Thursday, December 15, 2011

Forgotten Bookmarks... A Treasure

I know what book I'm getting Christmas Eve.  It's Forgotten Bookmarks by Michael Popek.  Every Christmas Eve, my children open three gifts... a book, new pajamas, and an ornament.  It's a tradition we started when our oldest was born 24 years ago.  Of course, mom and dad get a book too.  And, we always get a new family book to add to our Christmas book collection.
      While we were shopping last week at the Tattered Cover, I slipped this gem into my shopping basket.  MIchael Popek is a bookstore owner in New York and this book offers a collection of tidbits he's found in the used books they sell... stories, photographs, bookmarks, etc.  
     In Forgotten Bookmarks the authors shares a collection of tidbits he's found.  Of course, the readers, who long ago tucked the bits and pieces in the books they were reading, never knew their forgotten treasures would be captured in a book as lovely as this one!
     Poems, photographs, recipes, love letters... the items that Michel Popek includes in Forgotten Bookmarks are personal, humorous, and fascinating.  It's like "pickers' for book lovers!  I can't wait until Christmas Eve so I can dig deeper into this book.  I know I'll laugh, cry, and ponder.  I love old books... and I love when I find secrets within their pages (just last week I was reading a used book to my students and we found three four-leaf clovers someone had pressed in its pages)!

By the way, Mr. Popek as a website here and it's a perfect site to keep "bookmarked" as you read this book!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Wonderful Endeavor...

"The fledgling perched on the edge of her nest preparing for possible flight is a situation I can feel in the pit of my stomach: possible glory, possible failure. We all find ourselves there, and we make a decision. This story is about that choice, the internal debate that accompanies it, and one possible result."                                                        —Holly Meade

     Another wonderful book from our friends at Candlewick Press.  This one I found at The Tattered Cover in Denver and it was the first book that I put in my basket on that shopping trip.
     Holly Meade is an incredible artist (check out her artwork by clicking on her name... some of my favorites prints are Shaker Joy, Stand Jackson, and Holy Trinity... beautiful).  And, she's also an incredible illustrator and author.  If I Never Forever Endeavor speaks to you on so many levels... risk taker, decision maker, contemplation seeker.  It's the perfect book to nudge someone gently into a new phase of life or to overcome an obstacle.  The line, "If I hadn't endeavored and found my wings clever, I never a sky would have scaled, never a world would have seen, and never a friend would have found,blew me away, made me want to fly!  Friends of a feather, indeed!
     Do you ever run across a book at exactly the right time?  Exactly when you need a nudge yourself?  That's what happened to me when I read through this beautiful book.  And, in the classroom I can see it used in some many ways... as a book to develop endurance... as a book to read aloud and let its words soak in... as a book to serve as lyrical text... as a book that deserves a special place in your classroom library.  It has one in mine!  

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Just Fine the Way They Are...

One of the books I picked up at NCTE is Just Fine the Way They Are by Connie Wooldridge.  It was one of the books that caught my eye... first the subtitle From Dirt Road to Rail Road to Interstates.  Then I was struck by the last page, which reads
     "And then what do we get but a pack of crazy thinkers coming up with ideas about how to make cars run on things like electricity and fuel cells and even corn.  Next thing they'll be saying is we don't even need cars or roads anymore because they've come up with something better.
     All of which is plain nonsense.  Because things are just fine they way they are..."
This book focuses on the question, "Change. Who needs it?" It begins with a tavern keeper who has a business along a rutted dirt road and it moves to the stage coach era of the mid-1800s then to the railroads... model T automobiles... and so on.  It's really a book about movement... movement through the changes in the transportation system in our country.
     And here we are today... moving briskly along super highways throughout the United States... and beyond.  The author has captured the historical perspective of transportation and its role in our history, and she's done it beautifully.  I love the illustrations by Richard Walz... whimsical, fitting, and inviting.
     This book is going in the "Endurance and Stamina" basket in my classroom!  I think students will love reading this enjoyable "history" of transportation and the role its changes have played in America!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Cousin Texts - Old and New

I love using "cousin" texts... for writing instruction, thinking strategy work, read aloud, craft study, etc.
Last night at The Tattered Cover, I ran across Sammy in the Sky by Barbara Walsh (another winner by our friends at Candlewick Press).  What a beautifully written book!  As I read it to my students, we were struck not only by the story line, but by the craft itself.  Afterward, I told my kids I thought we could use this book to learn a lot about the "tools" we need as writers... complex sentences, unique punctuation, etc.  Of course, it's the kind of book that you have to let "drift into your heart and mind."  The story of Sammy is touching and heartwarming... and serves as a launch for incredible notebook writing.  I had to have it when I read it in the children's section... tears streaming down my face!  By the way, it's illustrated by Jamie Wyeth, Andrew's son.
A cousin?  Another book we shared this week Saying Goodbye to Lulu.  Written in the same vain as Sammy in the Sky, it's an equally touching book written by Corinne Demas and illustrated by Ard Hoyt.  We used it as a launch for a memory write and for many of my students, it unlocked that "saying goodbye" theme.  Not all sadness by the way.  I think sometimes a text likes this leads to writing that is poignant, but based in happy memories.  This book tugs at heart strings, but influences young writers in a special way.
And another cousin?  I'll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm is another book that I loved; it's an older book, but it's always been a favorite.  It was one of the first picture books in my collection and one I rely on often.  Do I always use a "cousin" as a writing launch... no.  This one is often a book I slip into a child's hands after he/she shares the pain of losing a pet with us.  It's a wonderful book that helps young people realize that "it will be okay."

It was my friend, Colleen Buddy, who introduced me to the idea of "cousin texts" and it's a lesson I've never forgotten.  But, what defines a cousin?  Perhaps it's a cluster of books similar themes (like in this case), perhaps it's a cluster of books that follow the same structure, perhaps it's a cluster of books that share certain punctuation techniques, perhaps it's a cluster of books that share a specific content (ala text sets)... but however you define a "cousin," you can't go wrong when you invite your students to look for and notice how texts can become the best of companions... to enhance their reading, writing, and thinking!

I've linked all these authors on this entry, be sure to check their websites out!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


What if you could have a star?
They shine like little silver eggs
you could gather in a basket.

What if you could find another brilliant book written by Mary Lyn Ray?  What if it was illustrated by Marla Frazee?  Well... Some days you feel shiny as a star.  If you've done something important, people may call you a star.  And that must be exactly how Mary Lyn Ray and Marla Frazee felt when they first say there collaboration in print.  It's definitely a star!

I found this book at The Tattered Cover and is mysteriously found its way into my shopping basket.  I felt in love with it.  When I turned to the page that says Blow a ball of dandelion and you blow a thousand stars into the sky, I was sold!  I know I say it all the time, but this could become one of my favorites!  It's beautifully illustrated and beautifully written.  

To me it speaks as a metaphor of stopping to observe, stopping to breath, stopping to take in the beauty around you... your child's smile, your dog's nudge, your wife's hand in yours.  In this case, stars.  

Put it on you list!  It's a must have...

Monday, November 7, 2011

11 Experiments That Failed by Jenny Offill & Nancy Carpenter is another whimsical book to add to your collection!  I picked it up at The Tattered Cover on Friday night.  What a fun book!  Like 17 Things I'm Not Allowed to Do Anymore, it is just a joy to read.  I know, I know... the main character is a bit naughty.  But her curiosity, innocence, and sincerity far outweigh the little things that make you cringe a bit when you read about some of her unconventional interactions with others.  And, the beaver is back!  The illustrations are absolutely amazing and make me smile!
     I love the question/hypothesis format of the text.  Based on a series of "experiments," with questions like Would gerbils like a bigger wheels?  Can a live beaver be ordered through the mail?  Is there a way to make stinky cheese smell better?  the character explores unique ways to answer her questions.  My favorite?  When she sprinkles the dog with glitter... no, when she tests the aerodynamics of bologna in the lunchroom... no, when she washes dishes in the washing machine!  Throughout this book, I found myself laughing out loud.
     I found this book just in time for our study of How do wise readers use asking questions to enhance understanding?  Jenny Offill writes with incredible insight and coupled with Nancy Carpenter's illustrations, this book is a great one to add to your shelf.  I can't wait to share it with my students (Of course, my 7th grader took it off my pile while I was blogging and my wife read it aloud to her while cuddling on the sofa... which could be the cutest thing ever... I love that my 7th grader daughter still loves reading my new picture books).  

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A letter found in my files

A few weeks ago, I was looking through a few of my files and ran across another brilliant piece of writing by my friend Lois.  

I've blogged about her before... she was a mentor, friend, and fellow teacher for many years.  Lois died on June 23, 2008 after a lengthy battle with breast cancer.  I wrote about her strength and endurance in Conferring:  The Keystone of Reader's Workshop.  And, not a day goes by that I don't think of my teaching days with Lois, Judy, and Randi (under the incomparable leadership of Laura)... those were the days... thinkers and learners, together!  We mentored one another and asked big questions and children were always at the heart of our work and conversations and inquiry into "What can we do next?"  I yearn for the professional discourse we shared... "all for one and one for all!"

Lois had a masters degree in Gifted Education and an amazing knack of meeting the needs of all children--those who were "dormant" and those who were "highly-abled."  She looked at children as individuals (including her own three children).  She was always reflecting on her teaching.  She was always reflecting on the needs of her students.  She was a writer, artist, mathematician... a teacher's teacher... and constantly honed her craft.  Yet, she was one of the most humble and nonjudgmental people I've ever met... she was shy, until it was time to stand up for a child.  She was not afraid to take a stand.  I admired her courage.

In 1999, she wrote a letter to our "Student Support Team" (at that time part of the pre-referral process) after referring a child for "support" and she shared a copy with me.  In kind, I thought I'd share it with you.  Why?  I find it apropos.  I think it speaks to our need to support the learners in our care.  I find it thought provoking.  I think it's intriguing.  I think Lois was a thinker before her time.  

I'm using this letter as a bookmark in my current professional read.  I've read this letter at least ten times in the last few weeks.  Like Donald Graves, Lois was a teacher whose work will always remain current... the words of great thinkers continue to inspire me.  Please enjoy her words, they speak for themselves!

I think Lois wouldn't mind my sharing it (I removed names and pronouns to make it generic):

January 31, 1999
Dear Members of the Student Support Team:

Even though many of the members are my close friends and respected colleagues, I have found taking a student to this committee a frustrating experience.  In my opinion, issues of timeliness, purpose and respect are important for us all to examine. 
First of all, dealing with this committee has caused extreme delays in getting help for my students.  I submitted three names to the committee two months ago.  You just got around to the first of my students this week.  Now we have another six weeks of "interventions" before the follow up meeting on March 11.  In my opinion, twelve weeks of delay is unacceptable and unnecessary.  Who knows when you plan to begin my other two students?

Secondly, the purpose of my referral was misunderstood.  The student I referred is not failing.  ___ is not failing because of the many interventions (which apparently you do not count as interventions) put in place my myself, by specials teachers, by previous teachers, and by very concerned and conscientious parents.  My point, as stated on the pre-referral form, was that all these interventions should not be necessary for a student who appears to be competent in many ways.  I believe there is something wrong with ___ processing of information and am concerned that the middle school staff will not be as diligent as we have been.  This ___ with so much potential is in danger of getting lost in the system and may give up.  More interventions, while welcome in many situations, were not appropriate in this case. 

Finally, there is the issue of respect.  Brainstorming, in front of parents, such solutions as preferential seating and presentation of directions auditorally and visually was insulting and demeaning to me as a classroom teacher.  If this is necessary for some teachers, parents do not need to be present to hear it. 
In conclusion, the present system for S.S.T. is cumbersome, ineffective and insulting.  Please withdraw the names of my other two students, ___ and ___ from future consideration.  I will find other ways to deal with their problems.  With all the criticism of public education today, we do not need to do this to each other. 


Monday, September 12, 2011

Grief Points

Yesterday I was sitting in church listening to our pastor talk about "grief points."  He posed the question... What are your grief points?  Death of a loved one.  Loss of a good friend.  A tragedy in your family.  He got us thinking a bit about how we've dealt with our personal grief points and moved forward... filled with faith, hope, and love.  I spent some time reflecting on the points in my life when I was grieving and I can filter each one through those three words.
     He reminded us of the grief points our nation has experienced, there have been many... most recently the events of September 11, 2001.  And how, although we can never forget the events of that horrific September morning, we've found strength to move forward as a nation.  Not forgetting, but moving forward.  Each of us dealing with the tragedy in our own way... filtering things through our own beliefs systems.
     He read us Paul's words, “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.  Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13: 12-13
     Last night, as my wife and I watched television, we chatted about the amazing stories that emerged from across the nation in response to 9/11... and the events that unfolded across this great country.  Amazing stories... of faith... of hope... and of love!  
- - - - - - - - - 

Most of my fourth graders were born in 2001, so on Friday I spent a few simple minutes talking to them about the events of that day.  I reminded them it was important that they go home and talk to their parents. 
     I told them I was on my way to an all-day staff developer's meeting that morning and heard the news on the radio.  I remember driving to the foothills and watching the temperature gauge in my car rising, little by little.  When I arrived at the destination, obviously we canceled our meeting (many of my fellow colleagues tried to reach their loved ones across the country, including family members who worked in Manhattan).  So, I drove home to see my own children, but on the way out of the hills, my car's water pump went out... and I spent the rest of the morning waiting for a tow truck to pick me up in a Safeway parking lot.  It gave me plenty of time to craft an entry in my writer's notebook, a simple reflection of what I still didn't know was going on across our nation.
     I shared several entries from Messages to Ground Zero with my students on Friday.  It was compiled by Shelley Harwayne.  A brilliant collection of writings and drawings from children that she, as superintendent, collected and categorized.  If you haven't seen it, you should get a copy.  It's a brilliant tribute!  And, it's told through the voices of children.   Beautiful.
     I also shared three poems I saved that my third and fourth graders wrote when we returned to school in November (we were tracked off - year round school).  I'm so glad I saved them... enjoy their words!

I always thought of firefighters as people
who save other people from fires,
but now I think a lot more than that
when I hear the word

I think of brave men and woman risking
their lives for others.

I think of people who were
searching through rubble hoping
to find someone alive.

I think of going into that
burning building.

Most of all, I think of the day
when terrorists
took over our lives and hearts. 

September 11, 2001 is a day I’ll never forget.

 I don’t think anyone will forget that terrible day,
but what ever happens,
those fire fighters
will always be there to protect
our beautiful country.
Ashley I.
November 2001
The Terrorist

Planes crash.  Children scream.
I turn to see a burning building. 
I shiver--part angrily, part scared.

Questions pop up like popcorn,
but none I can answer.

I wake up to find that I’m safe
in my bed and my family is all right.
I try to fall asleep again, but I can’t stop thinking about the terrorist.

I shiver once more.
Rowan C.
November 2001

The Flag Still Stands Tall
The Moment Strikes. 
The horror comes.
Terrorist pictures run through my mind.
As I watch the t.v. blanklishly, I wonder,
What will happen next?
I look in the background to see
the flag still stands tall.
Ashley W.
November 2001

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Story of Charlotte's Web

I remember years ago when my friend Cheryl shared a photograph of E.B. White with me from her classroom calendar.  Famous writers writing in their favorite "writing spots" filled each month's pages, black and white photographs coupled with a quote by the featured author.  E.B. White sitting alone at a typewriter at a plain oak table in his barn was one of the images.  It was poignant.
      I've always loved E.B. White's writing.  It's charming.  It's simple.  It's often poignant.  And, sometimes strange subject matter aside, his writing is just brilliant.  And, like most of you, I think Charlotte's Web is his most endearing piece of work.  His description of the barn is, by all accounts, the most delicious, detailed, and delectable text I think I've ever read (of course, it helps that I spent summer's exploring the nooks and crannies of my sister's barn)!  I shudder when I read it!*
     When I was at The Tattered Cover a few weeks ago, The Story of Charlotte's Web caught my eye... perhaps because of the simplicity of the cover which includes the picture of E.B. White as a child.  It made it into my shopping basket.  And, I'm so glad it did!
     Michael Sims has paid humble homage to White in this book.  E.B. White, shy and unassuming, makes for delightful subject matter.  Sims explores White's life, his writing, and his connection to nature with depth and candor.  He spends most of the book exploring Charlotte's Web from both the point of view of a writer and a philosopher.  Michael Sims writes about White with utmost respect.  
     I love that White describes himself as a "writing fool" as a child and I think my students will love to hear that.  In today's program-oriented climate, I worry sometimes that we're not nurturing our students to become "writing fools" as much as we are nudging them into the realms of "foolish writing!"  Sometimes it takes a detailed account of a writer's life to remind us what that life can and should look like... full of words, poetry, essay, exploration, research, and writing!  Sometimes we have to be reminded of what a writer is... and, in turn, help define for our students what power writing brings to their young lives (and ourselves perhaps)!
  NPR did a wonderful story on this book.  Why not take a read and a listen"It's not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both" (White, 1952, p. 184).  In this case, both White and Sims are tremendous writers!

*White's description is a great cousin text to the beginning pages of The Winter Room by Gary Paulsen.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Me... Jane - Patrick McDonnell... Brilliant!

My daughter knows Patrick McDonnell because "Mutts" is one of her favorite comics (and she was happy to learn that there is the possibility of a Mutts movie).  I know Patrick McDonnell because he is a brilliant author and illustrator.  Together, we discovered Me... Jane (check out the video on Patrick McDonnell's site) on our recent shopping spree at The Tatter Cover here in Denver.
     We have enjoyed The Gift of Nothing and Wag! and Art... but we both fell head-over-heels in love with Me... Jane.  Perhaps because it tells the story of Dr. Jane Goodall from a different perspective, beginning with her stuffed chimpanzee named Jubilee and ending with a subtle "to awake one day... to her dream come true."  The text ends so softly and beautifully!  When we read it together, side-by-side at the bookstore, an audible gasp could be heard between us... my sixth grade daughter and I breathing in the brilliance of Me... Jane as we read it "once for our heads... and then again for our hearts." (Conferring, p. 52 - and, thanks to my friend Randi Allison for introducing me to this concept). 
     The book tells us the story of Jane Goodall as I've never read it before... and it's written with rhythm, simplicity, and gentleness.  When you open to the page with the drawing of Jane lying with Jubilee hand-in-hand, the words, "It was a magical world full of joy and wonder, and Jane felt very much a part of it," you, too, will gasp!  Patrick McDonnell takes us on a journey through Jane's childhood that I can't stop thinking about... and I keep wondering, "Are we instilling the same sense of wonder, passion, and inquisitiveness in our own children or students?" 
     I can't get this book out of my mind.  As I started school this week, looking into the faces of 29 different learners, I pondered this book and its message of hope.  Are we, as teachers, doing enough to nudge and encourage the future Janes of the world, given the fact that our world is so ever-changing?  Are we, as teachers, given the time, authentic resources, and freedom to let children explore their passions?  Are we, as teachers, providing enough choice in our classrooms for inquiry to flourish?  And, how can we, in a place called school, do more... esp. when more and more our teaching transactions are dictated by mandates, programs, and achievement pressure knocking on our doors daily telling us what's important and how exactly to teach.  Important to ponder, no?
     For me, it's books like Me... Jane that I need to keep in mind as I begin this school year.  It's the joy that my daughter and I felt when we read this book together that I have to keep in mind as I try to blend the "mandates" with my real purpose as a teacher.  I can't wait to read it to my students... it's going in my "Endurance" basket.  
     Check it out... it's lovely!  As you read it, like Jane, you will feel "your own heart beating, beating, beating."

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

No One But You

Tomorrow I go back to school.  As usual, I'm pondering the new year a lot.  My mind has been racing for the last week!  I still have about 100 things to do... and a short time to do it.  It seems as if summer just started.  Tomorrow I have a ton of work to do!
      To relax a bit today, I spent the afternoon at one of our local independent bookstores, The Tattered Cover.  It's always such a treat to spend the afternoon shopping with your children, perusing the shelves.  My youngest son and daughter went with me!  We had a great time drinking coffee (and hot chocolate), perusing, and chatting about books.  My son came with us and then I dropped him downtown to join his friends at Tha Myx (His youth group joins them periodically for service events).  It was a great afternoon.*
     My daughter and I found ourselves in the children's department for nearly two hours... just long enough to fill two bags with books.  My son hung out in the music section...
     No One But You by Douglas Wood is one of the books that made it into my overflowing basket.  There was something provocative about the book... from the the cover illustration to the narrative text to the last line, I was hooked.  I was looking for a book to start out the year with... (last year it was Necks Out For Adventure by Timothy Basil EringWe used it as our "theme" for the year... rereading it several times and asking "How are we sticking our necks out right now?").
     This book ends, "And no one – no one in all the wide world but you - can feel the feelings in your heart, knowing that someone loves you…and saying words only your lips can say; 'I love you, too.' No one but you."  It's a perfect sentiment, "No One But You!"  As I read through the book, I realized that it's going to be our "go to" book this year.  I'm reading it the first week as we talk about ownership, exploration, and growth.  Who's in charge? "No one but you..."
     I think it's the perfect book to start out the year (thanks again, Candlewick Press for publishing such great books).  I love the text (even though it's not school specific) and the illustrations are amazing.  I can't wait to share it with my students!  
- - - - - - - - 

Thanks for the gift certificate... you know who you are!  It was a special treat even though it's taken me this long to get there!

I'll be blogging a bit about some of my other finds!  Stay tuned.   

Friday, July 1, 2011

Tales of a Gambling Grandma

Tales of a Gambling Grandma by Dayla Kaur Khalsa is one of those books that you find in your stacks and say, "Oh, I love this one!"  It's a story told through the eyes of a young girl who loves and adores her grandmother as "told to her by her grandmother."
     I love using snippets of this book during a study of memoir or personal narrative.  I've also used snippets when encouraging children to write about one of their "heroes."  It also lends itself to a study of worthy sentences or grand punctuation.
     It's a delightful read and as you move through the pages, you can't help but think about your own grandmother, grandfather, mother, or father.  It's perfect for nudging a ten-minute write in writer's notebook... in your own or in a student's.  It's a perfect read to stretch any writer.
     My friend Cathy recommended this book to me.  And, I'm so glad she did.  It's endearing and charming, funny and sad, complex and captivating.  Lines like, "My grandma sat like a flowering mountain in her big green garden chair." or "There were occasional visitors under our willow tree--other children in a quiet mood, the next-door cat on its way somewhere else, the mailman, and two tall nuns who lived around the corner." or "I sat in a chair in her silent kitchen, with no soap opera, and ate a sandwich cut only in two."  The writing is often explicit, often simple... a perfect text to mentor young writers.  
     Although not everyone will have the experience of having a "gambling grandma" or growing up in New York, everyone can experience the gift of good writing.  I'm so glad I picked up this old favorite from my stacks and read it again...
     I can't wait to use it in writer's workshop next year.  Now just to fit it into the right study...

Monday, June 27, 2011

Guest Blogging - Two Writing Teachers

Hello Readers, 

I am "guest blogging" on Ruth and Stacey's blog on or around the first of July.  I spent a little time reflecting on my journey with my friend, Randi Allison, and the learning we've done together for the past 25 years. 

Randi just retired after 27 years of teaching, learning, and growing.  I can't wait to see where her journey leads her for the years ahead. 

Take a gander!  I think you'll enjoy it...


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Ahh... Van Allsburg!

I've been a fan of Chris Van Allsburg for most of my career.  I remember listening to him as I sat on the floor of The Bookies (our local bookstore) more years ago than I like to count (he looked so "bookish" in his tweed jacket with leather patched sleeves)!  He was one of the first children's authors I saw up close and personal.  I remember my first encounter with his work when my wife, then girlfriend, shared Jumanji with me when we were both in college.  She read it for her children's literature class and we were both in awe.  Since then he's become one of my (our) favorite illustrators and writers (My favorite book is Bad Day at Riverbend).
     What I love most about his work is that he stretches curiosity.  He piques interest.  He expands vocabulary.  He takes risks.  He weaves surrealism into the every day lives of the reader.  He moves beyond ordinary to extraordinary.  He always takes me on a journey of thought and challenges me as a reader.  And his illustrations are always amazing and unique!
     I was excited to see Queen of the Falls!  And, it doesn't disappoint... Once again, Chris Van Allsburg moved be through an exciting journey (leaning on nonfiction this time) as a reader.  In the book, Van Allsburg tells the story of 62-year-old Annie Edson Taylor, who in 1901 becomes the "first" person to go over Niagara Falls!  What else was a "charming" woman to do when her charm school closed?  Make a name for herself.  She becomes the "Queen" after attempting something only the bravest daredevil might consider... what a lady!  It's written and drawn beautifully.
     This is the perfect book to add to your Van Allsburg collection.  I can see using it when we talk about "endurance and stamina" as learners.  I think it shows the kind of persistence, courage, and introspection that learners need to be successful.  I'm so glad Chris Van Allsburg decided to take on this exciting topic with his genius.  I hope it's not the last time he tackles a story like this one.  I remain a fan!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

It Takes Commitment

     I’ve been thinking a lot about commitment.  The commitments we make are sometimes overwhelming—teaching, parenting, relationships.  While I was exploring the meaning of the term commitment, I found an interesting article online (on a leadership site, which, by the way, I know nothing about, but I liked the premise).  It stated: 
     A great business leader once said: "...the basic philosophy, spirit, and drive of an organization have far more to do with its relative achievements than do technological or economic resources, organizational structure, innovation, and timing. All these things weigh heavily in success. But they are, I think, transcended by how strongly the people in the organization believe in its basic precepts and how faithfully they carry them out." (from Thomas J. Watson, Jr., A Business and its Beliefs - The ideas that helped build IBM).
      As true as this is for the success of a corporation, it is even more so for the individual. The most important single factor in individual success is COMMITMENT. Commitment ignites action. To commit is to pledge yourself to a certain purpose or line of conduct. It also means practicing your beliefs consistently. There are, therefore, two fundamental conditions for commitment. The first is having a sound set of beliefs. There is an old saying that goes, "Stand for something or you'll fall for anything." The second is faithful adherence to those beliefs with your behavior. Possibly the best description of commitment is "persistence with a purpose".
     I love the term “persistence with a purpose.”  In the classroom, I’ve done a lot of work with my students around the idea of “Learning with a Spirit of Endurance” (see Conferring: The Keystone of Reader’s Workshop for more information).  And, while I’ve explored stamina and endurance with students, in terms of their learning, I think I’m going to go after the idea of persistence with a purpose with them next year.  To strengthen endurance, I think it takes both commitment and persistence. 
     Case in point – Exercise.  The dreaded “E” word!
     For the past five weeks, I’ve committed to exercising every day.  I’ve started doing P90X© for the SECOND time (I didn’t have right attitude the first time).  And, now I’m committing to not giving up.  In fact, to strengthen my commitment to getting in shape, I signed up to be coach with the Beachbody organization.  I’ve also started incorporating another exercise program, RevAbs©, an at-home exercise program designed to burn fat and strengthen core abdominal muscles.  Why become a coach – it’s made me accountable both to myself and to others.  Isn’t accountability an important aspect of commitment?
     For the past year, I’ve been sedentary, a couch potato.  I admit it, it’s been longer than that (but one year makes it sound a bit more forgiving)… but, because of the encouragement of my friends, Troy and Jarod, I’ve gotten up off the couch.  Through our conversations, text messages, and consistent nudges, we’ve all made a renewed commitment to exercise.  Mind you, I don’t look like the guy on the DVD; in fact sometimes I curse him when I’m working out.  But the point is, I’m trying.  Taking a 51-year-old body and putting it through daily rituals and routines, can’t help but improve my health!
     I’ve also committed to better eating.  I am an eater.  My mother was a restaurant owner – one fine and dandy cook.  And, fortunately/unfortunately, she passed the love of cooking and eating on to me!  So I’ve decided to make better choices.  I’ve committed to drinking a Shakeology©  shake every day as a meal replacement (it's an amazing product by the way, click on the link and read about it).  This choice alone has strengthened my endurance as I exercise.  I feel so much better energy wise (it’s doing a lot internally that I don’t even realize).  I’ve tried to be flexible and try something new.
     My older brother immediately responded, “Not interested!” when I told him about my new health regime.  But after watching our father have his leg amputated from complications of diabetes (according to the National Diabetes Association, more than 60% of nontraumatic lower-limb amputations occur with people with diabetes) and seeing our mother suffer through complications of diabetic gangrene, I realized that I had to become a decision-maker.  I had to commit to making sure that I’m doing what I can to prevent the same fate.  Eliminating body fat is one step in the right direction.  Perhaps my demonstration and modeling will help my brother change his mind next time we see each other.
     Commitment is gradual.  I’ve seen my friend Troy journey through a complete transformation of mind and body (we originally started at the same time, he kept going, I gave up… Then I made excuses, “You’re ten years younger!” or “I don’t have time!”).  Recently, I've watched him and wondered, “Why couldn't I do that?”  Through sharing and cooperation, he has helped me see that the benefits of making a commitment will pay off in the long term.  Troy checks in with me, he supports me, and he listens.  He’s a good coach, and more importantly, a good friend—he’s given me a tremendous amount of support as I begin making exercise an important part of my daily life!  In turn, he has encouraged my independence and I’ve passed my learning on to Jarod.  
     So what does this have to do with learning?  Everything.  The article I found also said, “Commitment is most difficult and most readily proven during tough times. How someone weathers the storms most clearly demonstrates their basic beliefs. In antiquity, Epicurus stated: "...a captain earns his reputation during the storms."  So as I end this school year and begin a new one, I’m going to take this idea of commitment and incorporate it into our workshops.  As I continue my new regime, I'm going to explore what other aspects of my new learning I can bring to the conversation.
     As learners, persistence with a purpose will be a moniker of our time together!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Finding a Voice - The Clever Stick

The Clever Stick by John Lechner is another sweet little find that my students loved when I shared it with them recently.  We've done so much talk about creating metaphor to explain our thinking that my students immediately started wrapping this text around the work we've done as learners this year.  Case in point, one of my students said:  "The stick is like me, Mr. Allen, sometimes I have something really important to say and you always make sure that I get to talk about my thinking, write about my thinking and share my thinking with others."  
     This book is almost fable-like.  It's really about finding your voice.  In the text, a stick that is "sharp" has so many things to say, but can't think of a way to get his thinking out... until he comes up with a creative way to let all his thinking flow for others to see.  It starts... "Once upon a time there was a clever stick.  Ever since he had fallen off the tree he had been sharp..."
     From the beginning, this simple text is filled with humor and wonderful lines.  I can see using it as a mentor text in writing.  But, more importantly, I'm thinking it will be a wonderful launching point to our discussion of "trust, tone, and respect" next year as I begin with a new group of learners.  Bringing clarity and honesty to our workshops is something I work on with my students on a regular basis.  Helping them find their voices as learners is such a critical aspect of a well-running, "trust-filled" learning environment.  The Clever Stick is a perfect addition to a constantly growing list of books that I've collected that illustrate the importance of building independence... slowly, gradually, and metaphorically.  
     This is a perfect book to add to your classroom picture book collection, whether you're a first grade teacher or an eighth grade teacher.  It's quaint simplicity adds to its richness!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

LIterature That Supports the Workshop Structure

I'm always searching for books to use to reintroduce my students to the workshop structure... books we can compare to our work as learners.  Next year as I revisit the rituals, routines, and roles of the workshop structure (reader's, writer's, mathematician's, etc.), I've found two new choices.  It's important for us to talk about the specifics of the structure of the workshop (crafting, composing, reflecting) and to define our roles within that structure as learners (I wrote about this in Conferring: The Keystone of Reader's Workshop).  Although the structure of the workshop is a familiar one, I think students need opportunities to explore the structure in new learning environments, contexts, and with varied expectations from teacher to teacher.  I've run across two nice choices:
     The first book is Workshop by Andrew Clements (recommended by my friend, Lori).  It's a simple book that describes the "tools" necessary to have at the ready in a workshop... the book is written in free-verse, wonderfully written.  The late David Wisniewski's artwork is beautiful cut-paper.  Throughout the text, a young apprentice assists in the creative of a carousel.  It introduces the reader to the "tools" necessary to create something worth building with pride and care.  I'm thinking it will be a nice companion text to use during our beginning of the year discussions of the "tools" we use as learners... comparing and contrasting a wonderful metaphor for learning.
     The second book is Wendel's Workshop by Chris Riddell.  In this book, Wendal is a mouse inventor... who experiments, starts over, experiments, starts over.  He invents a robot name Clunk to help tidy up his experiments, but eventually sends Clunk to the junk pile after he makes a few frustrating mistakes (Clunk is, well, Clunky and awkward).  Wendle then builds a bigger, more aggressive robot named Wendelbot, who goes a bit "wacko" and sends Wendel to the junk heap only to be reunited with Clunk.  Using the remains of his previous experiments--broken pieces and parts--he creates an army of robots to take over the workshop.  In the classroom, I will use this text to discuss the decision-making involved in experimentation and developing endurance as learners.  It's a quaint little book.  Simple story line, but with a message that can be easily compared to the workshop structure!
    It's important that we talk to learners about the workshop structure.  It's important that help learners their roles and responsibilities within the workshop structure.  It's important to challenge students to view their learning through the lens of literature and how their responsibilities fit within the workshop structure.  
     Is there a better way than through the use of literature? 

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Junonia - A Gem

I just picked up Kevin Kenkes's Junonia.  It's a wonderful little story about a girl named Alice who vacations in Florida each year.  As she turns ten, she's worried about her birthday... worried it won't be the perfect birthday. 
     As she goes to celebrate with her family, she has to deal with a lot of changes occurring in Sanibel Island (her family's yearly vacation spot)... this year's vacation is different from vacations of the past.  She comes to love the cottage neighbors, but this year one of her favorites is not there.  Alice has to deal with her mother's friend and her boyfriend's daughter... a six-year-old!  There's an awkwardness to turning ten that Henkes captures beautifully in this book... about the changes children go through and how they handle it. 
     He helps Alice move through the changes she's experiencing beautifully.  Henkes writes about Alice's life in such a poignant and stunning way.  During her trip, Alice longs to find a rare junonia shell for her collection, but takes with her so much more... memories and remembrances to last a lifetime.  From the pitter patter of rain to the feelings that Alice experiences, Henkes captures the life of a ten-year-old in such a gentle and thoughtful way.  I loved this book! 
     You can listen to Kevin Henkes talk about the book and why it's so important to him.  Such a purposeful and thoughtfully written book.  I just gave it to my daughter to read and I can't wait for her review!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Making Learning Whole - "Light" Summer Reading

David Perkins is the co-director of Harvard's Project Zero*.  In Making Learning Whole, he introduces seven principals of teaching that take a revised look at wise practice.  Building the book around a baseball metaphor, Dr. Perkins offers a compelling look at what we can do to enhance learning.  Thank you to my friend and colleague, Missy Matthews, for recommending it at our last "Friday Freaks" get-together.
    This is not a "how to" book, it's not filled with easy answers that provide a step-by-step notion of teaching.  BUT, if you're interesting in taking your philosophy to new depth--to rethink how you look at learning and to reflect thoughtfully on your own practice--this is a terrific read.  It's fodder for thought!
     Dr. Perkins develops a framework for teaching that is both practical and research-oriented.  And since it's a framework, it's not explicitly developed as a "do this" type of text, but more of a "think about this" guide.  His seven principles for making learning whole include:
  • Play the whole game
  • Make the game worth playing
  • Work on the hard parts
  • Play out of town
  • Uncover the hidden game
  • Learn from the team... and the other teams
  • Learn the game of learning
     Dr. Perkins talks about approaching the complexity of learning with wonder and placing a focus on understanding.  He ends each chapter with a one-page "Wonders of Learning" synthesis related to the seven concepts he espouses.  He talks about motivation and the importance of sustaining learning.  He talks about the importance of knowing and emphasizing sustained learning.  He talks about how to develop self-managed learners.  I think Making Learning Whole is a perfect cousin text to Ellin Keene's To Understand.  
     If you're like me, you plan on spending some time reflecting on your practice over the summer.  If you're like me, you're always looking for research-oriented support for your deeply held beliefs as a teacher and learner.  If you're like me, you're looking for "real-world" applications of learning and trying to identify the needs of the 21st Century learner.
     Some of my favorite quotes from the book are:  
  • "Do not read this book too carefully.  By all means look through it, but if you discover ideas that seem provocative, try something soon." 
  • "The problem of content is simple:  Teach today what learners will need to understand and act on tomorrow.  Unfortunately, both as individuals living our personal lives and in a larger social sense we only know roughly from trends and guesses what tomorrow ill be like.  Tomorrow is a moving target."
  • "Good work on the hard parts is one of the fundamental structural challenges of teaching and learning."
  • If much of what we taught highlighted understandings of wide scope, with enlightenment, empowerment, and responsibility in the foreground, there is every reason to think that youngsters would retain more, understand more, and use more of what they learned."
  • Here is a simple but surprisingly revealing plan for such a dig: 1) What is one thing you understand really well?  2) How did you come to understand it?  3)  How do you know you understand it?
     I can imagine reading Making Learning Whole with a small group of colleagues and having rich conversation about the purpose and practice of wise teaching... any takers?  I can't wait to dig deeper into this book!  It may just nudge my thinking in a new direction. 
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*Ron Ritchhart also works as a researcher at Project Zero.  His research focuses on understanding how to develop, nurture, and sustain thoughtful learning environments.  He is the author of Intellectual Character:  What it is, Why it matters, and How to get it.  Check it out if you haven't read it!