Bella & Bean by Rebecca Kai Dotlich

Back in April I was lucky enough to have coffee with Kathi Appelt, who was in the area for a school visit.  We had a great time talking about books, writing, and blogging.  Before parting ways, Kathi told me she had a book I absolutely must read.  She said she knew I would love Bella & Bean by Rebecca Kai Dotlich.  I wrote down the title and promised to look for it.  Of course, I promptly forgot about all of this in the chaos that is the end of the school year.

Last week I was at a district meeting and was thrilled when the supervisor pulled out Bella & Bean for a read-aloud!  Of course, I immediately remembered Kathi’s recommendation (and then felt bad for forgetting!).  After listening to the story, I was hooked.  Kathi was 100% right- I loved it!  I can not wait to share this book with my students this year.  

Bella and Bean are best friends.  Bella is a writer- a poet- always playing with words and concentrating on her writing.  She begins each day ready to sit at her window-side desk, writing about the beauty around her.  her best friend Bean is outgoing, fun, and hands-on.  She’s always trying to get Bella to put her writing aside to come and play by the pond.  All day long Bean pokes her head through the window of Bella’s house and tries to get her attention.  She shows Bella her new hat, shows off her “cute toes”, and tries to convince Bella to think of the word “Bean” if she is concentrating on words.  Bean is adorable and I wanted to run off with her!  The illustrations by Aileen Leijten are precious and you just want to dive into the book with Bean.

But Bella will not be distracted.  She even gets grumpy with Bean!


I don’t have time for hats, Bean,’ said Bella. ‘I’m writing new poems…I can’t think about rivers and moons when you are talking about hats,’ said Bella.”

Bella perseveres through the distractions and is rewarded- her poems are stunning!    

But what about Bean?  And their friendship?  I won’t spoil the ending for you because it is absolutely perfect.  I admit I couldn’t wait to find out what happened while we were being read to!  I will just tell you to get this book ASAP.

I can not wait to use this picture book in my 6th grade classroom this upcoming year.  There are so many ways I foresee using it.  Of course, it will be wonderful during our poetry unit.  Bella’s poems are not only wonderful but her methods and wordplay will inspire many students.  It will be a great mentor text for my 6th graders.  One of my favorite lines says, 

“The sky poured stars like sugar…”

How gorgeous is that?  I love it!  I can already see Bella inspiring many of my writers.  She certainly inspired me.

Bella & Bean is also a window into the writing process.  I think I will start our writing workshop this year with this book.  What a wonderful way to introduce my students to the workshop we will be a part of during the year.  

But the story is not just about writing.  It’s beautiful on so many levels.  It’s also about friendship and tolerance.  It’s about taking time to live life, not just watch it go by.  It’s about being disciplined but also having fun.  It’s about opposites attracting. Due to the multi-layered text, this book is perfect for kids of all ages, from preschool to high school.  In fact, the adults at my meeting all fell in love with it!  There is no age limit on this one.  And anyone who aspires to be a writer can’t help but be inspired by  Bella & Bean.  Be sure to pick this up for your classroom library!  And maybe even for your teacher library. 😉

The Braille Literacy Crisis in America

Earlier this week I received a press release from the National Federation of the Blind that I wanted to share.


An astounding 90 percent of blind people today are Braille illiterate. This would be viewed as a national outrage if the same crisis faced sighted individuals, and yet blind people continue to be deprived of the Braille education and resources they need to obtain jobs, pursue stimulating careers, and enjoy the same opportunities as sighted individuals. Further, Braille illiteracy is the leading contributor to a shocking 70 percent unemployment rate among 1.3 million blind Americans and it’s only going to get worse – 70,000 people are losing their sight each year.

To help fund Braille literacy programs, the NFB has teamed with the U.S. Mint to issue the first coin ever to feature readable Braille.  The Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollar will be launched this Thursday, March 26, 2009 at the NFB’s headquarters in Baltimore, MD, after which the coin will be available for purchase. 

Every coin sold will support Braille education nationwide and ensure that every blind American enjoys the same opportunities for success as sighted individuals. Note, only 400,000 coins will be minted and available for order at until December 31, 2009.

The National Federation of the Blind is also publishing a report to the nation, titled “THE BRAILLE LITERACY CRISIS IN AMERICA: Facing the Truth, Reversing the Trend, Empowering the Blind”.  The report, a comprehensive overview of the crisis and proposed solutions to reverse it, will be posted online on the launch day on March 26, at and

Why is there a Braille literacy crisis? 
As addressed in National Federation of the Blind’s just released “Braille Crisis in America – A Report to the Nation,” there are a number of factors that have led to Braille illiteracy in America, including:

    1. Negative attitudes and false beliefs that Braille is “slow,”  “unusual” and too complicated to learn
    2. Misguided notions that technological advances have become a viable substitute for Braille
    3. Limited access to quality instruction today
    4. Lack of standardized Braille teaching methods and credentialed instructors

What must be done to solve this crisis?                                                                                 

The NFB’s cutting edge research training center– the NFB Jernigan Institute– has launched a national Braille Literacy Campaign to double the number of school-age children reading Braille by 2015.

To help us achieve this goal and fund the campaign, we are partnering with the U.S. Mint to launch a coin with a special mission – the Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollar– available to everyone by the U.S. Mint starting March 26th in honor of the 200th birthday of Louis Braille. 

This stunning, one-of-a-kind collectible in 90% silver is the first U.S. coin in history to feature readable Braille, and marks a turning point for blind people of all ages. Money raised through the coin’s sale and matched dollar for dollar through other fundraising activities will support our Braille Literacy Campaign and literally change the future for tens of thousands of blind people.

How will the funds raised by the coin help blind Americans and increase Braille literacy? 
This Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollar symbolizes the most significant investment in literacy for the blind.  While pressure from consumers and advocacy groups has led thirty-three states to pass legislation mandating that children who are legally blind be given the opportunity to learn Braille, more can be done.

Through its sale we hope to raise upwards of $8 million to:

    • Increase access to Braille instruction and reading materials
    • Expand Braille mentoring, reading-readiness and outreach programs
    • Require national certification in literary Braille among all special education teachers
    • Advance the use of Braille in current and emerging technologies
    • Research new methods of teaching and learning Braille
    • Enact legislation in all 50 states requiring special education teachers of blind children to obtain and maintain the National Certification in Literary Braille by 2015.
    • Make Braille resources more available through online sharing of materials, enhanced production methods, and improved distribution.

Why should I care about the coin? 
Each of us has a right to literacy. Every purchase of this one-of-a-kind commemorative coin will help reverse Braille illiteracy and ensure that every blind American enjoys the same opportunities for success as sighted individuals. When the blind can read, the blind can achieve so much more.


Also, be sure to connect with NFB online: 




February Carnival of Children’s Literature

Be sure to set aside some time to check out the February Carnival of Children’s Literature this weekend.  Chock-full of great posts, you don’t want to miss this one!


In other news, I am sick. Again.  I have been sick for almost a month straight now.  Whatever is going around right now is awful.  Hoping I feel better tomorrow!


I am so excited about Operation Teen Book Drop 09!  Readergirlz just put up details about this years event.  What exactly is Operation TBD?  Operation Teen Book Drop is an amazing project that brings donations of thousands of fantastic YA titles to hospitalized teens all over the country.

We are delighted to be teaming up with GuysLitWire and YALSA for the second Operation Teen Book Drop! In honor of Support Teen Literature Day, April 16th, 2009, readergirlz, GuysLitWire, YALSA, and publishers are working together to donate YA books to hospitalized teens across the country.

Readergirlz is a teen online book community where members are challenged to read, reflect, and reach out. GuysLitWire  is a top book-review source for literature appealing to teen guys. YALSA is the world leader in selecting books, videos, and audiobooks for teens.

I think I want to get my classes involved in TBD this year.  It would be a great follow-up to our Valentine’s Day Hope Chests.  You should get involved, too!


Almost there…

I can not believe that we are already nearing the end of July.  I will be back at school in a month!  That just seems unbelievable.  Needless to say, I have been planning and preparing already.  Today I spent a lot of time on my new class website.

For the past few years I have bounced around between different services.  Last year I used the new service provided by the district but I wasn’t thrilled with it.  It wasn’t user-friendly, it was a pain to update, and parents had a hard time keeping up with it.  When I sat down to figure out what I wanted to do next year, I kept coming back to this blog.  I love the ease of of blog and the interactive aspects of it.  WordPress’ software allows me to design separate pages, upload handouts, offer subscription by email, and so much more.  But of course, I want to keep this blog separate from school.  That is when I discovered Edublogs.  I love this site!  I set up a blog a few days ago and have been playing with it ever since.   I have been writing welcome posts, designing pages, and otherwise tweaking it to my preferences.  The best part is, I know I haven’t even begun to touch on the capabilities of the blog as offered by Edublogs.  So if you are looking for a great place to keep your class website or blog, definitely check out Edublogs.

Crying in Class

Today I cried in class. No, not just cried- somewhere between crying and weeping you would find me. I was joined by many of my students (along with some who pretended they had a sudden onset of “allergies”)…

You see, we finished reading Marley: A Dog Like No Other. I had prepared myself, but I couldn’t control my tears. The worst part was that I had to read it twice, as I have two language arts classes.

It was a wonderful moment, as I sat in the front of the room- voice breaking, tears running down my face, listening to the sniffles growing louder around me. Hopefully, it showed my students that while we all enjoy the books that make us laugh and make us think, we can also enjoy books that make us cry.

After we finished, we spent a few minutes sharing dog stories with each other. Almost everyone had a story to tell and we learned a little more about each other. Books really do build community. 🙂

Oh, and I have a waiting list for my copy of Where the Red Fern Grows now. 🙂

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Do you use Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak in the classroom? If so, a teacher in Michigan needs your help! According to Halse Anderson, “This teacher could use some professional support. If you teach SPEAK, can you please leave a note in the comments section for her? Tell her why you use the book. Tell her about your classroom experiences and your professional opinion about the place of the book in the curriculum. Or just give her a pat on the back. If you are a teen, tell her what the book meant to you. “

Head on over to Laurie Halse Anderson’s blog to share your stories and inspiration with this teacher. Speak is an incredibly powerful book and deserves its place in our literary canon. Don’t let it be censored!

Scholastic Sale

Attention teachers! Be on the lookout for a Scholastic Warehouse sale near you. I know the NJ one is coming up in the next week or so (and I am volunteering as a cashier). There are sales all across the country, though, so check it out! The warehouse sales are a great way to build up your classroom library. Books are usually 50-80% off and there are many books for $2 and under. The sales are held a few times each year and I normally spend about $100 and am able to get over $300 worth of new books for that price. You will find books from the club flyers, book fairs, and even adult books. I will be sure to do a little Christmas shopping at the sale, too.

Also, Scholastic Dollar Days are here!!!! Check out the Scholastic website for over 700 items on sale for $1. The items include professional books, bulletin board sets, activity books, folders, and much, much more. I’ve already placed my order, and the items go quickly so get going!

A word of caution, you do need to be a teacher or homeschooler to take advantage of either of these offers.

Where I’m From

This summer, I learned about something called “Where I’m From” poems on the RealWritingTeachers yahoo group. I was intrigued and decided to give them a shot this year. The beginning of the school year is always chaotic because our team doesn’t switch classes until the second week (we are departmentalized) and we are constantly interrupted. I don’t like to jump into anything other than routines and procedures until we are past all that. I decided the poems would be a great way to introduce writing and get a nice Back to School Night display.

I was SHOCKED at how well this went. My 6th graders immediately dove into the project once I showed them the format and my own example. I tweaked a worksheet I found online to make it a fill-in-the-blank for the rough draft. After revising and peer editing, the students typed the pieces and decorated them. They are absolutely stunning. Plus, it was a great way to learn what is important to my students very early in the school year.

Now, to be brave, here is my poem (as an example).

Where I’m From
I am from books,
from Pepsi and the NY Post
I am from hills and grass
(green, soft and smelling like summer).
I am from the milkweed,
the hibiscus brought inside during winter
(an orange and pink sunset growing toward the sun no matter the season).

I’m from “taking a ride” and always being late,
From Jane and Tim.
I’m from the fast talkers and fast walkers,
From eating your crusts and haunted old roads.
I’m from Psalm 23, bagpipes playing hymns, and rosary beads.

I’m from Ireland and Scotland,
Grandmother macaroni and breakfast for dinner.
From the Little Grandfather, a professional football player who jumped
ship in the United Stateswhen sailing as a Merchant Marine,
from Nanny, following Papa around the country during his naval years, raising a son with a husband fighting in a great war.

I am from the photo albums and boxes of pictures in the upstairs closet, telling the stories of a loud, large, and loving family.
I am from dog-eared baby books and school pictures hung over the fireplace

I am from love.

Emma Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree by Lauren Tarshis

Emma Jean Lazarus is not your typical 7th grade girl. She is “strange” (dictionary definition: extraordinary, remarkable, singular) and proud of it. Emma Jean approaches her interactions with her peers as a cultural anthropology study. After years of study, she has learned how to interact with her classmates and the adults in her life. In fact, she thinks she knows them better than they know themselves. Throughout the novel, she is determined to help her classmates, her mother, and her teachers be happy and fulfilled. Unfortunately, her ideas usually involve forgery of some sort. As one can imagine, this has a tendency to backfire on her.

I finished this novel a few months ago. I usually don’t go back and review something after that time period because I have forgotten about it. However, Emma Jean (and Lauren Tarshis) left an impression on me. Tarshis captures the heart and soul of middle school in her novel. Emma Jean is strange. No one will deny that. However, her classmates have learned to tolerate her and even include her. While reading the novel, I pictured a few of my own students. I wish they appreciated being “strange” as much as Emma Jean does.

Emma isn’t the only great character in this novel. Colleen is a 7th grade girl. You know- insecure, sometimes sad, and always unsure of herself. One of my favorite passages could be used to describe almost every girl in my 6th grade room at some point during the year: “She wished she could recapture the feeling she’d had the other day at school, when for just a few moments she really didn’t care what Laura Gilroy thought of her. But that had lasted no longer than the flavor in a stick of sugarless bubble gum” . The boys in the book are also equally oblivious to the goings on around them as the boys I see everyday. I laugh, because they don’t even realize all of “girl world” is going on around them (and about them!) while they go about their daily business. Lauren Tarshis captures this perfectly. Even the adults are flawed and imperfect. Exactly what every middle-schooler sees in the adults in their own lives.

I would love to read this aloud to my students next year. It is not a long novel and I hope to fit it in. In fact, it is on my short list for novels to begin the year with. I believe in building community in my classroom and no other book I have read this year and struck that theme as greatly as Emma Jean Lazarus.