SOL: Finding Ourselves in Others


I think the first Patricia Polacco book I ever read was Pink and Say (1994), but I can’t be certain. I do know that Chicken Sunday was in the literature anthology my school adopted in 1996.  At once I knew Patricia Polacco was a master storyteller whose books conveyed important themes through stories of intergenerational and multicultural friendship and caring. These themes evoked compassion and allowed readers to see “the other” in themselves.

FullSizeRenderAt the 88th Teachers College Reading and Writing Project Saturday Reunion, held yesterday, teachers from across the country braved swirling snow and freezing temperatures to hear Patricia Polacco deliver the opening keynote. She told us that “the greatest heroes in our counry are classroom teachers.” She shared the story of her hero, George Felker, the real Mr. Falker. Mr. Felker was the first teacher to recognize Patricia’s dyslexia and was instrumental in getting her the help she needed to learn to read. Polacco described him as a man who was “beautiful in his heart.”


Polacco also shared the story of The Keeping Quilt. I know I wasn’t the only member of the audience moved to tears as Patricia told of her great-grandmother, Anna, who left the Ukraine as a small child. The dress and headscarf, or babushka, she wore eventually became part of the keeping quilt. Anna’s mother sewed the quilt so that when Anna felt homesick she could “just touch the quilt, and you’ll keep home” in your heart.


Hearts were the thread running through Polacco’s speech. She thanked the thousands of teachers filling Riverside Church for devoting “our lives to educating the minds and hearts of others.” In closing, Polacco told us that she was proud to “walk this earth” with us, and that she holds our hearts in her good keeping. 

Kylene Beers’s closing keynote, “What Matters Most,” was the perfect bookend to Polacco’s opening address. Kylene began by talking about how literacy is about power and privilege. She went on to say that “power is the ability to reach someone with your message” and that “power is about being connected.” What connects us better than stories? Stories like The Keeping Quilt and Dear Mr. Falker.

Beers also told us that “we must have more compassion” and that we “get to compassion best and easiest through the teaching of literature.” Brain research supports this, as well as the role of literature in creating empathy, something that is sorely lacking in our society today. “The humanities should humanize us,” Beers said, and the best way to achieve this is to read. Children should read widely and read books of their choosing, because “want-ability will always be more important that readability.” Children should read widely because through literature “we learn how to navigate our lives by navigating the lives of others.”


With characters as diverse as a slave and soldier of the Civil War, Russian immigrants, Holocaust survivors, and everyday African-American kids, Patricia Polacco has given us literature that enables us to, as Kylene Beers put it, “become what we are not.” Great teachers will share these books with their students because they will help children become curious, creative, and compassionate. They will share them because “great teachers are our best hope for a better tomorrow.”

Thank you to Lucy Calkins and everyone at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project for making the Saturday Reunion possible, and thank you to Patricia Polacco and Kylene Beers for your confidence, faith, and above all, your words of inspiration.

Thank you also to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for this space for teachers and others to share their stories each day during the month of March and on Tuesdays throughout the year. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

Picture Book 10 for 10: Friendship Favorites

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“…nothing breaks this golden strand

spun by heart and not by hand.”

Clare Mishica

Picture Book 10 for 10 is the brainchild of Cathy Mere of Reflect & Refine: Building a Learning Community and Mandy Robeck of Enjoy and Embrace Learning. During this annual event, now in its fifth year, teachers, librarians, and book lovers create lists of 10 essential picture books. Cathy and Mandy collect and share these lists, and everyone is richer because of their efforts. Be sure to visit their blogs to see their lists, and check out links to other lists. Thank you, Cathy and Mandy, for organizing this celebration of children’s literature! This is my third year joining in the fun. Last year, I devoted my list to favorite books by Jane Yolen, and the year before, I shared favorite wordless picture books.

Last month, Jillian Heise and Kim McSorley wrote about their “Top Ten Favorite Picture Book Friendships” for Nerdy Book Club. Their list included many of my favorites, especially several of Mo Willems Piggy & Elephant books, Flora and the Flamingo, by Molly Idle and Deborah Freedman’s The Story of Fish and Snail. But their list got me thinking about picture book friendships from the past, stories that my own children loved when they were small and stories that I’ve shared with my students throughout my teaching career. Here, in no particular order, are some of my favorites.

Amos & Boris  by William Steig (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1971)

9780374302788_xlgI adore this timeless tale of friendship between a mouse and a whale. I spouted off about this book about a year ago. You can read more about it here.

Rugby & Rosie, by Nan Parson Rossiter (Dutton, 1997)


This is a classic boy-and-his-dog tale with a twist. Rugby and the nameless narrator are always together: on the way to the bus, after school, and “he sleeps beside my bed at night.” Rosie, a puppy being trained as a guide dog, soon arrives and quickly becomes part of the family. Rossiter’s story follows the friends throughout the year of Rosie’s training and how the family deals with their sadness after Rosie’s inevitable departure.

Oma and Bobo by Amy Schwartz (Bradbury Press, 1987)

665429Alice is thrilled when her mother tells her she can have a dog for her birthday. She finds Bobo at the local animal shelter. When Alice asks her grandmother, Oma, what she should call the dog, Oma replies, “Trouble, Bother, and Nuisance.” Of course Oma’s feelings change by the end of the book and she plays a key role in Bobo’s success at obedience school.

Mrs. Katz and Tush, by Patricia Polacco (Bantam Books for Young Readers, 1992)


Patricia Polacco is a master at telling tales of friendship, and this story of an elderly woman and her young neighbor is a classic. Strangers at the beginning of the book, Larnel, Mrs. Katz, and her kitten, Tush quickly become friends. Larnel learns much from Mrs. Katz about caring, family, and tradition.

Chicken Sunday, by Patricia Polacco (Philomel Books, 1992)


Another classic tale of intergenerational and multicultural friendship. As in many of her other books, Polacco combines illustration with family photographs, which give this book a very personal dimension. Kids love speculating about who’s who in the pictures on Miss Eula’s sideboard.

Pink and Say, by Patricia Polacco (Philomel Books, 1994)


Polacco tells this heart-breaking true story of two young Union soldiers with honesty and sensitivity. At the end of the book, Polacco shares how this story has been passed down through her family for generations. Thank you, Patricia Polacco, for sharing it with us.

Frog and Toad are Friends, by Arnold Lobel (Harper Trophy, 1970)


Is there anyone who doesn’t love Frog & Toad? In this perennial favorite, Lobel depicts Frog and Toad weathering the everyday trials and tribulations of friendship with humor and compassion.

Farfallina & Marcel, by Holly Keller, (Greenwillow Books, 2002)


Holly Keller’s gentle tale follows the friendship between Farfallina, a caterpillar, and Marcel, a goose, and how they withstand separation and BIG changes.

The Old Woman Who Named Things by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Kathryn Brown. (Harcourt, 1996)


The old woman of the title has outlived all her friends and makes up for her loneliness by only giving names to things that will outlive her. But when a shy, brown dog arrives at her gate, the old woman reconsiders the wisdom of this decision. Rylant explores our universal need for companionship with tender understanding.

Wemberly Worried, by Kevin Henkes (Greenwillow Books, 2000)


Poor Wemberly worries about everything. Her family tells her she worries too much, but this doesn’t stop her. Wemberly’s list of worries gets even longer when she starts school. But when she makes a new friend, Jewel, her worries are forgotten. Wemberly Worried is a fine example of Henkes’s mastery of capturing the feelings of preschool and primary kids.

There are so many other books I could have included on this list. What’s your favorite tale of friendship?

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? Picture Book Pairs


Last week my school held its spring book fair. I have loved book fairs for as long as I can remember. All those new books, beckoning, begging to be picked up and read. This year I found some real treasures.

Three Hens and a Peacock (Peachtree, 2011) by Lester Laminack and illustrated by Henry Cole, was the first to catch my eye. This is the story of an interloper in the hen house and how he upsets the routines of life on Tuckers’ farm. By the end, life is back to normal, and the everyone has learned a lesson about not trying to change who they are.

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This book reminded me of Just Plain Fancy (Bantam Books, 1990), by Patricia Polacco. Polacco’s story is set on an Amish farm, where the unexpected guest arrives in the form of an egg. Two little girls have the responsibility for caring for the hens, and when they find the unusual egg, they add it to one of the nests in the hen house. Imagine their surprise when they realize that this bird is no hen!

Pairing these books would be a good way to address CCSS 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.”  This work begins in Kindergarten by having children “compare and contrast the adventures and experiences of characters in familiar stories” with prompting and support.

Actually, all of the books I found at the book fair could be used to meet this standard. How Do You Hug a Porcupine? (Simon & Schuster, 2011) by Laurie Isop and illustrated by Gwen Millward, answers this very prickly question. The boy who wants to attempt this, shown scratching his head on the cover, tries several very creative ways to protect himself from the porcupine’s quills. This book is a perfect mentor text for young writers. They could come up with their own solutions to this problem, or they could pose a similar question to answer.

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This book initially got my attention because several of my students had just finished reading The Hug, by Sharon Fear. This book is part of the Fountas & Pinnell Leveled Literacy Intervention series and is published by Heinemann. There are several stories about the main character, Moosling, in this series. Moosling is a loveable moose who gets himself into one predicament after another. In The Hug, Little Pins needs a hug so his good friend Moosling figures out how to give him one.


Speaking of moose, Kelly Bingham’s Z is for Moose (Greenwillow, 2012) has gotten all kinds of good press, but somehow I hadn’t read it yet. Hilariously illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky, this book is a must-read. The book trailer is just as funny as the book.

I would pair this book with Q is for Duck: An Alphabet Guessing Game (Clarion Books, 2005) by Mary Elting & Michael Folsom with pictures by Jack Kent, for more mixed up alphabet fun.


What treasures did you find at the book fair this year?

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

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!