Tag Archives: Kate Messner

Fostering Makers

The last few weeks I’ve been working in kindergarten and 1st grade classrooms trying to foster “makers”-book makers to be more precise.  Based on the work of Katie Wood Ray and Lisa Cleaveland*, we are encouraging our youngest writers to think about what they notice in the books they read and inviting them to use what they know to create their own books. Simple, right? And yet so powerfulScreen Shot 2020-01-19 at 5.39.11 PM.

*About the Authors was my first inspiration for making books years ago. Getting Started with Beginning Writers  is their latest.



First of all, the kids are excited to be making actual books, and by actual I mean two pieces of copy paper folded in half and stapled together, voilà…a book! They suddenly are filled with ideas that they want to turn into a book. Second, we get incredible insights into what they notice and know about print concepts and how books work. With no lines we can see how they choose to use space and if they have a solid grasp on directionality,

IMG_6572return sweep, and book layout. They get to make ALL the choices, not limited by lines or predetermined space for pictures on every page. (We created a space on the cover for now as a scaffold for determining fronts and backs.) Also, our writers are connecting ideas to one another in a way that they didn’t do with a single piece of lined paper. Some have miraculously moved from one to multiple sentences during workshop. IMG_6573

Because we work on a book for more than one day, they are being introduced to the concept of revision in a natural way. Going back the next day to add details in pictures or words is just how we roll. When they ‘fill up’ a page they don’t say, “I’m done!” because there are 6 to 8 more pages waiting for them to dive right in.

Is this anything new? No. Is this radical? No. Is it meaningful and effective? YES! It gives students a sense of agency as they create authentic texts for real audiences. We are putting some finished books into the classroom libraries, some kiddos want to give their books to someone as a gift, and we are curating a collection of amazing mentor texts from these real-life mentors that we can share with future students. How empowering. IMG_6575So do yourselves a favor and check out the books by Katie and Lisa (see above) and give book making a try as an option for your students. You’ll learn so much about those youngest writers, much of which isn’t linked to any standards!

One More Off My TBR Stack

Image result for tracking pythons kate messnerTRACKING PYTHONS by Kate Messner
This is Kate Messner’s first middle grade nonfiction book and it is fantastic. She takes us on a quest to control the population of invasive Burmese Pythons that have overrun south Florida, and the unique approach scientists are using to track them. She uses both a narrative and expository structure to tell the story and inform the reader. She includes QR codes that allow us to see scientists and pythons in action. She includes dozens of fascinating photos, sidebar facts, and a timeline of the invasion that help give a complete picture of the challenge. I was sent a copy of this text by the publisher but I would definitely seek out any book by Messner, because I know how much research and work goes into her books. Kids who are mesmerized by snakes or are interested in scientists and their work will be captivated by this book. I’m always on the lookout for good nonfiction-and this hits the mark

Beyond Thankful

Since it is the eve of Thanksgiving and there are so many other tasks demanding my attention, my blog this week will be a simple gratitude journal.  I cannot possibly list all that I am thankful for, so I will focus on my time at NCTE in Minneapolis this past week.

I am thankful…


…That I could bring a colleague.  Andrea made this experience so rich and meaningful.  I am lucky that I have such great teachers to collaborate with. I love my job, and the teachers who make it so rewarding.



…That I had a “dream team” for my panel presentation on Close Writing.

They each brought incredible insights to their close writing process and showed us that there is no “ONE RIGHT WAY” to be a writer.  Thank you to Sarah Albee, Linda Urban, Lester Laminack, Kate Messner, and Selene Castrovilla.  Andrea and I learned so much from you all.

…That I got to meet the authors who have touched my life so profoundly.

Katherine Applegate brought me to tears with the story of The One and Only Ivan and her latest incredible book Crenshaw. Kate DiCamillo has brought a bit of magic to every story she’s written. I have been a fan since Because of Winn Dixie and haven’t stopped loving her work.  Lynda Mullaly Hunt is the most compassionate author I know and can call friend. Her books One for the Murphys and Fish in a Tree are must-reads for every teacher.  They allow us to see our students in profound ways -and now that I know how much they reflect the heart of this author, they are even more special. And Cynthia Lord is a true gift to kid lit lovers.  Her books Rules, Touch Blue, Half a Chance and  A Handful of Stars bring the stories of ordinary children with very real problems to life for our students in ways that help them know they are not alone-that someone understands.


…That I got a chance to connect with those Nerdy Book Club peeps

that feed my soul (and my Amazon cart!) with their passion for kid lit.  Colby Sharp, John Schumacher (Mr. Schu), and Donalyn Miller (the Book Whisperer) have so much energy and knowledge.  It was truly infectious!

…That I learned from some amazing authors and educators at panels and

roundtables.  I tried to take photos, and notes, and sketches as fast and furious as I could at times, and at other times I just ‘absorbed’ the experience and savored the moment.

…and finally I am incredibly thankful for the people at Stenhouse who helped me put my ideas into a book that will be out next month.

To say it was a surreal experience would be the understatement of my life. When I saw the lineup of authors to meet and chat at the Stenhouse booth I was blown away.   I am mindful of the quote,

“To those whom much is given, much is expected.”

I will strive to give back to the degree that I am given, to be humbled and grateful by the experiences I am fortunate to have, and to remember to thank those who have been a light in my life.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

What’s On My Book Radar?



I was able to get the most recent “True Story” fairy tale adventure from Liesl Shurtliff.  RED: The True Story of Red Riding Hood.  This fantastical tale was my companion for the plane ride home.  I love the twists and turns of re-imagined fairy tales-Liesl has a wonderful way of bringing fresh insights to old and familiar tales.  Look for this book April of 2016!


Manuscript Mentors

IMG_1908As I was finishing up the last of the proofreading and edits of my manuscript for Stenhouse (Close Writing: Developing Purposeful Writers in Grades 2-6) I solicited some ideas on Facebook from my author friends: “Calling on all my writer friends for any advice on final edits of a manuscript. Any tips on what works for you would be welcome as I venture into new waters here.”
I hoped to get a response or two.  I was a little overwhelmed with the wonderful advice from so many authors I look up to!

Lynda Mullaly Hunt Set a day aside and read the entire thing out loud. You hear things you don’t hear when he read silently. Good luck!

Franki Sibberson By final edits, I’ve learned that I need to let go and know I can’t do everything I want to do in one piece of writing (even though it is a BIG piece of writing!). So I work to make what I’ve already said the best that it can be instead of thinking of all the things I didn’t say and trying to add those in. If that helps at all!

Cynthia Lord Change the font and print a copy. It will look different enough that your eye will read every word again–if it looks familiar your eyes sometimes read what you think it says, not exactly what it does.

Charlotte Agell I love the Cynthia tip. Different fonts make me THINK differently. They are like the clothing of my words – punk, staid, all-purpose, snazzy…

Lester Laminack I find it helpful to put it aside and write a summary/note to myself what I hope the reader leaves with. Then I read the whole thing with that in mind.

Jennifer Richard O’Grady I tackle the smaller edits, the easier things first. That gives my brain more time to chew on the bigger questions. From time to time stop and savor the moment. Your dedication got you to this stage!

Sarah Albee Do a find/replace for words you suspect you use too much. I’ve horrified myself with this exercise, finding I use certain words way too often. Also search-and-destroy too many semicolons, or whatever your personal perils may be!

Kate Messner When I review copy edits, I take a blank piece of paper to cover up everything beneath the line I’m reading – helps me to slow down. Also, read aloud.

Donalyn Miller Appreciate all of the great advice here. I take a close look at really long sentences to decide if they make sense or need to be revised/shortened for clarity.

Maria Padian Hunt down adverbs. Wherever possible, replace them with stronger verbs that don’t need modifying, or give the character a physical gesture that conveys the meaning you’re after. Same with the verb “to be.”

Lynn Plourde My agent taught me this trick . . . you can delete “that” most of the time (i.e. I didn’t know that she lived in town . . . I didn’t know she lived in town). Btw, since I’m at the final edit stage on my MG novel–I’m savoring all this advice you’re getting, Paula!

Gae Polisner The biggest help is to put it away for a month or three and read it fresh then, but very few of us have the luxury or patience to do so.

Melissa Stewart Highlight your verbs in a different color and make sure ewach one is as strong and precise as it can possibly be.

Meg Frazer Blakemore Give yourself breaks and walk around, even if it’s just around your house.

David Lopez Read it backwards in a mirror, turn around three times and then set it on fire. Laugh with glee.

Ammi-Joan Paquette So many great comments here already! I would just add that it’s not easy, taking the plunge to “let go” and launch your baby out in the world. It’s helpful to remember that you have been diligent, and thoughtful, and thorough–you’ve done your best, and it’s GOOD. That’s why you’ve gotten this far. Once you give it that final read, and make any last changes that jump out, let it go with confidence. It’s ready to fly!

I wanted to save (and savor) their sage advice, not only for thisIMG_2205 project but for all writing moving forward.  They didn’t have to respond, but their passion for writing is so evident when they rush in to support another writing.  And so I am feeling thankful today. Thankful that the final proofread manuscript was sent back to Stenhouse, thankful for those amazing people who work there that will turn my words into a book, and thankful for all those authors who were willing to mentor me on my journey. It has truly taken a village to raise this ‘baby’!

What’s On My Book Radar?

23604418I am so excited that our recent school book fair had Kate Messner’s latest Ranger in Time: Danger in Ancient Rome. This copy is sitting by my bedstand waiting for me to finish this blog, log off, and pick it up!  I think this is such a fun and informative series.  I know the painstakingly careful research Kate does for her books, so I know I will learn something new with each of Ranger’s adventures.  If you haven’t discovered this series yet for yourselves, I encourage you to grab a copy of this and Rescue on the Oregon Trail

SHELFIES! Celebrating our Literate Lives

I work in five buildings in five days-not a lot of time to leave a lasting impression with teachers and kids. I’m NOT there more than I AM there from the perspective of each school.  I’ve been contemplating how to increase my presence in my absence.  How can I leave traces of my influence behind? Well, the way I do that in my ‘real’ life is through the photos that I take to capture snapshots of my life and loves.

Literacy (reading and writing) are two huge loves in my life. Loves that I want to spread like an infection in the classrooms and hallways I visit each week.  Thus came the use of the “shelfie” to capture that joy and celebration of reading and writing with those students. I ask students to pose with the latest or favorite book that they’ve read, or with a piece of writing they’ve completed and they are proud of.  We talk briefly about the book or writing and then the snapshot of their literate life is put on display on the glassed walls of my office.


One side celebrates readers, the other is for writers.  Kids have been so eager to be included in our SIMG_1626helfie Wall of Fame. So far I have 2nd – 6th graders from a variety of classrooms represented.  One student receivesIMG_1604 - Version 2 intensive support for some behavioral issues, but every time I see him he declares, “Remember, I was the first one you took a shelfie of.”  And he was. He was so proud of a story he wrote his teacher asked me if I’d listen to it. I knew I wanted to capture that moment. It still makes me teary-eyed.

So the Shelfies have become a positive footprint I have been able to leave in at least one building when I am away. I have several more ideas I am working on.  I’ll share some of these in the weeks to come. In the meantime, I’ll savor these moments with proud readers and writers and collect evidence of these celebrations with our wall of Shelfies! I feel a little more hopeful that my positive influence might linger a little longer after I am gone.

What’s On My Book Radar?

IMG_2114I was so excited when I came home last week to find a copy of this ARC in my mailbox!  Kate Messner has become one of my favorite middle grade writers and I cannot wait to dive into this book.  From her blog:

When Charlie Brennan goes ice fishing on her town’s cold winter lake, she’s hoping the perch she reels in will help pay for a fancy Irish dancing solo dress. But when Charlie’s first catch of the day offers her a wish in exchange for its freedom, her world turns upside down. Charlie catches the fish again and again, but each time, her wishes go terribly and hilariously wrong. Just when things are finally starting to turn around, a family crisis with her older sister forces Charlie to accept the fact that some of the toughest challenges in life can’t be fixed by wishing.                 -Kate Messner

More and more, authors are exploring tough issues with kids.  Much like Jennifer and Matt Holm’s latest graphic novel, Sunny Side Up, Kate’s middle grade novel helps readers come face to face with addiction in families. She is a brilliant writer and I am anxious to see how she tackles this topic. I am sure this will be a must-read for many when it is released in June 2016.

Happy Reading and Writing!


Don’t “Should” All Over Yourself


As we wind up another school year we often think back on the year that was, and dive into the summer that is.  These transitions are are an opportune time for reflection and planning.  But too often I hear teachers focusing so much thought and energy on what they should have done, (I should have done more with fractions, I should have had the kids write letters to next years class, I should have….)and what they should do this summer, (I should take that class, I should read more professional books, I should…)  These are all great ideas to be sure, but when approached with a should mindset, they seem more like a duty than a choice.

When we find ourselves using this verb we need to give it some thought.  Some of the synonyms for should include: be one’s duty, be compelled to, be forced to, must, and even suffer! Should often implies you’d rather be doing something else! Sometimes should is appropriate, but if we spend so much energy “shoulding on ourselves” we might be missing out on opportunities that truly feed us in more positive ways.

When we hear ourselves saying, “I really should…”, let’s ask ourselves:

  • Why? 
  • Who is this really for? 
  • How will this really make my life or my teaching better? 
  • Are there other options?
  • What would happen if I didn’t?

That might lead to other questions to help us reflect and plan ahead:

  • What worked well this year that I’d like to continue?
  • What could I try next year that would make teaching and learning more rewarding or effective?
  • What would make my summer better for me, for my family, for my community?
  • What would I enjoy doing this summer that would benefit my students?
  • What would feed my personal or professional growth?

We can’t do it all.  We are often very unforgiving of ourselves when we feel we need to do more.  We spend far too little time appreciating what do well. This leads to a shouldy attitude! The best gift we can give our students is a teacher who embraces life as well as learning.  A happy, healthy teacher can offer so much more than a tired, shouldy teacher.

So take time this summer to LIVE! Listen to the birds in the morning, watch your kids splash in the cool water, get lost in a book, stay up too late at a drive-in, roast marshmallows, drive to someplace you’ve never been, write a story, look for sea glass, watch for shooting stars, pick up a frog,  join in a twitter chat, go for walks with your loved one, buy some lemonade at a stand, unplug for awhile, close your eyes and see what you notice, try something you’ve never done before…

Not because you should, just because you can.  Life is full of choices, choose wisely.

What’s on My Book Radar?

51JGg4dJ12L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Every once in awhile a book comes out and you think, “What a great idea!”  This definitely falls into that category! Kids will LOVE following these steps for how to read stories, and I can just see the wheels spinning in their heads for creating their own steps!  Kate Messner has such a great range in her writing: professional books for teachers, chapter books for older readers, and picture books for younger readers.  If you aren’t a fan of hers yet, you should be. (Haaa, just kidding…you’ll want to be!!)

Join Kate and some amazing authors this summer for the 4th annual TEACHERS WRITE. As Kate’s site says, “Teachers Write is a free online summer writing camp, especially for teachers and librarians. It’s a chance to practice your own writing in a warm, supportive environment so that you can go back to your students with new ideas and (in many cases) a new sense of empathy for the courage involved in writing and sharing one’s work. We offer daily inspiration and assignments, including mini-lessons, writing prompts, and Q and A sessions with authors whose books you and your students love.

Teachers don’t join this group because they should-they join because they want to connect with some amazing authors and walk the talk!

Happy Reading (and writing)!

The Proposal

So I just sent off my proposal for NCTE 15.  I mean, who doesn’t want to be in Minneapolis in November!? It’s hard thinking about where I might be professionally 11 months from now and what might be relevant for other educators at that time.  I’ve been immersed the past year on my writing work with teachers and so it only seemed natural that I would be ready to share this collaborative venture with others. So with great anticipation I hit the “submit” button.IMG_2481

Leap of Faith

When I was a relatively new teacher, my principal asked me if I would like to go to a national conference.  Attending NCTM in New Orleans was a life changing event.  I know the power of that experience shaped who I am today.  I am anxious to share that opportunity with other teachers. Without even knowing if our district would fund this,  I asked two ‘new’ teachers to join me in the NCTE venture.  They have worked so closely with me over the past year; willing to be coached, to collaborate, and to let me try out lessons with their classes. I know that being engaged with other educators at a national level will transform their teaching in a similar way that mine was-they are like sponges soaking up new knowledge.  I have faith that if I plan it, they will come!  We are going to make this happen!

I also took a leap of faith in asking several authors that I admire to join us on the panel.  I thought the worse that could happen would be a curt, “no” or a non response.  To my delight, most of them were eager to join the panel.  Their expertise on our topic will be invaluable to participants, and their range of experience, preferred genre and audience will make for a rich discussion.   From picture books to nonfiction to YA, these authors are truly experts in their field.  So thank you Lester Laminack, Kate Messner, Linda Urban, Sarah Albee and Selene Castrovilla for graciously joining these teachers from Maine.  We’ll know in May if the proposal is accepted.  I have faith!

So, forgive me for a shortened post this week.  I am revised and edited-out!! I am excited and exhausted.  I am anxious and hopeful.  I’m off to do more writing and to write about that writing!  If the proposal becomes a reality-you’ll all be some of the first to know!  Until then I’ll keep writing, keep working with teachers on writing, and keep our kiddos writing.  I guess that’s a pretty big hint to the topic of the session.  More details in May -when we get that acceptance letter!


What’s On My Book Radar?

9780545700276_xlgThis week Cynthia Lord sent me an ARC of her newest book A Handful of Stars , coming in May of this year.  To say I was excited is a complete understatement.  If you are a Cynthia Lord fan, I am convinced you will fall in love with this book.  She knows how to create characters that readers truly care about, develop stories that reflect real life experiences and leave you feeling more compassionate and caring for the struggles of others.  I won’t give much away since this isn’t out yet, but I’ll just say that when it hits the shelves you will want to grab a copy!


Safeguarding Democracy

IMG_2363 Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education. –Franklin D. Roosevelt

Sometimes as teachers, I think it is important to step back and think more existentially about what we are doing in schools.  Why do we do what we do?  Why does it matter? On a personal level, we are improving lives one child at a time.  On a global level, we are safeguarding our democracy.

IMG_2470That thinking really hit home with me today as I began my NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) Annual Conference here in Washington D.C.  My colleague and I took a tour of the nation’s capital; a three hour excursion to visit our treasured monuments and memorials.  Some were inspiring, some were sobering, all were deeply meaningful.  Each represented the lives and accomplishments of Americans that were not born great, but rose to greatness.  Their acts created, defended or extended democracy to the citizens of America.  My job as a teacher, is to honor their acts and to ensure the way of life they worked so hard to define as American.

“An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”-Thomas Jefferson

I felt an enormous sense of responsibility as a teacher today, wandering around these monuments.  This country is depending upon us to educate our children who will grow to create, interpret and defend our laws.  They are depending on us to perpetuate the ideals of a free and democratic society, to question authority and solve problems with tenacity and ingenuity.

IMG_2424As I attend the conference sessions this week, and then go back into my schools, I want to carry that sense of responsibility with me.  I want to keep the big picture in mind as I am knee-deep in the muck and mire of tedious ‘non-education’ aspects to working in schools. I want to reflect on it as I prioritize where my energy and attention will go when teaching.  I want to remember WHY it is important to teach critical thinking skills, and WHY I want our students to question what wIMG_2454e say and teach.

So I will endeavor to look beyond picking up some tips for classroom instruction.  I will celebrate the task and responsibility for educating our young citizens with some of the best and brightest in the country.  I will rededicate my efforts to creating an informed citizenry that will grow to take the reins of our democracy for generations to come. As I look around at this conference,   I am surrounded by those who take this responsibility as seriously as I do and strive to create engaged, active and educated young citizens, ready to take the reins one day.   I am confident we are in good hands!


What’s On My Book Radar?

One of the best sessions I attended at NCTE 14 was how authors themselves use mentor texts when they write.  Featured here:

Varian Johnson: The Great Greene Heist, Linda Urban: The Center of Everything,  Laurel Snyder: Seven Stories Up, Kate Messner: Manhunt, Sarah Albee: Bugged: How Insects Changed History, Erin Dionne: Ollie and the Science of Treasure Hunting

IMG_2634When you hear an author talk about their process and the thinking behind the words, you can’t help but become intrigued and anxious to get your hands on the books! I can’t wait to get these books on my bed stand for some night time reading!! These are definitely on my radar now!


10497946_876609592353825_1937506217078596531_o What are you doing this summer?  Want to participate in the hottest camp around? Teachers Write is a virtual camp for teachers to create, develop and share writing with published authors who donate their time to mentor, encourage and provide feedback to teachers . As founder Kate Messner describes it, “Teachers Write is a community of teachers and librarians who believe that people teaching writing should walk the walk.”

I’ve become more and more convinced that teachers of writing should be teachers who write.  That’s not to say we all need a goal to be a published author, but that we experience the highs and lows, the joys and the struggles of the writing process we are teaching our students. I first blogged (Teacher of Writing or Writing Teacher) about this in March after #Engchat on Twitter with Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle and Georgia Heard.  I was struck by a quote from Donald Graves…

“You can’t call yourself a writing teacher if you are not writing yourself. “

That became a call to action for me.  I needed to “Be the change I wished to see in the world.” (Gandhi)  I had already been journaling daily and blogging weekly, but I started trying out some of the assignments that kids were being asked to do, and not finding them easy!  I had a great deal more empathy for those novice writers and could better anticipate the supports that they may need to find success.  I could appreciate the commitment and stamina it took to stay with a piece of writing that you didn’t feel invested in.  One of the biggest perks that I hadn’t anticipated, was an even deeper appreciation for the books I was reading.  The turn of a phrase, the imagery, the word choice, or structure of a book suddenly tasted sweeter!

It also gave me the courage to try my hand at some professional writing.  I’ve immersed myself in reading, research and reflection on my teaching/coaching to help me compose some ideas around the teaching of writing.  I have made a commitment to this project for the summer that will be shared with precious little else (my family, #Teachers Write and my #BookaDay challenge!).

If you are looking for a challenge this summer to take your thinking and teaching to a whole new level, I would strongly encourage you to sign up for Teachers Write and visit Kate Messner’s webpage to get started.  You’ve only missed a few days as it runs July 7-August 15.  You can follow Kate on Twitter @KateMessner as well as fellow authors and mentors Gae Polisner @GaePo, Jo Knowles @JoKnowles, Jen Vincent @mentor texts.  There will also be guest authors throughout the ‘camp’ so you definitely do not want to miss out!

Kate asks that you support these authors by buying or checking out their books this summer.  It’s also a great way to appreciate the thinking of these mentors when you are familiar with their work!   So do yourself a favor this summer and join one of the BEST summer camps going!  You don’t have to post your work, but if you do you will receive encouragement and support from some of the best in the business!!



What’s on My Book Radar?

I just finished these two books for my #BookaDay Challenge and I am ready to dive into some #TeachersWrite author books.

18635089 18405537

Nothing like a bit of fantasy during those summer evenings reading on the deck or hammock.  These were amazingly quick reads as I was sucked right into the engaging plots.  Time travel in SLB and legends and lore in TNG!  LOVED them both!


Now I need to check out the #Teachers Write guest author’s books!

YAY Books!  YAY Authors!!

9781416995005 9780763664558 9781250019332 9780375854118


Happy Reading!

Relaxation Rx

rx_symbol_green_mortar_pestleLast week, teachers in Maine were on vacation.  April vacation falls during the week of Patriots’ Day, usually 6-8 weeks before the end of the school year.  I sometimes hear complaints from my non-teacher friends about the frequency or timing of school vacations.  “Why do you need time off?  Summer vacation is coming up.” Now I would never assume that teaching is the toughest profession that requires planned ‘down times’ and other jobs do not. That would be arrogant and inaccurate.  But the fact that other professions do not schedule breaks should not take away from what I believe is an important time for teachers and students…scheduled vacations.

We ask a lot of our schools and our teachers.  We hand them an incredible amount of responsibility for equalizing all of the challenges faced by our nation’s most vulnerable citizens, to produce students who are all expected to meet the same standards.  For those of us who take that responsibility seriously, it generates an incredible amount of stress.   Stress, is not necessarily a bad thing.  It is often a call to action, an impetus for change and growth.  But a constant state of stress is not a healthy thing, not for the sufferer, and not for those around them.

We can often find our most creative thinking comes from a merging of intense critical problem solving followed by periods of relaxation.  Researcher Robert Epstein asserts that when we place ourselves in situations in which we feel challenged-situations in which we are likely to fail to some extent, that it forces our brains to assess which behaviors are effective and extinguishes those that are less effective.  This can lead us to trying out new ideas when frustrated by older, less efficient ones.  I think this can adequately describe daily life inside a classroom of 20+  individuals with differing needs that we are trying to address.  So after weeks on end of hard work and problem solving, can scheduled breaks/vacations help make us more creative in our thinking towards teaching?

Author Jonah Lehrer suggests that, “People are more likely to have a big breakthrough when they’re relaxed… That’s when you turn your attention inward and maybe hear the voice that’s been there, but you just haven’t taken a moment to notice it.” In his book Imagine: How Creativity Works, he shares examples of people who gain creative insights when periods of hard work were followed by periods of relaxation.  He shares some research on how different parts of the brain are activated by each activity and compliment the creative process.  (Though his book was pulled out of publication for some fabrication of quotes and plagiarism of quotes-it is still a fascinating exploration of the creative process.)

IMG_6795Scientists call that relaxed time following a period of problem solving the “incubation period” for ideas.  This time actually distracts our subconscious mind from the fixation on problem solving and allows your mind to wander and experience new insights.   As Lehrer asserts, “When our minds are at ease–when those alpha waves are rippling through the brain–we’re more likely to direct the spotlight of attention inward, toward that stream of remote associations emanating from the right hemisphere. In contrast, when we are diligently focused, our attention tends to be directed outward, toward the details of the problems we’re trying to solve. While this pattern of attention is necessary when solving problems analytically, it actually prevents us from detecting the connections that lead to insights.”  So our brains need periods of distraction to direct new patterns of thinking-we relax some areas of our brains and activate others when we allow our minds time to relax.

Being ‘in the moment’ at a sunset.

Neuroscientist, Alice Flaherty suggests that levels of dopamine are increased with relaxed and pleasurable activity and that higher levels of dopamine leads to more creativity.  She claims, “People vary in terms of their level of creative drive according to the activity of the dopamine pathways of the limbic system.”  So our bodies need a break from work and need to engage in recreation, exercise and pleasurable activity in order to increase dopamine.  We need our ‘down time’.

Sure this can come in short bursts of evenings or weekends, but we often have other responsibilities that demand our attention outside of the classroom.  We don’t often schedule relaxing breaks or give ourselves some much needed “me” time. We often have families or other jobs that require our attention.  It is often easier to relax when we have prolonged periods of time that aren’t over scheduled with jobs and tasks, when we don’t feel guilty about ‘doing nothing’!  When we break out of our ‘routines’ we are allowing our brains to work differently.  Different is good!

Researchers also note that creative ideas which spring from relaxed states are often fleeting and that it is important to capture it when it occurs.  When you are out on a run, or relaxing at the beach or lying late in bed and those creative juices are simmering, it is vital that you have some way to note or record ideas that emerge.  I keep a notebook next to my bed and in my purse for those times.  I also recently started using an app on my phone to record ideas when I am out running or walking.  I refused to let myself feel guilt during the past week of vacation when I wanted to lie in awhile longer, or just sit and listen to birds or go for long walks and let some daily tasks just wait.  I tried to do as little school work as possible and found myself ‘chomping at the bit’ by the end of break to try out some new ideas.

Taking some time for birdwatching!

I’m not a scientist, and I know this is an oversimplification of the neuroscientific brain processes, but it is a start in my thinking.  It supports the common sense hypothesis I hold that to be the best teachers we can be, we need to live full, rich lives.  We cannot give what we don’t have.  We cannot think outside of the box, when we are trapped in the box.

Most teachers I know are busy, multi-taskers.  We are also purposeful in what we choose to do.  I think it is important to be reminded that relaxing is purposeful, that it is good for you, and what is good for you could ultimately be good for your students.  You don’t have to take my word for it.  Do your own reading and action research (or inaction!) and see what you find. Just be sure to keep a notebook handy when those creative ideas start flowing!  That’s my prescription for creative teaching for this week!





Lehrer, Jonah. Imagine: how creativity works. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Print.

John Salamone
John Salamone

What’s on My Book Radar?

With vacation week, came some increased time for reading.   I had read Kate Messner’s book Real Revision as I looked at the writing process through author’s eyes, but I hadn’t yet read any of her works of fiction.  One, Capture the Flag, made it to the Maine Student Book Award List for last year, but I just hadn’t gotten to it.  A recent book fair at one of my schools led me to purchase Eye of the Storm, which had made it to several other states’ book award lists.  So I started reading the former by myself, and the latter with my son.  I must say, they each pulled me right in and I am anxious to see how the strong child characters she has created will resolve some immensely adult problems!


Watch the trailer: Capture the Flag


Watch the trailer:  Eye of the Storm