Thursday, December 8, 2016

Starting Courageous Conversations

I like to pretend that daily, I have important conversations with the girl. Sometimes, the importance is hard to see ("Why does Rainbow Dash help Fluttershy?") but I try.
I know that the girl is listening, even when I think she isn't, so I try to use every minute to discuss important topics and instill our values without it becoming a lecture.
And of course, books are my main go-to for this. 
I do have to admit, the girl is pretty adamant in what she will or will not listen to. Right now, My Little Pony is ruling the household. We have read the graphic novels over and over and OVER. We have started on the 'easy' readers. And surprisingly, My Little Pony isn't that bad. The vocabulary in the graphic novels is amazing and the stories are about friendship and helping one another.

But, My Little Pony will only get us so far. 

We have had quite a few conversations about how everyone looks different and that's ok. But, we haven't had many discussions about how people can act in different ways than people are used to. Or, sometimes people like things that are supposed to be for 'girls' or 'boys'. Beginning the conversation that there are no 'rules' about who can play with what or who can like what is an important first step in promoting understanding and acceptance for bigger issues later. 

Two great books that I plan to use to start these conversations are

Beautiful by Stacy McAnulty

Jacob's New Dress by Sarah and Ian Hoffman

Thursday, November 17, 2016


I LOVE a good infographic. I love the conciseness of the information. I love the inferences you can draw from one small picture. 
Infographics provide a wealth of knowledge without having to wade through a bunch of text. Unfortunately, a good infographic can be hard to find. Often, they are still text-dense or just set up very poorly.
BUT, there are two new awesome infographics that I found and one is even a series!!

The first is from Steve Jenkins (so you know it is going to be great) about animals. The illustrations are superb and cover a wide range of topics from animal migrations to tongue lengths.

Animals by the Numbers by Steve Jenkins

The other is based more on maps. It compares people around the country from topics like access to sanitation to armed forces. The same publisher produces several other titles.

People On Earth by Jon Richards and Ed Simkins

Wednesday, October 19, 2016


It’s the girl’s birthday. 4. years. old.
I have no idea how we have made it this far without one of us losing our mind (although perhaps one of us has).

When we were originally planning for her party, I was trying to figure out which ‘theme’ she wanted.

We have had Toy Story and Sesame Street. She has a rather eclectic set of passions - Frozen, Legos, Thomas the train, Frozen, Superheroes, Frozen, trucks, Frozen, etc.

I pulled up the Party City website and began scrolling through the available themes.
“Do you want a Frozen party? Spiderman? Peppa Pig?”
“Peppa! I want Peppa!”
And then, my super-duper helpful husband decides to chime in. “What about Olivia the pig, honey? You love the Olivia books.”
I should point out this is the moment when I decide to give him the look of utter disgust. If I had something I could have chucked at him, I probably would have. Not because I don’t enjoy Olivia, but because no one sells Olivia party supplies.


And there we had it - the winner of the 4th birthday party theme.

And my weekends suddenly flashed past my eyes. I knew that I’d be spending the next few weeks frantically trying to create any and all party decorations related to Olivia.

It helped that the girl is almost exactly like Olivia - she wears everyone out, including herself. If you have not yet familiarized yourself with Olivia, I suggest you do so.

She is a smart, strong and independent. Just like my 4-year-old.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Imaginary Friends

Imaginary friends have a lot of books written about them lately. As adults, don't we all wish we had a friend who would be by our side through all our adventures? 
Someone we could take along when things got tough?
Someone who could take the blame when things went wrong?

Here are some fantastic books written about the wonder and possibility of having an imaginary friend.

The Adventures of Beekle by Dan Santat

Confessions of an Imaginary Friend by Michelle Cuevas

Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate

Imaginary Fred by Eoin Colfer

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Favorite Books to Start Off Writing

The girl loves to write. She will fill a paper with scribbles and stickers and demand another blank piece of paper.
We have paper after paper after paper of marker-filled drawing, notebooks filled with pen sketches, and whole books created of sticker and crayon illustrations.
Ask her if she is a writer, and she will tell you yes. Adamantly.
What happens between now (preschool) and later years that makes kids believe they can no longer write? That their drawings and ideas don't have as much value as what we (their teachers) tell them to write about?
How do we help foster a love of writing while also helping students to see a purpose for communication?
There are so many uses of writing outside of school. Here are some books that might help to show students that writing is a REAL skill that they will use in the real world.

Rufus the Writer by Elizabeth Bram

A Squiggly Story by Andrew Larsen

Ralph Tells a Story by Abby Hanlon

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Interesting Informational Texts

Below are a few interesting informational texts that would be great for sparking curiosity and conversations with students. Although they may not relate to your specific content areas, we all know how captivating a great book can be!

Orangutan Orphanage by Suzi Eszterhas

A unique characteristic of this book is that the author tells about what orangutan mothers do in the wild and then describes how the foster mothers (human) adapt in order to take care of the orphaned orangutans. A great read aloud!

Splat! The Most Exciting Artists of All Time by Mary Richards

I love this book! A quick 2-3 page spread about different authors, highlighting their major works while also giving pertinent information. 

13 Skyscrapers Child Should Know by Brad Finger

The '13 series' actually looks very interesting. The latest installment is an amazing book which highlights 13 skyscrapers from around the world. The photographs are excellent, the facts and entertaining and the entire book is easily understood.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

What I Learned Through Gardening pt. 2

I spent my summer gardening. Or rather, I spent my summer out in my yard touching the dirt and plants. I don't know how one defines themselves as a gardener. I imagine one of the requirements is that you have expertise in the craft of gardening. I have none. Therefore, I am not yet ready to call myself a gardener.

But, I did the best I could. I put forth a great deal of effort. I was out in my garden almost every morning from 7:30-10:30 a.m. From the moment I started, I began making plans about what I would do differently next year. Each step (or misstep) I made was an opportunity for me to reflect on what I should do differently next time.

For example, when my tomatoes began rotting on the vine, I began my research on 'blossom rot'. After watching all my hard work literally rot on the vine, I pulled out half the plants, fed the tomatoes Tums and egg shells and decided next year, we were planting less. Blossom rot is due to a lack of calcium and I think we over planted the boxes. But, without experimenting and trying, I wouldn't know how to make it better.

Another misstep in my gardening adventure was where we planted our zucchini. I had NO IDEA how big zucchini plants would get. Thank goodness we had planted them close to the front of a raised box - they completely spilled out into the yard. Next year, they are going in their own space all the way in the back of the yard!

Next year, I'll also be building some wooden trellises for my tomato plants. My plants overtook those flimsy metal 'cages' and ran them down like the B-rated movie, The Blob.

Everyday when we teach, it's an opportunity for us to reflect on what we should do differently next time. Maybe our lessons aren't necessarily 'rotting' or being crushed into oblivion, but we can always do better. We can push ourselves to think, "How can my teaching impact more learners?"

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

What I Learned About Teaching Through Gardening pt. 1

For reasons I still can't completely understand, my husband and I decided to go full-on gardening this summer. I should preface this with the fact that we have NO IDEA how to garden. I believe we were inspired by a family who grows 75% of their food at their home. Our idea was, "Well, if they can do that, certainly we can grow some stuff."

So, we built some raised beds, got lots of dirt, and planted some stuff. That was the extent of our 'research'. The only tip I knew was to plant marigolds on the perimeter of all the beds. That would keep the bunnies, squirrels, chipmunks, rats, etc. away.

Every morning, I watered those plants.
Every morning, I checked their progress.
Every morning, I weeded those beds.
And every morning, I saw new things.

I love my garden. There are so many things that we did wrong and so many things that we will change for next year, but this garden has been a thinking space for me every morning. Sometimes, I  get only a few minutes out there to water, but most days, it's several hours as I weed and try to figure out what is going on with the plants. So, bear with me as I try to frame some of my educational thinking into soil, sprouts, and sunlight.

When we planted our 'crops' we didn't really do anything special. We dug a hole, put in a seedling, and gave it some water. As each of these plants started to develop, I notice how the different plants represent the different types of students that are in our classrooms.

Zucchini - The zucchini plants started off fine and they keep going along fine. I don't have to do anything to these plants except pull off the ripe zucchini. These are the middle-of-the-road kids. They will learn despite us. They have learned how to play school and they will get along fine in school. But, we have to be careful not to let these students slip through the cracks. They are so easy to overlook because they don't cause a ruckus or demand attention.

Cucumber - The cucumber plants started off strong. They were producing 3-5 cucumbers a week. Then, none. Then, weak, small cucumbers. I eventually pulled out one of the plants because it stopped producing anything. I think of these plants as the kids who come in confident in a specific content area. They are the students who excel in sports or art, but lose their shine when it is time to talk about social studies. They have strong skills in one area, but are unable to apply that confidence to other challenges. We must help them see that they can help themselves along as they acquire new areas of learning.

Sweet 100's - These particular tomato plants overtook the garden. It is impossible to even tell that there were cages planted around each of these. These plants flourished right away and grew, grew, grew. Unfortunately, they overshadowed every other plant that was in the bed and killed them off. The peppers died, the onions died, and the carrots died. These plants were doing so well, I didn't realize there were others underneath that were having a harder time. We all have students like this in our room. They understand the concepts, they flourish with instruction and we sometimes assume that if they get it, everyone else should too.

We have other plants growing but these are the ones that really struck me as the start of a conversation about how students learn and how we are matching our instruction for them. While each plant does need sunshine, soil, and water, each also has its own unique growing patterns. While all students need love, respect, and a curriculum, each needs their own levels to grow.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

More Gabe

One of the girl’s favorite books is I Need My Monster by Amanda Noll. Surprisingly, even though she is terrified of everything, the idea of monsters under the bed did not frighten her. In fact, she loved Gabe the monster so much; she decided that she was going to be him for Halloween last year. Mind you, Gabe is green and she was pink/purple, but when asked what her costume was, her reply was “Gabe”.

I Need My Monster is in our regular rotation of books for bedtime. She’s a big proponent of rereading (night after night after night) so when we’re on a roll with a book, it will be with us for a while.

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to attend BookExpo America in Chicago. There were many publishers and authors there discussing new books that would be released soon. As I walked among the shiny, slick covers of new and soon-to-be-released titles, I saw the familiar black cover and fonts of I Need My Monster.  I felt it was necessary to stop and inform the nice publishing lady how much my child loved the book.

But, as I approached the booth, my eyes examined the cover a bit closer. WAIT A MINUTE! There are TWO kids on the cover of this book!

I immediately snatched up the galley and began examining the cover mere millimeters from my eyes. Yes, there were in fact two children on the cover…I Need My Monster only had one. Who was this new kid? Where was Gabe? What was going on? Oh My Gosh…is this a new book?!?!?! Fortunately, the nice publishing lady came over and answered my questions as I babbled them incoherently at her (even including the story about my kid dressing up as Gabe).

The girl was so excited to see the new monster book, entitled Hey, That’s My Monster, due to be published on September 1, 2016. The story and illustrations are wonderful and just as entertaining as the first book. I am required to read BOTH books at bedtime now, but they are both so good, that it is easy enough to read them over and over (and over).

Bedtime reading reminded me of the importance of rereading. As I reread Hey, That’s My Monster for probably the twentieth time, the girl and I had some rather in-depth discussions about how the illustrator chose to show that Emma was making noise. Because we can’t HEAR sound in a book, the illustrator has to figure out a way to show that to us. So the girl and I had to examine the pictures thoroughly to find the ways the illustrator showed us what was going on.

Since we have read the book SO MANY TIMES, the girl has the first part of the story memorized. She can recite the first few pages, so he likes to ‘read’ the first few and then tell what’s going on in the pictures on the next few pages. But, she also asks questions for things she doesn’t understand. She wanted to know if Emma was playing with her dinosaurs on the blanket for a reason. After we talked through a few pages, she was able to answer her own question.

We are able to focus our bedtime reading conversations on thinking about the story, because we have read the words so many times, she already knows what is going to happen. This allows her to think beyond understanding the immediate story and build a deeper understanding of what is going on. She’ll need this skill later in life, both in school and in the outside world.

In school, so often we are worried about making sure the students can READ the words of a book. I completely agree that this is an important skill. But, pulling a group of students together to listen to a rereading of a familiar (and well-loved) story can also allow for deeper conversations and thinking that may not normally occur. Conversing about books with one another is an opportunity we shouldn’t deprive students.

I Need My Monster by Amanda Noll

Hey, That’s My Monster by Amanda Noll
Published September 1, 2016

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Homework Already

I am THAT parent.

The one the teachers talk about over coffee in the morning.
The one they shake their heads about and give knowing looks to each other.
The one they have secret names for when I’m not around.

I didn’t plan to be THAT parent. I’m not even sure how I got to this point. I just know that somehow I had to take a stand. Maybe a quiet one, for now. Maybe a small one, for now. But I know bigger ones are coming.

It started simple enough. When the girl moved to the 3-year-old room, she began getting a ‘Friday folder’. In the folder were two worksheets – one with her name three times and the other was usually some sort of additional tracing sheet: letters, numbers, shapes, etc. At first, these were new experiences so the girl was excited to try them out. We’d get out special pencils and markers and ‘trace’ our name and letters. Her fine motor control is off, so she never really stayed on the lines, but she had fun. We’d send the papers back each week and the next Friday there would be new papers. She felt like one of the big kids, so we kept going.

A few weeks ago, her enthusiasm for her homework tasks began to decline. It started to involve a lot of nagging on my part in order to get her to do the work. And when she did do it, she didn’t enjoy it; she did it because I told her she had to complete the sheet. A few weeks later, she was avoiding her folder altogether and waiting until Monday morning to do her sheets before she went to daycare.

Finally, about four weeks ago, she said, “Mommy, I don’t like doing homework,” that’s when I knew something had to change.

She’s three.

Three. Years. Old.

She has a LOT of years of homework ahead of her. More years of homework than I care to imagine. Homework that I hope has been carefully considered before being assigned. Homework that I hope is thought provoking and provides opportunities for conversations and sharing. Homework that I hope is open-ended and short, rather than rote and time consuming. Everything that the worksheets were not.

I rebelled. I started throwing the sheets away. 

Lately, our weekends have been spent digging weeds and worms out of the backyard. We’ve been busy reading books and playing with stickers. Her Lego houses have become more elaborate and detailed. There hasn’t been time for worksheet practice.

I’m okay with that.

I’ll own being THAT parent, if it means my kid gets to be a kid for a little while longer.

Thursday, April 28, 2016


The slump is on. It’s a weird weather time here in Chicago. It’s officially spring, so says the calendar. But, we are still wearing winter coats, hats, and mittens.
Daily, I have to tell my 3-year-old if it is ‘long-sleeve’ day or a ‘short-sleeve’ day, as the weather shift is that extreme.
But the ickiness outside has permeated the inside. The inside of the building and the inside of our souls are reflecting the bleak weather. Everyone has had enough and we are looking for some sort of sunshine to bring us back to life.

I recently read two professional books that have reenergized my spirit.
Two books that reminded me why we do this job (even on cloudy days).
Two books that filled my soul with excitement for what could be.

Thrive by Meenoo Rami 

Passionate Learners by Pernille Ripp

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Easter Eggs

I am a big fan of authors and illustrators. 

I get really excited when I am reading a book and the author references another book. It makes me feel a special connection. Or, even better, if the story takes place near where I live and they mention a local spot and I know where it is – I AM OVER THE MOON with joy. I feel even more connected to the author, as if we are sharing a special secret.

It’s the same with illustrators. When I find the pigeon in each of Mo Willems books, I feel a special thrill. I love playing ‘Let’s find Brad Meltzer in each of Ordinary People Change the World books’.

Very recently, I found out my husband also plays this game while reading our daughter her bedtime stories. Her latest favorite is Wolfie, the Bunny by Ame Dyckman and illustrated by Zachariah OHora

Imagine my surprise when he comes upstairs with the book in one hand and a Frank Zappa album in the other. One of Dot’s friends is wearing the same T-shirt as Frank in one of the album liners. It turns out the illustrator is a huge Frank Zappa fan and references different things in his illustrations and books.

I appreciate the amount of effort that an author and/or illustrator must go through. Certainly, most of these references are lost on the little ones who are currently reading the books. But, for those of us adults who have to read the books over and over and over (and over) these little gems can make the 200th reading just a bit more tolerable.

Wolfie the Bunny by Ame Dyckman

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

I Am (Almost) Done Stalking

For a few months, I was sort of stalking Jandy Nelson. Not on purpose. I just kept running into her.
I attended an event at the Skokie Library that had an author's panel/signing and she was there. At the time, I didn't know much about her, but she was REALLY funny. And her book sounded amazing. She mentioned she would be at NCTE (a conference I was also going to) the next month, so I told her I would see her there. She responded you do to a crazy person.
In November, at a 'meet the author' cocktail party, I ran into her again. She pretended like she remembered me, at least she remembered little ol' Skokie, Il. And, the next morning, I was in line to have another book signed by her. I think I may have told her then that I was done stalking her. 

But, now, I have actually read her book. I feel like I have to find her one more time. Just to say thank you. I didn't know what an amazing book I held in my hands. If I had known, I probably would have sobbed all over her and never let her go (so maybe it is better this way).

I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Reading and Writing Informational Text

I have been working with a group of second grade students on how to integrate reading and writing.
We have been using informational texts as our common element and the students have experienced quite a bit of success reflecting on their learning.

To begin, we discussed why readers read informational texts. Although there were quite a few purposes for reading informational texts, we boiled down our thinking to tree main purposes for reading informational texts.

I read aloud a page from a Seymour Simon book, Sharks, and had the students follow along on a photocopy. I wanted to be sure that the students' thinking and understanding was not hindered by their decoding ability. The Seymour Simon text was beyond a readability level for many of the students, but as I was reading it aloud, it became accessible to all the students.

After I read the text aloud twice, the student and I revisited the first paragraph to identify the most important idea out of each paragraph. The students were able to explain why as a READER they thought each idea was the most important. 

The next day we revisited the piece again and talked about what we did as a READER that helped us to understand the text.

The students were very insightful when they shared how they were able to better understand the text. They especially focused on how helpful it was to reread the text multiple times, each time looking for something different (answers to their questions, things they already knew, etc.). No one complained about having to reread and each time the students were very engaged in the task.

Finally, we used the same text about sharks to focus on writing crafts that Seymour Simon uses to make his writing more understandable to the reader. The students were able to identify ways that the WRITER made his text more understandable for the reader.

Using the same text over and over really helped the students see the connection between reading and writing. It was also great because we did not have to worry about the content of the piece. My goal was not to teach them about sharks, but rather how a READER and a WRITER do things to help with understanding. 

Sharks by Seymour Simon