How I Select A Picture Book For Our Classroom

Yesterday a new student wandered into our classroom with his parent and younger siblings; locker drop off was happening in preparation for the first day of school.  As I looked up something for him, I heard them excitedly talk about the books in our room.  “Here’s that one that you wanted to read…Oh, do you remember this series….”  And then they saw the picture books.  After all, they are hard to miss.  Right away the comments came, “Oh, I loved this one…”  “Have you seen this one, that looks fun…”  And so forth and I smiled ever so wide, because picture books once again have proven to be a way to connect in our classroom.

But how do you pick the right ones for your classroom?  How do you know which ones to get?  I make lists, as do many others, but how do I even know which to put on the list?  I thought a few helpful tips may be in order.

I am connected.  I am a proud member of the Nerdy Book Club and through Twitter  I am connected to many picture book loving people; teachers, librarians, parents, and all of the other amazing people out there.  I follow hashtags like #Titletalk, #pb10for10 and #nerdybookclub to stay in the know.  And I tweet out asking for recommendations all of the time.

I keep a written list handy.  I have a journal book with me at all times, and while I often add books to my wishlist on Amazon, I like having the list in my bag.  I am always adding to it and will cross out as I either purchase or reject.  This also makes it easy for me to recommend books to others that they may not know about.

I read them beforehand, most of the time.  Many times we will wander to the nearest book store so that I can  browse the books before purchasing them.  How do I know that this will be a great one for our room, well there are few things I look for…

Do I react to it in any way?  A picture book doesn’t always have to have a deep message for me to react to it; was it funny, did it make me think, did it leave me with questions?  All of these are things that I look for.

Is it easy to follow?  Sometimes it takes more than one read to really get a book and while I love those books too, most of the time, I am looking for a book that my students will get rather quickly.  At least most of them.  However, I do purchase picture books to use with smaller groups that have layers we can peel away.

Is the language accessible?  Yes, I teach 7th graders but their reading development levels ranges from 2nd grade to high school, so can all students access the text or will I need to “translate” it?

What purpose does it have?  I often look for picture books that can be used as community builders, self connections, or conversation starters.  We also use them as mentor texts as we develop as readers and writers throughout the year.  But I also look for picture books that will make my students laugh, make them reconnect with being a little kid again, or help them get out of a bad mood.  I try to get a balance of all of these types of books in the hands of students.

Will we read it more than once?  Because I buy most of the picture books in my classroom, I look for enduring books that we will return to again and again.  Different things make books repeat reads; the illustrations, the phrasing, the story.  Bottom-line: it is a gut feeling most of the time.

Do we have other works by the author?  My students feel closely connected to the picture book authors and illustrators whose books we love so I try to expand our favorite collections as often as possible.  Some of our favorites are Mo Willems, Peter H. Reynolds, Ame Dyckman, Jon Klassen, and Amy Krouse Rosenthal.

Sometimes I just take a chance on a book.  Sometimes I have no rhyme or reason for  what I bring in other than a small feeling that some kid at some point will connect with it.  I never know which picture book my students will love, so sometimes I just sit back and let them explore and then pay closely attention.  Then I go out and get more of those.

And, of course, I cannot write a post discussing picture books without sharing a few of my new favorites or ones that I cannot wait to get.

Laugh out loud funny, The Pretty, Pretty Bunny by Dave Horowitz is in my first day pile for kids to choose from.

The Promise by Nicola Davies is a beautiful tale of making a difference.  This would also be great for a science classroom.

I cannot wait to get Finding Winnie – The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear by Lindsay Mattick.  I wonder how many students will love this tale of the real Winnie the Pooh.

Why do I have a feeling that Elwood Bigfoot: Wanted: Birdie Friends by Jill Esbaum will become a favorite of my students?

Picture books are a part of our tapestry and something that I am proud we use in our middle school.  I hope being vocal about the benefit of using picture books with older students will help others take the jump.  I got to discuss more of this in this article here.  

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  The 2nd edition and actual book-book (not just e-book!) comes out September 22nd from Routledge.

What We Need to Remember

image from icanread
image from icanread

The words seem to fall off the pages as I scroll through their answers.  The beginning seeds to what will become the kids that we will get to teach.  They speak of hope, of dreams, and wishes.  They speak of failures in the past, of words beyond their control, and actions they wish they could have protected their child from.  Some merely say they hope for a good year, while others ask us to please love their child, that they could really use someone more who cares.

We take these children for granted.  We take their dreams for granted.  Their hopes.  Their wishes.  We have them speak but then do not always listen.  We hurry so much at times in our urge to get to everything that we forget that we are not here to teach content, but here to teach children.

Yet the parents.  The guardians.  The ones that sit at home.  They tell us to please remember.  To please not forget, that that child we spoke of today in our meetings, that the child we mentioned to our families, that the child that kept us up thinking late last night, that child belongs to someone.  That at one point that child was so loved that the world seemed to stop for a moment and everything else fell away.  Even if life has changed by now.

So as we get ready for another year, please remember that we do not teach products.  We do not teach neat little boxes that will follow our every direction.  That we do not teach robots who will comply with our every whim.  We teach human beings, with all of their laughter, with all of their joy, but also with all of their anger, their confusion, their restlessness, and their dreams of something better.  Please don’t forget that.

Because from one parent to another.  From one teacher to another.  Sending your child to school and hoping that someone else will get them is one of the hardest things to do.  It’s one of the biggest leaps we take.  We hope with every inch of us that on that first day of school our child will come home with a smile on their face and not just talk about all of the great things they did but about how much they love their teacher.  How much they cannot wait to go back.

We hold the power to the future, we cannot forget that.  Even on our toughest day that child is someone else’s.  That child has dreams.  And that child needs us to love them.  Even when they don’t love themselves.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  The 2nd edition and actual book-book (not just e-book!) comes out September 22nd from Routledge.

My Favorite Reads of the Summer – Part 2

I have a week left of vacation; a week left to read as many books as possible.  A week left to try to get through my ever growing to-be-read pile.  This afternoon, I made a list for my best friend’s 7th grader of books he had to read, and I once again realized how lucky we are that we get to help students find amazing books.  And how lucky we are that authors continue to write such incredible tales.  So what are some more favorites from this summer?

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Thanks to Netgalley I just finished reading the wonderful The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin.  I love the science woven into this thoughtful story about grief and trying to find your place in a world that seems hellbent on making it hard for you.  This is a Global Read Aloud 2016 contender.

When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds has been in my TBR pile for a long time, but since it had a gun on the cover in a way I had kind if dismissed the book as being suitable for my 7th grade classroom.  Folks, do not let the cover stop you from reading this book, it is incredible, and do not let the cover stop you from adding this to your  middle school classroom, you need to read it, discuss it, and then share it with students.  The Boy in the Black Suit also by Jason Reynolds is another of my favorites and he is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers out there.  This is another Global Read Aloud 2016 contender.

Ruta Sepetys is a master story teller who proved her staying power with Between Shades of Gray.  She has done it again with Salt to the Sea.  This historical fiction novel based on one of the largest maritime disasters during WWII is full of suspense as well as well-developed characters and a story that keeps you turning pages.  Note, this book is for pre-order only right now, I was given an ARC at ILA.

Another magnificent historical fiction novel about Ada and the seemingly impossible odds she is trying to overcome during the evacuation of children from London during WWII.  The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is one to add to your classroom library from 4th grade and up.

Joelle Charbonneau, author of the great science fiction series The Testing, is back in full-force with this realistic fiction novel Need.  This was a page turner of the truest kind, so much so that I stayed up into the night so I could finish reading it.  Once again, this is more mature, and also only available for pre-order at the moment.  Since I read it on Netgalley, I have already placed my pre-order, this will be a huge hit in November with my 7th graders.

I have admire Holly Black’s vivid imagination ever since the incredible and terrifying The Coldest Girl in Coldtown.  That is why I was surprised that it took me such a long time to read her newer one The Darkest Part of the Forest.  It is so good, again, I read it one night. Scary and with some relationship stuff in it, but nothing too graphic, I had to read just one more page to see how it all would turn out.  This is one of those books that makes you admire writers even more because how do they ever come up with such amazing ideas?

So there you have it for now.  A few new favorites to add to your library, a few new favorites to share with students.  Happy reading everyone!

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  The 2nd edition and actual book-book (not just e-book!) comes out September 22nd from Routledge.

6 Simple Things We Can Do to Make This A Better Year

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8 days.  8 days and I get to do what I love the most outside of being with my own kids.  8 days and I get to finally meet those kids that will become “my” kids as the year progresses.  8 days and school starts again, and yes summer has been incredible, but the school year beckons and I cannot wait.

We get to teach the future of the world.

We get to protect the dreams of our students.

We are awash in positive thought as we start and there are a few things we can do stay that way.

Choose positive.  I start every morning by plastering the biggest smile on my face.  Every child (or adult) that I see deserves a smile and a greeting.  Yes, it is exhausting at times, and yes, sometimes it is a fake smile, but you know what?  Fake smiles still  spread, and they are free, so if you want to be surrounded by positivity; smile.

Seek out new people.  This is my second year in my building so I know a few people, but I also know there are new people joining us, so why not seek them out?  We have all been the newbie wondering where we fit in and who we would get to know.  Rather than wait for them to come to you, go to them and invite them to sit with you at lunch or meetings.  Trust me, it makes a huge difference.

Try one new thing.  Notice I didn’t say every day.  Try one new thing, perhaps for a day, perhaps for a week, perhaps for a month, but push yourself intentionally.  Find something new to try that makes you ever so slightly uncomfortable so that you do not become stagnant in your own professional development.  Do something that makes you a little bit nervous so you can remember how it felt when you first started and everything felt like a risk.

Plan for fun. Plan for movement.  Plan for speaking.  Plan for listening.  Plan for writing.  All classes should have all of these every day, well almost all classes anyway.  We cannot expect students to be enthusiastic about what we teach if we do not offer them chances to move, to speak, to listen, to write, and to have fun.  And yes, having fun in school is not just something reserved for special days.

Stay realistic, not pessimistic.  Yes, there will be days where everything goes wrong.  There will be days where new ideas are introduced that seem to make no sense.  There will be days where it feels as if the whole world is against you, we all have those days.  Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and focus on what went well.  Allow yourself to dissect a situation and then move on.  We are so quick to let outside factors determine how we feel, why give something like that any power.  If you can’t control it, then focus on the things you can.

Do small acts of kindness.  There are so many small things we can do that makes someone else’s lives easier and happier.  I start the year by buying flowers for our secretaries and bringing donuts to our custodian.  Thea’s teacher and busdriver get a small gift.  I fill the copy paper (and clear the paper jams), hold doors, bring up mail to my teammates, and anything else that seems like it is no big deal to me, but it may be to others.  I offer to cover classes when I can and I support when I have something valuable to give.  That doesn’t mean I have less time to do my own things, it simply means that I care about other people.  It is not hard to do either, but the payoff is amazing.

These ideas may not seem like much, but the intentionality with which we can go through our day is what makes a difference.  Every day we make a choice of whether we want to make others have a great day or not.  I know what I choose every single day, what do you choose?

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  The 2nd edition and actual book-book (not just e-book!) comes out September 22nd from Routledge.

It Soon Becomes A Reality

Yesterday was the 22nd of August, to us a rather milestone moment, but to the rest of the world probably not so much.  You see yesterday marked the 1 month countdown to the publication of the  2nd edition of my first book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  And while I tend to not use this blog for self promotion, I am so proud of this book and what it might offer for others, that I am breaking my own rule today.

It seems weird to think that a book is a 2nd edition, but there is a very simple reason for it.  The book is no longer owned by its original publishing company due to differing visions and Routledge purchased the rights.  They saw something in the book that made them want to print it as an actual book, release it on Amazon, and market it to the world.  Humbling…

But I didn’t want to just re-package it.  I saw this as a chance to re-write it, to add my students voices even more, and to add what I had learned now being a middle school teacher.  So it is not the same book any more, it is so much better.

This book is for those who need inspiration to change the way they teach.  This book is for those who wonder whether you can really limit homework, limit grades, and get rid of punishment and rewards within our school system.  This book is for those that feel they are doing pretty good as teachers but really need a boost, really need to bring the classroom back to the students again.  This book is for those who like me were just fine teachers but knew there had to be a better way.

So in 1 month, I will get to hold my own book in my hands.  I will get to give it to the world and hope the world responds.  My greatest hope is that one person will read it and it will help them, that my words can make someone else’s life better.  After all, isn’t that what we hope for in our classrooms every day?

PS:  If you would like to preorder the book, please use this link.

Confessions of a Dream Crusher

We call ourselves the dream makers, the curiosity protectors, the people who will change education from within.  We see ourselves as open-minded, always willing to change, and always looking to do what is best for students.  We come to school on those first few days with dreams spilling out of our arms.  New ideas floating around our heads as we dream of the possibilities.  As we eagerly embark on a new journey.

Yet a few weeks in and our arms seem to be empty.  The dreams gone,  reality set in, and  we think, “Well, maybe next year will be the year we change education, maybe next year these dreams will work.”

We can blame politicians for crushing our dreams.  Sometimes we can even blame administration.  But more often than not the blame lies within our own communities, our own teams, and ourselves.   After all, how quick are we to dismiss the dreams of others before we even hear them out?  How often do we think that we know better than someone else?  How often do we make it a point to share just why something will not work.  Yet, we get upset when someone dares to tell us that our dream is impossible, that our idea will never work, but forget that we say those some words to others.

We are so quick to tsk tsk other people’s new ideas.  We are so quick to jump in with our own opinions, to share our own better ideas.  To not truly listen because in our minds we have already decided that that idea will never work.  We are so quick to burst the fragile bubbles of hope that we all bring back at the beginning of a new year.  As if bringing someone down to Earth is a good thing.

And we can blame society.  We can blame standardized testing.  We can blame the Common Core.  Or we can take responsibility for how we speak to others.  For how we judge.  For how quickly we dismiss.  We can stop crushing the dreams of others.

Schools starts in 10 days.  I will not be a dream crusher anymore.  I will not be the one that says that something cannot work.  I will not be the one that discourages others.  Instead, I will be the one that says, “How can I help?”  What will you be?

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  The 2nd edition and actual book-book (not just e-book!) comes out September 22nd from Routledge.