Sunday, November 9, 2014


Today is Carl Sagan's birthday. I didn't know until it showed up on my Twitter feed. Nor can I say that I know a great deal about Carl Sagan other than this - the man was brilliant. But, I think sometimes that is enough.
One of the most profound pieces of writing that I carry with me is from his book,  Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. The book contains a photograph from the Voyager 1 mission. In the photograph, the Earth is too far away to be seen with detail, but the profound thoughts that Sagan puts forth are more powerful to me than the photograph. 
From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.
Carl SaganPale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, 1997 reprint, pp. xv–xvi

I love that he reminds me that I am responsible for myself. If I want to see change, I must do it. I must be kind to those around me, I must take care of our world, it is MY responsibility. These are messages that certainly can be passed on to the younger generation.

Varmits by Helen Ward

The Curious Garden by Peter Brown

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Word Choice - Verb Power

This week, I had the opportunity to read some college essays for a colleague. College essay writing is an area that I am not fluent in, but I was willing to look over the essays and see if I had any suggestions for revision.
I was reminded about the importance of choosing the right word for the sentence in order to convey the intended tone and message. Published authors talk about the importance of word choice, but it was a good reminder that verb selection is crucial in conveying a direct and correct message.

Rufus Goes to School by Kim T. Griswell

Friday, November 7, 2014

Be Yourself

A great book arrived today. I wasn't sure at first what to expect - but it was a great story about doing your best, even if it wasn't what everyone expected.

Hana Hashimoto, Sixth Violin by Chieri Uegaki

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Books About Too Much

Now that Halloween is officially over, apparently it is time for the Christmas season to begin. The girl and I went to Target the day after Halloween to try and score a half-price Halloween costume for next year. She was less interested in the costumes and WAY more interested in the trees and ornaments that were set up across the aisle. 

My family has already started asking what her 'list' looks like, what she wants for Christmas. The honest truth is the girl needs nothing. We are fortunate that my cousin hands down all her daughter's outgrown clothes, so we have plenty of clothes. In fact, we have more clothes that we will ever wear.

We have enough toys - the girl doesn't play with them anyway. She has a basement with cars, blocks, kitchen items, Little People, dinosaurs, everything a child could want. The only thing she loves are her books. Big books. Little books. Board books. Nonfiction books. Picture books. Any kind of book. But, she needs no more books. She already has over 100 board books and more than two bookcases full of other books. She does not need.

I've tried explaining over and over that we don't want items, we really would just like family to spend time with us and if they feel the need to give something, a contribution to her college fund would be great. But, the holidays bring out the nostalgia in family and they can't fathom the idea of not opening presents around a tree. 

But, if you are looking for some ideas about books that help explain why you don't need to buy that newest, bestest toy out there for your little one, these might be for you:

Too Many Toys by David Shannon

Have Fun, Molly Lou Melon by Patty Lovell

Saturday, November 1, 2014

November is Picture Book Month

I recently joined Twitter. I have to say, I have no idea what I'm doing yet. I only have four followers, I only follow a few people and I still haven't quite figured out what a hashtag is. I think I have made one 'tweet' and that was because a 5th grade student took pity on me and helped me do it. But, I'm trying. 
As teachers, parents, and colleagues we are often so stymied by the idea that we may not do something well, that we don't do anything at all. It's scary to jump in and admit that we don't have all the answers and we might not know what will happen. But, without that one small step, that one little leap, we don't know how far we (and the students) can go.
Therefore, I'm leaping a bit and revisiting the idea of great picture books. November is Picture Book Month and I want to take a bit of time to pull out some of the great picture books I have and think about them in a new way.
I don't know for sure where this thinking will take me, but I'm willing to jump in and give it a try to see just how far it can go.

Clarence Goes Out West and Meets a Purple Horse by Jean Ekman Adams

I'm sure there are better books out there, but this book is one of my favorites. There are several others in the series, but the first one is still the best, I think. I love the illustrations, Clarence and Smoky are both so cute and the colors are very vibrant.
I love to use this book to show different sentence length. There are very long, flowing sentences. And there are very short, choppy sentences. Each serves its own purpose and this book is great for showing how authors make those decisions.
I also love to use this for studying the use of commas and punctuation. There are commas in a series, clauses, introductory phrases, all sorts of interesting uses for a comma. Using an authentic text to point out how an author makes this text more readable with punctuation helps make the learning real and authentic.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Building Muscle Memory

Athletes and musicians know the importance of building muscle memory. That is why they practice  over and over. The body's response should be automatic and not require thinking and remembering. When faced with a performance, the muscles should be used to doing the next step and therefore will continue in case of stage fright. I'm sure there is more science to it, but that is the gist.

I was recently reminded how strong this memory can be when a fellow teacher asked me to play 'Cat's Cradle' with her in class one day. I hadn't played in over 20 years, possibly even 30, but amazingly it came back to me after only a few false starts with the string. Within five minutes, I was able to get the cat whiskers and the witch's broom. And I did it all without thinking through the steps - my hands simply knew which way to go. 

I was thinking about the power of muscle memory and reading. The girl just turned two years old and already she knows how to hold a book and turn the pages. When we read, I can see her eyes tracking the story from the left page to the right page. She has two favorite books that she can 'read' and tell almost all the words, based on the pictures. I'm hoping these early skills will stay with her and as she enters school, she can free up some of her memory to work on letters and sounds, rather than tracking and turning pages.

Some of the girl's favorites:

Llama Llama Hoppity-Hop by Anna Dewdney

Puff the Magic Dragon by Peter Yarrow & Lenny Lipton

Pride & Prejudice: A Babylit Counting Primer by Jennifer Adams

Monday, October 20, 2014

New Learning

"Your best teacher is your last mistake."
-Ralph Nader

Learning something new can be hard and require a lot of time, effort, and risk.

I know because I recently embarked on trying to learn about Twitter. I'm not so interested in putting my thoughts out there, but I am interested in acquiring more information. I want to gather more knowledge and I don't know another way to stay connected with the smart people of the world. I think with Twitter I can get a glimpse inside their minds, without having to actually talk to anyone.

So, off I go. Into the wide world of the internet. Is it even called the world wide web anymore? 

As I try to acquire these new skills, I know I have to be comfortable with not knowing everything. I have to be comfortable with asking questions that seem like things I should be able to answer for myself. I have to be able to seek out multiple resources and friends who are willing to help me along. Most of all, I have to be comfortable making mistakes. Without making mistakes, I will not grow in my learning. 

It's funny that we tell students and small children that they are encouraged to make mistakes and try things out - "that is how you learn", we tell them. Yet, I don't know many adults who are encouraged to go out and make mistakes. We expect that as adults we have all the answers, even if we have not tried these things before. 

I'm hoping to set a good example to the girl about how important it is to try new things and maybe mess up. The stakes are pretty small. Maybe I'll have a random 'tweet' or I'll end up following someone I don't know. Meh. At least then I will know how not to do it again.

Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty

Sunday, March 30, 2014


I don’t remember exactly when we taught the girl to toast with her sippy cup. In fact, I don’t even remember how it came to be a thing, but this morning at breakfast there we were, all three of us, toasting with our mugs of coffee and her sippy cup. To the untrained eye and ear, her holding her sippy cup out and saying ‘Cheers!’ might not be an invitation to clink glasses, but in our household, it’s a toast, a celebration, an opportunity to pause for just a moment. It’s such a small celebration, but it somehow makes the meal much more special. There were so many celebrations already this morning, before we decided to dedicate a toast to our oatmeal and fruit. So many times that I clapped and smiled and told her that she did a good job (while clearly articulating what it was that she did a good job doing).
She managed to put all her books away this morning after reading them. She loves to take them off the shelf and bring them to me. However, the putting away of the books is a task that I usually have to take care of myself. Today was  celebration as she actually stood them back up on the shelf. She was so proud of herself.
We had another small celebration when, for once, she didn’t fight/cry while having her diaper changed. This is by far her least favorite activity and every morning is such a struggle to get the girl ready for the day. Today was almost calm and pleasant - a true celebration.
Of course, in life, there will be the big celebrations - birthdays, holidays, doing well in a competition, but I think it is important to remind the girl to look for smaller things to celebrate. If we are only looking for the big moments, we miss the happiness and joy of simpler things.

I'm in Charge of Celebrations by Byrd Baylor

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

I Feel Pretty

Cute. Pretty. Beautiful. I must have heard these words at least ten times on Sunday.
The girl and I were visiting my parents in Indiana. My niece and the girl were running around playing with grandma’s toys. They had a great time when grandpa would throw a bunch of balls in the air and they would run around and try to gather them up and put them back in the basket.
My niece is almost a year older than the girl, so it is interesting to watch her do things that the girl is not yet able to do. This was also the first time that the girl had an opportunity to play with an older child and she was fascinated with her.
But, during the ball-gathering game, I was struck with how kind my niece was being to the girl. My niece was able to gather at least 3 of the balls in her hands and carry them around. However, the girl was only able to hold one at a time. On two different occassions, my niece handed one of the balls to the girl for her to put in the basket. No one prompted her to do this. No one asked her to share. She simply noticed that the girl didn’t have a ball and she handed one over.
This day stuck with me because of the lack of impact it seemed to have on the other adults in the room. Not long after this interaction, my mother asked my niece, “Don’t you think that the girl is pretty? Are you pretty?”
I wanted to get on my self-righteous soapbox and point out that these girls are so much more than pretty. They are so much more than cute. They are so much more than what they look like. They are kind. They are compassionate. They are caring. When we see them share with one another or do something kind for one another (or even themselves) we have to point it out and emphasize the good they are doing for one another and humankind. I let it go, though. If grandma wants to tell her she’s cute, that’s one of the few places she’s going to hear it on a consistent basis.
Right now, of course the girl is cute. She’s 16-months-old. When she grows up, I want her to measure her beauty within herself, not compared with what society has deemed ‘pretty’. Because, poor girl, the genetic odds are stacked against her. But, more importantly I want her to to be kind, compassionate, caring, passionate, and think about others. Physical attractiveness means nothing if your inside is ugly.

Books to help remind the girl to be strong on the inside:

Rose's Garden by Peter Reynolds

I'm Gonna Like Me by Jamie Lee Curtis & Laura Cornell

Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride by Pam Munoz Ryan

Eleanor, Quiet No More by Doreen Rappaport

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Olivia and the Fairy Princesses

As I write this, the movie 300 is on in the background. I generally don’t have time to watch movies, but lately, the girl has been sick and taking extra naps. This week, I’ve managed to have background viewing of both the movies 300 and Brave. Interestingly, I managed to find a common theme in both of these movies.
Both of these movies have strong, female characters. In Brave, Merida was one of the first non-traditional princesses. She was not waiting for her prince to rescue her and in fact, she was ready to rescue herself. Everywhere you turn, there is such an abundance of pink and princess, it is hard to escape.
So, when I saw Olivia and the Fairy Princesses by Ian Falconer at the book fair, I was immediately turned off. First, I have not been impressed with the Olivia books lately. While I loved the first Olivia book (Olivia embodied everything I hoped a spunky, young pig would) I felt like the last ones were rather tiresome. Second, it had Olivia on the cover in a pink tutu/skirt. Really?
I couldn’t have been more wrong. I ran around the book fair reading this book to everyone who would listen. I bought it for the girl, her cousin, and it’s my new top gift for girls.
I love the message that Olivia once again shows about being yourself. She clearly explains that there is no need to follow along with what everyone else is doing, that everyone should be themselves. Falconer has a sense of humor in the illustrations that made me laugh aloud several times.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Picture Books for Deeper Discussions

A colleague and I are teaching a workshop after school about running literature discussion groups. One of the overriding messages that we are trying to convey is that there must be lots of guided practice for the students before they are sent off to read novels in groups. Lots and lots of practice. Lots.
This practice might take a lot of different forms. At the beginning, it is the teacher reading aloud and stopping to have students write down their thinking. Then, there might be opportunities for students to practice discussions using picture books since they can finish these during one class period.
There is no magic to the lessons we are talking about, other than the need for constant debriefing with the students about what worked for them in their groups and giving them strategies of how to solve what didn’t work.
But, I did begin to notice the need to have picture books that were more ‘deep’ thinking books. These books deal with bigger topics and issues that students can hopefully find things to discuss.

Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson - I love this one because it doesn't have a happy ending. The girls are mean to the new girl and eventually, she stops coming to school. Chloe thinks about how much she has hurt Maya, but doesn't have the opportunity to make amends.

Finding Lincoln by Ann Malaspina - Louis has to do a report on Lincoln, but it's 1951 in Alabama and he's not allowed to use the library. Find out what he does to finish his report.

Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan - I love this book. I think kids can relate to the embarrassment that Rubina would feel about brining along her little sister, uninvited, to a birthday party.

The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson - A great story about two girls who live on opposite sides of the fence.

Sunday, February 2, 2014


A colleague asked me for books about change. She was doing a thematic study on change and wanted some picture books that supported this topic. It was difficult to pull picture books for this, not because there are none, but because there are so many. Change is all around us. Whether it is the weather (although the Chicago weather seems to be UNchanging), our feelings, or even the circumstances that we face.
But, for kids, change is hard sometimes. The familiar is comforting. When faced with change we may not know how to react. By using texts, we can show kids that their feelings are valid, and here are some appropriate ways to face those challenges they may be feeling. Each of the books on my list show different kind of changes and depending on your purpose, each one may or may not work for you.

Cheyenne Again by Eve Bunting

The Flower Man by Mark Ludy

Stellaluna by Janell Cannon

The Big Orange Splot by D. Manus Pinkwater

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Is a Character Good or Bad?

A friend and I recently got into a discussion about endings. Endings of books, endings of movies, endings of stories in general. I like my books to have a solid resolution. I don’t enjoy books or movies that leave me ‘hanging’ or to draw my own conclusions. I like to know that there is a resolution and that the story is complete, as the author intended. I usually don’t like to draw my own interpretation, I want to know why events happened and what was the author’s purpose. So, I was surprised to find that I enjoyed a book left me ‘hanging’ at the end.
Three By the Sea by Mini Grey, is a great book to spark a debate about a character’s motives. The stranger who appears in the story seems to be up to no good, inciting the cat, dog and mouse to argue with one another. However, at the end of the story, the characters have changed their ways and they all seem a bit happier to do things differently. I wonder if Mini Grey meant for the stranger to be a good or bad character. I think there could be arguments for both and I think this book would be a great way to help students begin to understand how to look for motives and support for their opinions.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Being Frank

I really liked Being Frank by Donna Earnhardt. It is a book I normally would have left on the shelf, but in the back of my mind, I thought I remembered someone talking about it. The cover/illustrations are not my favorite style, but I really enjoyed the story. In the book, Frank, is a little too frank - he tells it like it is. This honesty tends to hurt people’s feelings and Frank can’t understand what he is supposed to do. He doesn’t want to lie, but he doesn’t want to hurt anyone either. His grandfather offers him some advice and it works out for him in the end.
I like this book especially paired with a conversation about not always saying everything that you are thinking.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Books About Writing

I admire people who can write well. It is not a quality I possess and therefore I am in awe of those that are able to put their thoughts down on paper eloquently.
I bow to those that are able to do this in front of a group of students during writers’ workshop.
Writers’ workshop always terrifies me because I know my own writing is so inadequate that I am fearful of showing students my own work. But, of course, I do it anyway.
After years of modeling with my own writing and then being disappointed because the students weren’t writing stellar pieces, I began to search for mentor texts and books to help show the students what GOOD writing looks like.
Here are some of my favorite books to begin talking about writing and stories in general.

Tell Me the Day Backwards by Albert Lamb is not really about writing, but rather about talking and thinking. In order for students to be able to write a good story, they have to think about it and know it in their hearts and minds. I really like this book for thinking through a moment or event and telling the parts in order. While the book doesn't emphasize elaboration, I think it could be a good springboard to start discussing the importance of thinking through an event or idea.

Ralph Tells a Story by Abby Hanlon captures the struggle of reluctant writers. It gave me new insight into the minds of the students who seem 'off-task' during writers' workshop.

I think Tad Hills sends a good message in Rocket Writes a Story that there is always a lot of revision when writing. I especially like how the bird in the story mentions that writing a story takes time. Students (and adults) seem to feel like the first draft is the done draft and this book helps to promote  revision and lingering with ideas.

I wouldn't advocate to read this book aloud cover to cover, but I think it has many interesting tips that can be woven into a writers' workshop. I like that the snippets are short enough to read aloud, but give information to think about.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

My 1-year-olds favorite books

We had to buy a new bookcase for the girl’s room this week. She has one real bookcase downstairs that holds all her picture books for when she gets bigger. The new one upstairs is in her bedroom and it holds all her board books and some toys.
When she was very small, her favorite books were dictated by me because I was the one that chose the books. In the last few months, she is able to discern between the book spines and pick the books that she wants to read. It is very interesting to watch.
Many of the books she likes to read on her own, but at bedtime, I have had to read the same book over and over and over.
These are some of her favorite board books.

Good Egg by Barney Saltzberg has been loved so much that it is in about 6 different pieces. The girl tore this book to shreds. We really need a new copy. The hilarious thing is that she still loves to read it even though it is in pieces.

Noisy Farm is a recent favorite. The girl has recently figured out how to lift the flaps on this book (they open different ways) and she loves it. The photos are great and she loves listening to me make the animal sounds.

I can't say enough great things about the BabyLit books. I think they are hilarious and wonderful. If you are looking for an accurate retelling of classic literature, you are probably not going to find it in a 10 page board book. However,  I think Jennifer Adams makes books that are interesting enough for parents to read to their kids without wanting to pull their hair out. The girl loves Moby-Dick and we just acquired Romeo and Juliet as well.

I admit I was skeptical of Pat the Bunny by Dorothy Kunhardt when it first entered our house, back when the girl was born. I remember when she was about 6-months-old reading it to her and she had ZERO interest in any of the pages. Then, at about 9-months-old, it was like someone had flipped a switch. Suddenly, when it was time to play peek-a-boo with Paul, she knew how to do it and loved it. She loved looking in the mirror and feeling daddy's scratchy face. I had dismissed this book early on, but now I can barely pry it from the girl's fingers.

I love this book. The girl likes it. She will learn to love it more.