Slice of Life: The Birth of Sunset’s Kittens


“Our abilities are limited only by our perceptions.”

~ Debbie Millman~

On her blog, Read, Write, Reflect, Katherine Sokolowski recently wrote about her childhood impression that authors were a “chosen few” who “lived in magical worlds.”

This got me thinking about my experience with authors as a child. The town where I grew up (and am lucky enough to still live) is only about an hour and a half from New York City. When I was a kid in the sixties there were at least 10 working farms in town (3 on my road alone) and there was exactly one “development.” Needless to say, it was a pretty peaceful place. The perfect place for writers to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, yet close enough to go in when they had to.

Because the mother of one of my classmates was a writer, I was lucky enough to know a “real” author. I remember Mrs. Stevens bringing Where the Wild Things Are into school one day. It was still in great big sheets, just as it had come off the printing press, and she showed us how it was cut and assembled into a book. In 1969, her book, The Birth of Sunset’s Kittens, was published. I loved this book and I checked it out of the library many times. To me, Mrs. Stevens was very sophisticated and glamorous, and reading her book made me feel that way, too.


Imagine my delight, then, when I found a copy of this book at a local book sale! I scooped up this precious find and reread it on the spot. It is longer than I remember, and includes more details than I imagine our librarian was comfortable reading to us, but it’s as charming as ever. (And it smells like it’s been in a library for 35 years! Heavenly!)

This isn’t the first time I’ve found a book written by Mrs. Stevens at a book sale. One year I found a copy of Catch a Cricket, a title I wasn’t familiar with. And I’ve found several copies of Anna, Grandpa, and the Big Storm over the years, all of which are now in my book collection.

Image          Image

My husband thinks I’m nuts to keep all these books. He doesn’t understand that I keep  them because of what they represent: a portal to my childhood and the person I was. I look back on that awkward, self-conscious nine-year-old and am grateful beyond words to Mrs. Stevens for writing these books, and for being such a great role model. Her books helped fan the flames of my passion for reading. A passion that helped me become the person I am today.

Thank you, as always, to Stacey and Ruth at Two Writing Teachers for hosting the Slice of Life Challenge.

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? The Day the Crayons Quit


Last week, I was busy with lots of reading and writing. Our TCRWP Units of Study arrived, so I began reading A Guide to the Common Core Writing Workshop. In this overview of the series, Lucy Calkins lays out the hard work ahead. But, as always, her reassuring voice lets us know that she and her colleagues are there to guide us as we help our students learn to become the best writers they can be. My favorite nugget of wisdom so far is this:

“When you provide students with constant opportunities to write and when you actively and assertively teach into their best efforts, their development as writers will astonish you, their parents, the school administrators, and best of all, the youngsters themselves.” (p. 3)

Who can argue with that?

I also made a trip to the library to see what was new and grabbed an armful of picture books. (I did leave some for the kids, I promise!) I enjoyed them all, but one stood out for me.


I’d heard much praise for The Day the Crayons Quit, by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers (Philomel Books, 2013), and it is well-deserved. In his first picture book, film-maker Daywalt tells the story of a boy’s crayons going on strike. Each crayon writes to Duncan to express its feelings about how it’s being used (or not). Red feels overworked, while pink thinks Duncan should be more open-minded when it comes to using this “girls’ color.”

Daywalt gives each color a distinctive voice, which often matches our expectations, and these come through loud and clear in the letters. Oliver Jeffers’ expressive illustrations reinforce these personalities, yet retain a child-like quality that kids will identify with.

I can imagine all elementary grade students loving this book, but it seems especially well suited for second or third grade. After sharing the book for fun, The Day the Crayons Quit could be used to address Anchor Standard 6: “Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.”

Children could also use the letters as models for their own writing. Narratives could be written from the point-of-view of their favorite color crayon, or some other familiar object. They could also write opinion pieces about a particular color.

This book could also be paired with collections of poems organized around colors such as Hailstones and Halibut Bones by Mary O’Neill or Color Me a Rhyme by Jane Yolen. The possibilities are endless. Which, in the end, is the point of this completely original picture book.

Be sure to visit Jen at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee at Unleashing Readers to find out what other people have been reading lately. Thanks, Jen and Kellee, for hosting!

Poetry Friday: A Splot, Buildings, and A Windmill

When I taught third grade, The Big Orange Splot, by Daniel Pinkwater, was always a favorite. This is the improbable story of what happens after an errant seagull flies over Mr. Plumbean’s house and drops a can of orange paint on the roof. Because “all the houses were the same” on their “neat street,” the neighbors assume that Mr. Plumbean will get right to work repainting his house. But he waits a little while. He thinks about the splot. When he finally does paint his house, it’s not at all what the neighbors had in mind. When asked what he has done, Mr. Plumbean simply replies, “My house is me and I am it. It looks like all my dreams.” At first the neighborhood thinks he’s nuts, but after a while they start to see the wisdom of Mr. Plumbean’s mantra. Eventually the houses aren’t the same at all and Mr. Plumbean’s neighbors dreams are revealed through their houses.


Kids loved the wackiness of Mr. Plumbean and his house, and were intrigued by the other houses in the neighborhood. I began collecting photos of unusual houses and buildings to display on a bulletin board when we read this story.  Then I found this poem, the perfect complement to the pictures.


by Myra Cohn Livingston

Buildings are a great surprise,

Everyone’s a different size

Offices grow long and high

Tall enough to touch the sky.

Houses seem more like a box

Made of glue and building blocks

Every time you look, you see

Buildings shaped quite differently

One year during this unit, a poetry contest was announced in the Trumpet Book Club order. (Trumpet either was or became part of Scholastic.) We had been reading and writing poetry since the start of school, so I shared this with my students and encouraged them to enter. I don’t remember specifically telling anyone to write a poem about a building, but the bulletin board did inspire some of them. Several students did submit poems to the contest and we were all thrilled when Allie’s poem was chosen to be included in this anthology:


A Windmill

by Allie Mandeville

Windmill dancing in the breeze,

With a swift, turning ease.

The windmill makes a squeaky sound

As it’s turning round and round.

Spinning once, spinning twice,

The sound of spinning

Sounds so nice.

And as the wind makes it turn,

The windmill looks so very stern.

The windmill looks so beautiful.

The windmill looks so nice.

But don’t you think

It must be full of mice?

(Thank you, Allie, for permission to share your poem.)

The picture that inspired Allie’s poem. Photo by Brad Stanton

I was reminded of all this recently when I found a copy of the anthology at a local book sale. I’m sure that if I were teaching third grade today I would still put up bulletin boards of interesting photos related to what we were reading and learning about. I know I would still be teaching writing using a workshop model. I would allow students to choose topics and subjects that interested them, not limit them to prompts provided by the state or some other distant textbook publisher. 

I would do all this and more to help them understand that the world is full of possibilities. I would do this so they could write poems that are full of all their dreams.

Be sure to visit Sherry at Semicolon or Matt at Radio, Rhythm & Rhyme for the Poetry Friday Round Up.

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? The Cat Who Went to Heaven


Last weekend Newtown’s C.H. Booth Library held their annual book sale. This sale is well-stocked, well-organized, and never disappoints. I always find a treasure or two, as well as more standard fare to restock our classroom libraries. One purchase I was especially pleased with this year was a paperback copy of The Cat Who Went to Heaven for fifty cents. This 1931 Newbery Medal winner by Elizabeth Coatsworth is a gem of a book. Many, if not all, of the CCSS literature standards could be addressed through a shared reading of this book. Certain passages are ideal for close reading.


The Cat Who Went to Heaven is an excellent example of a complex text, a text that Fisher, Frey, and Lapp describe as one that “often require[s] the reader’s attention and invite[s] the reader back to think more deeply about the meaning of the text.” (Text Complexity: Raising Rigor in Reading, IRA, 2012, p. 106) Shared reading of this story will help students develop the skills necessary to “readily undertake the close, attentive reading that is at the heart of understanding and enjoying complex works of literature,” a stated goal of the CCSS.

The story of a poor Japanese artist, The Cat Who Went to Heaven begins when the artist’s housekeeper returns from the market with a cat instead of dinner. The artist is  furious that she has spent his precious pennies on a “goblin…[who will] suck our blood at night!” The housekeeper convinces him that “there are many good cats, too.” The artist relents, and the cat, whom they name “Good Fortune,” becomes part of their household.

Soon, fortune does indeed smile on the artist, for he is asked by the local temple to paint a mural of the death of the Buddha. The rest of the story unfolds as a series of events in the Buddha’s life, each one revealing an important aspect of his character and the personal qualities at the heart of Buddhism.

This structure makes this book an ideal choice for meeting standard RL.6.3: “Describe how a particular story’s or drama’s plot unfolds in a series of episodes as well as how the characters respond or change as the plot moves toward a resolution.” The theme of the story is also well developed and students will be able to explain “how it is conveyed through particular details” (RL.6.2) These elements, along with Coatsworth’s rich use of vocabulary, should generate many thought-provoking questions and discussions.

I will share this book with my sixth grade colleagues, as China and Buddhism are part of the sixth grade social studies curriculum. The depiction of the beliefs and practices of Buddhism are conveyed throughout this story and would reinforce the social studies content.

Jazz vocalist and composer Nancy Harrow has adapted this book as a series of 16 songs, which are available on CD. These have been performed as classic Japanese puppet theater. Although I couldn’t find a full performance of the puppet theater, you can watch a short scene here:

An interview with Harrow, in which she describes the process of writing the songs, can be seen here:

Sharing Harrow’s work with students after reading The Cat Who Went to Heaven would also allow students to work on standard RL.6.7: “Compare and contrast the experience of reading a story, drama, or poem to listening to or viewing an audio, video or live version of the text, including contrasting what they ‘see’ and ‘hear’ when reading the text to what they perceive when they listen or watch.”

Teachers around the country are concerned about having the materials needed to meet the demands of the CCSS. Rather than spending money on new materials, many of questionable quality, we should invest in time to revisit materials we already have but may not be using to full advantage. The Cat Who Went to Heaven is the perfect example of just such a book.

Be sure to visit Jen at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee at Unleashing Readers to find out what other people have been reading lately. Thanks, Jen and Kellee, for hosting!

Poetry Friday: The Swing


The Swing

by Robert Louis Stevenson

How do you like to go up in a swing,

Up in the air so blue?

Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing

Ever a child can do!

Up in the air and over the wall,

Till I can see so wide,

Rivers and trees and cattle and all

Over the countryside–

Till I look down on the garden green,

Down on the roof so brown–

Up in the air I go flying again,

Up in the air and down!


I spent hours on my swing set when I was a kid. Nothing compared to the exhilarating feeling of sailing up in to the air, then whooshing back down. Stevenson’s poem perfectly describes this glorious sensation. When my children were babies, they loved to hang out in their swing while I cooked dinner. Even now, with all our 21st century technology and gadgets available, kids still line up for their turn on the swings at the playground. Go outside today and swing, just for fun!

Be sure to visit Jone at Check It Out for the Poetry Friday Round Up.

Slice of Life: Ripe Blackberries


Over the past week or so, I’ve been watching the blackberry bushes that grow wild along the edge of my road. Each morning as I walk my dog, I notice that some of the fruit is deep black, as ripe as it’s going to get, while others still have just a hint of red. Why such variation on one bush? Each blackberry has gotten the same amount of rain and sun. Each one has the same genetic make up. So why are some ripening faster than others?


If you’ve ever gardened, or even gone blueberry picking, you know this is true of other fruits and vegetables. It’s probably true of all plants. There is variation in nature. This is an accepted fact.

So why have we forgotten this when it comes to our students? Within every classroom, there will be a variety of strengths, abilities, and weakness. Students will arrive at school with a vastly different amounts of background knowledge and interests. Despite these differences, in the hands of a caring, knowledgable teacher in a supportive, nurturing environment, almost all children will learn and grow. Not at the same pace, and not to the same degree, but they will learn, just as most of the berries on those bushes will eventually ripen.

ImageThe advent of the Common Core State Standards, coupled with new teacher evaluation plans being adopted across the country, however, threatens this process. Teachers are expected to teach more to their students sooner than ever before. Why would anyone think it a good idea for Kindergarten students to “associate the long and short sounds with common spellings and graphemes for the five major vowels?” (RF.K.3b) Rigor is the buzzword of the moment.

I am not against rigor, nor am I against providing children with opportunities to challenge themselves. I am against having to teach to standards that ignore years of research regarding best instructional practices, practices that have been shown to meet the needs of all learners. I am also against having to teach to standards that are, in many instances, developmentally inappropriate.

Teachers know how to nurture their students and create classroom environments where children flourish. They know how to balance high expectations with respect for all students. They know how to differentiate to make lessons accessible to students who need more time, a different text, or a different way to demonstrate their learning. Teachers should be held accountable for providing these optimal conditions for learning.

Variation is everywhere in nature. Some stars shine brighter. Some berries ripen faster. Nothing will ever change that.

Poetry Friday: When You Are Old


When You Are Old

by William Butler Yeats

When you are old and gray and full of sleep,

And nodding by the fire, take down this book,

And slowly read, and dream of the soft look

Your eyes once had, and of their shadows deep.

How many loved your moments of glad grace,

And loved your beauty with love false or true,

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,

Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled

And paced upon the mountains overhead

And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

William Butler Yeats
William Butler Yeats
Maud Gonne, photo from All the Olympians, by Ulick O’Connor

This poem always stirs up nostalgic feelings in me. In just a few words, Yeats evokes the  beauty of the muse of his youth, Maud Gonne. And yet, “Love fled…and hid his face amid a crowd of stars.” Happy endings are not always possible, but our memories are with us always.

I sometimes think that I’m too nostalgic, but there was an article in the New York Times earlier this week about the positive aspects of nostalgia. Researcher Constantine Sedikides and his colleagues have found that “Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom, and anxiety” as well as “make people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders.” Once again, poets know intuitively what it takes scientists years to figure out.

Be sure to visit Michelle at Today’s Little Ditty for the Poetry Friday Round Up.

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading?


In his acceptance speech at the 2011Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, Steve Sheinkin explained that he wanted The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism & Treachery (2010, Macmillian) to be “a no-nonsense, non-fiction page turner; a straight-ahead action thriller.” Boy, did he succeed!


The Notorious Benedict Arnold filled in many blanks in my knowledge of the American Revolution. Sheinkin tells the story of Arnold’s entire, adventure-filled life. Arnold was a decisive leader, and he played a key role in many of the early battles of the Revolution. By choosing to tell Arnold’s story as a narrative, Sheinkin allows his readers to know Arnold as a person and understand his motivation for betraying his country.

Sheinkin knows what historians since the time of Herodotus have known: “We make sense of out of the world by telling stories.” (Robert Burton, M.D., Nautilus) Or, as historian William Cronon writes in A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative, “Narrative remains essential to our understanding of history and the human place in natue.” Sheinkin’s narrative will help any reader make sense of one of the most notorious figures in American history.

If narrative history can give us a better understanding of events, pairing a non-fiction text with fiction can deepen that understanding even further. Teachers have long known that “fact enriches fiction and fiction makes facts memorable.” (Livingston & Kurkjian, Literature Links: Expanding Ways of Knowing) Recent brain research has provided evidence for why this is so. Psychologist Louis Cozolino explains that “Stories serve as powerful organizing tools for neural network integration.”


In his latest historical fiction novel for young readers, Sophia’s War (2012, Simon & Schuster), Avi masterfully weaves the true story of Benedict Arnold and British Major John Andre with the fictional story of Sophia Calderwood, a young girl whose family has been deeply affected by the war. Pairing these two books is the perfect opportunity for teachers to help their students build the neural networks necessary for deeper learning. The echoing of facts and events between these two books “acts as a magnifying glass of sorts…and is going to increase student’s assimilation of that curriculum.” (Ciesla, Building a Self-Supporting Web of Knowledge-What is Interdisciplinary Education?) This sort of knowledge building is exactly what the authors of the CCSS had in mind when they envisioned a “literate person in the twenty-first century.” This person will “actively seek the wide, deep, and thoughtful engagement with high-quality literary and informational texts that builds knowledge, enlarges experience, and broadens worldviews.”

Either The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism & Treachery or Sophia’s War will build your knowledge and broaden your world view. Reading both together will enrich them even further. Like Sheinkin, you might become obsessed; you might even start planning a trip to Saratoga!

If you’re interested in other fiction/non-fiction pairings, be sure to read Susan Dee’s Nerdy Book Club post. She offers her ten favorite text sets, and there are many other suggestions in the comments.

Also, be sure to check out what other people have been reading at Teach Mentor Texts. Thanks to Jen for hosting!

Poetry Friday: Sonnet 30 by William Shakespeare


Sonnet 30

William Shakespeare

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought

I summon up remembrance of things past,

I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,

And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste;

Then can I drown an eye (unused to flow)

For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,

And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,

And moan th’expense of many a vanished sight.

Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,

And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er

The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,

Which I new pay as if not paid before;

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,

All loses are restored, and sorrows end.

I’ve been thinking about this sonnet for the last week or so for a number of reasons. I love the phrase  “sweet silent thought.” And while the speaker is brooding for much of the poem, to me this phrase implies time to contemplate new ideas. Having quiet, unhurried time to think is a rarity these days. Just as by the end of the poem, the speaker has achieved peace thinking of his friend, taking this time to think can bring us peace. (Both literal and figurative!)

This poem has also been on my mind because of a story I’ve been working on. The main character is grieving over the loss of her mother, and by the end of the story I want her to come to the kind of reconciliation with her grief that this speaker has. Whether or not I can accomplish that for her is another story, but I’m going to try.

In the meantime, I think I’ll listen to Kenneth Branagh read this lovely poem once more:

Be sure to visit Keri at Keri Recommends for her inaugural Poetry Friday Round Up.