New from Jeff Anderson

Jeff Anderson, author of Stenhouse titles Mechanically Inclined and Everyday Editing, has a new book out! Jeff has been a mentor and friend for many years, and I was lucky enough to read the galleys of his new book last summer. Jeff is one of those gifted writers and teachers who can make us think without making us feel guilty. He provides practical advice framed in brain research and the thinking of philosophers, poets, and physicists.

Here is an excerpt from the chapter “Motion” from Jeff’s Ten Things Every Writer Needs to Know:

How many times have you avoided writing something as a student or a professional? How many times did you fret, suffer, wait, avoid? Then, when you finally began writing, something akin to hitting the first domino happened – the rest of the dominoes toppled. Sweet freedom. Whenever the dominoes stop falling, we simply have to tip the next domino to begin again…

I don’t want students to suffer alone with page fright…


Jeff made me think about writing as movement when I first read this chapter. Moving sounds so much less daunting than “drafting” or “crafting”. If we can help our students just move the pencil across the page or move their hands across a keyboard, then we have set them up for success. Once they are willing to move, they will no longer fear writing.

Thanks, Jeff, for another wonderful book!

You can order Jeff’s new book here:

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A Tribute to Knucklehead

Jon Scieszka, author of the  The True Story of the Three Little Pigs and The Stinky Cheese Man has a wonderful series of memoir-ish pieces collected in his book Knucklehead. One of my favorite genres to teach in intermediate grades is the personal essay. Jon provides many examples of essays and personal narratives here, including a tribute to his father. Each piece is short (thank you Jon!) and very approachable – perfect for studying as mentor texts.

Here is the lead to one of the funniest stories in the book, “Watch Your Brothers”:

That’s what my mom used to tell me and Jim – “Watch your brothers.”

So we did.

We watched Jeff roll off the couch.

We watched Brian dig in the plants and eat the dirt.

We watched Gregg lift up the lid on the toilet and splash around in the water.


And here is the ending of the essay/tribute to Jon’s father:

But the best thing my dad taught us was how to treat kids with respect. He did this by listening to us. He would listen to our crazy stories, our lame jokes, our wildest ideas. He would listen to every side of any argument.

And I’m sure that’s why my brother Brian and I both became teachers. We learned from our dad that kids have something to say, and that they will say it… if you are willing to listen.


How lucky were Jon Scieszka’s students? I am sure they learned and laughed every day…


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Listen, laugh, and beware of the angry goat

I met VaShawn last August in my friend Jan’s fifth grade class. During a personal narrative unit, he couldn’t wait to tell his story of a visit to a petting zoo where he encountered an angry goat that butted him from behind. VaShawn knows storytelling is all about the delivery: his description of lying on the ground, seeing “the light”, and coming back to life had the entire class laughing. He ended the story with the perfect punchline: he slapped the goat.

My first conference with VaShawn was mostly about him retelling the story and clarifying what happened, scene by scene. He sketched a quick storyboard during that initial writing time, but the next day he was a bit resistant to actually put words on the page. He wrote a few sentences to begin the story, and then seemed to lose interest.

As the year progressed, VaShawn built both his confidence and his writing ability. His writing notebook grew, and he couldn’t wait to share his writing with the class every day. When I stopped by yesterday, he wanted to share the goat story one more time to show me how he had revised it on his own. VaShawn is still, and will always be, a gifted storyteller, and now his stories live on the page for all to see.

VaShawn helped me remember a few things about conferring with students:

  • Listen
  • Laugh when the story is funny
  • Encourage students to translate their voices to the page

and VaShawn also had some extra advice:

  • Stay away from the goats at a petting zoo

Thanks, VaShawn, and all the students in Jan’s class, for what you taught me this year. Have a great summer!

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Reading, Writing, Inquiry, and English Language Learners

I was lucky enough this past week to visit a first grade classroom in my district. Students and teachers are winding down the year, but they are still learning and investigating every day, especially in science. I watched as students wrote about their favorite things about first grade, and in every instance, science played a key role. One girl wrote a small, 12 page book about how much she loved studying pebbles, sand, and silt. Another student wrote many pages about insects. Once again, I am reminded that students learn best when they are learning about something.

My visit reminded me of the wonderful book Ladybugs, Tornadoes, and Swirling Galaxies by Brad Buhrow and Anne Upczak Garcia. Brad and Anne work with English Language Learners in Boulder Valley School District. The book provides insights into how all students – including langauge learners – benefit from an inquiry-based reading and writing classroom. I love this book because Brad and Anne look at students and see possibilities. They foster the wonder all students view the world with when they enter our classrooms. Rather than seeing students who do not speak English fluently, they see students who are ready to explore, to dive in and learn about their world.

Just like the first graders I recently visited in my own district, students are eager to learn, and to share what they have learned with their peers and their teachers. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to focus on content while embracing literacy. Kids love to learn about “stuff”, so why not encourage this?

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Words that cast shadows

I am reading a lot of poetry and poetry handbooks these days to prepare for my  new course that begins Tuesday night.

My most recent handbook is Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook. The book is full of practical, down-to-earth advice about the importance of practice and the need to mimic poems you admire if you want to improve your craft. A section in the chapter on diction, tone and voice resonated with me.

She describes informational language in this way:

It is the language one would use if one were writing a paragraph on how to operate a can opener. It is a language that means to be crisp and accurate. Its words are exact. They do not ever desire to throw two shadows. The language is cold. It does not reach for any territory beyond the functional.

Oliver does not believe informational language should ever find its way into a poem. I love her reasoning here: words must cast more than one shadow to be in a poem. In the section on reading poetry, she speaks of the importance of reading a poem more than once, and in this one brief sentence about words casting shadows, I understand now why poems deserve a second reading.

Not because we must analyze them and tear them apart.

Not because all poems are so difficult to understand.

We should read poems more than once because in poems, words cast more than one shadow. The word choice in a poem is so important because even when we use straightforward nouns (as in the famous poem “The Red Wheelbarrow”  by William Carlos Williams), the arrangement of words makes us read again, to dwell on the images, to consider the meaning, to see the shadows left by the words on the page.

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Building trust

I just received my latest title from ASCD: Teaching Boys Who Struggle in School.  I have read many articles and books about teaching boys in my career, but this book has a slightly different take: Kathleen Palmer Cleveland wants to make sure that teachers do not view all  boys in the same way: some boys are high achievers, and some struggle. They deserve to be treated as individuals.

I have barely begun reading the book, but in a section on building trust, I found this wonderful quote by e. e. cummings:

We do not believe in ourselves until someone reveals deep inside us that something is valuable, worth listening to, worthy of our trust… Once we believe in ourselves we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight or any experience that reveals the human spirit.

I always thought of e. e. cummings as a poet, but clearly he has also commented powerfully on the human condition, and in so doing has given teachers great advice. This quote reminded me of the joy I witnessed in several second grade classrooms I worked with recently at an elementary school in my district. The students were creating multi-page expert reports, and we let them choose any topic. So, we had projects on World Federation Wrestling, volcanoes, penguins, baking cakes, cell phones, jumping rope, dancing, and, of course, Justin Bieber.

The teachers and I noticed that many boys who were often not engaged in the writing process earlier in the year loved being treated like experts. We learned so much about them because they were teaching us. And, the topics varied so widely, even among the boys: a boy wrote the wrestling project mentioned in the list above, but another boy wrote about how much he knew about his  mother. One of his pieces was a How To, and it was titled How to Help Your Mom Clean.

The project gave us an opportunity to get to know all of our students better, and we definitely built trusting relationships because our students saw that we wanted to know about what was important to them. Next year, this second grade team decided to work on expert projects in the fall so that students will build energy around writing more quickly. When I read in Cleveland’s book that building trust is essential for struggling boys, I immediately thought about how this is exactly what happened during the expert projects – we built trust.

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Word after word after word

Why did I think I could ever walk into The Bookies, my favorite bookstore, without buying something new? Yesterday I was minding my own business, picking up Jeff Anderson’s wonderful grammar-in-context title Mechanically Inclined for a group of teachers in my district, when Shelly, a book buyer for The Bookies, handed me Patricia MacLachlan’s latest title, Word After Word After Word.

“Here,” she said. “You need to read this. You’ll love it.”

MacLachlan’s beautiful prose fills this small book. It tells the story of a “real life” author (based on MacLachlan herself) who visits a fourth grade classroom and helps students to learn the power of words. In the beginning of the book, a boy asks the author why she writes. Here is her response:

“I, myself, write to change my life, to make it come out the way I want it to. But other people write for other reasons: to see more closely what it is they are thinking about, what they may be afraid of. Sometimes writers write to solve a problem, to answer their own question. All of these reasons are good reasons. And that is the most important thing I’ll ever tell you. Maybe it is the most important thing you’ll ever hear. Ever.”

The fourth graders go out to find their own reasons for writing. And in the process, they realize the author is right.

And Patricia MacLachlan is right.

And Shelly at The Bookies is right:

I needed to read this book.



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