Monday, April 18, 2016

It's Monday--Here's What I'm Reading!


Jen Vincent at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee Moye and Ricki Ginsburg at Unleashing Readers cohost It's Monday! What are You Reading? weekly on their blogs.  To see what others are reading and recommending each Monday, or to participate, be sure to head over to these blogs.

Since I was on vacation last week, I had more time than usual to allot to reading, although I have to say, I managed to fill up my week! Two awaited books arrived in my mailbox during the week, and they get my Monday reading attention. 


Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo arrived and went to the top of my reading list. I had to keep slowing myself down as I read this book. The chapters are short, the plot is tight, and the sentence structure is fairly simple, so readers can fly right through it. However, when I slowed down, or even reread some parts, the craftsmanship and the mentorship that this book offers writers is huge. Yes, there is a strong sense of what characters want and what gets in the way, but there is also amazing voice created through the details each character notices, the predictability of the characters' actions, and the memorability of even minor characters. It's a book that I'm sure will be used extensively in the teaching of reading and writing. 




I'd also been waiting to get my hands on Booked by Kwame Alexander. I could write a strong literary essay on the similarities between these two books, as both deal with divorce, quests, and developing friendships with memorable secondary characters. (Some of our fifth-graders are in the middle of that unit.) Because the narrator is obsessed with soccer, Booked had the potential to either attract or lose readers, but it is about much more than soccer. Told in verse, Kwame Alexander weaves in life struggles, humor, middle-school insecurities, and even vocabulary lessons in a story that appeals to both boys and girls. It's another one that I had to keep fighting my tendency to whip through it and slow down to enjoy the craftsmanship, lyrical quality, and lessons on plot development and character complexity.

Happy reading,

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Slice of Life: Pay attention to the big picture!


Every Tuesday,  the inspirational writers of Two Writing Teachers host Slice of Life. All are welcome to participate by linking up posts or commenting on other participants. 


Next week is my vacation week, and for a few months, my daughters and I have been planning out how we are going to have one daughter, a senior, revisit colleges, while another daughter, a junior, visits some schools for the first time. I concocted an elaborate scheme where Clare and I would fly to Atlanta, rent a car, and fly north. Meanwhile, my husband and Julia would head to Virginia, then meet Clare and I in Pennsylvania, give us the car, and get on a plane to go to Emory. They'd fly home, and I'd pick them up. (Are you paying attention to the verb tense? You should be.)

Yesterday, I put up all the games and matches on the family whiteboard. "I can't believe how many games and matches you have over vacation," I said. "There usually aren't any."

"Coach said there were no matches at all over break," Clare said. 

Julia wrinkled her brow. "Mom, we're not off next week. We're off the following week."

She started to laugh. Clare started to laugh too. I started to sweat.

In eight years, our two towns have never had a different April vacation, but somehow, I missed a key detail. We do NOT have the same vacation weeks this year. Yep, we have to have the same vacation in order to figure out the flight details and the rendezvous time frames. 

I share this story because it's funny and it illustrates the mistakes we all make, but also, I got really used to making educational connections last month during the Slice of Life Challenge. How many times do we teach all sorts of details, all sorts of strategy lessons, all sorts of revision and editing skills, but students haven't made the connection of the overall purpose of the unit or the writing piece? It's always important to establish the big picture before spending too much time on the details. 

For me, the good news is the flights were cheap, and I now have a week to catch up on life, which I could actually use. Julia will still make it to revisit schools. And Clare? We'll figure out another week to take a college road trip. 

Happy Slicing,

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Maxi's Secrets by Lynn Plourde

Maxi's Secrets by Lynn Plourde
Expected Release Date: August 2016
Published by Nancy Paulsen Books 
Advanced Review Copy provided by publisher, Nancy Paulsen


Excited is an understatement when I received an advanced copy of Maxi's Secrets by Lynn Plourde in the mail.   Nancy Paulsen published two of my favorite books by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Fish in a Tree and One for the Murphys, so I knew this one was also going to be good! This book lived up to all of my expectations and more.  

Maxi's Secrets is middle grade novel that would be a perfect read aloud or book club book during a social issues or character unit.  Timminy is a 5th grade boy who is moving to a new town where 5th grade is at the middle school. For some kids, that would be exciting, but not for Timminy because he is shorter than most kids his age, is teased about his name, and his dad is going to be the AP at his new school.  To help Timminy feel better about the move, his parents agree to get him a Great Pyrenees puppy who he calls Maxi.  As Timminy is acclimating to his new school and neighborhood, he learns that Maxi is deaf and has her own challenges.  He also becomes close friends with Abby, a neighbor and classmate, who was born blind.  With the help of his friendship with Abby and Maxi, Timminy learns many helpful life lessons and the importance of perseverance, confidence, optimism, and true friendship.  

This book is a page turner and will make you laugh, cry, and everything else in between! Although this book doesn't hit shelves until August, definitely add it to your TBR list!

Happy Reading!

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Day 31: #SOL16- Some Final Reflections


Today is the final day of the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by the inspirational writers of Two Writing Teachers. Throughout March, we have committed to writing every single day. It's a powerful learning experience. 


Given that today is the last day of March, it is also the last day of the 2016 Slice of Life Challenge. As in past years, I find myself reflecting and trying to make connections that make be a better developer of curriculum, instructional coach, writer, and overall learner. As in other years, I'm struck by the power of our writing community and all of our shared commitment to doing something hard. Within busy lives, writing every day is challenging, and it's even more challenging because our writing is shared and public. Our bedside journals afford us the luxury of cross-outs, misspelling, and those not-quite-right words. On the other hand our blogs and daily slices require more attention to details. And so many of us have done it. (By the way, I give credit to the Challenge-takers who have missed a day or two. Your commitment still counts! In some ways you get a louder shout-out because it's so easy to fall of the writing wagon and just stay off.) To the entire community, the hosts and all the bloggers--even ones I didn't make it to--thank you. The combined energy keeps us all going!

This year, I had a couple important take-aways which impact the work I do with young writers. First, it's really important to read, celebrate, and study writing of various levels and genres. Some of my daily reads were so consistently wise and brilliantly constructed that I found myself doubting my own writing, and consequently, I started to freeze. My writing felt inadequate. As I wrote in an earlier post, I could work my way out of the slump and the negative feelings, but I wonder how young writers feel when the work that is held up for them to see is consistently better than what they feel they can produce. I think I try to share writing of all levels, but I now have an even greater belief in the importance of this practice. 

Another important take-away for me is that sometimes we have to give permission to take our foot off the gas. During the course of the 31 days, there were times when writing within the same general genre of educational reflections was hard. I had committed to staying true to the educational purpose of the blog I share. In one of my posts, I compared writing to horseback riding, thinking about how sometimes horses respond to just having the reins let go so they can run and and buck and jump. Sometimes, I think that writers need this, too.  Sometimes we need a day off from the hard work of serious writing so that we can just free-write, blurb, or rant--a writer's version of frolicking in a paddock.  As an instructional coach, I may do more suggesting of genre-day-offs within units. I'll be interested to watch for re-energizing and revitalization that comes from dropping the writing reins for just an occasional day here and there. 

There are too many people for me to thank everyone and feel like I've remembered all of you who have impacted me as a writer and as a person this month. If you think you might be on my shout-out list, then you are. This community is like no other with such passion and purpose for learning. I will see you on Tuesdays, and again for the #SOL17. 

Happy slicing, learning, and remaining a community of writers!

Monday, March 28, 2016

Day 30: #SOL16- Sometimes it's good to change it up


The Slice of Life Challenge is hosted by the inspirational writers of Two Writing Teachers. Each March, they invite people to join them in a commitment to write every day. Here's to another year of daily slicing!


I took a different challenge this year than I have done in previous years. In past challenges, I have written on a different blog, one I set up for personal posts, posts that weren't inherently related to education. This year, I pushed myself to stay on the blog I share, the one that is reserved for education-related topics. It's been hard. While there've been slice-worthy moments I've come across throughout the days, relating the slices to teaching and learning hasn't been easy, and honestly, hasn't always led to my best writing. Sometimes has even led to some bad or boring writing.

I'm reflecting, and I'm thinking, and I'm pretty sure that if someone said, "Melanie, write a snippet of family life, and don't worry if it's for no other reason than for capturing a moment," I'd feel so liberated that I'd work hard to write a good one. 

And here's my connection to teaching and learning (because I'm staying with my personal challenge): What if every once in a while--maybe once a week or once every two weeks--during a unit, there was a built in free-write day? A day to just blab, be silly, and take a writer's stretch, escaping the restrictions of a genre or a goal or a checklist or a chart. Write what you feel like writing and share it if you choose. Just offer up a couple of mid-unit breaks. 

Has anyone explicitly tried this? I'd love to hear about it if you have. 

Happy Slicing!

Day 29: #SOL16-Creating space in sock drawers and on the walls


The Slice of Life Challenge is hosted by the inspirational writers of Two Writing Teachers. Each March, they invite people to join them in a commitment to write every day. Here's to another year of daily slicing!


My husband really likes socks. He tends to buy a lot of them. He's not quite so good about throwing them out, though. His sock drawer used to get harder and harder to close until I instituted a new rule a couple of years ago. If you but a new pair of socks, you have to throw out an old pair. That rule helped a lot of issues. It got rid of socks with holes, it lessened impulsive purchases, and it made the sock drawer easier to close. 

We had a professional day in our district today. Usually, I have a full docket of presenting to do, but today, I only had an hour where I had to work with sixth-grade teachers. Therefore, I got to spend some of my time working with a long-term sub who is filling in for a six week maternity leave. Tomorrow will be her first day on her own with the students, and it's the first day of a new writing unit. With the sock drawer in mind, we worked on making space for a new writing unit. Together, we:

  • Cleared out the writing folders. Students need to feel like they have a new beginning in a new unit. Having space will help them grow as writers.
  • Cleared off the bulletin boards. Classrooms that use the writing workshop model should be growing and creating charts throughout the unit. When the unit is over and a new one is beginning, it's time to send that message to students. Make room for the new charts to grow. 
  • Set up the structures that will support writers in the new unit. We are moving into opinion writing. Just as they used checklists for narrative and information writing, they will now use checklists for opinion writing, but they need those presented to them. Celebrating those new checklists will help these young writers shift to a new genre. 
  • Envisioned a couple of anchor and process charts that we will co-create with students over the next few weeks. Laminated charts from last year won't teach the students nearly as well as charts that look less perfect but are designed and developed in front of them.
Just as we need space for new socks, we need space for new learning. I'm looking forward to watching these places fill in with great opinion-related work!

Happy slicing!

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Day 28: #SOL16- Some missing lessons in our nonfiction curriculum



The Slice of Life Challenge is hosted by the inspirational writers of Two Writing Teachers. Each March, they invite people to join them in a commitment to write every day. Here's to another year of daily slicing!

Nicholas Kristof wrote a stunning editorial in today's New York Times about the role the media played in the rise of a politician. I'm still processing some of what he wrote, but one of the striking elements for me is the aspect of money. Kristof quoted one of my all-time favorite reporters, Ann Curry in his analysis of how ratings mattered to reporters.
“Trump is not just an instant ratings/circulation/clicks gold mine; he’s the motherlode,” Ann Curry, the former “Today” anchor, told me. “He stepped on to the presidential campaign stage precisely at a moment when the media is struggling against deep insecurities about its financial future. The truth is, the media has needed Trump like a crack addict needs a hit.”
It occurs to me that we don't do much to teach students to ask about who is making money. Who stands to gain financially from this story?  I'm not even sure I have ever done a good enough job myself of being aware of it. Reporting is a business, and social media has made it harder and harder to make a living as a responsible reporter of the news. We all have to make a living.

Earlier in the month, I blogged about a controversy in my own town that revolved around basketball. My daughter's team made the front page of the local paper twice in one week because of issues of social justice. When I first read the articles, I recognized them as a great example of irresponsible reporting. In our fifth and sixth grade nonfiction curriculum, we have lessons that challenge students to think about whose perspective is included and whose perspective is left out. What could the other side of the story be? I think this lesson is incredibly important. But it occurs to me that our curriculum is missing another lesson, entangled in another quote from Ann Curry: 

We failed to take Trump seriously because of a third media failing: We were largely oblivious to the pain among working-class Americans and thus didn’t appreciate how much his message resonated. “The media has been out of touch with these Americans,” Curry notes. 
Even if we are teaching about perspectives and whose stories are left out, I'm not sure we are teaching about who the reporters relate to, even without realizing it. I have some serious thinking to do about this.

I'm not crazy enough to think that the tale of Trump is one I'd ever use in our elementary curriculum, but Nicolas Kristof does make me continue to think about what educators have to teach students so that we are all responsible consumers of the vast amounts of information so readily available to us.

Happy Slicing,



Day 27: #SOL16-Easter Egg Hunt Differentiation



The Slice of Life Challenge is hosted by the inspirational writers of Two Writing Teachers. Each March, they invite people to join them in a commitment to write every day. Here's to another year of daily slicing!


I'm also linking to Margaret Simon's DigLit Sunday this morning, as my Easter egg hunt will have a digital element this year. We'll see how that goes!


My mother made the suggestion that we not have our annual Easter egg hunt this year. It's the one where My daughters and my nephews race around the yard trying to find the most plastic eggs. I've had my years of Easter Egg Differentiation--one year, each child had a specific color they looked for to try to minimize the tears and the fighting. During other years, specific colors were for older kids while the other colors were deemed younger kid eggs. This year, the youngest is ten, so we really don't need any handicaps. All colors can be fair game for everyone.

"Not have the Easter egg hunt?" I feigned a gasp. "The kids love it. It's part of Easter." I didn't remind her how close I am to some of the kids being 21. When my brothers and I came home from college for Easter, my father hid a case of ponies around the back yard. I can't wait to reinstate that tradition!

The truth is that we don't have many traditions that always happen around holidays. The Easter egg hunt is one of the few, so no, I am not giving it up, even without the ponies in the not-so-distant future. I understand where my mother is coming from. In past years, there have been tears over who hasn't gotten as many eggs. Inevitably, the dogs will find an egg in a few weeks and struggle to eat the jelly beans. And yep, there's the problem of mud and gardens.

This afternoon, there will be mud on shoes. Some of the mud may even get tracked into the house. I will follow the searchers around and I will repeat, "There are no eggs in the gardens," but there still may be a crunched crocus.

I'm thinking about how to differentiate for my mother the gardener and nature lover. What if I incorporate technology? What if each child has a "Noticing Component" of their Easter egg hunt, and has to show us pictures of specified late March beauty--a purple blossom, a daffodil that's not yet bloomed, a Hellebore (yes, they'll probably have to ask), a freshly clipped rose branch, an abandoned bird's nest, and others. Maybe if they have to notice, they'll start to appreciate. Differentiation exists even out of the classroom!

Happy Easter, and Happy Slicing,


Saturday, March 26, 2016

Day 26: #SOL16- Chilling a little--


The Slice of Life Challenge is hosted by the inspirational writers of Two Writing Teachers. Each March, they invite people to join them in a commitment to write every day. Here's to another year of daily slicing!


Today, I've been having a hard time deciding on what to write for a post. Truth be told, I've been doing a lot of writing, but it's been for other projects. My brain feels tapped. As I took a thinking bread and folded some laundry, I remembered (okay, not a total thinking break) some of the points made during the #engchat with Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts













I loved this line on Monday night. I was definitely one of the favoriters. I also love it today because I am giving myself permission to post a little less. Chill a little. Nope, I can't work full throttle all the time. Thanks, Kate.

Happy Slicing,








Friday, March 25, 2016

Day 25: #SOL16-Remembering to think about how the learning feels


The Slice of Life Challenge is hosted by the inspirational writers of Two Writing Teachers. Each March, they invite people to join them in a commitment to write every day. Here's to another year of daily slicing!


Yesterday, I presented questioning strategies to a group of elementary teachers at a social studies conference. Throughout the hour long session, I had teachers do the work that I would normally have students do. When I taught them about the Question Formulation Technique, I had them do the work. I even gave them the link to my presentation and made a new slide where they could type in their questions, having the questions show up on the screen in front of everyone. When I taught them about "Ask five questions, then ask five more" I had them try it out, and when I shared a read aloud, I divided the teachers into question-asking groups the way I would for students. What I did do differently was to hit pause and ask them to take a reading on how they were feeling as learners. What was their engagement level? What was difficult? How were they feeling as learners? 

Three of my colleagues were in the session, and when we were having lunch one of them shared that those pauses had been really powerful for her. It turned into a great conversation about why it's so important for teachers to do the work we ask our students to do, really thinking about the metacognition required of the task. None of need a presenter to try out the work we ask of our students; we just need the time and the self-awareness--maybe it's self-discipline, maybe it's self-reminders, maybe I need a better word :)-- to pause and think about the metacognitive processes.  The most effective teachers I work with are the ones who not only understand the task, but also have experienced and reflected on the brainwork involved with it. 

As always--happy Slicing,






Thursday, March 24, 2016

Day 24: #SOL16- Some Amazing Resources for Social Studies


The Slice of Life Challenge is hosted by the inspirational writers of Two Writing Teachers. Each March, they invite people to join them in a commitment to write every day. Here's to another year of daily slicing!


First of all, a quick update for people who read my post yesterday about the cell phone dilemma. I gave Julia her phone back in the morning with a note on it explaining why, and what I wished could be different. She was lovely when she came home last night--

Today, I spent the day at a conference about the Connecticut Social Studies Frameworks. I not only presented, but I also got to attend some amazing presentation from other educators in our state. Laura Krenicki teaches sixth grade social studies in Colchester, but she also does an amazing job at curating resources. Check out her resources at Live Binder. While many of her resources are specific to Connecticut, there are some that could be used or adapted for any state in many different units. 

One of the resources she shared was one I was familiar with already, but I know we underuse National Geographic’s Interactive Mapmaker. Through this free (yes, FREE) tool, users can explore all different types of maps anywhere in the world. With just navigation and clicks, you can see topography, population density, rainfall, types of animal life, economic status, resources...You can zoom in and out, you can compare to other places. Really, the learning is endless and addictive within this resource. 

Another resource is at the site Mystic has created for educators. I knew Mystic had great resources, but in the last year, they have made a concerted effort to create teaching units from the documents and exhibits they have, enlisting teachers to write inquiry-oriented lessons that inspire students to engage in primary documents, technology, artifacts, and authentic world issues. Even though the history is geared toward Connecticut, so much of it could be used within more global topics and units--there’s phenomenal information about the whaling industry--check out the way the voyages of the different ships can be traced here. If you really want to dig into primary resources, check out the logbooks. Imagine the inquiry work that could grow around whales as an endangered animal. The various stories that they have traced to other places in the world could also support studies of world geography, as these stories extend far beyond Connecticut.

We live in world that is so full of information, and it’s a major challenge to sift through it all. These are resources are all definitely worth time exploring!

Happy Slicing,

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Day 23: #SOL16- Control vs Influence


The Slice of Life Challenge is hosted by the inspirational writers of Two Writing Teachers. Each March, they invite people to join them in a commitment to write every day. Here's to another year of daily slicing!


Last night was not my finest hour of parenting. I have one daughter who especially knows, finds, and pushes my buttons as a mother and as a person. I work hard to balance what I control and what I influence with her. I try to stay within the realm of influence, but sometimes it's hard. Last night she was pushing, and in the land of controlling and influencing, I ventured far into control territory. 

It was after nine when we got home from her concert. In between a meeting, tennis practice, and a workout session, she dashed in, took a shower, raided my closet for a white shirt, grabbed a plate of food, and headed to the high school. From downstairs, I heard her yell at my younger daughter to help her with her hair.

I could go on, but I'll summarize: It got ugly when she got home because I brought up her lack of kindness with her family. "You're crazy," she said. "I have homework, and you always do this. You never focus on anything I do right." It went on. I went from calm to mad, but a quieter mad than usual. However, a mad that walked out of her room with her cell phone and her computer.

"Fine Mom," she called. "I just won't do my homework."

She did do her homework on the family computer, and I did try to go back and fix things, but she wouldn't do any sort of reflection. I'll never force my girls to apologize, but I do expect them to be able to process a situation. Not happening. At least not last night. Her cell phone still sits beside me as I write this post.

Recently, I had a conversation with one of our principals about leadership and the balance of control and influence. I don't think there's a balance, actually. It's all about influence, or it's not leading. But sometimes, when we are stressed, when we are unsure of ourselves, when the task on hand is hard, we revert to practices we might not like, the ones that are more about control than about influence--like taking a daughter's phone or telling a colleague to just do something, or taking away recess or free time. These practices might work at that moment in time, but in the long run, probably not so much.

So what to do about this phone? It's 6:25 am. I have about a half hour to figure that out...

Happy slicing,