Parent-Teacher Conferences

We had Parent-Teacher Conferences this week and they went well.  But the most amazing part?  99% of my parents told me that their children have never enjoyed reading as much as they are this year!  How awesome is that?  One parent even asked me to talk to her daughter, because she is refusing to do her homework.  Instead, she is reading Twilight.  Her mom didn’t know what to do, because she wants her to read but she also has to do her homework. Haha!  I did speak to her daughter today, and I think we straightened her out.  But how awesome is that?!


My So-Called Family by Courtney Sheinmel

Leah isn’t your average kid.  Well, sorta.  See, she has a mom, a step-dad, and a little (half) brother.  Pretty normal, right?  What Leah doesn’t have is a Dad, of the biological variety.  You see, her mom used a donor to have her.  Donor 730, to be exact.  While Leah has always been ok with this, it has made her the victim of ridicule in school when her classmates don’t understand her family dynamic.  And sometimes she does feel like she isn’t really a part of her family at home.  Due to a number of things going on in her (like moving to a new state, getting her period, making new friends, and struggling with her identity), she decides to seek out her donor siblings.

The problem is, Leah’s mom thinks that she already has all the family she needs.  

My So-Called Family is an interesting look at a family that many kids may not consider in their daily lives.  While sperm donors are fairly common, I don’t think many kids are aware that there are kids out there who have come from those donors.  Leah’s journey in this books allows her and the reader to address many ideas of “family” that they might never consider otherwise.  

Sheinmel captures the voice of an unsure 13-year old very well.  Leah doesn’t know who she is yet, and convinces herself that finding her donor siblings will solve all her problems.  But just as that is rarely the case in real life, she learns that there is a lot more to happiness than knowing your biological siblings.



*The opinions expressed here are my own, and do not represent the opinion of the Cybils panel as a whole. 

Six Innings by James Preller

Baseball.  America’s Pastime.  My pastime?  Not so much.  Granted, I have been watching the World Series this week (go Phillies!) and I grew up with a grandmother who is the world’s biggest Mets fan, so baseball has always been a part of my life.  It’s just that it usually served as background noise.  Honestly, I find baseball to be boring.  (I know, I know!).  Give me soccer or basketball any day of the week.  Even football!  I like my sports to be fast, exciting, and team-oriented.  So when I saw that James Preller’s Six Innings was nominated for a Cybil Award, I was afraid I would have a hard time getting through it.  Luckily, nothing could be farther from the truth!

It’s the championship game between Earl Grubb’s Pool Supplies and Northeast Gas & Electric.  The game means something different to each player, but it’s equally important to them all.  Two teams, six innings, one championship.  The boys are between the ages of 11 and 13 and this is the biggest game of their lives.  For some, it’s only the beginning of a career that they hope will end in the majors.  For others, it’s the final game they will play.  Next year, many will move to the Babe Ruth league.  Each year, fewer and fewer boys will play.  This game is the biggest game of their lives.  

Six Innings is told inning by inning, from the viewpoint of different players.  Pitchers, catchers, center fielders- we view the game through their eyes.  Benchwarmers and stars alike, each player is a vital part of the game and story.  Even the announcer, a boy who played on one of the championship game teams until only a few months before, tells the story from his vantage point.  

This is a quick read, and the fact that it all takes place within a single baseball game makes it even more exciting.  While I am not a baseball fan, and sometimes was confused by the overwhelming amount of baseball terminology, it didn’t lessen my enjoyment of the story.  This is a story that baseball fans, especially boys, will flock to.  The game is described in detail, which may turn off some non-sports fans, but you can tell that James Preller poured his own passion for baseball into the story.  I am looking forward to introducing it into my classroom library because many of my boys play Little League and I know they will connect with this story.  However, this is also a story about friendship, family, and the pressures that kids deal with.  I can see some of my girls connecting to these aspects of the book and also enjoying the story.  


*The opinions expressed here are my own, and do not represent the opinion of the Cybils panel as a whole. 

TC Saturday Reunion- Morning Keynote Speaker James Howe

On Saturday, October 25th, I attended the 75th Saturday Reunion at Teachers College- Columbia University.  The morning keynote was given by James Howe, the author of more than 70 novels, including The Misfits, Bunnicula: A Rabbit-Tale of Mystery, 13: Thirteen Stories That Capture the Agony and Ecstasy of Being Thirteen, Pinky & Rex, and much more.  

Howe’s keynote was titled, “Write From the Heart” and was inspirational.  Howe was funny, touching, and relevant.  One of my favorite quotes was,

…to write from the heart is to open the doors of possibility in you and the reader…

Wow!  What a fantastic way to introduce writing to our students!  We write for our reader and we write for ourselves.  What we write opens new doors for us and for them.  When Howe shared these words I was immediately struck by them.  I plan to share this with my students tomorrow, along with bringing them up again when we work on the heart door (a la Georgia Heard) in our poetry unit.  

My notes from the keynote jump around, so please excuse the stream-of-consciousness aspect of this entry.  I want to try and share everything!

Points Made by James Howe:

  • children need teachers, teachers need teachers, writers need teachers
  • the publishing industry has become filled with concept books, tie-ins, celebrity books, rewritten best sellers.  Original, good literature for kids is becoming harder to get published.
  • if Howe could design the language arts curriculum for fourth grade, he would spend the year on poetry–> reading and writing it!
  • Jim Howe shared a poem that I plan to hang in my classroom tomorrow morning.  Short and powerful, Mary Oliver’s Instructions for Living a Life will become a mantra in my class.
Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.
  • Howe also shared one of his favorite poems, by Marie Howe.  His reading brought tears to my eyes. (To read the entire poem, click here)
  • Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.
    And the Drano won't work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up
    waiting for the plumber I still haven't called. This is the everyday we spoke of.
    It's winter again: the sky's a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through
    the open living-room windows because the heat's on too high in here and I can't turn it off.
    For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,
    I've been thinking: This is what the living do.
    • Fantastic lead paragraph to show kids, one that really opens doors for the reader is from Barbara Park’s Mick Harte Was Here (by the way, love the new cover!)
    • first sentences/paragraphs are doors to the world
    James Howe said many other wonderful things, but I started to listen more and write less at this point.  However, if you ever have the opportunity to see him, I highly recommend it!
    Stay tuned for notes from the sessions I attended later this week!

    Back from Teachers College

    I have been up since 5:20am, on two trains, in two taxis, and in 3 separate buildings at Columbia’s Teachers College.  The three sessions I attended today were awesome and I am brimming with new ideas!  However, I am also completely exhausted and barely even able to think straight.  Expect updates tomorrow!

    TC Reunion Saturday

    Tomorrow is one of my favorite days of the year.  I will be heading to NYC, very bright and very early, to attend Teacher’s College Saturday Reunion at Columbia.  From 9am-3pm I will be surrounded by like-minded teachers who are passionate about reading and writing workshop.  Anyone else heading into the city tomorrow for the workshops?

    Personal Essay Unit of Study

    Right now, we are working on personal essays in writing.  I am using the UOS Personal Essay (Calkins) book as my basic skeleton, tweaking where needed.  Today, my kids began drafting their thesis statements.  I am so impressed with the work they were doing!  Some of their ideas were just phenomenal!

    Some of the ideas so far:

    • Many families today are complicated, but half-siblings, step-parents, and significant others are all real family to many kids.
    • The state should not be allowed to mandate the snacks permitted in school, especially for celebrations and birthdays.
    • Kids should be allowed to vote in the presidential election
    • School lunches should be healthier.
    • Older siblings are a pain in the butt.
    • Our school should offer movies at lunch time.
    It was amazing to watch my students really push their thinking this week.  At first, they struggled with their daily entries, complaining that they were really hard.  But once we did a lesson on pushing our thinking with conversation prompts, it was like the floodgates opened!  The thinking has gotten deeper and the ideas have just been astonishing.  
    Tomorrow we will take a break from our essays to work on some election ideas (thanks for the inspiration, Stacey!)  But I can’t want to get back into our essays next week and see where these first-draft theses lead!

    A few years ago I stumbled upon one of my favorite message boards- Scarlet Nation (Rutgers Sports).  I read the boards daily and feel like I have gotten to know John, the founder.  John is also a phenomenal teacher who blogs over at A Community of Learners.  He recently began a new venture that I suspect will become huge in he next few months.  As he describes it best, I will quote him:

    There are dozens – perhaps hundreds – of books that discuss the basic principals behind the reading workshop and other programs that stress the importance of independent reading. There are also many groups and individuals who charge a hefty fee to share their knowledge of the program.

    At the same time, there are thousands of teachers who are “in the trenches” with the reading workshop every day. Many have more practical knowledge than the authors who are writing texts and the staff developers who are delivering the high priced presentations. That is where comes in.Open Source Reading is an online community for anyone who teaches reading. The focus at this point are grades 3-8.

    our philosophy: Children make the most progress when they spend large blocks of time reading “just right” books and sharing their texts with others.

    our motto: Try it. Change it. Share it.

    The motto is at the core of the site. Open source materials (units of study, conferring sheets, graphic organizers) are free for you to download, customize and distribute. Consider the materials on this site to be a starting ground. All that we ask is that, if you use a reproducible page, please support the site and its users by…
    1) including a link to in the footer of any page that you use or customize
    2) email a copy of all customized pages to John so that he may put them back on the site to share with others

    Happy reading!

    A Community of Learners


    I’ve already signed up and explored the site.  It’s wonderful!  You should definitely check it out!

    What I Saw and How I Lied by by Judy Blundell

    A few weeks ago I opened a package from Scholastic that included a review copy of What I Saw And How I Lied by Judy Blundell.  I glanced it over and quickly put it on my “To Be Read” shelf.  (Sidenote:  Yes, shelf.  My pile has grown to an entire bookshelf).  While the cover was gorgeous, there was no blurb on the back.  It looked like a typical YA title so I figured I would read it when I had a chance, not thinking it was anything special.  Then, the National Book Award nominees were announced, and What I Saw And How I Lied was on the list.  I figured I would read it quickly over the weekend, as I had already read and loved 3 of the other 5 nominees. 

    Why did I wait so long to read this?!  And why have I not heard any buzz about Blundell’s stunning book yet?

    Evie and her mom have always been a team.  Her dad left them long ago, and they’ve been each other’s best friend ever since.  Shortly before World War II, Evie’s mother met Joe, a man who took care of them both.  Before he was shipped out, they were married and Evie got the father she had always imagined.  Times were tough during the war, and they were even tougher because Evie and her mom were forced to live with Joe’s mom, cranky Grandma Glad (a misnomer if Evie has ever heard one).  But when Joe Spooner returns from the war, it seems like everything has gone back to normal.  Sure, Joe doesn’t talk about the war.  But Evie and her mother do everything they can to be a great family for him.  And Joe is able to open up a chain of appliance stores in New York City, making more money than they ever imagined possible.

    Life seems perfect, until Joe starts receiving phone calls from a supposed war buddy.  When Joe begins acting strange and uncomfortable, he suggests the family take a vacation to Florida.  Even though school starts in only a few weeks, Evie is eager for some adventure.  What 15 year old isn’t?  So Evie, her mother, and Joe pack the car and head to Palm Beach.  Of course, no one has told them that Palm Beach is empty in the summer and won’t be full of life again until December!  But they manage to find an open hotel and book an open-ended stay.

    It’s the dream of a lifetime for Evie.  Sun, swimming, shopping, and no school!  The Spooners befriend another couple in the hotel, the Graysons, who take a special interest in Evie.  Mrs. Grayson takes a liking to Evie and enjoys dressing her up and convincing her parents to treat her as less of a child and more of an adult.  Evie begins to grow into herself, experimenting with her burgeoning womanhood.  Dresses, perfume, and her mother’s heels are suddenly more appealing than before.  

    Then Peter shows up at the hotel.  An old army buddy of Joe’s, he happens to be in Palm Beach taking care of some business deals for his father.  He’s young, handsome, worldly, and Evie falls in love immediately.  Very reluctantly, Joe allows Evie and her mother to spend time with Peter.  Falling deeper and deeper in love, Evie begins to learn that adulthood isn’t all sunshine and butterflies.  When Peter begins to share his experiences in the war with her, she learns that Joe isn’t the man she thought he was.  Suddenly, she questions her life and her family.  Does war excuse atrocious acts?  If her father made it home, is that good enough?  

    One night, during a terrible hurricane, everything takes a turn for the darker side.  Suddenly, Evie is surrounded by a murder, murder(s), and lies.  Who can she trust?  Is her mother 

    I hate to summarize the book, because Judy Blundell has woven an intricate story, full of dark twists and turns down paths you can’t even imagine.  There is murder, intrigue, a fascinating backdrop of World War II, racism, classism, and a classic (but dark) coming-of-age story.  To summarize more would give away too much of the plot and I would hate to ruin it for anyone.  

    Once I began reading, it immediately became clear why this is a National Book Award nominee.  It’s almost impossible to put this book down.  And along with a fascinating story, Judy Blundell has included accurate and fascinating historical details.  Yes, this is historical fiction that teens will want to read!  In fact, it’s the best kind of historical fiction- teens won’t even realize that it’s historical!  The setting is a vital part of the story, rather than an extraneous backdrop only good for history lessons.  

    Evie is a complicated teen that contemporary readers will identify with.  Her mother babies her and doesn’t want to see her grow up.  She just wants to be treated like an adult.  When she falls in love with a slightly older man, she finally feels like she has become the adult no one will let her be.  But is adulthood all it is cracked up to be?  And are the ties of a first love more binding than those of family?  And how do you choose?

    If you haven’t read this yet, get your hands on it right now!  You will not be able to put it down.  


    Nota Bene- When I googled Judy Blundell, I was shocked to find out she has published hundreds of books under pseudonyms.  She is Jude Watson of the Premonition books, a favorite of my students!  And even better, she will be writing the 4th book in The 39 Clues series!

    Beedle the Bard on Display!

    The Collector's Edition

    The Tales of Beedle the Bard (standard edition) will be released to the public at large on December 4th.  It goes without saying that my copy is already on pre-order.  Oh, how I wish I could afford this: The Tales of Beedle the Bard, Collector’s Edition (Offered Exclusively by Amazon)   However, I never imagined that I would get the opportunity to view one of the original books here in the United States.  But when I logged onto The Leaky Cauldron this afternoon, I was astonished to learn that one of the seven original manuscripts would be on display in New York City this winter!   

    one of the seven original handwritten copies of the book will be on display to the public here in New York City in December. Scholastic has announced that Arthur Levine, editor of the US editions of the Harry Potter novels, was one of the lucky people to receive a copy of this book from J.K. Rowling, and will lend his book for display at the The New York Public Library. Fans here in the States will be able to see the book for free when it is on display at the library December 4, 2008 to January 4, 2009

    courtesy of The Leaky Cauldron


    I know that I will definitely be making my way to the NYPL sometime during that month!  Also of note is that there will be a special press preview on December 3rd  “where Arthur Levine will be appearing, and ‘will share his experiences editing the series and the thrill of being one of only six individuals who received the special gift from Ms. Rowling.’ ”  Ummm, WOW!?  How amazing would that reception be?  


    So, will you make it a point to stop by and view the manuscript during December?