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Digital Learning

Reducing Holiday Stress with Books, Food, Family, and Friends

Here I am - last one to this party! I missed our podcast session about celebrating the holidays with food, drink, friends, and books. I knew this wasn't going to be easy.  I'm the one who always asks at the beginning, "You know what's really hard?" and I missed one. What's really hard is missing that special time with three treasured friends when we talk about stuff and invite all of you in!

Pick one book, they said, to share with our podcast listeners. Connect it to a cocktail and a main course to enjoy during the holiday season. One book? I am constantly reading. Moving on to the next book, and the next, and the one after that like a fickle false friend. Most of them don't even stay with me for very long because I've moved on to six or twelve books after that one. Cocktail? I don't drink. A little wine maybe once every month or two, but haven't had a cocktail since college when I used to order frozen daiquiris without the rum (or whatever the liquor was in that one). I've always thought that the addition of liquor spoils my drink. I'm a Shirley Temple kind of girl. Sugar is my opiate, not alcohol. And cooking? As our family has grown, making everyone happy with a home-cooked meal seems more and more unlikely. Sigh. This feels like an assignment.

Getting ready to write this post despite all of the above, I took a look at some books in my iBooks and Kindle libraries. It was like a reunion with long lost friends! Gabrielle Zevin - how could I ever forget her? One of my favorite authors ever! (She should not start celebrating right away, though. Remember that I am fickle. I will read almost anything!) I did love her long-ago young adult book Elsewhere, an imagining of Heaven as a wonderful place where we meet up with family, friends, and even famous people who have passed on previously, and we all age backwards. Lovely, thought-provoking, dream inducing quick read. The older I get, the more appealing I find that aging backwards thing. Ha! Reminds me of  when I saw the movie "Benjamin Button" with a large group of friends at this time of year. I LOVED IT!!! The entire group, except for me, hated it. They still won't ever let me pick the movie just because of my undying love for Benjamin Button.

A Book For You
Anyway, as usual, I digress. A few years ago, I picked up a lovely little book by Gabriele Zevin once more. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. This is my recommendation for you this winter season. Make a cup of hot chocolate (sugar, not alcohol - see?), cuddle up under a comforter, and dig in. If you're reading this, you might be a teacher, and what teacher doesn't love books, and maybe even long to wander through a small and quirky bookstore while on vacation?

A.J. Vikry, the main character of this story, is a curmudgeonly small bookshop owner on a small island called Alice Island. He is 36 years old, recently widowed, and his most prized possession, a collection by Poe, has been stolen. Amelia, a sales rep from a publishing company, and an abandoned child named Maya help him to turn his life and his bad attitude around. As you read this, you will see books and family in a whole new light, even if you have always loved both.

Another divergent note, while browsing through a favorite tiny still standing bookstore in Stratford, Ontario last year, I found another of Gabrielle Zevin's novels. This one is Young Jane Young, also highly recommended.

Connecting Book and Menu
As I think back on The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, I can't help but think about all the configurations and twists and turns that can make up a family or a circle of friends. Families and friendship groups morph and change, sometimes are taken apart, and then put back together in a new way. The menu I will be sharing here does just that with food. It takes apart a recipe, displays it in a deconstructed form, and then allows each person to reconstruct it in a way that is pleasing to that one person.

Entertaining these two groups, family and friends, so important in our lives, can be a horror story or a fairy tale. I choose to make it easy and enjoy a happy ending. While visiting four of our beautiful grandchildren overseas a few years ago, Papa and Grandma were responsible for dinner every night. Every suggestion we offered turned up someone who didn't like/couldn't eat/was allergic to something. And so, the "deconstructed dinner" was born! (It might have already been invented by someone else, but I have always thought of it as my own creation. If you are the actual creator, I apologize. My grandchildren sure think it's me!)

On to the Deconstructed Dinner!
Deconstructed Cocktails
Deconstructed appetizer skewers
Deconstructed Mongolian Barbecue
Deconstructed Truffles

Cocktail Time!
As your guests arrive, have pitchers ready of sweet tea, herbal tea, lemonade, pink lemonade, wine, and beer. Have sliced limes, lemons, oranges, and maraschino cherries available in small dishes. Children will of course need help with assembly. Their "mocktails" will be herbal tea and lemonade. My daughter likes to cut that further with a little water to make it not quite as sugary and strong. Adults can mix any combo they like to their heart's content, allowing teetotalers and cocktail lovers alike to enjoy their perfect brew.

Rev Up Their Appetites!
Small wooden or metal skewers or even toothpicks next to a tray or two of these lovelies: sliced meats, cubed cheeses, melons, herbs like fresh basil leaves. Mix it up! Guests skewer and munch any combination of the above while waiting for their turn at the main event.

Main course: Deconstructed Mongolian Barbecue
Neither Mongolian nor a Barbecue, this cooking method was developed in Taiwan in 1951. It is a combination of Chinese Stir Fry and Japanese Tepanyaki Grill cooking. I dreamed this one up at my grandson's favorite restaurant, bd's Mongolian Grill. (Later found out, of course, that I was not the first to take this one and run, but don't tell my grandkids. Please. They call it "Grandma's bd's". My moment of fame.)
I change  this up in one way to make it even more easy. I spread slices of chicken breast, flank steak, and small shrimp on a sheet pan and precook it all. I use foil sprayed with cooking spray for easy cleanup. I also use two or three additional sheet pans to precook tons of veggies. Your choice, of course, but we (some of us anyway) love: bell pepper in all the colors, onion,  broccoli, cauliflower, mushrooms, asparagus, and carrots. Oh, and those cute little baby corn cobs. I sometimes have to get them in cans. No one knows.
The grilling station consists of an electric wok, bowls of precooked noodles (we use linguine!) and precooked rice. If you are brave and watch carefully, a child can cook his/her own meal. We do it this way: Our three year old granddaughter takes orders and her seven year old brother is the chef at the wok under Papa's watchful eye. We make giant tin foil hats to wear (like they do at bd's) and pour our everything into this. Feel free to dabble or dive!
Each order gets a splash of light olive oil, then whatever mix of protein and veggies is requested. Noodles or rice are added next, and a stir fry sauce goes in at the end. It's really a warming process, not a cooking one with everything being precooked, so all can be served pretty quickly. Stir fry sauces are the final touch for making this easy: PF Chang makes four or five kinds, available in supermarkets everywhere around here. The kids and sweet-loving Grandma here prefer the Sesame one.

Don't Skip Dessert:
This one started as a science lesson for my fourth graders a long time ago to explain cratering. It is yummy with or without the lesson!

And there it is! Break it up, and put it all back together again! I love books that do that for me. Break up old ideas about almost anything, and piece it all back together again in a new and thought-provoking way! I can see you now, raising a glass of holiday cheer to your family and friends, feasting on a healthy reconstructed meal, and hopefully discussing some books you've all read lately.

For a fun bookmark, from my Unicorn collection, along with the Truffles Recipe, just click here!

Wishing you a relaxing holiday break, filled with friends, family, food, and some alone time to curl up with a new book!

For the recipes, bookmarks, and posts from my podcasting friends, click below!
To hear our podcasts, click here!


Connect Kids to the Real World with PBL

Teachers, do you ever read or listen to the news and ask yourself, "What if?" "How can I explain this to or discuss this with my students?" "How can I help my students to make a real difference in the world around them?" What if we could use some PBL (Project Based Learning) to  connect our students to the real world and current events unfolding in the news? What if we could take class time to develop these units without missing a beat in our attention to the standards we must meet?

Project Based Learning (PBL) is the answer to "What if?"!

For fourth through sixth graders, I always love to begin a new PBL unit with literature connections. I love to give kids a great story to hook their thoughts on as they begin to brainstorm ways they can begin their own PBL experience. Searching your library or online bookstore will turn up lots of connected literature perfect for your own grade level and kids.

If you are new to PBL, I thought these ideas from one of the PD trainings that I have taught on PBL might be helpful. This one was on organizing a PBL based fundraiser to help with Hurricane Relief. Reaching out to people who have been caught up on a natural disaster is one way that kids in your room right now can tie their PBL to real life. If you are already familiar with PBL, I hope that some of the curricular connections might be helpful.

Here's a link to a post about a PBL based project that my Rainbow City students did for many years to help families in need in our community.

For a fun conversation about STEM/STEAM/PBL, be sure to tune in to Episode 17 of We Teach So Hard!

For tons of ready to use PBL task starters, check out Rainbow City Learning's STEM/STEAM projects!

And...for more ideas to keep your class moving through December, visit these great Teacher Talk blogs! Let me know by email if you'd like to join up and blog along with us each month! 


Holiday Self Care

Brace yourself, teachers! The holidays are upon us! So much to plan, experience, and enjoy! But since teachers are also the planners of most of the experiences in the classroom and at home, it can also be a stressful time. Just as they tell us in the opening instructions on every plane flight, place the oxygen mask on your own face before you attempt to help others. You will not be able to serve and share if your own metaphorical cup is empty. My message today is about some ways that you might consider in taking care of yourself during these always fast paced couple of months ahead.

Find some time for yourself.
I can tell you that the dishes and laundry will still be there the next time you look. Even if it's an hour later. Or the next morning. With a retired spouse, you might even find that the need to do them no longer exists when you return to them - because they're done! (I know that's something that most of you have only to dream of right now, but it may be in your future!)

With two career families raising children, it may seem super important to stick to a schedule. Fine for most of the year, but during this hectic time, why not just walk away from it all for a half-hour vacation inside your own mind. While I was teaching, I tried to carve this time out when I first got home; now I do it after dinner. Right to the couch for knitting or reading. Thirty minutes, then back to reality. It's so relaxing, and I have clinical proof that it lowers blood pressure. (Proud owner of a home blood pressure cuff here.)

Your thirty minute vacation from planning and chores can also include meditation, yoga, or exercise. Meditation is great. Darken a room, assume your position. I use lotus - criss cross applesauce - but any position that you feel comfortable in is fine. If you have a family around, seeking your attention, let them know that this is meditation time, and they are free to join you in their own practice of meditation, but not free to interrupt. Baby see, baby do - you might just be setting your children on a path to better physical and mental health for a lifetime. Who knows?

There are so many apps out there for setting the atmosphere for meditation, and Sirius radio even has two or three stations with spa music that you can use. And then, of course, there is always good old, much welcomed silence! I have discovered that total, absolute silence has its own sound. I'm sure I'm not the actual discoverer of that fact, but wow! Was I surprised when i finally took some time to pause and just listen to the silence. It has an energy all its own.

If meditation isn't your thing, try taking a walk. Walk outside for thirty minutes or so at the end of your teaching day. Do it right at school before you leave, when you first get home, or just after dinner. Dog owners already do this self-care technique every day. Walking your dog can be very much a self-care activity. I like to take walks in my neighborhood at a pace that I might use if I had a dog. I miss my dogs, but have no plans for a new puppy right now, so walking after dinner (or before in Eastern Standard plunged into darkness time) gives me a chance to see everyone else walking their dogs. Love!

Find some time to spend with friends.
Too busy getting ready for the holidays to spend time with friends? Work each other into those preparations! Have an online shopping party. Pour the wine, get out the credit cards, and boot up the laptops! Check some things off your list, and fill your soul in the way that spending time with friends always does.

Meet at a mall restaurant. Have lunch and shop together. Still getting things done, but making your life better with your besties.

Invite some friends/family over for tea or coffee and a recipe exchange. Everyone brings extra copies of their recipe for everyone else, and samples (if that's not adding extra pressure), and you are all set with some new recipes to try out on your family! And - no affiliate link here, but I just downloaded a free recipe and shopping list app called "Copy Me That". You have got to check it out! Just another little way to make your life easier. A friend told me about it when we were spending some quality time together!

Plan a getaway.
Get out those travel catalogs that seem to be in everyone's mailboxes this time of year. Plan some fantasy getaway vacations. Make a scrapbook or collage board that you can look at for a quick trip away in your mind whenever you need it throughout the year! And better yet, it may lead to the beginning of planning an actual getaway!

Introduce a new calming practice.
Never tried yoga? Tai chi? Journaling? Gratitude lists? Pick one and try adding it to your life.

I've had to add a food journal back into my life recently. (We won't discuss it here, because I hate to journal every bite that I eat, and it makes me the opposite of calm. It does keep me from eating some things though, just because I don't want to write about them. Wait - so maybe that's the point.) Whatever. I have found that adding one sentence ( We can do this!) at the bottom of the journal page about something that made me me feel grateful that day really helps. It impacts my whole day because my mind wanders several times to finding that morsel of gratitude each day.

And yoga? I can't say enough good things about it and what it has done to keep me out of physical therapy after an auto accident and flareups of sciatica. The best part is the calming practice. And the studio. It's dark in there, and no one can talk to you. Aaaahhhh.....

Journaling and gratitude lists. These move in and out of my life. I'm always sorry when I come back to them that I ever left. They always forgive me and welcome me back with full benefits.

Teach your students about self-care.
Try some zen inducing activities from Rainbow City Learning to bring a calming atmosphere to your classroom, starting right now and continuing throughout the year. Zen coloring pages, gratitude journals, group activities, and yoga resources can all be fun and very helpful in calming everyone down and keeping an even flow as you travel through the rest of your school year!

Click on the word links above to try some of these resources.

Here's a free poster to get you started!

Hope you have a happy and peaceful holiday season! And for the best self-care of all, a $100.00 choose your own gift certificate could not be too bad. Enter here to check out our podcast "We Teach So Hard" and to win!

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For more thoughts and talk for November, please visit these great posts. Like what you see, and want to join us? Before posting your link, please email me at


Finding Gratitude

It's been a hard week. A close member of my family is a survivor of the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue massacre.  My family and larger religious community has experienced unheard of horror and sadness during the week that has just passed. When something like this happens, we have to dig down really deep to find something to be grateful for. This was a challenging week for me to seek gratitude, but seek I did.

First, I am beyond relieved that our loved one is physically safe and still here with us. As a survivor, he has a long road back emotionally. We are grateful as a family that he still walks this earth and can receive our love and hugs. We know it will take time, and we will be grateful for each day going forward when the news doesn't contain tales of more hate and destruction. We are grateful for the outpouring of love and multicultural unity that has arisen from this tragedy. I am grateful to see good people trying to do good in the world all around me.

When the world lets us down and children are filled with questions and needing to talk about it, I have always turned to literature. I find it so much easier and more effective to focus the conversation on what some of our favorite characters have done to manage their shock and sadness. Please note that any books mentioned in this post are Amazon affiliate links. You can also find them at the library!

As I searched my shelves and the internet for books on gratitude, I found mostly picture books. Those are the easy ones. Easy to work in a read aloud lesson on many days. Easy to have the whole piece to connect and discuss in a short time period. Even when adding in a chapter book as book clubs or whole class reads, I would still begin with a picture book.

Here are some favorites. Picture books first!

Be Good to Eddie Lee by Virginia Fleming

This beautiful book was on my mind this week, as two of the victims of the massacre were mentally challenged brothers who brought nothing but love and light to everyone they met. I recall them as small children visiting their cousins who were our neighbors. Like Eddie Lee, they appreciated the little things in life, like the beauty of nature and the goodness that can be found inside most of us.

On a boring summer day, Christy learns from Eddie Lee that beauty and gratitude can be found in unexpected places. Christy starts out being annoyed by Eddie Lee's always wanting to follow her around, and ends being grateful for the friendship he offers so completely.

Gratitude Soup by Olivia Rosewood

Told in poetry and illustrated with beautiful collage art, this book is a perfect prompt for your students to write their own gratitude poems and create their own gratitude collages.

When Violet, the Purple Fairy, gets a case of the "gimme gimme want wants", her mother suggests making an imaginary pot of gratitude soup. She reaches deep down and pulls up so many things that she  is grateful for to create her special soup. Luckily, the pot can be downsized to fit inside her heart, where she keeps it constantly warm.

Olivia Rosewood, the author, reminds us of the research that proves that gratitude changes brain chemistry, supporting mental and physical health. I am sure that it was the tiny pot of gratitude simmering in my heart for so many years that kept me from turning into a hater this week. It's certainly an image that is stuck in my brain now, after reading this beautiful book.

Chapter books for third, fourth, and fifth graders:

Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles

This is an old favorite from my personal and class bookshelves. I've always asked for parent permission first because the main character, Comfort Snowberger, lives in her family's funeral home and has attended 247 funerals. I always thought that might be considered too intense or scary for some kids, but I have never had a parent say that their child could not participate.

Even the first line resonates, " I come from a family with a lot of dead people." Don't we all?
Comfort says it so beautifully herself:
"...death is hard. Death is sad. But death is part of life. When someone you know dies, it's your job to keep on living.
So...we did. We adjusted. We did what we always do when death comes calling:
    We gathered together.
    We started cooking.
    We called the relatives.
    We called our friends.
    We did not have to call the funeral home. We are the funeral home.
    I wrote the obituary."

And Comfort eventually takes over writing the obituaries for her local newspaper. She call them "Life Notices" rather than "Death Notices". She writes the most unique obituaries you will ever read, truly celebrating the life of each person. Comfort teaches each of us to find gratitude in the sweet, funny, and even outrageous events that make up a life. I met Comfort as a reader in my 50s, and she changed so much about my outlook on life. I like to think that she has done that for many of my students too!

Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs by Betty G. Birney

More than a century ago, on a fictional farm in Sassafras Springs, Missouri, Eben McAllister has been fascinated by reading about The Seven Wonders of the World in school. He wants to take his first trip away from his "boring" home to visit relatives in Colorado. Eben's dad challenges him to find seven wonders right at home in Sassafras Springs that can rival the real Seven Wonders. Eben sets off on a journey of knocking on neighbors' doors to discover the origin stories about some ordinary seeming items. He hears magical tales about a doll that saved a life, a musical saw, an ordinary table, and an incredible wonder at the end that I won't spoil for you!

As Eben says:
"Sometimes extraordinary things begin in ordinary places. A fancy-dancy butterfly starts out in a plain little cocoon. A great big apple tree grows from a tiny speck of a seed. And the wonders started right on our own front porch on a hot summer night I would have forgotten on the spot if it hadn't been for what got started then and kept on going."
Once you start looking for the beauty in and finding gratitude in ordinary things, it's hard to stop. Eben sets a great example for all of us.

This book has held a special place in my heart for so many years. It was a favorite read-aloud for my students. We all loved how each chapter was its own little story. I based my writing lessons on it for a unit on memoirs. Each student created a "Wonder of Farmington Hills" story. (The location of our school.) Every story was a touching closer look at something that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.  One particular story still in my heart was the story about a rose that blooms each summer in one family's yard on the anniversary of the death of a favorite uncle who left them at a young age. Another was the story of how the Rainbow City (my classroom name - but you knew that, right?) Rocking Chair came to be. It was a special chair, painted and repainted every year by each new class, but of course the story of how it came to be was nothing like the real one!

We sent our collection of "The Wonders of Farmington Hills" to Betty Birney and she loved it! She sent us a beautiful letter to share with families and our school community as a celebration of our writing!

The best lesson here though, is the same as above - finding beauty and feeling gratitude when looking at simple everyday things. "Fancy-Dancy butterfly". I still love that!

While digging deep for some gratitude this weekend, I attended a huge Solidarity service and multicultural gathering at our Temple on Friday night. We welcomed a new Shabbat with shalom (peace) in our hearts and gratitude to God for this crazy, unpredictable world that has been entrusted to us. I was honored to have been asked to light the Shabbat candles for all to see and to read a poem with my daughter in honor of my uncle and in memory of his friends who were lost. As we said the blessing over the candles, I could feel the love pouring out from our expanded congregation, and I let the light of gratitude back into my heart.

I am grateful to have been born and raised in Pittsburgh. My upbringing has made me #PittsburghStrong and #StrongerThanHate for life. I am grateful for the home I've made and the family we have created and the friends I have found here in Michigan. I'm so very grateful for all the students I've known and hopefully reached over the years of my teaching career. And... I'm especially grateful to each of you who is reading this post.

To express my gratitude to you, I have pulled out a sample of my new Grateful Gnomes resource. I would love for you try it along with some (or all!) of the books I've talked about here as you awaken just a little more gratitude in your own students.

Find it here:

Tonight, I'll be talking about Gratitude and how to bring it into your classroom with my podcasting buddies, and we'll be announcing an amazing gratitude giveaway! (Aren't you glad you kept reading?)
It will be released on Wednesday! Check out our podcasts here and click below to enter  our giveaway and how you can win your choice of a $100.00 gift card! 

Our Podcast:

                       I hope you'll check out the posts below by our blogging crew on gratitude!

Wishing you the magic of fancy dancy butterflies, a tiny simmering pot of gratitude inside your heart, and the wonders of noticing the beauty in simple things inside your mind in the days ahead. Even that chatty class that you may have - it's a beautiful thing! Right?

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Bullies Not Welcome

October first was World Bullying Prevention Day. In our classrooms, we try to address bullying throughout October, and then pick it up again in March when we observe the National Day of Action against Violence and Bullying on the third Friday. These are critical times, of course, and without some official days, we might never zero in on bullying during the school year in a proactive way. Sure, when issues arise, we need to react. But, (as I've said before), WHAT IF?

What if we were vigilant against bullying every minute of every day during our time with our students?
And what if it would take zero time away from your curriculum? Take a look around your classroom. I can promise you that the kids who don't bully others are secure and confident, comfortable with who they are and what they can do. I can also promise you, based on many years of kid watching that the bullies and potential bullies feel that something is lacking in their own lives.

  1. We need to be aware of what goes on outside our classroom doors. Your not knowing about an incident doesn't mean that it hasn't happened and that it won't affect the other students in your class.
  2. We need to be aware of what goes on right under our noses. Kids (and often adults) can hurt each other in a thousand low-key ways that fly under our radar every day.
  3. We need to watch for signals of stress and distress. Make yourself a kid watcher every day.Watch every child, not just the ones who are screaming loudly for attention, but those who may be hurting others or hurting inside themselves every day.
  4. An early cry for help can be very hard to hear. Very soft. Signals are often not easy to see or hear at first. Getting to know your students really well right from the beginning is your best way of improving your ability to pick up on cries for help.
  5. A quiet student isn't always just a pleasure to have in class. Some bullies masquerade very successfully as that quiet and obedient successful student.
  6. Kids don't look at each other the way you look at them. Many issues, often inside of the beholder, make kids view other kids much differently from the way we see them.
  7. Souls are more important than data. This is just another plea to really study the whole child, not just their grades and test scores.
  8. Looking away won't make anything stop. If you decide to ignore the issues and prefer to use rose-colored glasses as you view your classroom and your learning community, issues will still fester and possibly explode. Choosing to travel on the river of denial changes nothing.
  9. Things that are revered in our learning institutions can be setting kids up to fail. Best athlete, most successful test taker, best writer, student council leaders, etc. Although the reverence for athletes disturbs me the most, any labels and pedestals can be debilitating to students with other, less-recognized gifts as they travel on their educational journey.
  10. Our society creates rankings and situations that can be impossible to escape. Children who grow up  experiencing hatred and lack of acceptance often grow up to give it right back to everyone. This is next to impossible to change once the child has grown. As teachers, we have an amazing opportunity to change lives.
  11. You can't just order a kid to "talk" to you when in a crisis situation. Channels of communication that a kid can trust must be in place long before the crisis raises its ugly head. Watching 13 Reasons (remember that one?), my jaw dropped over and over at parents and school staff who suddenly wanted to talk and expected answers right then and there.
  12. As teachers, we have the power to teach REAL life skills. (That life skills teacher in 13 Reasons.     Please.) Make your life skills lessons meaningful. Base them on what your students are experiencing. Don't just plod ahead with the lesson you planned so carefully. Look at your own students and their needs. Adapt and adjust.
  13. Kids can start to feel valued, respected, and supported from their earliest school experiences on. They need to be able to take small and then increasingly bigger risks with their learning and with reaching out to friends as they progress through the stages of school.  "Hey, I'm here for you."means nothing if it hasn't been demonstrated all along.

Throughout my time in the classroom, the above 13 points were what guided my actions and attitudes. I taught nothing from the required curriculum standards until I was sure that the community had been established. I tried to learn who my kids were inside and out, talking to them and asking their families for even more information. Not one parent or administrator ever complained as Rainbow City was being established with a new crop of citizens each year. It took most of the first couple of weeks, but paid off for everyone again and again throughout the year. 

I hope I'm not sounding too preachy here, but I can't stress strongly enough how much easier it is to learn in an environment where one feels safe and accepted. If your classroom is truly a "Bullies Not Welcome Here" place, you will find that teaching and learning proceeds much more smoothly. You can't, of course, control what happens outside of your circle of influence, but you can certainly try to know about it and let it inform your teaching moves. I'm a huge fan of making kids resilient and flexible, building strength from the inside out. 
You may find these resources helpful as you work on building stronger kids this October and all through the year! Hope your October is smooth and bully-free! 

For more October Teacher Talk, please visit the posts of our blogging group! 


A Day of Giving

It's my birthday! Happy Birthday to me! To celebrate this year, I am participating in TpT's first ever annual Day of Giving! The first TPT Day of Giving will take place on September 27th, 2018.  TPT Authors are coming together to make a change, donating 100% of their profits on this special day to the charities of their choice. 

On this special day, you can get what you need for your classroom AND make a wider difference to the world. It's a win-win. Please stop by my store tomorrow and buy something (or everything or somewhere in between) to help find a cure for Multiple Sclerosis. My sister has suffered from this horrible autoimmune disease for twenty years. It's so hard to watch someone you love as their pain increases and mobility decreases. The National Multiple 
Sclerosis Society is my charity of choice, and I expect them to put my (our) money to work to help all who suffer with MS.

Here's a photo of my sister and me together in happier and healthier times. She's the cute one!

To find out more about The Day of Giving and about the teacher-authors who are participating, head on over to Spark Creativity. Thank you to sweet Betsy who is the teacher-author and blogger behind Spark Creativity. The Day of Giving is Betsy's brainchild, and I am honored to join her in this effort!

Wishing you the best of health and happiness and family and friends who care!



Finding Life Mentors in Mentor Texts

I've been thinking a lot about mentor text lately. Mentor Text. Another piece of education-speak. Sounds official, important, and perhaps a bit daunting for a new teacher or a seasoned one like me, who may not have attended a training or researched  the term. The first time I heard the term, it sent me running to Google for a definition. I found that mentor text is a piece of literature that teachers and students can study, imitate, and apply to other texts and for different purposes.

Wait! What? So using mentor text is the same thing that I (we) have been doing for years: teaching a reading or writing strategy by using a picture book or short piece of text as a model or example. So my favorite mini-lesson practice of starting with a picture book or a passage from a favorite author is using mentor text? Yes! Got it!

As with all trends in education and in life, this idea of using mentor texts in the upper elementary classroom has me asking once again.... What if? What if, as we work through a text to determine a character's motivation and emotions, to learn more about a character, might we also learn a little more about ourselves. I think we might! Think back for a minute to some of your all-time favorite characters from your own reading and/or movie and tv viewing. What if we could apply the positive character traits and emotional intelligence that we find in character study to our own lives?

My greatest personal life mentor was my Aunt Harriet. I was born three days before her eighth birthday, a fun birthday present for a little girl. She gave me countless gifts as my guide through life as we grew up together. She was out-going, chill, fun, and loved to learn and try new things. She was beautiful and a great dancer and baton twirler, to name just a few of her talents. We went to the library together every week and she helped me to pick out books, some of which I remember to this day. I joined her many friends at her house every day after school to dance to American Bandstand, making me most likely the world's youngest teenager at the time! (I'm now probably the world's oldest one!) She continued to serve as an example to me as she raised her family and volunteered so often to help others in her community. She passed away so young, leaving me without her guidance for as many years now as the years that I was lucky to spend with her. I miss her more than I can say, and hope that some of who I am as a human can be traced to her mentoring.

Some of my personal literary life mentors are Francie from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (placed in my hands by Aunt Harriet), who can find joy in the smallest and most ordinary seeming things, Professor Dumbledore from (you guessed it- Harry Potter), whose famous words hung on my classroom wall from the first day that I read them ("It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities."), and Professor John Keating (played by Robin Williams in "Dead Poets' Society"), who encouraged his students to find their own voice. This serendipitous mentoring that occurs when we find a richly drawn character who touches our soul is, to me, the best kind. It's the way a book or movie that you have fallen into stays with you forever. It's the reason you ask yourself at times of emotional duress what that mentoring character would do in a similar situation.

There are endless opportunities in our Reader's Workshop lessons to set up a character as an emotional mentor at the same time that we are teaching specific reading and writing skills. As teachers, we have minds on, heart touched moments to explore how a character is feeling in a particular situation, and to closely watch how that character responds and gets on with life. It's something to recall over and over with your class throughout the year. Along with internalizing a character's emotions and responses, some of those strategies naturally find their way into our own emotional tool boxes.

My favorite grades to teach have always been grades 3-6. My suggestions here will be focused on reading that will most appeal to students in those grades, but all can be used in other grades as well depending on your lesson focus, reading levels in your class, and whether it will be read-aloud, partner reading, or independent. I hope this list will inspire you to make one of your own, listing life mentoring examples that might be found in some of the texts that you are already using. It can slip into your lessons and conversations as smoothly as fudge slides down the side of a sundae.

My favorite characters for a little life mentoring (affiliate links from Amazon):

Quila from Gifts From The Sea (strong under pressure, nurturing, mature)
Zoe from A Crooked Kind of Perfect (flexible, looking at life with humor)
Brian from Hatchet (resourceful, innovative, strong under pressure, self-reliant)
Rob and also Sistine from The Tiger Rising (owning your feelings and dealing with bullying)
Claudia from The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (adventurous, lover of learning)
Meg (of course) from A Wrinkle in Time (persistent, brave, caring)
Rosie from Granny Torelli Makes Soup (valuing friendship, empathy)
Opal from Because of Winn-Dixie (developing understanding, nurturing friendships, learning to let
go of emotional baggage)
Comfort from Each Little Bird that Sings (dealing with the unexpected, having a positive outlook)

I could add ten or twenty more to the above list, but you get the idea. Life mentors can be found in countless books. When I've added life mentoring to our discussions of read-alouds and book club choices, I have found over and over that my students start to identify the life lessons in their own reading. They bring those discoveries to reading conferences, making that discussion even richer.

If you like the idea of adding life mentoring to your readers' workshop and would like a little more direction on how to do it, I have placed some of my favorite lessons doing just that into this year-long program for character development and behavior improvement! Hope you'll click and explore!

For more September teaching inspiration, be sure to take at look at some of the posts below. If you are a blogger and interested in joining Teacher Talk, please contact me at and I'll explain how to get started!



Back to school time over here in Michigan. I am loving the picture perfect classrooms, gorgeous bulletin boards, fabulous anchor charts, and perfectly adorable teachers that I am seeing all over Instagram and Facebook. We work hard getting those classrooms ready, and deserve to celebrate when they are ready and waiting for our new crop of students. Of course visions of picture perfect lessons and activities enjoyed by our picture perfect students are also dancing in our heads. I've always referred to this time as a shiny new year, but the truth is that the patina of the new year wears off pretty quickly. Real life and the day to day world of teaching takes over. Kids have picture perfect visions of their own for the year ahead too. This situation always makes me think of another of my favorite read-alouds for fourth and fifth graders, A Crooked Kind of Perfect. (affiliate link)

Meet Zoe. She dreams of becoming a concert pianist, a child prodigy who will play at Carnegie Hall, wearing a ballgown, a tiara, and long gloves. She tells us of her her dreams in a short opening chapter called "How It Was Supposed to Be". In the next short chapter (perhaps among the shortest chapters in history - three short sentences) "How It Is", we find that Zoe actually plays the organ. A "wheeze-bag Perfect -Tone D-60" that her dad impulse-bought at the mall. We learn that Dad is an agoraphobic and Mom is a workaholic. As we laugh a little at Zoe's description of her Dad's experiences with mail order courses from "Living Room University", her mother's demanding job as a Controller for the state, and Zoe's own disappointment in her organ lessons, we begin to make personal connections to the text.

Each of us has our own "How It Was Supposed To Be" and "How It Is". We have this dichotomy in our lives in general, and in specific events like the start of school. Some great conversations followed our read-aloud sessions about how each of deals with our "How It Is" and adjustments we make to "How It Was Supposed to Be".  Zoe goes on to tell more about her typical pre-teen life. Events like arriving at lunch to find that her best friend Emma now has a new best friend. We can feel you, Zoe. Been there.

As we read on, we explore the theme found in the pages of this book. Linda Urban, the author, is a fabulous writer, and many of the descriptions told in Zoe's voice are hilarious. Zoe seriously becomes our friend for life. Her angst is our angst, and her unique and witty way of looking at life touches us at the soul level. As Zoe takes works her organ-playing way through "The Hits of the Seventies" to prepare for the Perform-O-Rama, your kids will be singing along to "Green Acres" and "Forever in Blue Jeans", babe. I promise you will love sharing this book with your class, and it will be with you forever.

I always look back fondly on this early-in-the-year read-aloud and watch how it has affected my students' attitudes. As Zoe and the cast of characters in her life all find their own way to a new perfect, a crooked kind of perfect, one that works and still makes them way beyond happy, so do we! We start the year in our perfect classroom, with our perfect visions for a perfect year, and find ways to deal with the crooked way it all turns out - our own crooked kind of perfect!

Need a way to justify having this much fun in Reading class? I have created a CCSS linked (complete with "I Can" statements for each lesson) Interactive Notebook resource with summaries and nine sessions of lessons for this book. There are thinking questions, fun Interactive Notebook pages to slip right into whatever IN you like to use, and a short reading log to use as assessment. The whole crookedly perfect package! Check it out here:

Hoping you and your own sweet students will find your crookedly perfect way to a great year!


A Gift From the Sea to Start Your Year

Maybe you have already started your school year, or maybe you are about to start. There are so many wonderful picture books to get your students off to a great start: Enemy Pie, Each Kindness, and of course First Day Jitters! The best ones, I think, speak to us about how we treat each other and the everyday choices we make.

Extending on that theme of relationships between family or friends, I have a few more of my favorites to tell you about over the next few weeks. Although each of these books has a strong theme of positive relationships, there are several other reading and writing strategies that can be addressed as you travel through the read-aloud experience.

 I'm going to start with one today that doesn't seem like a good choice at first, but has a hidden sweetness that will infuse itself throughout your year. Read on. The book is Gifts From the Sea by Natalie Kinsey Warnock. The first line goes like this: "A northeast wind was blowing the day we buried Mama on a hill overlooking the sea." What? First read-aloud for fourth graders (my target audience - my favorite grade!)? As we left for lunchtime after the first read-aloud session for this book, a student approached me with tears in her eyes, and said, "How can you read such a sad book to us? It's the beginning of the year! We're supposed to be happy!" I simply answered, "You'll see why soon." I had used this book for several years as a first read-aloud, and I could predict its results.

As we read past that first page, we meet Aquila Jane MacKinnon, born at the Devil's Rock Lighthouse on April 18, 1946, and who has never left the island. Although she lives only five miles off the coast of Maine, Devil's Rock is the whole world to this child of Irish immigrants. As we live in Aquila's thoughts, we begin to know her as Quila, and to feel the desolation and loneliness that she feels. We feel her anger at the universe, and her love for her mama. We even begin to understand the love tinged with a touch of hatred that she feels for her Papa.

We see how people deal with real adversity and life-changing tragedy and joy. (Joy is in there, I promise!) We get a glimpse of the immigrant experience and the ways in which people have risked their lives for centuries to escape danger, starvation, and extreme hardship. Quila finds a folded mattress that has washed up on shore with a living baby inside. They name her Cecilia (Celia for short), which means a gift from the sea. And, as is always true of life, life keeps on happening. Quila and Papa keep the baby and begin to raise her together. When a woman named Margaret arrives on Devil's Rock, an emotional roller coaster is ignited for Quila and for us as readers.

We have so much to talk about, to bond over, and to think about concerning our own relationships as we read on and on. As we reach the final, heart-pounding chapters wondering what effect Margaret will have on Quila's world, we laugh and cry together. Seriously. All of us. Girls, boys, everyone. Not a dry eye in the house. When people have been through what we, as readers, have been through being Quila or Celia or Papa or Margaret (each of us identified with one or another), they are a family. We weathered the storms and came out fully bonded and ready for our "happy year". We experienced life like we never knew it could be. We witnessed adversity and loyalty and strength of will and character that most nine year olds have never been exposed to. We became a family.

After Gifts From the Sea, we are never the same. The little irritants of everyday classroom life are not so irritating. Your best friend sitting with someone else on the school bus becomes an easily dealt with issue. No one to play with at recess? What would Quila do? You have too much homework? Have you tried raising a baby 24/7 like Quila? And so on.

The author of this short but amazing book once visited our elementary school. There were audible gasps as she told us how she came to write this story. She was in her studio, working on another book, and she kept hearing Quila's voice in her ear, saying, "Tell my story. Tell my story now." She told us that she simply wrote the story that Quila told her. What an outstanding example of how a fully thought out and developed character can guide the whole story we tell as a writer! I love to share this little bit of author trivia with my students and watch their eyes open wide and their jaws drop! Imagine thinking of a character that strong!

Based on true events, this book can be used as a lead-in to teaching narrative nonfiction or historical fiction. The true story: In the mid-1800s, a lighthouse keeper at Hendricks Head lighthouse, off the coast of Boothbay Harbor, Maine, found a floating bundle. He and his wife raised  the baby.

A book for grownups which is based on the same true story is The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman. I am telling you about this because I have found that sharing my life as a reader is a very effective motivator for turning kids on to reading. I usually don't share the title with them (will share with parents though, upon request) because they aren't usually appropriate as potential reads for kids. But the idea that several books can be based on the same historical events or types of characters or themes is powerful. If you want a rapt audience, try storytelling a book like Ready Player One (did this way before it was a movie) while your students are doing a science fiction unit. Sharing details from The Light Between Oceans while reading Gifts From the Sea had the same effect. If you are a reader yourself (and I'm guessing that you are), there are so many books from your own list for you to use as support texts in your mini-lessons.

I hope you'll take a look at Gifts From the Sea as you plan your read-aloud this year and will welcome all it will do for your class as a family and a community of readers.

Books mentioned in this post have affiliate links to Amazon.

We discuss other great read-alouds to get your year off to a great start in episode 5 of "We Teach So Hard", a new podcast you can find on Apple iTunes, Google Play, Anchor, and several other podcast providers! Join the conversation in our Facebook group!

For more Start the Year read-alouds from the crew of "We Teach So Hard", click below!