She Just Asked Google To Remind Her to “Read All the Books On the Bottom Shelf” #TeacherMom

A few days ago, I overheard my 8 year-old adding her day plans to our shared daily to-do list (more on that here). Using the speech-to-text feature, amid other typical tasks, I suddenly heard her say, “Read all the books on the bottom shelf.”

Teacher mom that I am, of course I was delighted. 

But then I turned to reflect once more on our journey of her literacy:

The pressures I felt to ensure she memorized the ABC’s before kindergarten.

The way I felt like a failure as a teacher when she would not cooperate with my beautifully laid-out magnetic letter play.

The constant tension I felt between whether I should let her choose her own books or drill her on-level basal reader or sight-word flashcards to push her to the next reading level.

The nagging worry that I was denying her opportunities by turning down programs with the label, “proven to be successful in improving the reading skills of every student who participates.”

The way I wondered if I was wrong to yield to her book-making efforts over any worksheets that came home.

Yet amid all the angst, here we are to nearly the start of 3rd grade, and not only is she a fantastic reader and writer, but she’s adding items to her to-do list like “read all the books on the bottom shelf.”

It makes me wonder. Had I pushed all those academics and level advancement on her from my place of stress and worry, would she be making such choices for her summer? My suspicion is that had I pushed my agenda on my strong-willed child, she would want little to do with books today–especially on her “time off.”

It seems that those of us raising kids today are given every reason to believe that to trust our kids’ autonomy over their learning is tantamount to negligence. We are constantly bombarded with ads that offer promises of confidence in our children’s future success. We are so stressed by questions on whether we’re doing enough for our kids, that there is little room left for noticing the learning that quietly and naturally unfolds each day.

This is where I’ll share and re-share this quote from Brene Brown (see it also on Preschool, Kinder-Prep, & 3 Things Kids Need Most):

There is an abundance of learning and growing happening within our kids each day. Recognizing, embracing, and celebrating that from a place of love will always outperform operating from a place of not-enough stress and fear. Not because it will guarantee some future Harvard acceptance or a job on Wall Street, but because it will cultivate a lifetime of joyful learning.

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6 Gorgeous Picture Books Capturing Magical, Independent Childhoods #TeacherMom

One of my all-time favorite childhood books is Gyo Fujikawa’s “Oh, What A Busy Day!” What I found most magical about it as a child was observing all the ideas those kids pursued — without a single supervising adult.

As recently shared on the LetGrow site,

“Once upon a time, kids were part of the world. They were allowed to go places, do things, meet people. They were active.

For “active” now substitute “activities.” Kids participate in activities created for them, not by them. We take them, show them, teach them, protect them in a way that most of us — given the choice — would have rejected in favor of adventure.”

To me, this comes down to a major break-down of trust and community. Driven by our fears of all that might happen if we don’t do what is described above, we teach our kids that no one — not even our kids themselves — are worthy of trust.

That’s why I adore the following picture books. May they inspire you and your children to cultivate greater trust & recapture the magic of childhoods filled with healthy independence & adventure.

#1: Oh, What A Busy Day! by Gyo Fujikawa

Published in 1976, this picture book was ahead of its time with regards to diversity. It takes children through the possibilities of every facet of childhood, from make-believe, to fighting with friends, to enjoying the different seasons. I literally spent years trying to recall the author or title before I finally stumbled across our original beloved copy at my parents’ house — I immediately bought a reprint. Her own words describing how she felt about her audience sum up her beautiful work:

“In illustrating for children, what I relish most is trying to satisfy the constant question in the back of my mind–will this picture capture a child’s imagination? What can I do to enhance it further? Does it help to tell a story? I am far from being successful (whatever that means), but I am ever so grateful to small readers who find ‘something’ in any book of mine.”

#2: Everything You Need for a Treehouse by Carter Higgins & Emily Hughes

This lovely read came from Colby Sharp’s recommendation. I loved it so much that I bought it for my daughter’s birthday book as it reminded me of her sense of adventure & creativity. Kids are shown the many dreamy ways they can enjoy treehouse goodness — even if they are still waiting on a tree.

#3: Windows by Julia Denos & E.B. Goodale

Go for an evening walk with a young boy as he learns about his neighborhood through his own quiet observations. I love the way this captures how much kids can notice about their communities when given the chance.

#4: Bertolt  by Jacques Goldstyn

A book that will speak to the introvert’s soul. A child loves spending time with his tree, Bertolt, more than anything else in the world. His quiet observations and problem-solving will win over the hearts of all that love to get some alone-time.

#5: Roxaboxen by Alice McLerran & Barbara Cooney

My friend Faige Meller first introduced me to Roxaboxen, and it has been a family favorite ever since! The Goodreads reviews are packed with nostalgia, but I think it’s important to note that kids haven’t stopped being capable of creating such a retreat. We as adults need to just get out of their way more often to let them make it happen. “Roxaboxen is always waiting. Roxaboxen is always there.”

#6: Raft by Jim LaMarche

A story filled with appreciation and self-discovery. Kids will love following Nicky through the woods as he comes to love a summer of solitude at his grandmother’s house.

What about you? What are your favorite reads that promote the independent and magical childhoods we are all nostalgic for (and that we can again support)!

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What Happens When Programs > Books

When classroom literacy instruction starts to become completely overtaken by that literacy programs, do actual books start to get in the way? After all, reading a book takes more time. Selecting passages from actual books to share with students takes time. Talking about our favorite books (and building the culture that makes us want to) takes time.

And time is what we lack most as teachers!

Plus, when that program has mapped out tasks and “personalized” progress for every day of the school year, it seems our literary expertise starts to take a back seat to that very expensive program.

So what starts happening when programs > books?

Books seem like luxurious “extras” (you can get to your book when you finish the worksheet or level).

Books seem less efficient than the programs (we all know books have value, but if they’re not carefully scaffolding the reading development with every word, are they as valuable during class time?) 

Read aloud time starts to disappear (after all, the programs seem to encompass all the literary needs, not to mention time).

Programs are deemed more adept at identifying skills (at least, the skills most easily recognizable/test-able).

Kids talk less about the books they’re reading and more about the levels they’re on (it makes sense since all that time on programs suggests we’re more interested in getting them to the next level than we are about their reading interests).

No matter how appealing and adept a program might seem, we must be careful to seek balance and to protect our students’ love of books. As authors by Antero Garcia and Cindy O’Donnell-Allen write, “To see themselves as readers, students must also have opportunities to make decisions about what they will read.” p. 98, Pose, Wobbble, Flow. Pernille Ripp also writes eloquently on programs like Accelerated Reader & selecting literacy programs. Also this:

If books have started to be relegated to a sideline role in our classrooms, it’s time to ask ourselves how we can bring them back into our reading instruction in meaningful ways.

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“Memory Is Magic:” Islandborn Book Tour

For some, the idea of family history conjures images of dusty microfiche and ancient film readers. But for me, it’s been a vibrant, fascinating part of my life for the past decade.

Epic mysteries of a Jewish great-great-grandmother fleeing Russia.

Father vs. son in the American Civil War.

Adoption via The Orphan Train.

family history shadowbox I’ve compiled

It’s one of the reasons I love “Islandborn” by Junot Diaz, illustrated by Leo Espinosa. It is simply bursting with all that makes heritage so rich and beautiful–even if we can’t remember it ourselves.

Lola feels worried that she can’t remember her country of origin like her classmates can. Her teacher says, “No problema. Are there people around you who do remember?”

I love this theme of using other people’s memories, even slipped onto the back cover:

Lola spends the rest of the book drawing pictures based on her family and neighbors’ descriptions of the Island. Even the uglier parts of their memories still play an important role in capturing what the Islanders have lived through and overcome. Her journey to paint a past she can’t quite remember herself brings new meaning to the time I’ve spent scanning photos, transcribing interviews, and curating documents. When it comes to remembering our heritage, truly, “Memory is magic;” it is worth taking measures to connect with family and friends that do remember.

“Islandborn” hits the bookshelves on March 13, and I’m honored to have been asked to be part of its book tour with Penguin Young Readers. Other books that illustrate the magic of memory for you to check out include:

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Review: Marabel & the Book of Fate (aka, my first ARC book review!)

I’ve known about ARC’s for many years. I even own several that a professor gave to us during my children’s lit class back in college. But despite the fact that I’ve been writing about children’s books for years on this blog, it didn’t occur to me to ask publishers for advance copies to review here until last week.

I went ahead and sent emails to several different publishers, and held my breath. To my surprise, I opened my front door a few days later to not just an advance copy, but a finished copy of Marabel and the Book of Fate by Tracy Barrett, which celebrated its #bookbirthday yesterday! Thank you, Little, Brown and Company!

What drew me in to request a copy of this title was the comparison with Ella Enchanted, which was a beloved favorite growing up. When it comes to providing a magical world with every fantasy-based creature imaginable, Tracy Barrett does not disappoint.

Marabel is an almost-13 year old on a mission to save her twin brother, the Chosen One of Magikos who has been kidnapped by the ruler of the Barrens, but she’s also on a mission to find herself — her voice, her courage, and her determination. Crossing the wall into the realm of “Evils,” she leads her friend Ellie and the talking unicorn Floriano into an adventure that challenges bravery and friendship, as well as everything she has ever been taught about magical beings.

I loved watching Marabel’s story unfold, especially in the second half of the book when she really begins to question what she has always known and come into her own as she owns her power and contributions. I was surprised at times at how easily certain plot points resolved, especially with regards to more rigid elements like her father’s stubbornness and the Book of Fate itself, but perhaps that’s something that will be revisited in future books in the series. 4 stars.

A perfect read to recommend to ages 8-10, and perhaps a contender for a classroom read-aloud!

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Self-Selected Bedside Reading, Co-Written With My Kids #TeacherMom

As educators, we know the importance of student-selected text. We also know the importance of setting up a reader-friendly environment (ie, organized books, cozy reading nooks, time to read, etc). So I’m not sure why it took me so long to apply these principles to my kids own reading spaces. Oh, we had lots of organized, accessible books throughout the house, but I mean the most important self-selected reading environment: the bedside!

Over the last several months, we have since rectified the problem. It hasn’t taken much: a flashlight here, a ledge shelf there, but OH, have the results been extraordinary. It resulted in late-night giggles, stories shared with the baby across the room, and altogether, growth in my kids’ sense of identity as readers. Here are some of their comments about their bedside reading spaces.

7 year-old’s bedside interview:

What’s your favorite part about your bedside reading space?

“I love that I get to turn on my lamp when I want to start reading. I also love that I get to have some pictures that remind me of books and fiction.”

What are your favorite kinds of books to have next to your bed?

“Chapter books because they always have a surprise for you in each chapter. I also like comics because they are funny and give me good dreams. I also like mystery books because they have big surprises at the end.”

How is bedtime different now than it was before setting up your bedside reading space?

“There was no mystery or comics or chapter books to give me good dreams.”

3 year-old’s bedside interview:

What’s your favorite part about your bedside reading space?

“To read under my covers.”

What are your favorite kinds of books to have next to your bed?

“Star Wars.”

How is bedtime different now than it was before setting up your bedside reading space?

“Now I get to read with my lamp on.”

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When Texts Become Our Mentors — Really

What happens when we earnestly look to the text for learning?

I mean, really look to the text.

Not some sterile passage from a basal.

Not the occasional book that seems to coincide with our unit.

Not even the mandated whole-class novel, though I have heard merits on both sides (some pros here, cons here).

I mean full-blown looking to texts as our mentors day in and day out.

Starting out units immersing ourselves in books on every level and topic we can find (our school librarian was a saint in consistently helping me prepare for the immersion stage of our units).

Getting to really get to know the author–his/her style, favorite strategies, even personality — and then talking about what ____ is doing to make us feel or think the way we do?

Setting out each day for authentic discovery within the pages of the mentor text — which, of course, means we don’t necessarily know what our students will find?

Engaging alongside students as we also seek out examples of what we’re trying to better understand as readers and writers?

I have been on both sides of this approach to mentor texts. And I’d like to share a few before/after effects I observed in my students:

Before: 

  • I rarely, if ever, heard students refer to themselves as authors
  • The writing strategies we were trying to learn about usually felt much more abstract with little context.
  • As we inevitably turned to worksheets, our approach felt more contrived.
  • Students looked to me for each day’s literary learning.

After:

  • Students saw authors as people — people who were once kids like them that had to learn and hone their craft in the exact same way we were — which led to them referring to themselves as authors, too.
  • We made it our daily mission to seek out clear context within books.
  • The strategies we were trying to learn about felt much more natural.
  • We all looked to the books for rich, co-constructed literary learning.

We become better equipped to find and share mentor texts when we read as much as we can as teachers. Whole language reading/writing workshops will also include plenty of examples of texts that coincide with each unit (One of the reasons I enjoyed Pam Allyn’s Core Ready series). But of course, there are also plenty of free online resources available, too! Here are a few:

Making the shift toward integrating mentor texts into our daily literacy learning has been pivotal for authenticity. After all, if we say it’s all about reading and writing books, shouldn’t books be our primary companions?

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