Tuesday, January 27, 2015


A few weeks back I wrote a book review of Tom Newkirk's Minds Made for Stories: How We Really Read Informational and Persuasive Text. It was favorably received. Some commented that they wished we could have a book club about it. I concurred, waiting for someone else to get the ball rolling. Turns out they were rightfully waiting for me. With a prod from Penny Kittle, I contacted Tom and arranged a Twitter chat for Thursday, February 12th at 7 pm.

Tom is a neophyte when it comes to Twitter as I am when it comes to hosting chats, but we're both willing to give it a go if you're willing to join in. Look for discussion questions posted here soon to whet your appetite. If you're a newbie to chats, you might want to follow one in the meanwhile to get a sense of how they work. They run throughout the week and on a variety of topics. I highly recommend #engchat for English teachers Monday at 7 pm and #titletalk to discuss books on the last Sunday night of each month.

I'll certainly participate in them with a keener eye. I'm grateful for the chance to lead this discussion and don't want to screw it up. I'm also inspired by the new learning. So thanks to all who helped to make that happen. If ever you're in doubt about whether you should go to the trouble to leave a comment on someone's post, wonder no longer. They are what propelled me to take this on.

See you on Thursday the 12th at 7 pm!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015


Last week I mentioned that despite my best efforts to banish thoughts of school in my pottery class, that exemplars wouldn't decamp from my consciousness. It's because there weren't any save the ones the instructor made in front of us to work from. She told us there were many different directions in which we could go, but without actual vases, plates, etc. in front of me - heck, pictures would have sufficed, I was stymied.

And because I write, I knew exactly what the problem was and how easily it could be fixed. I strive always to provide my students with models to emulate both by their peers and by me. To that end I've spent the past few days working to create exemplars for my students for some notebook work they'll do as means of refilling our writing topic reservoir for the second half of the year. Using ideas stolen from Penny Kittle's website, I created both a photo autobiography and an infographic to represent highlights from the past five years.

Here's a rough draft of my infographic in progress.

It's serendipity that I stumbled across Penny's tweet about her revamped website. We had just started examining infographics in class a few days before. Creating their own will both serve my students' future writing and their understanding of what makes infographics tick. Mine will probably change as I mull it over further.

What won't change is my insistence on attempting anything I ask of my students and my tendency to steal good ideas when I come across them. It hardly amounts to piracy on the high seas when I am sure to give credit where it belongs and when a teacher of teachers uploads them to her website. But I'll take it on the chin if that's what you want to accuse me of. I'm proud to fly this flag if it grows my students' literacy.

P.S. I just got back from class where we were shown some pictures of exemplars: a step in the right direction.

P.P.S. A few weeks back I wrote a review of Tom Newkirk's new book, Minds Made For Stories. There were a few calls for a fuller discussion of it. I 'm pleased to say that Tom's agreed to participate in a Twitterchat some time in February. Once we have a definite date, I'll let you know. If you've been meaning to read this book, move it to the top of your to-be-read pile and stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015


My first ever attempt at pottery tonight wasn't bad. The second not so much. That's okay. I'm taking the class to claim my One Little Word - relax. It's not easy for teachers to do. No matter how much time you've put in on any given day, there is always something else that needs your attention. When you're a teacher like me (and I suspect like you if you're reading this) whose profession is also her hobby, then relaxing is an even greater challenge.

And if you're like me, because you devote so much time to teaching, your kids do pretty well, and you want more of that. So it's hard to say that you plan to purposely avoid activities related to your craft for a certain number of hours each day. But once you've had a mini-stroke, it's a necessity if you want to continue teaching for many more days to come.

So that's what I'm doing. That my second attempt at a joined pinch pot resembled a potato for a long while troubled me not. Eventually, I transformed it into a trash can, causing a new friend sitting to my left to recall the lyrics to Oscar the Grouch's "I Love Trash" song. Topics of conversation while we wrestled with our clay included  marital status, occupation, hometowns, and  the virtues of men in kilts (long story).

It worked. For three hours, the essays that sat waiting for me didn't cross my mind.  (Though the concept of revision is too deeply ingrained in me to be ignored. Exemplars and authentic audiences ran through my mind too. Baby steps.) And that's enough for now. Increased exercise and listening to meditation podcasts will help as well. Maybe then I won't have so much in common with Oscar. It turns out that clay isn't the only thing that's malleable.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Brenda's One Little Word

I haven't posted for awhile. I haven't been "inspired". I've been a bit of a curmudgeon if you want the truth. Teaching has never felt harder, or busier, or more overwhelming than it has felt during the months of September, October, November, and December. Just when I thought I could get a handle on it - BAM! - new initiative, new test to administer, new state regulations for administering said test, new...you can fill in the rest. It just put me on overload, and I felt defeated and deflated.

2015 dawned, and after a much appreciated break, I decided that I could not continue blogging if all I was going to do was rant, complain, and whine. It really is not who I am - nor who I want to be. So I have chosen my word for 2015

Joy. Seems simple enough. But, what steps could I take to become a more joyful person, joyful teacher, joyful colleague, joyful friend - even with the realities we all face as public school teachers? Here's a few I've decided to try.

  • dance more, especially with my students. (Today we enjoyed a little "Shake It Off" moment.)
  • laugh with my students.
  • do anonymous random acts of kindness for colleagues.
  • celebrate the successes when they happen, and don't linger in the negatives.Move on!
  • place a note in each child's homework book, one a day. See what happens.  
  • learn something new.
  • write about the joys of teaching.
Here's to a JOYFUL 2015!

Resolve to read this book: a review of Minds Made For Stories

It’s not often that I read aloud to my husband from “teacher” books, but I found myself doing so from Tom Newkirk’s latest work as often as I was from Steven Johnson’s How We Got To Now on our recent road trip to Cleveland. The former, Minds Made For Stories: How We Really Read and Write Informational and Persuasive Texts, knocked me out with its treasure trove of facts (not all related to writing) just as much as the latter did.

But it wasn’t just the excerpts that Newkirk included from disparate pieces on everything from cancer research to corn sex – look it up; it’s not what you think - that impressed me. Instead it was how Newkirk used them to build his argument that narrative shouldn’t be divorced from the other modes of discourse.

With chapters like “Itch and Scratch: How Form Really Works” and “Numbers That Tell a Story”, Newkirk’s work is not intended just for English teachers. He wants all of us to stop assigning the five paragraph essay with its preformulated thesis statement and return to Montaigne’s original conception of an essay as a means of trying out a thought or as Newkirk puts it “scratching an itch.”

Newkirk acknowledges the work of three writers who’ve influenced his thinking. The first two will come as no surprise to readers of his previous texts: Peter Elbow and Donald Murray. The third is Daniel Kahneman, whose book Thinking Fast and Slow, is central to Newkirk’s argument. It’s been on my to read pile for a while. I’m now moving it to the top of the stack.

Not convinced yet to pony up for Mind Made For Stories yet? Newkirk spends a chapter listing the seven deadly sins of textbook writing as well as what we should look for in great nonfiction: humor, surprise, use of speech, grounding the complex in the familiar, strategic self-disclosure, and finally, affection for the material. Newkirk scores on every point throughout this text.

As we begin this new year, let’s resolve to read more to improve our craft. Adding Mind Made For Stories to your TBR pile will certainly help you meet this goal.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Who knew? Reflections on NCTE14

Like so many of you, I'm back to school after a whirlwind experience at NCTE, an experience no ELA educator should miss. It's some of the best professional development around, but I didn't count on the surprises.

I was very fortunate to have been invited to an intimate dinner hosted by Random House Books there, celebrating five of its nonfiction picture book and middle grade authors. They included Candace Fleming, Trudy Ludwig, Emily Jenkins, Jen Bryant, and  Melissa Sweet. Jen and Melissa were honored the following day with the Orbis Pictus Award for their collaboration on A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin. (Jen's also the reason I was there. We have worked together before on a few school visits.)

Dinner was great, and the conversation interesting. The Random Houses representatives knew what every good hostess does - sitting people with whom they do not know makes for some interesting conversations. I was seated beside Emily Jenkins, a picture book author, who I found witty and thoughtful in our chatting with those sitting nearby, ruminating on the value of single sex education, on the best way to aid less skilled readers with read alouds, and how to best encourage alliterate preservice teachers. I discovered the next morning that Emily also writes YA under another name - E. Lockhart. You may have read her fabulous We Were Liars last spring or one of her Boyfriend List books.

A even better surprise that day was discovering Melissa Sweet's Balloons Over Broadway, her biography of the man who invented the balloons for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. I've long been a fan of her artwork. I didn't know she was a talented writer too. Somehow I missed this Caldecott winner. She also illustrated Michelle Markel's Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers' Strike of 1909 - another book on my to-buy list.

In another session, I was very glad to hear Kate Messner and other authors on a panel Jeff Anderson convened apply the term "mentor texts" to those books that influenced their work. The best surprise of the day was listening to Linda Urban serenade us with a Country Western song from her forthcoming book.

What surprises awaited you at NCTE?

Friday, November 14, 2014

Can We Talk?

Here's a draft of a letter that I'm writing to my students about advocating for themselves. Any thoughts before I push the print button?

Hello you,

This month’s theme for LEAD is self-advocacy, so I thought I’d give you a teacher’s perspective on how to best help yourselves. High school – gasp - is only a few months away.
First off, I love when you have a question about your grade or about something we discussed in class. I’d much rather hear that from you than from your parents first. After all, this is your education and you’re the one who has been sitting in class. But you need to choose your time to discuss it with me wisely. When I’m standing in the hallway between classes, it may look like I’m doing nothing, but I’m on duty to be sure nothing amiss happens there.

When I’m passing out papers or about to start speaking with the whole class are not great times either. I don’t have my assignment clipboard with me at these times, which if I made a mistake with your grade or you’re checking on missed assignments, I will need to consult. You probably also don’t want thirty other kids listening to our discussion either.

The best time to do these things is to ask me when I’m at my desk and you are supposed to be working on something independently. You might also make an appointment for the first few minutes of lunch if that doesn’t work out.

Checking Pinnacle often is key to not only knowing how well you are doing but also on checking to be sure your grades are correct. It’s very frustrating to hear a student say, “Remember that HW assignment from a month ago I showed you on my way to lunch?” No, I don’t. You’re much more likely to get credit for missed work if you address this sooner rather than later.

When emailing teachers, first keep us as readers in mind. We haven’t memorized your student ID numbers in your Gmail addresses. Be sure to include your first and last name, so we know who you are. Also follow standard letter writing procedures. Include the pleasantries of a greeting and closing and absolutely give us the context for why you’re writing. I overheard a student recently in a phone call to his mother about parent conferences say, “Mom, can you come in on Tuesday?” without mentioning why or which Tuesday he was referring to. No wonder the poor woman was confused. You’ll save everyone a lot of time if you give us all of the information up front.

By the way, most of us don’t check email after eight o’clock at night. If you want a timely reply, email us as early as possible. It also takes a while for email to get through the spam filter, so allow for that as well. While we’re on the topic of email, please remember to check for a response. Nothing makes me want to scream more than when I’ve taken the time to respond to an email than when someone asks me the exact same question in person because they didn’t bother to read it. Lastly, not everyone is able to check email every night. So if you don’t get a reply, be sure to follow up in person.

One final tip, please don’t ask us if we did something the day that you were absent. Of course, we did. Please ask someone else first what we did and then see us with follow-up questions like, “When should I make up the quiz I missed?” or “May I have a copy of the handout on blogposts?” You’ll score big points with us if you do.

That’s about it for now. Hope this helps.

Mrs. Jester