Monday, December 31, 2012

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

May your days be merry and bright

I didn't receive any books for Christmas, unlike this man here, but I do have to read nine more by December 31st to complete the goal I set of 100 books. Happy reading!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Let's rest and recharge

Snowflakes fell in earnest around the same time we were heading home from school. Ten days of rest sounds luxurious, but I think we need every single moment of it.

My "close reading of a novel" unit was a hit with students! When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead truly captured their interest, and the guided reading format helped my struggling readers to grasp the tricky back-and-forth-in-time narratives.

This unit is just about the opposite of reading workshop, which I still firmly believe helps students build a strong literacy foundation. The classroom novel unit supplements reading workshop, especially in my course, which is in the "AIS" (academic intervention services) category and designed to supplement English Language Arts instruction.

In addition to class discussions about plot development, characterization, and other narrative elements, I gave short answer questions for students to answer at the beginning or end of each class. I used the 2-point scoring rubric used in the state assessment and provided "model" and "anchor" responses. Student answers gave us (including students) feedback about how deeply they read the novel and the level of difficulty to expect on this year's state assessment.

I have been thinking and reading a lot about the recent tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. All of it hurts my mind and heart, another good reason for ten days of rest.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Close reading of literature

I'm going to try "close reading" (of the Common Core Learning Standards infamy) of literature this week, using a book that has intrigued me ever since I read it last year, When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. I will attempt a read-aloud, mainly because I don't have extra copies of the book (yet), but also because students enjoy read-alouds. This book is a good choice because the dominant question in my mind when I was reading (and enjoying) the book was - "How would my students make sense of this novel, with alternating time/narratives, unfamiliar setting (1980s New York City, which were my own stomping grounds), and surprise ***SPOILER ALERT*** fantasy element?"

By the way, recently I read Rebecca Stead's new novel, Liar and Spy. It packed quite a punch, but I wasn't really interested in the story until halfway through. AGAIN - how would my students ever get to the GOOD part on their own? Readers like my daughter, who would read a book just because her teacher (or mom) assigned it, would have no trouble with it, but my "too cool for reading" students? Guided reading may be a good way to go.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Close reading of informational text can be a thing of beauty

Meaningful work gives me energy to continue working. Yesterday afternoon I pushed paper at work in a frenzy, and it was not meaningful work, just work. Rest gives me energy! So these four days of vacation should help me swing back into school with a spring in my step, right? I have plans to visit with family and shop small local stores.

I've been using the "Shallow Seas" episode of the Planet Earth series (Discovery Channel) to teach "close reading" comprehension of informational text. The text we use is the narration itself, beautifully presented by Sigourney Weaver, full of figurative language. I transcribe the narration and write the questions, which students preview before watching the video and answer after watching.

The video itself is just a thing of beauty, with built-in opportunities to show students (most of whom profess to hate school in general) some good reasons to stay in school. "Wouldn't it be cool to shoot this scene with high speed cameras on a boat near Australia?! Well, the longer you stay in school, the more options you have to get cool jobs like that."

Clips of the Planet Earth series are available on the Discovery Channel web site, though my school is fortunate to own the DVD set. Each time I watch it, I remember why I love to teach, to show students the wonders of the world and encourage them to grab every chance possible to be part of this wonderful world. Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Too tired to blog

Here's my excuse for not blogging:

"The exhaustion of the American teacher" by John Kuhn. He explained it perfectly.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

News story summaries

Informational text is all the rage, yes? Hmm, depends on whom you ask. This article presents opposing points of view: "Fiction vs. nonfiction smackdown".

We've been studying news stories and how to summarize them, using articles from, my go-to source for informational text that engages student interest and are easy to use in instruction. Last week I chose 4 short articles, divided students into 4 groups, and gave each group an article. I modeled how to pull out the key details - who, what, where, when, why/how - and present a summary. The groups worked together to read, identify key details, and present summaries. This week students worked independently and used computers to search for articles on that web site. I insisted that each student in the class had a unique article. Students searched, read, identified key details, and presented their summaries to the class. During presentations, they stood next to the SmartBoard that showed the article on the web site, which showed a photograph and allowed us to "fact check" on the spot.

I've taught this unit before, and it always highlights student interest in news stories and struggles in identifying key details. Since this is a news story unit, I teach them to look for narratives that feature some newsworthy current event. Their two main challenges are identifying the newsworthy event itself and understanding cause/effect relationships in the story.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Banned Books Week

I created a special bookshelf display for Banned Books Week, only to discover I don't have that many challenged/banned books in my classroom library. I had to borrow some Harry Potter and Twilight series books from a colleague! In some classes, students saw the display and asked about it before I mentioned anything. They were all interested to know what it is and what books have been challenged/banned (and why).

The ALA web site is a great resource for Banned Books Week! It helped me explain why I care and why they should care about banned and challenged books.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


On the drive to work this morning, I heard this story on National Public Radio - "Children Succeed with Character, Not Test Scores".

Test scores determine who comes into my class, as I teach the "AIS" course for English Language Arts (state mandated "academic intervention services" for students who do not achieve grade level proficiency as determined by standardized test scores). I want to teach students how to overcome this obstacle with character - positive outlook and hard work, not despair, not whining - so they learn how to face and overcome all the other obstacles in their lives.

My students' first day is tomorrow! May this year bring many fun adventures for us all.

Monday, August 27, 2012

August is a blur

To sum up this month:

I learned to sew and quilt a very small thing - the mug rug. I'm working on sewing and quilting bigger and better things, but I'm pretty happy about this.

We took friends from out of town to see Niagara Falls. Every time I mention to friends that we went to the falls and rave about the Maid of the Mist (unforgettable boat ride that brings you up close and personal to the falls), someone who lives right here, within 20 minute drive of the falls, says, "Oh! I've never been to the falls!" That is just a crime. Every time I visit, I think, "Why the heck don't I come here EVERY YEAR regardless of who visits me?!"

Very cool blue bottle tree installation at the Arboretum on the University of Kentucky campus in Lexington, KY.

Cumberland Gap National Park view of the gorgeous Appalachian mountains

This is the reason why I was in Kentucky. The building here was constructed in 1927 as a one-room schoolhouse (with thirteen students) at the Henderson Settlement in Frakes, KY. Our family went with our church group to the work camp at Henderson, which provides many community services to this rural mountain area. In one week, our group of 18 people did rehab work on two houses in town (siding, flooring, drywall) and some painting/cleaning work on the Henderson campus.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

5 year blog anniversary

Time flies! My very first post was July 17, 2007. That was a transitional summer for us - we moved from our house in the city to my husband's parents' home in the suburbs. Re-reading those early posts reminded me how much I enjoyed blogging in those pre-Facebook days.

Summer is going quite well for us. My 11 year old daughter and I get along fine about 90% of our time together. She took this picture of me, knitting and walking, using a drawstring bag I just made. I don't recommend knit-walking and only modeled it for 30 seconds for the purpose of this photo, but my knitter idol Stephanie Pearl McPhee (aka The Yarn Harlot) knit-walks in Toronto and uses drawstring bags to hold the yarn (chapter 3, Free-Range Knitter), so I want to share the suburban version of this idea.

Recently I learned that a neighbor who walks her dog past our house almost every day is a knitter, and when she saw this photo, she said she couldn't do this. I told her she could but probably not when she's walking the dog.

Yes, I'm reading some books this summer. I'm in the middle of several - the knitting book mentioned above, one of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels, Inheritance (still), and my friend Sonya Chung's novel Long for This World.  A few friends and I started a book discussion thing recently, and I chose Sonya's novel for our second book.

Our first book was Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, chosen by friend CH. She's the only one of us who actually read the whole thing, all 1200 pages. We had a lively discussion nevertheless, focused on the question of how to respond to a failing system, as in, we educators face the potential collapse of public education, so what do we do? Follow John Galt and separate ourselves from disaster, wait out its demise and then rebuild? Stay and keep working to fix the system?

Serious questions for this five year blog anniversary. My mind's not that serious right now, to be honest. Mostly I think about this:

Happy summer vacation, everyone!

Friday, June 29, 2012

Hello, summer; farewell, Nora Ephron

Something shifted inside me when I heard that Nora Ephron died. Maybe she's not as famous as Michael Jackson, but if his music shaped my teen years, then her movies informed my life as a young woman. I'm grateful for the stories, laughs, tears, and heartache that inspire me to be creative.

Speaking of creative, here's my yarn work (crochet cowl scarf) modeled in front of my piano lesson book. I started lessons two weeks ago, fulfilling a childhood dream to play the piano.

Today is my first official day of summer vacation. May your summer offer many sweet dreams!

Sunday, June 17, 2012


This last month of the school year is special, perhaps like the days/hours/minutes right before a wedding. Our school building faces so many new challenges next year - teacher positions cut, teams reduced and rearranged, larger classes, new principal. Add to those losses the new "common core learning standards" and new curriculum, and this year really stands out for me. Based on the newly released teaching assignments/schedules for next year, I'll be in the same position next year, teaching a remedial English Language Arts course for the fifth year in a row. My lessons/units change every year anyway, so the curriculum changes are a welcome shift for me. But the staff changes are painful, and the political atmosphere for educators is dismal.

Time to recharge. Here's last night's game at Coca-Cola Field in downtown Buffalo, where the Buffalo Bisons eventually lost to the Pawtucket Red Sox. Happy June, everyone!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Literacy Olympics

Literacy Olympics has been a fun, post-assessment adventure! My colleague (who teaches the same remedial course as I do) and I are co-planning/teaching this unit that combines some literacy basics (parts of speech, homophones, commonly misspelled words, and root words) with games. We combine our smaller classes who then compete against each other; within the larger classes, we divide the class into two teams that compete against each other. I brought in some stuffed animals (such as Webkinz, remember those?) from home that my daughter no longer wanted, and let teams choose "mascots". (We still can't believe how much middle school students LOVE to cuddle stuffed animals in class. No, I won't be taking them back home with me.)

Students review each topic (parts of speech, etc.) on "training day", then answer questions in game show format on "competition day". Some games involve writing answers on the Smart Board or dry erase boards. We add in some physical challenges, such as a simple ball toss or ping pong for extra points.

"Sparkle" is the most popular game so far! It's a combination of spelling bee and mum-ball. I don't think I've ever seen students try so hard to spell correctly!

Saturday, May 12, 2012


Here is the conclusion to this book delivery story. I mentioned in the previous post that Barnes and Noble offered two options for the "unacceptable delay" in delivering my pre-order copy of Insurgent, replacement or cancellation. After the annoyance (of being offered options that couldn't rectify the problem) burned off, I realized a "replacement" meant I could have two copies of the book in my classroom library for the price of one book (plus a week of psychological pain and suffering). So here are the twins, my friends, posing with our fabulous birch tree!

Below is a book-pass photo. I started reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie while waiting for Insurgent's delivery. I still had a few chapters to read of Absolutely True Diary when Insurgent arrived, and yet I exercised (relatively) tremendous restraint and finished one before starting the other. (Alexie's book is fantastic - rich story and characters, brutally honest and funny. I don't know if I would recommend it to any of my 6th or 7th graders due to "inappropriate" language.) They posed with the other fabulous tree in our front yard, a small tree with the loveliest spring pink blossoms.

Insurgent verdict: I LOVED IT.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

INSURGENT has arrived

The saga of this arrival: I pre-ordered the book from Barnes and Noble on April 20 and eagerly awaited the May 1 release. BN emailed me on May 1 stating my book was just shipped. It arrived today. I started email correspondence with BN customer service four days ago, stating my extreme disappointment at such a long wait for a pre-order of the sequel to a bestselling novel. BN replied that this was "an unacceptable delay" and offered two options - replacement or cancellation/refund. What do you think I chose?

The book posed for a few glamour shots on my front steps after its arrival. I haven't started reading it yet, initially because we were busy with piano lessons, dinner, errands, etc. and now just so I can enjoy the anticipation a bit longer and NOT stay up late to read. Tomorrow, however, I promise to parade through school and among students with this in my hands, smug and reading.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Interesting times in education

When I try to mentally step back and survey the landscape of public education today for an objective point of view, this is my best effort: What an interesting time to work in education! That's a very bland statement, but it's a start, and maybe in a few years I can say something insightful and coherent.

I baked a pineapple cake to share with colleagues when we scored the 8th grade ELA assessment written responses. Yes, the animals ate the pineapple (cake).

I don't have much to say here (yet) about the upcoming teacher performance evaluation system using standardized test scores except show you an alternative career potential if/when I'm evaluated as an ineffective teacher.

This above is a cowl scarf that I crocheted, the fourth one so far, for a colleague who saw the first one I made and asked me to make one for her. (I started a fifth one last night.) I don't have much patience for repetitive work, but the beauty of this line of variegated yarn called Liberty Wool (by Classic Elite Yarns) keeps me going. This one below is the second one I made, just for me:

Last but not least, a sign of spring, hope, and life. I worried that the recent wacky weather would hinder these pink blossoms from appearing on the small tree in our front yard, but they're here!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Spring break 2012

Seabrook Island, SC was the locale of this dream vacation. I found a new religion there - DOLPHINS.

Easter sunrise

We biked quite a lot around the island - pretty sights and good exercise.

My favorite activity was strolling the beach.

Inlet at the northern end of the beaches on Seabrook Island, looking north at nearby Kiawah Island. This inlet is a well known location for dolphins to gather at low tide for "strand feeding".

Screen cap photo of dolphins in the video below

My crowning glory as amateur videographer - dolphins strand feeding

Just a few additional words about the dolphin strand feeding video - dolphins in the Carolinas are known for this method of "herding" fish to shore, then enjoying a nice feast. The first 35 seconds of the video show my view of some dolphins swimming near shore; you can hear me whisper-chat with a boy who was walking next to me toward this group of dolphins. The other spectators (including my family) gathered at this popular strand feeding location were about 50 feet behind us, looking at other dolphins swimming nearby. Around 37 seconds into the video, in the upper right corner of my frame, the dolphins spring into action! Needless to say, I feel extremely fortunate to see this action in person SO close AND capture it on video.

Monday, March 26, 2012

the creative process

I discovered NPR's three-minute fiction writing challenge last week. The task for Round 8 of the challenge was to start a short story with this sentence - "She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door." I wrote for about an hour that evening, tapped into one of my main worries about my parents, and stopped writing after 400 words. Even though I still haven't finished it and may never finish it (and considering my parents would immediately recognize our family in that story, I can't imagine publishing it), I really enjoyed using the story starter sentence. After writing those 400 words, I thought of another story to write, completely different subject, with the same starter sentence. I'd like to continue these little writing assignments for me, for fun!

Here are a few things I did finish last weekend - a newborn beanie for my friend Liz's baby Michael (just 11 days old!) and a little girl beanie (for coworker friend's daughter).

Guess what I just received as a freebie yesterday? A sewing machine! I'm the beneficiary of a friend's spring cleaning. I haven't used it yet and have never used a sewing machine before, but I have watched a few tutorials on YouTube. Stay tuned...

Monday, March 19, 2012

Divergent Obsession

I am absolutely, wonderfully, and thoroughly in love with Divergent by Veronica Roth, probably for all the same reasons why I loved The Hunger Games, PLUS...

  • less violence than THG,
  • set in Chicago where I just visited for the first time ever last Thanksgiving,
  • affirms my wish for a tattoo,
  • validates my love of black clothing,
  • second book Insurgent drops on May 1,
  • good reason to declare "this book is BETTER than THG" to my students, incite outrage, and induce more reading, and
  • results of the faction quiz at the back of this paperback edition indicate I'm Divergent.
On the flip side, I just finished another Sarah Dessen book, Lock and Key. That's the sixth Dessen book I've read (out of ten published). 'Nuff said.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

more than words

There's no one thing I can say to express adequately what I think and feel about the teaching profession in our country today. Generally I try to focus on teaching and books in this blog, with some personal notes on travel, nature, and family thrown in for fun. Yet not saying anything about the politics of education seems more and more ridiculous with every post.

Diane Ravitch's recent article hits home: How to Demoralize Teachers. (Exactly a year ago I posted here a video of Ms. Ravitch on The Daily Show talking about teachers and proclaimed her as "my new hero". She's still my hero.)

Here's the mind-boggling, close to home, real life example of a train wreck: "Teachers affirm stance on student attendance".

This is what I attended last Friday evening: "Teachers rally against state aid cuts".

Though I run short of words on this topic, I have much to do, to learn, to teach, to vote, to live and love and laugh and hope.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

stay-cation snapshots

Orchids at the botanical gardens during our visit on Dollar Day

I've been reading and knitting, just like I planned. I didn't expect to give in to sleep by midnight and wake up by 8am. Oh well. I set one "reach" goal about not shopping that has been going well - shocking, I know! I think this is a restorative stay-cation to prepare me for the upcoming roller coaster storm of high-stakes standardized testing.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

mid-winter break

Fast forward a month... I gave a "benchmark assessment" to all my students that lasted 3 weeks due to my 4-day schedule, scored the tests with 2 colleagues in one whole school day, and lost my drive for the aforementioned nonfiction book adventure. I did continue lessons on nonfiction reading comprehension and writing skills (identifying main idea, paraphrasing, nonfiction book features). My awesome school librarian let me borrow about 100 nonfiction books to use in my classroom, and students really enjoyed choosing books from which to read and write about nonfiction texts. Our mantra was: if you're a living, breathing human being, there are many nonfiction books in the universe for you to enjoy.

After this week's mid-winter break (and my lovely stay-cation), we'll be marching straight into preparations for this year's high-stakes standardized test in mid-April.

You can learn about my reading adventures from (see widget updates in right column on this page). After falling head over heels in love with The Scorpio Races right before winter break, I started reading Inheritance, also known in my life as the Beginning of The End of the Eragon series. I have many, mixed feelings about this book so far and the series overall, but to say these books changed my life is not an exaggeration. In contrast, I've read 4 Sarah Dessen books the last few weeks and enjoyed them all, except the last quarter of each book really drags (for me).

Of course, I've been knitting! Ladies all around me are having baby boys, so I'm trying to knit several of these darlings. Meet Coco, my daughter's teddy bear and my baby hat model:

As always, happy reading to you all!

Monday, January 16, 2012

informational text - news articles

My students have been reading news articles online as part of our informational text unit, using two web sites - Tween Tribune and Time for Kids.

Using, which contains mostly news articles from Associated Press, students chose articles to read and summarize. Summarizing is a difficult task for most of my students, so I give them a "who/what/where/when/why/how" organizer to complete. Most students would ask, "What do I write for why or how?" Then we discuss the topic/subject of their article and what explanation or elaboration is necessary for a summary.

Using, students studied traditional news article features, such as subtitles, byline, caption. They chose the articles, identified the features, and stated the main idea after reading the article. Identifying the main idea is tricky for many students who focus on supporting details or prefer to summarize.

Coming up next - a "benchmark assessment" interlude in which students will take a practice standardized test. (Due to my class schedule, students only come to my class once in 4 school days and will take three weeks to finish this assessment.)

After the benchmark assessment, we continue with the informational text unit and ... WRITE BOOKS. Students will choose their own topics, then research informational texts (such as how-to articles, background history of their subjects) and persuasive writings to copy/paste into the books (with proper citations, of course). The books will include some original student writing, such as summaries, main idea statements, paraphrasing practice (another difficult task), personal narratives, glossary of terms, "about the author" page.

I will stay one step ahead of their book writing (to model and for fun) with my own book on the subject of ... KNITTING. To show off, I mean, demonstrate my knitting hobby, here's a photo of one recently completed project:

Illustrations and other visual details will be highly encouraged and supported in this book project.

In other words, this book adventure is the nonfiction version of NaNoWriMo. Stay tuned, folks :)

Sunday, January 1, 2012

new year, new dreams

A snapshot of the jumbotron at the Tux & Pucks New Year's Eve Sabres (vs. Senators) game last night. Frustrating game, ie we lost in the shoot-out. Regardless!

Every new day is a win. Is that because I'm 42 years old and don't take any moment for granted? I have a great family, lovely friends, good health, and a dream job. 2011 was full of many fun adventures, and I hope we all enjoy the same in 2012!