10 Books for our Earliest Readers That Are Actually Enjoyable #TeacherMom

Oh, the joys of earliest reading! Yes, they are reading, and yes, it is magical, but spending 8 and a half minutes painfully decoding “yellow” can also feel like a special kind of torture. When said book is also plot-less, or when there are so many words that it will take a discouragingly long time to complete it, it’s even less fun — for your reader and for you.

So where to turn? Here are some of my favorite books for our earliest emerging readers.

#1: Some Bugs by Angela Diterlizzi and Brendan Wenzel

The repetition and rhyming make the words more accessible, and the artwork by Brendan Wenzel are nothing short of delightful!

#2: Orange, Pear, Apple, Bear by Emily Gravett

With the exception of one use of “there,” only the 4 words in the title form this story. But they are played with in a variety of ways with the help of the illustrations (“orange bear.”).

#3: Freight Train by Donald Crews

A few of the words here get a little trickier (like “freight”), but there are still only a few words per page, making this doable a great shared read with your early reader.

#4: Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins

The illustrations take the lion’s share of the story-telling here, and they do a marvelous job in making kids predict what will happen next to that fox. Pat Hutchins was a master at conveying an engaging story with only a few words per page, which is why I’ve also chosen…

#5: Titch by Pat Hutchins

Our very youngest readers will relate to the way it seems like only the big kids or adults get to take care of the big and important things. Until Titch is in charge of a very small seed…

#6: Up, Tall, & High by Ethan Long

Hilarious read that gets kids thinking about comparative terms and perspective. They will love lifting the flaps, too!

#7: Blue Hat, Green Hat by Sandra Boynton

Poor turkey just can’t get it together when it comes to getting dressed. And Sandra Boynton never fails to make us laugh!

#8: Sheep in the Jeep by Nancy Shaw and Margot Apple

The classic adventure of these sheep is perfect for young readers as most of the words rhyme with sheep. Not to mention its hilarious plot!

#9: Cat the Cat, Who is That? by Mo Willems

Seems almost too repetitive, until you reach the twist at the end! Mo Willems has created a great series for our earliest readers here. I would recommend Elephant and Piggie next!

#10: The Mole Sisters and the Rainy Day

I’m a sucker for some good onomatopoeia, and the Mole Sisters really sell it in their adventures! Be sure to check out the complete collection!

These books prove that delightful stories can come in minimal packages. When books for our emerging readers are engaging for kids and adults, they build a powerful foundation for a lifetime of reading. I’d love to hear about your favorites in the comments!

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“Boy/Girl Books:” Fighting Stereotypes While Honoring Book Access

Raise your hand if you have ever said, “There are no such things as boy/girl books.” 🙋

That’s why Leigh Anne Eck’s recent tweet resonated with me so much:

While it would be absolutely unfair to continue telling students that a book is only meant for girls or boys to read it, it would be equally unfair to ignore differences. After all, Scholastic’s Reading Reports repeatedly find that rates of reading enjoyment for boys lags behind girls. Other measurements of reading achievement also show boys consistently behind girls the world over.

In her book, Best Books for Boys, Pam Allyn shares this great anecdote:

“I once entered a classroom and saw a very unhappy eight-year-old boy reading Junie B. Jones. He looked miserable. Now, I love Junie B. Jones, but this reader did not look happy about this situation. I asked him what was going on, and he said: “Because this is my level, I always have to read this same book, and I don’t want to read books about girls! I don’t even want to read a book with chapters in it!” My heart broke for him. If his library had been stocked with books at every level in every genre, his choices would have been greater, and he would have been hooked. He knew exactly what wasn’t working. The problem was no one was asking him what choices he would have made for himself as a reader.

~Pam Allyn, Best Books for Boys

She also lays out a great rule of thumb for our libraries: “at least 30 percent nonfiction, 30 percent poetry, and 40 percent fiction” (with varied topics, levels, and author genders across the spectrum). When I first read this recommendation, I knew my classroom library was severely lacking. It was my second year of teaching, so my collection was limited anyway, but the limits were compounded by the sameness of my titles, like:

  • Tuck Everlasting
  • Once Upon a Curse
  • The Sisters Grimm
  • A Little Princess
  • Ramona the Brave
  • Ella Enchanted
  • Charlotte’s Web

All fiction. All chapter books. All female protagonists. All with some degree of fantasy. It was really as far away as you could get from diverse book access! Fortunately for my students, that’s when I received Pam Allyn’s aforementioned book, and we got to work.

I did not tell my students that most of our classroom library were “girl books,” but I did tell them that my collection was mostly based in my personal interests growing up. And I told them that we desperately needed more poetry and nonfiction in our library. Most importantly, I asked for their help. Between my book and my students, we ended up with a lot of new titles I never would have considered on my own, such as:

  • Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich 
  • Hi! Fly Guy
  • Skeleton Hiccups
  • How Much is a Million?
  • Horrid Henry
  • Now & Ben: The Modern Inventions of Benjamin Franklin
  • I Survived the Shark Attack of 1916
  • Flat Stanley
  • Bone
  • How to Write Your Life Story
  • Love that Dog

More importantly, I started to sort my classroom library by genre and to be more mindful in general about which gaps I needed to fill.

What I want to emphasize here is that a more diverse classroom library benefited all my students. What may have started as a hunt for “best books for boys” certainly ended in a richer, more accessible library for everyone. Ultimately, that’s what matters most for building our classroom libraries and addressing those gaps we’ve overlooked.

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My Favorite “Learning” Toys in our House #TeacherMom

What do you think of when someone says, “educational toy?”

Google certainly advertises what many of us imagine: 

But the toys that bring the richest learning to my children look nothing like this. The toys that make them think, that invite them to talk out their thinking, that spark make-believe play — they look much less, well, educational. 

Especially since reading this article on the site Zero to Three about characteristics of toys for toddlers that are rich in learning (featuring qualities like open-ended-ness and problem-solving), I’ve been thinking about what exactly these toys look like for kids, (not to mention with this holiday season upon us). 

So today’s post is a reflection on which toys promote the richest play for my kids (aged 8, 4, & 2), and why. Different toys will appeal to different children for a variety of reasons, but there are certainly some universal lessons on play to be found in the why. So let’s dive in!

#1: Loose Parts box

How it’s packed with learning: In addition to being a great tactile experience — the kids love the rough and smooth wood grains, the woven coasters, and the silky scarf — these objects provide endless possibility for play. One day, it’s a kitchen set, and the next, it’s a zoo. 

#2: Animals set

How it’s packed with learning: These animals feature in much of my kids’ make-believe play. Special favorites are the ones that include a baby and parent. This is definitely a toy that grows with kids, delighting a broad range of ages. 

#3: Lock box

How it’s packed with learning: Problem-solving skills abound with this toy. Particularly since there are 3 compartments inside in which to stash all sorts of treasures.

#4: Magnetic tiles set

How it’s packed with learning: I am amazed at the creativity these tiles elicit. Rockets, houses, buses, even “gift boxes” are constructed and reconstructed each day. I like the way it requires geometric problem-solving as well. 

#5: Go Fish card game

How it’s packed with learning: This is a beloved game for all of our kids. Even though the youngest doesn’t quite understand it, he loves to instruct adults to “go fish” and watch them comply. I also like that there’s opportunity for literacy building with the labeled pictures. 

#6: Play-Doh

How it’s packed with learning: The sensory experiences, creativity, and fine motor skills development are endless. Especially when we add a few tools, like these play scissors and a rolling pin. 

#7: Play Tunnel

How it’s packed with learning: In addition to the physical activity this tunnel provides, it also lends itself to a great deal of large-scale make-believe play in fort-building and playing house. 

This last bonus photo was at the 4 year-old’s request when he saw me taking pictures of all his favorite toys. It just goes to show how you never know what kids will treasure!


Engaging play facilitates powerful learning. What toys spark this for your kids? 

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

What Matters Most to YOU About your Child’s School Experience? #TeacherMom

Much of what I write here comes down to this question. But when it came down answering it directly for an interview for my cousin’s class, I was surprised at how difficult it was to decide.

What matters most to me? Really, no less than a preservation of my child’s humanity. Her empathy. Her creativity. Her curiosity. Because only when she finds meaning for herself will the learning follow.

Cultivating humanity exists in the small details. Non-examples include choices such as:

  • assigning worksheets that are excessive or developmentally inappropriate and then faulting children for being inattentive
  • focusing more on the data and products than on the child
  • consistently depending on extrinsic incentives instead of choosing to have the harder, ongoing conversations about broader, more intrinsic values

Examples include:

  • honoring students’ agency by inviting them to the planning table for their own learning
  • proactively working to communicate with families, not because we want behavior conversations to be less awkward, but because we want families to know we truly care about their children
  • trusting students to monitor their own bathroom use

These are the kinds of approaches that send a clear message to students: you are valued. Your voice matters. You bring something unique to our group that cannot be replicated.

These messages matter not only for the sake of individual wellness (which is a worthy goal in itself), but for the sake of our collective future in an increasingly automated world. Realizing that “human beings are our most valuable resource” (as referenced in the recent article, “Educator: In Finland, I realized how ‘mean-spirited’ the U.S. education system really is”) should be of utmost importance in meeting the needs of the individual and the whole.  (see also the great video Adam Hill shared in his post, “What are Soft Skills & Why do Students Need them More than Ever?“)

Going back to that interview, other questions posed included:

  • What matters most to your child when they go to school?
  • What is the most important quality for a classroom teacher to possess?
  • What makes you the most nervous about sending your child to school?
  • If your child misbehaves, how would you hope the teacher handles it?
  • What rules are the most important for teachers to have?
  • How should teachers best communicate with parents in regards to their child’s behavior?

What might happen if we use these kinds of questions as conversation-starters between teachers and families? How might collaborating to figure out what we hope school will accomplish impact our communities? And most importantly, how might seeking for understanding and connection help us cultivate humanity on the scale of the both the individual and the whole?

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Lessons from filming our bike ride to the library #TeacherMom

I recently decided to film our weekly bike ride to the library. My 8 year-old was out of school for the holiday, so she is featured in the video as my boys were behind me in our trailer. Conscious of the need for others to gain insight on what it’s like to take another form of transportation, I shared this with my local community.

The overall response was positive and encouraging. But perhaps because my daughter was the only one of the four of us visible in the video, I was surprised to find that much of the conversation rested on her. I know now there were a lot of raised eyebrows at the sight of “this young girl biking in town.”

As usual, my reflections have brought me here. I’ve been thinking about some of the lessons through this experience, especially concerning how we view what kids are capable of.

#1: Sometimes, shielding kids from one risk leads to other dangers

When one person expressed fear at the sight of what they viewed to be such a risk, I responded by explaining our biking experience and how I know my daughter’s familiarity with the rules and her capacity to follow them.

I went on to explain that riding our bikes is a way to integrate physical activity into our day, which helps address serious risks associated with inactivity like heart disease and depression (noting also that the rising generation is the first projected to have a shorter lifespan than the previous generation for this reason). Of course, riding in traffic is scarier and we do avoid it when possible (and we work to advocate for better infrastructure that makes biking more comfortable for families).

We need to be careful not to shield kids so thoroughly from one risk that we open them up to others that are just as, if not more, threatening.

#2: One person’s “brave” is another person’s normal 

back when she was young enough for the seat! Baby brother snugly tucked in the baby carrier.

A very common response was, “Wow, you guys are so brave!” While I am very proud of my daughter for riding, I know that this is less about courage and more about capacity and experience. She has been riding with me since she she was just a year old; this is our normal. Which is the point. We want to normalize an active lifestyle so she can carry habits into her future that will allow her to have a high quality life.

Focusing on how brave something looks can detract from how doable it really is. That’s not to say it doesn’t require courage to start, but we can be emboldened in knowing we are not alone!

#3: We shouldn’t focus so much on what needs improvement that it intimidates people from joining in 

Even when I was editing the video and adding music, I was mindful to try achieve a delicate balance between conveying what we love about our active lifestyle and ways we can make it safer. I didn’t want it to seem so upbeat that it made people think there aren’t any issues to address, but I didn’t want to be so serious that it scares people away.

To me, all this comes back to the classroom in so many ways. I feel like Sam Sherratt captured it nicely in his recent tweet on learning from Reggio Emilia teachers:

When they are given the support they need, kids truly are capable of so much! We can encourage them to be knowledgeable risk-takers. We can help normalize positive habits. We can acknowledge and work on issues without allowing them to keep us away. All of this requires a lot of work, imagination, and letting go, but ultimately, it is our children and students who benefit from being empowered to take care of themselves and live life to the fullest.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

5 Opportunities When We Let Them Teach

The first portion of my 8 year-old’s parent teacher conference a couple weeks ago was student-led, during which she was able to share her desire to be given serious responsibilities. As a result, her wonderful teacher allowed her to teach a math lesson.

She came home brimming with pride–and with a new career aspiration. And I’ve been reflecting on the this ever since. I know that when I was teaching myself, I did not often provide these experiences, which is why I greatly admire teacher like:

I’m looking forward to implementing student-led workshops and lessons more frequently when I return to the classroom! Meanwhile, some benefits I’ve been able to see just from my daughter’s experience include the following.

Opportunity #1: Helps take down “secret teacher business”

The idea of dismantling “secret teacher business” has been thrilling and fascinating to me ever since my introduction via Edna Sackson’s blog. Allowing students to teach gives them insight on the bigger picture of school–the curricula, the planning, the constraints–which in turn can bring greater ownership and sense of purpose.

Opportunity #2: Helps them develop empathy

Among all the positive aspects of teaching, my daughter also observed, “Some kids were not very respectful.” When students are given the opportunity to direct the classroom, they gain new insight on what an enormous task this can be. While this should not be the only reason we pursue student-led endeavors, it’s certainly a wonderful benefit when students learn to see their teachers as human beings, too.

Opportunity #3: Helps them process learning in a new way

My daughter taught a lesson on rounding using a variety of strategies. This was a math topic she loved, but approaching it from a teacher’s perspective required her to use speaking & listening skills, in addition to her mathematical processing skills.

Opportunity #4: Helps them learn to take ownership

Especially when students are offered the chance to teach about a variety of concepts (including offering “non-academic” workshops), they can share in the learning plans. I especially love all the descriptions of teachers who allow students to opt-in to sessions, resulting a group of learners who actually chose to be there and learn that content.

Opportunity #5: Confidence-building

I loved the student feedback in Mindy’s post linked above. Especially:

student comment via blog by Mindy Slaughter

Student-led lessons are just another facet of cultivating student agency in our classrooms. What other benefits have you observed?

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7 Ways to Communicate We Care About At-Home Reading–Without Reading Logs

Last week, I wrote about my experience in which my 8 year-old questioned my ethics of signing off on her reading log all at once each week. Olwen, a friend in my PLN, responded,

To me, this really captures what most of us hope to convey about reading at home. But, as Olwen states, having them track their reading in a log at home can send the wrong message. Others commented describing how reading logs encouraged their children to read for the required time — and then not a minute after.

This post is about finding better ways to send the important message that you care about at-home reading — without the unpleasant side-effects reading logs can bring.

#1: Share your Goodreads lists: Post it on your class social media accounts, send texts with Remind with the link, send home the shortened link in a paper flyer. Many parents want your recommendations anyway. But if you really publicize books you love, families will definitely receive the message that you care about reading.

#2: Post a “What I’m reading” outside your door (and periodically share on class blog or social media). Great way to help with your own reading accountability, too! Perhaps you can even see if a student will accept a classroom job of reminding you and updating the title for you.

#3: Participate in #ClassroomBookADay (and periodically post a photo on class blog or social media). This is one of the top 5 ideas I’m dying to implement when I return to the classroom. Click the photo below for details!

via Nerdy Book Club

#4: Participate in Global Read Aloud, World Read Aloud Day, and similar events. And invite parents! I still remember the mom who would come every year on our school’s annual read-a-thon day to tell us the story of Brer Rabbit.

#5: Connect your students to local library resources. Does your library offer services through apps like Hoopla or Libby? Does it host special events that will be of interest to your students? Do they hold storytimes available for younger siblings? Do a little research and help make your students’ families aware of opportunities and updates.

#6: Connect them to audiobooks! Share your recommendations for apps and resources to help them get stories on devices at home. Some current favorites include:

  • Storyline Online is a big favorite around here since it shows the pictures of our favorite picture books while a celebrity reads. Free app on Apple, Android, and Chrome.
  • Khan Academy Kids offers their own line of stories, readers, animal books, and more. Free on Apple, Android, and Amazon appstore.
  • Fairy Tales is a free app, but you have to buy coins to access most of the books. Might be worth investigating, however, as they are fun interactive versions of beloved fairy tales.
  • Libby & Hoopla are especially wonderful options if your library pays for the subscription.

#7: Make reading the only homework. There is substantial evidence that there is little positive effect (and possibly negative effect) of homework for elementary ages. In lieu of worksheets and papier-mâchĂ© projects, make your only “assignment” to read. DO avoid attaching a minimum number of minutes required, but DON’T be afraid to inform parents of the effects of consistent reading. If you share information like the one below, be sure to assure parents that it’s really less about the 20 minutes and more about cultivating a lifelong reader (and that holding a hard line on reading can be counter-productive). 

There are many other ways to help convey to students’ families that you value reading at home. Maybe if you already do a monthly newsletter, maybe start including a reading highlight with a simple tip or recommendation. If you already have a class Facebook account, maybe set reminders to yourself to share what you’re reading there every couple weeks. Keep it simple, find what works best for you, and center the message on the reading itself.

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featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto