Let’s Spread More Book Love

pexels-photo-242261.jpegI have been blown away this year by the new bridges books have built in my classroom. Much of it is due to being inspired by other teachers in my building. We talk all the time about how to get more kids reading, and we celebrate kids’ successes regularly. This often consists of me seeing my colleagues in the hallway and jumping up and down excitedly when we see a mutual student take a leap and stretch as a reader in some way.

As a parent and a teacher, I cannot stress enough how important it is to give kids independent reading time EVERY SINGLE DAY, no matter what age. Reading books THEY choose, though we support those choices and also nudge them to push themselves, too. I’ve seen the difference reading time and choice makes. It’s taken a lot of work and deep breaths, and every single moment has been more than worth it. I’ll never go back to my old ways. I’ve seen so many bridges built between kids and books, kids and me, kids and each other, kids and other teachers, my colleagues and me. We’re going to keep building more bridges as well as strengthening the ones we’ve created this year.

Here are some of the tangible things I’ve done this year to change my classroom and build a reading culture.

-All three classes have a minimum of ten minutes of Book Love every class. Independent reading. They choose their books. Yes, every single day. My Language Arts kids get between 10 and 25 minutes since their literature and English is a combined class.

-I took on the forty book challenge. Read forty books in one school year. As of today, May 14, I’ve read over sixty books. Most of them are middle grade or young adult novels. Most of them are also in our classroom library. I hung images of all of the book covers on our classroom door. So did my job share partner. We ran out of room on one side and are on to the front part of the door. It’s the first thing our kids see when they walk in our door. BOOKS.

-Building my classroom library. This year alone, I have spent $600 on books for our classroom library. Currently, my job share partner and I have approximately 300 books in our classroom library, and we need more! What got me reading young adult and middle grade books with gusto was this. I focus on books I want to read. I try to read as many as I can before I put them on our shelf. If I’ve also read it, my conversations with kids are that much better, and it helps me recommend books more effectively and from the heart.  

-My job share partner has read many of the books in our classroom library. Many of her students use our classroom library. We’re both spreading the Book Love.

-I have spent at least twenty hours writing a grant for books for my classroom library through the Snapdragon Foundation. They fund books purely for classroom libraries. I asked for $3000. Why not ask for the moon? Even if I do not get the grant, it was a deeply reflective, powerful process for me. Even if I do not get the grant, I will keep finding ways to get books in my kids’ hands. I will find out in June. Keep your fingers crossed!

-I have recommended hundreds of books to my students. Many of them have told me the books I’ve recommended are some of their favorites they’ve read this year.

-I have seen dormant readers pick up and finish books. I have seen dormant readers ask me for suggestions. I have seen kids recommend books to their peers. I have watched kids connect with what they’ve read. I know it because we talk about it. I have seen avid readers grab books off my shelves and come back the next day claiming how much they loved it and couldn’t put it down. I cannot underestimate how much joy this brings me. Bridges everywhere.

-Two big leaps for me were book talks and conferring with readers. These may be my biggest areas of growth and where I’ve also seen kids grow most as readers.

Book talks. At first I was uncomfortable because I am not a salesperson! I feel like books come to me when I am ready. I don’t like to push anything on anyone. But then I just started talking to my Language Arts kids about books that moved me and why they moved me. From there, it got much easier. I kept referring books that I knew particular kids would like as well as books they may not have heard of. I keep an ongoing list in class of books I’ve booktalked. I get new releases like Kwame Alexander’s Rebound the day they come out. I show book trailers, and I read excerpts, backs of books, the inside covers of books. I just booktalked Jason Reynolds’ book, Sunny, and read his dedication at the beginning. “To the weirdos.” Because we’re all weirdos, right?! Sold.

Conferring with readers. I was also intimidated by conferring with kids because…honestly, I’m not sure why. Maybe because it felt new, and I wasn’t sure if I was “doing it right.” Now it is one of the best parts of my day! I am conferring with all three classes now, not just LA. I am following my instincts more. I am loving the thoughtful, funny, interesting mini-conversations I get to have with kids. Often, just asking, “How’s it going?” gets kids talking. Or “What will you read next?” Or “Do you relate to the main character at all? Why? Now I realize that conferring is FUN. It builds relationships. It connects us, and it is awesome. Once again, this is what I’ve done my whole life with my own three children who love books.

-I have read countless blogs about reading workshop. Mainly Pernille Ripp, Three Teachers Talk, and Moving Writers, which have tons of useful strategies and theories. I retweet them constantly, email articles to myself, and use their ideas almost daily in some way.

-Professional books: I have read The Book Whisperer by Donalynn Miller, Book Love by Penny Kittle and Disrupting Thinking by Robert Probst and Kylene Beers. I’ve also read Beyond Literary Analysis and Writing With Mentors by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell.

-Writing my own blog. Writing keeps me grounded, connects me to my students’ needs and processes, and it helps me reflect on my practice.books-education-school-literature-48126.jpeg

Next steps for next year:

-Building more classroom community by having kids share MORE with each other in partners, with the whole class, and with our school. I just read about using Goodreads or Biblionasium-both look like great possibilities.

-Figuring out a systematic way to have kids record what books they read, what books they want to read, and how many hours they are reading on a weekly basis.

-Figuring out a better system for my classroom library checkout.

-Celebrations of reading.

-Locating great picture books, graphic novels, and nonfiction to include in my classroom library.

-Figuring out more explicit ways to teach strategies: how to read more like writers and write more like readers without strangling the Book Love we are cultivating. Too much analysis kills it. I am also going to use mentor texts more effectively next year and will have kids make more note of when they run across strong writing or focus in on a mini-lesson (i.e. figurative language or sensory details).  

-Further collaboration with my colleagues. My colleague Leslie and I talk almost every day about Book Love and Writing Love and how to maintain and sustain it. We talk about how to get more teachers seeing the benefits of offering daily independent reading as well as the incredible benefit of classroom libraries. We’ve seen the impact this year. We’ve got way more kids reading, ya’ll, as my southern friend Leslie would say. She’s been doing some serious book whispering this year, and I am trying, too.

It’s been a great year of building bridges with books. I wouldn’t trade it for the world, and I also can’t wait to dive into more summer reading!pexels-photo.jpg


Plant Seeds. Now Watch Them Grow. Don’t Give Up.

pexels-photo-133082.jpegWhen I read The Book Whisperer, by Donalynn Miller, I had no idea it would impact me like it did. Something clicked. Actually, it was more like a bomb going off.

I realized crucial things. The way I’ve taught my own children (all avid, passionate readers) to love to read is not how I’m teaching my own students to love to read. The way I am teaching my students to interact with books is not what I need as a reader. The way I am teaching my students is potentially turning them off to reading. This is hard to see, and it’s doubly hard to admit, but it is the truth.

My reading instruction contradicted my treasured beliefs about books, that one of our most beautiful freedoms is being able to read whatever we want. Lexiles don’t matter. Topics don’t matter. Time matters. Choice matters. Passion matters.

Time and time again, I’ve watched my most book-loving students disengage from our assigned reading or our whole-class novel. I would watch and reflect. Maybe it’s just the activities we’re doing. Maybe I’m not asking the right questions or being engaging enough. Maybe it’s my teaching.

Now I see it. There are no maybes. Reading is incredibly personal. Choice is incredibly important. Supporting kids to choose what they want to read when they’re ready is what truly empowers kids and sustains the path towards becoming lifelong readers. And they need time to make it happen. Every teacher worth their salt wants students not only to love to read but to read for their entire lives. Every teacher wants students to pass their love of reading on to their own children. Otherwise, what is the point?

The bomb blew up. I realized I needed to change.

Luckily, I had support. There are some seriously dedicated book whisperers in my school who helped me think about reading differently. They were already whispering to our students, handing them books, talking to them about books, and most importantly, being patient. They were whispering to teachers, too. One of them offered a book study on The Book Whisperer to give us time to read, talk together, reflect, and hopefully even make some changes.

It takes time to plant seeds. It takes even more time for them to take root, to sprout, to survive adversity, to grow tall and strong.

I took deep breaths and made change happen.

After implementing as much as I possibly could handle this year, I am seeing our seeds grow. I have seen massive impact. To sum it up, I’m reading more, my students are reading more, and they are loving what they read. We are connecting on a whole new level together about books. We are building book love. I am super inspired.

If you work with kids and books, check out The Book Whisperer. It may just change your thinking, too.

Don’t be too afraid to change what you do. It is never too late.

Plant some seeds. Then, watch them grow. Keep this in mind. You can always plant more seeds. The supply of soil, water, and sunlight are at our fingertips, and we are persistent farmers who never give up on our crops.

Thank you, book whisperers. I am working on becoming one, too.field-meadow-flower-pink.jpg

Some Thoughts on Book Love

Whenever you read a good book, somewhere in the world a door opens to allow in more light.

–Vera Nazarian

My thoughts are a little scattered here, but I would still like to share them. Even with my scatter, I am still laser-focused on how we cultivate readers. Not just any readers. Lifelong readers. Readers who will read to their children some day. Readers who know themselves, who stretch, who grow, who change as a result of the books they read.

If you haven’t checked out middle grade or young adult literature recently, just know that we are in a Golden Age. Witness my classroom door, full of books I have read all year long. There are SO MANY GREAT books out there. So many stories I learn from as an adult. So many stories that help my students feel like they have a place in this big, complicated world.IMG-7648.JPG

This year, I am giving my English students Book Love, a minimum of ten minutes per day of independent reading time every single day. Our focus is writing, but strong readers make strong writers. We all know this. I want my kids soaking in words. I want my kids reading how good stories are told. I want them to see themselves in what they read, and I want them to see other people’s experiences, too. I have heard Language Arts described as Empathy Class, and when we read with open hearts, our hearts grow, too.

Book Love is sacred. Nothing gets in its way, and it’s such a beautiful way to begin class. I love looking around at kids curled up on our half-full beanbags or nestled in a corner. I love the soft hush of pages turning. I love whispering with kids about what they love about their current book, which characters they relate to, what surprises them, what they’ll read next, how they connect. It connects us, too.

Not all kids read. But most do. It is worth our weight in gold, regardless.

Every bit of research I have read, and I’ve read a lot this year, points me to the power of independent choice reading. This means giving kids time during school to read and allowing them to read what they want. It doesn’t mean just leaving them alone to read, though. We guide, support, ask questions, and, yes, challenge our kids to stretch themselves as readers.

Here’s a big idea.

“Results from the world’s largest annual study of K-12 student reading habits found that students who started the year as struggling readers but ended the year at or above benchmark each day read just six more minutes than struggling readers who did not meet the benchmark.”

Six minutes, people.

It’s even better when kids choose what they want to read. It’s even better when they start figuring out what they will read next. It’s pretty much awesome when I get to talk to my kids about these books. It is building new bridges between all of us.

Our seventh grade Language Arts department is giving students approximately sixty to eighty minutes of independent reading per week. The research I quoted above makes me feel like it should be way more.

Book Love-this independence, this choice- is all new to me. But I will say this. Back in high school, a long time ago, I faked my way through the vast majority of classics we were supposed to read. I could write a competent five-paragraph essay, and I felt prepared for rigorous college courses, but I did not become an English major even though I live and breathe books and love to write. I was so turned off by all of the analysis I had to do that I just couldn’t bear it in college. So many times in my teaching career, I have wished that I had majored in English so that I could teach high school and so that I had that grounding in literature. Now I listen as my daughter, my son, and my students, remind and warn me of the danger of too much analysis. I try to find that sweet spot between Book Love and realizing new things about what I read and why it matters to me. In reality, it’s all about the Book Love.

Let’s open the door. Let’s let some light in. Let’s read.


Profile of a Librarian


It is seven thirty at Columbia Falls Junior High, and, already, five or six kids line the walls, waiting for the doors of the library to open. Chatting quietly, holding books, waiting. Now our librarian arrives fifteen minutes later, and kids begin to stream in.They gather in clusters around the library, talking, playing Legos, making bookmarks, draping on bean bags or rocking in one of the rocking chairs, watering plants, shelving books, dropping off books, checking out new books. Morning light floods the twenty-foot windows that look out onto the Swan Mountain range. It’s the best room in the school, but kids don’t go in there until they are welcomed, coaxed, invited to come and stay awhile by our amazing librarian, Kim Gange. In she sweeps with a smile, a joke, a giggle with a kid, a gentle reminder or encouragement. “You look like one of the kids!” she is often told. With her blond hair, blue eyes, and Scandinavian roots, she looks much younger than her forty-nine years.

When I asked Kim to describe what she does, she quickly replied, “I’m an atmosphere maker, and I’m a saleswoman. The very best part of my job is when the light bulb goes on. A kid connects to a book, and they come back and tell me about it. It’s even better when I’ve read the book. I love books. I love getting kids excited about books. I get to build relationships.” What more could you want from your friendly neighborhood librarian?

Full disclosure. I have known Kim since we were three years old. Our friendship spans forty-five years. We grew up down the street from each other in Duluth, Minnesota, and we moved to Montana together when we were in our early twenties. We have taught English at the same school for close to twenty years. We met our husbands here in Montana and are raising our children within ten miles of each other. One of the best parts is that Kim is my children’s librarian. As an example of her dedication, we were at the beach with our kids a few weeks ago, and she handed my son, who avidly attends every Tuesday lunchtime book club, a 1000 page Stephen King book she knew he wanted to read.

Now Kim is going into her third year as our librarian, and she has already succeeded at making the library a special space for kids and for teachers. But the path to working in a room full of books was a long one. Teaching English meant too much grading, too much planning, and too much stress. She would look through the windows of the second floor, look down into our library, see all those books, and think, I want to be the person who gets more kids into our library and get them reading more books.

To become that person took a whole lot of blood, sweat, tears, dedication, time, energy, and devotion. Kim returned to school, which meant two years of on-line classes. It also meant doing a practicum, where she left school most days during her teaching prep to observe and work with other librarians, who taught her about technology, how to weed book collections, and how to create makerspace, a place which brings people together to create shared projects.  

Sometimes it’s hard, she admits. Sure, she doesn’t have to grade any more! She never dreads going to work and coming up with that perfect lesson plan or grading 100 essays in a weekend. However, she misses the collaboration with fellow teachers, and sometimes, she wonders, “Does anyone really know what I do?” And, she wishes she could have more time with kids. Time to talk books. Time to sell more books. After all, reading is behind everything.

But now, Kim gets to know kids differently. Now she knows ALL of the kids, and some of those devoted readers, she gets to know more deeply than anyone.  She gets to work with everyone in the building and appreciates having a universal perspective, which shifts when you get out of the classroom and obtain the privilege of watching forty other teachers teach.  She gets a lot of peace now from her job. Instead of feeling all-consuming stress, she feels relaxed, stimulated, and excited by her work.

“I get to end my teaching career surrounded by books. I knew it was where I wanted to be.” As she gazed down at the library, filled with books, mountain views, and light, her desire to land there is our gain. Now students run in to show her what they’re reading. Now kids gather outside her doors early in the morning to gain entrance to a beloved space with their beloved librarian.

Libraries are one of the strongholds for freedom of speech, and finding our way into books is one of our ultimate freedoms. Don’t we all want kids banging down the doors of our libraries, clamoring for the newest novel by Jason Reynolds or Nicola Yoon? Don’t we want kids sitting around a round table playing chess and leaving their phones behind for those precious minutes of connection with each other and with books? We can only hope that Kim continues to build bridges, helping kids find that perfect book and coming back for more. After all, in the words of Maya Angelou, “Information helps you to see that you’re not alone. That there’s somebody in Mississippi and somebody in Tokyo who all have wept, who’ve all longed and lost, who’ve all been happy. So the library helps you to see, not only that you are not alone, but that you’re not really any different from everyone else.”


Books save lives.

quote-the-story-from-rumpelstiltskin-to-war-and-peace-is-one-of-the-basic-tools-invented-by-the-human-ursula-k-le-guin-3464651Years ago, when I was attending yoga classes regularly, we would often ask our teachers for heart openers. Yoga poses crack open the heart. They let the heart not just spill open but widen and grow.

This may sound odd or strange, but the biggest heart opener I have experienced recently was the NCTE conference, otherwise known as the National Conference of English Teachers.

A CONFERENCE opened your heart, you say?

That’s right. I spent the whole weekend talking with my hand over my heart. I caught myself doing it more times than I can count.

My school district sent me and an amazing friend and colleague to Atlanta, Georgia. And I hope we make them proud with what we do with what we learned.

All weekend, we talked about the power of words. Words we read. Words we write. Words we speak. Words we hear.

We discussed how books can be windows and mirrors.  When books are like mirrors, we see our faces reflected back, and we might just realize something new about ourselves. And, when books are windows, we can look out, see the faces of others, and realize how our experiences, our meanings, and our souls diverge and converge with others. Then we don’t see ‘others.’ We see how we connect to other human beings.

Books can connect us in ways that are specific and unique and universal.

At this precise moment in our history, I believe it is more important than ever to put books in the hands of our children, to say, “This is good. Try it. Maybe you’ll like it.” It is more important than ever to seek those mirrors to lead to greater self-knowledge. It is more important than ever to remember to look out those windows and see how we are more alike than different.

I listened to a Palestinian author named Ibtisam Barakat discuss how Arabs invented numerals, how no one can pronounce her name and how few try, and how afraid she is right now. I listened to one of my son’s favorite authors, Jason Reynolds, talk about how he loves when his writing speaks to kids who never knew racism exists. He co-authored a beautiful novel called  All American Boys. An African-American teenager experiences extreme police brutality and almost dies. A white teenager witnesses it and is afraid to come forward and share the truth because the police officer had been like a brother to him. Their book is all about the struggle to do what is right after horrible wrongs have been committed. Their story is about so much more than that.

I am not a bold person by nature, but know that I totally chased Jason Reynolds down in a hotel and said, “This is one of my son’s favorite books!” He smiled wide, asked my son’s name, and then fist-pumped, “Go, George, GO!!!” I was star-struck.

Right now, and always, students who struggle sit in my classroom. Students who are depressed, anxious, worried, stressed. Students who are lonely, scared, angry, frustrated. Students who feel different. Students who don’t feel accepted or included or loved. Books can reach out to that dark, scary, strange part of ourselves. They show us who we are, and who we can become. They remind us  that there is hope beyond darkness. They bring us light if we allow it.

Since I’ve returned from my heart-opening conference, I’ve read parts of All American Boys to my seventh grade students during our study of stereotypes. I am trying to show them windows  as well as mirrors. We have all been affected by stereotypes-that’s the mirror. And we have all stereotyped. And some of us are affected by stereotypes in ways that we cannot always understand or comprehend. Until we hear their stories. I keep gently suggesting. Hey, let’s look through this window. Now, how about this one? What do you think? Why do you think that?

For three days in Atlanta, I was not doing yoga poses. I was listening. I was thinking. I was absorbing. I was learning, growing, changing. Molecules, I swear, were shifting. When I was asked how my conference was, the only word to encompass it was this one. Transformational. I got what I needed. One of the reasons I haven’t written about it yet is because I am still figuring out what to do, where to go next, how to change, and why it matters so much.

And I can’t stop thinking about how books change lives, how books save lives. Stories about people like us or unlike us not only open hearts but widen them. Sometimes we are lucky enough to experience our hearts being broken open and filling with precisely what we need. Sometimes we are ready to hear the message we already know, as loud and clear as music.

My heart has grown, and I am ready for change. Now I am reminded of what I have always known since the moment over forty years ago when I learned to read.

Words have power.






New beginnings

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For the first time in twenty years of teaching, my dear friend Kim is not teaching English by my side. This year, my childhood friend became our school librarian and turned a brand new corner.

Our mothers introduced us at the swimming pool more than forty years ago, and we quickly became close. Over twenty years ago, Kim and I moved to northwestern Montana on a whim, for lack of any better plan. We had both spent a summer living in or near Glacier National Park. After graduating from college in a slim job market back in 1991, we said, “Why not be ski bums for a winter in Whitefish?”

And we’re both still here, both married and raising our children in the Flathead Valley. We shared countless experiences outside of school, though that is a topic for a different day. Until this fall, we taught English together-the same junior high school, the same grade level.

During our first years of teaching, we would remind each other, “You do not have to sign your contract at the end of the school year.” We lived together and taught many of the same kids, and we’d decompress after a long, hectic day of teaching and spin out about all of the bat-shit crazy things which occur during a day of teaching hormonal eighth graders.

No matter how bizarre, crazy, heart wrenching, or exhausting our teaching jobs were, we chose it, and we could also choose to walk away in June. Neither of us did.

Kim and I collaborated for years. We could not even speak of school until August, and then, we would begin to throw ideas at each other. Six Traits. Peer evaluation. Parts of speech. Coats of Arms to hang in our classrooms. We didn’t always agree. I specifically recall our philosophical differences about the purpose of a writer’s notebook. The differences also made both of us better teachers. But the conversation underlying it, always, was, “How do I get the best out of my students? What did you do? Here’s what I did.”

Kim was itchy to move on after years of her media specialist program. I could tell. She would never ‘phone it in’ at her job, being one of the most dedicated and engaging teachers I know. But she needed change, and last spring, she joyfully embraced her opportunity to move on to a new challenge..

Now Kim is my sixth grade son’s librarian. She opens up the library every single morning so kids in our school have a safe, warm, beautiful place to gather. They can play chess or search for books, work on homework, or talk quietly with friends. Our library is filled with light. The mountains seem so close you could reach out and touch them. My son urges me every morning, “Can we please leave earlier?!” so that he can run into the library and begin his day.

Now Kim pops into my classroom to ‘drop off books,’ our euphemism for catching up. In the past, both of us were stressed out, frantically planning, thinking out loud. Now Kim is the perfect foil to my stress; years of rich experience and teaching wisdom accompany her newfound sense of perspective and calm. It is a different collaboration, but still, we move forward together, perhaps now on parallel paths.

Change is hard, and change is good. While I miss brainstorming with Kim about teaching strategies, or agonizing or sharing triumphs about our students, I also recognize all too well when it’s time to move on.

Now I recognize what a gift it was. Because of my decades of collaboration with Kim, I know how to share. I know how to listen. I know how to respect others’ ways of doing things and not take it personally. I know how to grow. I know how to trust. These are big gifts; I do not take them for granted.

I haven’t burned out yet. I’ve got a new crop of kids who keep me hopping, and I have a whole lot more to learn. In a few years, I may choose to mix it up and change job positions, or maybe it will get mixed up again for me, as it sometimes happens. I stay wide open to change and the movement it brings. The last thing anyone needs is a stuck teacher.

Now I can visit our library with its sky-high windows, with the peaks of Glacier and blue sky shining in, visit Kim, and visit a new life, a new way, a new road. We’ll keep on growing together, and I am lucky.

Lovers of Books

imagesBF2MJ5NJEver since I can remember, I have been a voracious, passionate reader. I walked around the house reading The Phantom Tollbooth. I read and reread series-Narnia, The Great Brain, Little House on the Prairie. I soaked in the language of a good story, and when it was a good story, I was always transported.


The same is true today. I need to have a big book pile on my nightstand, or a list of books I want to read, scribbled on a scrap piece of paper, or fourteen books on hold at the public library. And now I watch my kids read at the kitchen table, in the car on a seven minute drive to the neighboring town, and at soccer games instead of watching a sibling play. Our kindergartner learned to read this fall, and now she joins us.  We filled a laundry basket with books which she drags around the house, continually grabbing piles of Berenstain Bears, Pinkalicious, and Mo Willems. All three children, like me, are voracious, passionate readers of books, all with discerning and different tastes.

My mom let me read Jaws when I was seven. I didn’t understand a lot of it, and skimmed a lot of it, but even then I knew it meant freedom. I could handle it. I was trusted.FINAL_NG_PASSING_TIME_FREE_DIVE-HD_00_00_18_00_Still001_640x360_453950531970

When my kids started reading,  I caught myself wanting to ‘direct’ their reading to certain books. My mom (another lover of books, a former elementary school librarian) said, “Your reading life is your own.” I catch myself repeating her words frequently. When someone steps in and tells you what they think you should…  or shouldn’t… be reading, maybe, just maybe, it takes away a little bit of the transport, a little bit of the mystery, a little bit of the fun and the journey.

I am not talking about recommendations from friends or from librarians, which is different. And, as a parent, sometimes my kids reject suggestions because I am their parent. When I see what books my children are reading, I occasionally bite my tongue. Then I remember my mom’s wise words. Your reading life is your own, and I honor it. This reading life is also a hard-fought freedom.be-free_wallpapers_1008_1280x960

My middle daughter reads graphic novels over and over again. Sometimes I catch myself wishing she’d finally finish the Harry Potter series after ditching it at Book 3. Then, I tell myself, “Her reading life is her own.”

My oldest son, is plowing through Warriors books. To his credit, he knows to tell his writing teacher mother, “Mom, they are VERY well written.” It’s kind of like when you dread that your kids will ever be toilet-trained, and some parent with older kids reassures you, “Don’t worry. They won’t go to kindergarten wearing diapers!” I remind myself to honor where my children are, not where I want them to be or think they should be.

When you find your own book, when you sit down to read it, and you love it, the experience  resonates. You may forget the words, but you don’t forget the feeling you had reading that particular, specific combination of words. You carry it with you, and sometimes, it even changes you. It is empowering to discover a beloved book all by yourself or, sometimes, with a hint of guidance.

Perhaps luckily for my children, I am terrible about recommending books. For me, reading is such an independent, situational experience. Books I read in my twenties resonated for me in specific, momentous ways as I navigated life as a free, searching, single person, as a thirty-something mother of very young children who barely had time to read, and today in my forties, a mother of three. As a result, sometimes I read my book club books, and sometimes, I do not. Sometimes I read classics that I was supposed to read back in high school where I faked my way through a literary analysis. Sometimes excellent books sit on my nightstand table for months because it  didn’t suit my mood at a particular moment.

One of my  colleagues teaches Title Reading next door. One day, she ran into my classroom, beyond excited, because one of her kids found a book he loved and spent all weekend reading. We talked about how sad we were for people to go through life unable or unwilling to lose themselves in books. I keep thinking that one of the greatest gifts I can pass on to my children is a love of reading. It is one of my greatest joys.

My kids and I will continue to transport ourselves in many unforeseeable ways. I am grateful they’ve found reading to be one of the great pathways to freedom. free-hd-desktop-wallpaper-background

Time to grow!

Do you believe that you are born with your inherent intelligence? Have you ever backed down from a challenge? Have you ever made mistakes? Have you ever been afraid to fail or take a risk? Do you make excuses or blame others when things don’t go your way?

I’ve been thinking about these questions quite a bit lately, and I have been asking my students the same thing in connection with their learning. The growth mindset is one of those buzzwords that keeps cropping up all over the place for me. My cousin, a yoga instructor in California, even posted a Growth Mindset classroom bulletin on Facebook this week which was similar to the one below.

I’ve been teaching for a long time, and I’ve seen a lot of buzzwords. But the idea behind the growth mindset really fascinates me, so much that I took a six credit class about it last spring.  In a nutshell, the growth mindset means that you embrace challenge. You realize that mistakes are how you learn. You take risks, and sometimes, you fail. You take responsibility for your own mistakes and your failures, and you move on.  You celebrate other people’s successes instead of becoming jealous. And..it’s not always easy. That’s the point.

When Pete Carroll made that fated call during the Super Bowl last February, and the Seahawks lost to the Patriots during the last seconds of the game, he said that he thought about the game for a morning, and then he let it go. That’s right. One morning to mull over a crushing defeat viewed by billions. That is the growth mindset at work. You keep on moving. You keep on learning. You keep trying. And you realize that how smart you are comes from your hard work and your effort. When I mentioned this anecdote to a colleague of mine, she said, “I couldn’t even let go of the fact that my bike gear was broken for a whole day, let alone one morning!” It’s HARD to shift your thinking, right? But possible.

Carol Dweck, the author of the book

Mindset performed an experiment where she told some kids that they were smart-in other words, she praised their intelligence. Dweck told other kids that they were hard workers. She specifically praised their effort. Then, each group was given a puzzle to solve. Then they were given more difficult puzzles. When it came to solving the harder puzzle, guess who gave up first?

The kids who were praised for their intelligence.

When you tell someone that he or she is smart, it can sound like this. “Oh..I’m smart. That means I don’t have to work for it.”

This also includes athletes. When you tell someone how naturally talented they are, maybe then they think, “Oh..I’m so good at this. I don’t have to work as hard at it.”

So, at the beginning of the year, I gave my students a survey about the growth mindset. I taught them some language to use. We watched some videos about famous failures and one about LeBron James who asks us, “Do you think I was BORN this way? I worked for this my whole life.”

My students are also finding quotes about the growth mindset and coming up with a symbol to represent the quote in some way, and when we’re done, our quotes will hang from the ceiling in the classroom all year. I am teaching them strategies to face their challenges and keep pushing through. Tomorrow, I have some other things in mind for them, which I also may write about here.

And I am working on my own growth mindset. I keep thinking about where I start making excuses or where I am afraid to take risks. I keep thinking about challenges and walking into them rather than running away. I want my students to know that we are all  vulnerable. We struggle. We are human. But if we shut down and stay fixed, our learning shuts down, and this affects a whole lot more than our English grades.

I think about the growth mindset even more as a parent. I want my own children to get where they are going and know it is because they knew that mistakes and failure are  a huge and necessary part of learning, and that ‘smart’ will only get you so far.

No matter who you are, Mindset is a thought-provoking read, and it’s not just about learning.


Sinkholes and bright lights

Yesterday, I showed my advanced seventh graders a few pictures of sinkholes. In Tangerine, the novel we are reading, the main character’s middle school collapses from all the sinkholes, and the main character surprises himself by jumping into the action and saving a number of his classmates. By doing so, his self-concept changes from feeling like a freak to feeling like somebody, somebody who could be a hero.

Unfortunately, I have felt fragmented while teaching this novel. We’ve been taking the SBAC standardized test, and every Friday ten of my kids are gone for an all day track meet. So, it was delightful to take twenty minutes with all twenty-four kids and discuss what we’ve been reading.

I admit I have mixed feelings about literary analysis. Oh, I know how important it is. But too much analysis, in my opinion, can kill the book. Just enough can open us up to beauty, new ideas, connections, realizations. I’m always seeking that fine balance, but I’m a rookie. I have years to learn it.

One kid said, “This book is really easy.”

“Sure,” I countered. “My fourth grader read it over spring break. But pay close attention to what’s going on beneath the surface. He didn’t pick up on the layers. But you will.”

It occurred to me that these sinkholes mean something more. I’m not sure what, though I had some ideas. I threw the question to my class. “What do you think the sinkholes symbolize?” Symbolism drew many blank stares. Then they groaned when I read them the SpringBoard definition: the study of symbols. I came up with my own on the spot; I was punting. “Think of an object that means something deeper, that stands for something else.”

I had them think-pair-share with a partner for a few minutes, wondering in my head where this would go. Then, I called on kids randomly.

“A circle!” the smart aleck in the back popped off.

“Karma,” said another. “It’s like his conscience.”

“Communism!” said my conspiracy-theorist-minded boy who sits off by himself. We laughed, and he said, “No, listen…” and connected the dots for us, garnering a round of applause from the class.

“It means the empty hole in Paul ever since he lost his eyesight and how he feels like he can’t ever fill it back up.” That one got us, from my reader who hates writing. We all nodded and paused to ponder that one. Then, the responses kept growing, until we had a spectrum of options to think about as we continue reading.

As you can imagine, this discussion, and the next one that followed, made me happy. My students were driving the discussion, not me. I didn’t have an agenda. I just wanted them to start digging beneath the surface and see how this novel connects to itself, how it reveals more and more as we read it. They are starting to see.

These kids are bright lights. I love how I can throw them a question and watch them dig in. I love how they see things I don’t. And I love how hearing these different points of view makes all of us grow.


It’s all about the word count

This month, I have not been blogging much at all because I’ve been writing a novel. A NOVEL! I am trying to reach 50,000 words in one month. A teacher in my building has all of her eighth grade students participate in a project called NaNoWriMo, and I decided to try it on my own at home. It is challenging, especially because I decided to commit five days late. I constantly feel behind. At this point, I’ve written something like 14,000 words, and I think I’m ‘supposed’ to have written over 20,000 words. However, it’s okay. I never thought I could do it. I never thought I had enough ideas to sustain a novel. I couldn’t think of any characters or a plot or a setting that resonated for me.

I must admit I am starstruck by this process. It feels bigger than me. I love wrestling with characters and conflicts and seeing where it goes.  It’s also really, really hard. Every night, I think, I am way too tired to write. Then I think, “But I’m still 6,000 words behind!” and then I sit down and type another random chapter. In fact, right now, while I type this, I am thinking, frantically, “Write more while the kids are watching cartoons! I shouldn’t be blogging!” The word count keeps me going.

Here is another thing that keeps me going. When I began my novel (I do love to type those words), I remembered a book I bought spontaneously years ago. It has a lime green cover, and it has helped me immensely. It’s called Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction by Stephen Koch, who taught creative writing at Columbia University for many years. He is wise, understanding, compassionate, and encouraging. He also quotes fiction masters from Philip Roth to Tolstoy to J.K. Rowling, reminding us that we can learn from everyone.

He says that you don’t need to figure out your characters or your plot before you start writing. Just write. Start with a seed, a germ, or a faint glimmer of an idea. It’s how Toni Morrison, Thomas McGuane, Henry James, and Isabel Allende begin their books.

This particular idea comforted me tremendously. These master writers, winners of Nobel prizes, usually began their novels having no idea where they were going or where they’d end up or who was living in their novels or what the theme or the tone would be. They didn’t have a plot map or an outline. They discovered it all as they wrote.

In Chapter 1, Stephen Koch writes, “But”-you may say-“I don’t even know my story yet.” My answer is, “Of course you don’t know your story yet.” You are the very first person to tell this story ever, anywhere in the whole world, and you cannot know a story until it has been told. First you tell it; then you know it. It is not the other way around. Stories make themselves known, they reveal themselves-even to their tellers-only by being told. You may ask yourself how on earth you can tell a story before you know it. You do that by letting the emerging story tell itself through you. As you tell it, you let the story give you cues about where it is going to go next.”

Isabel Allende writes about this process, “By the time I’ve finished the first draft, I know what the book is about.  But not before.” This page made me immeasurably grateful, and it caught me at a moment where I thought I should just hang it up.

I am such an avid reader of fiction, and I keep telling myself, this is FUN! And it is, especially when I’ve given myself explicit permission to stumble around in the dark. All that matters right now is sitting down every day and doing the work.

I’ll blog more about the process later, but for now, I’ve got to keep upping my word count.