August 1, 2015

Poetry Friday–Renga with Friends

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In the Corn Field, Lars Plougmann (Wikipedia Commons)

A few weeks ago, Steve Peterson approached Mary Lee Hahn and me (Jan) to see if we would participate in a collaborative poetry writing experience. After some research, he had selected the form, a renga, which he describes in this companion post on his lovely blog, Inside the Dog.

After we finished the poem, we spent about an hour in a conference call reflecting on the experience and decided to simultaneously blog about our collaboration, with each of us writing about it from a different perspective. For me, I found the form really stretched me. Because each stanza of the renga is based solely on the previous stanza, not necessarily on any central theme, the poem morphs as it progresses, making it hard to nail down.

My type A personality really struggled with working with a form that didn’t work in the ways I traditionally think of poetry working. I found myself really struggling with my need to get things “right.” We have pretty different background experiences (I know little about prairies!), and our writing styles are also pretty different. I found myself feeling like I was doing it “wrong.” As we began the process, each time it was my turn to add to the poem, I emailed Steve and Mary Lee to hand it off and would send along messages that communicated my wobbliness and insecurity. At one point, Mary Lee said, “What has happened to your growth mindset?”

So, I let go and relaxed. I began to truly trust the form, the process, and my collaborators. The final product is included below. You will notice its serpentine nature and the way clusters of stanzas fit together. The stanzas serve as a path through the poem; when you get to the other side, you are, of course, not where you started.

In the end, we found it interesting that particular lines in the poem drew different visual images for each of us. For example, while we each have different church experiences, the “peace be with wheat” section drew distinctive, strong images for each of us. We found this reader’s response aspect of our shared experience powerful and fascinating, and Mary Lee explores it much more in her blog about our collaboration at A Year of Reading.

Here’s our collaborative renga:


in the prairie dawn

a spider’s web snares the sun  —

cricket rejoices

meadowlark joins the chorus

breeze bends ripening wheat heads

whose lanky bodies

bow, sun’s church–peace be with wheat

and also with corn

they gather on folding chairs,

jello melts while the preacher prays

white-robed acolytes

shoulders shaking with giggles

two clouds hide the sun

even the adolescent stalks are sober today

word of fire in the neighboring field

this dark sky —

thunderheads poke fingers

at a thirsty land

near the abandoned homestead

ditch lilies toss flaming heads

who called this place home

does the ground remember

stories brought to earth

a faded calendar tacked

to the wall above the stove

try to imagine

the layers of memories

beneath the dust

how much memory is imagination

how much dust is history

sun slants through wavy glass

in the stale air

motes rise to dance

down the road, far down the road

reverberations can be felt

Margaret has the Poetry Friday Roundup today at Reflections on the Teche.


Setting the Course for the Future: The Power of Words

A River of Words
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No time to read? Listen to today’s post while you do something else!


Kate McCue, who we met in West Palm Beach’s Sun Sentinel on July 14,  is a 37 year old woman from San Francisco who was recently appointed captain of the Summit, a Celebrity Cruise megaship.

When asked how she became interested in ship navigation, Kate explains that her family took a cruise vacation when she was 12, which made her think she might like to grow up to be “the person who plans all the fun events on board.” At the impressionable age of 12, Kate shared this thought with her father who responded with, “But you can also drive the ship if you want.”

Kate credits her father’s words with helping her envision the possibility of captaining a ship, and with influencing the choices that led her to become a captain in a predominantly male industry at the very young age of 37. Kate’s story–shaped by her father’s words–makes us think a lot about the power of words and how they can influence children throughout their lives.

We have written a few times about Heart, Head, Hands and Feet  (HHHF), a lesson from Reading Wellness that explores the lives of people who discovered as children what they loved to do and pursued their passions throughout their lives, making amazing contributions to humanity as a result. We find these passionate people in picture books and articles, such as the aforementioned story of Kate McCue.

In fact, we have a growing list of about 50 picture book biographies that begin when the subject–such as Frida Kahlo, Albert Einstein, and Jacques Cousteau–was just a child and filled with curiosity that he/she followed through a lifetime. Picture book biographies are a great vehicle for empowering children to imagine great futures for themselves, as they describe the lives of everyday yet extraordinary people.

Here are a few Heart, Head, Hands and Feet biographies that illustrate the ways, like Kate McCue’s father, the words we share with children can shape their entire lives:

In Me…Jane, we discover how Edgar Rice Burrough’s words in Tarzan of the Apes  help Jane Goodall imagine living amongst gorillas in Africa.


In A River of Words, we hear how William Carlos Williams grew up hearing his mother talk about him to their neighbors: “My Willie has sharp eyes–he notices everything.” “My boy is a good writer.”

A River of Words

In Boys of Steel Creators of Superman we learn how the words of authors such as Philip Francis Nolan and Alex Raymond ignited Jerry Siegel’s imagination. (It’s a good thing their words resonated louder than his teacher’s who called his earliest tales “trash.”)

Boys of Steel

We will be at ILA this weekend sharing many, many Heart, Head, Hands and Feet biographies, a graphic organizer for using them with children, and classroom stories about children who are reading and writing to explore their passions. Our session titled Literacy Changed Their Lives: Teaching Reading and Writing With Picture Book Biographies is on Sunday at 11:00 AM (America’s Center St. Louis, 103). Booksource has generously donated a copy of many of the picture books for us to give away during this session, so we hope that you’ll join us, if you are in St. Louis!


What is College and Career Readiness Anyway?

Oprah Little Speaker Book Cover
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In this hilarious video, George Costanza–who has just quit his job–talks about what he enjoys and the related jobs he would like to pursue. He finally decides that he should be a talk show host, and wonders how to do that.



Of course, becoming a talk show host as an adult would be much harder than working towards it your whole life, as Oprah did.


Oprah Little Speaker Book Cover


In Oprah, The Little Speaker, Carole Boston Weatherford describes Oprah’s life as a young girl and the ways she began preparing for her later life by speaking publicly in her church, which placed her in much better stead for becoming a talk show host than George Costanza!

In Reading Wellness, we argue that developing “college and career readiness” should include helping students discover the things they love to do and the careers that will give them opportunities to spend their time practicing their passions. We describe the “Heart, Head, Hands, and Feet Lesson (HHHF),” in which we read picture book biographies about people who began pursuing their interests as children and went on to make tremendous contributions to the world by continuing to explore these passions. Using the HHHF graphic organizer, we closely read and breakdown these biographies and then let students complete individual HHHF graphic organizers. Click here for a link to the lesson and the graphic organizer. Also, you can access our growing list of HHHF books in this Google document.

 Heart Head Hands and Feet graphic organizer


 To make our list, a HHHF biography has to meet the following criteria:

  • It has to begin in the subject’s childhood.
  • It has to describe the childhood passions and interests of the subject.
  • It has to connect the childhood interests to the subject’s work/life as an adult.
  • It has to be a picture book, because we read these in one sitting (even in middle and high school).
  • It has to be beautifully written and illustrated.


With the help of Booksource, we’ve been working to include more girls in our collection of titles. In addition to the aforementioned picture book about Oprah, here are a few of our new favorite titles about girls who changed (or are changing) the world.
Little Melba and Her Big Trombone

Little Melba and Her Big Trombone by Katheryn Russell-Brown

Melba Loretta Liston fell in love with jazz as a young child and taught herself to play the trombone at seven. Her talent, drive, and passion brought her opportunities to play with jazz greats all over the world, as she took on race and gender barriers of the 1940s.


Touch the Sky Alice Coachman


Touch the Sky: Alice Coachman, Olympic High Jumper by Ann Malaspina

The first African-American to win an Olympic gold medal, Alice Coachman began jumping as a young child and didn’t stop until she won the Olympics. This story of energy, passion, and persistence powerfully illustrates what can happen when we help children pursue what they love.

Who Says Women Can't Be Doctors


Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell

From the time she was a young girl, Elizabeth Blackwell wanted to be a doctor, but in the 1930s there were none. Nonetheless, she relentlessly pushed through barriers that prevented women from studying medicine and became the first woman doctor.


This month, we are sharing the HHHF lesson and LOTS of HHHF biographies at the NCTE WLU Literacies for All Conference in Atlanta and at ILA. BookSource and the publishers they represent have graciously provided us with many HHHF biographies to give away. Please join us as we redefine “college and career readiness” and give you tools that will inspire students to read and write as a path towards spending their lives doing the things they love. We would love to connect with you in Atlanta and St. Louis!




Wishing You a Great Failure

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“As is a tale, so is life. It is not how long it is, but how good it is that matters.” ~Seneca

This is the time of year for finishing–across the country, students are finishing preschool, elementary school, middle school, high school, and college. While none of our sons have reached a traditional educational milestone this year, we realized that some of their day-to-day trials and tribulations are worthy of at least a small bit of the celebration we save for those momentous occasions.

Recently, Kim’s ninth grade son, Matthew, took an English exam. In spite of thoroughly preparing for the test, the exam was hard.  So hard, in fact, that thirty-five minutes into the ninety minute test, he decided it wasn’t worth finishing.  He handed the test to the proctor and walked out.

As you would expect, the fallout for not finishing this exam is a failing grade. Given the work that he has done in the course to improve and even excel, failing this test left him feeling defeated.  He was ready to write letters of angry protest and picket for justice, which in this case meant an easier exam.

For Kim, watching Matthew struggle–and fail–triggered a complex array of emotions ranging from empathy to her own feelings of failure as a parent, thus complicating an already complicated situation. She wanted to do something to make the situation “right” but struggled to know what that was.  Fortunately, her own conflict consumed her long enough for Matthew to fully digest the experience.  After giving it a great deal of thought, Matthew realized for himself that if he studied differently–and harder–he would be able to pass this exam.  He petitioned for a retake (which has been granted) and he is gearing up to take the exam again.

In her commencement speech at Harvard University in 2008, J.K. Rowling reminded graduates that, “Some failure in life is inevitable.  It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case, you fail by default.”  As you finish this school year and celebrate your children’s accomplishments, we hope that you will at least pause and give a nod to failure, for without it, great success would not be possible.

Open a World of Possible with Engaging Literacy Instruction

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Open a World of Possible is an initiative by Scholastic that celebrates the moments that turned people into readers. Dedicated to helping those moments happen again and again for children so that they grow to love reading and books, this new website by Scholastic features some wonderful resources–quotes, articles, books, and now lessons–that help promote this important goal.

If you scroll down The Open a World of Possible webpage, near the the bottom you will find four, free downloadable powerpoints that we developed for Scholastic in collaboration with Literacyhead. In an effort to make reading instruction both engaging and intriguing, these lessons use both art and children’s literature.

Each time we teach a lesson, we harbor the hope that the book we are using or some part of our conversation will be one of those moments that transform children into readers. The idea of celebrating these moments is exciting to us and makes us proud to contribute to Scholastic’s “Open the World of Possible” initiative. The four lessons we developed are described below.


Lesson 1: A K-2 Read Aloud Lesson











This lesson begins by priming students’ thinking, showing them different pieces of artwork and prompting them to think about the ways in which the artwork illustrates the word “hope.” The lesson continues with a read aloud of Come On Rain by Karen Hesse. Complete with thought provoking questions to ask throughout the read aloud, this lesson also allows teachers to project several key illustrations onto the whiteboard to engage students in close, careful observation and animated discussion. By the end, this lesson comes back around to the idea of hope with more artwork and questions that prompt students to think deeply about the way the hoped-for experience–playing in the rain–changed the characters in the story.


Lesson 2: A K-2 Comprehension Strategy Lesson on Making Predictions


This lesson introduces prediction by showing students a series of three paintings and asking them to practice making reasonable guesses about what might happen next. You can then show students how this skill translates to reading by picking some or all of the four different excerpts from both fiction and nonfiction texts, including Lion’s Lunch, My Name is Yoon, Stone Soup, Who Would Win: Alligator vs. Python. In this lesson, as in all of the lessons, the notes section of the powerpoint provides suggestions and guidance for teacher talk that will keep students thinking and engaged in the lesson.


Lesson 3: An 2nd-4th Grade Academic Vocabulary Lesson on Comparing


This lesson begins by asking students to look at a piece of artwork featuring a green apple and an orange to “compare.” Compare is the focus word and students work to craft their own definition after thinking about the image as well as several sentences that use the word in context. The lesson continues by asking students to use the word “compare” as they discuss how it relates to other images. Throughout the course of the lesson, students gain an in-depth look at the meaning of the word by considering examples, non-examples, and derivatives of the word.


Lesson 4: A 3rd-5th Grade Comprehension Strategy Lesson on Summarizing


Like each of the other three lessons, this lesson begins by having students look at artwork. Students study each of the images and work to synthesize the most important details of the picture to summarize its essence. Students then work to transfer this skill to reading. The Powerpoint provides three text excerpts–a fiction piece from LaRue for Mayor, a fiction selection from The Journey and nonfiction selection from The Ancient Maya–that students can use to practice filtering out the most important details and formulating brief, succinct summaries. At the end of the lesson, students are asked to think about the books they are reading independently and how they might use this skill to help them synthesize what is most important about what they are reading on their own.




Cooking Up Great Instruction

Cookbooks on shelf
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While we both enjoy puttering around the kitchen, Kim, especially, loves to cook. If you visit her home, you will find an extensive collection of cookbooks.

Cookbooks on shelf


The cookbooks Kim refers to most often, such as her copy of The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, are splattered and stained. The margins are lined with notes about her family’s reactions to dishes as well as notes about revisions–add more onions, leave out the ginger, use a little less garlic— that she wants to remember the next time she uses the recipe.


Cookbook page


Because the authors of her cookbooks can’t actually work alongside her in the kitchen, their recipes and Kim’s marginal annotations become her cooking mentors. Each time she cooks, she consults with them as she works to duplicate her last success or improve on her last attempt at a dish.

In many ways, our teaching resources serve us the same way. As we work to hone our craft, we reach for our dog-eared resources and read and reread the wise words of our mentors,  canvassing for inspiration, guidance, and coaching. While most teaching resources don’t read like a cookbook, there have been times when a cookbook of lessons felt like the very thing we needed:

Students unable to sustain attention during independent reading?

Flip to the section on Reading Engagement.

Students not reading with expression?

Turn to the tab labeled “Teaching Fluency.”

Students skipping all of the hard words in the Social Studies textbook?

Go to “Supporting Comprehension in Nonfiction.”

When we’re crunched for time, we try to work most efficiently. With their intuitive organization, cookbooks help us find what we are looking for quickly and allow us to pick and choose just what we need.

Coming this May, teachers will have just this sort of resource. The Reading Strategies Book by Jennifer Serravallo  promises to be like our dog-eared, splattered, and stained cookbooks. Organized into thirteen sections that cover a wide-range of reading strategies, Jen’s book is filled with lesson ideas from which to pick and choose. The lesson “recipes” say enough to inspire and guide us but not so much that if we vary the ingredients a bit, we will worry that it will “come out all wrong.”  We imagine that Jen’s new book will become like Kim’s copy of The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook–bookmarked and spotted with notes. However, instead of comments like “Delicious. Make this on Thanksgiving!” and “Took extra ten minutes to cook through,” in the margins of this book, teachers will write instructional notes, such as  “Great lesson. Remember to do this in September!” and  “Only had 15 minutes to practice. Make sure to plan 25 next time!”

The Reading Strategies Book Cover Jennifer Serravallo


Though the title, The Reading Strategies Book, may lead readers to think that they will be learning new ways to help students connect, question, infer, and synthesize, this book aims to extend the definition of “strategies.”  Serravallo defines strategies as “a means to the end,” the processes that help readers become more skilled (p. 8), and with over two hundred lessons, she helps teachers internalize the meaning of this updated definition. This book is very practical and offers the best of Jen’s reading lesson repertoire. Like any great cookbook, The Reading Strategies Book is carefully organized and gives wise direction that will help novice and veteran teachers alike hone their craft whenever they are looking to cook up something great in the classroom.

Staying the Course During Testing Season

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On today’s blog, we reintroduce you to our friends and colleagues from North Carolina, Hope Reagan and Alice Oakley.  Testing is a hot-bed topic in education and in this post, they share some of their thoughts and observations about test preparation as well as some insight about staying the course during this hectic time. 

‘Tis the season of testing and with this season comes a real pet peeve of ours. This pet peeve being schools who choose to essentially shut down instruction to start the heavy duty test preparation work, months before the actual test date. Seemingly, they move into panic mode. It has been our experience when panic mode sets in, the game plan for what is best for children can be misplaced. This kind of work can be disguised with fancy names such as strategy groups, data clusters or Links, as in linking what you know with how to take a test. Beware.


According to many people, teaching to the test is as unavoidable and those who opt not to succumb to the pressure will reap harsh consequences under tough accountability systems.

We worry when we hear such stories as the principal who turned up the dial on his staff to start test preparation as early as three months before the test and a brave teacher spoke up challenged this idea, “Wouldn’t it make sense to just keep teaching in a purposeful and meaningful way like we do everyday in our classrooms?” he suggested.

We are thankful for teachers who teach this way and think this way.

In stark contrast we celebrate when we hear about a principal who told her entire staff if she saw test preparation in the form of item testing before two weeks of the actual end of grade test, she would put them on an action plan. She explained that the practice was unethical and “curriculum teaching” should continue in classrooms to prepare students for the EOG not “item teaching”. She also compared it to fool’s gold – you don’t actual have what you think you have.

We are thankful for principals like this.


What is wrong with teaching to the test?


There are different ways of thinking about “teaching to the test”.  We really like the way assessment expert W. James Popham helps to clarify the difference. He defines two kinds of assessment-aware instruction: “curriculum teaching” and “item-teaching.”4 Curriculum teachers focus on the full body of knowledge and skills represented by test questions even though tests can employ only a sample of questions to assess students’ knowledge about a topic.


For example, if students will be tested on author’s purpose in reading, curriculum teachers will set students up to think about (evaluate) the many reasons authors choose to write, the structures in which authors use to lay out their message and how the message is created through main ideas and details or a well developed plot. Students will read and discuss many types of texts to experience and evaluate author’s purpose and they will also practice authentically writing for different purposes in order to apply these ideas.


Item teachers narrow their instruction, organizing their teaching around particular questions most likely to be found on the test — and thus teach only the bits of knowledge students are most likely to encounter on state assessments.


Mr. Popham goes on to say the latter is unethical. We believe it!



Staying the Course


Tony Dungy says in is book Quiet Strength, “Leaving the game plan is a sign of panic, and panic is not in our game plan.”


We would argue that the best way to prepare students for high stakes tests is to stay the course with teaching the curriculum with rigor and purpose. As we work in classroom as coaches, we see effective instruction – students gathered together talking about a good book they are reading, writing that is being revised, edited and finally published, application of content through project based learning and math concepts being explored at a deep level so that more complex problems can be solved. What more could we ask for?


We know, based on research, that effective instruction is correlated with student achievement. Why would we want to stop this type of teaching months before the end of grade test?

What is 21st Century Writing, Anyway?

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Every six to eight years, education reinvents itself, usually focusing on the exact opposite of the most recent reinvention. Of late, influenced by the roll out of the Common Core State Standards, writing’s reinvention has focused on making arguments and writing informational pieces. Conversations about the nuances of this type of writing–persuasive vs. argument, citing evidence, the role of emotion/voice, etc.–abound, and experts have weighed in heavily. All of this discussion, revolves around an interest in making students “college and career” ready. But what does this mean, anyway? In reality, however, even those of us who are considered literacy “experts” can only imagine the role of writing in the careers of future.

The authors of the Common Core made much of the role that informational reading and writing plays in the work world. They based their insights on analysis of the materials that people read (past tense, which means it’s already obsolete) on their jobs, many of which were governmental. These jobs, however, or at least the way they are performed, are already obsolete, as manuals are already being replaced with video orientations and printed material in general is already moving from text-based to image-based.

Consider the following text, which most of us have heard many times:

“Welcome aboard and thanks for flying with us. We’re committed to making your flight safe and comfortable. So, before we depart, we will be showing a brief safety presentation. This information can help you if there is an emergency, so it’s important to pay close attention, even if you are a frequent flyer.

All carry-on items should now be stored securely, either in an overhead bin or under the seat in front of you, and all aisles, exits, and bulkhead areas should be clear. Your mobile phone and other electronic devices should be turned off. Once air born, we’ll let you know when you can use approved, electronic devices. But note that some items, such as phones, may not be used in flight at any time. You’ll find a list of approved electronic devices in the in-flight information section of Sky magazine.  …”

This traditional text conveys the necessary information for not dying during a plane crash, but how well does it consider the audience? Now, consider this current version of Delta’s safety “speech.”

Now, which of these two types of writing is more interesting to “read?” Which do you think better communicates how to stay safe in a crash? Which way would you like your loved ones to get their flight safety information?

And about the writing … . Which version do you think was more interesting to write? And which do you think was more fun to write? And, which do you think was more difficult to write? Which do you think better reflects 21st century writing.

When Delta first wrote its safety text (example 1), no one could have imagined the later, video option, just as we can’t imagine the ways people will read and write on their jobs in 20, 30, 50 years. What we do know is that, in the coming decades, people will have more and more ways of communicating ideas, and their jobs will likely involve keeping up with these possibilities, knowing their audience, and selecting the best way to communicate to that audience.




Giving Students Authentic Reasons to Read

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In a post titled Sending Children Off to Do Big Things, we wrote about how exposing children to picture book biographies can help them better understand the connection between mindset, passion, and effort. In this post, we introduced readers to the Heart, Head, Hands and Feet Lesson from Reading Wellness which utilizes the following graphic organizer:

Student HHHF

Since sharing this post, as well as some of our favorite titles for Heart, Head, Hands and Feet in a post titled They Grew Up Reading and Writingwe have heard from several readers by way of email and recently, a school media coordinator from North Carolina shared these reflections with us about using Heart, Head, Hands and Feet with a teacher beginning a unit on biography looking to “push” her students. This teacher reported exciting results which made us wonder how this lesson has gone for others who have tried this with their students.  We’d love to see pictures of your graphic organizers and hear stories from the classroom if you have them.  If you’re not familiar with this lesson, you can find more information about it in this document as well a more comprehensive list of titles that work well with this lesson.


Looking forward to hearing from you!











Hot off the Press: Downloadable READING WELLNESS Study Guide

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Reading Wellness Study Guide

After many requests for a Reading Wellness study guide, we are very excited to share with you the results of our efforts. We really wanted the finished product to support your close reading of the text, so we didn’t simply do a paint-by-numbers routine, but rather tried to make the study guide a complement to the book. In addition to the usual elements of a study guide, such as discussion questions and quotes from the book, this guide includes a number of non-traditional options, such as an anticipation guide, magnetic poetry, a Mad Lib, and more. In an effort to stay true to the philosophy of Reading Wellness, the study guide also includes opportunities to practice wellness, such as reminders to breathe, stretch, and appreciate.

Because we wanted to get this study guide into your hands as quickly as possible, we have it available now in draft form (download below). Over the next few weeks, it will go through the editing and publishing process with Stenhouse. In the meantime, please bear with us if you encounter formatting or other editorial issues. We will let you know when the more polished version is available from Stenhouse.


Download a copy of the study guide for Reading Wellness.