds across the coun­try. Ask any recess super­vi­sor and they will con­firm this. You hear it being request­ed on four-square courts, under bas­ket­ball hoops, and on foot­ball fields… “Awwww, that should be a do-over!” Kids know that some­times you just need anoth­er chance to get it right.

As an edu­ca­tor with near­ly three decades of teach­ing expe­ri­ence, one might think that by this point in my career, my wish-list for “do-overs” in the class­room would be get­ting small­er and small­er. Yet, the truth is, it’s the exact oppo­site. That list of teach­ing regrets, what I wish I could “do over,” con­tin­ues to grow. You see, as I become old­er and wis­er, I real­ize more than ever the impor­tance of reflec­tion. Whether I am pon­der­ing the effec­tive­ness of my lessons, exam­in­ing for­mal or infor­mal data, or spec­u­lat­ing on my abil­i­ty to be proac­tive ver­sus reac­tive, I find myself feel­ing like a 4th grad­er on the play­ground, plead­ing for a chance to do it over.

Do Over

This school year I’ve been giv­en an incred­i­ble oppor­tu­ni­ty to raise my racial con­scious­ness and learn what it means to become an inter­rupter of racial inequal­i­ty. My school dis­trict invests heav­i­ly in pro­mot­ing this unique and very nec­es­sary form of pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment. (See more infor­ma­tion below.)

As part of my racial equi­ty jour­ney, I am writ­ing my “racial auto­bi­og­ra­phy.” The ulti­mate goal for com­pos­ing this per­son­al nar­ra­tive cen­tered on race is to dis­rupt the cur­rent state of affairs by elim­i­nat­ing the racial pre­dictabil­i­ty of the achieve­ment gap. My per­son­al goal in writ­ing a racial auto­bi­og­ra­phy is to pos­i­tive­ly impact how I approach my role as a cul­tur­al­ly respon­sive edu­ca­tor. With­in this pro­gram, I’ve dis­cov­ered that cre­at­ing and shar­ing per­son­al racial iden­ti­ties is an effec­tive way for edu­ca­tors to pro­mote a greater under­stand­ing of our col­lec­tive racial expe­ri­ences. It pro­vides a chance for us to engage in coura­geous con­ver­sa­tions cen­tered on race.

Brian's SongIn writ­ing about my life in terms of race, I’ve dis­cov­ered that until my senior year of high school, the inter­ac­tions I had with peo­ple of col­or were only through books and movies. Grow­ing up in Dubuque, Iowa, it wasn’t until I plopped down in front of the TV in Novem­ber 1971, for the ABC Movie of the Week, that I met a black per­son for the very first time. I was eight years old when I watched the tear-jerk­er about can­cer-strick­en Bri­an Pic­co­lo and his team­mate, Gale Say­ers. Brian’s Song depicts the expe­ri­ences of two Chica­go Bears foot­ball play­ers who became the first racial­ly inte­grat­ed room­mates in the NFL. Sit­ting next to my old­er broth­er who just want­ed to watch a foot­ball movie about his favorite team, the sto­ry cap­tured my atten­tion for very dif­fer­ent rea­sons. I was full of ques­tions as my racial con­scious­ness was stirred. My child­hood naiveté about race left me won­der­ing why it was such a big deal for a white man and a black man, play­ers on the same team, to share a room. I was curi­ous and con­fused. After the movie end­ed, I could not stop think­ing about the friend­ship between the two men.

The sto­ry of Pic­co­lo and Say­ers stayed with me. What for some was an ordi­nary week­ly TV-watch­ing expe­ri­ence, this movie remains one of the most vivid mem­o­ries from my child­hood.  I recall going to the pub­lic library five years lat­er as a junior high stu­dent to check out the book I Am Third by Gale Say­ers. As a teenag­er I had begun hear­ing about and wit­ness­ing more exam­ples of big­otry and stereo­types, racism, in sub­tle and not so sub­tle ways. I want­ed to get to know this man of col­or who I had encoun­tered years ear­li­er. It wasn’t until just a few months ago that the sig­nif­i­cance of that Tues­day evening in 1971 would be ful­ly under­stood. In writ­ing my racial auto­bi­og­ra­phy, I dis­cov­ered that this ini­tial expo­sure to peo­ple who were intent on inter­rupt­ing racial injus­tice con­tributed in pro­found ways to my racial con­scious­ness.

So what does want­i­ng a “do-over” have to do with my racial auto­bi­og­ra­phy? My desire to have anoth­er chance stems from the real­iza­tion that, as an edu­ca­tor, I missed out on far too many oppor­tu­ni­ties to cre­ate crit­i­cal lit­er­ary expe­ri­ences, as well as lived ones, that were focused on racial aware­ness and racial equi­ty. The idea of teach­ing about “white priv­i­lege” in an explic­it way was bare­ly on my radar. My class­room was filled with most­ly white stu­dents for years, yet I did lit­tle to help those kids learn about and appre­ci­ate oth­ers who not only looked dif­fer­ent but expe­ri­enced life in a much dif­fer­ent way. Yes, there were sto­ries about Mar­tin Luther King, Jr., Ruby Bridges, and Rosa Parks and there were lots of books brought out for Black His­to­ry Month. How­ev­er, now I see that those min­i­mal efforts actu­al­ly may have done more harm than good. By iso­lat­ing the teach­ing and learn­ing about peo­ple of col­or to just a few indi­vid­u­als and one month out of the entire school year, what mes­sage was I send­ing to kids?

If I had to do it all over again, I would be inten­tion­al in my teach­ing about race, racism, and white priv­i­lege. In a class­room full of six-year-olds, I would seize oppor­tu­ni­ties to talk with kids about these issues. I would devote time to help­ing my stu­dents gain an appre­ci­a­tion for racial equi­ty by explor­ing the need to embrace diver­si­ty in peo­ple, thoughts, and approach­es to prob­lem-solv­ing. We would learn about how talk­ing about race and work­ing towards social jus­tice ben­e­fits every­one. As for­mer Spel­man Col­lege Pres­i­dent Bev­er­ly Daniel Tatum puts it, “It’s not just under­stand­ing somebody’s heroes and hol­i­days.”

As a white, female edu­ca­tor, I rep­re­sent the demo­graph­ic of approx­i­mate­ly 75% of pub­lic school teach­ers in this coun­try. Since do-overs are much eas­i­er to come by on the school play­ground than they are in our class­rooms, I invite all who read this essay to join me in my effort to get it right from here on out. Let’s embrace the oppor­tu­ni­ty for learn­ing and teach­ing about racial aware­ness in order to address the urgent need for racial equi­ty in today’s world.


I offer this list of resources to help you with your racial equi­ty teach­ing and learn­ing jour­ney:

Be a ChangemakerWhat I’m read­ing with kids

A is for Activist by Innosan­to Nagaro

Heart and Soul: The Sto­ry of Amer­i­ca and African Amer­i­cans by Kadir Nel­son

Ghost by Jason Reynolds

Be a Change­mak­er: How to Start Some­thing That Mat­ters by Lau­rie Ann Thomp­son

What I’m read­ing for per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment

Born a CrimeBorn a Crime by Trevor Noah

Just Mer­cy: A Sto­ry of Jus­tice and Redemp­tion by Bryan Steven­son

Wak­ing Up White and Find­ing Myself in the Sto­ry of Race by Deb­by Irv­ing

The mis­sion: Putting more books fea­tur­ing diverse char­ac­ters into the hands of all chil­dren. Vis­it We Need Diverse Books.

The vision: A world in which all chil­dren can see them­selves in the pages of a book.

More infor­ma­tion about Glenn Sin­gle­ton and Coura­geous Con­ver­sa­tions.

To learn more about writ­ing your racial auto­bi­og­ra­phy, check out this link.

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?Author of the book, Why Are All The Black Kids Sit­ting Togeth­er in the Cafe­te­ria? Bev­er­ly Daniel Tatum offers insights on col­or blind­ness, racial stereo­types, and the media in this PBS inter­view.

60+ Resources for Talk­ing to Kids About Racism” by Lorien Van Ness, pro­vides a lists of books and activ­i­ties to help adults begin the dia­logue, start­ing with birth to three-year-olds.

An exten­sive list com­piled by The Wash­ing­ton Post, offer­ing arti­cles, resources, and research, “Teach­ing about race, racism and police vio­lence: Resources for edu­ca­tors and par­ents.”

More about the St. Louis Park (Min­neso­ta) Equi­ty Coach­ing Pro­gram

Every edu­ca­tor in St. Louis Park schools works one-on-one with an Equi­ty Coach, who offers sup­port, resources, and train­ing in a num­ber of ways. Through con­ver­sa­tions, work­shops, obser­va­tions and coach­ing, teach­ers learn about the impor­tance of rais­ing their racial con­scious­ness in an effort to dis­rupt sys­temic racism.


In Sep­tem­ber, 2013, the St. Louis Park School Dis­trict start­ed a pro­gram called Equi­ty Coach­ing to help address the achieve­ment gap and to improve edu­ca­tion­al equal­i­ty in its schools. Grant funds from the state-spon­sored Qual­i­ty Com­pen­sa­tion (Q Comp) grant (also known as ATPPS; Alter­na­tive Teacher Pro­fes­sion­al Pay Sys­tem) help fund the Equi­ty Coach ini­tia­tive.

The Equi­ty Coach­ing blog fur­ther describes the St. Louis Park Schools Equi­ty Coach­ing Mod­el:  “Sys­temic racial equi­ty change tran­spires when edu­ca­tors are giv­en the space and sup­port to crit­i­cal­ly reflect on their own racial con­scious­ness and prac­tice. Equi­ty coach­ing pro­vides sus­tained dia­logue in a trust­ing envi­ron­ment to inter­rupt the pres­ence of racism and white­ness. Using Coura­geous Con­ver­sa­tions Pro­to­col, tenets of Crit­i­cal Race The­o­ry, and instruc­tion­al coach­ing meth­ods, edu­ca­tors, and coach­es engage in this.”


Windows, Mirrors, Sliding Glass Doors, and Maps

There seems lit­tle chance of devel­op­ing the humil­i­ty so urgent­ly need­ed for world coöper­a­tion, instead of world con­flict, as long as our chil­dren are brought up on gen­tle dos­es of racism through their books.” —Nan­cy Lar­rick

When chil­dren can­not find them­selves reflect­ed in the books they read, or when the images they see are dis­tort­ed, neg­a­tive or laugh­able, they learn a pow­er­ful les­son about how they are deval­ued in the soci­ety of which they are a part.” —Rudine Sims Bish­op

Per­haps this exclu­siv­i­ty, in which chil­dren of col­or are at best back­ground char­ac­ters, and more often than not absent, is in fact part of the imag­i­na­tive aspect of these books. But what it means is that when kids today face the real­i­ties of our world, our glob­al economies, our inte­gra­tions and over­lap­pings, they all do so with­out a prop­er map. They are nav­i­gat­ing the streets and avenues of their lives with an inad­e­quate, out­dat­ed chart, and we won­der why they feel lost.” —Christo­pher Myers

Three pro­found quotes, all con­tem­plat­ing the trou­bling real­i­ty of the pre­dom­i­nant­ly white world of children’s lit­er­a­ture. These quotes appeared in three sep­a­rate arti­cles that were writ­ten decades apart in 1965, 1990 and 2014, respec­tive­ly. It has been more than 50 years since Nan­cy Lar­rick penned “The All White World of Children’s Books.” And then, 25 years lat­er, Rudine Sims Bish­op addressed the same trav­es­ty in her arti­cle “Mir­rors, Win­dows and Slid­ing Glass Doors.” Skip ahead anoth­er two dozen years and we hear from Christo­pher Myers when he dis­cuss­es “The Apartheid of Children’s Lit­er­a­ture.” It is a sad real­i­ty that so lit­tle progress has been made over so many years.

bk_courageeousconversationsYet, I am com­pelled to feel opti­mistic. I have sin­cere hopes and dreams that big­ger change is pos­si­ble. One rea­son for this pos­i­tiv­i­ty comes from the invest­ment and effort my new school dis­trict has made towards racial equi­ty and pro­mot­ing the equi­ty jour­neys of every dis­trict employ­ee. The two-day “Beyond Diver­si­ty” work­shop I recent­ly attend­ed, based on the work of Glenn Sin­gle­ton and his book Coura­geous Con­ver­sa­tions About Race, was one of the most pow­er­ful “back to school” pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment ses­sions I have ever expe­ri­enced. Sim­ply put, race mat­ters, and so do our dis­cus­sions, beliefs, feel­ings, thoughts, and actions relat­ed to race. 

Emmanuel's DreamSo how do I grap­ple with the cur­rent real­i­ty, my role as a white woman work­ing in class­rooms with a mix­ture of pre­cious brown, black, and white faces, eager to share a side of children’s lit­er­a­ture that hon­ors each and every one of them? We are in our sec­ond week of school, estab­lish­ing class­room com­mu­ni­ties, dis­cussing our hopes and dreams. I pull out a trea­sured book, one that packs a pow­er­ful mes­sage about the impor­tance of not let­ting dis­abil­i­ties become inabil­i­ties. A true sto­ry that deliv­ers an uplift­ing mes­sage of brav­ery, respect, deter­mi­na­tion and love. As I read the first few pages of Emmanuel’s Dream by Lau­rie Ann Thomp­son, the lit­tle guy right in front of me asks the ques­tion, “Hey, how come every­one in that book looks like me?.” I dream of a day when this expe­ri­ence, the shar­ing of a pic­ture book filled with chil­dren and adults of col­or, does not prompt a child, any child, to feel this is an unusu­al occur­rence, but rather one that is com­mon­place and expect­ed.  


Books for My Grandbaby and Me

Reading to my GrandbabyIt’s no secret that I am a big fan of books and read­ing. I am actu­al­ly an even big­ger fan of babies. I am instant­ly smit­ten. I can think of noth­ing bet­ter than cud­dling an infant, blan­ket­ed by that new baby smell, read­ing to an audi­ence of one. You can imag­ine how thrilled I am to announce that there’s a new baby in town! My incred­i­ble daugh­ter-in-law and son are cel­e­brat­ing the joy of tran­si­tion­ing from lov­ing cou­ple to lov­ing fam­i­ly and I am a first-time grand­ma.

A sweet, lit­tle baby boy (well actu­al­ly, not so lit­tle, with a birth weight of 11 lbs. 12 oz. and length of 24”) to bounce on my knee as we cre­ate read­ing mem­o­ries togeth­er! I’ve looked for­ward to shar­ing my pas­sion for lit­er­a­cy with a pre­cious grand­ba­by for a very long time. And so, with my heart full of  more love than I ever thought pos­si­ble, I will set­tle into this esteemed and hon­or­able role as grand­ma by reach­ing for a trea­sured stack of books. Care­ful­ly select­ed books that will begin a life­long adven­ture of dis­cov­ery, won­der, snug­gles, and joy. Books filled with lessons for my grand­ba­by and me!   

Book and Les­son #1: On The Day You Were Born
Books help us cel­e­brate and learn.

On tThe per­fect first book to share with my grand­ba­by offers this sweet greet­ing: “Wel­come to the spin­ning world… We are so glad you’ve come.” Debra Frasier’s love­ly pic­ture book will, with­out a doubt, become a tra­di­tion for us. The mir­a­cle of nature explains the mir­a­cle of a very spe­cial baby’s entrance into the world. Each year on the anniver­sary of his birth, we will mar­vel at the uni­verse as it is depict­ed in page after page of charm­ing nature col­lages. An extra­or­di­nary book to com­mem­o­rate an extra­or­di­nary event in our lives!   

Book and Les­son #2: More! More! More! Said the Baby
Books help us cher­ish mem­o­ries from the past and cre­ate new ones.

More! More! More! Said the BabyLit­tle Guy, Lit­tle Pump­kin and Lit­tle Bird, tod­dlers from More! More! More! Said the Baby, by Vera B. Williams, bring out the silli­ness and play­ful fun that are essen­tial qual­i­ties for grand­mas and grand­pas. After read­ing this delight­ful sto­ry to my grand­son, I will share anoth­er sto­ry, one about his own dad that I will call “Lit­tle Fish.”  Cen­tered on the mem­o­ry of an ener­getic, not quite two- year- old, I’ll rem­i­nisce and recall the gig­gles and squeal­ing “I do gan, I do gan” as my son jumped off the dock into the lake, again and again. You can bet that each time I read this book it will be grand­ma who pleads for “more, more, more” tum­my kiss­es and toe tick­les!

Book and Les­son #3: Snowy Day
Books help us find new friends.

The Snowy DayIntro­duc­ing my grand­son to a curi­ous lit­tle boy named Peter will be the begin­ning of what I hope will be many friend­ships sprout­ing from the pages of a good book. While read­ing Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, we will get to know an adven­tur­er who loves build­ing smil­ing snow­men and mak­ing snow angels. It won’t be long before my grand­son and I enjoy win­ter days doing the same. And though he will be too young to under­stand the his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance of this book (con­sid­ered to be the first full col­or pic­ture book fea­tur­ing a child of col­or as the main char­ac­ter), it will always be a reminder to me about the impor­tance of pro­vid­ing a pletho­ra of books with diverse char­ac­ters, books that offer “win­dows and mir­rors,” books filled with friends my grand­ba­by has yet to meet.

Book and Les­son #4: Four Pup­pies
Books help us under­stand life and the world around us.

Four PuppiesThis grandma’s “must read to grand­ba­by book­list” would not be com­plete with­out the book that was my very first per­son­al favorite. As a kinder­garten­er, I fell in love with this clas­sic Lit­tle Gold­en Book. My hope is that my grand­son will delight in the antics of this ram­bunc­tious pack of pups as they learn about the chang­ing sea­sons. Even­tu­al­ly my spe­cial read­ing bud­dy and I will talk about the wise red squir­rel and the pos­i­tive life lessons he pass­es on to his young pro­tégés.    

Book and Les­son #5:
The Lit­tle Mouse, the Red Ripe Straw­ber­ry, and the Big Hun­gry Bear
Books help us have a lit­tle fun.

The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry BearThis deli­cious sto­ry by Don and Audrey Wood pro­vides anoth­er walk down mem­o­ry lane. It seems like just yes­ter­day when my three-year old preschool­er begged for anoth­er read­ing of this high­ly inter­ac­tive tale. This time around, I plan to wear a pair of Grou­cho fuzzy nose and glass­es as I read it with my grand­ba­by. The cap­ti­vat­ing tale that mix­es a bit of fear, mys­tery, humor, sneak­i­ness and, best of all, shar­ing with oth­ers, will like­ly find a spot on grandbaby’s “read it again” list!

Book and Les­son #6: The I LOVE YOU Book
Books help us express our feel­ings.

The I Love You BookUncon­di­tion­al love is a nat­ur­al phe­nom­e­non for par­ents and grand­par­ents all over the world. The I Love You Book by Todd Parr describes the pow­er­ful, unwa­ver­ing affec­tion that I will for­ev­er feel for this child who has cap­tured my heart. With bright, col­or­ful illus­tra­tions, the mes­sage is sim­ple: I love you whether sil­ly, sad, scared, or brave. I love you whether sleep­ing or not sleep­ing. I love you and I always will, just the way you are!

Once Upon a Time BabyBooks for my grand­ba­by and me will offer a wide range of lessons on all sorts of top­ics. How­ev­er, the great­est gift they will pro­vide is a chance to share mean­ing­ful moments, a chance to relive fond mem­o­ries, a chance to cre­ate new mem­o­ries. Books for my grand­ba­by and me are a gift that will last a life­time, a lega­cy of lit­er­a­cy and love, for my grand­ba­by and me.

Two of my favorite baby lit­er­a­cy gift sites:

I ordered a per­son­al­ized copy of On the Day You Were Born with my grandbaby’s name print­ed on the cov­er and through­out the book.

Adorable t‑shirts for my grand­ba­by, encour­ag­ing lit­er­a­cy and learn­ing


Choice and Voice

Classroom bookshelfIn sev­er­al past arti­cles I’ve writ­ten about the frus­tra­tion I’ve felt con­cern­ing my district’s deci­sion to adopt a new read­ing cur­ricu­lum. In recent weeks I have had to reflect and dig deeply to under­stand my uneasi­ness and fear relat­ed to “an inno­v­a­tive and mod­ern way to teach the gamut of ele­men­tary lit­er­a­cy skills” (quote from dis­trict web­site post about the new read­ing cur­ricu­lum). I am some­one who has nev­er shied away from change or oppor­tu­ni­ties to grow as an edu­ca­tor. How­ev­er, this sig­nif­i­cant shift in the approach to lit­er­a­cy learn­ing and instruc­tion in my class­room (and approx­i­mate­ly 660 oth­er ele­men­tary class­rooms in the dis­trict) has con­tributed great­ly to my deci­sion to accept a posi­tion with a new school dis­trict for the com­ing school year.

What fol­lows is the let­ter I am send­ing to dis­trict lead­ers and school board mem­bers in my now for­mer dis­trict. My hope is that by shar­ing this with you, my Teach it For­ward read­ers, and dis­trict deci­sion mak­ers, I can respect­ful­ly offer some­thing for all of us to think about in hopes of mak­ing a pos­i­tive dif­fer­ence in the lives of our stu­dents.

Dear Dis­trict Admin­is­tra­tors and School Board Mem­bers,

I believe we have sev­er­al essen­tial things in com­mon. We care about kids and we want them to suc­ceed. I also believe we share a pas­sion for learn­ing. We aim to do what’s right by our stu­dents. We share a sense of urgency. We want to empow­er our future lead­ers with nec­es­sary skills, expe­ri­ences, and knowl­edge. We are intent on mak­ing informed deci­sions and allo­cat­ing resources wise­ly.

I applaud the dis­trict for its will­ing­ness to invest in its kids. A com­bined $5.3 mil­lion for the new read­ing cur­ricu­lum, train­ing, and tech­nol­o­gy is no small expen­di­ture. I know dis­trict lead­ers who sup­port­ed the cur­ricu­lum adop­tion worked count­less hours to coör­di­nate the review process, the pilot­ing of mate­ri­als, and the plan for imple­men­ta­tion. For teach­ers who are new to the pro­fes­sion and have lim­it­ed expe­ri­ence, this new pro­gram offers a detailed overview for each day of the six week units that cov­er les­son plans for the entire school year, includ­ing book selec­tions, align­ment to the stan­dards, week­ly tests, and inter­ven­tions. For more vet­er­an edu­ca­tors it deliv­ers a time-sav­ing pro­gram that fea­tures a ful­ly-inte­grat­ed cur­ricu­lum that embeds read­ing, writ­ing, spelling, and vocab­u­lary, along with a wide range of tech­nol­o­gy tools.

I’ve spent nine years, more than a third of my 25-year teach­ing career, in this dis­trict. I am a Nation­al Board Cer­ti­fied Teacher with a mas­ters degree in lit­er­a­cy and an Edu­ca­tion Spe­cial­ist degree in K‑12 Lead­er­ship. My desire to make a pos­i­tive dif­fer­ence in stu­dents’ lives runs deep. How­ev­er, this let­ter isn’t about me. It is about the 32 incred­i­ble kids from Room 123. It’s about kids who need an advo­cate who will speak up on their behalf when they are not in a posi­tion to do so them­selves. I am writ­ing to respect­ful­ly ask you to con­sid­er some of the insights I have about the district’s recent adop­tion of the new cur­ricu­lum.

Here are three things I believe those 32 kids would tell you if they had the chance.

Book Wall

#1. Please let us pick books we want to read along with books we want our teach­ers to read to us. “One size fits all” does not always feel that great.

Read­ers thrive on hav­ing choice and voice. Kids come to us with a wide range of inter­ests, abil­i­ties, back­grounds, and expe­ri­ences. Pro­vid­ing them with plen­ti­ful oppor­tu­ni­ties to have some say in what they read is crit­i­cal. Imag­ine show­ing up at your pub­lic library or favorite book­store every week for the next six years only to be told that the sto­ries and books with which you will be spend­ing 60 – 90 min­utes a day have already been pre-select­ed for you … would that moti­vate you to read?

Nan­cy Atwell, renowned edu­ca­tor and author who is the first recip­i­ent of the $1 mil­lion Glob­al Teacher Prize, speaks to the impor­tance of offer­ing choice and hon­or­ing stu­dents’ voice when it comes to read­ing. She explains:

We now have a quar­ter cen­tu­ry of stud­ies that doc­u­ment three find­ings: lit­er­a­cy blooms wher­ev­er stu­dents have access to books they want to read, per­mis­sion to choose their own, and time to get lost in them. Entic­ing col­lec­tions of lit­er­a­ture — inter­est­ing books writ­ten at lev­els they can decode with accu­ra­cy and com­pre­hend with ease — are key to chil­dren becom­ing skilled, thought­ful, avid read­ers.”

I encour­age you to read what else this accom­plished and high­ly regard­ed edu­ca­tor has to say about kids, read­ing, and achieve­ment.

The new cur­ricu­lum has all the books pre-select­ed for the entire year. The read-aloud or shared-read­ing selec­tions are orga­nized by theme to con­nect with the titles that are shared in small group read­ing. Each week there are four titles offer­ing four dif­fer­ent read­ing lev­els to match four dif­fer­ent groups of read­ers. The dis­trict web­site post announc­ing the new cur­ricu­lum adop­tion states: “… they’re [stu­dents] read­ing the same con­tent no mat­ter their read­ing abil­i­ty. So stu­dents at dif­fer­ent abil­i­ty lev­els can par­tic­i­pate through col­lab­o­ra­tive con­ver­sa­tions and learn from each oth­er.”

Those 32 incred­i­ble kids might want to know what hap­pens if one of those four books doesn’t fit (whether that be because of top­ic, genre, or level)…do they have a say?

Reflect bookcase#2. Please know that we don’t all have the same access to tech­nol­o­gy but that doesn’t mean our fam­i­lies don’t want us to do well or that we need more work­sheets to do.

While the new cur­ricu­lum offers dig­i­tal at-home access to texts and read­ing mate­ri­als, not all stu­dents have the same oppor­tu­ni­ty to use them out­side the class­room. Near­ly 80% of stu­dents at my for­mer school are eli­gi­ble for Free/Reduced Lunch and almost half are Eng­lish Lan­guage Learn­ers. Close to 90% are stu­dents of col­or. Yes, there is an achieve­ment gap between white and non-white stu­dents and yes it must be addressed. Acknowl­edg­ing that an “oppor­tu­ni­ty gap” also exists is a step in the right direc­tion.

Those 32 incred­i­ble kids might not be able to artic­u­late their feel­ings about the notion of “equi­ty” but there is no doubt they have felt its absence. They might be won­der­ing how the dis­trict will address the issue of equi­ty for stu­dents who lack access to tech­nol­o­gy at home. Will get­ting a “hard copy” of texts and mate­ri­als instead of get­ting to use online tools be enough to pro­vide them with self-direct­ed learn­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties?

Relax bookshelf#3. Please ask and lis­ten to my teach­ers about how the new cur­ricu­lum is work­ing in my class­room, at my school (test results are only part of the answer).

 One fea­ture of the new pro­gram is week­ly assess­ments, which will pro­vide test-tak­ing prac­tice for stu­dents and data for teach­ers and admin­is­tra­tors. While this is one way to mea­sure growth and achieve­ment to aid in plan­ning for instruc­tion, it is not the only thing to con­sid­er. The teach­ers who pilot­ed the pro­gram pri­mar­i­ly rep­re­sent­ed non-Title schools in the dis­trict. In fact, of the 10 schools (out of 24) select­ed to par­tic­i­pate, only 3 were from the 14 Title schools in the dis­trict.

As stat­ed ear­li­er, advo­cat­ing for my incred­i­ble stu­dents is my ulti­mate respon­si­bil­i­ty and it is the rea­son I am shar­ing this let­ter. It is my hope that the under-rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Title stu­dents and class­rooms in the pilot­ing of the cur­ricu­lum does not sig­ni­fy an indif­fer­ence to stu­dents and teach­ers who deserve to be includ­ed in con­ver­sa­tions and deci­sions about the imple­men­ta­tion of the cur­ricu­lum.

On behalf of those 32 incred­i­ble kids I keep talk­ing about, I am hap­py to report that they are some of the most cre­ative, intel­li­gent, kind and fun­ny kids with whom I have ever worked. Many are bilin­gual. They write poet­ry. They play musi­cal instru­ments. They are artists, ath­letes, and actors. Most of them believe in them­selves and their abil­i­ty to do and become what­ev­er they choose. Those 32 incred­i­ble kids have shared their unique tal­ents, pas­sions, and per­son­al­i­ties with me each and every day, some for the past two years. Their desire to read, talk, and write about their favorite char­ac­ters, authors’ mes­sages, and the things they won­der has been evi­dent, in part because they have been giv­en guid­ance and free­dom to select from the vast col­lec­tion of books avail­able to them in Room 123.

One final thing those 32 incred­i­ble kids might ask is that you nev­er lose sight of the fact that although they might not all be able to demon­strate just how much they know and are capa­ble of doing when it comes to read­ing and stan­dard­ized tests, they deal with chal­lenges on a dai­ly basis, chal­lenges that some of us nev­er encounter in our entire adult lives. Don’t let this new cur­ricu­lum become anoth­er chal­lenge. I sim­ply ask that you look beyond the new cur­ricu­lum to con­sid­er what the kids and teach­ers might need to address the issues of stu­dent choice, stu­dent voice, equi­ty, achieve­ment gaps, oppor­tu­ni­ty gaps, and, most impor­tant­ly, the idea that one size does not fit all when it comes to teach­ing and learn­ing.


Mau­r­na Rome


No, Thank You

Thank” “You Jason.” Three sim­ple words on a cake … an anal­o­gy for one of my great­est inner con­flicts as an edu­ca­tor.

Thank you Jason

One morn­ing in March I stopped at Sam’s Club on my way to school to pick up a cake. A cel­e­bra­tion hon­or­ing a col­league was tak­ing place that day. I quick­ly found a love­ly one with cheery red flow­ers and asked the bak­er to add the sen­ti­ment “Thank you, Jason.” A few min­utes lat­er she hand­ed me the cake, flip­pant­ly men­tion­ing, “I’m not that great at cake writ­ing …” then adding the zinger “but, what­ev­er, it’s going to taste the same.”  I inspect­ed her hand­i­work and was tak­en aback. “Thank” appeared on the first line. “You Jason” was scrawled across the next line. My ini­tial reac­tion was a quizzi­cal look. Was she kid­ding? I real­ized she didn’t know I was a teacher and I wasn’t try­ing to be rude or dif­fi­cult, but seri­ous­ly, doesn’t every­one know that “Thank You” on one line makes more sense than “You Jason” on one line? I looked at it again. “Thank” fol­lowed by “You Jason”!? I shook my head, as a myr­i­ad of thoughts bounced around my head.

What would hap­pen if I told her the writ­ing on this cake was sim­ply not accept­able?

If I made a fuss…

  1. I might sound like a com­plain­er if I asked to speak to the man­ag­er — feel­ing embar­rassed.
  2. I might be late for school — feel­ing incon­ve­nienced.
  3. I might get the bak­er in trou­ble for a sub-par per­for­mance — feel­ing guilty.

What would hap­pen if I silent­ly but grudg­ing­ly accept­ed this con­fec­tionery mini-cri­sis?

If I didn’t make a fuss…

  1. I could arrive at school on time with a sor­ry look­ing cake — feel­ing embar­rassed.
  2. I could try scrap­ing off the messed up mes­sage — feel­ing incon­ve­nienced.
  3. I could miss an oppor­tu­ni­ty to help the bak­er improve her skills and per­for­mance — feel­ing guilty.

I was per­plexed but Min­neso­ta Nice won out (tem­porar­i­ly) as I ambiva­lent­ly put “Thank. You Jason” in my cart. How­ev­er, by the time I got to the check­out, I had a change of heart and knew I couldn’t and shouldn’t remain silent. When the check­out clerk asked me if I found every­thing all right I point­ed to the cake and said, “Well, almost … I wish I would have found bet­ter writ­ing on my cake …” She took a quick look at my boxed dilem­ma and called the man­ag­er over. In less than 10 min­utes the cake was returned to the bak­ery and then came back to me with a nice­ly aligned sen­ti­ment, along with an apol­o­gy from the bak­er. I thanked her sin­cere­ly, accept­ed the apol­o­gy, and com­pli­ment­ed her on the new ver­sion. The “icing on the cake” was receiv­ing a store gift card from the man­ag­er as an addi­tion­al token of apol­o­gy for my incon­ve­nience.

Thank you, Jason

As I wheeled my cart across the park­ing lot, I sud­den­ly expe­ri­enced an epiphany. This entire inci­dent remind­ed me of my district’s recent lan­guage arts cur­ricu­lum adop­tion (aka a new “core” basal read­ing pro­gram). The whole sit­u­a­tion was like the unac­cept­able writ­ing on the cake. The thought of kids los­ing their voice and choice in their dai­ly read­ing lives was sim­ply not okay. I could not let my feel­ings of embar­rass­ment, incon­ve­nience, or guilt stop me from speak­ing up.

So I con­tin­ued to raise the ques­tions … Are they (dis­trict deci­sion mak­ers) kid­ding? I real­ize some peo­ple don’t know just how pas­sion­ate I am about kids and lit­er­a­cy and I’m not try­ing to be rude or dif­fi­cult. But seri­ous­ly, doesn’t every­one know that there is no “mag­ic bul­let” read­ing pro­gram that will auto­mat­i­cal­ly “fix” test scores sim­ply because it is taught with fideli­ty? What about the prac­ti­tion­ers? How about invest­ing in long-term, high-qual­i­ty pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment for teach­ers? What about the stu­dents? How about meet­ing kids’ indi­vid­ual needs based on what we learn about them as we cre­ate pos­i­tive class­room com­mu­ni­ties? What about the par­ents? How about get­ting their input about a com­pa­ny that puts out ele­men­tary lev­eled texts that have been found to be “offen­sive and inac­cu­rate.”

Chances are no one is going to present me with a gift card for mak­ing a fuss this time. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, I’m not expect­ing an “icing on the cake” hap­py end­ing.

Stay tuned for part 2 of “Thank. You Jason” in the next install­ment of Teach it For­ward.


Words of Wisdom

graduationI may nev­er be asked to give the com­mence­ment speech at my alma mater — or yours for that mat­ter. How­ev­er, just in case the oppor­tu­ni­ty presents itself, I am ready. After con­sid­er­able reflec­tion on my 25 years as an edu­ca­tor, I can sum up my mes­sage for aspir­ing teach­ers who are about to embark on a career in the class­room with the fol­low­ing words of wis­dom.

#1. Prac­tice the “Art of Being”

Being avail­able, being kind, being com­pas­sion­ate, being trans­par­ent, being real, being thought­ful, and being our­selves, this is the path that leads to suc­cess.

It is so easy to get wrapped up in the “doing” when it comes to teach­ing. Once you jump on that tread­mill with your to-do list in hand, it can be dif­fi­cult to stop and rest. How­ev­er, it is the art of being that will lay the foun­da­tion for build­ing rela­tion­ships with stu­dents, par­ents and col­leagues. It is those rela­tion­ships that will play the most impor­tant role in your suc­cess as an edu­ca­tor.

#2. Devel­op Sta­mi­na and Speed

Be pre­pared to devel­op a com­bi­na­tion of these two con­tra­dic­to­ry but essen­tial skills. You will quick­ly real­ize that some aspects of teach­ing require you to go the dis­tance (bath­room breaks will be few and far between). At the very same time you will often need to train like you’re com­pet­ing for a spot in the Guin­ness Book of World Records (not every­one can eat an entire lunch and go to the bath­room in 20 min­utes or less).

#3. Mis­takes Are Okay

Beautiful Oops!The love­ly lit­tle book Beau­ti­ful Oops! by Bar­ney Saltzberg, offers a pro­found truth — mis­takes are much more than acci­dents or mishaps. They are oppor­tu­ni­ties to turn blun­ders into won­ders. Cre­ate a class­room cli­mate that embraces try­ing, fail­ing, and learn­ing from those errors. Set the tone for your stu­dents by cel­e­brat­ing those beau­ti­ful oops that all of us make so that every­one knows that no one is per­fect.

#4. Find a “Marigold”

Sev­er­al years ago, Jen­nifer Gon­za­lez offered this wise advice to those just start­ing out:

Just like a young seedling grow­ing in a gar­den, thriv­ing in your first year depends large­ly on who you plant your­self next to… Among com­pan­ion plants, the marigold is one of the best: It pro­tects a wide vari­ety of plants from pests and harm­ful weeds.”

Seek out some­one who will serve as the type of men­tor who will sup­port you with pos­i­tiv­i­ty. Find a men­tor who will not hes­i­tate to show you the ropes, answer ques­tions and offer reas­sur­ance — you will nev­er regret spend­ing time with a marigold.

#5.  Words Mat­ter, Choose Them Care­ful­ly

Choice Words Opening MindsChoice Words and Open­ing Minds by Peter John­ston are two of the best books I’ve ever read about the impor­tant role that lan­guage plays in our efforts to reach stu­dents and pos­i­tive­ly impact their learn­ing. Both books are full of insight­ful exam­ples of how what we say (or don’t say) can make a dra­mat­ic dif­fer­ence in the lives of stu­dents. 

#6. Par­ents Are Our Part­ners — It Is Not “Us” Ver­sus “Them”

Dear ParentsToo often edu­ca­tors make hasty judg­ments about what appears to be a lack of inter­est or involve­ment on the part of par­ents. When issues flare with a stu­dent, the blame game may sur­face and the ten­sion mounts. One of the great­est invest­ments any teacher can make is to devel­op strong com­mu­ni­ca­tion and rap­port with par­ents. It’s not enough to sim­ply say you val­ue par­ent input, it is nec­es­sary to cul­ti­vate a sense of team­work and mutu­al respect.  Check out Dear Par­ents: From Your Child’s Lov­ing Teacher (Hand­book for Effec­tive Team­work) by Dana Arias for a won­der­ful col­lec­tion of let­ters that pro­mote a true alliance between edu­ca­tors and par­ents.

#7. Net­work, Con­nect, or Get “Linked In”

Social media offers an end­less nexus of pro­fes­sion­al groups. Dig­i­tal natives will have no trou­ble seek­ing out and min­gling online with oth­er edu­ca­tors who share the same inter­ests and frus­tra­tions yet may offer a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive or approach. In addi­tion to the vir­tu­al world of net­work­ing, don’t hes­i­tate to join orga­ni­za­tions that meet face to face, offer­ing high qual­i­ty and ongo­ing pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment. State and nation­al chap­ters of the Inter­na­tion­al Lit­er­a­cy Asso­ci­a­tion (ILA), Nation­al Coun­cil of Teach­ers of Eng­lish (NCTE), Nation­al Coun­cil of Teach­ers of Math­e­mat­ics (NCTM) and the Asso­ci­a­tion of Super­vi­sion and Cur­ricu­lum Devel­op­ment (ASCD), to name a few, are incred­i­bly valu­able resources. 

#8. Expect to Be Over­whelmed

Rose-col­ored glass­es don’t make an attrac­tive fash­ion acces­so­ry for edu­ca­tors. The real­i­ty of this chal­leng­ing career is that it is and might always be over­whelm­ing. The teacher’s job is tough and it is not for the faint of heart. Despite this fact, the rewards most def­i­nite­ly out­weigh the demands (take extra notice of #9 and #10 to coun­ter­act #8)!

#9. Be Patient with Your­self

Patience is not the abil­i­ty to wait, but the abil­i­ty to keep a good atti­tude while wait­ing.” —Joyce Mey­er

You and your craft are a work in progress. It will take time to learn the art and mag­ic of bal­anc­ing cur­ricu­lum, tech­nol­o­gy, class­room man­age­ment, assess­ments, and effec­tive teach­ing strate­gies. You’ll like­ly be your own tough­est crit­ic. Strive to find the bal­ance between main­tain­ing a sense of urgency and stop­ping long enough to appre­ci­ate the fun and humor that wig­gles its way into your class­room thanks to the mar­velous lit­tle peo­ple you will be spend­ing your days with.

#10. Find Joy Every Day 

Be HappyBe Hap­py! by Mon­i­ca Shee­han offers excel­lent sug­ges­tions for stay­ing focused on the sim­plest of things … make friends, dance, dream big, be brave, along with a trea­sure trove of oth­er ideas. Read this lit­tle gem on the first day of school, the last day of school and lots of days in between. It is a mas­ter­piece and might just be the blue­print for a tru­ly sat­is­fy­ing life for all human beings.


March Madness

March MadnessAsk any 3rd-8th-grade teacher about “March Mad­ness” and there is a good chance you won’t hear much about bas­ket­ball. You may, how­ev­er, get an ear­ful about a top­ic that is about as near and dear to our hearts as stand­ing out­side for 25 min­utes of recess in bone-chill­ing, zero-degree weath­er. In Min­neso­ta, the acronym is MCA. In Texas it’s STAAR. A whole slate of states call it PARCC (ten in all, includ­ing Col­orado, Delaware, Dis­trict of Colum­bia, Illi­nois, Louisiana, Mary­land New Jer­seyNew Mex­i­co, New York and Rhode Island).

Teach­ers are deemed win­ners or losers because of it (some have even gone to prison). Kids get phys­i­cal­ly ill because of it. Par­ents don’t seem to under­stand it. News­pa­pers have a field day with it and per­haps most trou­bling of all, leg­is­la­tors who don’t seem to know much about edu­ca­tion make all the rules about it.

Test­ing. March Mad­ness fol­lowed by a month-long exten­sion of what is about as fun­ny as a lame April Fool’s prank. That’s how the top­ic of test­ing feels for many teach­ers like myself. “You have got to be kid­ding!” is a phrase that is often used in con­junc­tion with the pres­sure most of us teach­ers feel to prep the kids and make sure they per­form.

Grow­ing up in the great state of Iowa, I am no stranger to #2 pen­cils and fill­ing in bub­bles. After all, the ITBS (Iowa Test of Basic Skills) was the first stan­dard­ized test to arrive on the scene way back in 1935. These days, how­ev­er, we’re faced with hours, days, and weeks of eye-strain­ing, pos­ture-break­ing, stuck-to-the-chair, online test­ing. Can we even be sure we’re mea­sur­ing math and read­ing skills rather than a kid’s abil­i­ty to use a mouse and scroll tab cor­rect­ly?

Recent­ly, some­one asked me if I thought there was any mer­it to these tests. There was a hint that maybe my poor atti­tude about high stakes test­ing is direct­ly relat­ed to the fact that my school’s pro­fi­cien­cy rate on the read­ing test is an unim­pres­sive 41.3% (more than 20% low­er than our dis­trict aver­age). Could I be a bit biased about the val­ue of the tests because my stu­dents sim­ply aren’t able to show what they know or that they know much? Am I just mak­ing excus­es for my stu­dents because of their demo­graph­ics (more than 70% free/reduced lunch, almost 50% non-native Eng­lish speak­ers, about 90% stu­dents of col­or)?

I strug­gled to find the words to express my feel­ings and share the real  sto­ry. If only the gen­er­al pub­lic and all those unin­formed leg­is­la­tors could spend a day in Room 123! They would see how bril­liant my kids are. I have the list of all those qual­i­ties that can’t be mea­sured by a test com­mit­ted to mem­o­ry. I believe in the wis­dom offered up by that list. Kind­ness, empa­thy, cre­ativ­i­ty, musi­cal tal­ent, per­se­ver­ance, pos­i­tiv­i­ty, etc. My stu­dents live and breathe that stuff every sin­gle day.

In lieu of host­ing all those folks in my class­room (lim­it­ed space that already con­tains 32 lit­tle peo­ple), I decid­ed to ask my kids to share their “com­plete­ly hon­est, total­ly true, and very thought­ful thoughts and feel­ings about MCA test­ing.” I wasn’t pre­pared for their respons­es. Some made me smile, oth­ers brought tears, a few shocked me and all made me proud to teach such capa­ble learn­ers. The spread­sheet of test scores may not back me up, but their words will.  Then again, maybe I am biased. I’ll let you be the judge.

From kid #1:

I think some­times I just can’t do some things. I think on MCAs some­times I just press on things that I don’t even know. I think I will need a walk around the school. I think some­times it’s so qui­et and I think when it’s the MCAs I’m bored. I think I just want to go some­where. I think I’m not even doing my best. I feel mad like I can’t do some things. I feel bad if I get bad grades. I feel hot in there [com­put­er lab]. I feel like MCAs are not even good for you. I feel like I just want to sleep. I feel like MCAs are horet [hor­rid]. I feel not so hap­py. I feel like I just want to make things feil on the grow [fall on the ground].

From kid #2:

I feel weird doing the MCA because I’m so stressed out that I’m going to fail and I don’t want to fail. Some­times I’m ner­vous because I have to think a lot and it hurts my stom­ach. I feel like I’m going to throw up but I don’t. When I feel ner­vous my head hurts and I most of the time wish I was some­where else or some­one else.

From kid #3:

Hon­est­ly I’m not real­ly wor­ried at all because I have been doing Read The­o­ry a lot. I’m just hap­py for the MCAs and try­ing to stay pos­i­tive that I’m gonna do great. Relax and try my best. And try to give evi­dence and reread and use what I know. I’m gonna try to do the MCA prac­tice about 2 times a week to under­stand things and know how to do things when MCAs don’t have instruc­tions.

From kid #4:

I think that the MCA test has a big impact on me because it’s like I’m car­ry­ing the weight of the world on my back all week. I am so so stressed out because of this test. It’s mak­ing my head spin around like a ride at the state fair!

From kid #5:

Try not to be fast. Take it slow. Think hard. Con­cen­trate. Know what you’re doing. Reread it. Do what you can. Think what the teacher told you. Nev­er give up. Read. Keep read­ing. Read more. Think what you’re doing. Answer ques­tions. Learn new words.



jux·ta·po·si·tion | jəkstəpəˈziSH(ə)n/ | noun

  1. the fact of two things being seen or placed close togeth­er with con­trast­ing effect. Exam­ple: “the jux­ta­po­si­tion of these two images”

Parking lot signJux­ta­po­si­tion.  The word has been swim­ming around my head for sev­er­al weeks. The best month of my entire career filled with some of my proud­est moments as an edu­ca­tor hap­pen­ing at the same time big deci­sions are being made by the “pow­ers that be,” changes that will pro­found­ly affect what hap­pens each day in Room 123. As my col­leagues, stu­dents and I cel­e­brat­ed our love of read­ing, the inevitable pen­du­lum of change swept through, rat­tling my hopes and dreams for kids to become life­long read­ers and lovers of lit­er­a­cy.

As men­tioned in my pre­vi­ous post, my school cel­e­brat­ed with the theme “Read­ing is its own reward.” The buck­et-list wish to stage a small-scale “flash mob” came true dur­ing our kick-off event. A tal­ent­ed crew of per­form­ers (we will like­ly need to keep our day jobs) danced and sang, “Dar­ling, dar­ling, read with me, oh read with me” to the Ben E. King clas­sic “Stand by Me.”

Par­ent sur­veys gave an enthu­si­as­tic “thumbs up” to the sur­prise enter­tain­ment and, once again, a month of lit­er­a­cy-filled mem­o­ries were in the mak­ing.  

Trophy wall

The days flew past as the paper tro­phies mul­ti­plied. Kids and teach­ers were read­ing and nom­i­nat­ing books in droves. Doors were dec­o­rat­ed with read­ing-relat­ed themes. Books were award­ed to lucky kids in every class­room each week. Authors came into our class­rooms via YouTube videos and Skype vis­its. A writing/art con­test was held to select the “Crossover Crew”; two-dozen prodi­gious (as in get­ting Kwame’s auto­graph) arti­sans (as in cre­at­ing a high-qual­i­ty prod­uct) who would get to spend some one-on-one time with the author of a book they adored. And then came the day we had been plan­ning for since Novem­ber.

Kwame AlexanderBest. Teach­ing. Day. Ever! Fri­day, Feb­ru­ary 19th. Kwame Alexan­der was in the house. Kwame actu­al­ly brought down the house. In all my 25 years of teach­ing, I can hon­est­ly say this day was the best. Thanks to gen­er­ous fund­ing from Pen­guin Ran­dom House, who spon­sored Kwame’s vis­it and Scholas­tic Read­ing Clubs, who helped pro­vide copies of The Crossover for every 4th and 5th grade stu­dent, I am con­vinced this was a day that will be a life­long mem­o­ry for the kids and their teach­ers.

The ener­gy and excite­ment shook the shelves in the Media Cen­ter as our 4th and 5th graders hung on his every word. They recit­ed words from The Crossover ver­ba­tim, chimed in dur­ing a live­ly call/response ren­di­tion of his lat­est pic­ture book, Surf’s Up and had plen­ty of ques­tions for this award-win­ning writer. 

Kwame Alexander Crossover Fans

One of my favorite exchanges of the day came from a thought­ful young man who asked Kwame about his TV view­ing rules. After hear­ing that as a boy, Kwame was not allowed to watch TV and his par­ents pushed read­ing so much that he actu­al­ly hat­ed it, this curi­ous kid want­ed to know what the rules were for Kwame’s daugh­ter. The answer was a good one. Each chap­ter of read­ing equals 15 min­utes of TV. The ques­tion­er was appar­ent­ly impressed with this idea. Lat­er in the day, he announced to his teacher that he liked the plan so much that he was going to apply it to his own read­ing and TV view­ing life. I’ve always believed that books change lives. This author and this book changed an entire school com­mu­ni­ty. If you work in a school, I high­ly rec­om­mend bring­ing both to your stu­dents.

The cul­mi­na­tion of our month-long lit­er­a­cy love fest brought 500 read­ers togeth­er to reveal the win­ners of the cov­et­ed Tiger Tro­phy awards. Our theme “Read­ing is its own reward” was rein­forced with stu­dents and staff per­form­ing in our “EP Tigers Read” video.

Trophy case

Amid thun­der­ous applause and an abun­dance of cheers (if our gym had rafters they sure­ly would have been shak­ing), the book titles were announced. Feel free to insert your own drum roll before you read the fol­low­ing list of award recip­i­ents:

Kinder­garten picks: Har­ry the Dirty Dog, Pete the Cat and the Bed­time Blues, Rain­bow Fish, and Henry’s Wrong Turn

1st Grade picks: Zoom, The Snow Queen, The Book With No Pic­tures, and Duck, Rab­bit

2nd Grade picks: The Jun­gle Book, Have You Filled a Buck­et Today, and When I Feel Angry

 3rd Grade picks: Dog Breath, The True Sto­ry of the Three Lit­tle Pigs, and Bone

4th Grade pick: The Crossover (triple award)

5th Grade picks: The War That Saved My Life, Every­one Loves Bacon, and The Crossover

The Flip Side

When the con­fet­ti set­tled and the joy that had been tap-danc­ing in my heart sub­sided, I pon­dered the recent activ­i­ty in my dis­trict regard­ing adopt­ing a new read­ing cur­ricu­lum. This is where that flip side of the jux­ta­po­si­tion coin comes into play. The real­i­ty is that the fall of 2016 will bring about vast changes in the way busi­ness is done in hun­dreds of class­rooms across my dis­trict. The cur­ricu­lum adop­tion process has deter­mined that our cur­rent state of cur­ricu­lum is sub-par. The data indi­cates that our test scores are sim­ply not good enough. A “core” read­ing pro­gram (no longer referred to as a “basal”) at the price tag of $3.2 mil­lion is being tout­ed as “the tick­et” to fix­ing the prob­lem. As a pro­po­nent of a growth mind­set, I am some­one who embraces change (over the years I have taught grades 1 through 5, in 12 dif­fer­ent schools in 8 dif­fer­ent dis­tricts and lost count of the num­ber of times I changed class­rooms). I typ­i­cal­ly do not take a skep­ti­cal stance going into a new ini­tia­tive. Yet I can­not seem to ignore the ques­tions that are tug­ging at my heart:

  1. Will week­ly skills tests help my stu­dents gain con­fi­dence and grow as read­ers more than read­ing con­fer­ences, read­ers’ response note­books, and small group read­ing ses­sions do?
  1. Does a one-size fits-all cur­ricu­lum that promis­es to improve test scores also fos­ter a joy of read­ing among my stu­dents?
  1. Will fol­low­ing the teacher’s man­u­al with “fideli­ty,” as expect­ed by my employ­er, allow any room for me to make informed deci­sions about what hap­pens in my class­room based on my years of train­ing and expe­ri­ence?
  1. Do the pub­lish­ers of this “core pro­gram” know my stu­dents bet­ter than I do, so much so that the vocab­u­lary lists and pac­ing of lessons (pre-deter­mined and pre-select­ed for the entire year) will meet their wide range of needs?
  1. Will the set of anthol­o­gy texts (again, pre-select­ed for the entire year) be more inter­est­ing and engag­ing than the authen­tic lit­er­a­ture and award win­ning trade books my stu­dents and I are inter­est­ed in read­ing?
  1. Where does the qual­i­ty and exper­tise of the prac­ti­tion­er fit into this “ready to go” cur­ricu­lum? In oth­er words, what about our beloved read-alouds and book clubs that are cul­ti­vat­ed from my exten­sive read­ing, net­work­ing, and knowl­edge of children’s lit­er­a­ture?

And there you have it, the jux­ta­po­si­tion of my role as an edu­ca­tor. The ela­tion of wit­ness­ing hun­dreds of kids pumped up about books, authors and read­ing sit­ting side by side with the trep­i­da­tion of wit­ness­ing deci­sions that may or may not be in the best inter­est of kids. Stay tuned…I will be search­ing for answers to these ques­tions and you can bet that I will be shar­ing more about this top­ic in future arti­cles.


I Love to Read Month

Why would we employ read­ing ini­tia­tives that derail inter­nal read­ing moti­va­tion and divide kids into read­ing win­ners and losers?” 
Don­a­lyn Miller

I Love to Read BookmarkI’ve been think­ing about this ques­tion from lit­er­a­cy guru Don­a­lyn Miller ever since I read it last May. It struck a chord and made me chal­lenge some of my past prac­tices as a cham­pi­on of moti­vat­ing read­ers. What about all that time and effort spent pro­mot­ing read­ing by ask­ing kids to log their min­utes in order to receive some trin­ket total­ly unre­lat­ed to read­ing? Could I have actu­al­ly done more harm than good?

As a long-time com­mit­tee chair for “I Love to Read” month fes­tiv­i­ties at sev­er­al dif­fer­ent schools, the short­est month of the year has always been one of my favorites. While some folks expe­ri­ence visions of hearts and choco­lates when the cal­en­dar page flips to Feb­ru­ary, my head has always been filled with images of books and kids read­ing. As I reflect­ed on that arti­cle by Don­a­lyn, I thought about last year’s “I Love to Read” month awards cer­e­mo­ny. Our stu­dents who met the quo­ta of required read­ing min­utes — or at least claimed they did — were called up on the stage by their teach­ers to receive a cov­et­ed “read­ing medal.” I remem­ber the look on some of the lit­tle faces out in the audi­ence and imag­ined what they were think­ing or feel­ing… “Who cares about read­ing medals?” “I guess I’m not a read­er.” “Maybe I should have just fibbed about those min­utes!”

As a firm believ­er in “it’s nev­er too late to change” (for the bet­ter), I vowed to com­plete­ly revamp my approach to encour­ag­ing kids to read. My school com­mu­ni­ty and fab­u­lous “I Love to Read” com­mit­tee co-chairs also embraced the idea of cel­e­brat­ing read­ing for the sake of read­ing. The entire bud­get from our Home-School Asso­ci­a­tion was ear­marked for books, which we pur­chased way back in Sep­tem­ber when Scholas­tic Read­ing Clubs offers the very best bonus points offer (we spent less than $2.00 per book for many high demand and hot-tick­et titles!). The idea of reward­ing read­ing with read­ing is sim­ple and the research to back it up is con­vinc­ing. Yet we know that our kids still hope for some­thing a lit­tle snazzy and jazzy. I’m delight­ed to share how we plan to WOW kids with a month of activ­i­ties designed to affirm every child as a read­er!


Sev­er­al weeks ago we designed and ordered spe­cial t‑shirts for our staff. We will be wear­ing these at our kick-off event dur­ing the first week of Feb­ru­ary. This FUN and FREE fam­i­ly event will high­light our theme Read­ing is its own Reward with a “Read­ing is gold­en!” snack bag: Rold Gold pret­zels, Gold­fish gra­ham treats, and a choco­late trea­sure can­dy. Activ­i­ties will include a book swap (kids bring their gen­tly-used books to trade), a book­mark craft, nom­i­nat­ing a favorite book, a brand new book for every child and best of all, a READING CONCERT! The tal­ent­ed edu­ca­tors at my school will be mak­ing one of my buck­et-list wish­es come true, by stag­ing a mini-flash mob, singing “Read with Me” (sung to the Ben E. King song, Stand by Me)! I’ll be shar­ing a video lat­er this month that cap­tures the crowd’s reac­tion to our sur­prise ser­e­nade!

EPWCCS educators

From left to right, edu­ca­tors Sam Good­man, Mau­r­na Rome, and Caitlin Mey­er

The cen­ter­piece of our cel­e­bra­tion of books and read­ing will be the “Tiger Tro­phy” Awards. Stu­dents will be giv­en a paper “tro­phy award” to fill out each week, nom­i­nat­ing a favorite book. Paper tro­phies will be dis­played around the school. Week­ly book win­ners will be cho­sen from the paper tro­phies and we will also be film­ing stu­dents as they share some­thing about their favorite books.

School-wide Tiger TrophyIn addi­tion, for three weeks, each class­room will award one paper tro­phy to one book that has been cho­sen as a class favorite. Dur­ing the last week of Feb­ru­ary, class­rooms will vote on which of the three paper tro­phy books is their ALL-TIME FAVORITE, which will be award­ed a real class­room tro­phy designed with the ini­tial of each teacher’s last name (cute and inex­pen­sive, made from dol­lar store tro­phies and alpha­bet blocks). All class­room tro­phy books will be eli­gi­ble to win a SCHOOL-WIDE TIGER TROPHY, with a bal­lot of books list­ed in spe­cial cat­e­gories giv­en to each stu­dent.

Our “I Love to Read” month activ­i­ty cal­en­dar includes an overview of our live­ly lit­er­a­cy-filled month. We will dis­play our love of a great book with our “Door Dec­o­rat­ing Con­test” (the win­ning class­room will get BOOKS) and each week teach­ers will share short YouTube videos fea­tur­ing 2016 award-win­ning books and authors.

2016 New­bery Medal Award Win­ner: Matt de la Pena Last Stop on Mar­ket Street

2016 Calde­cott Medal Award Win­ner: Lind­say Mattick Find­ing Win­nie, The True Sto­ry of the World’s Most Famous Bear 

Coret­ta Scott King – Vir­ginia Hamil­ton Award for Life­time Achieve­ment Win­ner: Jer­ry Pinkney 

2016 New­bery Hon­or Award Win­ner: Vic­to­ria Jamieson Roller Girl

We will also par­tic­i­pate in a pow­er­ful event called the “African Amer­i­can Read In,” spon­sored by NCTE “cel­e­brat­ing 25 years of encour­ag­ing diver­si­ty in lit­er­a­ture.” More infor­ma­tion and free resources can be found here. The AARI at my school will def­i­nite­ly be a mem­o­rable day for 4th and 5th graders who will be meet­ing Kwame Alexan­der, 2015 New­bery Medal Award Win­ner for the excep­tion­al book Crossover.

I Love to Read Trophies

Our cul­mi­nat­ing event will take place on the last Fri­day in Feb­ru­ary. Dur­ing the finale we will announce our Tiger Tro­phy Award Win­ners and bestow our very own pres­ti­gious medals to the book cov­ers. We’re even plan­ning on send­ing the Tiger Tro­phies to the win­ning authors with a request to snap a self­ie pos­ing with our lit­tle lit­er­ary prize! Oh and about those read­ing medals… this year, EVERY stu­dent will be award­ed one because we know that EVERY CHILD is a read­er and should be rec­og­nized as one!


One Word

by Mau­r­na Rome

One wordThis year I resolve to for­go the typ­i­cal New Year’s res­o­lu­tions. Truth is, they rarely make it past Dr. King’s birth­day in mid-Jan­u­ary. Begin­ning this year, I’m com­mit­ting to a much sim­pler idea. It may seem trendy with a lot of recent hype, yet a quick Google search reveals a 2007 blog post by Chris­tine Kane intro­duc­ing the idea of a “one word” res­o­lu­tion (you can even down­load a free “Word-of-the-Year Dis­cov­ery Toolk­it”). In the past eight years, the con­cept of nar­row­ing down all those soon to be for­got­ten New Year’s res­o­lu­tions into a sin­gu­lar word has erupt­ed into a major pres­ence in the world of Twit­ter, pub­lished books, and blog posts (see list of resources at the end of this arti­cle).

The more I think about it, the more I like it. After a bit of reflect­ing, it was easy to choose my “one word.”  It encom­pass­es all aspects of my life… teach­ing, learn­ing, fam­i­ly, home, health and friends. It’s a theme I believe in, one that could pro­pel 2016 into a stel­lar year.

As I think about apply­ing this “one word” con­cept to life in the class­room, I am drawn to con­sid­er the chal­lenges and rewards that I expe­ri­ence each and every day and also how it might impact my stu­dents’ learn­ing. The dou­ble-sided coin of teach­ing and learn­ing must be exam­ined. My col­leagues and I encounter the heart-tug­ging, tough ques­tions, along with the nuggets of gold offered by our stu­dents, and every­thing in between on a dai­ly basis. As we think about our approach to lit­er­a­cy instruc­tion, we must also take our stu­dents into account.

My reflec­tion on a “one word” choice for 2016 includ­ed:

  • Do I col­lab­o­rate with my team effec­tive­ly, and enough, while also main­tain­ing my sense of unique­ness and spon­tane­ity?
  • Am I giv­ing kids enough free­dom and self-direc­tion in cre­at­ing their lit­er­a­cy life while also hold­ing them account­able?
  • When it comes to writ­ing, which deserves more time, atten­tion and effort: the for­mal process with a focus on mechan­ics or the open-end­ed, unstruc­tured, “free­dom to write what­ev­er” approach?
  • Is it pos­si­ble to pro­mote an effec­tive use of tech­nol­o­gy while also teach­ing stu­dents the val­ue of being unplugged and tech-free?
  • How do I mesh a sense of urgency and pas­sion for stu­dent learn­ing while also cre­at­ing a tran­quil cli­mate that evokes peace and secu­ri­ty?

One WordAnd now for the drum­roll please.… the “one word” I have cho­sen for 2016 is bal­ance. It’s more than famil­iar. We’ve all heard of bal­anced lit­er­a­cy, a bal­anced diet, and even a bal­anced bud­get, all desir­able and do-able. Yet for me, bal­ance is some­thing I seem to strug­gle to attain even though I yearn for it. I am hope­ful that the answers I seek to the ques­tions men­tioned above can be found by focus­ing on my one word, bal­ance.

A few weeks ago, stu­dents in my after-school “Lit­er­a­cy L.I.F.T. Club” select­ed a favorite word from a book they were each read­ing to cre­ate some­thing we called “vocab­u­lary bracelets.” At the time, the notion of a “one word” res­o­lu­tion had not even entered my mind. How­ev­er, now that the New Year is here, I am excit­ed to com­bine the two ideas.

On the first day of school in 2016, I’ll share my sto­ry about how and why I chose bal­ance. Then dur­ing the month of Jan­u­ary, I’ll invite my stu­dents to be on the look­out for their own “one word.” I’ll ask them to read with inten­tion, reflect­ing on words that might fit the bill for a theme or goal they might cre­ate for them­selves in 2016.  Then we will make anoth­er round of bracelets… “one word bracelets,” a per­fect acces­so­ry for the New Year!

How about you? What one-word theme have you cho­sen for 2016?

One word” author/advocates worth check­ing out include:

2007 Blog Post by Chris­tine Kane

A “Lead Learn­er” from Cabot, Arkansas by Bethany Hill

Com­pi­la­tion of #oneword on Twit­ter


Creating a Curriculum and Culture of Kindness in the Classroom

bk_wonder_140by Mau­r­na Rome

When giv­en the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” ― R.J. Pala­cio, Won­der

Wouldn’t our class­rooms be grand if stu­dents were giv­en oppor­tu­ni­ties to learn about and expe­ri­ence what being kind looks like, sounds like and feels like on a dai­ly basis? Wouldn’t life be grand if we could all sim­ply choose true col­lab­o­ra­tion with our teach­ing col­leagues to pro­mote kind­ness? Wouldn’t our schools be grand if our dis­tricts would invest in kind­ness? My answer is a resound­ing “YES!” to these ques­tions, and I hope oth­er teach­ers would agree on all counts.

True, we are faced with con­stant pres­sure to pre­pare stu­dents for “those tests.” You know, the ones that are used to deter­mine just how accom­plished we teach­ers and our stu­dents are. Many of us still feel the urge to just close the door and do what we do in iso­la­tion. And yes, in many dis­tricts, sig­nif­i­cant fund­ing is being used to buy new and com­pre­hen­sive “core” read­ing pro­grams (remem­ber those test scores). Yet what about the con­tent of our stu­dents’ char­ac­ter? What about their cur­rent lev­el of engage­ment and future hap­pi­ness? Could the answer be the pur­suit of kind­ness and uti­liz­ing authen­tic lit­er­a­ture in our class­rooms? Do books real­ly have the pow­er to change lives? Again, my answer is a resound­ing “YES!”

from Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s “Thought Bub­ble on Kind­ness”

Despite the chal­lenges, my incred­i­ble col­leagues and I have sought out an inten­tion­al approach to weave kind­ness into our teach­ing. As “human­i­ties” teach­ers, it seems only fit­ting that along with lessons on parts of speech, com­pre­hen­sion strate­gies and writ­ing lit­er­ary essays, we include a com­mit­ment to teach­ing kind­ness. It is after all, an inte­gral aspect of belong­ing to this thing we call humankind.

Smart teach­ers know there is a sense of urgency in our class­rooms. Time is always in short sup­ply while meet­ings, les­son plan­ning, paper cor­rect­ing, and grad­ing are a con­stant demand. It helps to have a team like the one I work with. The strong lev­els of trust, mutu­al respect and shared enthu­si­asm for what we do is invig­o­rat­ing. We encour­age each oth­er to want to be the best teach­ers we can be. We con­tin­u­al­ly brain­storm, test, suc­ceed, fail, and try again, as we share our ideas, resources and instruc­tion­al strate­gies with one anoth­er. This is a recipe for pro­fes­sion­al kind­ness that works. If you want to teach kind­ness in your class­room, it is much eas­i­er if you have cama­raderie among your col­leagues.


Glob­al Read Aloud (aka Glow Ball Read Dahl Loud) day. Click to enlarge.

And kids seem to notice when their teach­ers love what they do. On Novem­ber 13th, class­rooms near and far par­tic­i­pat­ed in two simul­ta­ne­ous events: World Kind­ness Day and Glob­al Read Aloud (aka Glow Ball Read Dahl Loud). My team­mates and I wore our glow sticks and ball gowns, while read­ing poet­ry by Roald Dahl (loud­ly). We also shared the short film, Snack Attack, to pro­mote a mes­sage of kind­ness and gen­er­ate lots of dis­cus­sion. Our unusu­al attire and this award-win­ning movie with a twist were excel­lent ways to rein­force the con­cept of “Con­trasts and Con­tra­dic­tions” a sign­post from Notice and Note; Strate­gies for Close Read­ing by Kylene Beers and Robert Prob­st. 

It’s up to us teach­ers to work our mag­ic to carve out the time, to cre­ate an inte­grat­ed cur­ricu­lum and cul­ture of kind­ness. Kids who learn the impor­tance of kind­ness are kids who devel­op empa­thy and com­pas­sion. They are more apt to be selfless in a world where “self­ies” rule. Con­sid­er these “Words of the Wis­er” (anoth­er Notice and Note sign­post):

I think prob­a­bly kind­ness is my num­ber one attribute in a human being. I’ll put it before any of the things like courage or brav­ery or gen­eros­i­ty or any­thing else. Kind­ness — that sim­ple word. To be kind — it cov­ers every­thing, to my mind. If you’re kind that’s it.”  ―Roald Dahl

The fol­low­ing kind­ness resources have been field-test­ed and have earned a sol­id stamp of approval from dozens of wise (and kind) 6 – 11 year olds.


 Children’s Pic­ture Books:

  • Each Kind­ness by Jacque­line Wood­son
  • Have You Filled a Buck­et Today by Car­ol McCloud
  • Last Stop on Mar­ket Street by Matt de la Pena
  • My Friend is Sad by Mo Willems
  • Those Shoes by Mari­beth Boelts

YA/Middle Grades Chap­ter Books:

  • The Mirac­u­lous Jour­ney of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamil­lo
  • The Mis­fits by James Howe
  • Sahara Spe­cial by Esme Raji Codell
  • The War That Saved My Life by Kim­ber­ly Brubak­er Bradley
  • Won­der by R.J. Pala­cio

In addi­tion to read­ing books to and with kids to teach kind­ness, these pro­fes­sion­al books are well worth the invest­ment of time and mon­ey:

  • Beyond Nice: Nur­tur­ing Kind­ness with Young Chil­dren by Stu­art L. Stotts
  • Bul­ly­ing Hurts, Teach­ing Kind­ness through Read Alouds and Guid­ed Con­ver­sa­tions
    by Lester Lam­i­nack
  • Secret Kind­ness Agents: How Small Acts of Kind­ness Real­ly Can Change the World
    by Fer­i­al Pear­son

Final­ly, if you are look­ing for ways to bring a kind­ness cam­paign to your class­room, con­sid­er these spe­cial events.


The Book That Saved My Students and Me

by Mau­r­na Rome

gr_burnoutA rough start to a new school year can be unset­tling for rook­ie teach­ers. It can pro­duce feel­ings of self-doubt and immense stress.  Inex­pe­ri­enced edu­ca­tors may ques­tion every­thing from the qual­i­ty of their under­grad teacher train­ing to whether or not edu­ca­tion was a wise career choice. The lack of prepa­ra­tion for man­ag­ing chal­leng­ing behav­iors, deal­ing with an abun­dance of cur­ricu­lum stan­dards, and build­ing enough sta­mi­na to keep up with an exhaust­ing dai­ly pace is enough to make “teacher burn out” more than just a buzz word. 

A rough start to a new school year can be unset­tling for vet­er­an teach­ers, too.  It can pro­duce feel­ings of self-doubt and immense stress. Expe­ri­enced teach­ers may ques­tion every­thing from the qual­i­ty of the many years of exten­sive train­ing (mas­ters pro­gram, edu­ca­tion spe­cial­ist degree, and Nation­al Board Cer­ti­fi­ca­tion for yours tru­ly) to whether or not it’s time to say good­bye to a beloved career choice. The years of expe­ri­ence man­ag­ing chal­leng­ing behav­iors, deal­ing with an abun­dance of cur­ricu­lum stan­dards, and build­ing enough sta­mi­na to keep up with an exhaust­ing dai­ly pace are not always enough to make “teacher burn out” just a buzz word.

500px-PostItNotePadA few weeks into the school year, my col­leagues and I were asked to share two things on Post-it® notes: some­thing that caus­es great frus­tra­tion and stress and some­thing that brings a sense of calm and “low breath­ing.” I imme­di­ate­ly thought of more than a dozen things that were weigh­ing heav­i­ly on my heart. How­ev­er, I could hon­est­ly think of just one thing that had the pow­er to set­tle me down and make me feel wor­thy as a teacher. Just one thing that seemed to affirm all the rea­sons I became a teacher. Just one thing I could count on to bring a sense of peace to my class­room. How appro­pri­ate that the one thing that could do so much is a book — a read-aloud book that my stu­dents can’t get enough of. This book could be called “The Book that Saved My Stu­dents and Me.” How fit­ting that this book is actu­al­ly called The War That Saved My Life.  

bk_-The-War-That-Saved-My-LifeWrit­ten by Kim­ber­ly Brubak­er Bradley and set in 1939 Eng­land, the nov­el is a dif­fer­ent type of WWII saga. It is a sto­ry filled with pain and tri­umph. It’s about the impor­tance of oral lan­guage, kind­ness, and belief in one­self. It teach­es lessons of per­se­ver­ance, courage, and com­pas­sion. The War That Saved My Life is com­prised of so many of the same teach­able moments that edu­ca­tors like me strive to cap­ture and make the most of on a reg­u­lar basis.

The sto­ry of Ada was men­tioned in a pre­vi­ous Bookol­o­gy arti­cle about my “sum­mer school kids.” I knew then that this book was one that would stay with me… and it has!  I was con­vinced it would be the per­fect book to share with my stu­dents at the start of the school year… and it is! I hoped my teach­ing part­ners would agree… and they did! Each day 150 4th and 5th graders at my school plead to hear more of this sto­ry. When stu­dents from dif­fer­ent class­rooms dis­cov­ered their teach­ers were all read­ing aloud the same book, they start­ed dis­cussing the sto­ry dur­ing recess. In the mid­dle of a spelling test, when the word “trot­ted” was announced, a stu­dent imme­di­ate­ly con­nect­ed it to Ada and exclaimed “Hey, Ada trot­ted with But­ter.” For the next two weeks we chal­lenged one anoth­er to use spelling words in sen­tences that con­nect­ed to the sto­ry. It was sur­pris­ing­ly easy for stu­dents and it cer­tain­ly jazzed up our typ­i­cal rou­tine for study­ing words.

A final tes­ta­ment to the pow­er of this book came when I told my stu­dents I would be at meet­ings for sev­er­al days in a row and I need­ed their help with an impor­tant ques­tion: “Should I ask the guest teacher to con­tin­ue read­ing aloud Ada’s sto­ry or should we put it on hold for a short while?” My 4th graders respond­ed with “We can’t wait that long to hear more! Let the sub read it!” Clear­ly, they love this book! The same ques­tion was also posed to my 5th graders. Their response was dif­fer­ent but tick­led me just as much as the first one did: “No one can read the sto­ry like you, Mrs. Rome. We want to wait for you to come back and read it to us.”

In the world of edu­ca­tion where teacher burnout is a very real thing for the young and old alike, there is one thing that has with­stood the test of time and is proven to cul­ti­vate com­mu­ni­ty, cre­ate calm, and con­tribute to the cur­ricu­lum: one good book. The War That Saved My Life is the book that saved my stu­dents and me!


Creating a Classroom Community with 31 Letters

by Mau­r­na Rome

Long gone are the days of “Don’t do this or that or the oth­er thing” lists of class­room rules. At least I hope they are long gone… The influ­ence of “respon­sive class­room,” greater aware­ness of the pow­er of being pos­i­tive and much research on effec­tive class­room man­age­ment have ush­ered in a new approach to estab­lish­ing expec­ta­tions in our schools. Most edu­ca­tors know that in order to learn, there has to be order in the court. Most edu­ca­tors know that “buy in” from the kids is the short­est route to arrive at the des­ti­na­tion. Most edu­ca­tors know that it is a worth­while invest­ment of time and ener­gy to lay a sol­id foun­da­tion at the start of each school year that incud­es dis­cus­sion about goals, hopes and dreams (see First Six Weeks of School, Respon­sive Class­room). 

Yet after 24 years (this year marks the begin­ning of my 25th !) I have just recent­ly real­ized how much eas­i­er it will be to estab­lish and rein­force the shared class­room agree­ments we will be cre­at­ing using some of my favorite lit­er­ary trea­sures. My vision includes a fair amount of “guid­ed dis­cov­ery,” AKA, I know what I want the out­come to be but I want the kids to feel like they have come up with it on their own. Here’s my plan…

The 31 let­ters are scram­bled on the wall. This invi­ta­tion is post­ed above.

  Dear Stu­dents,

   Please think about the kind of class­room where cool kids make

   awe­some things hap­pen every day. A place where we are all mak­ing   

   our hopes and dreams come true. The type of envi­ron­ment where  

   learn­ing and look­ing out for each oth­er are the name of the game.

   Using the 31 let­ters below, can you help build the 9 words that will

   guide us as shared agree­ments on this won­der­ful jour­ney togeth­er?   

   Thanks!  Mrs. Rome

My hope is that my stu­dents will think, dis­cuss and work togeth­er to take 31 let­ters and turn them into our class­room creed con­tain­ing just nine words. Nine pow­er­ful words that when com­bined become five sim­ple and short, yet pow­er­ful sen­tences. Just 31 let­ters that will guide us all year long as we design and nav­i­gate the roadmap to suc­cess in our 4th/5th grade Human­i­ties class­room.

Be safe. Be kind. Work hard. Have fun. Grow.

These nine pow­er­ful words encom­pass all that I hope to accom­plish with each one of my 50 schol­ars in the com­ing year. I am con­vinced that this mantra is some­thing we can all agree on. Bring­ing these words to life, mak­ing them a part of our dai­ly actions and most impor­tant­ly, what we feel com­pelled to do in our hearts, is anoth­er order of busi­ness. A tall order of busi­ness. Yet this IS my busi­ness… to keep kids safe, to help them be kind and devel­op a strong work eth­ic, to expe­ri­ence joy as often as pos­si­ble, and always, to cul­ti­vate their tal­ents so they can grow and devel­op.

As is most often the case, when I find myself search­ing for wis­dom from a reli­able friend, I turn to the vast col­lec­tion of books in our class­room library. As I begin my 25th year as an edu­ca­tor, I mar­vel at just how impor­tant my books and the lessons they pro­vide are. Allow me to share how my trea­sures — pic­ture books and chap­ter books — will pave the way to cre­at­ing our class­room com­mu­ni­ty in Room 123.

I will begin by shar­ing some of my favorite pic­ture books, sto­ries that can be shared in the first week or two of the new school year to help us estab­lish the impor­tance of our 31 let­ters. I don’t hes­i­tate to read aloud these books that are usu­al­ly reserved for the younger crowd, because I know that the big kids ben­e­fit from pic­ture books just as much. The insights and dis­cus­sions that come from these ter­rif­ic titles help my stu­dents learn more about how our shared agree­ments will sup­port our learn­ing. The chap­ter books will unfold over days, weeks, months, yet again, the sto­ries will illus­trate how those 31 let­ters take our fic­tion­al friends through many life lessons.

At this very moment, edu­ca­tors all across the coun­try are care­ful­ly plan­ning or pre­sent­ing lessons that are designed to pro­mote enthu­si­asm for read­ing. At the same time, those ded­i­cat­ed indi­vid­u­als are work­ing on build­ing a pos­i­tive class­room com­mu­ni­ty. Most edu­ca­tors know that the right book in the hands of the right kid can make an enor­mous dif­fer­ence. Some of us even believe books have the abil­i­ty to changes lives. I am grate­ful to know, love, and share these books with my col­leagues.

Rome_stripBe Safe

The Huge Bag of Wor­ries by Vir­ginia Iron­side

The War That Saved My Life by Kim­ber­ly Brubak­er Bradley

Be Kind

Each Kind­ness by Jacque­line Wood­son

The One and Only Ivan by Kather­ine Apple­gate

Work Hard

Amaz­ing Grace by Mary Hoff­man and Thank You Mr. Falk­er by Patri­cia Polac­co

Long Walk to Water by Lin­da Sue Park

Have Fun

Wum­bers (or any­thing by Amy Krause Rosen­thal)

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Christo­pher Graben­stein


Beau­ti­ful Oops by Bar­ney Saltzberg and Beau­ti­ful Hands by Kathryn Oto­shi

Won­der by RJ Pala­cio


Summer School

by Mau­r­na Rome

photo salt flats

Mau­r­na, read­ing at the salt flats in Argenti­na

The bumper stick­er reads: “Three rea­sons to be a teacher; June, July and August.” This may be true for some, but it was nev­er my mantra, at least until this sum­mer. This sum­mer I decid­ed to par­tic­i­pate in sum­mer school and what a good deci­sion that was! My class of “sum­mer kids” includ­ed the most diverse, inter­est­ing bunch of char­ac­ters I have ever expe­ri­enced in my 25 years of teach­ing. And best of all, rather than being con­fined to one class­room for the entire stint, our lessons took place in a vari­ety of loca­tions includ­ing Lon­don, New York, and New Orleans. If you’re think­ing this was one of those online “vir­tu­al” schools, think again. It wasn’t. I had the plea­sure of cre­at­ing this sum­mer school expe­ri­ence that was like none oth­er. I hand picked most of the kids and the places to which we trav­elled. I know it sounds too good to be true in many ways and, although it wasn’t always easy, it has been one of the most reward­ing sum­mers of my career.

Let me tell you a bit about the kids… Trust me, learn­ing about the his­to­ries of kids who have dealt with some unimag­in­able hard­ships at a very young age can pull might­i­ly on your heart­strings and make you lose sleep. My “sum­mer kids” have had to nav­i­gate some seri­ous chal­lenges. Ada was born with a phys­i­cal impair­ment that could’ve been treat­ed at birth yet her abu­sive moth­er chose to keep her locked in their apart­ment, away from oth­er kids. Her lan­guage devel­op­ment was severe­ly impact­ed by this neglect yet she final­ly

photo bookstore

Vis­it­ing a book­store in Argenti­na.

learned to read at the age of 9, thanks to her fos­ter mom. Albie is one of the kind­est, most hard-work­ing, sin­cere boys I have ever met. Although his par­ents try to be sup­port­ive, they are extreme­ly frus­trat­ed with low aca­d­e­m­ic achieve­ment and the fact that they were asked to remove him from his high­ly regard­ed pri­vate school. And then there’s Rose. A very high poten­tial girl with autism who lives with her emo­tion­al­ly dis­tant father and a dog she loves dear­ly. Rose has fre­quent melt­downs in class and has been known to throw things, scream and make it dif­fi­cult for oth­ers in the class­room to learn. Armani is a sassy, brave young lady who sur­vived Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na and has had to grow up fast as she helped her fam­i­ly pick up the pieces after they lost every­thing. Final­ly, there is Robert, a very lone­ly, trou­bled boy being raised by his grand­moth­er. He yearns to find out more about his moth­er who died when he was a baby. These incred­i­ble “sum­mer kids” are just a few of the 20 or so who have filled my days with wor­ry, sad­ness, inspi­ra­tion and joy. Many of my “sum­mer kids” have been teased and tor­ment­ed by peers. Not all of them have endured such trau­ma, but they all have a sto­ry to tell. My time with these “sum­mer kids” has taught me much about the pow­er of friend­ship, per­se­ver­ance and hope.

Meeting Caldecott award winning author, Dan Santat at the ILA Convention.

Meet­ing Calde­cott award win­ning author, Dan San­tat at the ILA Con­ven­tion.

One of my stu­dents had a real gift for mak­ing up rhymes. Con­sid­er this gem:

Home is a place to get out of the rain

It cra­dles the hurt and mends the pain
And no one cares about your name

Or the height of your head
Or the size of your brain

Anoth­er quote worth pon­der­ing came from the moth­er of one of my “sum­mer kids”:

If you have to tell lies, or you think you have to, to keep your­self safe — I don’t think that makes you a liar. Liars tell lies when they don’t need to, to make them­selves look spe­cial or impor­tant.

And imag­ine how tak­en I was with this thought for the day, shared by that same young man who was removed from his pres­ti­gious school for not being smart enough:

You couldn’t get where you were going with­out know­ing where you’d been. And you couldn’t be any­where at all with­out hav­ing been almost there for a while.

I love my “sum­mer kids” and the time we spent togeth­er but I have a con­fes­sion to make. The truth is, I did not receive a pay­check for any of the hours I devot­ed to sum­mer school. That may seem absurd, yet I would do it all over again in a heart­beat. What I got out of the expe­ri­ence was worth much more. There is no deny­ing how real and full of grit my “sum­mer kids” lives are. There is also no doubt that I learned some tremen­dous lessons from this group. But, you see, my “sum­mer kids” came to me from the books I savored through­out sev­er­al weeks of trav­el­ling and time with fam­i­ly and friends. While I was swept up in the worlds in which they live, they accom­pa­nied me on my sum­mer Rome_SummerKidsadven­tures, from Salta, Argenti­na to St. Louis, MO. And just like every eager learn­er who greets me at the start of a new school year, their chal­lenges and tri­umphs become mine and their sto­ries will remain in my heart for­ev­er.

I’ll bring these “sum­mer kids” into our class­room this fall where they’ll join us on our lit­er­a­cy jour­ney in the com­ing year. We’ll all get to know and dis­cuss this bunch of char­ac­ters as I read their books aloud. I am a read­er and it is so impor­tant that my stu­dents learn about my read­ing life as they con­tin­ue to cre­ate their own!


Some of the “kids” I spent my sum­mer with:

  • Ada – The War that Saved My Life by Kim­ber­ly Brubak­er Bradley
  • Albie – Absolute­ly Almost by Lisa Graff
  • Rose – Rain, Reign by Ann M. Mar­tin
  • Armani – Upside Down in the Mid­dle of Nowhere by Julie T. Lamana
  • Robert – Rump by Liesl Shurtliff
  • Jack – Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gan­tos
  • Ellie – 14th Gold­fish by Jen­nifer Holms
  • Lina – Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
  • Hyung-pil – Sin­gle Shard by Lin­da Sue Park
  • Dinky – Dinky Hock­er Shoots Smack by M.E. Kerr

Cardboard L.I.T. Club: Linking Imagination & Text

by Mau­r­na Rome

There is no life I know to com­pare with pure imag­i­na­tion. Liv­ing there you’ll be free if you tru­ly wish to be…”

                            —Leslie Bricusse and Antho­ny New­ley

Each year I intro­duce my stu­dents to a young man named Caine. This cre­ative entre­pre­neur had spent the entire sum­mer in 2012 build­ing an elab­o­rate card­board arcade in his dad’s auto shop garage in Los Ange­les. Defin­ing the essence of per­se­ver­ance, he wait­ed patient­ly for weeks to meet his first cus­tomer, Nir­van, who hap­pened to be a film­mak­er. The inspir­ing sto­ry of this 9 year old and the guy who made “a movie that became a move­ment to fos­ter cre­ativ­i­ty world­wide” is cap­tured on sev­er­al YouTube videos

6_30Cardboard-ClubBorderThe result of this unlike­ly part­ner­ship is the “Glob­al Card­board Chal­lenge,” an event that takes place in 46 coun­tries around the world. It is also the back­sto­ry behind a lit­tle project that took place in Room 132 this past school year. After learn­ing about Caine’s sto­ry, my class also explored sev­er­al card­board themed books: Not a Box and The Card­board Box Book. We then brain­stormed ways to incor­po­rate Caine’s cre­ativ­i­ty and pas­sion for card­board into a lit­er­a­cy-based activ­i­ty. We came up with the “Card­board L.I.T. Club.”

Thanks to a gen­er­ous grant (see note at the end of this arti­cle) from the Min­neso­ta Read­ing Asso­ci­a­tion, the mis­sion was for kids and adults to come togeth­er to:

  1. Be cre­ative
  2. Pro­mote the reading/writing con­nec­tion
  3. Learn about team­work
  4. Encour­age each oth­er to read and dis­cuss good books
  5. Use art, tech­nol­o­gy, math, and engi­neer­ing to increase lit­er­a­cy learn­ing

Before launch­ing the club, kids were required to fill out a club appli­ca­tion stat­ing why they want­ed to join the club. They were also asked to com­plete a self-reflec­tion sur­vey about how they were doing in school in the areas of home­work com­ple­tion, show­ing respect, work­ing hard and being help­ful to oth­ers. Stu­dents who were on shaky ground were asked to sign an extra agree­ment with the under­stand­ing that in order to stay in the club dur­ing the next two months, they would need to main­tain good aca­d­e­m­ic and behav­ior sta­tus. This proved to be a huge moti­va­tor for a few stu­dents who made improve­ments with home­work and behav­ior in order to keep their good stand­ing.

In mid-March, we met for our first of five Card­board L.I.T. Club meet­ings. Kids were free to pick a book from a huge selec­tion of titles then groups were formed based on the titles cho­sen. The major­i­ty leaned towards ever-pop­u­lar graph­ic nov­el titles while oth­ers select­ed Mer­cy Wat­son to the Res­cue, Dork Diaries and Myths in 30 Sec­onds. From there the plan was sim­ple. Kids were asked to read the book, dis­cuss it with their group focus­ing on what mat­tered most, and final­ly, decide how to rep­re­sent the sto­ry and char­ac­ters using card­board, paint and tape.

Oth­er essen­tial ingre­di­ents were snacks (we start­ed each ses­sion with a “chat and chow” with kids talk­ing to one anoth­er about what they were cur­rent­ly read­ing), par­ent and high school vol­un­teers (a ratio of 1 helper to 5 kids is rec­om­mend­ed), an abun­dance of card­board (dona­tions from local busi­ness­es), lots of col­lab­o­ra­tion (a.k.a. prob­lem solv­ing), a photographer/videographer (a visu­al record of progress) and time for clean­ing up (keep­ing peace with the cus­to­di­an is a pri­or­i­ty).

Thanks to Caine and the “Card­board L.I.T. Club,” we are ready to take on the Glob­al Card­board Chal­lenge in Octo­ber and will be expand­ing our club next year to the “Lit­er­a­cy L.I.F.T. Club” — Link­ing Imag­i­na­tion FUN and Text! Check out a lit­tle video show­cas­ing our work.


I will be teach­ing two class­es on August 5th at Resource Train­ing and Solu­tions in St. Cloud, MN. The morn­ing class will cov­er launch­ing and coör­di­nat­ing a suc­cess­ful “Card­board Club.” The after­noon class will offer an overview on using and cre­at­ing videos in the class­room. Reg­is­tra­tion infor­ma­tion can be found here.

Be sure to con­sid­er par­tic­i­pat­ing in the 2015 Glob­al Card­board Chal­lenge on Octo­ber 10th. 

Each year mem­bers of the Min­neso­ta Read­ing Asso­ci­a­tion are invit­ed to apply for grants to sup­port class­room projects and/or book clubs for boys. The appli­ca­tion process is very straight­for­ward and do-able! The dead­line is Feb­ru­ary 1st, 2016. 



Ready for the World with Powerful Literacy Practices

by Mau­r­na Rome

I believe whole-heart­ed­ly in the impor­tance of read­ing aloud dai­ly to my stu­dents. On days I fail to meet this goal, I go home feel­ing like I’ve let the kids down. I recall the fren­zy of Valentine’s Day with the excite­ment of school-wide bin­go, spe­cial class projects and more than enough can­dy — but no time spent read­ing aloud. I doubt that the kids left my class think­ing that some­thing was miss­ing that day and I am sure no one report­ed to their par­ents that their teacher real­ly blew it by not read­ing to them. Yet it both­ered me great­ly. It wasn’t the first and won’t be the last day I fall short. How­ev­er, I am ded­i­cat­ed to mak­ing read­ing aloud a pri­or­i­ty in my class­room. I encour­age every teacher to join me in mak­ing it a goal that stu­dents will not miss out on this essen­tial ingre­di­ent from our arse­nal of lit­er­a­cy best prac­tices.

cover imageMore than 30 years ago, Jim Tre­lease wrote a lit­tle book that would become a nation­al best sell­er, with more than a mil­lion copies sold. The 7th edi­tion of The Read Aloud Hand­book was released in 2013. It high­lights present-day lit­er­a­cy chal­lenges as well as those that have remained the same since 1982. I high­ly rec­om­mend this gem, along with sev­er­al oth­er “pro­fes­sion­al books” on this top­ic by experts I great­ly admire: Unwrap­ping the Read Aloud by Lester Lam­i­nack; Ignit­ing a Pas­sion for Read­ing by Steven Layne, and Read­ing Mag­ic: Why Read­ing Aloud to Our Chil­dren Will Change Their Lives For­ev­er by Mem Fox.
I can guar­an­tee that none of the 9 year olds in my class­room have read any of the texts men­tioned above. Chances are that they are also not aware of the recent report issued by Scholas­tic assert­ing that we can pre­dict which kids will become our best read­ers based on how often they have ben­e­fit­ted from being read to.

How­ev­er, when I recent­ly chal­lenged my stu­dents to write a let­ter to teach­ers every­where about the impor­tance of read­ing out loud to kids, they seem to have hit the nail on the head. Here is a sam­pling of their wis­dom and insight:

  • I think it’s a good idea because every stu­dent will be won­der­ing every time you read.
  • Your stu­dents might learn new words that they don’t know.
  • It’s a good idea to read chap­ter books to your stu­dents because they can see pic­tures in their minds.
  • Chap­ter books are full of adven­tures.
  • They can relate with some­thing they did or some­thing one of their fam­i­ly mem­bers did.
  • They can be bet­ter writ­ers.
  • If it’s a fun­ny chap­ter book, you will get a laugh out of it.
  • It gives kids ideas and more imag­i­na­tion. It might make kids want to read even more.

Lam­i­nack has iden­ti­fied six types of read alouds that offer teach­ers a sure fire way to accom­plish the fol­low­ing: sup­port stan­dards, mod­el the process of writ­ing, build vocab­u­lary, encour­age chil­dren to read inde­pen­dent­ly, demon­strate flu­ent read­ing and pro­mote com­mu­ni­ty. As I reflect on the respons­es from my stu­dents, I see that all six pur­pos­es are men­tioned. I am con­vinced that the very best books for read­ing aloud are able to incor­po­rate all of the above. What a pow­er­ful approach to mak­ing an impact on lit­er­a­cy achieve­ment!

cover imageLast week we fin­ished the unfor­get­table 2013 New­bery Award win­ner, The One and Only Ivan, by Kather­ine Apple­gate. Here is a peek at how this touch­ing sto­ry played out in Room 132.

Sup­port­ing the stan­dards: See the fol­low­ing exam­ples and nota­tions.

Mod­el­ing the process of writ­ing: Using the six “sign posts” from Notice and Note by Kylene Beers and Bob Prob­st, we are always on the look­out for tech­niques the writer uses to tell the sto­ry. While read­ing Ivan, we have dis­cov­ered that “tough ques­tions”, “again and again”, and “words of the wis­er” are woven through­out the sto­ry. Kids are now begin­ning to work these same ele­ments into their own sto­ries!
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.3.3.B Use dia­logue and descrip­tions of actions, thoughts, and feel­ings to devel­op expe­ri­ences and events or show the response of char­ac­ters to sit­u­a­tions.

Build­ing vocab­u­lary: Dur­ing each read aloud ses­sion, a stu­dent serves as the “word recorder”. Stu­dents are encour­aged to lis­ten care­ful­ly and hold up their thumb any­time they notice a spe­cial or fan­cy word in the text. We talk about those words and the word recorder makes a list of all the words we dis­cuss. Once we had over 30 words, each stu­dent select­ed one word, paint­ed it on poster sized paper (as Ivan would have done) and then drew a pic­ture to show the def­i­n­i­tion.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.3.4 Deter­mine the mean­ing of words and phras­es as they are used in a text, dis­tin­guish­ing lit­er­al from non­lit­er­al lan­guage.


Ivan char­ac­ters in the class­room

Encour­ag­ing stu­dents to read inde­pen­dent­ly: As with all of the books I read out loud in the class­room, stu­dents are eager to check out that very same title from the library. Those that are lucky enough to get their hands on the book bask in the light of know­ing what is yet to come in the sto­ry. They keep the promise of not spoil­ing things for their peers, as they are clear­ly moti­vat­ed to read ahead on their own.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.3.10 By the end of the year, read and com­pre­hend lit­er­a­ture, includ­ing sto­ries, dra­mas, and poet­ry, at the high end of the grades 2 – 3 text com­plex­i­ty band inde­pen­dent­ly and pro­fi­cient­ly.

Demon­strat­ing flu­ent read­ing: To show my stu­dents what smooth oral read­ing sounds like, I empha­size the voice of each char­ac­ter. While read­ing The One and Only Ivan, Ruby is rep­re­sent­ed with a 5 year-old lit­tle girl voice, Ivan has a deep voice and Bob takes on a more sar­cas­tic tone.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RF.3.4 Read with suf­fi­cient accu­ra­cy and flu­en­cy to sup­port com­pre­hen­sion.


Lit lunch cel­e­bra­tion of Ivan

Pro­mot­ing Com­mu­ni­ty: The well devel­oped char­ac­ters from our read aloud sto­ries become new friends to us. We talk and think about them as if they are actu­al mem­bers of our class­room, with lines such as “What would Ivan do?” or “Remem­ber when Ivan …” One rainy day dur­ing inside recess, the kids play­ing with our plas­tic ani­mal col­lec­tion proud­ly set up a dis­play of “Ivan” char­ac­ters; Stel­la and Ruby the ele­phants, Bob the dog, Ivan and his sis­ter, Not-Tag, the goril­las, were all arranged to reen­act a scene from the book. It struck me that my stu­dents real­ly are mind­ful of the char­ac­ters we grow to love and admire. I stopped every­thing to draw atten­tion to this sweet ges­ture and once again, my heart flut­tered all because of a great book. This lit­tle pre­tend group of friends remained intact until we fin­ished the book and cel­e­brat­ed with a “Lit Lunch” fea­tur­ing yogurt cov­ered raisins and bananas!

Yes, an effec­tive read aloud can pack a lot of lit­er­a­cy into a short amount of time, yet I know it is often one of the first things that goes when the sched­ule gets too full. If you need more con­vinc­ing to keep the read aloud front and cen­ter, con­sid­er what this young lady has to say…

Dear Teach­ers of Every Grade,
You should read to your stu­dents because they will be bet­ter read­ers and writ­ers and learn faster and they will be ready for the world!

Look­ing for resources to help you plan for suc­cess­ful read alouds in your class­room?
Find­ing the best of the best books to read aloud:

Book­storms on Bookol­o­gy
Teacher’s Choice from ILA
Children’s Choice from ILA
Nerdy Book Club Awards 



Graphic Novels: A source of inspiration and mentor texts

by Mau­r­na Rome

Slacker illustrationFlash­back to the first week of school … we were pass­ing the micro­phone around our large cir­cle of 29 third-graders. It was easy to see that many stu­dents were shy and ner­vous, but one young man was appar­ent­ly look­ing for some shock val­ue. He began with “My name is Michael” then non­cha­lant­ly added, ”I’m a slack­er.” Huh? Most of the class mum­bled and mur­mured about that intro. Many were obvi­ous­ly not famil­iar with this unique adjec­tive.

I made note of the kid’s atti­tude and advanced vocab­u­lary, and put him at the top of my list for a one-to-one read­ing con­fer­ence. A few days lat­er, I dis­cov­ered that Michael devours books, has excel­lent com­pre­hen­sion and is actu­al­ly a very moti­vat­ed read­er. He became quite ani­mat­ed when telling me all about Greg, the main char­ac­ter from Diary of a Wimpy Kid (who no doubt was Michael’s cur­rent role mod­el). In the weeks to come, my clas­sic under-achiev­er proud­ly and often pro­claimed to his peers how much he enjoyed being lazy. I was deter­mined to help Michael find a new iden­ti­ty by fig­ur­ing out how to tap into his obvi­ous love of read­ing.

cover imageThanks to an insight­ful book called Of Pri­ma­ry Impor­tance by Anne Marie Corgill (Sten­house, 2008), I am com­mit­ted to immers­ing my stu­dents in authen­tic lit­er­a­cy learn­ing. Pub­lish­ing “real” hard cov­er books in my 1st grade class­room proved to be a suc­cess­ful strat­e­gy. How­ev­er, now that I was begin­ning my first year in a 3rd grade class­room, I knew I need­ed to change things up a bit. Find­ing the best men­tor texts and sim­ply get­ting kids to want to read vora­cious­ly was the first order of busi­ness.

I quick­ly learned that this group of 8- and 9‑year-olds could be reeled in by read­ing graph­ic nov­els. Since our class­room inven­to­ry of graph­ic nov­els main­ly con­sist­ed of Squish, Bone, and Lunch Lady, I did some research and over the next few months added more titles to our class­room library. Baby Mouse, Zita the Space­girl, Card­board, Knights of the Lunch Table, The Light­en­ing Thief, and Sea of Mon­sters (graph­ic nov­el ver­sions) became all the rage. Library check­out of high demand titles has includ­ed Amulet, Smile, Sis­ters, and all of the titles from our class­room col­lec­tion, since they are lim­it­ed in num­ber.

cover imageI’ve learned that a pow­er­ful approach to moti­vat­ing kids to read is to be selec­tive when sug­gest­ing a new book to stu­dents. Some­times, I share whole-class “book talks” but, more often, I pull a stu­dent aside and con­fide that I thought of him (or her) the minute I turned the first page. I am sin­cere when I say that I am inter­est­ed in his opin­ion, and would real­ly appre­ci­ate hear­ing if he would rec­om­mend the book after read­ing it. Kids care much more about what their peers are say­ing or think­ing, so it makes sense to drum up busi­ness for spe­cif­ic book titles in this way.

Giv­ing kids access to what they want to read and find­ing ample time for inde­pen­dent read­ing dur­ing the school day (usu­al­ly 30 – 40 min­utes dai­ly) was just the first half of my strat­e­gy to con­vert my smug slack­er and inspire the rest of the class as well. The dis­cov­ery of blank com­ic books on the Bare Books web­site ($15 for 25 books, just 60 cents each); was the gold­en tick­et. Offer­ing choice and no judg­ment (or at least very lit­tle) about what kids are read­ing com­bined with encour­age­ment to explore their own inter­ests in writ­ing, became the per­fect com­bi­na­tion.

Kids were eager to cre­ate their own ver­sion of graph­ic nov­els and soon, our class­room library grew to include such inter­est­ing titles as The Day Lady Lib­er­ty Came to Life and Bacon Man and Pig Guy, both of which became series, each with 5 vol­umes! The adven­tures con­tin­ued with a line-up of Pigeon titles; Don’t Let the Pigeon Ride a Uni­corn and Don’t Let the Pigeon Play Five Nights at Freddy’s along with a fun and frol­ick­ing set of books enti­tled Par­ty in the USA!

Here is one of the graph­ic nov­els cre­at­ed in the class, Bacon Man and Pig Guy, by Ian Clark.
Click on the four-head­ed arrow sym­bol to view in full screen mode.

No flip­book found!


Stu­dents in my class are encour­aged to use lit­er­a­cy choice time to con­tin­ue read­ing or writ­ing inde­pen­dent­ly, with a part­ner or a col­lab­o­ra­tive group. This type of peer mod­el­ing and men­tor­ing has led to an explo­sion of self-pub­lished graph­ic nov­els and short sto­ries in 3MR. Kids actu­al­ly cheer when I announce that we will have time to write in both the morn­ing and after­noon. They are “pub­lish­ing” their own graph­ic nov­el series, ask­ing each oth­er to write reviews of their books and they are wait­ing patient­ly for their turn to read a classmate’s lat­est offer­ing. Best of all, they are sign­ing up in droves to do a “Book Share” on Fri­days, a new addi­tion to our “Book Talk, Book Shop, Book Swap” Fri­day activ­i­ties (see my pre­vi­ous arti­cle on that top­ic!).  

cover imageFast for­ward to the end of Decem­ber. Stu­dents were once again intro­duc­ing them­selves, this time to a vis­i­tor in our class­room. How­ev­er, when it was time for my “slack­er” to take cen­ter stage, he offered this: “Hi, my name is Michael and I’m a car­toon­ist.” My heart did som­er­saults! To real­ly seal the deal, this same stu­dent recent­ly approached me with a delight­ful idea. Tak­ing the lead from our “Card­board L.I.T. Club” – an after­school book club designed to Link Imag­i­na­tion Text, he pro­posed a “Car­toon­ing L.I.F.T. Club”, adding “F” for FUN to the acronym! This one-time slack­er had actu­al­ly jot­ted down all the infor­ma­tion need­ed for the invi­ta­tion­al fly­er, com­plete with a catchy expla­na­tion about the club’s pur­pose, a sched­ule, and con­test ideas. Despite the crazi­ness of the last few weeks of the school year, how could I say no? 20 aspir­ing “Car­toon­ing L.I.F.T. Club” mem­bers will be div­ing into our newest men­tor text, Adven­tures in Car­toon­ing, for three after-school ses­sions in May.


Lit Lunches:
Promoting a love of reading one bite at a time!


by Mau­r­na Rome


Ready for Lit Lunch.

I admit that I am some­times envi­ous of my friends who work in the busi­ness world and get to enjoy fre­quent din­ing out excur­sions dur­ing their lunch breaks. A 20 – 25 minute rush to digest school cafe­te­ria food, microwav­able left­overs or a brown bag sand­wich isn’t the most appe­tiz­ing mid-day meal expe­ri­ence. How­ev­er, once a month I do get to enjoy a spe­cial book club of sorts, called “Lit Lunch,” with some of the most thought­ful, deep thinkers I’ve ever chat­ted with about books!

It might be hard to believe that “din­ing in” with thir­ty 9‑year-olds could be such a delight­ful affair, yet this once-a-month event has become one of the high­lights of the year in Room 132. From a kid’s point of view, get­ting to eat with the teacher in the class­room has some kind of mag­i­cal appeal. For this teacher, any­thing that moti­vates kids to think and talk about a good book is worth doing.


The Sand­wich Swap

When choos­ing our lunch book of the month, our cri­te­ria are quite sim­ple. The book must have a con­nec­tion to some type of food item that can be added to the lunch menu with a rea­son­able amount of prep and cost.  It also helps if the sto­ry has a “meaty” author’s mes­sage we can real­ly dig into.

I’ve used “lunch with the teacher” as a spe­cial reward for many years, but this is the first year I’ve real­ized that adding a lit­er­a­cy ele­ment gives it an added pur­pose. An unex­pect­ed result from host­ing the first few Lit Lunch­es was that many kids made it their mis­sion to find the per­fect book for next month. My stu­dents are always on the look­out for a good sto­ry that fea­tures a favorite fare to nib­ble on.  I know the extra effort and small invest­ment in a few ingre­di­ents are more than worth­while. I’m not sure who enjoys Lit Lunch­es more — the kids, our lunch­room super­vi­sor, or me.


A favorite book

Through chow­ing and chat­ting, my stu­dents iden­ti­fied sev­er­al com­mon words of wis­dom from the books we’ve devoured so far this year. “Don’t judge a book by its cov­er” applies beau­ti­ful­ly to The Sand­wich Swap by Queen Rania of Jor­dan Al Abdul­lah, Ene­my Pie by Derek Mun­son, and Green Eggs & Ham by Dr. Seuss. Nib­bling on a hum­mus and PB&J sand­wich, slice of pie, or green eggs and ham while chat­ting about the impor­tance of get­ting to know some­one or something before pass­ing judg­ment helped made our first few Lit Lunch­es a suc­cess.

The mes­sage “When life hands you lemons, make lemon­ade” came through loud and clear after read­ing and dis­cussing The Lemon­ade Club by Patri­cia Polac­co. This selec­tion was spe­cial for sev­er­al rea­sons. Sev­er­al of my stu­dents and I have dealt with the chal­lenge of help­ing a fam­i­ly mem­ber bat­tle can­cer. It was also the first stu­dent-select­ed book, thanks to an enthu­si­as­tic young lady who vis­its the pub­lic library often. Aman­da was so excit­ed to share her checked-out col­lec­tion of Polacco’s books. As we swapped our heart­felt per­son­al con­nec­tions, we shared lemon pop­py seed muffins and, of course, lemon­ade.

Green eggs and ham

Eat­ing green eggs and ham.

Our most recent les­son to be learned came from the light-heart­ed best sell­er Drag­ons Love Tacos. “Always read the fine print” was the take away from this sil­ly but fun tale. The food tie-in was by far the biggest hit with kids, though it also proved to be more time inten­sive and cost­ly than the oth­er month­ly selec­tions.

My advice for any teacher who is inter­est­ed in mak­ing lunchtime a lit­tle more inter­est­ing, though per­haps not as relax­ing as a meal out on the town, is to start small. Con­sid­er invit­ing a group of 5 – 6 kids to join you for a Lit Lunch based on a recent read aloud. For your sec­ond help­ing of Lit Lunch, add anoth­er group of kids. When hold­ing a full class Lit Lunch, a hand-held micro­phone that can be passed around is a must. Secur­ing fund­ing through the school par­ent-group, a grant, or grade-lev­el bud­get would be a good way to off­set the cost of pro­vid­ing appe­tiz­ing titles that are paired with some tasty treats.   

Green eggs and ham

A lot of green eggs and ham.

It may take time, prac­tice, and group reflec­tion to make the Lit Lunch feel more like a real book club with impromp­tu con­tri­bu­tions ver­sus a tra­di­tion­al class­room, teacher-led dis­cus­sion. It is help­ful if kids prac­tice being a part of infor­mal con­ver­sa­tions in both small and whole group set­tings. Facil­i­tat­ing a pro­duc­tive dis­cus­sion about char­ac­ter traits, the gist of the sto­ry and/or the author’s mes­sage is not an easy feat with a group of thir­ty hun­gry 3rd graders, but Room 132 is proof that it can be done.

Find­ing the right food-relat­ed book is a must. A free 100-page, anno­tat­ed book list fea­tur­ing  “over 400 books with pos­i­tive food, nutri­tion and phys­i­cal activ­i­ty mes­sages for chil­dren in grades K‑2” can be down­loaded thanks to a project from Michi­gan State Uni­ver­si­ty Exten­sion and the Michi­gan State of Edu­ca­tion.




Book Talk, Book Shop & Book Swap

by Mau­r­na Rome

As my stu­dents pass through our class­room door, the morn­ing buzz begins. The kids are already remind­ing me… “It’s Fri­day, Mrs. Rome!” We all know what that means. It’s Fri­day Fun Day! It’s time for “Book Talk, Book Shop, and Book Swap.” 

The kids in Room 132 do not seem to care about miss­ing out on the usu­al “Fun Day” menu choic­es of extra free time, videos, or games. They are excit­ed about our spe­cial day of lit­er­a­cy-based activ­i­ties. The sign-up list for book talk­ers is grow­ing… the max­i­mum of 10 is quick­ly reached. The titles being pro­mot­ed come from a vari­ety of sources; the pub­lic library, our school or class­room library, per­son­al col­lec­tions from home (which change fre­quent­ly, thanks to our week­ly book swap­ping) or even from our very own “class­room author col­lec­tion”. 

Keme booktalks with assistance from Austin.

Keme book talks Card­board with assis­tance from Austin.         (Click any pho­to to enlarge.)

The first book talk title is Card­board by Doug Ten­Napel. A lover of graph­ic nov­els, Keme explains that it all starts with a birth­day present that is noth­ing but a card­board box. A boy and his dad turn the box into a card­board per­son but when the clock strikes mid­night, it comes to life. Since the only rule for “Book Talk” is NO SPOILERS, we are left hang­ing with this teas­er: “After the card­board box breaks, the boy rush­es home but his heart is pump­ing so fast, so he might not make it!” Sev­er­al hands fly up in the air… “How many copies do we have?” “Can I have it after you, Keme?” 

Exploring the crates

Explor­ing the crates.

Once the book talk­ers wrap up, the book crates that store our mas­sive col­lec­tion of class­room books are uncov­ered. Eager shop­pers are ready to select new titles for their per­son­al book box­es, which are stored on the counter that runs the length of our class­room. Each plas­tic bin holds from 4 – 15 books, depend­ing on the genre and thick­ness. These books are select­ed almost entire­ly by stu­dents. Although we all under­stand what it means to have books that are “just right”, occa­sion­al­ly stu­dents need to reflect on their book choic­es. How­ev­er, I don’t insist that kids pick books that are only from a spe­cif­ic Lex­ile or guid­ed lev­el. The main cri­te­ria is that kids choose books they want to read. I often won­der how this could be con­sid­ered a “nov­el” idea… shouldn’t this be the rule of thumb? 

Final­ly, the last piece of our Fri­day tri­fec­ta. The book swap is

Classroom Book Shop

Search­ing, search­ing…

under­way. Gen­tly used books that were turned into the book swap box in the morn­ing are care­ful­ly laid out on a table. Book swap coupons are place on top of each book. Coupons can be used right away or saved for a future swap. In addi­tion to this day’s inven­to­ry, we add many oth­er books from pre­vi­ous Fri­days’ book swaps. Read­ers who are ready to make a trade, col­lect their coupons and begin perus­ing the avail­able titles. Some­times, extra coupons are hand­ed out as rewards. The class­room is trans­formed into a bustling mix of book swap­pers, some choos­ing new “gen­tly used” books for them­selves while oth­ers are look­ing for a book to give to a younger sis­ter or broth­er. Unlike books that are cho­sen dur­ing “book shop­ping”, book swap books are tak­en home “for keeps” or per­haps, brought back to be trad­ed in a future book swap. 

Coupons and books, ready for swapping.

Coupons and books, ready for swap­ping.

As I sit back and watch a love of books and read­ing take over our class­room, a sat­is­fy­ing smile spreads across my face and my heart. This is real­ly what it is all about. Kids who want to share their thoughts and opin­ions about what they are read­ing.

Kids who want to make their own choic­es about the books they are read­ing. Kids who want to read. We always seem to strug­gle to fit all three com­po­nents of Fun Fri­day in before the end of the day, but we do our best. Some­times the kids plead to do more book talk­ing, shop­ping and swap­ping on Mon­day. My answer is always the same, “Well… I sup­pose!”

This after­noon of pro­mot­ing a love of lit­er­a­cy is not out­lined on any dis­trict cur­ricu­lum plan, it is not found on the pages of any teacher guide, and it most cer­tain­ly won’t be the focus of any ques­tions on the man­dat­ed stan­dard­ized tests com­ing next month. How­ev­er, I will wager a bet that years from now when these amaz­ing 8- and 9‑year-olds think back to third grade, they will fond­ly recall “Book Talk, Book Shop, and Book Swap” and the fun we had on Fri­days in Room 132!