Tuesday, December 29, 2015

That Time I Saw Jan Brett

Folks, what would you do if you knew you could not fail?

I have asked myself this question for at least the past 20 years, and the answer is always the same: Write a young adult book. The tough part is to actually sit down and DO it!  I can talk myself out of anything or so it seems. What if I spend all that time writing it and nobody likes it?  What if there isn't a market for the type of book I write? I think the "what if's" plague most of us at some time or another.

Every week I discuss books with my junior high students, but I feel like their current choices are so limited and SO depressing!  Take a look at the offerings the next time you are in Target or Walmart. They all seem pretty bleak, dark, and intense to me.

I remember being a teenage girl and wanting to read an innocent love story. Boy meets girl, girl likes boy, they go to the school dance and have a great time!  Nobody eventually became a vampire or a werewolf.  Neither one was implanted with a computer chip that tracked all thought and movement. The government wasn't out to get them, reprogram them, or Heaven forbid, destroy them! Nope, just a simple little romance, that was enough for me.  I liked to read a story that made me happy and that would be my goal as a writer as well.

Almost two years ago, I was fortunate enough to "meet" a woman who lives out a similar dream. Although I didn't get to visit with her personally, I did get to listen to her fabulous presentation and it truly inspired me.  This renowned artist, writer, and speaker was none other than Jan Brett.  If you have teach primary grades or have young children at home, I bet you're familiar with some of these beautiful books:

Free online copy of this book and a free activity and printable to accompany it.:

Gingerbread Baby story with a Gingerbread Baby Lapbook and activities, with printable resources.:

Ms. Brett does a beautiful job of telling and illustrating stories, and she was gracious enough to come to our little town to do a presentation and book signing.

Her tour bus was a work of art all on its own! It appears that the artwork is changed every year to promote Jan's newest book.  That year, she was in town to promote Cinders: A Chicken Cinderella.
A close-up of the phenomenal artwork!
She even brought some of her chicken "models" on tour!  I assure you, these aren't like the chickens found on farms around here!
Not only can she draw exquisite, detailed pictures, she can draw them AND talk at the same time. You should ask my students about what happens when I try to talk and write on the board....yikes!
Here she is with the final product.... 
 She gave lots of great advice for artists and writers of all ages.  Jan Brett is truly a class act, and I would love to get the opportunity to see her again.

She was so inspiring, and it was wonderful to see someone living out her dream.


That brings me back to my original question:

What would YOU do if you knew you could not fail?

The New Year is quickly approaching...make it be YOUR year to dream big!

Monday, August 31, 2015

25 Fun Facts about Me

I know, I know...it's supposed to be Five Fun Facts, but I sometimes go overboard on things. I promise I'll make it fast! 

Three-year-old me
A salute to the inner child in all of us...

Hi, I'm Melanie and I am so glad to meet you! In order to get to know each other better, let's divulge 25 totally random things about ourselves--I'll go first!

1. If I am awake, I am wearing shoes. I can't stand being barefoot.
2.  Life cereal is my favorite breakfast...if it's soggy.
3. My children are both fair redheads. It was always easy to spot them at the public pool each summer.
4. I went to college to become a kindergarten teacher.
5. I teach at a junior high.
6. We have two cats in our house: Pookie Bear, the bulimic Siamese, and Licky Lou, the cat who loves butter.
7. I am a middle child.
8. My driver's license says I am 5'7" and I weighed 115 lbs.in 2002.
9. My kids say I tend to exaggerate.
10. I can't snap with my left hand.
11. I can touch the tip of my tongue to the tip of my nose. I think that totally makes up for not being able to snap with one hand.
12. I am scared of spiders.
13. Every year, students try to scare me with fake spiders.
14. My colleagues are impressed by my ever-growing fake spider collection.
15. Jesus loves me in spite of myself.
16. I love chocolate chip cookie dough more than the cookies.
17. Despite my mother's warnings, I have never gotten sick from eating raw cookie dough.
18. I don't have cable TV. If I like a series, I wait to watch the entire season all at once.
19. I usually read two or three books at the same time. Well, technically not at the same time, but I alternate between them.
20. If I get bored in the middle of a book, I will read the last few pages to see if it is worth continuing.
21. I do not have the patience to play board games.
22. Despite his giveaway name, I thought SpongeBob Squarepants was a piece of cheese the first time I saw him.
23. I hate scary movies. The last scary movie I saw was Children of the Corn in 1984.
24. I live in Nebraska. We grow lots of corn around here...
25. I am pretty sure I have undiagnosed adult ADD.
26. I can't count and talk at the same time.  ;-)

Whew! Your turn now! I can't wait to visit all of you over at your blogs. Thanks so much for stopping by!

Sunday, August 30, 2015

A Summer Remembered

School is off to a great start, and my 8th graders have wasted no time delving into this little gem...
Almost every single kid has read Gary Paulsen's Hatchet but few have ever heard of, let alone read, this wonderful story. If you have middle-school aged boys who don't like to read, this story is for them!

The work is a fictionalized account of a summer Paulsen spent with a distant cousin's family. Harris, the nine-year-old in the novel, is a CHARACTER...to put it mildly. In fact, I use this book to teach the concept of characterization because it lends itself so well to the study of primary and secondary characters.

There is mild swearing and some tobacco use in the book, but I tell students that it's Paulsen's way of developing the character of Harris--yes, the nine-year-old!

Every chapter is a short vignette of the trouble that the two boys manage to get themselves into, but let me warn you that Chapter 10 is LEGENDARY!  College kids still visit with me about this chapter when they see me in the grocery store. J

If you've never read it before, I hope you'll try this delightfully funny tale of a summer remembered. It's a great introduction for writing personal narratives or for getting reluctant readers to read.


Monday, August 3, 2015

Back to School

It's that time of year again....
Time to get things spruced up and ready to go!

Each year I really struggle with my "Goldilocks" approach to decorating...
When does it cross over from being "not enough" to the "way too much" zone? I work until I find the "just right" amount...like Goldilocks.
This year, I found some wonderful chalkboard-looking posters at the local teachers' store...
I love their positive messages and they add to the general chalkboard theme I have going on.

 Decorating for junior high students has been a challenge for me because I don't want to come off too cutesy, but I do want it to be visual appealing. I tend to add things and take things down until I'm satisfied...or run out of time.

Happy back-to-school time to you!

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Precious Postcards

I've been doing some heavy-duty cleaning and decluttering this summer in my spare time. Goodness gracious the things we accumulate over the course of time! Can I get an amen?

Anyhoo, as I was going through one of the boxes, I came across this sweet memory...
If you can't read his signature, do you recognize his artwork? 

Yes! The one and only Eric Carle!

Years ago, our public library had a challenge-a-day during one of the summer months. One particular challenge was to write to a favorite author and tell how meaningful his/her work was to you.  At the time, I had a toddler who ADORED The Very Hungry Caterpillar, so it was an easy choice to send him a quick note detailing how my sweet baby loved his book.

A few weeks later, this arrived in the mail...
Wow! It totally made my day and I've never forgotten Eric Carle's kindness, even though it's been a few years...
Yes, that says 1993. What can I say? I've lived a little...  J

In fact, one of my all-time favorite baby presents to give includes the following...
Kohl's had the books and the cute plush caterpillars a few years ago and I loaded up!

When my daughter was a fifth grader, her teacher had them write to an author or illustrator. Molly shared her postcard from Eric Carle with her class and also wrote to Mary Englebreit. Oh my, did we love us some M.E. back in the day!!! 
Wouldn't you just know that good ole Mary was the first to respond to the group. The sad thing was that Molly's male teacher had no idea who the heck Mary Englebreit was! Trust me, we did some educatin'...
I didn't come across Mary's card (my girlie probably has that tucked in some other treasures), but I remember how special and important my daughter felt receiving that postcard--she glowed for weeks!

To this day, we still exchange little ME treasures in our Christmas stockings from time to time...
This is a sweet, tiny box Molly found for me one year. I keep embroidery needles in it so I'm not constantly losing them

A few years ago, Target had a BUNCH of Englebreit stuff in their dollar section, so of course I loaded up...
This comes from a set of cute stickers I bought for school...I tend to be the only mother in that room on most occasions so I kept this one for me.  And yes, junior high students still like to get stickers on their papers. Don't worry, I saved the ME stickers for my girlie-girls. ;-)

As I was pondering these special memories, I decided that I would have my junior high kiddos write to an author or illustrator this year. I'm thinking it could possibly be a great activity in November in lieu of the trite "What I Am Thankful For" essay we generally do. They can write to an author or illustrator expressing gratitude for his/her work and if the person responds, the student can share with the class.  If I plan it just right, I can work in a bit of a research project, a writing assignment, and an informal speaking gig out of this idea. I love it when that happens! 

Hopefully my school kiddos will make a connection with an author or illustrator that will spark a lifelong appreciation. I'm excited to give it a try and I will keep you posted on the developments.

Until next time, my friends!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Great Resources for Middle School Reading Teachers

If you're thinking you'd like to try a reader's workshop approach in your classroom, I thought I'd give you some ideas of where to start.

This was the book that started it all for me...

Linda Rief's amazing work was required reading when I got my Middle Grades endorsement.  Wow! It was certainly a different approach from the way I had been taught in junior high. Honestly, if I had never read this book, I probably would have taught the way I had been taught: everybody reads the same book at the same time and does the same worksheets. Shudder!

I can remember being SO excited by this new approach to teaching ELA (before it was ever referred to as ELA), that it led me on a quest for more workshop books.

I then discovered this lady...
I think I'm safe in saying that Nancie is considered to be the guru of the ELA workshop model.  Whenever I need my batteries recharged, I read one of her outstanding books.

The year Scholastic offered this baby...

I used the majority of my bonus points to buy copies for administrators and colleagues. That's what outstanding teaching mentors do for you--they light you on FIRE and you just want to share, share, share! :-)

The Reading Zone is a fairly short read (144 pages) and I believe its easy-to-read, common sense approach will help sell almost anybody on the workshop approach (hence the administrator copies).

When we hosted our building's first book fair, I was introduced to this wonderful author and teacher...

Her 40 book challenge has been a huge motivation to many of my students, but make sure you read her guidelines for the challenge. Lots of people have modified her original intent and made it U-G-L-Y.

You'll also love her follow up book...

As educators, we have an obligation to give students skills they will use their ENTIRE lives. Due to the ever-evolving testing environment in which most of us currently teach, we tend to lose sight of the long term and focus strictly on the here and now. This is what they need to know to pass the test! Their teachers in ______th grade will have to focus on that!

If we don't show students how to integrate their reading into their "normal" lives, we are going to eventually have a generation of adult non-readers. In fact, it's already beginning to happen. Don't believe me? Try this little experiment...

On a student survey (it has to be written and private or students will cave to what the other kids in the classroom say), ask students if their parents read for pleasure at home for any extended period of time. Most will honestly answer no, unless it's maybe reading the newspaper or a magazine.

Fifteen years ago, when I had kiddos fill out my first reading inventory survey, parents with post-secondary degrees were readers, and they passed that love on to their kids. Not so anymore, at least in my community.

I believe that we owe it to kids to demonstrate how each of the skills we teach applies to their real lives. My greatest joy is when I see former students who are now adults in the grocery store and they tell me they're still reading...

Wow! Mission accomplished!

I wonder how many adults can say they're still doing reading worksheets?

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Joy of Reading: The Continuing Journey

To say that my principal was not a fan of junior high kids sprawled on the floor reading for FUN, would be the understatement of the year.  In very terse, clipped speech she let me know that she expected to see me during my planning period.

OOOhhhh boy....

I met with her that afternoon and to her credit, she listened. 

I explained that it wasn't what it looked like, except for maybe the fun part. ;-)  I showed her the kids' test scores, and we discussed their general dislike of reading, or any learning for that matter.

I then explained my Friday plan, and that was what she wanted to hear--that there was a PLAN. So I gave her a rundown on my five commandments of Friday Reading:

1. Everyone has a free reading book when the bell rings. No one leaves the room to go to the library because we went the day before. In principalese, no one is messing around. 

2. You may sit where you are comfortable, but the minute you're not reading, you have to be back in your desk. Most kids have sat in a desk all. day. long and are grateful for the break. There will always be a few who mess around--once. ;-)

3. If you do not read during the time provided in class, you will make up the reading time after school...reading aloud to ME.

This sounds kind of punitive, and I suppose it is, but if there aren't strict standards, it becomes mess-around time. The kids get one re-direct from me and after that, it's after school.

4. Books read throughout the year are recorded on individual reading lists.  I provide a blank form at the beginning of the year for kids to record the titles and authors of books they've read throughout the year. I check it every week so if a kid hasn't read a book in three weeks, I know we need to solve that issue. Most of the time it involves finding a book at his/her level or one of greater interest.

5. We discuss books every Monday.  The last ten minutes of class on Monday are when students have the opportunity to discuss books they've read. Sometimes it's a whole class discussion and other times it's small groups, but there is always follow up on last Friday's reading.

My administrator seemed satisfied with my explanation and agreed that I could try it for the year. However, if the test scores did not show improvement, I would be held responsible.

Nothing like putting your job on the line to show what you truly believe in...and yes, it was a hill worth dying on, in my opinion.

I have to say that parents were very supportive of Friday reading. They would send emails thanking me for getting their children to read. I would of course forward those to my principal.

One mother started crying during Parent-Teacher conferences because her son had asked for a book for his birthday. She said, "You don't know how much that means to me. I would pay a hundred dollars for that book because my kid wants to read!"

Now, whenever a principal sees crying at conferences, he/she feels compelled to see what's going on. Seeing this mother's tears, my principal hurried over to find out what the problem was. The mother happily explained that they were tears of joy and thanked us for getting her son to read.

Not knowing what to say, the perplexed administrator smiled and walked away.

Later on in the evening, another mother starting crying because her daughter had finally read a book...for pleasure...by herself...at age 14.

After she left, the principal came over and asked, "Because her kid is reading?"

I just smiled and said, "Yep."


I don't know how it is in your district, but we never know our test scores until we go back at the end of the summer.

The August after teaching the "Wild Ones," I walked in my classroom to find a couch in the back of the room. 

"Huh?" I wondered to myself.

My principal walked in behind me. "At least a couple of them can be comfortable and they won't all be sprawled across the floor."

She rolled her eyes and then continued to make her rounds down the hall.

And we've read happily ever after.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Joy of Reading: The Beginning of the Journey

Yesterday, I told you how my own two children discovered the joy of reading, and today I'm going to share how I started using that little "secret" in my classroom.

As I walked home from Mrs. S's house that afternoon, I started thinking about the kiddos in my own classes. I was teaching 7th graders that year, and they were truly the wildest group of kids I had ever seen. They were also the lowest achieving group I'd ever had in my entire teaching career. In fact, we had to keep reassuring the first-year teacher on my team that this was not the norm and to not judge her career choice based on this particular group of kids.:-)

In the four weeks since school had been in session, I had gone through my entire bag of teacher tricks and had come up empty-handed.  My third period class was especially challenging, and I recall hearing Guns n' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle" playing in my head every time the bell would ring for that class. Yep, one of those classes.

In that group, very few students would attempt any of the work I assigned, despite the fact we had gone over and over the concepts. Whenever I gave any type of assignment, most students would look at it as "free time" and terrible behavior would quickly ensue. Finally, in desperation one day, I took one of the ringleaders out into the hallway. 

"Why on earth will you not even TRY to do your work?!" I growled. In my frustration, I had planned on unleashing every single ounce of frustration that had been brewing....when suddenly, I noticed tears in his eyes.

"What's wrong?" I quietly asked.

"I guess I'm too damn dumb for your class," he sobbed. "I can't do the work."

What?!? We hadn't even started the hard stuff yet!

But suddenly, it all started to make since. They didn't do the work because they couldn't do the work. That's why they would answer the questions orally but wouldn't attempt the written work.

I quickly assured him that it would be okay, and then I sent him to get a drink and to take a quick walk down the hall to calm himself.

Somehow I fumbled through the rest of the day, and after school I started a little investigative work in the student cumulative files. Feeling very Erin Brockovich-ish, I was stunned with my discovery: Every single kiddo in my third period class read at or below the fourth grade level.
No wonder they were so naughty! It's kind of hard to maintain your dignity in junior high when you're stuck reading at a third grade level. One thing I do know, kids this age would rather have you think they're "bad" than "dumb".

Armed with Mrs. S's secret, I was determined to make a difference. The next day I marched my classes down to the library and we spent the entire period looking at books together. If you've never experienced the joy of taking a bunch of junior high students who hate reading to the library...I envy you.

Trust me, this wasn't an overnight sensation that rivals The Sound of Music in its beauty. I'm pretty sure no one is going to make a movie or a musical from this experiment. 

The kids had a difficult time finding books at their level at the library, so I started buying books from Scholastic book club faster than they could send them. At that time, they were offering copies of Because of Winn-Dixie for a dollar a piece. I quickly grabbed up a classroom set, and then went online and located the audio book, too. After all, you're never too old for a good dog story.

The day we started Because of Winn-Dixie, I explained to the kids how everybody learns in different ways. Some people are auditory learners, some are visual, and others are kinesthetic...just to name a few. So that we all could enjoy reading the story, everyone would have a copy of the book to read visually, and we would also be listening to the audio book as well. (I would have read it aloud myself, but I needed to keep my eyes on this crew at all times!) 

That first day, they hemmed and hawed and announced how stupid (or worse!) that this was.  By the third day, however, they were hurrying ME through the warm-up so we could get to the book. When the narrator read the last page of the book two weeks later, several of them declared it to be the best book they'd ever read. In fact, it was the ONLY book they'd ever really read.  What book would we read next?

We went on to read Where the Red Fern Grows and Old Yeller, which led some kids to wonder out loud if all books were about dogs that died. We traveled through time by reading historical fiction such as Out of the Dust and Esperanza Rising. But by far, the favorite book of the year was The Lightning Thief ...all 377 pages of it.

Every day we would start class with a ten-minute warm-up and mini-lesson, and then the reading would commence. We would read novels together in class Monday through Thursday, and then students would read independently on Friday following Mrs. S's method. 

Example of some of our ELA mini-lessons

It all started to fall into place by Christmas. We had a schedule, we had expectations, and most importantly, we had FUN learning.

Then one fateful Friday, the door of my classroom swung open during third period's independent reading time. It was my administrator, and she was stunned by the sight of students sprawled across the floor reading books for *gasp!* FUN.

You see, we had a strict curriculum map we were supposed to follow, and this didn't quite fall into the whole scheme of things...

To be continued...

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Joy of Reading

There's something magical about third grade. Oh, don't get me wrong, there's something wonderful about each and every grade level...and I should know since I've taught most of them.

There's also something to be said about adult ADD...and age experience.

But I digress. 

Third grade is the year you get really good at a lot of stuff. Tough stuff like multiplication and division and reading longer books and writing longer stories...and the list goes on and on.

But sometimes when we're learning all these wonderful things, we miss out on finding the joy...even when you're only eight. I saw this occur in my own dumplings.

Both of my children learned to read by kindergarten, but much to my dismay, they just didn't love to read. Oh, they loved our nightly read aloud time together, but they just didn't grab stolen moments to open a book and devour them like I did as a kid.

They had outstanding first and second grade teachers who heavily promoted books and reading, but still no love.

I bought them books from book orders and bookstores in addition to our weekly library trips. Still.no.love.

Enter third grade and Mrs. S.

Within the first month of third grade, I noticed a change in my daughter. When we would go in the car, she would take a book. As soon as she got home from school, she would grab a snack and her book and disappear. It was finally happening! She was loving to read!

I didn't know how or why, but something finally clicked and my daughter became a passionate reader. Hallelujah!  I hoped it might rub off on my son (who is two years younger) but nope. Even though he could read, he still didn't want to read.

Until...he was a third grader and had Mrs. S.

By this time, I knew it was no coincidence--the "clicking" agent was definitely Mrs. S, and I needed to find out her secret!

Luckily, Mrs. S lived down the street from us and could often be found working in her yard. A gardener AND a clicking agent? Sometimes life just isn't fair....

One summer afternoon, I sauntered down the street determined to uncover the mystery once and for all. After exchanging pleasantries, I got down to business. "Linda, I've noticed that despite both of my kiddos being able to read since kindergarten, they didn't learn to love to read until they had you. What's your secret?" I asked.

She laughed and brushed the dirt off her hands. "It really isn't a secret," she said. "Every day after lunch recess they come inside, and they HAVE to read to themselves for half an hour. Period. By third grade they have the skills to read, and they just need to have the time to put them to practice. They have no other choice during that half hour than to read quietly to themselves. If they try to mess around during that time, I'm all over that and they owe me time after school. They learn that fighting it is useless, so they may as well just do it. Once they get into the routine, nearly every single kid looks forward to it."

She went on to say that she took the kids to the school library every week, and I already knew she had a huge classroom library of her own. She also thought that the slight peer pressure of watching others reading more difficult books added to the success.

I thanked her and then headed home.  As I walked, the gears started turning in my head. I taught junior high students, but could her "secret" be adapted to my age group? Hmmm...

To be continued...