Making Plans for Summer Reading


This post is part of “DigiLit Sunday,” hosted by Margaret Simon at Reflections on the Teche. This week’s topic is REFRESH.

By Winslow Homer (Memphis Brooks Museum of Art) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Winslow Homer (Memphis Brooks Museum of Art) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Teachers often have a long list of projects they want to work on, both personal and professional, that we’ve either put off or just haven’t had time for during the school year. And while I love finishing these tasks and the sense of accomplishment they bring, I don’t really find them refreshing. For me, being refreshed means having time to enjoy long, lazy afternoons reading and dozing.

Making plans for summer reading is one of my favorite activities. In January, I talked with fifth grade students about Reading Resolutions. This is the perfect time to revisit those resolutions, and, if necessary, make some new ones. I finished the Very Famous Children’s book back in February. Lately I’ve been thinking about Virginia Wolf’s To the Lighthouse. This is a book that has intimidated me as an adult, and I feel now’s the time to give it another try.

I have a long list of professional books I’m planning to read this summer. These books are currently at the top of the stack:

I’m also planning on getting caught up on journal articles I haven’t had a chance to read.

I’ll also be reading many picture books and middle grade novels, but I don’t have a specific list. I would love to get my hands on an ARC of Melissa Sweet’s upcoming book about E.B. White. (Hint, hint, ARC gods!) Louise Erdrich is one of my favorite authors, both for children and adults, and she has two new books out this year. Makoons is the fifth book in the series that began with The Birchbark House, one of my all-time favorites, so I’m excited to read this book, too.

There are many books on my shelves that I haven’t read, and sometimes I’ll just browse and see what strikes my fancy. I also like to visit the library and find new books there.

Last year’s shelfie.

Having plans for summer reading is great, but discovering new books along the way and having time to read them is another reason summer reading is such a gift. What are your summer reading plans?

Slice of Life: Read-Alouds I Love


I think it’s fair to say that I am a teacher today because of a read-aloud. I have written before about the impact of my fourth grade teacher reading Charlotte’s Web to us.

When I was a classroom teacher, reading aloud was non-negotiable. We did it every day. No. Matter. What. Now that I’m not a classroom teacher, sharing wonderful books with kids is still the best part of my day.

Because I love read-aloud so much, and because I love Dr. Mary Howard’s Thursday night #G2great Twitter chats, I was especially sad to miss last Thursday’s chat with Steven Layne about read-alouds. Scrolling through the archive of the chat, it’s easy to see that an incredible amount of wisdom was shared in one hour. Here are some tweets from the chat that I love:

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You can (and should!) read the Storify version of this chat here.

This was the last question of the chat:

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Linda Baie answered this question over at her blog, TeacherDance, this morning. I’m stealing Linda’s idea and answering Mary’s question from Thursday’s chat since I’m visiting my son this weekend and haven’t had time to write.

Chapter books my 3rd graders loved:

Charlotte’s Web
The Prince of the Pond
The Birchbark House
The Tale of Despereaux
The Search for Delicious
Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher
Stone Fox
How Whales Walked into the Sea

Recent chapter books I know kids love:

Home of the Brave
The Fourteenth Goldfish
The One and Only Ivan
Because of Mr. Terupt
Mercy Watson

Favorite picture books:

Knuffle Bunny
Boy + Bot
Brave Irene
Rugby & Rosie
The Old Woman Who Named Things
Farfallina & Marcel
Mrs. Katz & Tush
The Other Dog
The Gruffalo
Goodnight, Gorilla

I could go on all day. What are your favorite read-alouds?

Thank you to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnnaBeth, Kathleen, and Deb for this space for teachers and others to share their stories each Tuesday throughout the year and every day during the month of March. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

Is Test Prep the Mint of Education?

Close reading has been my mind a lot lately. I recently read What Readers Really Do, by Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton. I revisited Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading, by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst as well as Falling in Love With Close Reading, by Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts. Yesterday, Tara Smith’s excellent post on reading journals gave me more to think about. This is important work. Work that will help our students “grow and develop new ideas and insights.” (Barnhouse & Vinton, pg. 152) I need time to process all this wisdom and work with my colleagues to determine how we’ll integrate these ideas into our teaching. I’ll be sharing more about this in the weeks to come. In the meantime, I want to share a post from 2013 that still holds true today.

Thank you, as always, to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for hosting Slice of Life each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

Reading to the Core

Image via Wikimedia Commons

This morning as I was weeding my garden, it occurred to me that the mint that had overrun my herb garden was like standardized test prep. As schools across the country do their best to prepare students for the new CCSS-aligned assessments, test prep is running rampant. Just as the mint in my garden has choked out the basil and parsley, test prep, and the tests themselves, threaten to take over the school day, leaving no time to savor novels, delve into a character’s motivation, or write a deeply personal narrative.

I grow a variety of herbs in my garden because each herb has its own distinct flavor and use. The amount of the herb I use depends on what I’m cooking. The same is true for teaching. We have a wide variety of instructional resources and strategies available. As professionals, we take great care to make…

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Poetry Friday: “I Am Poetry”


I have spent the past week at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project’s Summer Reading Institute. My brain is bursting with all I have learned from my amazing section leaders and the keynote speakers. My senses are overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of New York City in August. My life is richer because of people I have met and friends I have made. It has been a glorious week.

How could I possibly choose a poem to share today that reflects my week? By focusing on one small piece of my experience.

Each teacher was given a book at the beginning of the week to use as a mentor text for the work of the Institue. I received Becoming Naomi León (Scholastic Press, 2004) by Pam Muñoz Ryan. I have loved every book I’ve read by Ryan, but somehow, I had missed this beautiful story about a young girl finding her true self. Pam Muñoz Ryan’s writing is so lyrical, I wondered if she’d written any poetry. A quick search reminded me about The Dreamer, Ryan’s lovely book about the young Pablo Neruda and led me to this poem:

“I Am Poetry”

by Pam Muñoz Ryan

I am poetry,

waiting to seize the poet.

I ask the questions

for which all answers


I choose no one.

I choose every one.

Come closer…

…if you dare.

I am poetry,

lurking in dappled shadow.

I am the confusion

of root

and gnarled branch.

I am the symmetry

of insect,


and a bird’s outstretched wings.

Read the rest of the poem here.

If you haven’t read Becoming Naomi León, The Dreamer, or any of Ryan’s other novels for children, read one today. You’ll be glad you did. 

Please be sure to visit Heidi at My Juicy Little Universe for the Poetry Friday Round Up.

SOLC 2014: Just Three Books?


Last night, NPR aired an interview with Gabrielle Zevin, author of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikery (Algonquin Books, 2014). During the interview, Zevin explained that she wanted to write “a love letter to the joy of reading” and that she believes asking someone what they read “is a much more informative question” than any other question we might ask.

So NPR asked the question. On Thursday, they tweeted:

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This question has been asked of readers on social media many times in recent years, but it’s one that I always have difficulty answering. I believe, as Zevin does, that “We are not quite novels. We are not quite short stories. In the end, we are collected works.”

I have written before about the fact that Charlotte’s Web is the book that made me a reader because I recognized myself in Fern and her world.

If Charlotte’s Web was my mirror, then To Kill A Mockingbird was my first true window: a book that showed me a way of life very different from the one I knew. And yet I understood Scout and her fears. 

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I read To Kill A Mockingbird when I was in eighth grade, and after that, my reading was wildly eclectic. I was “trying on” different personalities, trying to figure out who I wanted to be. A book I wish I’d read during those years to help me find an answer is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I think I would have loved Francie more then than I do now. I would have loved that she imagined herself “living in a tree” as she read her precious library books each Saturday afternoon. I would have loved the little stories she made up to make arithmetic tolerable. I even would have loved her for lying about her name to get the beautiful doll for which the other girls refused to beg.

Beyond these three books, it is impossible to choose: The Bean Trees, Bel Canto, The Book Thief, Middlemarch, and more. All of these books helped me, as Karen Armstrong writes in A Short History of Myth, “…make a painful rite of passage from one phase of life, one state of mind, to another.” They have taught me “to see the world differently; … how to look into our own hearts and to see our world from a perspective that goes beyond our own self-interest.” (Armstrong, p. 149)

Thank you, as always, to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for hosting the Slice of Life Challenge. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

SOLC 2014: It’s Monday! What Are You Reading?

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Another double-duty Slice for It’s Monday! What Are You Reading?

Coral Reefs, by Seymour Simon (Harper, 2013)


This is a gorgeous book, filled with stunning photographs of one of the earth’s most fragile ecosystems. Coral Reefs gives young readers a thorough overview of the “gigantic communities of living things.” (pg. 6) Simon describes the different types of coral, what they eat, and where they’re found in the world. The “many different kinds of citizens” of a coral reef are also described.

The close-up photographs are captivating and kids will want to pore over them for hours. An index is included, as are a glossary and links to websites with additional information. This book would make a nice companion to the more fanciful but just as informative Coral Reefs by Jason Chin.

I’ve also been enjoying the poems collected by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong in The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science (Pomelo Books, 2014). Dozens of the best poets writing for children today have contributed to this volume. The poems cover a broad range of scientific topics, from scientific practices and lab safety to famous scientists and future challenges, and everything in between. (Although there wasn’t one specifically about a coral reef.)


Wong and Vardell begin their informative introduction with the question “Why poetry with science?” To make their case, they quote legendary author and educator Bernice Cullinan:

 “Scientists observe with a clear eye, record their observations in precise, descriptive language, and craft their expressions. Poets do the same thing.”

Also included are tips for sharing the poems and connections to the Next Generation Science Standards. In addition, the following resources are included:

  • a bibliography of poetry books for science
  • links to websites and blogs, for both poetry and science
  • a list of professional resources
  • a “mini-glossary of science terms”
  • title, poet, and subject indexes

This book is a must-have resource elementary teachers working to integrate literacy into their science instruction. Student editions are available by grade level and include bonus poems.

Several poems from the anthology have been shared on blogs over the past week. Jone at Check It Out has “Sound Waves” by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater:

If you have ever seen the ocean

throwing cold waves from her hand

pulling shells from mighty depths

tossing each upon wet sand,

you can understand how sound waves

move like water through dry air.      

(Read the rest of the poem here)

You can also read poems from each grade level at Irene Latham’s blog, Live Your Poem…

Finally, because it’s St. Patrick’s Day, I have to give a shout-out to my favorite book to share on this day, Daniel O’Rourke (Viking Kestrel, 1986), by Gerald McDermott. Sadly, it seems that this tale of Daniel O’Rourke’s misadventures at the hands of three mischievous leprechauns is out of print. My own children loved this story when they were small, and dozens of my classes over the years have laughed along as Daniel is taken on a wild ride by the legendary pooka.

Our copy, signed by the author to my youngest son.
Our copy, signed by the author to my youngest son.

Thank you, as always, to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for hosting the Slice of Life Challenge. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

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!

SOLC 2014: Finding Gold in the Classroom


“The text awakens associations in the reader’s mind, and out of the mix, meaning is created.”

~ Kylene Beers & Robert E. Probst ~

Like many of you, I have been working with my colleagues to teach students to read more closely and gather evidence to support their thinking. I am thankful for the work of Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts in their book Falling in Love with Close Reading, Vicki Vinton on her blog, To Make A Prairie (I’m embarrassed to confess that her book, What Readers Really Do, written with Dorothy Barnhouse, is still in my TBR pile.), and Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading, by Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst, for helping us in this endeavor. 

Last week, I mentioned sharing King Midas and the Golden Touch with the fourth grade students at my school. They all enjoyed the story, and because of our rich discussion, had a good understanding of the theme. They were also able to write about this understanding, but incorporating evidence from the story into their writing was more of a challenge.

Their teachers and I knew from the start that this wasn’t going to be a “one-shot deal.” We knew there would be many more lessons, including guided and independent practice, as well as feedback, to get our students to be able to do this kind of work well. So on Friday, I was back in their classrooms with a very short excerpt from Jon J. Muth’s Zen Shorts, “Uncle Ry and the Moon.” I love sharing this deceptively simple story with students, and have done so many times. Muth’s book is quiet and unassuming, but it contains a powerful message.


Following the same routine we had used with King Midas, I read the story through once. The kids followed along on a typed version of the text. When I finished reading, I was met with a roomful of puzzled faces. I asked the kids to write what they had noticed and what they were wondering (We used a modified version on Vicki Vinton’s “Know/Wonder” chart for this.) Once they had their thoughts written down, they shared. All of the students were confused by Uncle Ry’s attitude toward the intruder. This clearly conflicted with the action they would take, or expect anyone to take, under similar circumstances. I complimented them for noticing this important contradiction, and explained to them the importance of this kind of observation. When an author includes those contradictions, he’s doing it for a reason. (Notice & Note, pg. 71)

Our next step was to reread the story, more carefully this time, and we stopped along the way to discuss what we were noticing now, and trying to sort out our confusion and begin to answer some of our questions. As we read, some students made thoughtful observations or raised interesting questions. Others asked questions to clarify a simpler element of the story, but these were important, too. I let them discuss these with their partners before sharing with the whole class.

It was during this conversation that one boy tentatively raised his hand. I have known and worked with this student since he was in first grade. His thinking is often perceptive, but can sometimes be muddled. I paused before calling on him to give him time to organize his thinking. Then I nodded to him and he said, “It’s like he’s the opposite of King Midas. Uncle Ry gives things away because he doesn’t mind being poor, and Midas wanted to have as much gold as he could get.”

I was speechless. I hadn’t thought of that myself. His teacher and I exchanged a look of joy. Of course, we let him know how impressed we were with his thinking and the he had made such a meaningful connection to King Midas. Then, another student started to raise her hand, and again, I could see the wheels still turning. She proceeded to tell us that another reason Uncle Ry was different from Midas is that Midas was blinded by greed, but Uncle Ry was blinded by his kind nature, and that was why he saw the intruder as a visitor.

I have shared this story with students many times before, but they have never come to these deep and thoughtful conclusions or level of understanding. So what was different? I hadn’t read the story right after King Midas before, but I wasn’t consciously thinking of a thematic connection between the two. Just as before, I had a plan when I began the lesson, but it was more open-ended. In the past, we were usually focusing specifically on character traits or summarizing. I firmly believe that the kids were able to achieve this level of understanding because I followed their lead. I let them develop the questions they had about the story. I let them go back and locate significant passages in the text. We do our students a huge disservice when we teach from a script and ask only preplanned, canned questions.

Are we finished with this work? Absolutely not. But we are laying a solid foundation for the kind of close reading and thinking skills our students will need to be thoughtful, caring human beings. And that, my friends, is worth all the gold in the world.

Image courtesy of
Image courtesy of

Thank you to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for hosting the Slice of Life Challenge. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

SOLC 2014: Stories, Letters, and Mailing May


Kate DiCamillo, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, claims

“When we read together…we are taken out of our aloneness. Together, we see the world. Together, we see one another. We connect.”

We typically think of stories being in the pages of a book. But they also come in the form of letters. One of my aunts was a great letter writer. This, of course, was pre-email and texting, even before free long distance was ubiquitous. My grandmother always looked forward to her sister’s letters, and she loved sharing them with my mother as soon as they arrived. Thinking of her now, sitting at her kitchen table, reading and commenting on my aunt’s news, has suddenly overwhelmed me with longing.

Charlotte May Pierstorff also longed for her grandmother, who lived “a million miles away through the rough old Idaho mountains.” Her parents had promised her a visit, but when the time came, there was no money for a train ticket.


The solution to May’s problem is told in the 1997 book, Mailing May (Greenwillow), by Michael O. Tunnell and illustrated by Ted Rand. With the help of a cousin who works for the railroad, May’s parents decide to mail her to her grandmother via parcel post. After having fifty-three cents worth of stamps and a mailing label attached to the back of her coat, May boards the train for Lewiston and is off on her adventure.

Tunnell lets May tell her own story, which really conveys May’s excitement about her trip. She describes hanging “on the edge of mountainsides” and crawling “through tunnels.” The story ends with May’s joyous reunion with her grandmother, “with a little help from the U.S. Post Office!”

I knew the minute I read Mailing May that it was perfect for my third grade students. May’s experience was so far removed from anything they could imagine, I wanted to immerse them in this book. We turned it into a springboard for a day’s worth of learning. We discussed the theme of the book, and made personal connections about visiting grandparents far away.

But we also wrote letters to grandparents, even if they lived down the street. We studied a map of Idaho and learned about its geography. In the book, Tunnell describes how the postmaster weighs May, then calculates the cost of mailing her. We were piloting a new math program at the time, and there was a lesson about calculating shipping costs for packages. So I brought in my bathroom scale and weighed each child so they could calculate how much it would cost to ship themselves to Florida (where many grandparents did indeed live).

Each year I looked forward to our Mailing May day. The kids were amazed by May’s story and loved her sense of adventure. And while I can’t say they all loved writing the letters, they all had a new appreciation for our quick and easy communication abilities. More importantly, they also gained an understanding and appreciation of how stories, whether in books or letters, connect us all across distances of space and time.

Thank you, as always, to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for hosting the Slice of Life Challenge and creating this space for us to share our stories. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

SOLC 2014: Greek Myths, Retold

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It’s Monday, and this slice is once again doing double-duty for It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? 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!

Reading Anchor Standard nine of the CCSS states that students will “analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.” At each grade level, this standard has a different specificity. In fourth grade, students are expected to “compare and contrast the treatment of similar themes and topics (e.g., opposition of good and evil) and patterns of events (e.g. the quest) in stories, myths, and traditional literature from different cultures.”

By the time they reach eighth grade, this expectation has become more complex. Now students must “analyze how a modern work of fiction draws on themes, patterns of events, or character types from myths, traditional stories, or religious works such as the Bible, including describing how the material is rendered new.”

I’m focusing on this standard in particular because it is such a shift from the previous expectation in the Connecticut ELA standards. They emphasized text-to-self connections, and there was no particular emphasis on folk tales, fairy talks, or myths. I’m glad these stories have been given more attention in the standards. Many of them are so ubiquitous in our culture we don’t even recognize them as myths. Worse, they aren’t recognized because readers lack the knowledge of the original story.


So, one of my goals this year has been to find materials that help us meet these expectations. I’ve always had a copy of the classic D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths in my classroom, but there are many other excellent resources available. Here are two of the many books I’ve found.


Charlotte Craft’s retelling of King Midas and the Golden Touch (HarperCollins, 1999) is based on a version of the story told by Nathaniel Hawthorne in A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys. The original story is thought to be based on an 8th-century BC king of Phrygia, in what is now central Turkey. In a note, illustrator K.Y Craft explains that she chose to set the tale in the more-recent Middle Ages of Europe to convey the truly timeless nature of this story. In Craft’s version, Midas receives the golden touch as a reward for entertaining a stranger, for he believes that “the golden touch will bring me all the happiness I need.” Craft’s retelling is rich in imagery, characterization, and language. Last week, I shared the story with two fourth grade classes. Both groups had rich discussions about the decisions Midas made, key turning points in the story, and the theme. Some students had recently finished reading The Chocolate Touch, by Patrick Skene Catling. It was so much fun to see the lightbulbs going off as they made connections between the two books.


Gifts from the Gods: Ancient Words of Wisdom from Greek & Roman Mythology, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011) by Lise Lunge-Larsen and illustrated by Gareth Hinds. Lunge-Larsen has chosen seventeen myths that “illuminate and explain words” that English speakers use all the time. (RL.4.4: Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including those that allude to significant characters found in mythology (e.g., Huerculean).) She has also included an excerpt from a modern story as an example. This is from Norma Howe’s Blue Avenger Cracks the Code:

Like all those classical heroes down through the ages, Blue Avenger is not invulnerable; like them, he has a weakness. Superman feared kryptonite, Achilles had his heel. For Blue Avenger, it’s lemon meringue pie. (p. 1)

At the end of each myth, Lunge-Larsen also includes the meaning of other words related to the story. After reading the story of the Three Fates, we learn that the goddess who cut the thread was named Morta by the Romans. “Her name means ‘death’ and lives on in mortal and mortality, words we use about things that one day will die. The gods, who will never die are immortal.” (p. 22) Hinds, who is best known for his graphic novel versions of Beowulf  and The Odyssey uses a similar style in this richly illustrated volume.

There are countless retellings of Greek and Roman myths, plus many from other cultures around the world. More about those another day.

Thank you, as always, to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for hosting the Slice of Life Challenge. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

SLOC 2014: Downtime


Not long ago, I found a link to a Today Show interview with clinical psychologist and parenting expert Wendy Mogel and teacher and writer Jessica Lahey about how to help children be creative. Mogel and Lahey both talked about how important it is for kids to have downtime and opportunities for unstructured play. Mogel stated that we “need to encourage our kids to really embrace creativity” and that “the best teachers of creativity are free time, nature, and mess.” Lahey, who blogs at Coming of Age in the Middle, followed Mogel’s advice with ways that her family tries to accomplish this. She shared that on the weekends they have two hours of “nap time, quiet time” when the devices are turned off and “everyone has to find something to do and be quiet doing it.”

Today, I took this advice to heart. After the breakfast dishes were cleared away and the laundry started, I curled up with Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success. I have heard of Gladwell’s work and have read a few of his articles in The New Yorker, but somehow this is the first book of his I’ve read. It’s well-written and fascinating, and I was completely absorbed by the stories Gladwell told to support his theory.

I only feel slightly guilty for spending most of the day reading. I have plenty of professional books (not to mention other Slices!) I should have read, plenty of paperwork I should have done. It’s all waiting for me on my desk. It will be there tomorrow, and, thanks to today’s downtime, I’ll be ready to tackle anything.

Thank you, as always, to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for hosting the Slice of Life Challenge. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.