Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

Hmm, not sure how to review this book. I went into it with absolutely no idea what the storyline was, characters, anything. I just knew it was by Selznick and it would amaze, and boy did it.

Unlike Hugo, the pictures and the text are not the same story but two different stories set 50 years apart. The pictures tell the story of Rose's life in 1927 and the text is the story of Ben in 1977. I had a feeling both stories would intersect at some point but I wasn't sure how.

Wonderstruck was moving, captivating, and inspiring. I had this book on pre-order but when it arrived, my students begged me to let them have it first. Once I did, it passed from hand to hand, never returning to my desk so I could have it. When I saw a student finish it yesterday I swooped down and had to promise it would be read in one night. My students, as always, were right. This one is a stunner.

Reading level: late 4th-8th if not higher (friend's HS son read it this week)
Genre: hard to categorize, historical fiction would be one.
Appeals to: All
Rating: Five Stars
Release date: out now

Miss Stretchberry - My 1st Slice of Life post

Slice of Life sponsored by Stacey and Ruth of Two Writing Teachers

Last night as I was reading through my Twitter feed I saw this tweet:

I paused for a few of reasons. First, anytime I see Sharon Creech tweet anything, I pay attention. One of the powers of twitter is, for me, the fact that I can communicate with one of my favorite authors on a daily basis. Two, I pondered if I was a “Stretchberry”. I hoped so. Love that Dog is one of my favorite books. I love reading the conversation between Jack and his teacher. I love that she inspires Jack to become more.

That led me to my final thought, had I been taught by a Miss Stretchberry? I would say a resounding yes. In response to Sharon Creech’s tweet, I sent this out.

Ms. Tuck was my first grade teacher. I think it was her first year of teaching. I idolized her. I clearly remember her clothes; she wore button down shirts, untucked, with a narrow belt around her waist. I remember asking for button down shirts and skinny belts for Christmas so I could dress just like her. What must she have thought of this six year old who was trying to be her? I don’t remember much of what she taught but more how I felt. Special. I felt that she loved me. I wanted to impress her. Was continually striving to do my best. I remember her giving me book after book to read.

Even after I left her room, she still sought me out. When I was a second grader I read the book The Monster at the End of this Book. I loved it. Miss Tuck came to me and asked if I would mind visiting her classroom and reading the book to her first graders. I don’t know how she knew I was reading that book or why she asked me, but what an important day that was.

First, I practiced reading it aloud. I lined up my stuffed animals in my bedroom, pretended they were my students. Read it aloud over and over. I would hold up the book as I read just as I saw my teachers do. I was nervous but so excited.

Then the day came. I sat in the front of her students, they sat on the floor. I read my book to them making sure to make my voice as expressive as possible. They laughed along as I read. Wow, it almost felt like power. I was reading and the kids were listening, enjoying, connecting. I left that room liking that feeling with the seed planted. I wanted to read to kids when I grew up. I wanted to make them laugh. I wanted to teach.

So I thank Sharon for making me take a trip down memory lane last night. I think of Miss Tuck often. I hope I am creating the same environment in my classroom that she did in 1980-81 in my first grade class. A room full of responsibility, wonder, possibility, and love. Thank you Jan Tuck for wanting me to do more.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Friendship Doll by Kirby Larson

After attending NCTE and having friends comment on the fact that I hadn't read this book and why haven't I read it and when was I going to read it, I set about to right this wrong. What a perfectly wonderful book. In many ways it reminds me of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by DiCamillo in that there is an object at the center of the books that is on a journey and needs to understand what love is about. In this book it is a doll, a simply beautiful doll.

Larson uses the fact that in the late 1920's 58 friendship dolls were sent from Japan to America. The dolls went on tours and most ended up in museums. This book follows the story of one doll, Miss Kanagawa, but also the story of four children who interact with her and how they are changed as a result. Some of the stories were heartbreaking, some uplifting, all moving. I am grateful for my friends and their push to finally read this beautiful novel.

Reading level: 4th-6th
Genre: Historical Fiction
Appeals to: Girls primarily
Rating: Four Stars
Release date: out now

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Hound Dog True by Linda Urban

I stare at this blank screen, how to describe this book. Mattie and her mom have moved, again. This time they have moved in with her Uncle Potluck. While her mom seems a bit clueless as to who her daughter is, Uncle Potluck "gets" her. He is the janitor at the local elementary school and Mattie tags along with him while he prepares the building for a new school year. Uncle Potluck seems to one of those adults who has a bit of magic in him. He can spin an amazing story, speak to the moon, fix a doorknob, and see into Mattie's soul.

See Mattie is shy, painfully shy. I've had students just like Mattie. I was, at times, Mattie. It is hard when you live in your head so much, you forget how to interact with reality. Linda Urban writes Mattie so that you can understand her. You can also see how she is just on that verge of growing up, torn between the kid and teen years. This is a beautiful story to share with our students.

Reading level: 4th-6th
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Appeals to: Girls primarily
Rating: Four Stars
Release date: out now

To feed my soul…

I mentioned in my last post that it has only been in the last few years that I have found meaningful professional development. Last November my twitter feed began to fill up with tweets from #ncte10. I began to investigate. I had attended IRA in2009 and it was amazing. I wrongly assumed NCTE was geared towards High School and hadn’t really looked into it before. Reading the tweets, I saw how wrong I was. I immediately began to plan to go this year.

There is no way to begin to describe the experience that was NCTE. I drove up on Thursday and quickly checked in at the Palmer House, racing a few blocks to make my first session. Penny Kittle, Doug Kaufman, and Linda Reif were presenting about the power of writing conferences. They spoke and my mind raced with possibilities for my classroom.

After that session I met up with Twitter friends and we had a group go to dinner. The conversation there varied from the hilarious, to what we were reading, to educational practices. The conversation continued back at the hotel and into the late hours of the night. I went to bed with my brain on overload.

Friday I spent most of the day with more Twitter friends trying to fit in all of the sessions that I wanted to see. We started the day with inspirational words from Linda Darling-Hammond who discussed the state of education – which is enough to get you down, but then she turned it around with almost a call to arms. I had the opportunity to hear wonderful authors like Kate Messner, Linda Urban and more explain how they use critique groups as authors. I pulled that idea back into Thursday’s session to think more about my classroom.

Saturday began early with the ALAN breakfast. More friends met up, more wonderful authors spoke to us. I toured the exhibit hall with my friend John Schu. After spending the better part of an hour together I reflected, again, on how different Twitter is. John and I have never met in person until that day, but I have “spoken” to him daily for the better part of two years. It reinforced the connection that Twitter has created in my life. Saturday continued with more fun; hilarious laughs from Gordon Korman, Jon Scieszka, and Alan Sitomer; wise words from Patrick Allen, Ruth Ayers, Troy Rushmore, and Stacey Shubitz; and laughter combined with insights from Sara Kajder, Teri Lesesne, Donalyn Miller, and Franki Sibberson. I should note that I will never forget what a “dongle” is or that Teri’s is magical.

Friday and Saturday nights were filled with dinner with friends – old and new. The chance to gush at Jenni Holm. And, luckily, the opportunity to breakdown all of my thoughts with the best suitemates in the world.

I woke Sunday to a final session with some amazing guys: Jeff Anderson, Terry Thompson, and Charles Fuhrken. These poor guys were all sick with one ailment or another but the show went on. It was a great way to go out. At lunch with a friend before I left I commented on the fact that I was on overload. I think I averaged around four hours of sleep a night. I often ate a Cliff Bar for breakfast and for lunch. I had so much information – some new and some refreshed - that it was in danger of not making sense. We talked through it together and I left with my thinking clarified.

NCTE is a long conference – four days of sessions and then two more if you attend the workshops. It can get expensive; I paid for a great deal of it myself. Is it worth it? I had that discussion with a fellow teacher upon returning to school. I told her about my sessions. I excitedly described the workshop I want to attend in March, the two in June. I explained I would need to pay my own way to them all and wondered out loud why I did this. Her reply was, “These conferences feed your soul.” She’s right. I have found what feeds me, what gives me a purpose. I love teaching and the chance in interact with others, to discuss what I love, pushes me in new directions. Thanks NCTE. I’ll see you next year in Las Vegas.

I didn't take a lot of pictures, I was too busy talking. But here are some of the wonderful people I got the chance to meet up with.

Ruth Ayers
Mindi Rench - a great suitemate! Didn't get a picture of Donalyn, the other fabulous suitemate.
Kellee Moye
John Schu
Jen Vincent
Aly Beecher

Friday, November 25, 2011

Eye of the Storm by Kate Messner

I adore Kate Messner and everything she writes, so it is unsurprising I would love this one. Except this isn't like anything she's written before. The book takes place in the "not too-distant future." Storms have become monstrous. Jaden's dad studies storms. She has gone to spend the summer at a community he has created where people are safe from storms and study them at the same time. At the camp Jaden makes two friends and together they begin to try and figure out where these storms are coming from and how they can be stopped.

I love this book for many reason. For the authentic kids Kate has created once again. For the fast paced storyline. And for the believable villains - some sympathetic, some deeply terrifying. Can't wait to recommend this to my students.

Reading level: 5th-8th
Genre: Fantasy/ Dystopian
Appeals to: Both boys and girls
Rating: Five Stars
Release date: March 2012

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Pushing Boundaries

When I first began teaching, some fourteen years ago, my teaching colleagues were the people in my building. If I was branching out, maybe some friends I had gone to school with. We were limited by our geographical boundaries. Who was near me? Those were the people to discuss teaching practice with. Is there anything inherently bad about this? Not necessarily. But often, when we are in the same building we have similarities in teaching styles. We are exposed to many of the same kids, the same administration; the same professional development is brought in.

About six years into teaching I began craving more. I had finally gotten my feet firmly under me. I felt like I was doing a decent job, but could do better. I live in such a small area. I tiny town in Central Illinois. Speakers don’t really come here, but I could go to the speakers. But where to begin?

I began with reflection. At the end of each school year I reflect back over the year. What went well? What do I need to improve on? That year the answer was clear, writing. So, whom do you turn to? I looked to people like Katie Wood Ray, Lucy Calkins, Nancie Atwell. I read whatever I could get my hands on. Traveled up to 14 hours in a car to see one of them speak. And I became a sponge. I soaked up their knowledge, their experience, their expertise. Pushed these concepts into the classroom. My room became transformed, and so did I.

For a few years, this was enough. I continued to read, continued to grow. Then the itch returned. It wasn’t enough to read, I needed to talk to others that were like-minded in their teaching practice. I wanted to talk to others that would push me, to grow and learn even more. Enter Twitter.

I was fortunate in the summer of 2009 to attend a workshop on technology. During the presentation one of the speakers mentioned using Twitter for professional growth. I was intrigued. I used Facebook but hadn’t jumped into Twitter. I began slowly. Set up my account. Followed a few people. Sat back. Slowly I found more and more teachers. The trick was finding someone that “tweeted” things that made you think. Look at whom they follow. Follow some of them. And keep tweeting.

Twitter has given me more professional development in the last two years than my entire career before. I can sit in my pajamas and discuss books with other teachers. I can contact authors my students are reading and ask them a question. I can ask for help with a problem I’m having in the classroom. And I can make friends that go far beyond what I ever dreamed possible.

Have you tried Twitter? Let me know what you love about it, what you struggle with. Check out amazing chats like #titletalk or #engchat. Experience #bookaday and push yourself to join. I do tweet, a lot, but with something like Twitter I think you get out of it what you put in. Although, in my case, I get so much more, which is why on this holiday I count Twitter and my friends there as something I am most definitely thankful for. Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Testing the water

My first blog post, seems like a momentous occasion. I remember attending an amazing conference last summer and my friend, Tony, said to me, “When are you going to start a blog?” At the time, I dismissed the notion with the thought that I don’t have time.

And truly, who does? Many teachers are busy, swamped in fact. We have a job that is much more than 40 hours a week. We have families. And often we have commitments beyond that, in my case grad school. (Seriously? What the heck was I thinking?) Busy doesn’t begin to describe it. So no, I don’t have time for a blog.

Bring in another conference, NCTE. I attended it for the first time this past week. I met up with many friends, teachers and authors I have gotten to know on Twitter. Frequently the conversation we had turned to them asking me, “What are you writing?” My reply, “Umm…”

What am I writing? For the longest time, nothing. I consider myself a voracious reader. That is my identity. But, if I’m being perfectly candid here, reading is natural for me. I do not remember a time I couldn’t escape into my books. Writing is another story. During lunch with my friend Donalyn she mentioned the difficulty with writing. The fear, the vulnerability. You are putting yourself out there. Letting others judge you. This is what scares me.

Meeting on Saturday night of the conference I talked to another friend, Colby. I asked him what he took away from this conference, this amazing experience. In our discussion I discovered we both coming to the same realization, we need to write. You can read his thoughts here:


Even further, during a session with many amazing teachers, Ruth Ayers relayed this message

Before I was a person who wrote I didn't know what kids felt when they couldn't write.

Holy moly, that statement whirled around my brain. By being a reader, I am a better teacher of reading. Why didn’t I think that about writing? I need to write. To know the fear of the blank page. The immobilizing feeling of sharing your writing with a group.

So here I am, writing. I’m trying out writing a book, but that is a long way off. But on a more regular basis, I’m writing here. What will this place be? I envision it to be a space to reflect. On teaching practices in reading and writing. On the books I am reading. On relationships in our classroom. Come on in. Pull up a chair, a mug of tea, a book, and let’s get to know each other.