Look Who’s Making the Cupcakes Now

When my oldest was in preschool, I was the mom who made homemade cookies for his class on every holiday. They were the kind you have to roll out. Cut. Bake. Then frost with tinted icing one by one. Even though I was working, it felt important to make something to show him he was loved.

My second son came along and maybe those frosted cookies were just sprinkled with the same color sugar. It saved time.

By the time my oldest was in first grade, I was teaching, back in grad school, and somehow found myself PTO co-president halfway through the year. Schoolwork happened after the kids went to bed. And PTO emails often happened at odd hours of the night (or was it morning by then?).

Needless to say, there were no more cookies for school on holidays.

Sorry kiddo.

But there were still the hastily baked birthday cupcakes to share with teammates on their birthdays. Those cupcakes lasted into middle school.

This week I have a (kind of big) birthday.

Tonight at dinner while we were coordinating the details of who’s heading to practice, who’s studying for which chemistry test, and what’s for dinner tomorrow, my husband reminded the oldest about making “cupcakes for Mom to bring to work.” And after a flurry of post-dinner cleanup and packing for hockey off went my husband and youngest leaving Daniel and I in the kitchen.

Daniel, as he is wont to do, noticed something about the hand mixer that none of the rest of us ever have. He observed in fascination. I smiled.

He measured and mixed. He ladled the batter into the cupcake tins and tucked them in the oven. I worked on a tomato sauce nearby.

I watched him with a mother’s awe, remembering the round baby cheeks, soft toddler hands, and playful boyish face I kissed as I made cookies and cupcakes for all those holidays. Now he’s lean, with chiseled features. He knows his way around the oven without my help.

So while I’m feeling my new age, I saw tonight a glimpse of the love that has filled the years. I was filled by something more than pride as I looked up at my son.

Plus, it was fun to spend an hour together in the kitchen. Most days we’re heading in opposite directions. Lately, my love is shown through asking about chemistry with interest (though it’s so foreign I don’t know how I ever made it into organic chem).

Cupcakes. What a treat!



Spreading Happy Endings

A Few Slices of Life and It’s Monday Tuesday What Are You Reading?

The book rested on the lunch table, a note sticking out of its pages: “If you could use a happy ending today–try this! You can put it back in my box when you’ve finished.” I looked back over my shoulder to check that it was visible to anyone coming into the teachers’ room for lunch. I smiled a warm residual smile. I’d finished Wishtree the night before and it was too good to hold onto.


Several days later the book appeared on the floor outside my locked office door, a sticky note emblazoned across its cover: “This was exactly what I needed! Thanks for sharing.”

I smiled and made a U-turn to the lunchroom. Again, I nestled it in the center of the table.

Two weeks flashed by in a blur of conferences and late fall responsibilities. I didn’t think much of my little book afloat in the school…Until one day it reappeared. In a hurry this time, I tossed it atop the leaning pile on my desk and ran off to the next appointment (or crisis). When I returned to my desk, deflated and in need of my own happy ending, there it was. It took a little while to notice the small note tucked between its pages: “Sorry I had it so long. We read it together as a family!”

This time the book had actually traveled between two different teachers before it made its way home. Thinking about which teams in my building could use a little pick-me-up, I hand delivered it to second grade. They were usually eager book testers.

Last Tuesday the book found its way back in the hands of a second grade teacher. She’d loved it. She was thinking about using it as a read aloud. “Wonderful! I’m so glad you liked it. With everything going on, it feels like we could really use this story right now.”

“There’s just one thing,” she worried. “The family is Muslim. Do you think the religion will be a problem?” We talked this through. While it’s implied (or possibly stated) that the girl’s family is Muslim, the book doesn’t talk about religious beliefs, it focuses on how, really, we’re all much the same with our own hopes and worries. I reassured her that I thought it was not only appropriate, but heartwarming.

Alas, later the same day she returned the book with a note: “I’ve decided against it. Too risky. I’ll find another read aloud.” My heart crumpled. If we aren’t brave enough to read and share stories that aren’t even about religion, how can we hope to have conversations when issues of race, or exclusion for any number of reasons confront us more directly? To be fair to this teacher, at our December schoolwide assembly last year or the year before second graders shared their research into the various holidays celebrated by many people (including some students in second grade) at this time of year. Students chose which holiday to research and teach about. Students decided what they’d learned and what they’d share. (Can you see it coming?) It was innocent. It invited inclusion and understanding. The children were in no way biased or judgmental about Chanukah, Diwali, Kwanzaa, or the others they’d chosen to present. Unfortunately, some staff members and some parents were. No more winter sing-along. No more sharing traditions from cultures or religions other than the dominant one–so none at all. Even Frosty has been outlawed.

Feeling more than ever like Wishtree needed to find another heart to reach, I left it perched on the door handle of a colleague who’s going through a challenge with regard to acceptance and exclusion. Her heart is warm. She’ll probably share it with her own family, I thought.

So walking out the doors for Thanksgiving I was glad.

I’m grateful for this story that has touched so many colleagues already.

I’m grateful that ours is a school community where we share and celebrate and mourn together.

I’m grateful for every adult hearts it touches in hopes that it will ripple outward and touch children’s lives as well.

If you could use a happier ending today, check out Katherine Applegate’s Wishtree.

Rethinking the Story of Thanksgiving

The original Thanksgiving of our national legend is the story of vulnerable newcomers, immigrants, supported by those who called the place home for generations or more. It is, perhaps, the one time in our American story that we give a nod to ourselves as the other. Often, even in the story of the first Thanksgiving we gloss over reality and cast ourselves in the leading role, relegating the Wampanoag to a supporting one.

There is much we could learn from the mythology of our own beginnings, if we could come to the story with new eyes.

When I spent a year living in England (a temporary immigrant), I and the other American students in the college tended to cluster together. It provided a sense of security and familiarity even in a relatively similar host culture. Like immigrants everywhere we were gathering with others from home, carrying on our own familiar traditions, possibly challenging the norms of our new home. Of course, we didn’t think of it like that at the time–we were just trying to thrive as transplants.

When Thanksgiving rolled around, it was a holiday for only twelve of us. We were (academic) pilgrims seeking opportunity in the old world. A minority among natives. Without kitchens in our rooms, we were dependent on the dining room for sustenance. Fortunately, the kitchen staff were kind. They tried to make us feel at home by serving their version of a Thanksgiving feast. Yet, it was unlike our familiar fare–nary a pumpkin or apple in sight. For dessert they served a Mississippi mud pie.

Another experience that was eye opening was an excursion into Scotland at the New Year. Since I was traveling alone, I signed up with a tour group. Our guide was a Scot. Most of the other travelers were Aussies or New Zealanders. Only two of us were American–and we didn’t know each other. I spent much of the trip watching. I formed opinions of what Aussies and Kiwis were like as a (potentially) representative group. I also watched the other American. I was struck by what Americans must look like to others around the world–loud, brash, demanding, entitled. And I was sorry to have left that (potentially) representative impression with the fun-loving, but considerate members of our tour group. It struck me most profoundly when they dubbed me “The Quiet American,” as though it were an anomaly.

That year some of the many theater productions I attended were Shakespeare’s plays. A few were what I considered traditional stagings. Many were intriguing because the directors took a show written to be set in one time and place and transplanted it. Twelfth Night was translated into a kind of timeless Lego landscape. One of the history plays, a Richard or a Henry, perhaps, was set in what looked like World War I with dough-boys as the characters. Another was set in Imperial Japan. By changing the time and place, the director was reminding us of the universality of the stories told through these hundreds-of-year-old plays.

Lately, I’ve been reading and thinking quite a bit about immigration and refugees in particular. What if we had a director today who would recast the Thanksgiving story? Maybe Anglo-Americans would stand in for the role of Native Americans (or First Immigrants as my father refers to them). In this role, perhaps, we would acknowledge the fear and uncertainty that come with having Others land on our shores, rely on our resources, and often depend (we imagine) on our generosity. It seems we’ve previously forgotten to acknowledge the very real concerns of the Wampanoag and others who were already here when we landed.

Perhaps the director will cast Syrians, Afghans, or Iraqis as the Pilgrims—those who braved the unknown and survived (or didn’t) countless horrors and deprivations for a chance at a better life. Those who landed in a place both beautiful and promising, but also dangerous and menacing—a place where to carve out survival, let alone a thriving existence, is an uncertain venture at best. Maybe the director would cast men, families, or unaccompanied minors from Central and South America fleeing poverty, extra-judicial killings and ruthless drug cartels.

What must life be like that a mother would rather send her child alone on a journey of hundreds or thousands of miles with no guarantee of successfully reaching safety than keep them home? What would possess a mother to climb aboard an ill-suited and overcrowded raft with a toddler for the chance of arriving in Europe? Maybe it’s like the Irish mothers of the mid-nineteenth century who sent their children away to avoid starvation.

They are us. Who we were yesterday. Who we’d be if we left home now.

Maybe if we, as today’s Americans, were to see that version of our story, we’d come away thinking and feeling differently—kinder, more compassionate—like we all are part of the same story.

A Day Full of Ups and Downs (or Sometimes Coaching Is About Surviving & Thriving Rather Than Technique)

“Oh, Ms. So-and-So, isn’t it funny that we both have our coats on right now?” I inquired with a sly grin.

“Mrs. Gordon, we have our coats on because it’s cold in the art room today.”

“What do you know? I was feeling a little cold as well.”

We smiled over the heads of her kindergartners. Mine was a touch ironic. Hers was tired.

It had been an up and down…and down…and down day for her already. The team had rallied, but it was taking its toll.

I checked the time on my phone surreptitiously. Three and a half minutes.

The art teacher greeted the class at her door. Upon hearing about the cold art room she apologized with a wink and a nod.

As the students filed in through her door I said, “Come on. Let’s get a change of scenery. How about a coffee?” When I signed us out in the front office, our secretary was already holding the walkie talkie. We slipped out just ahead of the ruckus.

For the next 20 minutes, my unofficial mentee and I chatted about anything and everything but school. Where we grew up. Our weddings–one past and one on the horizon. Friend outings. We sipped coffee (or cocoa) and strolled around the green in the sunshine.

It was lovely.

There’s never a bad time for sunshine, and after a couple of gloomy weather days it was especially welcome. Not to mention the stormy conditions in her classroom for a few days.

I’ve been in classrooms almost continuously this week (and before the crazy conference week), but I’d been reflecting recently that it didn’t feel like I’d done much literacy coaching. Rather in this room, and one other, I’ve been making regular appearances as a support to make the day to day work possible. I’ve conferred with students and provided proximity influence for restless kiddos to extend the reach of an adult so teachers could take on small groups or conferences of their own without interruption.

It’s not, as one colleague shockingly announced to me in frustration, that these teachers have poor classroom management. (Really?!?) I’ve been a firsthand witness to their calm demeanor, clear and consistent structures and routines, obvious rapport with students, and truly admirable patience and appreciation of the little people in their charge. I have also been witness to the sudden and repeated outbursts of certain little humans in their care.

So while I’d intended to be coaching hard for small group work and new units of study this fall, lately it’s been looking rather different. I’ve been sharing resources about mindset work and teaching into self-regulation. (Thank you Kristi Mraz and Christine Hertz!) I’ve been stopping by more frequently regardless of whether it’s a workshop block, and in addition to conferring with kids and sharing impromptu class read aloud breaks, I’ve been doing wellness checks on teachers.

Today that took the form of an emergency off-site coffee break. Being loving and patient in the face of physical, verbal, and emotional outbursts is taxing. If we’re going to provide a classroom that’s safe and nurturing for our kiddos, we need to feel safe and nurtured. We also need to know that we’re not in this alone. We celebrate together and we back each other up when it gets tough. That might look like: in the moment triage, post-game reflection and problem solving, or recovery strategies.

I’m not going to say the afternoon was easy, but something about basking in the sunshine and breathing the fresh air together made it approachable.

Tomorrow is a new day. A new week, new month, and new trimester are just around the corner. Teaching is a profession of many fresh starts. They are a gift. So soon I will get back to intense, focused literacy coaching. For now I will coach kids through tough words or confusing paragraphs until they have strategies of their own. I will coach teachers through difficult classroom dynamics until new patterns start to emerge, or new plans are formulated.

My Revised Plan:

  • De-escalate.
  • Look through an admiring lens and recognize strengths.
  • Offer choice and ownership of the type of support or strategies to receive.
  • Provide strategies and support.
  • Invite reflection.
  • Allow for a fresh start.

That’s funny–it looks a lot like coaching.



Being Brothers

There they were, heads bent together, shoulders nearly touching. Daniel’s voice was low and reassuring. I tried to see without looking so I wouldn’t spoil the moment. It looked like Q’s shoulders relaxed.

The scene tonight reminded me of an old photo we have of the boys when they were maybe two and four. They were stretched out on their bellies in the living room watching something, knees bent and feet in the air. I hadn’t noticed it at first, someone pointed it out later, but Qaiden’s little toe was just brushing the side of his brother’s leg as if to say, “OK, just making sure you’re still there.”

Brothers in sled

When I walked in tonight the tension was palpable. Three surly males barely grunted in response to my greetings. Somewhere between carrying in school bags and putting laundry away I discovered what was ailing each of them.

Gradually, ever so carefully, I dug for the calmest, most knowledgeable teacher-self hiding in the shadows after a long Monday. And I reached for all that I knew about each of my boys.

Daniel’s first source of contention was smoothed into a rough plan within a few minutes. (It sounds like an oxymoron–because it is. That particular source of angst will return every night that there’s homework.) The second, girl-related, I left for a quieter time.

I noticed Qaiden working on math, but hadn’t he just said the only homework he had was to read? Puzzled, I put a pin in that one and had a conversation with my husband.

Soon enough those pieces, too, fell into place. Friday, Q was invited to join the math team at school. My hockey and lacrosse playing, so-close-to-an-A+-explaining, perfectionist was invited to do something he’s good at, but that feels hard.

A little background might help here. When Qaiden was three, he came home from preschool and made a shaky letter Q that they’d practiced for the first time during the day.

“Ugh!” his gravelly little voice exclaimed, fists thrust in the air above him, “It’s not even round!”

In third grade, he sobbed in my arms for over an hour the only time his weekly spelling PRE-test was a 70%.

“I won’t even get into college!” he wailed.

As his mother, there must be some way that I’ve contributed to his world view and self-image. But I swear, when he brought home the 70 I celebrated that, “Finally, we have new words you can learn! That will be great.” And when he bemoaned the crooked Q, I cheered him on. “I knew just what letter you were making!”

Our mantra for him became, “patience and perseverance.” Unlike with my first child, I praised the effort rather than the outcomes. (Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?!) But somehow he has always, from three years old, had it in his mind that when it comes to anything in a school building he should know it before a teacher has to say it.

I think he was proud to be invited to the math team. But more than anything, I bet he was terrified. Because to him if it’s hard it means he’s not smart–and his whole self is built around being smart.

Tonight it wasn’t math homework he was working on. It was a set of practice problems from the first math team meeting this afternoon. Apparently there are three members of the team so far…and he’s “the worst.”

Now, there are times when my boys get along. Usually when they’re working cooperatively on some wild project. But just as often–or more–they’re giving each other a hard time. In jest. In earnest. In flat out anger. Rivals in anything that can remotely be construed as competitive.

But not tonight.

Tonight Daniel stood shoulder to shoulder and leaned in close. He studied the questions. He “Hmmm”d and “Ohhhh”d.

“Well, these two you’ll probably learn later this year or in 8th grade. That one down there we just did a few weeks ago [in Algebra II]. The rest of them, I bet you can figure out on your own.”

There they were, heads bent together, shoulders nearly touching. Daniel’s voice was low and reassuring. It looked like Q’s shoulders relaxed.

And that was better than Mom coming to the rescue. With just a few words and a minute of his time, his big brother had made him feel competent again. They stayed like that for half a moment longer before Daniel’s gentle self-deprecation turned livelier as Q volleyed.

But for a moment…brothers.Brothers at the ferry

#IMWAYR It’s Monday. What Are You Reading?

Last week was, among other things, our school book fair (one of my favorite times). I always go in with a few lenses–myself as a reader, my children at home, and of course my readers across K-5 at school. Most years I have time to shop the fair 2 (or even 3) times and add to or refine my initial selections. I may set aside a couple of intriguing biographies for a 4th grade class, or a little something special for an intervention kiddo I know well. This year I had one shot.

I ended up selecting three stories that actually shared an overarching theme–You are strong enough to survive whatever comes your way.

Historical fiction is a favorite genre, and World War II always seems to grab the attention of a few readers when we focus on that genre at school. Our WWII collection for 4th & 5th grade readers is a bit slim, however, because of the obviously challenging content that can be associated with war. So when I spotted Sink or Swim: A Novel of World War II by Steve Watkins and Prisoner of War: A Novel of World War II by Michael Spradlin, I decided to give them a try. I stayed awake way too late for a few nights last week gobbling them up. Both were engaging.

Sink or Swim is the story of a boy who runs away to the Navy to help his family. At only 12, he has to lie about his age and rely on how urgently the Navy needs sailors to combat the growing German U-boat threat. Besides, he has a personal grudge against those subs. Maybe because the life on a ship really is repetitive, the story felt like a repeating list at times. However, it would be a good example of foreshadowing as events early on presage the ones later. Interestingly, this book was inspired by the true story of the youngest boy to serve in WWII. Readers will enjoy the loyal friendship and the depth charges in a race to blow subs out of the water. Then they will pause with Colton when he realizes that up close the enemy looks a lot like him. Some of my 5th graders could handle this book, though it would be well suited in a middle school class library as well.

Prisoner of War was a much more intense story before Henry ever left home. With the help of his loving grandfather (and a surprising lack of a birth certificate) he fled to the Marines to escape his father’s abuse. As another example of a tall, sturdy boy who passed for 18 long enough to be shipped off to the Phillipines, Henry found himself adopted by two members of his unit who kept a close eye on him. All three were captured and forcibly moved to a POW camp in what is now known as the Battan Death March. Very soon Henry finds opportunities to protect those who had protected him. Always concerned that his fear made him a coward, Henry was the epitome of courage in the face of insurmountable odds. Frequent beatings and torture make this a book I’ll pass along to my middle school counterparts. But the message that emerges is that we are stronger–and strong enough–together.

Finally, I read The Trail by Meika Hashimoto because my oldest has said repeatedly that he’d like to go off and live in the woods for awhile. This was a touching story of finding yourself by getting lost, unmoored from all that had previously defined you. Caution: a secondary character attempts suicide late in the book. On the positive side, the kindness of strangers prevails.

If you need to feel strong enough, maybe one of these three stories is for you. Or if you need to reach out to someone whose reading life lives a little on the edge, perhaps you’ll pass one of them along.

Happy reading.


A Little Midnight Flash Draft for #NaNoWriMo–Empathizing with my character

Can’t Sleep (940)


Around me the tent was filled with even breathing and soft snores. Ben had fallen asleep before we even finished our ‘Can You?’ story. Jake was snoring minutes after it ended.

I was staring through the mesh at the top of the tent. It was so late even the stars were winking out. Ok, clouds were drifting across the sky and blocking them. Also I had no way of knowing what time it was.

I rolled over in my sleeping bag as quietly as I could. But every sound seemed amplified–louder in the deep quiet of this summer night. Still my feet sounded gargantuan as they wriggled around inside the sleeping bag.

How could they sleep through this noise?

I tried to stay completely still. I held my breath and counted my heartbeats. One bu-bump. Two bu-bump. Three.

The more I thought about being still, the more my body felt like it had to move.

Outside the tent were other sounds. A constant chirping buzzed in my brain. Were those crickets? Could you really tell the temperature by counting their chirps? Or were they cicadas? I remembered that cicadas could completely cover trees and leave their dead bug bodies littered along the ground. Were we having a cicada invasion? I didn’t really think so.

My eyes burned from feeling tired, but every time they slipped closed my brain jolted them awake.

If I couldn’t count heartbeats, maybe I could count stars. It seemed like I’d tried camping out as many times as there were stars left to see.

I always told my mom that I was cold when I crept inside during the night. She would be curled up asleep on the couch. I don’t know why she fell asleep on the couch. Every time she’d tuck me into my own bed and pull the covers up to my chin.

When she kissed my nose she never said, “Get warm.” Instead she always said, “Here you are in your very own room. Sleep tight. I’ll be right downstairs.”

Sometimes my pillows were still in the tent and she’d give me her pillow from the couch. The pillow would still be warm from where she had been leaning on it.

I stuck my arms out the top of my sleeping bag and folded them behind my head. I wasn’t really cold.

Tonight mom didn’t remind me about an extra blanket. I brought one anyway. But she did check the batteries in my flashlight.

What was that in the bottom of my bag. Something was near my feet. No wonder they were so restless. I squirmed until I could pull out the soft lump. It was too dark to see colors, even with the bathroom light on inside the house.

But I didn’t need colors to know this was Baby Jaguar. The stuffed cat was usually under one of my pillows. I’m not sure how it got into my sleeping bag….Maybe it was left over from the last time my grandparents had visited and slept in my room.

Since they were asleep, Ben and Jake would never know that he was here. I guess I might as well let him breathe instead of suffocating down by my feet again. I tucked Baby Jaguar under my arm and closed my eyes.

Gradually my breathing slowed down.

My heart kept beating the same restless rhythm, though.

A few minutes might have passed, my brain was feeling fuzzier.

‘I’m so tired,’ I thought.

I just want to fall asleep.

I just want to wake up in the morning and still be here in the tent.


Then a noise jolted me awake again. Where was it? It sounded like it was near the back of the garage. Did I forget to close the gate? Could someone have opened it after I checked it so carefully?

Now I was certain I was hearing footsteps. I clutched Baby Jaguar to my chest, squeezing so hard neither of us could breathe.

What had footsteps like that? A fox? An opossum? Oh, please don’t let it be a skunk.

Alex and his friends swore they heard a bobcat last year when they were camping in his friend’s yard. He said it sounded like screaming.

These were just sneaky footsteps. Were they coming closer to the tent? Could I get out the back and slip around the tent to the house? Would I really leave my friends here to the beast?

I needed a plan.

Just then, I heard the whine of a zipper!

Whatever it was was trying to get into the tent! I sat straight up.

The zipper opened wider and a shadow fell across me. I blinked a few times too be sure what I was seeing.

“Hey,” he whispered. “I thought I’d sit out here for a while.” He must have noticed my mouth hanging open. Alex went on, “I just got home and my room is too hot.”

“I’ll just borrow this extra pillow and stretch out over here near the door. Do you mind?” Alex asked casually.

“Whatever,” I replied a little gruffly.

“Don’t feel like you need to stay awake for me. I closed the gate behind me. It’s latched. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Fine,” I muttered as if I hadn’t just been wondering about the gate.

Alex fluffed the extra pillow and leaned on his elbow. He was already ignoring me, too busy looking at his phone.

I rolled over with my back to him. Baby Jaguar was tucked in next to my cheek.

I barely heard it. It might have been, “Sleep well, Will.”

My eyelids were drooping.

A Tale of Two Halloweens

In all of my adult life before last year, we’d had 3 trick-or-treaters…combined. And one said, “No thanks, I’m just with my friends.”

Last year we moved into a neighborhood. The previous owner gave us numerous tips at the closing, about the furnace, the sticky back door–home ownerly things. He also warned us to be prepared for Halloween. Grateful for the heads up and determined to be neighborly, I stocked up on about 125 large bars of candy. I had a giant bowl near the door and extra tucked out of sight to refill as the night went on. My kids went out and I turned on the front light around 6:15. Barely an hour later I had to turn out the light. The bowl, and every extra bar, was empty! Before 7:30 the outside lights…and the inside ones were dark and I was camped out in the basement to avoid detection.

This year, I was determined not to be the house whose lights went out before the little minions even went to bed. I couldn’t find the kind of big bars I’d handed out last year. I did, however fill the cart with bags totaling 600+ pieces of candy. I crossed my fingers and hoped it would be enough. I’ll admit to tucking away a few pieces of my favorite candies in case the bowls were once again empty.

This time two giant bowls stood ready near the door, and more candy was on hand to replenish. And the bars were small so when revelers knocked I invited them to take a few. Only one girl took a whole mitt full. Many selected just one.

At 7:45 I had nearly reached the bottom…of the first bowl. The stream of costumed ghouls trickled and stopped. I’d expected to feel pleased that I’d prepared well enough for the candy-seeking hordes. Instead, I felt a little disappointed that I hadn’t been able to give more away. I’d studied–where was the test?

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy chocolate. But there was a LOT of candy left and the boys hadn’t even brought their own hauls home yet.

One completely unopened bag ended up going to the annual collection at school for our troops. The other unopened bag is now earmarked for the four PD sessions I’m leading next week. If my participants don’t need it, I may by the second half of the day. I hid my favorites from everyone in the house…including myself (out of sight out of mind until I’m really desperate for a chocolate fix). The rest–the whoppers and snickers and non-chocolate candies I sorted and displayed for family sharing.

What a difference a year makes.


Reflecting on Nonfiction Picture Books: A Slice for Tuesday and #IMWAYR (belated)

You’d think an unexpected school closure would result in more time to write…except when you use it to READ.

Bookaday NF candidates

I enjoyed these 12 books tremendously. I’m passing them along to my partner in reading crime, @PESLibrary1 today so she can preview them, too. We’re in the process of selecting 30 picture books for our March Celebration of Reading, which will be a month long #classroombookaday challenge with extension challenges for families. The previous 2 batches of books I previewed were all fiction (which I adore and gravitate to). I thought it only fair to try to include some outstanding nonfiction titles as well. So based on some recommendations from Twitter, and also succumbing to some on the spot fascination while I was browsing, I gathered up these treasures…and 8 or 9 others.

While I was reading yesterday, I discovered…

  • It takes me longer to read a nonfiction picture book than a fiction picture book. Sometimes it’s because there’s more print on the page, but mostly it seems to be because my brain is wired for story and I tend to mull more over informational text. A story I might quickly reread, then reread and savor. But in nonfiction I pause again and again as I go.
  • It seems much easier for a fiction picture book to transcend grade levels (K-5 is a broad range). Anyone from 5 to 105 can appreciate a sweet, yet simple story. It’s a little harder to choose information accessible to kiddos from 5-11, especially because information accessibility depends so heavily on prior knowledge. Several times I found myself rejecting a book for the bookaday project, but tucking it aside for a particular grade or classroom with whom I thought it would resonate.
  • I wondered (frequently) about whether the books I’d selected were too overtly political in the current climate. More to the point, was I inadvertently (or not so much) pushing my own social justice agenda through these texts? I believe girls and women still have barriers to overcome. I believe we should welcome refugees and immigrants into our communities. I believe in scientific reasoning and facts. I believe in peaceful resolutions to conflict. And I believe that there are still miles to go before our society can sleep when it comes to issues of race, ability, and inclusivity. Yes, speaking or choosing to stay silent are both political statements. And I feel strongly that empathy is a human value, not a political value. But creating a ‘must read’ book list is different than curating a ‘great reads’ list and I want to be thoughtful.

Which brings me to an amazing book that I decided not to pass along for our bookaday challenge:

Stormy Seas: Stories of Young Boat Refugees

by Mary Beth Leatherdale and Eleanor Shakespeare

I lingered over this book for the better part of an hour, finding myself mesmerized by the humanizing details of these stories. Each one introduced a young person and the circumstances that made it better to flee than to remain. Then, through narrative, artwork and timelines showed the perils that made it almost unthinkable that they’d braved the attempt. Finally each chapter revealed how their story turned out. Did they make it to safety? What did they do there? How was their life better or different as a result?

In the very first vignette I found myself shocked by vivid details illustrating how fearful one refugee was to return to pre-World War II Germany. That moment in the larger story convinced me that I could never share the book with my kinders or first graders, and maybe not even with hardy 5th grade readers. But at the same time, the messages coming from each young refugee about why they absolutely must escape and how hard it was to find safe harbor felt more important than ever. This turned over and over in my head through yesterday and even this morning as I walked across the parking lot to the doors of school. With my young readers in mind, I wondered if glossing over (essentially redacting) that passage would make the rest of the book a fit for our school. (Thoughts of Banned Books echoed in my mind.) Ultimately I decided that rather than feeling we were censoring the book, I’d recommend it to our middle schools for a social action book club unit they do. In fact, I recommended it to my own middle and high school readers at home and to my mom.

Stormy Seas provides a window into the experience of others, even children, who find themselves in such dangerous conditions, for any number of reasons, that they must leave in spite of the risks or costs–even if it will take them years to ultimately reach safety–even if safety is just a hope and not a guarantee. As a mother and teacher I have to believe that all humans want essentially the same thing–to ensure that our children are safe and have the opportunity to thrive. That may look different depending on our culture or circumstance, but the instinct must be the same. And so this book is also a door–opening for me a determination to make the world safer and more welcoming. I’m not entirely sure what that will look like for me. Maybe it will involve direct advocacy for refugees. Certainly it will involve helping our students to develop empathy, to offer them mirrors, windows, and doors in the books that we share with them.

Reflections on Coaching

This morning’s faculty meeting was the first one of the year dedicated to literacy. Since our school goals in reading and writing hinge on small group instruction, that was the focus of our time. I was at once grateful to have time with the whole staff and challenged to make it worth everyone’s while.

Like in any building, we have varying levels of comfort, of openness, of reluctance with small group instruction. And as a district and school community, we’ve shifted our expectations about groups. Currently, the expectation is that all students are seen in conferences or groups at least once a week. In addition, readers who are striving toward reaching benchmarks are expected to be seen almost daily. In some rooms that feels like a big stretch to teachers. In others, teachers are as natural in conferences as fish in water.

Previously teachers were expected to conduct lengthy groups, applying the entire gradual release model in a single session. Lessons stretched to 45 minutes. Clearly we could never meet the new expectations with the old model of instruction and some teachers are at a loss. They want to do what is ‘right’ but are sometimes paralyzed by not knowing how to accomplish it (also by feeling it needs to be perfect).

So in planning for our time together, I thought about what I hoped teachers would take away. Through discussion with my principal we decided that it would be good for teachers to see video examples of what different small group structures looked like, especially guided reading and strategy groups. We also decided that it would be powerful to share videos of teachers doing those lessons-rather than me.

And so I encountered my first set of challenges–convincing teachers to take a risk. I thought about which teachers already have strong small group practices. Some I spoke with simply felt overwhelmed by other things going on around school recently. I approached both veteran teachers and newer ones with the inviting plea: “How would you feel about…Is there any chance I could just…” bare your soul and play the video in public? Just kidding. Though that’s how it undoubtedly felt to some. Apparently I wasn’t quite clear with one teacher initially. She readily agreed to let me record one of her groups and I patted myself on the back for lining up the group. Then I received an urgent email from her: “Wait! People are going to SEE this?!? I may have missed when you said you planned to use this at the faculty meeting!!!” I assured her that I would never press the issue if she was truly that concerned…maybe I could borrow her readers instead I half-heartedly offered. After we talked through her plan (and she discovered she wouldn’t happen to be at the meeting) she decided she felt comfortable enough to go ahead with the recording. Two other teachers also graciously agreed to take a chance.

I arrived early to 4th grade to set up the iPad on a tripod and to test the microphone to be sure we could hear the group. And we began filming-live before a studio audience-amidst the day to day action of a real live classroom. I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

As the group unfolded before me, there was nothing else the teacher needed from me. The recording was self-sufficient. The other readers were busily engaged. I had time to simply observe the group in progress. I noticed the seating arrangement for the group. I noticed the artifacts and tools the teacher had at the ready. I listened in on teacher talk and student talk bubbling in front of me. Mentally I ticked off compliments and next steps. With my audience in mind I conducted silent voiceovers of the lesson. Notice how…

Very infrequently I felt an “oops!” cross my mind as I wondered how a glitch would impact the video–a restless reader crossing in front of the camera to reach the pencil sharpener, the group member who was watching the teacher talk to another child instead of practicing in her own book, the child who glanced up and waved at the camera or leaned close to the microphone when they spoke.

But what started out feeling like “oops” moments, came quickly to feel authentic. One reason I was recording teachers instead of myself was to make the point that “We can all do this!” Teachers don’t operate on sound stages under controlled conditions. Any teacher watching a silly wave or a restless wanderer will recognize their own class and children in the moment. Far from being critical of these oopses, quite possibly these moments were what would make the new work feel approachable. The child who looked on as the teacher talked with her classmate benefited from an extra model. She wasn’t independent, but she was engaged.

As the group concluded, I started to pack up the equipment and thanked the teacher for being brave enough to share. I offered a compliment and was ready to go. Her response stopped me. She noted a couple of things that hadn’t gone the way she hoped. On the spot she wondered aloud about how to improve those aspects of her teaching. I told her how much I appreciated her self-reflection. She offered to share her thinking during the meeting. (Talk about brave and open to the risk of exposing a lesson she didn’t feel was perfect!)

In third grade a scheduling conflict meant I set up the equipment and left the previously anxious teacher to record herself. When I returned to collect the iPad she also reflected on how long the lesson had gone, how her readers had still had difficulty by the end of the group, and what she thought she would do next with them. She and I spoke on three more occasions following that recording and she asked to have a do-over with a second group the next day. Sure!

Finally, I made my way to a 2nd grade class. What I discovered during and after the workshop that day was that this was their very first day of doing small groups. I had misunderstood when I originally made arrangements to record. I have seen this teacher do exceptional small groups in previous years. I thought that she was hesitant because they’d just moved from fiction to nonfiction and she wanted to know more about them as informational readers before forming groups. In addition, I discovered that this teacher (who has beautiful, respectful signals and strategies for shaping classroom behavior) has a class of full sized personalities in pint sized bodies. Two of her kiddos were having a particularly difficult afternoon and it was contagious in spite of everything. It didn’t help that I toted in a camera and ratcheted up the novelty factor. This time, instead of watching the group play out, I circulated to try to manage the class in the background. There wasn’t enough of me. The teacher carried on valiantly. But some days the best laid plans of mice and men are derailed by squirmy 7 year olds.

I had decided before I even turned off the iPad that I wouldn’t be using this footage. But the class was moving on to social studies, so I made a note to stop back when they went to special. Quietly I tiptoed out. Before I realized they’d headed to gym, the teacher appeared in my doorway, a little green. She was apologetic. She was mortified. I assured her that some days don’t turn out how we hope and that I understand she has a number of needy and challenging friends in her class. Before the last words were out of my mouth she replied, “I don’t want that to be an excuse. I can make it better.” She went on to ask for my help getting small groups established this year. I was humbled. I hadn’t though of it as an excuse–simply a real factor–but I admired her no nonsense determination to be her best for these learners. You better believe I’ll clear my schedule to spend some weeks with her.

So this morning as we gathered in the library I was prepared with a few lesson videos–none exactly what I’d envisioned–but each with a valuable set of take aways. I decided not to voiceover bit by bit, but instead to invite my teachers to be on the lookout. Half looked for what the teacher did and said. The others looked for what students were doing. One colleague agreed to time each of the groups, breaking it down for each part of the lesson. I shared the same Compliment/Next Steps notes format that many of us use as teachers for our conferring notes and asked my colleagues to make note of what they noticed as they watched each group. After each video clip teachers shared at their tables and then popped out their big take-aways to the larger group.

There never seems to be quite enough time, but it was a good beginning to our conversation. A few teachers shared questions as well as observations. Those will be the jumping off points for our next steps. As teachers left, I reflected on two things I wished I’d said.

  1. We’re not aiming for perfection. We’re aiming for frequent, genuine interactions with our readers/writers. So meet a group with your mind and heart open and see what comes of it.
  2. There is value in naming what we notice. By simply saying it (or jotting it) we have pressed a pause button that invites us to think more about it. Sometimes we name what we notice ourselves doing (or not). Other times we name what we see our students doing. Naming is the first step in growing beyond.

Thank you to my teachers for their courage. Thank you for your keen self-reflection and for your fierce commitment to your students. While I have strategies to share with you about small groups and other literacy things, I continually learn from you about teaching, about being lifelong learners, and about loving every child who comes through our doors. I see you.

And what I thought was just preparation for today’s meeting turned out to be some amazing learning opportunities in themselves. Learning happens in unexpected ways and when we least expect it–if only we keep ourselves open to it.