A Place for Wonder by Georgia Heard and Jennifer McDonough

I rarely read books, especially professional books, aimed at the primary grades.  I often read those aimed at grades 3-5, but kindergarten is a good ways away from my 6th graders (even though there are days when they don’t feel that far apart in age!)

However, I absolutely love Georgia Heard so I knew I wanted to read A Place for Wonder: Reading and Writing Nonfiction in the Primary Grades as soon as it was published. I use many of Heard’s ideas and resources in my poetry unit, so I knew her nonfiction ideas would be stellar. I was not wrong- this is a great book for any teacher interested in growing his/her students’s knowledge about writing nonfiction.

A Place for Wonder: Reading and Writing Nonfiction in the Primary Grades discusses how to create a “landscape of wonder” in your classroom by sharing activities and anecdotes from Heard and McDonough (a 1st grade teacher). While the activities are aimed at the primary grades I was thrilled by how much I found I could use with my 6th graders with minimal tweaking. Students of all ages need to be infected with passion and wonder! Specifically, I foresee using a lot of the activities as introduction and immersion activities when we begin our research unit. Students are always more enthusiastic when they are writing about something they feel passionate about and McDonough and Heard have developed some amazing ways of drawing those passions out of them!


*Review copy courtesy of the publisher

Webcast with Georgia Heard and Jennifer McDonough

Tomorrow evening Stenhouse will be hosting a live webcast with Georgia Heard and Jennifer McDonough – their new book is out and it’s called A Place for Wonder: Reading and Writing Nonfiction in the Primary Grades.  The book is available for preview in its entirety on our website.  I’m almost finished reading it and it’s wonderful!  The activities are geared toward the primary grades but can definitely be modified and used in the upper grades.  I am looking forward to using some of the activities in my classes this year.

The webcast is tomorrow, Oct. 26, at 8 p.m. EST. All participants need is a phone and a computer – no special equipment of software. You can direct all inquiries to Zsofia: zmcmullin@stenhouse.com

If you are interested, send Zsofia and email by tomorrow morning!

Poetry Unit of Study 2009

My favorite unit of study during the year is our poetry unit.  We read and explore poetry all year, using a variety of resources (especially Nancie Atwell’s Naming the World: A Year of Poems and Lessons) so that my students are familiar with poetry and not as wary of it as they might be. However, I still leave the unit until rather late in the year because I know that we need to be close as a class and community in order to open up our hearts and minds when sharing our own poems. I don’t think I would get the same results earlier in the year.  

I began the unit this week with an exploration of the genre, which is my normal protocol when beginning a new unit o study in writing.  My students had two days to complete poetry centers, which allowed them to read through poetry anthologies and picture books, listen to poems read by their authors, crack open words, illustrate their poems, and more.  I think it went really well this year!

Here are the centers I used, with huge thanks to Georgia Heard and her amazing book Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School (my poetry bible- if you don’t have a copy, get one ASAP!) :


Using the centers as an exploration of poetry really allowed my students to delve into poetry as a genre by reading poems and playing with language.  They enjoyed themselves and were surrounded by amazing words and authors for two full days.  I also gave them a packet of poetry that I put together, with poems by “cool” authors that they already know and love and new poets that I knew they would like; Walter Dean Myers, Valerie Worth, Jack Prelutsky,  Naomi Shihab Nye, J. Patrick Lewis, Douglas Florian, Nikki Giovanni, and many more.  The kids are always amazed to find out that “poets still exist today” because all too often they think of poetry as a genre that has come and gone, a genre that isn’t still written today.

After spending two days exploring poetry, we began to dig into our own lives and write as poets.  I teach poetry using Georgia Heard’s doors of poetry and it has always been a success for me.  This week we started with the heart door (or the feelings door, as my kids refer to it).  Without a doubt, the day we begin our heart poems is one I always treasure.  Without fail, I end in the class in tears, with at least 2-3 students also crying.

The heart door allows us to write poems about what is true in our lives- feelings like grief, sorrow, happiness, stress, anxiety, love, etc.  I begin by sharing poems written by my former students and talking to my current kids about what poetry looks like in our writer’s notebooks.  I assure them that it’s ok to write their poems in a more paragraph-like form, because line breaks, spacing, and punctuation will be dealt with in our revision stage.  At this point, I tell them, I just want them to get comfortable getting their ideas down on paper.  I also let them know that they will never have to share these if they are too personal, but not to be afraid of writing a sad poem or an anxious one.  Poetry can be an excellent way to work through feelings they might not be comfortable sharing with their parents or their friends.  

Some students always begin writing immediately.  Others take a little longer.  Those who are stuck might start with a list of events they could write about or they may go back to their heart maps from the beginning of the year. Within 10 minutes I usually have everyone writing.  And I allow students to share as they finish, because I tell them that hearing their classmate’s read their poems might inspire other poets in the classroom. 

This year’s heart poems were absolutely phenomenal.  I was so proud of my students because they truly opened their hearts and poured their feelings onto the page.  One student wrote a powerful poem about her step-sister’s death earlier in the year.  She shared it with the class because she told me she wanted them to understand why she had been so quiet this year.  She asked me to read it for her, because she wouldn’t be able to get through it- my heart broke.  I was barely able to read the words aloud.  But when she shared her words and her feelings, my class drew around her like a huge hug, embracing her as a family would.  After she shared, another student tentatively raised her hand and said, “Miss M., I was afraid to write a poem about my Poppy because I thought it would make me cry.  But when  A. shared her poem I saw how brave she was.  I’m going to write about my Poppy now, because she inspired me and showed me it’s ok to cry when I write”.  At this point, my heart just shattered.  These sixth-graders have become so mature in the last few months and I am so proud of them that I could just burst!

Lest you think that only my girls were working hard at becoming poets, let me tell you about my second class.  As I was explaining the heart door, I saw one of the popular, cool boys in my class with his head over his notebook, pen moving furiously across the page.  Within minutes of setting the class loose, he raised his hand and asked if he could share the two poems he wrote.  “Of course”,  I said.  Well, those two poems were some of the most emotion-laden poems I have ever heard in my classroom.  Dedicated to his grandfather who passed away a few months ago, this young man bared his heart and soul to his classmates, showing them the empty space still in his life and the ache in his heart everyday.  He read the poem with flushed face, tears in his eyes, and his voice wavering.  When he finished, he walked over to the tissue box and took a few minutes to compose himself while his classmates slowly went back to writing.  You could hear a pin drop in the room.  And I have never been prouder.


Busy as a Bee

It’s been a crazy last 36 hours and the insanity continues for the rest of this week.  I am loving the constant NCTE updates from those attending and can not wait to go to Philly for the convention next year!  Right now I am exhausted but just want to share some news I have gathered from the blogosphere today:


Franki shares the news of a new Georgia Heard poetry book!  I need this yesterday!  Georgia Heard is one of my mentor writers and I can not wait to get my hands on this one. 

-Love Meg Cabot?  Well, for the next 30 days you can read The Princess Diaries online!

Rough time

It’s been a rough few days, but today was my vacation from reality.  My girlfriends and I woke up at 5am, met up, drove to the train station, and raced to New York for a taping of “Live With Regis and Kelly”!  It was a great day and so much fun.  Definitely just what I needed.  Of course, tomorrow it is back to reality.

I spent the rest of my day planning for this week.  My students are beginning to work on the revisions for their poems and this week I am assigning their multi-genre poetry anthology.  Of course, that means making my own model.  I’ve spent a lot of time working on it and I hope it inspires my students without inhibiting them.  Sometimes it seems like models give them a template to use and they never vary from it.  I am going to try and encourage them to be creative and only use my model as just that- a model.

Only four days this week, thankfully.  It’s nice to think tomorrow is already Tuesday!

TCRWP Saturday Reunion

At 5:40am this morning, I was out the door and headed towards school, where I would drop off my car, meet up with some friends, and head to the train station. By 6:35am I was on a northbound train headed to Penn Station. By 8:00am I was inside Riverside Church on Riverside Dr. in NYC. After years of trying to attend, I was finally at Teacher’s College Saturday Reunion.

When my colleagues and I arrived, we picked up our schedules and began scanning the multitude of workshops being offered. Within moments I announced I would be eating my brown bag lunch on the run and attending all four sessions. My colleagues quickly agreed. How could I possibly choose to give up a session for something as silly as lunch?! As I read the descriptions of the many sessions being offered, I was circling possibilities left and right. How on earth would I ever decide which workshops to attend?

Eventually, I made my choices. In the meantime, we made our way to the main chapel to hear the keynote speaker. Tomie dePaolo (author of over 200 books, including Strega Nona), renowned and award-winning author/illustrator gave a rousing talk entitled “No Teacher Left Behind”. He was a brilliant speaker and had the packed church in stitches. He shared many tales of his childhood and the importance that reading and writing held in it. He is also a strong supporter of teachers. He told us that his personal book sales have decreased 50% since the inception of No Child Left Behind. He and his agent attribute this to the huge number of teachers and school districts which can no longer purchase and use his books because they must focus on “the test”. It was a staggering statistic and I would be very interested in hearing if other authors have experienced a similar drop in sales.

After dePaolo’s speech, I made my way to my first session. I was very excited to finally hear Mary Ehrenworth (om/gp/product/0325006881?ie=UTF8&tag=thereazon-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0325006881″>The Power of Grammar: Unconventional Approaches to the Conventions of Language) speak, as she heads the middle school aspects of the Project. She gave a great presentation on working with stronger readers, the ones who are usually left on their own in workshop. She shared some great picture books to use in small groups that allow students to stretch their thinking above and beyond the literal. I ended up with a great list of picture books and plan to order one immediately, for our Holocaust unit.

More importantly, Ehrenworth told the group that we can not expect our students to be readers if we are not readers ourselves. We must share books with them, carry books around, even tell them, “I’m sorry, I didn’t even get to finish planning my lesson last night- I was reading this phenomenal book!” You will teach them more with that non-lesson that you would with any mini-lesson. She also shared a great analogy, courtesy of Lester Laminack. Ask any middle schooler what they can’t wait to do, and invariably you will hear “drive”. We don’t teach them this desire- there are no minilessons, no group discussions, no direct instruction on why driving is great. Instead, their experiences with cars and in cars have made this a natural desire. We need to make reading just as natural a desire. They should want to read, they should desire to read. I can’t wait to share that analogy with some of my colleagues!

My next session with with the famous Lucy Calkins (The Art of Teaching Reading, The Art of Teaching Writing). Her session was standing room only and it was like being in the presence of a celebrity. While she didn’t teach as much as motivate, she was extremely inspiring. She shared some sample writing with us and I still managed to learn a lot.

The third session was one I was looking forward to because it focused on grammar. A project leader (whose name escapes me right now) took us through a typical week of grammar instruction in the middle school she coaches. It was a great marriage of direct instruction and inquiry, and a model I think my district would be satisfied with me pursuing. She also told us that we shouldn’t spend more time planning our grammar lessons that we actually spend teaching grammar. So if we teach 20 minutes of direct instruction grammar during word study, then don’t plan for 3 hours. I took lots of notes in that session and walked out with a booklist of books I must buy! Already I am planning to get Constance Weaver’s The Grammar Plan Book: A Guide to Smart Teaching and Don Killgallon’s Grammar for Middle School: A Sentence-Composing Approach–A Student Worktext. Has any used either of these? Or have a suggestion for where I could find them a little cheaper?

I was very excited for the last session. Georgia Heard shared her poetry unit of study with us and it was phenomenal! First of all, she was a lot younger than I expected (which surprised me, for some reason). It was so inspiring to hear her share her own experiences with poetry in the classroom. I also have a much better understanding of the doors to poetry that she discusses in Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School. I took copious notes in all the sessions, but especially hers, and can’t wait to go back and read them over to let them really sink in.

I swear, I was such a fangirl today. I could have stayed at TC all day, because I was finally in the presence of these men and women who have shaped so much of my teaching. They were practically celebrities to me. To hear my own beliefs and experiences in the classroom affirmed by the Project leaders and the other teachers attending the Reunion really strengthened my resolve to continue what I am doing. It was an invigorating, renewing, energizing day. I would go every month if they offered it! My next goal is to attend a summer institute at TC, as soon as I can afford it (our district doesn’t pay for it). If 5 hours taught me this much today, I can’t imagine what a week would do! I would just need a little more sleep. Getting up at 5am killed me today!!

Oh, and I finally experienced a document camera/ELMO for the first time today. How do I get one in my classroom?! It was amazing! I could already name a million ways I would use it in my classroom!!!


I am sitting here, trying to plan for April. In reading workshop we will be studying the Holocaust and reading Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic.  I began reviewing my great big binder this weekend and I have a rough sketch of my unit.  I plan to spend spring break finalizing my plans and gathering up any more materials that I might need.  I feel confident and this is one of my favorite units to teach. It is also one of the most important, I feel.

In writing workshop, I am planning to study poetry. I have been reading Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School by Georgia Heard and getting some great ideas.  Right now, I am struggling to find a way to start.  I want to really pull my kids in, start with a bang.  I know that my first lesson can make or break te unit because they have a lot of preconceived notions about poetry.  Thankfully, we do a monthly poetry museum where they bring in a poem of their choice and share it with the class.  But of course, I know they won’t make the connection between that and the genre study on poetry.

I am putting a call out to the educational blogosphere- D=does anyone have a great way to begin a unit on poetry?  Or any recommendations on other professional resources?  My biggest problem is finding something grade appropriate.  A lot of the poetry lessons and resources I find are aimed at K-3.  I am interested in 6-8, if at all possible.