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Tag Archives | Kwame Alexander

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 elite 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!



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!


Middle Kingdom: Suzhou, China

The books that most delight middle school and junior high readers often straddle a “Middle Kingdom” ranging from upper middle grade to YA. Each month, Bookology columnist Lisa Bullard will visit the Middle Kingdom by viewing it through the eyes of a teacher or librarian. Bookology is delighted to celebrate the work of these educators who have built vital book encampments in the transitional territory of early adolescence.

This month’s journey takes us to Dulwich College Suzhou in Suzhou, China, where Lisa talks with Head of Libraries and Senior School Librarian Leigh Collazo.


Dulwich College Suzhou

Lisa: Right off the bat, I’ll clarify for our readers that in this case, “college” means something other than how we use the term in the United States. Dulwich College Suzhou includes students ages 2-19. Leigh, what are three to five additional things our blog readers should know about your community, school, or library/media center?

Leigh: Dulwich College London was the first in our franchise, established in 1619. It has since expanded into Dulwich College International, which currently operates five additional schools and two international high schools in Asia.

Dulwich College Suzhou students and faculty represent over 40 nationalities all over the world. Our largest groups come from UK, Korea, and the United States. Our students are ages 2-19, separated into three schools: DUCKS (PreK-1st grade), Junior School (grades 2-5), and Senior School (grades 6-12). We have about 900 total students across the three schools. Though we do have very nice boarding facilities available, the vast majority of our students live off-campus with their families.


Lingering Garden, Suzhou

Suzhou is a beautiful Chinese city! We are located about 50 miles from Shanghai, which is easy to access via a 25-minute bullet train ride. Often called the “Venice of China,” Suzhou is most famous for its UNESCO World Heritage gardens, water towns, Buddhist temples, pagodas, and network of canals running through the city. All over the city, we see beautiful willow trees, colorful flowers, and lots of sculptures. There is a large recreational lake with a boardwalk within a five-minute walk from my front door. The weather here is very like that of northern Florida: hot and humid in the summer, cool (but still humid) in the winter. We get lots of rain, but it is rarely cold enough to snow. There are many expats from all over the world in Suzhou; I’ve heard the figures are as high as 10% foreigners in this area, mostly from Europe, Australia, and the USA.

We have two libraries at Dulwich College, located in the Junior School and Senior School. We have full-time library employees: two librarians (fully-certified with MLS degrees), one library intern (who will receive her MLS this December), and two library assistants. Together, our libraries boast a growing collection of 38,000 books and international newspapers and magazines. Our libraries are open from 7:50 am-4:30 pm daily. Both libraries have computers and iPads for students to use in the library. Both libraries have wireless Internet, and Senior School students are also able to connect to the school’s VPN. We subscribe to many of the same databases I used in my Texas library—Encyclopedia Britannica, PebbleGo, JSTOR, Tumblebooks, BrainPop, and Facts on File.


I think many people would be surprised to hear that I have had few difficulties with Chinese government censorship when purchasing library books. When we order (from the USA and UK), Customs does inspect our purchases, but I have not had any books rejected. I am able to purchase the same books here that I was able to purchase in the USA, plus I can purchase books from Australia, UK, and Canada, too!

Lisa: What recent changes or new elements are affecting the work you do with middle school students?

Leigh: Last year was my first year at my school, and we spent a large part of the year genrefying the 15,000 fiction titles in our library. It’s been a huge hit with students and faculty, and our overall circulation last year increased 89% over the previous school year.

This year, I am thrilled to tell you that we are adding Overdrive e-books for all our Senior School students, which I expect to launch by the end of September. My library assistant has been working on genrefying our 2,100-title Mandarin section, something our students requested last year. We plan to genrefy our Korean section this year as well, which is about 1,200 titles.

In November, we are bringing illustrator Matthew Holm (Babymouse series, Squish series) to Suzhou to speak to our students. We also have slam poet Nick Toczek visiting in November. All of our middle school students will get the chance to hear them speak.

ph_Panda Older ReadersLast, we are participating in Battle of the Books for the first time this year. We are using books on the Panda Older Readers Book List, plus seven more titles selected by participating librarians in the Shanghai area. In March 2016, our students will compete against other international schools from all over Shanghai, Wuxi, Suzhou, and Kunshan. They will also get to meet Newbery Award winning author Kwame Alexander at the competition.

Lisa: What five books (or series) are checked out most often by your middle school students?


  • The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey
  • The Selection by Kiera Cass
  • Dork Diaries series by Rachel Renée Russell
  • Half Bad by Sally Green
  • Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Lisa: What books do you personally love to place into middle school students’ hands?


  • The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
  • Unwind by Neal Shusterman
  • Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin
  • Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen
  • The Seer and the Sword by Victoria Hanley

Lisa: If you had a new staffer starting tomorrow, what piece of advice would you be sure to give them? 


  1. Read the books! You can’t recommend them if you don’t read them.
  2. Be the weirdo. Be the crazy one who plays the spoons or breakdances or decorates the library with cat posters. Don’t be afraid to be yourself or be different from the other teachers. You are not them. You are you!

Lisa: What do you like most about working with middle-schoolers?

Leigh: I love their energy and their quirkiness. They are old enough to do many things for themselves, but they are still young enough to need guidance from trusted adults. I can joke around with middle school students, and they (usually!) get the jokes. Middle schoolers can be challenging sometimes, but every day, they make me laugh, give me hope, and even help me see things in a different way. Who else can say that about their job?


Lisa: Could you share some information about your most popular/successful/innovative program for promoting books and reading to middle schoolers?

Leigh: I am a huge proponent of genrefication of fiction sections. Genrefication better reflects the way students browse the library. Front-facing library books (where the entire front cover is visible) also really helps students select books, as does multiple themed book displays. My favorite and most successful book promotion tool is reading and booktalking a LOT of titles. I booktalk all day long!

Lisa: How have books or other things changed for middle kingdom readers during your time as a librarian?

Leigh: I started working as a librarian in 2004. Since then, I’ve seen a huge increase in the number and acceptance of graphic novels. I’ve separated my graphic novels into their own section (rather than 741.5) since 2011. They were taking over the 700 section! That said, I think graphic novels still have a long way to go before many people consider them “real reading.”


The Crossover

The Crossover Kwame Alexander Houghton Mifflin Harcourt From the moment I began reading this poetry collection, I knew it was a different type of book because the rhythms, the cadence, were infused with energy and awareness. The Crossover is primarily free verse, with a few hiphop, rhythmic poems that change up the action. The narrator, […]