Old Days

A few months ago, my class celebrated World Read Aloud Day. And even though one of my students announced that every day in our class is World Read Aloud Day, we took some time to enjoy it. One of our special activities was a Skype visit with a fantastic author, Nancy Churnin. At the time, Churnin had published three picture book biographies. One more was in the works, and luckily I found it in a local bookstore this past weekend.

So today I read aloud Irving Berlin, The Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing, by Nancy Churnin. And it was fabulous. Great read. Lots of information. I enjoyed it, and my students enjoyed it too. But what I realized as I read it through the second time for my afternoon class, is that we enjoyed it differently.

What I realized, once again, is that they are young. So very, very young. And I am not. So very, very not.

And that’s okay. It really is. It’s okay that when I got to the part about Kate Smith singing God Bless America, I didn’t even bother asking if her name meant anything to them. Beyonce, they’d know for sure. Kate Smith, not so much.

And it’s okay that when I mentioned Judy Garland, that name didn’t ring a bell either. On the upside, they had heard of the Wizard of Oz. Hey, they even knew that the name of the girl whose house gets blown away in the tornado is Dorothy. But the brilliant actress who played her and sang in so many other musicals that I love? No name recognition there.

It’s okay that when I told them Berlin left Russia at the turn of the century, I needed to backtrack a bit. Wait, I mean, the last turn of the century. The one before this turn of the century. Oh my god, when I think of the turn of the century, I think of the 19th into the 20th century. So, so, so not young.

The other day, it hit me that it’s almost 2020. A year after which, I will turn sixty. But who’s counting? Me, obviously. And I know it’s just a number. A big number, yes, but I don’t even teach math. So let’s be honest, why care about a number?

The truth is, I love working with little people who are so much younger than me. It’s energizing and exciting to be around them because everything is new. And yes, once in a while, I have to remind myself they’ve only been on this earth for ten years. And there is so much about it that they don’t know. So many references that they just don’t get. So much of my life experience that is merely history to them.

But unlike my own kids, they listen with interest. They’re into my stories. They like to hear about the old days. Before cell phones. Before video games. Before a century that started with the number two.

When I tell them that I used to ride my bicycle around the neighborhood alone, they find that fascinating. When I tell them I could call for my friends just by knocking at their doors, and there was no such thing as a playdate, they find that amazing. And when I tell them I used to play kick the can in the street in front of my house with whatever kids showed up that afternoon, they can’t believe that ever happened.

So, what’s the big deal if they’ve never heard of Judy Garland. Or TV dinners. Or Watergate.

Tomorrow’s another day. And I’m sure I have a book for that.


A Fresh Start

It’s the middle of April. We’ve been together for 8 1/2 months. And we’re very, very comfortable with each other. What does this all mean? It means it’s that time of year.

Every Spring, a few weeks after the first crocuses bloom, my students, or more to the point, our learning, needs a rebirth. A bit of energizing. A little pizzazz.

We’ve been reading together for quite a while now. We’ve read independently, we’ve read in partnerships, and we’ve read in clubs. We’ve done read alouds, we’ve done small groups, and we’ve conferred.

They’ve searched my shelves, perused the book bins, recommended to each other. They’ve tried various authors, different genres, and new series. They’ve given book talks, visited the library, and reread favorites.

So today, it was time to try something new. Something different to build excitement. And recharge their batteries. And remind them how much they love reading.

Today we did a Read Around. Which, simply put, is an opportunity for kids to explore and discover books they might like to read. Setting up a Read Around is extremely simple. All you need is fifteen or twenty minutes and some books. Often, I’ll have my students do a Read Around when we are about to begin a genre study. Today we looked at fantasy books. But you can do a Read Around using any books you want. I’ve done Read Arounds with nonfiction, with picture books, and with under-read-yet-excellent-literature in the past. And each time, the Read Arounds have met with great success.

So how exactly do you create a Read Around? Just place piles of books at different stations around your classroom. It helps if you have a few titles that you’ve kept in hiding until this point in the year. Once the books are set up, I randomly choose name sticks and ask students to pick a starting spot for themselves. They bring their notebooks, turned to their To-Be-Read list page, and a pen. Then they begin.

Students look at book covers, read blurbs, discuss the books with others at their station, and jot down any titles that look intriguing to them. After a few minutes, I call time and ask each group to make their way to a new spot. We continue like this until all students have had time to peruse as many books as they want.

The results? Amazing! Suddenly, it’s September in April. Students have fresh TBR lists in their notebooks. They’ve joined together in impromptu partnerships and trios to read favorites together. One group chose three books and has a plan to read one after the other. Another group took the first book of a 4-book series and plans to read the next three when they’re done. One student ran up to show me the back of her book because there’s a picture of the sequel. Of course, I promised to order copies for her club if they decide they love the first book.

All in all, it was a banner workshop day. Two students were absent, but two partnerships told me they took an extra copy of the books they chose, in the hopes that the absentees will decide to read with them. Each group set a date to begin their new “on deck” fantasy book later this week, as soon as they complete their current independent reading. Every student is enthusiastically looking forward to embarking on a brand new reading adventure.

My next step? Just give them time to read. So tomorrow, we will be sure to devote a solid forty-five minutes to independent reading. Thanks to our Read Around, we are raring to go.

It’s the middle of April, and we’ve been together for a while. But we’re recharged, and we’re ready to read!

Test This

Image result for school test

This week my students will be taking the State Test. The idea of this particular assessment is to understand who students are as readers. To get a read on them. A read on the readers. Anyway, that’s the idea. And as far as ideas go, it’s one of the worst ever. So it seems like a good week to do an assessment of my own. An assessment of assessments. First make sure you have a sharpened number two pencil, a good night’s sleep and a healthy breakfast. Just kidding. This particular assessment requires no test prep.

There are lots of ways to assess students. To see how they’re doing. To see if they’re growing. If anyone asked, I would tell them that the State Test is my least favorite assessment. There are so many reasons for that. But good news. Nobody’s asking. Why would they? I’m just a teacher who spends all day, every day reading with children. Who cares what I think about the State Test. So we won’t waste time talking about it. At least not today.

Instead, let’s talk about the ways I do like to assess students. Find out how they’re doing as readers. Figure out how I can help them grow. Simplest and quickest? Have a conversation. Yes, speak to them. You would be amazed at what you can learn about a student’s reading life just by asking them a few questions. What are you working on? How’s that going for you? What’s your goal? Would you like me to help you develop a goal? Is there anything else I can help you with? How did you choose this book? What is challenging about the book you’re reading? What are your plans moving forward? And simply, what are you most proud of as a reader?

Sometimes one question will suffice to get a student talking. Sometimes a student knows exactly what they want to talk about, and my job is simple. Listen, learn, and when the moment is right, jump in with one little suggestion. A small tip that can move that student along their path to becoming a stronger, more independent reader. Other times, several questions are needed. Some students are quieter, shyer, or simply unaccustomed to talking about themselves and their reading lives. Maybe that’s what we need to work on together.

Another of my favorite ways to assess students is letter writing. Every so often, I’ll ask my students to write me a letter. Tell me about how your reading life is going. Or how your book club is going. Or your partnership. Or how you’ve changed as a reader so far this year. Or what you’re planning to work on as a reader over the next few weeks. For quieter students, letter writing can be an opportunity for them to share inner thinking that they might be reticent to share out loud.

I often write letters back to my students when they tell me about their reading. I might suggest a follow up read to them, or recommend a new genre that I think they should try. Often I ask questions to get them thinking more deeply about what they’re reading. Sometimes they come to me and share their answers. Sometimes not. Either way, I want them to know I’m interested in their ideas, and I care about what they have to say.

And that’s the bonus of my favorite assessment ideas. They not only show me who my kids are as readers. They show my kids who I am as their teacher. They help to fortify our bond. When I pull up next to a student to have a conversation about the book they’re reading, or when I ask a student to write to me about their reading world, I am communicating my interest and my concern. I am showing them that they matter to me, that reading matters to me, that how they feel about who they are as readers matters to me.

So there you have it. Two simple, non-threatening, quick and easy methods of assessing my students as readers, both of which fortify our relationship as well. And these ideas are just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many ways to know students without administering a pencil and paper un-timed (read: Never Ending) two-day test, the results of which are not even available until months after the testing date. My informal methods of assessment are not scientific, they don’t yield data that can be crunched and analyzed and published in newspapers. Why should they? How would that help my students?

But nobody asked me. So this week my students will be taking the State Test.

And I’ll be asking them how their reading lives are going.


Say What?

Image result for yes or noNo.

There, I said it.

No. And I said it again.

In fact, over the past thirty or so years, I’ve said it a lot. I raised seven children after all. Not single handedly, but still. I had plenty of opportunities to use the word. And I took full advantage. And I was good at it too.

Can I go to the mall alone with my friend (at age 12)? No. Not old enough yet.

Can I stay up till ten (on a school night)? No. You need a good night’s sleep to do your best.

Can I have some friends over while you’re out tonight (so we can do things we can’t do when you’re home)? No. For obvious reasons.

So, I used the word often. And I used it proudly. No. No. And no. Because saying the word no is an integral part of parenting. A necessary part. A crucial part.

However, lately, I’ve discovered that I can no sooner utter the word no than I can leave the house without wearing makeup. And the reason for both of these limitations is one and the same. Yes, folks, I am now a full-fledged, card-carrying, photo-yielding grandmother.

The inability to say no did not occur in the first year of grandparenthood. It grew. It developed. Along with my grandson. In fact, the more he acquired vocabulary, the more mine faltered.

An example: He asks, Nanny, can I have an Oreo? I answer, Of course, honey, here’s one. 

Then he says, No Nanny, more. And I, answer, Yes, honey. How many?

He then (adorably) holds up all the fingers on his right hand and says Five, Nanny. Which I, in turn, happily hand him. C’mon. The kid knows he has five fingers on his hand. The least he should get is the corresponding number of cookies to eat.

Example two: At bedtime, he says, Nanny, I want to watch Wiggles. Wiggles, I’ve recently discovered, are what Raffi would have been if he had three friends who could sing, cute outfits and some dance moves. Anyway, regardless of the time, if my grandson asks for Wiggles, especially if he wants to snuggle while watching, the answer is yes. Every. Single. Time.

Now, I am fully aware that children need limits. I was the queen of limits. Just ask my kids. They’ll be more than happy to tell you about it. My son loves to remind me that even after his friends turned twenty-one, they were still afraid to have a beer in my house. Good. Ha! I’m proud of that.

But when it comes to the grandkids, all bets are off. Let the parents set limits, and let me make up for all the years I stood my ground. All those years of No this and No that were exhausting. They were stressful. And, don’t tell the kids, they were probably often unnecessary.

So I’m a new woman now. I’ve earned it. I’m on the yes train and I’m not getting off.

Wait…What honey? Excuse me, my grandson says it’s treat time. And the answer is…yes!

Remembering Not to Forget

Image result for martin luther king jr

Today is fifty years since Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered. That means I was six-years-old when it happened. Which is why I can barely remember.

But I do remember a lot from those days. The sixties. Vietnam, the civil rights movement, women’s liberation. I remember because my family was one of those families that talked about politics every night at the dinner table.

Do families even sit at a dinner table anymore? And if they do, do they talk? And what do they talk about? Reality? Or reality television?

The other day I happened to see one of those posts on Facebook that is supposed to appeal to my generation. You know, nostalgia about the good old days. When kids could ride bikes around the neighborhood and call for friends without a prearranged play date. As long as you were home by dinnertime, all was good. And how did we know when dinnertime was? Not by looking at our cellphones. We just knew. Because the sky got darker, the streets got quieter, and our stomachs felt emptier.

I do remember those days. And there were some really great things about them. Things that make me want to remember. But it pains me when people reminisce and forget to include all the bad that went along with the good. Were things simpler before the internet, before twenty-four hour news, before cell phones and email, not to mention before all the violence that our children and grandchildren have to worry about the minute they walk through the doors on their first day of preschool? Yes, it was simpler. It even felt slower. But those days in the past were far from perfect.

Somehow when we look back, we tend to forget the bad. Why? I don’t know for sure. It’s kind of like whitewashing a eulogy for someone who doesn’t deserve to have a lot of nice things said about him once he’s gone. Only once have I attended a funeral where someone told the truth about a less than mensch-like deceased. And if you’re ever looking for the definition of mortified in the dictionary, right next to it you’ll find a photo of the facial expressions of those attending that service.

And that’s why we mentally adjust the past. We remember it gently and fondly. Even sweetly. But we also remember it incorrectly. Because it’s easier and less painful for us to deal with. So we modify our memories. We leave parts out. We forgot the bad. It helps us feel good. And maybe that’s okay when the memories are personal.

But today, on this fiftieth anniversary of a day that even I’m too young to remember, I’m reminded that the ways we collectively choose to view the past are crucial to what the world will look like in the future. The way in which we throw away the bad, leaving only the good can be dangerous. Maybe not for us. But for our children, our grandchildren, and those who’ll come after.

Today, even though I’m not in school, I’m thinking of my students. I’m thinking of history. And how I present it to them. I’m thinking of book choices. Of photographs. Of speeches. I’m thinking of power. And I’m thinking of privilege. I’m thinking of possibilities. And choices and lenses. I’m thinking of the fact that I, and so many other teachers, have this enormous responsibility. To present the past from multiple perspectives, and not just from our whitewashed memories. Not the nostalgia. Not the legendary stories. But the reality. And reality only exists when we include everyone’s experience. Everyone’s stories. And that reality is so different from the history I was taught.

Today is fifty years since Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered. It seems like a good day to remember. And it seems like an even better day not to forget.


A Formal Affair


I’ve been invited to a wedding. It’s black tie. So mazel tov to the bride and groom. And good luck to me. Because this means trouble. Right here in wardrobe city.

Weddings mean dresses. And dresses mean shopping. So today I bit the bullet. I set out to find a dress. A very long, formal, and dressy dress.

The first thought I had as I headed off to the mall was I probably shouldn’t have gone for the large Italian ices last night. The second thought I had was where should we go for lunch later. Yup. That’s how I roll. Not an auspicious start to the day.

I’m happy to report that I remembered to bring ammunition. I stuffed it in my bag as I was leaving the house. My one-piece. The Thing, as I call it. C’mon girfriend, you know what I’m talking about. The shrink wrap garment that goes under everything to eliminate the flub. Or at least contain it. Hold it in for the night. Low profile. Less jiggle. No airflow. So we can look pretty. How does the song go? I enjoy being a girl. Who wouldn’t?

Dress shopping is an endurance sport. It’s competitive. It’s challenging. It requires stamina. To find a parking spot near your favorite store. To comb through the sale racks. To undress and dress, and undress and dress and, well, you get it. Dress shopping demands a LOT of physical energy.

And ego. This is not the time to check your ego at the door. To be a successful dress shopper, you need a very strong ego. This will be most important during mirror time. Because there will be mirrors and lots of them. Long mirrors, wide mirrors, mirrors that reveal your features from every single angle. Beware the mirrors. Because clothing will not fit. And there will be gaps. And there will be bumps. And zippers that break. And lingerie straps that show. And mirrors. Did I mention the mirrors?

And there will be the others. Don’t forget the others. Oh yes, you’ll meet them throughout your ordeal. They’ll be in the dressing room, in their body con slip dresses, bemoaning their fate. How do I choose between these two perfectly fitting gowns, when both look amazingly ideal? One is an exact color match to my emerald green eyes and the other beautifully enhances my exquisitely sculpted back muscles. All the while you’re thinking I didn’t even know I had back muscles… no wait, I did. I felt one last week when I pulled it, bending over to pick up the Oreo I dropped on the kitchen floor at 2 am. My advice is try to ignore the others.

You’ll make piles. And you’ll give them names. The nos. The maybes. The almosts. Those are the worst. Because there are so many of them. The almosts include almost the right size, almost able to zip, almost the right color, almost appropriate for wearing outside the bedroom. The almosts are like little teases that taunt and haunt you, sometimes for days and weeks to come.

If you’re very lucky, you’ll end up with a yes. A yes equals success. Eureka. Hallelujah. But don’t pop the champagne just yet, my friend. Because yeses can be tricky. After a long day of trying on, a yes is sometimes a shouldn’t have in disguise. Because this is a comparison game. And you’re comparing your yes to all the nos, maybes and almosts. Which may mean that your yes is simply the end result of an exhausting day of nos, culminating in a shouldn’t have, but did.

I’m five foot zero. Also known as short. Short means I can’t just buy off the rack. I mean, I can, and I do, but I have to hightail it to a seamstress before you can say please insert chip. The seamstress has an important role to play. She gets to hold my hand so I don’t trip over my strappy sandals as I awkwardly mount the giant step for alterations. Then she draws the chalk line on my hem, all the while shaking her head and making tsk tsk sounds. She looks me up and down, imagining the ways she can utilize the foot long swatch of fabric she is about to chop from my garment. And she frowns.

But there is good news. Because once you’ve been lifted, hemmed, and  let out, you’re good to go. Ready to uber. Off to dine. Set to dance.

And ready to shop again. Because just around the corner is bathing suit season.

And that makes dress shopping look like amateur hour.


Vacation Blues

pexels-photo-88212.jpegIt’s vacation. A whole week off. A week and a day. A week and a day and two weekends. No school for me! Hooray!

Until you’ve seen the looks on the faces of teachers prancing out the schoolhouse doors on the afternoon preceding the start of spring break, you have no idea what pure joy looks like. Because those teachers are ecstatic. And for good reason. They’ve made it through the winter. Through flu season. Through way too many indoor recesses. And they’re just plain tired.

I’m one of those teachers. And I really needed a rest this year. So when Thursday afternoon rolled around last week, I planned to really enjoy my time away. I would not allow myself to think about work. I would relax and take it easy. And I’ve been trying, I really have. But for all my attempts at successful vacationing, I’m failing miserably.

The first problem is my internal alarm clock. You know what I’m talking about. That automatic reflex in your body that works especially well when it comes to waking you up on weekends, but kind of sucks on work days? The one that fights you Monday mornings at 6 am, but has no problem kicking in Saturday morning instead? Yeah, that clock has not been cooperating with my vacation sleep schedule so far. I guess it forgot to check the school calendar this year.

The second problem is the book pile. The one on my night table. It’s big. And it keeps on growing. And the Saved for Later collection on my Amazon account isn’t helping. Today I physically placed two night table books on my bed. Those will be my goal books for the break. I plan to read both of them. They’re middle grade books. Of course.

Then there’s the plan book. The one I left in school. Smart, right? I thought I could beat the planning obsession if I left the book in my classroom instead of bringing it home. But it’s not working. Because I have the mental picture. The one of the columns and the boxes, empty, waiting, wanting to be filled. And I know exactly what’s going in them, but it doesn’t matter. It’s like the book is calling to me telepathically…where are you? why am I here? and why are you not?

And, of course, there are the kids. My thirty-five students. Most of whom are probably on a beach in Aruba. Or with Mickey and Minnie. Or playing video games on a couch in their family rooms. But I’m thinking of them. Because it’s April. After which comes May. And then June. So I’ve got them on my mind because time is running out. There are only a few months left, and then they leave me for real. So, I’ve got small groups to plan and conferences to hold, books to recommend and writing to inspire. Yes, the kids are on my mind, and I need to keep them there.

So even though this week is vacation, I’m not quite relaxed. I’m thinking of school, of plans, of students. I’m just not ready to take a break. I’m in school mode and I can’t get out of it. That would take time. More than twelve days. More like twenty or thirty, which I don’t have right now. That time will come in just a few months. But for now, no, my mind just can’t turn it off.

So I’m away from school in body, but still there in spirit. Some might say that’s a problem, that I’m doing something wrong. That I need to change and learn to unwind. They might have a point, but this works for me.

And speaking of work, I’ve got a book to start. I’ll let you know if it was worth the read.