Teachers: Heroes and Villains

We live in such divided times. Many people have  stripped the color from nuanced thinking and choose to think in black and white. They see what they want to see and resist ambiguity or broad-minded thinking. Our schools are not immune from this simplicity-seeking approach. We are constantly under scrutiny from the public and are somewhat of a Rorschach test for societies’ perceptions.

Teachers are frequently seen as heroes or villains. Often by the same people!

Teachers are heroes when they give up their lives to save their students’ under attack. But teachers are villains if they belong to the big-bad-union.

Teachers are givers if they selflessly stock their classrooms with books and supplies.    But teachers are takers if they dare ask for enough money to live on from tax payers.

Teachers are outstanding if their students’ test scores exceed the state average.                    Teachers are failures if their students’ success isn’t reflected by numeric indicators.

I could go on with examples, but you get the point.  Whatever ills society faces, it is often teachers who are expected to fix them. Or bear the burden of failure. Why don’t schools do this? Why did the school fail to address that? It can be incredibly disheartening. Especially during weeks like this one.IMG_2084

School shootings suck the breath out of us teachers. Shock and horror cannot begin to describe our reactions. Our empathy for those sister schools runs deep in our bones. We immediately imagine ourselves in the shoes of those teachers and feel their panic and devastation. We look at our students with such protective fierceness. We hug our own children tighter. We wonder, what we would do? How would we react? How would we and our students survive? It was a brutal week in so many ways.

So imagine my disgust when I see this trending on Twitter…


How quickly we shift from teacher as hero, to teacher as villain in our zeitgeist. ONE DAY after teachers laid down their lives. ONE DAY after teachers across this country witnessed yet another tragedy in our nation’s schools. ONE DAY!

And so as I villainously begin my February break, I reflect on my week as a teacher:

I didn’t spend my Valentine’s evening with my loving husband. I spent it at a school board meeting pitching a new reading and writing curriculum that I believe will enrich the lives our children, and was recognized for the two-year long journey to become a Nationally Board Certified Teacher.Screen Shot 2018-02-17 at 8.28.06 AM

I participated in a Choice Day at one of my schools where each teacher volunteered their time and talents to teach students ‘extra-curriculars’ from yoga, to drumming, to crafting survival bracelets, and much more in between. A fellow teacher and I led groups of students on a snowshoeing expedition through the woods behind the school. None of these kids had ever been on snowshoes and their reactions were priceless.IMG_2052

I invited teachers in my district to add to a collective poem entitled “I LOVE TEACHING” and was moved by the passion and dedication for children expressed in their words.IMG_2028

I spent an afternoon with the incredible teachers in my district learning how to make science more exciting and engaging for our students so they could begin to be more curious about the world around them. So they could understand the importance of science and facts to question, understand, and make sense of the world.IMG_2086

I curated a collection of books from my local library to digest over vacation so that I can better match books and readers and share my passion for reading with them.IMG_2098

So I go into this break with a roller coaster of emotions knowing I can only control what I do as a teacher, and not how others will perceive me. I know we are vilified by many and always will be. I am heartbroken by the school tragedy in Parkland, Florida. But I take heart in knowing what I do makes a difference, and I am inspired when I see teachers lifting one another up.  Teachers will always be my heroes.

What’s On My Book Radar?

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Miles Morales: Spider-Man by Jason Reynolds

Wow, this book was a page turner and not just because of its action-adventure mythos of Spider-Man, but because Jason Reynold’s created an intriguing life story for our hero-Miles Morales. Miles is a 16 year old black and Puerto Rican boy from Brooklyn, whose family has a troubled past. His parents are sacrificing a lot to send him to a prestigious school and break the cycle of crime and poverty. (Oh, and he’s also Spider-Man.) We learn the story of how this came to be and the uncle who was at the center of that tragic story.

We also meet his history teacher who espouses racists beliefs and preaches that slavery was a good thing. This gets Miles riled up and we learn there is an even more nefarious story beyond the classroom conflicts. With the help of his best friend, Ganke, Miles grapples with life as a teen: crushing on a girl, meeting a cousin in prison he didn’t know he had, avoiding expulsion after being set up…while simultaneously taking on an ancient organization of white supremacists who are using incarceration as the new slavery. Seriously-this book will grab you and not let go. Jason Reynold’s is amazing. Ages 12+


Getting My Point ACROSStic

I am of the fervent belief that teachers who write make the best writing teachers.  I know I am not alone in this. I follow and collaborate with others who share this view: Two Writing Teachers, started by Stacey Shubitz, TeachWrite, founded by Jennifer Laffin, and Teachers Write, started by Kate Messner. I find inspiration from these amazing people.

I know how busy teachers are; often balancing work and home life responsibilities. It’s not always that easy to commit to writing so I look for ways to make it accessible and inviting. One idea came to me when I  noticed my teacher friends writing great posts for Facebook that were humorous or heartfelt and I asked them if they’d be willing to share beyond their circle of friends. I created a blog for teacher writers called Just A Moment where these stories can find a home and other teachers can find inspiration. Some of the works on this site were originally created for the blog, but many others were “recycled” writing teachers had previously created. This approach is another way to encourage teachers to think of themselves as writers.Screen Shot 2018-02-11 at 8.48.57 AM

I try to create writing opportunities that are collegial and supportive. I know writing can be isolating, and sharing can take courage, so we find safety in numbers. We have a group of teachers in my district who get together (infrequently) to write and share. I asked teachers at one of my schools to join in a group poem about the holidays. Contributors each shared a few lines and together we created a poem that we posted in the school. It didn’t take much time, and the collaborative aspect made us each feel more comfortable.

This last week I created a Padlet called Teacher Talk-Poetry Block and invited a number of teachers to create an acrostic poem that spoke to their passion, experiences, or beliefs about teaching and learning.  I started with an example and then others joined in.  Honestly, I am so inspired by their words but also by their courage. It didn’t take them long, but it did take moxie.

I would love to get more and more poems in this collection, so if you would like to contribute just click on the + in the bottom right corner and add your own acrostic. I will continue to look for ways to make writing more inviting and easy for teachers and I welcome any ideas you may have tried. Let’s support teacher writers-ourselves included!

Made with Padlet


What’s On My Book Radar?

BE KIND by Pat Zietlow Miller illus by Jen HillScreen Shot 2018-02-11 at 9.11.38 AM

BE KIND has been a mantra in schools for several years now, but what does that mean for a child. What specific actions can make a difference for others? This book explores that concept in a very tangible and accessible way. I think this book is perfect for young children, but middle grade readers could also read it and contemplate what kindness looks like for themselves and their peers. A GREAT book to stimulate conversation and action. If your school or classroom has focused on the theme “CHOOSE KIND”  you should choose BE KIND to support that!

Could You Be an NBCT?

This week Maine celebrated 50 new Nationally Board Certified Teachers at a pinning ceremony (along with several renewals). I joined two of my colleagues from the Augusta School district at this celebration. Next year we will go to celebrate the fourth member of our cohort who is working on this journey. Everyone in that room was feeling a sense of joy at their accomplishments, relief in their success, and respect for those around them. We all knew what it took to get us to this place. We all took this journey.Screen Shot 2018-02-04 at 9.02.40 AM

Since certifying I have had several teachers ask me about the process and contemplated the challenge. Have you considered becoming a Nationally Board Certified Teacher? It’s not something everyone will be interested in. So, how do you know if it’s right for you? Maybe a place to start is asking yourself:

  • Am I someone who is continually looking for ways to hone my practice and tweak my talent?
  • Am I someone who is consistently striving to know my students and meet their needs?
  • Am I someone who knows my content and wants to instruct my students in ways that best helps them to learn it?
  • Am I someone who thinks systematically about my teaching practice and wants to learn from experience?
  • Am I someone who seeks to elevate the professionalism of teachers with a commitment to excellence?
  • Am I someone who is always looking for that next challenge to feed my growth mindset?
  • Am I someone who is looking for a learning community that will push me to be my best?
  • Am I at a place in my life where I can devote time and energy to an intense project?
  • Am I slightly crazy, obsessed, or driven to do more in life?

If you answer yes to many of these questions, board certification might be a great way for you to “up your game”.  Certainly it is not the only route- many teachers have PLNs  or are enrolled in graduate programs that elevate their thinking, pedagogy, and practice.  If there is one thing I have learned as a teacher, there are many paths to achieve outcomes and goals.

The National Board process is not easy. Most people do not certify on their first attempt. A colleague of mine missed it by one point!  But she has the heart of an NBCT because after her initial disappointment, she drafted a plan to move forward and reach that goal this year. THAT is grit. THAT is passion. THAT is what it takes to be an NBCT.

If you are interested in the process I’d love to chat with you. Connect with me on Twitter or email me through my webpage- paulabourque.com  My best advice is to think about the time you have to commit to this process and be honest about what you can do. Then try to find colleagues to do it with. It can certainly be done alone, but there is power in a PLN that is working together on the same goal.  My colleagues in Augusta (Maureen, Caroline, and Katie) and a cohort through the Maine Education Association (led by Heidi and Melissa) were there for me every step of the way- I am forever grateful to them.

You can check out National Board’s webpage on WHY CERTIFY? for more information.

What’s On My Book Radar?

Screen Shot 2018-02-04 at 11.36.36 AMMary’s Monster by Lita Judge

In a word, this book is AMAZING. Lita Judge has created a masterpiece about a masterpiece! The poetic writing & haunting illustrations bring her research on Mary Shelley to life so beautifully. Using letters, diaries, and historic biographies Judge retells the story of Mary’s troubled life from her birth that resulted in her mother’s death, to being sent away by a wicked stepmother, to falling in love with a married man whose creative genius was rivaled by his madness, to the conception and creation of Frankenstein’s monster. Judge weaves this this gothic tale as a graphic novel in verse that evokes an eerie mood and irresistible page turning. Definitely for older readers as it deals with painful issues of teen pregnancy, infidelity, mental illness, and child abuse/neglect. Find out the true story of a pregnant teenage runaway who was able to pen the most famous horror story of all time.




Widening our Circles of Collaboration

When I first started my teaching career (many, many years ago) I was lucky enough to have some veteran teachers who were always willing to collaborate with me. We didn’t have coaches or mentors then, so I relied on the generosity of my colleagues to share resources, bounce ideas, and work with me.  The World Wide Web wasn’t yet available to me to tap into for TpT, Twitter, Pinterest, or Facebook. My circle of collaboration was pretty small, but it was all I knew and it sustained me.

Today my circle is ever-increasing-far beyond the walls of our school or our district. Much of that has to do with the use of social media platforms on the internet to help me follow and connect with others whose thinking I admire. Through Twitter chats I build my PLN (professional/personal learning network) by following those authors, teachers, and researchers who challenge or lift my thinking. I have also joined Voxer this year and I can be a part of groups who discuss a variety of topics and interests. Many teachers do this. It’s a simple way to stay in touch with what is current.

You can be as active or as passive as you wish with these conversations. They are welcoming places for introverts and extroverts alike.  You can read through archived chats or try to join in live. Choose your level of comfort, your topic of interest,  and participate.

One of the best things that have come out of these connections has been the personal and professional relationships I have been able to forge with others all across the country. These relationships have led me on my journey as a writer for Stenhouse Publishers, as a presenter at NCTE and ILA, and other workshops and conferences. It is wild when you work with someone for months to create a presentation and you meet in person for the first time just before your session! That wasn’t a possibility when I first started teaching.

I would encourage anyone who wants to grow professionally to reach out to those in your PLN (and build up your PLN) and look for opportunities to collaborate. Maybe your classes can connect via Skype or a blog. Maybe you want to share resources and ideas. Maybe you want to work on a professional project together.

I’ve got projects/presentations/proposals coming up with educators from Pennsylvania, Georgia, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Ohio, Michigan…it’s incredible. You might be surprised how open others are to these types of collaborations. You’ll never know if you don’t ask.  There’s nothing to lose and so much to gain.

What’s On My Book Radar


Screen Shot 2018-01-27 at 9.27.09 AMThe first rule of punk is … Be yourself. That’s what Maria Luisa (aka Malu) is trying to do. Her mom has moved her halfway across the country to take a job in Chicago, so she leaves behind her dad to start a new school and make new friends. Unfortunately she runs up against the school’s queen bee who considers her a misfit- a “coconut “. So Malu creates a literal band of misfits who fight for the right to express themselves. I love the expressive aspects of this book, infusing Hispanic music, food, and creative zines (do it yourself magazines) with Malu’s love of punk culture. Can’t wait to try making my own zines!

Everyone Wins With These Book Battles!

February 12th is the American Library Association Youth Media Awards- this is where the Caldecott and Newbery winners are announced each year (as well as several other categories of children’s literature and media).  Across the country during the month of January, many classrooms hold MOCK CALDECOTT or MOCK NEWBERY awards, in which students read and choose their favorite picture books and chapter books. This creates a buzz for books and reading that culminates in viewing the awards live.

If you’d like to generate some buzz with your students here are a few ideas for now or later! You can find many other ideas, activities, and resources with the links I’ve included.


 MOCK CALDECOTT– Read a picture book a day for the month and invite students to quick write after each. Did you like it or not? Why? (Remember the Caldecott looks at the illustrations) At the end of the month, ask them to choose 1 book they would vote for to win the Caldecott. http://100scopenotes.com/2017/11/01/mock-caldecott-2018/

 MOCK NEWBERY– Since these books take longer consider reading book blurbs or showing book trailers of potential contenders and ask grade 3-6 students to quick write their opinion of the book based on the summary using Newbery criteria At the end of the month, ask them to choose 1 book they would vote for to win the Newbery.

March Madness

BATTLE OF THE BOOKS (Picture Books)– Read 2 picture books to your students and ask them to quick write which book they liked more and why.  Continue this activity for several days to give students many opportunities to evaluate and analyze texts. This could be differentiated for K-6 students. You could You could create a bracket for books much like the March Madness for basketball to choose a “Caldecott winner”. You might want to consider state reading award books. In Maine we have the Chickadee Awards! (you could also view picture book trailers)

 BATTLE OF THE BOOKS (Chapter Books) Set up a similar battle as the picture books only students could brainstorm a list of books they read this year or you could use contenders for Newbery Award (see below)or your state awards (in Maine we have MSBA )to set up the brackets.


Invite each student to choose one book they have read that they would love to see win an award. They can create a presentation to share to try to convince others why it should win an award. This doesn’t have to be limited to Caldecott/Newbery, ALA has many award categories that middle grade students could check out. Differentiate presentations depending on time and skill: Posters, Speeches, Presentations, Quick Writes, Essays, Advertisements… just have fun and immerse yourselves in great books.


After looking through contender lists (below) or book trailers (see links above) ask students to choose 1 book that they will most likely add to their TO-BE-READ (TBR) list for this year. Give them an index card to recreate or draw the book jacket and create a poster to put in the hallway to ignite other students’ interest and curiosity. At the end of the year revisit the poster and see who actually read their books.



Or you can just Google Mock Caldecott or Mock Newbery for resources.

It doesn’t really matter the format you choose, the idea is to create a buzz for books that engages your students. These book battles encourage wide reading and higher order thinking such as analyzing and evaluating. They generate excitement and interest in books that students may not have sought out or encountered on their own.

What’s On My Book Radar?


Screen Shot 2018-01-13 at 10.01.13 AMGOOD DOG by Dan Gemeinhart
I didn’t think Dan Gemeinhart could possibly maintain his streak of “greatest hits” but GOOD DOG should have been called GREAT DOG! There are so many twists and turns, and tears in this book that I hated having to put it down to go to work or sleep!
Brodie was a dog. He died. But when he woke up he knew he had to go back somehow and save his boy, Aiden from “the monster” (who happened to be his father). Trouble is, it isn’t easy going back, he’d risk his soul if he failed. The living world is beautiful, but it is also ugly sometimes and Brodie gets a chance to see just how cruel it can be-especially when those you love are in trouble. Make sure you have some uninterrupted time and some tissues when you read this one.
Comes out March 27th. (I’d pre-order!)




Resolve to Thank an Author: #KidLitLove

Tis the season for resolutions and goal setting.  I have noticed on Goodreads that my friends have set goals for the number of books they want to read in 2018. I myself take the Goodreads Reading Challenge each year as one of my New Year’s Resolutions.

But this year I want to do more to honor the creators of all the books I enjoy so dearly. We know they don’t mysteriously show up in our bookstores, libraries, and beside tables-someone took the stories in their heads and crafted them into words that publishers printed into books. Many of of us often post reviews on Goodreads, comments on social media, and occasionally an Amazon review. This helps these authors we love by expanding their potential audience and getting their books into the hands of our young readers.

It takes time and talent to be an author. It also takes courage.  Putting your ideas out into the world is not easy. Rejections, critiques, and judgements are not for the faint of heart. Knowing that my favorite books came to life because their writers persevered, creates some seriously good feels for those audacious authors.

So I encourage everyone who loves reading and loves books to resolve to show a little love for the authors who make it all possible.  (I know many of you already do, so consider yourself the chorus I am singing to) .

Finish a book you love?

  • Tweet about it-post a picture and tag the author
  • Instagram or Facebook it in the same way
  • Add it to Goodreads with a quick review
  • Go to Amazon (even if you don’t shop there) and post a review-this seriously helps generate buzz for books that independent booksellers notice, too.
  • Message your local library or bookseller and encourage them to acquire it.
  • Get it in the hands of every student (if it’s kidlit) or friend that you can.

Sharing your book love is the best way to thank those authors who enrich our lives. Any of these actions would take less than 5 minutes.  I already do many of these things, but not as consistently as I’d like.  I’m going to resolve to do one or two responses each time I read a book I love.

I’m also going to hashtag it #KidLitLove so that I can search back for books during the year. I’d love it if you used the tag, too.

Here’s to a great year of reading in 2018. Thank you to everyone who makes that happen!

What’s On My Book Radar?

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 9.33.54 AMPatina by Jason Reynolds

Patina is the 2nd book in Jason Reynold’s TRACK series and it is as fantastic as the first (Ghost). Patina and her sister Maddy are being raised by their uncle Tony and Aunt Emily (Momly) after their father dies and their mother has lost her legs to diabetes. She is enrolled in a fancy charter school where she is the token “raisin in the milk” but finds her place as one of the fastest runners on the Defenders track team. Running is the outlet “Patty” needs to show herself and others that she can be brave and strong. Reynolds has an incredible way of shining a light on the trauma and tragedy of so many lives without invoking pity or shame. This is a must-read series for middle grade/middle school readers who don’t need to wait for others to define what success is.


Finding the Time and Courage to Fly

It’s no secret that I am on a bandwagon to encourage teachers of writing to be teachers who write—regularly.  There’s really no professional development or course you can take to help you become a better writing teacher than to be a writer yourself.

Generally I find there are two reasons teachers are reluctant to write, and I think they are legitimate obstacles-but not impossible barriers.

1. Time- We often find ourselves pulled in dozens of directions with responsibilities. I get that. New Years is often an opportunity to reflect on and prioritize our values to help us create resolutions. There’s a ton of research on the benefits of writing (beyond making you a more effective writing teacher) that might help convince you to find 10 minutes a day to stop and jot. These benefits below don’t apply only to novelists, but to anyone who uses writing to capture and explore thoughts, feelings, and events.  Would 10 minutes of writing each day be worth scoring these perks?

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2. Confidence- Ask most teachers if they are readers and they can spout off stacks of titles they have read in the past year. Ask them if they are writers and the most common response is some variation of “not a very good one”.  TRUE, it is easier to consume (read) than produce (write) for almost everyone, but it is also true that the only way to get better at something is by doing it- A LOT.

I hope those who lack confidence in their ability to write have greater empathy for their students who are reluctant writers.  We all share the same fears. We wonder, “What if it’s not good enough?” But ask yourself, “Good enough for whom?” You don’t have to write for any audience other than yourself if you choose.  I encourage you to consider that it is our vulnerability that inspires our empathy and compassion.  Being a writer (especially an insecure one) can make you kinder through this awareness.

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Even amazing writers like E.B. White doubted their abilities. We are in great company with our insecurities. Maybe 2018 is the year you muster a little more courage than you thought you possessed. Maybe this will be the year you fly. Start small. If you don’t write…try it.  If you write a little…write a little more. If you only write for yourself… expand your audience.

You can get some support at the fantastic website TEACH WRITE . Started by Jennifer Laffin, a teacher and National Writing Project consultant who knows first-hand how difficult writing can be for teachers and students.  Here you’ll find resources for helping you to develop a daily writing habit, tips for classroom instruction, and a blog to connect teachers of writing. You can follow on Twitter with #TeachWrite for more tips and chats.

I’ve also created a blog for teachers to share pieces of writing with an audience of other teachers called JUST A MOMENT  Please take a moment to read through the posts here. Leave a comment for some of these teachers who had the courage to share. Appreciate the courage it took each in expanding their audience. Lift one another up and honor the daring spirit of those who took a risk. Maybe this will be the year you join them and share a moment through your writing.  I’d love to publish it when you are ready.

Just click the CONTACT tab on the website if you have any questions or are thinking of sharing.

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Here’s to a new year of stories waiting to be lived and shared. May you resolve to capture some of them in writing so that this time next year they’ll be waiting to be reread and remembered.

You have the wings. Don’t be afraid to fly!

What’s On My Book Radar

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Mystery of the Bear Cub

by Tamra Wight illustrated by Carl DiRocco

If you haven’t come across the Cooper and Packrat mystery series, you are in for a huge treat!  Author Tamra Wight was the owner of Poland Springs Campground in Maine and was inspired by life at the campground to create this incredible series. She is also an educator so this spotlight fits perfectly with my “teacher as writer” blog theme! Each book involves a mystery around an indigenous Maine animal. Each chapter begins with fascinating facts about that animal as we follow three friends (Cooper, Packrat, and Roy) who always seem to encounter some mysterious events at the campground.  This series is perfect for middle grade readers and I was so excited for this most recent edition. Kids can try to solve the mystery, but they are also learning about the environment, endangered species, interesting facts about animals, as well as the challenges kids face in their daily lives with family and friends.  It really has it all and is written in such an engaging style. I cannot recommend this series enough. You may want to start at the beginning, but each makes a great stand alone book!

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Teachers Are More Than Scores, Too.

Today, all across the country thousands of teachers are opening their email from National Board and shedding tears. Some of joy. Some of disappointment. Some have been working for years on the four components of accomplished teaching, and some have packed it all into a single year. There is no way to convey the anxiety and anticipation they have been feeling unless you have gone through the process.

Today as I entered my log in information my hands were shaking and my heart was beating in my throat. I tried to steel myself for whatever I would read. I knew how hard I had worked and was proud of my efforts-that wasn’t going to change based on the news today, but I knew the news today was going to change me. I would either be celebrating or game planning-there would be no quitting. The score would no more be a reflection of who I was as a teacher than the standardized test scores of students reflect who they are as learners (and people). Yet they have profound implications in the way others see us.

When I logged in the word CONGRATULATIONS! stopped me cold.  Tears flowed down my cheeks and I began to sob. My shoulders felt instantly lighter and I was euphoric.  After my mini-melt down I immediately began to think of my teaching partners who worked with me on this journey. There were four of us in my district who jumped in together. We helped each other video tape lessons, review our writing, give feedback on our work, and they generously loaned me their classrooms since I didn’t have one of my own. I had gone to monthly meetings sponsored by Maine Education Association for two years and partnered with teachers from across the state. How did they do?

Slowly I started to hear from them. Some shared their sense of joy and relief. Others, their heartbreak.  One missed certifying by ONE POINT.  Part of my commitment to this process was to support others on this journey and so my real celebration will happen when all of my colleagues share the joy I felt today.

If you know a teacher who is working on their National Boards I urge you to offer them encouragement and support. It is an incredibly challenging quest. No one gets there alone-we all need each other.  If they certified today, help them celebrate.  If they didn’t, be a shoulder for them.

To those of you today who opened that email and received your news…I know that you are more than that score. You are courageous and passionate about being a life long learner and you have my respect and admiration.  I hope you are celebrating, and if you are not know that you will be. And when you do, that celebration will be even sweeter.

What’s On My Book Radar?

Screen Shot 2017-12-16 at 9.21.36 AMPASHMINA by Nidhi Chanani

This debut novel by Nidhi Chanani is both modern and miraculous. Priyanka is a teen who lives with her single mother in America and longs to learn about her Indian heritage. However her mother refuses to talk about her past or her homeland. ‘Pri’ discovers a pashmina tucked away in her mother’s suitcase, and when she wraps it around her she is transported to a place she can only assume is India, complete with talking animal guides and a mysterious shadow figure she is determined to identify. Caught in a tug of war between two worlds, two societies, and two identities we get to know Pri and her family. We also learn much about Indian culture and food- which is delightfully delicious! I hope students will love this graphic novel as much as I did. Enchanting!



What #NCTE17 Offered This Teacher

Last weekend I met up with thousands of educators from across the country (and beyond) in St. Louis for the 2017 National Council of Teachers of English Annual Conference with the goal of growing and improving their teaching craft. I met up with dozens of authors who wanted to share their stories and their love for writing and books with the world. Though I paid every penny of my expenses, I realize what a privilege it was for me to be in attendance and I make it my mission to share what I’ve learned and experienced with others. I’ll share a few of those takeaways here in my blog.



For the past several years I have used Sketchnotes to capture the ideas, quotes, and wonderings I find important during the sessions I attend.  You can see these visual notes by clicking on the link above. Here are some of the big ideas I left NCTE17 with…

  • We need to expand the definition of reading and writing.  There is a canon of writing that is too formulaic- and too often we judge texts as “not real reading”. We will invite more readers and writers into the fold if we redefine what reading and writing is.
  • Being a human being in the world is more important than being a reader or writer. If literacy doesn’t help us to explore what it means to be human then it is just an assigned task and not an act of engagement and purpose.
  • Reading and writing is a personal art. Everyone deserves to figure out what process works best for them. Our job is to help them discover this, not just follow our directions.
  • We all have defaults in our reading and writing-that comfort zone we tend to dwell in. When we are aware of them we can more easily break free and expand our repertoire and approaches.
  • Teach with humility. We don’t have all the answers, we cannot be experts in everything. There is so much we can learn from our colleagues and our students if we approach our teaching with an open mind and an open heart.
  • Ask ourselves, “What masks have my students had to wear to exist in the spaces we’ve created?”
  • “The DNA we are walking through this world with is complicated. How do we teach people we consider as ‘others’ when we are the gatekeepers?” –Jacqueline Woodson
  • Before we speak our truth…consider the truth of others. Remember, our identity always comes into the conversation.
  • Consider soft starts to the school day to welcome our students into learning spaces that are inviting, stimulating, and creative.
  • Readers who progress, learn to read by reading.”-Marie Clay  Too often our most struggling readers do the least amount of actual reading. Skill work and interventions replace the reading of continuous texts.  Think about this.
  • Continually ask ourselves: Am I teaching my students or am I covering my material? If we (including students) aren’t clear on expected learning outcomes they’ll just be doing tasks.
  • Books are not diverse if what we mean is they are non-white. That sets up white as the default. What may be a window to one is a mirror to another. Authentic voices are the key to sharing books that promote empathy and understanding.

There were so many more nuggets that I will hold onto (and you can see them in the sketchnotes or photos) but these were what resonated a week out from the conference and so I believe they will stay with me. You can see photos of sessions here:


What’s On My Book Radar?

SMART COOKIE by Elly Swartz

My review is from the ARC of this book that will be released January 30th.

Screen Shot 2017-11-25 at 8.34.00 AM.pngFamily secrets and recipes make this one sweet story! Frankie’s mom died when she was 4 and she decides she wants her dad to meet someone who would make them a family of 3 again. She sets up an online dating profile and compiles a list of Possibles who never seem to fit the bill. Meanwhile her dad is busy running a B&B that is losing business because there are rumors it is haunted. This has Frankie wondering if her mom could be a ghost, so she begins writing her letters for advice. And then we have Gram who seems to have secrets of her own and behavior that is becoming more curious for Frankie. There are so many amazing subplots going on in this book, it kept me captivated. (and the descriptions of the daily cookies at the B&B kept me salivating!) Elly Swartz knows how to write complex characters in compassionate and compelling ways. On the heels of Finding Perfect, I think Swartz has found another perfect story!






TOP 10 Reasons Teachers Should Attend Regional/National Conferences

NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) conference is coming up this week in St. Louis. Many teachers across the country will be going to share in the experience, many more will not. Trying to convince schools that this is a smart investment for them is often difficult. Here are some reasons I recently shared with my school board, I’d love to hear others. If you are one of the lucky ones who can attend these conferences, be a voice of advocacy for your colleagues and a testament to the power of professional development.

Don’t forget turn back around
Help the next one in line
Always stay humble and kind

1.Meet experts and “gurus” face to face

The authors and experts we learn from in professional texts are accessible and open to Screen Shot 2017-11-11 at 8.16.20 AMcollaborative conversations at these events.  There are opportunities for Q&A, meet and greets, book signings, and just running into them in a convention center.  Teachers will be empowered to see that these “experts” are teachers themselves, who have taken their passions to the next level.

  1. Exposure to cutting edge research and state of the art teaching.

Presentations at these conferences are the latest in research, instruction, pedagogy, assessment, and organization. They’ve been vetted by a review panel and needed to pass an array of standards for quality, so we can trust the validity of the information.  Education is constantly changing, and our teachers and schools should have opportunities to learn and adapt.

  1. Networking

Meeting people from other states, regions, or countries can expand our understanding of education like no other experience. We often realize we are more alike than we are different, and yet we each have unique challenges and gifts that make educating America’s youth more than a “one size fits all” reform initiative. We can make lifelong connections to people who will inspire us, support us, and teach us on a personal level.

  1. Break out of your comfort zone

Traveling to a new place can be somewhat stressful, but also exhilarating. Understanding what life is like in unfamiliar surroundings can be eye opening. Learning in a new space activates our brains in new ways and offer up opportunities for fresh/flexible thinking. Connecting with people who may teach differently or have varying opinions can challenge our long held beliefs, routines, or values. They can often reinforce them, or cause shifts.  Either way, that cognitive dissonance is essential for growth as an educator.

  1. Enhance professionalism.

We are treated like professionals at these conferences. Everyone views us as a leader in our field, someone willing to devote days of our busy lives to focus on being the best we can be. Presenters, organizers, and vendors show gratitude and respect for the hard work that goes on each day in our classrooms. There is a shared sense of purpose, empathy, and camaraderie with other professionals in the field that enhances our sense of professionalism for a long time to come.

  1. Intense focus on learning

Much like immersion in a language, teachers are immersed in a focused purpose of improving teaching and learning. We eat, breathe, and live teaching the entire time we are attending a conference. Dinner conversations are often continuations of the day’s learning. We are infused with ideas, energy, passion, and encouragement.

  1. Empowered by like-minded and passionate professionals

We are surrounded by “nerdy” teachers that feel like our TRIBE. There is strength in numbers and we definitely leave a conference feeling stronger because we know we aren’t alone in our passion. We can appreciate that the dedicated teachers we work with each day are just like teachers all across the country and our shared purpose feels empowering.

  1. Expand circle of leadership

When teachers go to a conference and come back to share what they’ve learned and experienced, they are seen as leaders who are willing to give back to their schools.  They aren’t hoarding their new learning, they are expanding it exponentially. It builds expertise in our schools that broadens our resources for supporting one another.

  1. Invest in Our Teachers (and Ourselves)

Teaching is an exhausting profession in which we give and give and give each day. If schools don’t invest back into our teachers, we are draining a precious resource.  Even if a district is paying expenses for attendees there is an incredible personal investment of time and energy. Teachers often have to rearrange their home lives and responsibilities to make accommodations. There are always unreimbursed expenses incurred that have a financial investment required. Teachers do this anyway, because we see it as an investment in our skills, motivation, and passion. If teachers are willing to make the investment, our schools and communities should, too.

  1. Invest in Our Students (Our Kids Are Worth It)

Speaking of investment…aren’t our kids worth the best trained, most motivated, incredibly passionate teachers we can give them? Don’t we want them to have teachers who are dedicated enough to devote days of their lives to make their learning better? Don’t they deserve to have the most cutting edge assessment and instruction to facilitate their learning. It doesn’t just happen by luck, we need to cultivate it and make it a priority.  Remembering why we are here and doing what we do, it makes sense to make sure our students have the best teachers we can give them.


And then when your teachers ARE presenters it can be even more powerful:

  1. Build ExpertiseScreen Shot 2017-11-11 at 8.13.29 AM

If you’ve ever had to share information or expertise with a group of smart individuals, you know you need to bring your A Game-there’s no “phoning it in”.  When schools send teachers to present at conferences they are supporting a teacher to hone their skills to the highest degree. Teachers put in countless hours in observing, writing, reflecting, and revising. This level of self-reflection builds increased expertise that no other professional development can.

  1. Bring Prestige for Our Schools

When presenters share the excellent work that is going on in their schools, they are showcasing the talents and successes that have been hard won. They shine a light on our teachers and students for others to celebrate and learn from. They are passionate ambassadors for their schools-more powerful than a public relations firm! Conference participants often want to connect with the teachers from our district and network to build greater capacity. It draws us into membership of a learning community larger than ourselves.

I’d love to hear even more ideas that support greater teacher participation as well as ways districts help to fund this as well.

What’s On My Book Radar?

Screen Shot 2017-11-11 at 8.00.01 AMPOEMS ARE TEACHERS by Amy Ludwig VanDerWater

I have been so excited for this book’s release and when it arrived I devoured it. Amy Ludwig VanDerWater has been my “go-to” poet/teacher for years. Her website The Poem Farm http://www.poemfarm.amylv.com/ has helped me teach and think about poetry in new ways so I knew this book would be amazing–and it didn’t disappoint. Each lesson offers us 3 poems as mentor texts (1 contemporary poet and 2 student poets) for learning about: craft, ideas, point of view, structure, titles and more. You do not have to read it cover to cover, just dive in and enjoy. Your teaching of poetry will be inspired and your appreciation for poetry will be enhanced. It’s amazing.