Slice of Life: Reading Before the Blizzard


Yesterday, in an effort to get everyone home safely before the snow began, we had an early dismissal. Usually this means a four-hour day, but with a blizzard bearing down, the powers that be decided school would end at 11:30, leaving us with a three hours.

What can be accomplished in three hours? With the right book, plenty!

My schedule this week includes introducing the “Contrast & Contradiction” signpost (from Beers & Probst’s excellent Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading) to our fourth grade students. Our shortened day gave me just the right amount of time to read Eve Bunting’s One Green Apple, the text we’ll be using in our lessons, to both classes. Despite the excitement generated by the impending storm, the kids were mesmerized as I read this lovely story of a girl who has just arrived in America. Farah doesn’t speak English and is worried about other cultural differences between her and her new classmates. But over the course of the story, she begins to see that there might be a place for her in this strange country. I told the kids ahead of time that I was simply reading the story, that we’d ask questions and share thoughts later. It was such a peaceful way to start the day.

Then I met with a third grade student who is working hard but making s-l-o-w progress. I worry about her every day. Finding books she can read independently that aren’t too babyish is a challenge. I’ve heard much praise for Shannon and Dean Hale’s The Princess in Black lately and knew I had to get this book for this student. So when I saw it on the shelf at Target on Sunday, I snatched it up. Words can’t describe the look on her face when I handed this book to her. As I gave it to her, I said something like, “…if you love it.” Her response? “I love it already.”

There was just enough time to meet with both of my first grade students, and they each read a Rigby leveled reader that was “just right” for them. I watched with pride and respect as they worked through unfamiliar words, using multiple strategies to decode these words. Are they where they “should be” at this point in first grade? No. Will they “meet grade level expectations” in June? Probably not. But they are on their way, and I was happy to give them a chance to practice and polish their skills with an engaging book that pushed them but didn’t frustrate them.

And what did I do when I got home? Read a book, of course!

Thank you to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for this space for teachers and others to share their stories each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

IMWAYR: One Plastic Bag & The Red Bicycle


One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia (Millbrook Press, 2015; available February 1st) Review copy provided by NetGalley


Plastic bags are ubiquitous the world over, but in Isatou Ceesay’s village in Gambia they are causing serious problems. Goats eat them, then become ill when they can’t digest them. Water collects in the piles of discarded bags, giving mosquitoes pools for breeding. Isatou comes up with a plan to recycle the bags by crocheting them into purses. Not only is the village clean again, but the purses provide income for the villagers.

Isatou Ceesay is an inspiring role model, and Miranda Paul has done an excellent job making her story accessible to young readers. One Plastic Bag clearly explains the problems caused by discarded plastic bags. Not only will children everywhere be motivated to recycle bags, they’ll be inspired to think outside the box when searching for solutions to problems. Elizabeth Zunon’s collage illustrations, which include pieces of plastic bags, complement the text perfectly.  An Author’s Note includes how Paul came to write One Plastic Bag, as well as a map, timeline, pronunciation guide, and a list of books for further reading.

One Plastic Bag has its own website where you can meet Isatou Ceesay, Miranda Paul, Elizabeth Zunon, and others. You can also learn more at Julie Danielson’s lovely blog, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, which featured an extensive selection of Elizabeth Zunon’s artwork for One Plastic Bag back in November.

The Red Bicycle: The Extraordinary Story of One Ordinary Bicycle (CitizenKid, division of Kids Can Press, 2015; available March 1st) Review copy provided by NetGalley


Jude Isabella and Simone Shin’s “extraordinary story of one ordinary bicycle”  is a perfect book to pair with One Plastic Bag. Young Leo has worked hard and saved his money to buy a bicycle. He rides “Big Red” everywhere and takes such good care of it that even after a few years, it “looks almost brand new.” The problem is that Leo has outgrown his beloved bike, and wants to make sure its new owner will love it as much as he has. The owner of the local bike shop tells Leo about an organization that is collecting bicycles to ship to villages in Africa. Leo gets Big Red ready for its trip across the ocean, shown on a map by a dotted red line. When Big Red arrives in Burkina Faso, Alisetta is excited to get such a beautiful bike. The whole village cheers her on as she joyously learns to ride her new bicycle. Big Red makes life easier for Alisetta and her family by helping them get their sorghum crop to market. After Big Red is damaged in an accident, it’s recycled again. Now an ambulance, Big Red gets health workers to remote villages and sick patients to clinics where they get the care they need.

Readers will be inspired to help get bicycles to African villagers, and information about organizations that collect bicycles or money to transport them is included at the end of the book. Ideas for follow-up activities and facts about Burkina Faso are also included.

Both of these books will be great additions to any K-5 unit on recycling and can be used to inspire opinion writing about the importance of recycling. They will provide children with a look at daily life in Western Africa, increase their  awareness of the importance of recycling, and show them realistic ways they can get involved in these important efforts. 

Don’t forget 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: What Does A Seashell Know?


My grandmother gave me my first seashell when I was about five years old. Since then, these treasures from the sea have fascinated me. My grandmother was not a sentimental person; she endured many hardships, including raising three children through the Depression, during her long life. But she was a generous person, not only with material objects, but also with her time, and especially her knowledge. An eighth-grade graduate, she nevertheless was a storehouse of information which she willingly and often shared with her family. Rachel Carson once said that “if a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.” My grandmother was this person to me.

The red helmet shell my grandmother gave me when I was five.
The red helmet shell my grandmother gave me when I was five.

When she became bedridden in her late eighties, my mother, sister, cousins, and I faced the daunting task of emptying her house. Most of the shells that I had loved studying as a child became mine. I’ve shared them with my kids and my students, and I have them scattered throughout my home. An arrangement here, a basket there, a single magnificent conch on a table. I think of my grandmother every time I look at them.

So when Michelle, of Today’s Little Ditty, announced Joyce Sidman’s challenge two weeks ago to write a “Deeper Wisdom” poem, I didn’t even have to think about the subject of my poem. But I had so many ideas, and I really struggled with this. There are many earlier, very different versions. As I worked on this today, I realized that the title really should  be “What Do Mollusks Know?” but that doesn’t have the same appeal, does it?

What Do Seashells Know?

What Do Seashells Know?

To turn their bones inside out,

and spin a swirling castle,

armed with turrets and spikes.

What Do Seashells Know?

To nestle within lustrous walls,

tinged pink, like the sky at dawn,

safe inside their sea-borne home.

© Catherine Flynn, 2015

My collection of conchs.
My collection of conchs.

Please be sure to visit Tara at A Teaching Life for the Poetry Friday Round Up!

Slice of Life: Cure for a Cold


Cure for a Cold

Take one long weekend,

add lots of naps (cat curled up on lap optional);

mix in regular servings of hot tea and ginger ale,

chicken soup and toast;

sprinkle with at least one book, one old movie AND

the latest episode of Downton Abbey.

Feel better by Monday!

My weekend in a nutshell. I did work on my writing yesterday, but nothing came together that’s ready to share. I felt well enough to go to work today, but I’m ready to call it a night. Stay healthy, everyone!

Thank you to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for this space for teachers and others to share their stories each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

Poetry Friday: Wacky, Wild, and Wonderful: 50 State Poems by Laura Purdie Salas


I first discovered the work of Laura Purdie Salas in 2008 when she wrote a series of poetry books for Capstone Press. Tiny Dreams, Sprouting Tall: Poems About the United States and Lettuce Introduce You: Poems About Food were perfect for two units my colleagues and I were revising. Since that time my students and I have enjoyed Stampede: Poems to Celebrate the Wild Side of School (Clarion, 2009), Bookspeak: Poems About Books (Clarion, 2011), and most recently, A Rock Can Be… (Millbrook, 2015). (A complete list of Laura’s books can be found here.) So last spring, when Laura put out a call for teachers to collaborate with her on her latest poetry project, I jumped at the chance. I was thrilled to be chosen to create activities for Wacky, Wild, and Wonderful: 50 State Poems.

I loved every minute of working with Laura on this project. These poems, rich in imagery and figurative language, inspired many extension and enrichment activities. They celebrate the diversity of our ecosystems and geologic formations, as well as bring our history to life. I learned about landmarks I’d never heard of, and started planning trips to some of them! Laura graciously gave me permission to share some of her wonderful poems from this collection today. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!

“Indiana: Time to Walk the Dogwood”

Black-Eyed Susan rings the Bluebells—
“Dinnertime! Come eat!”
Sweet William drinks his Milkweed
with a sweet Mayapple treat.
They eat their toast with Buttercups
and have a lovely talk.
Then dinner’s done and they must take
their Dogwood for his walk.
William wears his Dutchman’s Breeches,
white and pressed and neat.
Susan’s Yellow Ladyslippers
snuggle up her feet.
Dogwood chases Cardinals flashing
red and wild and bright.
His Fleabane’s bad, he needs a bath—
another busy night.
It’s time to watch the Shooting Stars
against the darkened sky.
William plants a kiss on Sue—
Another day’s gone by.

© Laura Purdie Salas, all rights reserved, 2015

This poem, with its bouquet of Indiana wildflowers brought to life, begs to be illustrated. My art skills weren’t up to the task, but I’m sure there are plenty of young artists whose are!

Laura used an impressive variety of poetic forms in this collection. “America the Beautiful” is one of my favorite patriotic songs, so I especially loved “Colorado: Pink Lady (A Poem for Two Voices)” I can’t wait to hear our fourth graders performing this poem!

Long hike down through misty clouds,

O beautiful for spacious skies,

A dizzying descent

For amber waves of grain,

Rocks, ravines, and evergreens—

For purple mountain majesties

That clean-scrubbed pine tree scent

Above the fruited plain!

Pikes Peak, the watchman of the west,

America! America!

You rise from plains below

God shed his grace on thee

Rosy granite etched with ice

And crown they good with brotherhood

You wear the sunset’s glow

From sea to shining sea!



Land beautiful

and free.

© Laura Purdie Salas, all rights reserved, 2015

Pike's Peak, (Library of Congress, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
Pike’s Peak, (Library of Congress, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

This is a must-have collection for any classroom learning about the United States. Laura’s engaging poems will make students’ research about the states more meaningful and memorable. Click here for information on how to get your copy of Wacky, Wild, and Wonderful: 50 State Poems.

Thank you, Laura, for letting me share your work here today, and for giving me the opportunity to be part of this terrific poetry collection!

Be sure to visit Irene Latham at Live Your Poem for the Poetry Friday Round Up, and you can read North Carolina’s poem today on Laura’s blog.

Slice of Life: Finding Words that Fit


I’ve been knitting for about 15 years or so. Hats, scarves, mittens; you name it, I knit it. I love the sense of accomplishment I get from creating something soft and warm out of beautiful yarn. I don’t tackle patterns with a lot of technical stitches or color patterns, but I can adapt patterns and usually knit my way out of any messes I might get myself into.

So I was pretty frustrated over the weekend when the hat I’d spent a couple of hours knitting didn’t fit. I reread the pattern to make sure I hadn’t missed a step, but I hadn’t. The hat just didn’t fit.

What to do? I really didn’t want to tear the whole thing out, although there was no pressure to finish this hat. I decided to try making the ribbing longer, but that didn’t work.

Now I’d spent about four hours on this hat. My irritation was mounting. I knew it was time to put this project aside for a while before I made a decision about tearing everything out and starting over.

I stewed over the hat through dinner and while I cleaned the kitchen. I thought about the pattern, the yarn, adding on to the ribbing. All of these choices were guided by my knowledge and experience. I’ve spent years reading magazines, studying patterns, and talking to expert knitters. I’ve played with different weights and textures of yarn. Yet this seemingly simple hat pattern got the best of me. This fact was frustrating, but not the end of the world. I’ll tear the hat out and try again. Maybe I’ll adjust the pattern so it will fit, or maybe I’ll use a different pattern altogether. I have lots of options.

This whole experience got me thinking about what we expect of our students when we ask them to write. We expect them to make decisions about words and structures, details and sentence length. I know we think we’re supporting them and giving them the practice they need, but are we? Or has the pressure we feel to get everything done by yesterday caused us to make decisions we know aren’t in the best interest of our students?

Have we given them the time they need to pore over books, to study how authors put sentences together, and really talked with them about the power of our words? Or have we judged every word choice and sentence structure? Have we made them change their words to conform to our vision of what their writing should be like?

These questions are really a reminder to myself. I know the conditions kids need to grow and succeed. But I also need to remember what it feels like to have a vision that’s just out of reach. It may be that I need a cheerleader with an encouraging word to keep me going. Or maybe I just need time to figure it out. And that’s what kids need. They need time, lots of time, to play and experiment until they find the right combination of words that are the perfect fit for them.

Thank you to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for this space for teachers and others to share their stories each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

Poetry Friday: How I Discovered Poetry


Discovery #1 (First in a series in honor of my OLW for 2015: discover.)

How do you decide on which poem to share on Fridays? Does a poem you’ve read during the week resonate so much that it must be shared? Do you write an original poem based on an event or an emotion from the previous week? If you’re like me, the answer is yes and yes. In other words, it depends. But what about those weeks when nothing strikes you, or life in general is so hectic you haven’t had time to sit down and write much of anything that’s worthy of sharing? When this happens to me, as it often does, I head over to Anita Silvey’s excellent blog, The Children’s Book-a-Day Almanac. In a sidebar, Anita offers tidbits such as this: “It’s Bubble Bath Day.” (Now there’s a topic for a poem!) By checking Anita’s blog on Wednesday (you can skip ahead to see what’s coming up), I discovered that today is Connecticut’s birthday. My home state was admitted to the United States on this date in 1788.

Not knowing any poems about Connecticut off the top of my head, I Googled “poems about Connecticut” and quickly learned that Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive who lived in Hartford (surely I knew this and had just forgotten), and that Marilyn Nelson is a professor emeritus of English at the University of Connecticut and was our state’s Poet Laureate from 2001-2006. How had I missed that!?

I have been a fan of Marilyn Nelson’s poetry from many years. Miss Crandall’s Boarding School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color, (Wordsong, 2007) cowritten with Elizabeth Alexander, describes an important piece of Connecticut history and is part of our eighth grade’s Civil Rights unit. A Wreath For Emmett Till (Houghton Mifflin, 2005), Nelson’s haunting, magnificent book-length crown sonnet about the murder of Till in 1955 is also included in this unit. On a previous Poetry Friday, I shared Sweethearts of Rhythm (Dial, 2009) the story of “the first integrated all-women swing band in the world.”

Nelson’s latest book, How I Discovered Poetry, was published last year to universal acclaim and is on many short lists for the upcoming ALA awards. The images Nelson crafts in these poems are stunning and startling. In one poem, she states that “Our leaves/become feathers./With wings we wave good-bye to our cousins.” Another poem is about a birthday party until the very end when, “a jet/made a sonic boom/like a hammer on an iron curtain.”


In the title poem, Nelson captures that moment when she first glimpsed “the power of words.”

How I Discovered Poetry

It was like soul-kissing, the way the words

filled my mouth as Mrs. Purdy read from her desk.

All the other kids zoned an hour ahead to 3:15,

but Mrs. Purdy and I wandered lonely as clouds borne

by a breeze off Mount Parnassus…

Read the entire poem here.

You can also listen to Ms. Nelson read the poem, as well as several other poems from this lovely book, in an interview that aired last winter on NPR.

Happy Birthday, Connecticut! How lucky we are to count Marilyn Nelson as a citizen of our state!

Be sure to visit Tabatha at The Opposite of Indifference to discover more wonderful poetry.


Slice of Life: One Little Word


Does procrastinate have an antonym? If it does, that should be my OLW. Because although I’ve been thinking about my “one little word” for at least a week, and have made several attempts to write about a choice today, here it is 11:30 on Tuesday night and I’m still on the fence about my decision. (Maybe decisiveness should be my word.)

Choosing just one word seems like it should be such a simple task. Maybe part of my hesitation comes from the fact that last year’s word, balance, wasn’t such a  great choice. I often felt like one of those circus performers who balance plates on the end of a pole while riding a unicycle. Except in my case the plates were just about to drop and I was going to fall off the unicycle any minute. Why I never crashed is beyond me.

Yet last year was also one of accomplishment and adventure. I’m excited to find out what 2015 has in store, both personally and professionally. And so I’m choosing discover as my OLW for this year.

One thing I love about this word is that it implies or incorporates words I considered. For example, I rejected curious because it seemed like more of a personality trait than a guiding mantra, yet it’s essential when making discoveries.

I have a number of goals I’d like to accomplish this year, goals I’ll have to strive towards. Strive didn’t make the cut, however, because when I looked it up I found that it had many negative connotations. Which isn’t really surprising when you remember the fact that strive and strife are derived from the same word. Conflict is not what I was looking for. Aspire was a contender, as was persistence.

Search is another word I considered. I decided against this word because it sounds like you know what you’re searching for, whereas discoveries usually take you by surprise. This element of finding the unexpected was important to me. Over the past year, many of my happiest and most memorable moments occurred when I was specifically not striving or persisting or aspiring. I was just being in the moment, paying attention to the world around me. In her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit states that “the random, the unscreened, allows you to find what you don’t know you are looking for…”

I’ll keep you posted about what I discover, both in and out of the classroom.

Thank you to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for this space for teachers and others to share their stories each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading?


The Turtle of Oman, by poet Naomi Shihab Nye is a beautiful, quiet book about a young Omani boy and his family as they prepare to move to the United States, where his parents will attend graduate school.

The Turtle of Oman by Naomi Shihab Nye (Greenwillow, 2014)

Aref is bereft at the thought of leaving his home, his friends, and most of all, his grandfather, Sidi. Aref and Sidi are “a Team of Two,” who, “even when they weren’t doing anything special… pretended they were.”

As Aref’s mother is busy packing and preparing their house for cousins to live in for the three years they’ll be gone, she has little time to comfort Aref, who puts off packing and frets about life in the United States. But Sidi, who “always had time for Aref,” takes him on several adventures. These outings distract Aref from his sadness over leaving his “only, number, one, super-duper, authentic, absolutely personal place.”

Aref and his family have a tradition of playing “Discovering Something New Everyday.” They make lists, recording their discoveries: “In your notebook, you wrote down new ideas or even scraps of new information. Nothing was too small.” Each family member constructs lists in their own way, and about topics that interest them. Sidi (who doesn’t make lists; Aref writes down his lists) specializes in geographic information, Aref’s “specialized in animals, his favorite topic.”

Through these lists and Sidi’s and Aref’s adventures, readers learn much about daily life in Oman. Nye’s ability to depict Aref, an ordinary boy, in this exotic location where life is familiar yet so different, seems effortless. Her prose is lyrical throughout, and lines like “your thoughts made falcon moves, dipping and rippling, swooping back into your brain to land,” add depth to Aref’s personality.

In an interview with Roger Sutton, Nye explains that she became interested in Oman as a child after seeing a National Geographic story about the country. She also talks about her longing for a time when people had “less stuff, less clutter, less things in a day, but better relationships with those things. I wanted there to be some sense of that with Aref and Sidi.”

The slow art of The Turtle of Oman is a lovely addition to realistic middle grade fiction. It is an ideal read aloud and will introduce students to a part of the world and a culture they may know little about through the story of a boy they will instantly recognize.

Don’t forget 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: I Dwell in Possibility


I dwell in Possibility—

A fairer House than Prose—

More numerous of Windows—

Superior—for Doors—

Of Chambers as the Cedars—

Impregnable of Eye—

And for an Everlasting Roof

The Gambrels of the Sky—

Of Visitors—the fairest—

For Occupation—This—

The spreading wide my narrow Hands

To gather Paradise—

Emily Dickinson

Photo taken by me in the parking lot of the grocery store one morning last September.

This poem seems appropriate for a new year, when anything and everything seems possible. I’m looking forward to sharing a year filled with poetry (and prose!) with all of you. Happy New Year!

Please be sure to visit Tricia at The Miss Rumphius Effect for the first Poetry Friday Round Up of 2015.