Trying Something New

Wanna know a secret?  I don’t use my basal reader.  It’s true!  And I’m not sorry!  Really – think about it.  Just. One. Book.  All year!?!?  I know this isn’t the intent of the powers that be in my school district.  But for some classroom teachers, that’s exactly what happens.
I challenge all of my colleagues to step out from behind the comfort of the basal and try something new in reading instruction.  Trust your instincts – you know good literature, right?  If your answer is ‘no’, then I urge you to consult your media specialist, reading specialist, or any other teacher in the building who is ‘killing it’ as a reading teacher.  Ask around.
The starting point is always the state standards.  Find your grade level and take a look at what the state of Nebraska is expecting students to know and be able to do.  Then find amazing literature, or better yet, a fantastic author, and use that as a vehicle for addressing the standards.
Let’s say that I’ve perused the state standards, and I’m going to do an author study of William Steig with my students.  I can start with this handy Scholastic resource, or go rogue and design my own plans. The books I would choose are the following:
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble
Dr. DeSoto
Brave Irene
The Amazing Bone

•Nebraska State Standard LA 5.1.5 Vocabulary: Students will build and use conversational, academic, and content-specific grade-level vocabulary.

This standard is effortlessly addressed via these books because they are bursting with rich vocabulary.  While reading aloud, I would have students listen for great vocabulary and note it in their journals.  Making connections between the author’s words and synonyms and antonyms is an important activity.  There are myriad ways to reinforce this vocabulary knowledge.

•Nebraska State Standard LA 5.1.6 Comprehension: Students will construct meaning by using prior knowledge and text information while reading grade-level literary and informational text.

Teaching comprehension using these five excellent books is fun, interesting and engaging.  I would have students compare and contrast all five books, or just two or three.  We would discuss characters and their character traits, themes, literary devices, problem, solution, setting, and unique characteristics of the author’s writing.  Students could create a culminating project reflecting their understanding of the book(s) and the author’s message.
Real, meaningful, authentic discussions.  Not a worksheet in sight – yet you can still take grades on student work.  Students are learning together – cooperatively – improving their language skills as they wordsmith a project or justify their answers.
Did we cover the state standards?  Yup.  And we had a great time doing it! TRUST yourselves, guys!  You are professionals!  You are competent!  your students will LOVE the authenticity with which YOU present your love of literature.  You can do it!



First Cry of the Year

Well, it’s happened…the first cry of the school year.  Mine, that is.  Don’t think that I’m a weeping willow – I’m not.  But it does happen once in a while, and will probably happen again before the year is over.

The catalyst?  My good friend Patricia Polacco!  (She’s not my friend…that’s just me using voice in my writing.)  As part of our PP author study, I was reading Pink and Say to my students.  I didn’t plan to cry.  But when I got to the ending, where the author describes the fates of the two main characters, Pinkus Aylee and Sheldon Russel Curtis, I was overcome.  This wasn’t even my first reading – I’ve read this book multiple times.Obviously, this is my favorite of Polacco’s works.  The story itself is devastating, infuriating, and promising, and when told through Polacco, I just don’t see how one could NOT cry, or at least tear up, at the ending.

As my voice broke and my face gave way to small tears, my students were unsure of what to do.  I could see many of them really analyzing my face to see what exactly was happening.  Though rapt with the story, they were glancing at each other – ‘do you see what I see?’  Finally I finished reading as tears streamed down my face.  It felt good – real, honest, genuine.  As one of my students brought me the tissue box, I explained my reaction to the story.  “That is one sign of a great writer, folks,” I commented, as I composed myself.

A few of them chuckled, obviously relieved that everything was okay…that I was still the teacher, still in charge, still there to care for them.  I’m glad to share my vulnerability with my students.  Sometimes by fifth grade, students are trying to be cool and not acknowledge their emotions.  Not me – I mostly have my heart firmly appliqued onto my sleeve.  I often laugh loudly, I occasionally display my annoyance, and, rarely, I even cry.  I am so thankful for the authors who bring me to these places, and I hope that by seeing me, my students want to visit those places, too.

Sale of my Dreams


Don’t you just LOVE  a good garage sale?  I visited one Saturday and got so much more than books.  The sale was out in the middle of nowhere, and it took my husband and I about thirty minutes to get there.  I thought to myself ‘this isn’t even garage sale season….I doubt there are any bargains.’  Boy, was I wrong!  There were HUNDREDS of books. And lessons.  And books with lessons attached in ziploc bags – you know what I’m talking about.  This gal didn’t want you to JUST BUY THE BOOK – she wanted you to get the book AND the lesson, and pass on the love to your own students!

This angel, a freshly-retired, 35-year first-grade first-grade veteran, was selling her possessions for twenty-five cents each.  Yep, you read that right.  Only a quarter a piece, unless otherwise marked.  BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!!  If you spent $25, she would give you another $10 for FREE!  Somebody pinch me!

This lady, whose name I still don’t know, was meticulous in her collecting of wonderful primary picture books.  All of my friends were there:  Jim Arnosky, Dr. Seuss, Patricia Pollaco, Ruth Heller, Jon Scieszka, William Steig, and so many more.  I told her that I was a fifth grade teacher, not a primary teacher, so some of the books weren’t for me.  Then I thought about writing instruction and added more titles to my stack.  She smiled knowingly.

With my saintly husband trailing behind me, arms heavy with books, I was finally ready to settle my bill.  (Of course, I got the $10 free – was there ever a doubt?)  After giving her my money, I was overcome by the need to hug her.  I thought about all of the lives she had touched in her thirty-five years of teaching.  What lucky souls.  Her hug did not disappoint.

She radiated sunshine on an otherwise gloomy Saturday morning.  As she told me I made her day, I knew it was MY DAY that had been made.  Not only did she give me her books, but her enthusiasm…her attitude….her joy.  In about ten years, I will be in her shoes, hoping to pass on my teaching materials to some deserving soul.  I plan to make the most of that time!