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Character Education

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Digital Learning


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! 


Bonus Sale and a Freebie!

I am so excited to share news of a TpT Bonus Sale with you! It's a one day sale on August 21, and all of Rainbow City Learning (including bundles) will be on sale for up to 25% off!
I am also thrilled to offer you a free sample  of a new line of resources! Just click on the image at the end of this post to get your FREE Unicorn Sticky Notes!
That's right - Unicorns! I am currently obsessed! Can not get those adorable and elusive creatures out of my mind as we think about going back to school. Isn't hoping for the classroom or students or teaching year of your dreams kind of like chasing a unicorn?  It is, at least in my mind!

As each new school year begins, I find myself searching for that elusive strategy, lesson, or activity that will make a difference. I'm thinking of those elusive practices as unicorns, and I believe that we can make them appear for real! 
I hope you'll shop at Rainbow City Learning during tomorrow's special sale, and will come back often throughout the year!

Click here for your freebie:



This post has been featured on the TpT Blog!

Aaaaahhh....August! August is the Sunday night of a teacher's year. We are looking forward to our learning and teaching days to come, yet longing for just a little more summer. We are making plans, thinking about setting up our classrooms, and yet feeling the need to sink our toes in the sand once more, watch just one more Netflix binge, or read one more beach book. It's a feeling that I still get as a retired teacher. I feel the butterflies in my stomach, find myself wondering who is on my class list, and when I can finally get into my room to work. Those feelings never go away, even as I realize that those days are over for me.

So teachers, as we move through August together, I think I know a little of the approach-avoidance feelings you are experiencing. As memories of August past flood my brain, I hope I can offer a few ideas to make your transition back to class easier! Of course, if your district has already returned for the new school year, you probably have a tip or two to offer us already. I hope you'll share in the comments!

Just because  the stores are shelving school supplies earlier and earlier each year, that doesn't mean that you have to spring into action and start gathering. The shelves will be restocked and more and better deals will appear as we get closer to the actual opening of school.

Don't be so anxious to get into your room. It will still be there if you choose to spend a few extra vacation days with friends and/or family. It's usually a struggle to gain access early in August if you are a Labor Day district like ours, so why not wait until the school is actually ready for you to dig in and transform your space?

For years, I stayed away from Labor Day gatherings, choosing instead to make my desk name tags, type up my revised class list for the twentieth time, and pack "Welcome to my Class" bags. Looking back, I think I could have enjoyed the Labor Day fun and still had a great first week.  Savor every last delicious moment this year and then retrieve it to recall on a long and cold winter day.


Have you stressed out over what to wear to school each day? Consider spending a little August time cleaning your closet, donating items you never wear, and shopping for a "capsule wardrobe". The idea of a basic wardrobe of fewer pieces that can be mixed in multiple ways really isn't a fad. It's been around under many names since the 70's. You can trust me. I was there. I didn't heed the advice, but I heard it. Looking back, I realize how much easier my mom life and teaching life could have been with this teeny tiny change in habit. If you have a sparse closet filled with mix and match pieces that you love love love, getting dressed in the morning will be snap!

Will you miss your summer gym time? Bike rides? Long walks? Yoga class? Make a plan now on how to make exercise a part of your school day. A lifestyle modification that worked for me was to go to sleep an hour earlier than I would have liked to so that I could get up an hour earlier to work out. When my children were really young, I made this a two hour difference so I could be up in time to exercise for an hour, shower and shampoo, and be dressed and ready to leave for work before waking my girls. Decide what you would like to accomplish in the morning and work backwards to adjust your bedtime. Adjusting to an earlier bedtime is a life-changer!

Worried about having great family meals ready after working each day? The Instant Pot is a miracle machine! Dinner ready in no time at all! (Unless you choose a recipe that uses the Instant Pot as a slow cooker. I did this once - the first time I used mine. We ended up waiting 3 hours for dinner instead of 30 minutes! Hahaha! Now I check the cooking times before getting out the ingredients!) Use a lazy August evening or two gathering recipes to try in the fall.

Stressful to pack lunches in the morning? Make a plan to batch pack those meals in a quick weekend hour. Snack boxes, bags, mason jars, and bento boxes make great containers for pack ahead meals.


Does your room have to be Pinterest perfect before the students arrive? Why not ask for their ideas on furniture arrangement and groupings? Have some basic bulletin boards to set the stage for students to contribute their work. I have found over and over again that students who feel a sense of ownership  in their classroom will show much more respect for the rules, materials, and equipment.

Would you like your Meet the Teacher event to run more smoothly? Have a few activities ready for kids to complete, like an All About Me page to display for the first day of school. Have a brochure ready for parents describing your philosophy and plans for curriculum, along with contact information. Keep it as simple as possible. I loved using a trifold brochure. Try really hard not to plan a heavy room setup work day on the same day as Meet the Teacher.

Here's a bulletin board idea: Make signs with FAQ and answers and post them all around your classroom. Very helpful for parents and for students. Less for you to explain over and over as the first days roll on.

Will you use more Project Based Learning? Would you like to try Math Centers or a Maker Space? What's your plan to build your classroom community? All of these ideas and more are soooo much easier to contemplate away from the scene of all the excitement. Do a little reading about the top item or two on your list. Subscribe to a professional journal or blog related to the topic. Join a Facebook group of like minded teachers who are going to try out the same new practice. Start small and grow your practice as you feel more comfortable.

I can't say enough about how the simple act of writing quietly for fifteen or twenty minutes each day will bring balance and serenity to your life. It will provide insight later to what happened on a frustrating day and will provide memories that will bring a smile to your face for years to come.

When I started my journal writing at the very end of each school day, my students were wondering what I was up to. Was I writing about them? Was it good stuff? You could hear a pin drop and minds working as my sweeties got all reflective in their own journals too!

Get together with your teaching besties at lunch or at the end of the day to just laugh out loud at some of the outrageous, cute, or even challenging things that will be a part of every day. Try laughter instead of commiserating as often as you can. Humor feels much better than frustration and anger every time!

Some teaching besties and I have started getting together (from across the country by phone) each Sunday night to laugh about some of the things that have stressed us out as teachers. It's the best cure ever for the Sunday night butterflies. We have had so much fun laughing at ourselves and the overwhelming tower of things we have taken soooo seriously that we decided to start a podcast! We hope you will join us by listening and by interacting with us on our Facebook page We Teach So Hard. Because we know that you teach so hard too! I hope this teaching year is the best one ever for you!

We Teach So Hard is currently available on several platforms. As an iPhone podcast addict, I of course am THRILLED to see it on iTunes. Meanwhile, meet up with us here:


For more back to school ideas, be sure to visit the awesome bloggers on Teacher Talk!