SOLC: Dakota Dugout


Sunday’s New York Times Book Review featured Tom Perrotta’s review of The Selected Letters of Willa Cather on the front page. Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop is one of my favorites, so I was interested right away. Perrotta quotes an irresistible line from one of Cather’s letters describing the prairie: “The whole great wheat country fairly glows, and you can smell the ripe wheat as if it were bread baking” As soon as I finished reading the review, I was off the couch and heading for the bookcase where I knew my copy of My Antonia waited. Although I’d had it for ages, I’d never read this book. No time like the present.


I was immediately drawn into the story of Antonia’s immigrant family as told by her friend and neighbor, Jim Burden. Everything about the prairie is new to Jim, and Cather’s language transports us there. “The light air about me told me that the world ended here: only the ground and sun and sky were left,” Jim declares as he explores his new home for the first time.

As I read, another book came whispering to me on that prairie wind. Ann Turner’s Dakota Dugout (Macmillan, 1985) is the story of a young couple trying to build a life in a sod home near the end of the 19th century. Told as a flashback from the wife’s point of view, Turner’s poetic text gives the reader an insight into a way of life few of us today can imagine. At the end of the book, the narrator tells her listener “talking brings it near again, the sweet taste of new bread in a Dakota dugout, how the grass whispered like an old friend, how the earth kept us warm.” The echoes of Cather’s letter are striking, aren’t they?


I have used Dakota Dugout with fourth graders in the past to teach a number of reading strategies. It is a challenging text, but a worthy choice, as it is rich with details about a region of the country most of the students in my New England community have never experienced. Thinking about this book in light of the CCSS, the possibilities seem endless.

Reading Literature standards 1-3 could easily be taught using Dakota Dugout. Turner’s language makes this book a good choice for addressing the Language standards related to vocabulary (4-6) as well as Reading Literature standard 4, “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text…”

Teaching with primary sources isn’t something we’ve done a lot of in fourth grade, but because there are so many pioneer letters and diaries available, it makes sense to pair some of these with Dakota Dugout.  Reading Informational Text standard 6 states that students should “Compare and contrast a firsthand and secondhand account of the same event or topic; describe the differences in focus and the information provided.” The Library of Congress has a remarkable collection, Prairie Settlement: Nebraska Letters & Family Photographsthat are a perfect complement to this book. There is even a Standards alignment chart available.  The National Museum of American History also has resources to use with Dakota Dugout, including an online sod house building simulation.

The pioneers who settled the Great Plains are gone. But their spirit lives on in Willa Cather’s novels, scores of letters and diaries, and in books like Dakota Dugout. Through them we can “Tell you about the prairie years? I’ll tell you, child, how it was.”

Thank you to Stacey and Ruth at Two Writing Teachers for hosting this weekly Slice of Life Challenge!

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading?

Mon Reading Button PB to YA

We had a family visiting from out of town this weekend, so I didn’t have time to read too much. After everyone left yesterday afternoon, I did manage a to read some of the paper before I fell asleep for a lovely nap. The review of The Selected Letters of Willa Cather made me find my copy of My Antonia (more about that tomorrow) and I read Sean F. Reardon’s piece, “No Rich Child Left Behind” with dismay.

Hands down, the best part of my reading weekend was reading The Monster at the End of this Book to an almost 2 1/2 year old who’d never seen the book before. His year old brother enjoyed it too, but C’s reaction was priceless.


He recognized Grover right away, and was excited for me to get started reading. Of course I put everything I had into it. Voice raised at the appropriate time, whispering at the fine print, adding exaggerated facial expressions. He was mesmerized. And so serious. He kept looking up at me with big, sincere eyes, not sure if he wanted me to turn the page, yet trusting me that it would be okay.

C. and I had quite an audience for this story time, but he was so engrossed in the book he didn’t pay any attention them, and I ignored them because I didn’t want to break the spell. When we got to the last page, he laughed and clapped and wanted me to read it again. Which I did.

So much has been written about the importance of reading to children from an early age. Reach Out and Read’s website states that “reading aloud builds sound awareness in children.”  NAEYC (The National Association for the Education of Young Children) recommends reading aloud to children from infancy. In “Reading Aloud With Children of All Ages,” Derry Koralek points out that reading aloud helps children “build their vocabularies with words they can understand and use.”

I could go on and on about the research. But C didn’t care about any of that. He cared that we shared a silly story, laughed and made crazy faces. For him, the best reason for reading aloud was that it was fun.

Be sure to visit Jen and Kellee at Teach Mentor Texts to find out what others are reading today.

Poetry Friday: “Poet’s Checklist”


An acrostic poem, according to Poetry4kids, is “a poem in which the first letters of each line spell out a word or phrase.” The word can be anything; colors, animals, names, and more. Acrostic poems have been around since antiquity, and they are still popular today in schools. (I wrote more about sharing acrostics with students and how they support the CCSS here.)

On this last Poetry Friday of National Poetry Month, I want to share one of my favorite acrostics. This poem, by Patricia Hubbard, appeared in the May, 2003 issue of The Reading Teacher (Vol. 56, No.8). I think Hubbard perfectly captures the process of writing a poem.


Poet’s Checklist

Always start with ideas that sing in your heart.

Choose sharp, juicy, whistling words.

Rhyme is fine, but it must shine.

Over and over and over–write, read, revise.

See, touch, taste smell, listen to your poem.

Too sloppy? Recopy.

Ideas dance on the polished page.

Celebrate–you are a poet. Share, speak, sing.

by Patricia Hubbard

Please visit Laurie Salas Purdie at Writing the World for Kids for the Poetry Friday Roundup!

Slice of Life: The Taming of Me


Today is William Shakespeare’s 449th birthday. To honor him, I’m sharing a reminiscence of my first encounter with the Bard.


I was a very energetic child. I’m not sure that irrepressible is exactly the right word, but I did love to run and jump and talk and…well, you get the idea. My teachers didn’t see the charm of all this energy. They were very specific about how misplaced it was. My report cards were filled with comments like “If Catherine spent less time talking…” or “If Catherine focused more on her work…”

By the time I got to sixth grade I was beginning to get the idea that maybe I could be good at school if I put in some effort. Part of what was different about sixth grade was Miss Morency. She brought Drama to our school. The first play we put on an adaptation of The Tempest. I played the part of Stefano, a drunken sailor. The only thing I remember about the play was staggering onto the stage with an empty wine bottle in my hand. Can you imagine? But I also know that I LOVED being onstage.

We were a huge hit, and we begged Miss Morency to put on another play. She agreed, and before long we had the script for an adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew in our hands. Needless to say, I wanted the part of Katherine! I practiced and practiced. All my hard work paid off, and, in the spring of 1972, I starred in Burnham School’s production of Shakespeare’s comedy.

Petruchio (Kevin Black) and Kate (Emily Jordan) from a Carmel Shakespeare Festival production of “The Taming of the Shrew” at the outdoor Forest Theater in Carmel, CA., Oct, 2003. Via Wkipedia Commons

This experience was a turning point in my young life. I had never been very successful at anything in school. People were happy to remind me of this on a daily basis. Suddenly, I was good at something! I started putting more effort into school. I started to get better grades. I started to like school.

I performed in a few other productions throughout middle and high school, but I never matched my success as Katherine. But my performance in The Taming of the Shrew gave me the confidence I needed to pursue other dreams.

It seems like the arts are always under fire, the first programs to be cut when budgets are tight. And yet the value of theater, music and the fine arts to education is clearer than ever. The National Task Force on the Arts in Education, in a report to The College Board, states “Studies consistently show that the arts are effective in keeping students in school, engaging students in learning and promoting high achievement.” (p. 5)

Shakespeare knew that “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.” I was lucky to have teachers who helped me find that destiny in myself. I pay tribute to them every day by helping my students find their destiny.

Thank you to Stacey and Ruth at Two Writing Teachers for hosting this weekly Slice of Life Challenge!

Poetry Friday: Apple Blossom


“Find something you love, and write a poem to celebrate it.”  X.J. Kennedy

Blossoms 3 by Liz West, via Wikimedia Creative Commons

Usually at this time of year, the apple trees in my yard are loaded with blossoms. This picture was taken in 2010:

My yard, as seen from my office window.

Because of the cold weather this spring and damage to the trees during Hurricane Sandy, they are still bare.

I love these apple trees and the masses of blossoms they produce each year. We don’t harvest the apples; they’re small and bitter.  The neighborhood deer, however, have quite a feast in October! I look forward each year to their beauty and promise.  I’m waiting patiently for them to bloom, but in the meantime, I followed Kennedy’s advice and wrote a tanka to celebrate something I love.

soft rosy petals

cover tree branches like snow

gossamer petals

dance in a soft gentle breeze

delicious promise of fruit

© Catherine Flynn, 2013

Be sure to stop by Live Your Poem for the round up of poems. Thank you to Irene Latham for hosting today!

Poem in Your Pocket Day!


Today is Poem in Your Pocket Day. This celebration of poetry began in 2003 in New York City. The American Academy of Poets and other organizations have been promoting this day nationally since 2008. The idea is simple. Keep a poem in you pocket, then share it with others throughout the day.

My school is closed for spring break this week, so we will have our own Poem in Your Pocket day next week. But I couldn’t let the day go by without sharing a poem. Here is one of my favorites.


For someone to read a poem

again, and again, and then,

having lifted it from page

to brain–the easy part–

cradle it on the longer trek

from brain all the way to heart.

by Linda Sue Park


(from Tap Dancing on the Roof: Sijo Poems, illustrated by Istvan Banyai, Clarion Books, 2007)

Keep a poem in you pocket today; keep poetry in your heart every day.

Slice of Life: Why I Stay


“This job is who I am and I am proud to be a teacher.” Cindy Minnich

Last Friday, Beth Shaum posted a video on her blog that showed dozens of teachers from around the country sharing their reasons for staying in education. Since then, a number of other teachers have written about their reasons for remaining in the classroom, despite changes in curriculum because of CCSS, new testing, and new evaluations that are being imposed on educators. (Did I leave anything out?)

My first thoughts were about my own reasons for continuing to teach. Honestly, after 18 years, I don’t know what else I would do. Teaching has woven itself into my very being. Like many of you, I wake up in the night thinking about students and rehearse lesson plans in my mind while showering. Once I even got an idea for a math workstation at the local pizza parlor while waiting for our dinner to be served, and it was July! (My husband wasn’t pleased.) But there are so many other reasons.

I stay because I love it when kids come up to me in the hallway or cafeteria and say, “Mrs. Flynn, I’m reading The Hobbit!” or “I just finished The One and Only Ivan. Did you read it?” I love when students stop at my door to examine my book recommendations.

I stay because I love it when a parent thanks me for helping their child become a reader.

I stay because I love when former students write to me, thanking me for helping them become better writers. Better yet, I love it that a former student is now a colleague, grown into a passionate educator herself.

I stay because I love working with my colleagues to find just the right resource, just the right book, just the right solution to a problem.

I stay because I know the work I do matters. Today at Two Writing Teachers, Stacey shared LeAnn Carpenter’s poem, “Writers at Work.” It could easily be called “Teachers at Work.” The last line is “writers create.” That’s what teachers do: we create caring, compassionate, literate citizens. Helping students learn to read and write and think is the most important work teachers do.

I debated about whether or not I should write this today. So many smart, articulate people have said all this and more already. But then I decided that’s exactly why I should write this. I want to add my OUTSIDE VOICE to all the others, shouting loud and clear: I AM A TEACHER. I AM A PROFESSIONAL. I KNOW IN MY HEART I AM GIVING MY STUDENTS THE BEST I CAN GIVE. THEY DESERVE NOTHING LESS.

Thank you to Stacey and Ruth at Two Writing Teachers for hosting this weekly Slice of Life Challenge!

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading?

Mon Reading Button PB to YA

Have you ever gone looking for a book and found a different book, one you haven’t thought about in a while, instead? That happened to me the other day when I came across Owen & Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship, by Isabella Hatkoff, Craig Hatkoff, and Dr. Paula Kahumbu, with amazing photographs by Peter Greste (Scholastic, 2006).


This book tells the story of Owen, a baby hippo, who was left stranded on a coral reef off the coast of Kenya after the 2004 tsunami. Separated from his pod, Owen was too young to be released into the wild on his own, and wouldn’t be accepted by another pod. Arrangements were made for him to be taken to Haller Park, a wildlife sanctuary near Mombasa. Almost immediately after he arrived, Owen began to follow a 130-year old Aldabra tortoise named Mzee. Mzee had a reputation for being a loner, and everyone at the park was sure he’ll rebuff Owen. But, to the amazement of everyone, Mzee accepted Owen, and the two became inseparable. There are a number of other books that recount the story of Owen and Mzee, but this is my favorite.

This story of a most unlikely friendship made me think of another tale of two very different creatures becoming devoted friends. Amos & Boris, by William Steig (Farrar, Straus & Giroux,1971) was one of the first picture books I read as an adult that opened my eyes to the power and depth of children’s literature. Children enjoy listening to the mouse Amos’s efforts to build and supply his boat, the Rodent. But events soon get serious, and a happy adventure turns into a matter of life and death in an instant.


Rescued by Boris, a kind whale, Amos professes his thanks and pledges to help Boris anyway he can, whenever necessary. Boris laughs at the thought of a tiny mouse being able to help a huge whale, but he accepts the offer. Of course, years later, Amos’s help is needed, and is gratefully accepted.

Both of these books offer children a picture of pure generosity. There is never a “what’s in it for me” thought; never a hesitation to help a soul in need. This alone is a good reason to share these books with children. There are others though, including the fact that these books both address a number of CCSS objectives. (Amos & Boris is listed as an exemplar text in Appendix B, but that is not why I love it.) Anchor standards 1-3 in both Literature and Informational text are easily met, and pairing these books seems like an obvious choice for anchor standard 9, “Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.” There are also plenty of opportunities to develop vocabulary (Literacy Anchor standard 4 and Language Anchor standards 4-6). Steig’s writing is filled with rich, descriptive language, as one of my favorite lines from the book shows:

“One night, in a phosphorescent sea, [Amos] marveled at the sight of some whales spouting luminous water…”

Owen and Mzee have their own website, and video clips of them are available.

Sharing short informational video segments on any of the animals in these books before or after reading would help teachers meet Literacy Anchor standard 7, “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.”

Lucy Calkins recently stated that teachers have a responsibility to build our knowledge base and to be wary of packaged programs. Revisiting books already in our libraries, as well as staying abreast with all the wonderful books currently being published is one way to do this. Teachers working in the classroom have better ideas about how to use books with their students than textbook publishers do.

Be sure to visit Jen and Kellee at Teach Mentor Texts to find out what others are reading today.

Poetry Friday: The Lake Isle of Innisfree


The Lake Isle of Innisfree
Wikipedia Commons Photo by Kenneth Allen

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:

Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;

And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,

Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;

There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,

And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,

I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

William Butler Yeats

Today is the last day of school before spring break, and for the past couple of days people have been sharing their travel plans for next week. I’m looking forward to a relaxing week at home, but listening to everyone’s talk of flights and cruises got me thinking about vacations spent at my in-laws’ cabin on Beddington Lake in Maine. This poem has alway reminded me of those summers. Sadly, they no longer own the cabin, but I often think of all the fun we had swimming and canoeing there. I often hear its “water lapping [in my] deep heart’s core.”

Listen to Yeats read his poem at Be sure to visit Diane at Random Noodling for the round-up of all today’s poetry.

Slice of Life: Cake, Anyone?


Last night, I baked a cake for a luncheon we had at school today. I’ve been baking for almost as long as I can remember. When I was growing up we lived next door to my Grandmother, and I spent a lot of time at her house. When she baked pies, she always sprinkled the scraps of dough with cinnamon and sugar, added a few raisins and butter, then rolled them up and baked them. I don’t remember if she had a name for these little treats, but they were delicious.

Coconut cake with raspberry filling

When my own children were little, we baked all the time. So I was quite surprised when I started teaching and discovered how many of my students had never baked anything. Children’s books are filled with inspiration for heading to the kitchen. So we started baking.


After reading Daniel Pinkwater’s Irving & Muktuk: Two Bad Bears (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2001), the story of two blueberry muffin loving polar bears, we made blueberry muffins.


We read Deborah Hopkinson’s Fanny in the Kitchen (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2001) and made griddle cakes (pancakes).

ImageThird graders love Patricia Polacco books and Thunder Cake (Philomel, 1990) was one of our favorites. So was the cake!


When fifth graders were reading Joshua’s Song, by Joan Hiatt Harlow (Simon & Schuster, 2002), a novel that culminates in the historic explosion of a molasses storage tank in Boston in 1919, many had never heard of molasses! Molasses cookies were whipped up in short order.

Cooking and baking with students may seem like a luxury in this time of Common Core Standards and high-stakes testing. But there are actually many benefits for mixing up some literature-related recipes.

  • At Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project Saturday Reunion last month, Elizabeth Moore shared ways to use class experiments and demonstrations in science as a springboard to writing. (Read more about that session here.) Shared experiences in the kitchen could also be the basis for how-to books and cookbooks.  (Writing Anchor standard 2)
  • In a recent blog post, James Paul Gee reminds readers that “Humans learn through experiences in the world (using their minds, bodies…and interactions with others…)” All sorts of skills are learned through cooking, including reading recipes and doing the math to double or triple ingredient amounts.
  • First hand experience with different foods provides students critical background knowledge they need to successfully meet many of the Common Core reading standards. Knowing what molasses is will make learning it easier to learn about triangle trade in history class.

Cooking with students is nothing new. What is new is the pressure teachers feel to teach earlier, teach faster, teach more. Let’s remember to teach what’s important in meaningful ways. Adding a little spice to our lessons increases the chances our students will actually learn.

Thank you to Stacey and Ruth at Two Writing Teachers for hosting this weekly Slice of Life Challenge!