Some Picture Books to Discuss Courage

Malala, a Brave Girl from Pakistan/Iqbal, a Brave Boy from Pakistan: Two Stories of Bravery by Jeanette Winter.  I have used this book on many different occasions but having courage in the face of danger is major topic for social advocacy.  I love this book so much. 

Jacob’s New Dress by Sarah and Ian Hoffman, illustrated by Chris Case.  being yourself can be hard when you society will judge you but this book is a must add for any classroom.  When we speak about needing diverse books we need books that not only a provide a mirror for our students but also a window to quote Jacqueline Woodson.  While we may have no students that we think need this book, all of our students really need it.

First Day Jitters by Julie Danneberg and illustrated by Judy Love.  Sometimes kids think that adults have no fears but this book reminds them that we get scared too.  A lighthearted read that is sure to be a great conversation starter.

Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown.  Staying true to yourself takes courage and Mr. Tiger is a good teacher of that.

Drum Dream Girl by Margarita Engle and Rafael Lopez  A beautiful book from this prolific author that is all about following your own dreams and not letting others box you in.

Nightsong by Ari Berk and illustrated by Loren Long.  Venturing out on your own is never easy especially when the night is dark.

I’m Trying to Love Spiders by Bethany Barton.  How many of us have tried to break our own fears?  This is a laugh out-loud book that will make us think about the fears we need to work through.

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordecai Gerstein.  This has been my chosen read aloud for many years on 9/11 because ti allows us to open up a hard conversation by remembering something beautiful.  Now with the movie The Walk out, students know this story even better.

The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers.  This book is beautiful and the message that it carries of not being afraid to love is one that will resonate with may readers.

I am Rosa Parks by Brad Meltzer and illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos  I could have picked any of the books in this series, they all have wonderful message sof staying true to yourself and finding your own courage.

To the Stars!  The First American Woman to Walk in Space by Carmella Van Vleet and Dr. Kathy Sullivan, illustrated by Nicole Wong.  What is your dream adn how will you achieve it?  Sometimes you have to dream bigger than the rest of the world wants you to.

Walk On!  A Guide for Babies of All Ages by Marla Frazee.  Even babies need courage.  We all take so many things for granted that took a lot of work to do, this book is a great reminder of how far we have all come.

The Yellow Star by Carmen Agra Deedy and illustrated by Henri Soerensen.  While the story is not completely true it does speak to how one person can inspire courage for many.


I know there are many others out there, which picture books do you gravitate toward when you need students to find some courage?

To see the list of more of our favorite picture books, go here.

Some Picture Books on Friendship and Loneliness

It never fails, there always seems to be that moment where we with heavy hearts turn to our book shelves to find the perfect book to talk about loneliness.  When we search for a book that will say the words that we seem unable to find ourselves.  Teaching children means that there is a constant stream of friendships, both good and bad, and the heartaches that can sometimes come with growing up.   So I scoured my bookshelves looking for some of our favorite books to talk about friendship, loneliness, and what it means to find your place in the world.  Here are some of our favorites in room 235D.

The Seeds of Friendship by Michael Foreman is a new book to our room that tells the story of how coming together around a common purpose can inspire community.

I do not hide the fact that I think Meg Medina is a writing genius and her latest picture book, Mango, Abuela, and Me illustrated by Angela Dominguez is a must add toy our collection.  I loved that the story centered on the loneliness we can feel when we do not know how to connect with others different than us, even when they are supposed to be alike.

I do not know how many lists of picture books I have placed The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig illustrated by Patrice Barton on, but I am sure it is many.  I have used this book with several different age groups and they all get it, they can all connect, they have all felt invisible at some point.

Amy Krouse Rosenthal was the 2015 choice for Global Read Aloud’s picture book author study and she was amazing.  Having 3 little girls means that unicorns are a regular topic of conversation and so when Uni the Unicorn illustrated by Brigetter Barrager came out it was a natural fit in our household.  But it is not just a book for little girls, but rather a book that can remind all of us of what it feels like to be longing for one thing you are certain is out there, even when no one believes you.

What happens when a book is not read anymore, the same as when a child feels lonely.  The Lonely Book by Kate Bernheimer and illustrated by Chris Sheban is a great conversation starter fora complex topic of loneliness and feeling forgotten.

What happens when a dog is unappreciated by those who own him; the dog names himself Sad.  Sad the Dog written by Sandy Fussell and illustrated by Tull Suwannakit is a great example of how we can find our place among friends even if we start off wrong.

The Only Child illustrated by Guojing shines a light on the deepest kind of loneliness where a child flies into their imagination to combat the hours where they are alone.  This is also a great wordless picture book to have students think of China’s one child policy which is the inspiration behind the story.

The Adventures of Beekle – the Unimaginary Friend the Caldecott medal winning book from 2015 by Dan Santat also speaks of loneliness and finding that one person that makes it all better.  This book has also shown up on many of our lists and with good reason.

Say Hello by Jack & Michael Foreman shows what can happen when a simple hello is said.  This is a great book for middle schoolers as they sometimes don’t see the world as it passes them by.

An Angel for Solomon Singer by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Peter Catalanotto is a must add for any picture book loving classroom.  The story about Solomon who lives in a shelter and the small interactions that change his perspective is one that invites further reading and discussion.

A Piece of Home written by Jeri Watts and illustrated by Hyewon Yum is not published just yet, but can be pre-ordered and it deserves to be.  The story of how a boy moves from his home country and tries to make new connections is one that many of our students can relate to and one that is sure to prompt students to share their won stories of feeling out of place.

Leo: A Ghost Story written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Christian Robinson is a book that I love as long as I don’t think about why Leo is a ghost.  Once again it speaks of loneliness and the lengths we go to to try to make a friend.

Be A Friend by Salina Yoon is at the top of my mock Caldecott list for 2017 and it is from a first time picture book author.  Through its sparse text and beautiful illustrations it tells a familiar tale of what can happen when we stay true to who we are.

There are so many picture books out in the world, which do you love for starting conversations about loneliness and friendship?

To see the list of more of our favorite picture books, go here.




The 2030 UN Challenge – A Social Advocacy Project

In my district we are well aware of our demographics.  How we mostly teach one demographic students, and while these students span an enormous socioeconomic range, they look a lot like each other.  How sometimes our world can seem protected with only the biggest stories slipping through.  I also teach 7th grade where the rest of the world tends to slip away as the students are focused on their own social development and their own place in the world, rather than the world that surrounds them.  Yet, we try.  We constantly try to engage the students in projects that will bring the rest of the world in, start conversations, and ultimately lead to change.

When AJ Juliani first posted about the 2030 UN Challenge I didn’t much notice it.  He has a lot of great idea but this one slipped by until my awesome colleague , Reidun Bures, brought it up to me again.  We decided that this was the perfect opportunity to collaborate between our classes, but more importantly to simply make our students more aware of the major challenges that faces our world.

So for the past 3 weeks, we have combined classes and worked on the 2030 UN Challenge.  Students watched the video listing the 17 goals that the UN has set for the next 15 years (it came out in 2015) and then decided which goal they would focus their project on.


Once their “lens” had been chosen, they had to narrow their scope.  Where in the world would they focus their research knowing that they had to present their information in an infographic to the rest of the class.  Some chose to focus locally in our very county or state, while others went to far-flung regions that sought their attention.  Students then spent five 90-minute blocks, every other day, researching  their “problem.”  Examples were racial inequity in Dane County, water quality in the United States, gender inequity in education in Pakistan, the extinction of sharks due to shark fin soup, the gender pay gap in the United States and so many other projects.  We were blown away by the passion they had for their problem.

But we didn’t just want to them to become aware, we wanted them to realize that they could make a difference.  So part of their project became an advocacy piece as well; either highlight a group that is already working to solve the problem such as Black Lives Matter, the Water Project, or Second Harvest Food Bank, or come up with actual things that your fellow students can do.  It was amazing.

On the final day of the project, students had to present their infographic and their advocacy piece to the class.  As one student said, “Can I present more than once because I really want people to hear this.”  It was clear that many students were passionate about their project, wanted others to hear them, and wanted to make a difference.  But even more importantly the knowledge that crept into the consciousness of the minds of our students was unmatched.  They may not all go on to change the world but at least they have heard what some of the major challenges that affect us as a human race are.  At least they have had a window opened once again to the world, supporting what our other amazing teachers try to do, hopefully inspiring them become more aware.  It was more than once that a pair of students called us over to share a fact with us, disbelieving that it was true.

So why share?  Because this small projet has made a difference and has made an impact on us that we were not expecting.  So we hope you will take the pledge; do the 2030 UN Challenge in whichever way suits your kids and open up the world more.  Go here for more information or check out the original post from AJ Juliani.

Part of one student’s infographic.

Also if you are looking for another small global project, join the 1 School 1 World project on February 22nd, where classrooms around the world will share a picture of what their learning environment looks like using the hashtag #1S1W – for more information and to sign up, go here.

To see more of the how-to of what we did, go here.



When We Harm Rather than Help – Some Thoughts on Reading Interventions

We read to Thea in the womb like all the fancy books told us to.  Surrounded her with books from the moment she was born.  We read every night creating memories.  We pointed to text, had her touch the books she loved as much as she wanted.  Some still have chewed up corners.  We followed all the steps that it takes to create a reader, and yet, when she started to learn to read, it did not come naturally.  It was hard and it continues to be hard.  She works for every single letter, for every single word, for every single page.  And she has incredible support from her teachers.  We are lucky.  They protect her love of reading with everything they’ve got.

Yet, some kids are not as lucky as Thea.  The very interventions that are meant to help end up harming their love of reading.  The very skills we try to teach end up taking precedent above everything else, leaving us with a child that perhaps can read better but will never do so on their own.

There are many well-meaning things that we have done throughout our teaching that is not good for children.  That is not good for those that so need us to be great teachers.  Those kids that need us more than others, need the very best of us, sometimes get the worst.

So as we think of our reading intervention, of the very programs and ideas that we have in place for those who need extra instruction, we must make sure that we are not harming.  That the very children we speak of so often do not end up victims of misguided attempts to help.  Because there are a few things that seem to happen more often to children who are in reading intervention than those who are not.  A few tendencies that can be problematic.

They get pulled from the “fun” classes.  How often do we schedule their intervention to be when the class is doing something that is more hands-on or exploratory?  I have had students that had not had science for several years.  Yet students who are developing readers need those experiences as much as the other students.  When a child gets pulled like that it signals that those classes are not as important, and that the child will not need those skills.  Yet, often this is where students can be the most successful.  The best solution is to create a school-wide resource time, different from grade level to grade level, that offers a window for all students to receive intervention or enrichment.

They get shorter text.   Thanks to the wisdom of Penny Kittle I have been thinking a lot about text length and how we do not give our developing readers long texts.  Instead much of our intervention instruction is based on short text, yet that means they build no stamina.  And without stamina they cannot be free of intervention since they will struggle with sustained concentration.  That doesn’t just happen, it is experienced over and over as we build the text lengths.  So vary the length and use an independent reading book (self-chosen, of course) to teach the skills.  Use actual reading materials and not just the scripted versions so that students can have true buy-in.

They are spoken at more.  With intervention comes more instruction, yet often what students need is more practice.  Why is it that when a child struggle our first inclination is to re-explain, give further instruction ,and then interrupt.  Rather than allow them to ask questions, teach briefly and then give them time to work with the skill.  We already have a teacher talk epidemic in our schools, think of how much more teacher talk these students receive.

They have more repetition.  I believe in revisiting texts, this is part of the reason I love picture books so much.  Yet, the constant repetition where students may read the same passage 5 days in a row is hard to understand.  When we know how intimately motivation is linked with student achievement, why do we create conditions where students automatically tune out because it is the same passage over and over?  Instead, use it for a few days and then change it up.  Find something with a common theme and then work on transfer of skills through that.

They have less choice.  It seems the older our students get, the less choice and control they have.  Yet, developing readers need more choice.  Sure, we can help guide them but telling them what their lexile level is, or whatever other box we choose to put them in, in order for them to select a text from that level but that is not guidance.  It is dictation.  Furthermore, expecting them to then develop natural reading habits which include the ability to self-select books as discussed by Donalyn Miller and many others, when they have not had the opportunity to makes little sense.  If we want students to love reading and to transfer the skills that they learn in intervention (or regular instruction) then they must have choice.  They must be able to have the chance to figure out what books work for them or not.  And why.

They have less time.  If we want students to become better readers they need more time to read.  So if we are doing intervention, giving them time to read a self-selected book should be a major component.  Not just all of the skill teaching.  And if a child is being pulled during their in-class independent reading time to receive intervention there is a serious scheduling and priority problem.

They get challenged less.  In the past, I was lulled into thinking that my developing readers could not handle complex thinking tasks.  However, my students have proven me wrong and I am thankful for that.  A developing reader, or a reader who struggles, does not have a thinking problem and yet we often differentiate in such a way that students who receive intervention do not get the same challenging questions or projects as other students.  Yes, we should differentiate to scaffold all learners, but not when they do not need it.  Access to text is one thing, access to thinking is another.

They stay in intervention.  If the same child stays in intervention year after year without the possibility of release then we must re-examine the very interventions we are implementing.  While many programs work, must do not work for ALL students.  Do we have instruction in place that will benefit each individual child or only some?

They get interrupted more.  Call it the plight of the conscientious teacher, but when students struggle we tend to interrupt all of the time.  We check in, we re-explain, we teach them more, often without checking to see if they need it.  We read aloud constantly interrupting the story to model our own thinking.  No wonder people who are interrupted have a harder time reaching a state of flow.  So before we are helpful make sure the help is needed.  Otherwise we are harming more than helping.

They tend to be asked to be vulnerable more often.  I see how my own daughter feels about reading and how hard it is.  I have had students confide in me how hard it is to admit in front of  others, especially good readers, how difficult reading is for them.  Yet, we tend to ask probing questions more often to the students who need intervention.  We ask them to open up in a way that we don’t expect of other students.  I know  this trust and intimacy of knowledge is necessary to be the best teacher  for them but we need to be aware of the vulnerable position we are placing students in.  We don’t have a right to know their feelings, we can earn their trust and then ask.

They tend to be defined by their struggle.  When a child struggles with reading we often assume they will struggle with everything.  After all, reading comprehension is the foundation of it all.  Yet, that mindset is dangerous as it leads to lower expectations which in turn leads to less challenges.  We get “pleasantly” surprised more often with lower expectations as we teach a child that if they cannot read well then they must be bad at everything in school.

I have seen incredible intervention programs that have created powerful readers.  I have seen programs that chopped reading into little bits that did little to help all students.  I think that most reading intervention programs lie somewhere in the middle.  They work for some and not for others.  So I write this post not to judge, but to question the things we end up doing, for in our habits we often dismiss our own flaws.  In our programs we sometimes forego common sense but that doesn’t mean we can’t change.  We just need to re-examine our practices honestly.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

I Carry the Words

I carry the words of my students with me everywhere I go.

Their dreams.  Their hopes. Their wrapped up identities as they try to find their voice.

I carry the story of the boy who cried.  The girl who fought injustice and the students who knew no better way.

I carry the hopes of teachers who share.  Who reach out and ask for help.  Who know that there has to be a better way and lay awake searching for it every night.  Hoping to not feel so alone, hoping to not feel so crazy.  I carry their words into the light whenever I can because we have all felt crazy, we have all felt devalued, we have all felt like we cannot teach one more day and yet have gone on, knowing that our students would wait for us with their dreams held in their hands, hoping that today would be the day that makes a difference.

I carry the words of my daughter who wants to be an artist, a singer, an animal doctor, but most of all a teacher.  Who worries what others think and cares too much.  Who wakes up tired and yet gives it her best.  Who loves with all of her heart even when it hurts.

The words of the girl who had no food.  The boy who had no friends.  The child that wasn’t really a child taking care of their sibling late into the night.  Or the children who told me that school was not for them but for those others kids who had it all figured out.

I carry the words of the girl who knew she could do better.  Of the child who did not conform.  Of the student that made me cry and shake my head in frustration, knowing that I was not the best teacher I could be even though I wanted to.

I carry my own words, sometimes loudly, other times so quietly that I cannot hear them myself, so that others may see that they too can have a voice.  That our world is made better when we share, even our fears.  That we are not determined by our weaknesses but instead on our struggle to overcome them.

I did not set out to carry the words but they kept tumbling at me.  And so I walk on knowing that my path is perhaps not set, but the words that I carry will push me forward, always hoping for someone to listen.

I carry the words of my students so that their voices can be heard.  Of all of the kids who found their voice and now will never be silenced.  The words that mean that their dreams live on, hopefully pushing the minds of others.

I carry the words and so do you.  Let us never forget that.

I Am Not a Writer – On Developing Student Writing Identity

I have taught writing for 8 years.  8 years of outlines, of brainstorms, of on-demand writing.  Of peer editing and feedback cycles.  Of writer’s notebooks to mine for ideas.  Of blank stares and “I have nothing to write.”  And never once did I think deeply about the writing process.

I knew I had to write with my students.  I knew I had to develop my own writing in front of them.  I knew that writers needed different conditions to spark creativity.  And yet, we still followed a pretty linear process, a one path to greatness type of ideal.  We write different pieces but all for the same purpose.

This summer, I was asked to speak out loud while I wrote to be part of a series of videos called Wisconsin Writes.  I was asked to write in front of a camera and a person and just talk as I wrote, providing a running commentary on how my process worked.  It was awkward.  It was stilted.  But it was also enlightening.  That is not the writing process I teach.

Yesterday Jacqueline Woodson spoke about her writing process.  An offhand comment about how she doesn’t outline but just keeps asking “what if.”  Sees where the story takes her and then jumps from piece to piece when she gets bored.  She knows there is a story, she just doesn’t know what it is.  That is not the writing process I teach.

Last night, Donalyn Miller and I spoke about writing and her words sit with me still; there is not one process to writing, there are many.  I know this as a writer myself, so why have I forgotten it so often in the classroom?

Our job as teachers who write is to help students uncover their writing identity.  To show them many different ways of writing and constantly asking them to find what works for them.  To ask questions rather than dictate a path.  To have them reflect on the very creative process that they undergo.  We should not just be assessing their final product but instead support them uncovering their process.  Because their process will be distinctly unique much like ours is.

So as I turn my eyes on developing writer identities, there are a few things I must keep in mind.

All writers are writers.  We say this all the time but if we do not give them opportunities to feel like successful writers then they will never believe us.  So writing must be bigger than one thing.  Writing must be about thinking like a writer, feeling a writer, and not just producing.

All writers need time.  We tend to think that writing is only happening when students are physically writing, but most of us know that writing is also thinking, mulling, abandoning and coming back to our work.  That writing is an unseen process most of the time and the actual act of writing is the product of something so much bigger.  So why do we expect students to write right away?

All writers need choice.  Not just in what they write, but also how they write.  That choice can be whether it is typed or handwritten, where they physically write but also who they write for.  Different audiences require different thought processes.

All writers need ownership.  We expect students to want to share their writing all the time, whether with others through peer editing, feedback or simply celebrating their writing by making it public.  But not all written work needs to be shared.  Some things are just for the authors and that is to be celebrated as well.

All writers need to end it.  Why must every piece be finished?  Why must every piece be edited?  When we tell students that they can start something and when they feel it is done, it is done, it gives them courage to write more.  It gives them ownership over completion rather than asking the teacher whether something is done or not.

All writers write differently.  Much like my writing process is one that only suits me, the writing process of my students is uniquely theirs.  Yet we keep squeezing them into a box of how writers write and then wonder when their writing isn’t powerful.

All writers need self-discovery.  We need to lead conversations where students can put into words what their process is. So using videos of writers speaking about their process gives us a common language and starting point to talk about their writing process.  Our writing instruction needs to encompass all aspects of writing, not just the visible part of it, but the thinking, the journey, the progress.  We need to bring that into the open so that students can understand what it really means to write.

All students need questions.  When someone says they are not a writer, we must ask “Why?”  And if they are not sure then keep asking questions.  Most students say they are bad writers because they cannot spell.  Because they cannot come up with ideas.  Because writing is for other kids.  But writing is bigger than that.  Writing is about finding a way to express the thoughts that jumble our heads.  Not just being a great speller. Or being like others.

I have a long way to go.  I have a long way to teach.  I have some big conversations to have with my students and I cannot wait.  We are all different yet our difference is what makes us unique writers.  What makes our writing powerful.