Sunday, January 30, 2011

Growing Up Laughing

From 1966 until 1971, "That Girl" was a regular on our console black and white television (it was a Sears model and boy did we think it was fancy).  Does anyone remember the "That Girl" episode where Roger took Ann Marie to a party and told her to mingle?  She walked around saying, "Mingle... mingle, mingle... mingle!"  I still laugh when I think about that one.  And, I don't know why it sticks in my head!  There's something endearing about sitcoms of the 1960s; I miss them!
     Today, while I was wandering the bookstore, I picked up Marlo Thomas's book Growing Up Laughing: My Story and the Story of Funny.  I sat in a comfy chair with a cup of coffee and, for the next hour and a half, I was hooked!  The creator of Free to Be... You and Me and other "best selling" books has documented a creative look at her childhood through the eyes of the "laughter" that surrounded her family.  But, of course, if Danny Thomas was your father, you would have to laugh!
     What I enjoyed about the book was the fact that she included anecdotes and memories about Bob Hope, Sid Caesar, George Burns, and Milton Berle (and other famous comedians of her father's era).  Imagine having them as family friends... imagine the dinner parties!  I laughed out loud at some of the jokes and stories she included... I guess because I remember watching these same comedians when I was growing up... still love catching them on re-runs or You Tube.  Watching comedians work their magic was something that bonded our family as we sat and watched television together (well, that and Gunsmoke, Carol Burnett, and Bonanza).   My parents loved a good joke and we laughed together a lot!
     Thomas includes interviews with many of today's "hot" comedians... which is an added bonus.  Among her stories of growing up with the greats and her family memories, she intersperses interviews with Jerry Seinfeld, Ben Stiller, Jay Leno, Tina Fey, and several other contemporary comedians... all of them share how they were influenced by the same actors and comedians that Marlo Thomas had been, except that she knew the "greats" personally via her father!  Who doesn't love a good joke?  Who doesn't love a good story?
     Not my typical blog post, but I certainly could see using bits and pieces of this book as a mentor text for writers.  Imagine students adding tidbits and "interviews" with family members and friends as part of a memoir study.  I think it would add a delightful twist to a study of memoir. 
     I may be adding Marlo Thomas's book to my "have to buy it" list!  "That Girl" sure got me thinking about a new twist to make memoir writing come alive... for myself and my students.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Recent Professional Development Day with Administrators...

Captive audience, no?
Two weeks ago, a snowstorm (albeit slight in Colorado terms) co-mingled with a planned day of professional development, so I ended up working with a group of school administrators in Missouri.  I was planning to work with a wonderful group of elementary teachers who are working to blend thinking strategy instruction into the work they are doing with writers in writer's workshop.  Instead, the principal called me while I was on my way to the airport explaining that school had been canceled in the district in which I was scheduled to work.  So, he asked, "Would you mind working with a group of about 20 elementary administrators instead?  We have to come to school and would love the opportunity."  Without hesitating, I immediately agreed.  
     We forget that administrators need wise professional development just as much as we do.  I thought about the plans I had already organized for teachers.  Some aspects of the day would work.  I knew I would invite them to take part in a reader's workshop (I worked on inferring with a meaty piece of text).  I knew I would have them them take a blank model of the workshop structure and identify three things, "What would children be doing?  What would teachers be doing?  What would I (as administrator) be doing?" during crafting, composing, and reflecting.  So, I did a bit more planning on the plane and when I landed and got to my hotel, I immediately "tweeted," emailed, and called some of my colleagues for suggestions. 
     Karen Szymusiak (OH) tweeted a great suggestion, "Talk to them about the hallmarks of good reading and writing workshop.  What do you look for in an effective literacy-based classroom."  
     Franki Sibberson (OH) and Carol Wilcox (CO) both suggested I use conferring as a basis for discussion, "How can principals utilize the same theories of a good reading conference when talking about instruction?"   
     Donalyn Miller (TX) replied, "Administrators must understand what best practices look like in order to help us."   
     Lori Conrad (CO) suggested asking, "What does a reader look like at ______ (insert name) elementary?" 
     Using their suggestions as guiding questions, I framed my day.  Then I had a long telephone conversation with Dana Berg (WY) about the ways her former principal, Christine Frude (our friend who is now retired, splitting time between WY and FL), provided and encouraged opportunities for ongoing, systemic, and thoughtful professional growth (I've worked with their school for six years).  
     Ahh... when collective minds come together!  The result... together, adminstrators and I spend the morning talking about reader's workshop... focusing on specific rituals and routines, strategy instruction, and some of the nitty-gritty aspects of reader's workshop.
     We ended our day using, in part, a document my colleague Missy Matthews (CO) and I had created entitled, "What do I expect from someone facilitating a group of learners in my classroom?"  To it, I added the results of my conversations with friends and colleagues.  Here is the result:

Pondering:  How can my administrator best support literacy work?
During classroom visits:
  • name the things I may not have noticed I did – name the brilliance
  • ask questions that will encourage my best thinking
  • talk with me before and after formal visits… debrief and plan… know my classroom and who I am as a teacher
  • focus the prebrief and debrief on specific areas of instruction... ask me about the “data” I hope to glean from our visits
  • provide feedback – 'here's another brilliant thing I noticed that you did'
  • together decide on a focus -- one or two 'look fors'
  • be prepared, on time and friendly
  • let me in on the purpose of the visit
  • write my students and me a note after the visit
  • bring calmness, humor and sincerity to the visit
  • understand the workshop model and where we are on the gradual release of responsibility model
  • notice underlying rituals and routines, and bring them to the forefront of the discussion
  • help me name specific observations – beyond “I liked how…” or “Johnny seemed to be…”
  • understand thinking strategy instruction

In terms of Professional Development:
  • understand how children think and learn
  • provide opportunities and time to talk with other colleagues
  • provide resources – books, fund workshops, etc. 
  • focus the prebrief and debrief on specific areas of instruction
  • be creative in scheduling large blocks of time for literacy
  • be an active participant in the learning process
  • differentiate – look for ways to meet specific needs
  • eliminate “yes, buts” – encourage collegiality
  • communicate
  • take it slowly – know that growing takes time
  • model the role of a learner – look for growth opportunities
  • step out of administrator role into role of a learner
  • build systems for continued growth
  • focus energy on the “naysayers”
  • act as a political “filter”
  • be present – not just “nice” – understand instruction
  • participate in study groups – provide resources and time
Not the actual....
.... administrators!
     Our day turned into a productive day of learning, a day of great conversation, and a day of professional development that can't help but impact the work principals do with their staffs.  In fact, several of the participants took their learning and used it with their staffs that same week.  They appreciated the time to talk, to ask questions, and to learn alongside their peers.  And, who could ask for anything more?  A perfect snowy day! 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Home, Home on the Range...

In my classroom, I have a basket of books labeled "About Country Life"... and in it are all my favorite "cowboy" books.  When I was little, I remember saying, "I want to be a cowboy when I grow up, just like Curtis" (he's my brother-in-law and I've written about him many times, if you search my blog archives you can read all about him... and, by the way, he's still hanging in there).  Mrs. Cannon had our entire class interviewed in "Heckart's Market" by the local radio station.  And, something about that six-year-old dream still sticks with me.  I haven't ridden a horse in years, I haven't helped brand cattle since I was about 16-years-old, and can you imagine what a pair of size 13 cowboy boots would look like?  But, there's a part of me that still remembers... especially the songs!  I'm still a country buff and loves "old" country music and I'm partial to the Sons of the Pioneers. 
     I also happen to love Deborah Hopkinson's work.  In this book, she writes a delightful "biography" based on the life of John Avery Lomax, a "musicologist."  She brilliantly captures his life growing up in Texas and his love for music.  John Lomax didn't grow up to be a "cowboy" either, but he did grow up to be a searcher of songs.  He was a music hunter (sounds like a good show on TLC, eh?)!  Traveling, collecting, recording... he was a collector of folk songs!  Lomax attended the University of Texas and later Harvard.  He focused his efforts on documenting the cowboy songs that drifted through this childhood memories... and even attempted to collect recordings of them being sung by real cowboys.  Now that's a hobby! 
     And, I'm so glad Deborah Hopkinson captured his story... in detail, based on fact, and brilliantly inviting!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Jean Fritz... 95 years and still ticking....

What are you going to be doing when you're 95 years old?  Breathing, perhaps?  Living?  I hope so.
     If you're Jean Fritz you'll be celebrating the publication of your 45th book.  This month Jean Fritz added Alexander Hamilton: The Outsider to her repertoire.  In this book, she writes a detailed account of Alexander Hamilton's life... from his arriving in New York to Study from the West Indies, to his political career, to his death in a duel.  
     Jean Fritz has won many awards for her writing, including the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award and the Newbery Honor.  I've always enjoyed reading her writing... Shhh! We're Writing the Constitution to The Secret Life of Pocahontas to Surprising Myself to The Cabin Faced WestHomesick: My Own Story her autobiographical "story" of her young life is nothing less than brilliant.  
     Ms. Fritz has found her niche and has brought history alive for many young readers.  I'm amazed at her ability to capture history in such a rich and varied way.  She once said that she researches like a reporter... she looks for a scoop, notes clues and details, digs deep into her subjects and the result is her incredible list of books, many of which have become part of our classroom libraries.  She writes about real people and searches journals and letters for "real" dialogue.  She only uses the actual words of her subjects to recreate history and making it accessible for her readers.  And, she often surprises us with humor and unique situations that even the most "adult" biographer skips.
     As she begins her 95th year, I think we need to all tip our collective hats with a huge "thank you" and wish her continued blessings.  I can't wait to read Alexander Hamilton... I wonder what secrets she'll reveal?  She always does...

Saturday, January 15, 2011

dear world

I love Tokayo Noda's work.  I love dear world.  It's one of my favorite books of poetry.  I use with children often... because within its simplicity lies a tremendous amount of complexity of thought.  
     Using her poetry for inferring makes so much sense to me... the text is short, easy to get in the hands of readers, and filled with just enough of a nudge, both in vocabulary and content, to get readers contemplating.  
     Her poem "dear sun" always makes learners think beyond just the text...  dear world is one of those books that I've come to rely on often, no matter what strategy we are investigating as both readers and writers.  I use it in my own classroom and while doing demonstration teaching in other classrooms.  Simple complexity.  That's how I would categorize this book.  Plus, it's just beautiful... I can imagine children delving into an illustration study of collage after close study of her artwork.
     Her illustrations using cut-paper collages are stunning!  If someone wanted to make me happy, they'd give me an original piece of framed piece of Tokayo Noda's art.  Trust me, I've perused her website often... just to take in the wonder of her creativity.
     If you don't have dear world in your collection, it should be.  Along with Song of the Flowers, you'll have two books by a children's author and illustrator who I hope will continue to add to her repertoire.
dear world
please tell me
why and how
you keep our earth
so beautiful

Sunday, January 9, 2011

You might be a book fiend if...

Keeping up on all the new titles that cross my path via my Twitter account, the blogs I read, and the emails I receive is next to impossible.  I read blogs and say, "Oh, I have to have that book!"  I receive Tweets from colleagues with recommendations and reflections and say, "Oh, I have to have that one!"  I read emails and say, "Oh, I have to have that one!"  I meander a bookstore's aisles and say, "Oh, I have to have that one!"  My friend texts me and I say, "Oh, I have to have that one too!"
     Sometimes it's a bit overwhelming... and a bit tricky when I open my wallet and there's no cash, or I check my online account and the funds are running low!  It's like the Erasmus quote on the bag my children gave me for Christmas, "When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes."   I'm not alone... it happens to us all.  
     I was talking to my friends Dana, a first grade teacher, and Barb (@bgail59), a literacy coach, while I was working in Casper, Wyoming this week.  All three of us were laughing about our obsession with books!  Barb plays a bit of "Pong" with the UPS driver, having him deliver to both home and school... so that there always seems to be a little brown box waiting to surprise her.  Dana, she has a similar passion for beautiful books... and her first grade classroom is a garden of literacy... there are few teachers that display them so beautifully, throughout her classroom there are thoughtful invitations for children that softly cajole, "Pick me up, read me, enjoy me!".  We love sharing titles and I brought so many that I had to stop at Evansville's Wal-Mart on the way back to the hotel (after dinner at 9:30 p.m.) to buy a plastic tub to reorganize the books I had taken with me because my book bag ripped as I was trudging into the hotel (one of the pitfalls of doing staff development in a city nearby).
      So, this "gotta-have-it" mentality is not just an obsession that I share with locals that I learn with and from on a daily basis... it's a widespread mania that all bookstore and Amazon denizens possess.  But, unlike other addictions, I don't know if being a "bookie" can cause much harm, can it?  Of course, if it comes in combination with being a "foodie" that could cause a problem... the more you weigh, the harder it is to run to the bookstore (I'll let you infer the other combinations with book-obsession that could cause either mental or physical anguish).
     Hmmm... maybe it's just a simple a process of identifying the 12 things that make you a book fiend.  Here are 12 ideas you might consider before 2012 rolls around (my apologies to Jeff Foxworthy):
  1. If you peruse blogs and order new titles at random without previewing the book, you might be a book fiend. 
  2. If you clean your bookshelves and find you have four copies of the same book AND you realize you've never read it, you might be a book fiend.
  3. If you have six bags of books "ready to take to school" that never seem to leave your at-home library, you might be a book fiend.
  4. If you sit in a quiet corner with a cup of coffee and look for possible crafting lessons in picture books and spend time labeling them with sticky notes, you might be a book fiend.
  5. If you spill coffee on a book and replace it, but never  find the need to recycle the wrinkled, stained book, but simply say it's "a first-edition, well-loved book that I've antiqued," you might be a book fiend. 
  6. If you buy your friend a book for his birthday and then buy yourself a copy too (or worse yet, ask to borrow it before he even opens it), you might be a book fiend.
  7. If you race to peruse the library discard pile when your librarian sends out an email that says it is "first come, first served," you might be a book fiend. 
  8. If you've ever gotten in a physical tussle with your best friend on the floor of the children's section at the Tattered Cover or The Bookies or The Boulder Bookstore (insert your favorite local bookstore) because there was only one copy of a title and there was bleeding or punching involved (yes, it's happened), you might be a book fiend.
  9. If your friend finds a book and says, "It's out of print!" and you spend $55 or more for your own copy, you might be a book fiend.
  10. If you hide books in the trunk of your car and then sneak them onto the shelves before your spouse finds out you spent more money on books, you might be a book fiend. 
  11. If you find elements of craft in a book and giggle out loud, drool, squeal, sweat, or turn to a complete stranger and say, "Listen to this..." and don't care if she stares at you in fear or disdain, you might be a book fiend.
  12. If your best friend says he has come down with an illness that perplexes his physician and your first question is, "Can I have your books?", you might be a book fiend.
So, if anyone is interested, you might join me by adding your own "You might be a book fiend if..." comment to the blog.  Otherwise, I guess it's okay to say, "What the hell!  At least I've got something to show for it" and keep on, keeping on!  As for me, I have 12 books in my Amazon cart that I need to prioritize on this snowy, Colorado afternoon... race ya! 

Saturday, January 8, 2011

My Reading Life

Two weeks ago, my friend Carol send me several emails listing quotes from Pat Conroy's book, My Reading Life.  Each time one of her emails came through, I couldn't wait to read it.  Two of my favorite quotes that she sent were:
  •      Writing is the only way I have to explain my own life to myself.
  •      From the time I could talk, I took an immense pleasure in running down words, shagging them like fly balls in some spacious field. 
      I knew I had to have the book, the lines Carol was sending me were just too brilliant to ignore!  I had to read more!  I love when the authors we've come to enjoy spend time explaining, dissecting, reflecting, and exploring their early lives as readers and writers.  I've always had a strong regard for people who can capture in words the journey of falling in love with either reading or writing... Ralph Fletcher, Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, Anna Quindlen, Eudora Welty, Gary Paulsen.  And, Pat Conroy.
     Pat Conroy's collection of 15 essays is beautifully written.  Each essay gives us a glimpse of his love of reading and, more importantly, how he became the teller of tales he is today.  The book is peppered with the titles he remembers fondly.  He shares the words that shaped his love of language.  He shares stories of people whose influence made a lasting impression, both good and bad, on his life.  He shares why he is who he is today. 
     This excerpt is a perfect example of the careful crafting of Conroy's:  I had witnessed with my own eyes that a poem could make a Colonel cry.  Though it was not part of a lesson plan, it imparted a truth that left me spellbound. Great words, arranged with cunning and artistry, could change the perceived world for some readers.  From the beginning, I’ve searched out those writers unafraid to stir up the emotions, who entrust me with their darkest passions, their most indestructible yearnings, and their most soul killing doubts.  I trust the great novelists to teach me how to live, how to feel, how to love and hate.  I trust them to show me the dangers I will encounter on the road as I stagger on my own troubled passage through a complicated life of books that try to teach me how to die. (pp 10-11)
     I am so happy that Carol send me some her favorite lines from the book.  As I read, I'm collecting my own.  Pat Conroy has done a brilliant job of capturing his journey, which is vastly different from my own... but as I read, I'm reminded of Mildred Hache, our small town librarian, who let me spend hours perusing the wooden shelves in our small town library.  I'm reminded of Downie Bishop, my third grade teacher who read us The Boxcar Children.  I'm reminded of my father, a biblical scholar, who read stories from the bible with sincerity and passion.  I'm reminded of the hours my mom would spend telling stories, usually over a game of Canasta or Racko.  I'm reminded of Mildred Henrie, my second grade teacher whose voice I can still hear sharing stories, she had a delightful laugh and her eyes twinkled when she noticed I discovering a new word! 
     And, that's the real beauty of this book... it causes you, the reader, to want to think more deeply at your own journey as a reader and writer.  I just may have a little notebook writing to do!

      Tuesday, January 4, 2011


      I was never drawn to Kazu Kibuishi's work, although I know Amulet is very popular these days, but there was something special about Copper that I couldn't resist.  Perhaps it was the "Behind the Scenes" section at the end of the book that provides a detailed glimpse of his work and his studio.  Perhaps it was the look in the Fred and Cooper's eyes on the cover.  Perhaps it was just because once I started reading this book, I couldn't put it down! 
           What started as a webcomic has expanded into a this collection of "stories."  And, they reminded me so much of the comic book adventures I read as a child.  I immediately became enthralled with Kibuishi's artistic abilities, his attention to detail, his sense of space, his perspective, his use of color, his portrayal of childhood.  One of my favorite "stories" is Picnic... a mainly army green portrait of one of Copper's dreams... or is it?  One look at the dog's eyes at the end of the story and you're not sure.  Or "Bridge" a delightful, one-pager dealing, I think, with childhood crushes.  There are so many great, graphic stories in this book. 
           Of course, it would be fun to do some inferring lessons with Copper, but it's more fun to sit and read and ponder Kazu Kibuishi's genius.  Perhaps I should give Amulet a chance?

      Monday, January 3, 2011

      The Book of Qualities

      On December 10, I attended the PEBC's Winter Seminar with Penny Kittle.  Some of my best learning has come about as a result of my relationship with the Public Education and Business Coalition here in Denver (check out the institutes and seminars available on their website - particularly the four-day Thinking Strategies Institute).  The day I spent with Penny Kittle was no exception.  It was a perfect day of revitalization as a writer and a teacher of writers.  I think, too, that Penny's close connection to Donald Graves added bit of light to the day!
           One of the books that Penny shared with us was The Book of Qualities by J. Ruth Gendler.  It's a collection of third person pieces written around a variety of emotions... beauty, compassion, discipline, anxiety.  Short vignettes that describe each "quality" with simplicity and complexity... perfect springboards for our own writing or for the writing of our students.  Penny selected a few pieces to nudge us to do a quickwrite in our notebooks. 
           It's interesting that this book is found in the "mental health" section of the bookstore (of course, I went to three bookstores and it was either sold out or on hold, so I had to order it from The Tattered Cover).  The book's original intent was likely to bring clarity to our "emotions," but I think Penny had the "write" idea to use it as a springboard for experimenting with words and language.  We don't often focus specifically on an emotion and have a go with third person writing.  And, we don't often focus enough on building fluency as a writer by doing some writing practice (I learned about the importance of practice from my friend and colleague, Randi Allison, author of Tastes Like Chocolate thoughts from young people).  It was such fun to play around with bringing human characteristics to the most human of all qualities - our emotions - in my notebook.
           My day with Penny was exactly what I needed that December day, not to get into the holiday spirit, but to get into the writing spirit.  If you work with adults or older children, or if you want to revitalize your own writing, this might just be the perfect book for you.  Thanks, Penny, for introducing it to us!

      Sunday, January 2, 2011

      Storyteller: Roald Dahl

      First off, Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl by Donald Sturrock, is written for adults.  I love reading biographies that are "authorized" because they are filled with details, anecdotes, and interviews that many biographies lack.  And, this book provides hundreds of details about Roald Dahl's life... details that we, as fans of his children's books, might find interesting or that might taint our view of one of our favorite writers.
           Roald Dahl led an extraordinary, unusually chaotic, life.  Donald Sturrock writes about the triumphs and tragedies that shaped Dahl's life.  Storyteller shares many personal details of Dahl's relationships with others, his marriage to Patricia Neal, his life as a pilot, the deaths of family members, etc.  Sturrock tells the story of a man who led an eclectic and complicated existence.  And, throughout the read he uncovers just how difficult a man Roald Dahl was and he isn't afraid to take a look at Dahl's "darker" side.  Knowing that Sturrock had full acess to Dahl's archives makes this an interesting read.  He synthesizes Dahl's journals, correspondence, and papers into an intimate portrayal of an complex man.  There's a great review on the book on NPR's website.
           There are hints about what made Dahl tick as a writer, but that wasn't the purpose of the biography.  This is not a book to read to find out more about Charlie, Augustus Gloop, or Aunts Spiker and Sponge came to be.  For that, we'll have to rely on other accounts of his life, like Boy or Going Solo or D is for Dahl: A Gloriumptious A-Z Guide to the World of Roald Dahl. 
           Based on this read, Roald Dahl probably wouldn't have been the person we'd have on our friends list... in fact, he likely would have been "unfriended" by many of us.  But there's no denying that he'll remain one of our favorite children's authors.  If you like "tell all" biographies, you might find this a great one to check out from the library!  

      Saturday, January 1, 2011

      Happy New Year! 1-1-11

      Resolution.  Each New Year's Eve I share my resolutions during our New Year's Eve toast and usually forget what they are by the second day in January.  Typical, right? 
           But that's because I usually try to abide by the traditional definition of what a resolution is, "a decision to do something or to behave in a certain manner."  Usually resolutions involve ideas like, "read more, exercise and lose weight, spend more time with the family, pay bills on time, write every day..."  Not that these are bad ideas (they are things I need to do, should do, and hope to do), but I usually discover quickly that life gets in the way... guilt sets in... and I forget my promises to myself!
         And when I looked on the internet I found some humdingers, funny resolutions, like:
      • Eat healthier by adding more lettuce to my BLTs.
      • I will answer my snail mail with the same enthusiasm with which I answer my e-mail.
      • Keep in contact with old friends who have lost more hair than I have. 
      • I will not sit in the living room all day in my pajamas, but move to the family room instead.  
           Poets write poetry about resolutions, columnists write columns about resolutions, comedians write jokes about resolutions... everyone writes about resolutions!
           My favorite resolution quote was by Dave Berry in the Miami Herald, "To succeed, you must believe in yourself. Write this motivational statement in large letters on a piece of paper and tape it someplace where you will see it often, such as on the inside of your eyeglasses: 'I CAN do it, and I WILL do it! Starting next year!'"  And, of course, "next year" comes and goes... and I always realize that time has gone by too quickly.
           So this year, I have decided to choose two other "definitions" of resolution:  1) The act or process of solving, and 2) The state of being relaxed.  If I look at my typical resolutions in a problem-solving manner and I relax about them, I might just actually stick to them.  Simply put:  Think and Relax!  I think those are two resolutions that make sense!

      Happy New Year to all my readers!  I'm looking forward to another year of All-en-A-Day's Work!  Perhaps in a more thoughtful and relaxed manner...
      From Readers Digest