The kick-butt reading teacher rides again!


Many hours have gone into reshaping my classroom library to fit the new third and fourth graders who will be cruising through the door tomorrow. The above nonfiction shelf is just one part of that project, and things are looking…good.
As big as the physical job was, the really important work starts tomorrow when 24 new readers come together and begin a new learning year. Will they like using my new book boxes? Will I? Which books will set the class on fire with excitement? Who will be voracious, and who will need to be nudged and lured and led into reading? I can’t wait to find out.

There’s one big decision I haven’t made yet, and that is…what book will be my first read aloud??? I’ve narrowed down the list, but I am still debating. When in doubt, any book that I demonstrably love will serve. Good luck to all as we start a new year of reading and learning and reading and learning!


Hacking a Trail to Common Core Writing–Part 2 (Sort Of)

“Even while we focus on building a culture that supports change, we know that to date, tests are the tail that wags the dog.  They matter.”  (Pathways to the Common Core: Accelerating Achievement, p. 181)

Sometimes, the current climate about and within my chosen profession definitely makes me feel like a dog whose tail is wagging her to death.  And the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) could easily be interpreted as a piece of this–national standardization is a highly politicized issue.  But what I’ve been trying to do over the past year is separate that piece from the content itself.  When I read through the standards thoughtfully, reflectively, I agree with the shift toward informational and persuasive/argumentative writing.  It feels like a missing component in elementary curriculum and instruction, at least from my vantage point and experience.

So last year I focused on four main units of study–the first was a combination launch unit and test writing unit, since our annual state assessment, the MEAP, lands in October.  The second unit was a narrative writing unit, which was fairly similar to what I have done in previous years.  The third unit was informational writing, which again was similar to previous years.  Finally, I ended the year with a persuasive/argument writing unit, and that was different.  For the past several years I have ended with poetry and/or fiction writing.  While I missed some of the “fun” factor of poetry and fiction writing, I definitely saw the value of the persuasive work, and it really flowed naturally from and built upon the informational writing we’d been practicing earlier in the year.

I predict this shift will be hard for many elementary teachers, especially those who have been hanging onto things like holiday fiction writing (October = Scary Story, December = Christmas Story, etc.).  Some will try to do both, and maybe that will work for them.  Here’s the problem–the CCSS are designed with the idea of making all students the kind of writers who can produce quality work independently and on a regular basis.  The words I’ve bolded, when hung together, are a HUGE TASK.  This is time-and-resource-intensive work, and Calkins, Ehrenworth and Lehman emphasize the need for keeping a priority on writing time, rather than letting other parts of the school day  “outsource” writing.

They also emphasize how, with the focus on informational and persuasive writing, content areas like science and social studies need to be important parts of meeting CCSS in writing.  As I look toward the future, I will be interested to see how teachers embrace this in authentic ways.  I want my students to have enough choice in topic and theme to feel empowered as writers.  I want them to write for the world–in the past we’ve done digital stories and designed video games as part of our informational and persuasive writing.  Common Core doesn’t have to get in the way of what I most want for my students, but it does remind me of my obligation to use both the processes of writing as well as the products to grow my writers.  Third and fourth graders should be learning to construct what the CCSS call a “logical structure”–does that mean a five paragraph essay, or are there other possibilities?  That is still up to the teacher to decide.  For now, anyway.

At the end of the book, the authors devote a chapter to using the CCSS to guide school reform, and they encourage schools to view the standards as a revision of the curriculum rather than an addition to the curriculum.  They also recommend that schools choose one or two priorities as a learning community and commit to those priorities.  It may be that my school district or school building comes together for this work–or maybe not.  Still, the ideas are ones I can embrace as a single teacher–envision reading and writing guided by the common core, and choose a couple of priorities to embrace and work toward in my class of readers and writers.

At the moment, I’m leaning toward making a priority of bringing writing into  science and social studies in more meaningful ways than I have in the past.  My second priority is going to be advocacy for protected reading time both in my own classroom and in my school community.  Those are big jobs–wish me luck.

Mythic Stuff


Author:  Ursula Vernon

A bit:

“‘So then if you try to come up with fizzy blood, it’s like shaking a can of soda, only inside your body.’  ‘Oooh!  Neat!  Do you explode?'” (p. 63)

Danny Dragonbreath has a lot of problems, only some of which he caused–lunchroom bully, retarded fire breath, and academic laziness are at the top of the list.  He makes some headway to solutions toward these problems in unusual ways and with the help of his iguana pal Wendell, who seems to be the keeper of common sense and caution.  Danny rushes headlong into the crazy, dragging Wendell on an insane deep-sea adventure to do “research” for a school paper.  At school, however, Danny seems to be far less confident and allows himself to be bullied.  The idea behind this seemed to be that, when dealing with the mythic aspects of the world, Danny is a whiz, but the more “real life” stuff is far tougher for him.  I hope this gets explored and clarified more as the series progresses.

What I liked about the story most was the structure–part is told like a chapter book, and part like a graphic novel.  Coming in at 4.0-ish in terms of level, it is a good transition between easy chapter books and more substantial chapter books.  And with plenty of action and silly humor (think killer potato salad and barfing sea cucumbers), this book will appeal to both third and fourth graders.  I plan to purchase  at least the first three in the series for my classroom library.



Hacking a Trail to Common Core Reading–Part 1

Pathways to the Common Core

Authors:  Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth, and Christopher Lehman

This was a book I needed to read, though not because any boss-type person required it of me.  The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are, in some ways, an instructional game-changer, and while I’ve read them and began implementing them last year, I felt like I wasn’t really getting pieces.  Pathways to the Common Core helped me think through some of the shifts in priorities and start to imagine what my instruction should look and sound like.

The big shift everyone is talking about in elementary is a more balanced approach in reading between literary and informational text.  The idea that my students’ reading time should be split 50/50 is a bit intimidating, mainly because I have a much smaller, narrower selection of informational text in my classroom library.  Still, I had to make a plan, and right now I have three initial steps in mind.  The first I began this week–sorting through my non-fiction books, leveling them, and making a list of priorities for purchasing.  This is taking a lot of time, but is really opening my eyes (LOTS of animal books, almost no sports books).  My second step is to utilize the school library more–I’m planning to require that my students check out two books per week, and one needs to be nonfiction.  The school library also needs some work on building better nonfiction, but we started that last year and hopefully will continue this year.  My third step is to start buying more informational text within my grade levels, and this will involve both books and magazines.  This will be a slow process, but it helps that I agree with the push for more work with informational text as an important component to college and career readiness.

One nice thing about how Calkins, Ehrenworth and Lehman interpret the CCSS for reading is the emphasis they put on what they call “eyes-on-print” or protected reading time of at least 45 minutes per day.  Protected reading time as a major catalyst toward growth in reading has been proven time and again.  When useful assessment and strategic instruction and coaching are combined with a priority on independent reading, good things result for kids.  My district has, knowingly or maybe not knowingly, pushed for more and more instructional time in ELA (additional fluency instruction and RtI for all students, etc.), and I’ve really struggled with this approach.  I’m hoping we as a teaching/learning community will embrace something that Pathways states on p. 29: “The Common Core’s emphasis on high-level comprehension skills calls for a reversal of NCLB’s focus on decoding and low-level literacy skills.”

The shifts in instruction come down to creating proficient readers who are able to give “academic, text-based response” to what they read.  I feel like this is a shift, but not too tremendous for me.  I’ve always put an emphasis on grounding ideas about text with the text itself.  When I taught fifth grade, I spent a fair amount of time leading students away from “text-self” connections that tended to stray from more valuable text work, and the CCSS seem to back me up in this.  In broad terms, this shift moves me from asking the question “What makes you say that?” to asking the question “What in the text makes you say that?”  This feels like a course correction that may look small, but takes students in a trajectory that ends up being quite a bit different than my previous approach.

I have a lot more thinking to do about the CCSS, but Pathways to the Common Core has helped me to structure that thinking and begin to take more deliberate steps in my instructional transitions.  I’m looking forward to more conversations with colleagues both in my own district and out in the world (like this goodreads forum) about this book and the CCSS.

Adventure! Monsters! Snappy Dialogue!

Dragon Slayers’ Academy:  The New Kid at School

Author:  Kate McMullan

A bit:

“‘My lord,’ Yorick said, ‘the Toenailians have brought Gorzil all their gold.  Now he swears to burn Tonail to the ground unless a son and daughter of the village are outside his cave tomorrow.  Tomorrow at dawn, in time for breakfast!’  ‘Oh, that’s nice of Gorzil,’ Torblad said, cheering up. ‘Having company for breakfast.'”

The first in a series of MANY begins the adventures of a lad named Wiglaf as he sets out to change his fate from maltreated third son in a ridiculously lazy/stupid/greedy family to that of a…dragonslayer.  And it is all fun and wacky times from that point onward, as Wiglaf and his pet pig Daisy join the Dragon Slayers’ Academy. The story’s best element is its humor, with weird characters and dialogue that is full of jokes.  It’s like Monty Python for third graders in many ways, and I can tell it will go over well with my third grade students (especially the boys).  I think it might make a good read aloud–not too long, full of humor, and a good way to introduce the series to my students.

Underworlds:  The Battle Begins

Author:  Tony Abbott

Tony Abbott’s got a newish series!  Underworlds kicks off with a kid named Owen seeing his pal Dana get sucked down through the school floor into the underworld.  Owen, along with fellow students Jon and Sydney, sets off to save Dana, encountering mythic creatures from both Norse and Greek mythology along the way.  This chapter book is definitely heavier on the action than The New Kid At School, but has some snappy dialogue.  Honestly, it feels like the books a third or fourth grader might enjoy before they are ready for Rick Riordan’s work.  Abbott makes the characters likable and gives them each some distinguishing traits that help explain their motivations and advance the plot.  Like the first book in many series at this level, it is really about setting up a world for further adventure and exploration as the series advances.  For kids who are interested in mythology, the Underworlds series is very promising.  Falling in the mid-third to mid-fourth grade range in terms of level, the series is also one I plan to consider for some instruction.  One of the fourth grade literature standards involves determining meaning of words that allude to significant characters in mythology.  Nothing jumps out at me yet, but I’m going to continue reading the series to fish for possible examples–and because I like it!  This series will, I predict, be popular with both my girls and boys in third and fourth grade, because it has a lot to offer–action, main characters that are both male and female, bits of mythology, and some humor mixed in here and there.

Trucks and Wild Animals–A Magical Combo

I’ve been on a little bit of a nonfiction reading jag, again inspired by the Common Core standards.  It behooves the kick-butt reading teacher to acknowledge and redress weaknesses, and one of mine is helping kids find “just right” nonfiction.    Here are a couple of my faves from this week.

Monster Trucks!

Author:  Susan E. Goodman

I will probably have to put this book on a chain if I don’t want some overenthusiastic kid to permanently borrow it.  The text is very simple (level is end-of-second-grade-ish) but very informative.  I knew exactly squat about monster trucks when I started reading.  Now I know a little of their history, the kinds of activities that happen at a monster truck event, and the general parts that make up a monster truck.  The photos (taken and selected by Michael J. Doolittle) really bring the book alive, and it is just a PERFECT easy nonfiction selection for my classroom library.  I love it when I spend money on a book and know it will be read until it disintegrates.  My favorite take-away–the headlights on those monster trucks aren’t even real–they’re just painted on!

Great Migrations:  Amazing Animal Journeys

Author:  Laura Marsh

It probably won’t surprise anyone that my favorite thing about this (and so many other) National Geographic publications is the photos!  Amazing Animal Journeys (looks like its based on the Great Migrations shows by National Geographic) is graphically rich, with lots of text features to complement the three animal migrations featured (zebras, walruses, and red crabs).  Each feature includes diagrams of the animals bodies, descriptions and maps of the migrations, and ways that humans are both hindering and helping these particular migrations.  The text is also peppered with “weird but true” facts and corny animal jokes–just the stuff kids love to read, reread, memorize, then run up and tell the next 10 people they meet.  This book rocks a late-third-grade-ish level, but the text is very accessible, with no more than one large-print paragraph on any page.  And every page is dominated by colorful, vivid images that go beyond the text.  I think my favorite photo is on page 37, where it looks like an adult walrus is hugging a baby walrus–it is adorable!

Third Mouse is the Charm!

Babymouse:  Queen of the World

Authors:  Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm

It’s not that the premise behind Babymouse #1 is new–it is constantly used in children’s literature.  Babymouse wants more glamour and excitement in her life, and she thinks if she can only get invited to the popular girl’s slumber party, then everything will be fabulous.  She gets invited, but has to ditch a monster movie night with her BFF to do so…and, of course, she realizes that there really is no place like home.  So while the plot holds no surprises, I just adored this little book!

And the reason why is simple:  I quickly came to like and care about Babymouse.  She is a bit sassy, with a wild, Walter Mitty-style imagination that leaves her daydreaming in front of her locker about deep space travel.  She is flawed, yearning for greener grasses and making mistakes along the way.  In Queen of the World, Babymouse learns the value of the life and friends she has, and the message of self-acceptance is an oldy but goody.  Also, her imaginings cast her at various times in versions of Cinderella and Frankenstein, as well as something Star Trekky and Old Westish.  It’s just…fun.

Probably because I’m currently reading Pathways to the Common Core, I am on high alert for bits that strike a CCSS-note.  One of the opening pages of this story is a series of images from Babymouse’s bedroom, and right away, I thought, “I can see putting this up on the big screen and having students draw inferences about the main character from elements in the setting.”  Mind you, Babymouse books tend to run in the mid-second-grade-ish as far as level, but as an introductory piece, it would work well.  And I’ve decided I love her.  The last three books I’ve reviewed have featured mice as the main characters, but Babymouse is by far the most charming.

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