a quote from my favorite author

“The most solid advice, though, for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep, really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell, and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”

-William Saroyan, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze

Tuesday, June 26, 2012


My friendship with Dena began with the sharing of a book. 

I had admired the way she flourished into the classroom with the costume for her latest starring role on our high school stage.  I envied the way she spoke during the impromptu speech unit without the slightest hint that she was reaching for an idea or that she was putting any effort into gathering her thoughts into an eloquently compact message. 

I was the weird new girl.  Nobody spoke to me.  But Dena always smiled.  She always said, “Hello!”  Sometimes she even asked me what I was reading.  Even in those days, I always carried a book.  I have always loved to read, but during my sophomore year in high school, after moving from the deep woods of northern Wisconsin back to a suburb of Chicago, books also served as a means of acting aloof or, as in Dena’s case, a topic of conversation. 

And so it happened that I lent her my copy of A Creative Companion: Ways to Free Your Creative Spirit by SARK.  I saw her as an artsy soul who would appreciate SARK’s words and images.  I was right. 

A few days later, she returned the book tucked inside a shopping bag.  At first I wondered if she didn’t want anyone to see what she was handing me, but when I peeked inside I discovered something else.  Something better.  The kind of something on which friendships are built.  She had painted a picture for me.  On the back she had written the title: Dreamsleep.  It was an image inspired by SARK’s words.

And so, a friendship was born.  Over the years, Dena and I have shared lots of books.  In high school, we discovered that we hadn’t read each other’s favorite childhood reads.  So, she lent me her copy of Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli and I lent her my treasured copy of Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson.  Again, she thanked me with artwork.  This time it was a collage with this quote at its center:

Jess didn't concern himself with what would "become of it". For the first time in his life he got up every morning with something to look forward to. Leslie was more than his friend. She was his other, more exciting self—his way to Terabithia and all the worlds beyond. 

So, on Friday when I was at the All-Write Conference, sitting {next to Ruth Ayres!} in Donalyn Miller’s session Wild About Reading*, and she asked us to think of an avid reader we knew and list everything about that person that tells us he/she is a reader (no academic-related evidence allowed), it was only natural that I think of Dena.  This is how I know Dena is a reader:

·      she shares book with others, gives them as gifts, tries to match books to readers
·      she volunteers in the library at her son’s school
·      she posts facebook status updates about books
·      she writes blog posts about how books affect her life
·      she allows books to impact her life
·      she displays books in her home, and she makes room for book storage
·      reading is part of her daily schedule with her son
·      she takes books with her all the time
·      she is intentional about taking/making time to read
·      she has reading plans—a ‘to be read’ list and a ‘maybe someday’ list
·      she rereads books she loves
·      she likes certain kinds of books, she knows her tastes as a reader (but is always open to trying something new)
·      she has a library card
·      she reads in multiple formats (online, electronic book, hard copy)
·      she always has lots to talk to about no matter who she encounters—grand background knowledge
·      she remembers what she reads

This is all I had time to list during the time allotted, but I am sure I could go on.  Dena’s life, like mine, is rich with reading experience and a heartfelt passion for story.  Story nourishes the roots of our friendship and is the sunlight we extend our branches towards.  It is our way to Terabithia and all the worlds beyond.

*Donalyn Miller’s session was about identifying the habits of lifelong readers and finding ways to explicitly teach those habits to our students.  It is the topic of the book on which she is currently working.  And it is exactly what I didn’t know I needed to hear next as a workshop teacher. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


It all started with Barnes & Noble gift cards.  My husband had a significant amount of money in B&N gift cards from credit card reward points—free money—that he was handing off to me to spend.  So, I started building up my wishlist.  I had it organized into my must-haves and my need-to-have-at-some-points.  I tucked the list into my purse and we headed off to run errands.  Only to find out that the B&N near our errands had closed (replaced by Buy Buy Baby, which is another story entirely). 

So, I had this unquenched thirst for a shopping trip to B&N.  In an effort to choose the best B&N to visit, since three of them are located equal distance from my house, I consulted my laptop.  I searched all of my must-haves to find which B&N had the most of them.  Only to find out that NONE of the stores near me had ANY of them. 

So, I had this unquenched thirst for books that I had decided I must-have (it said so right there on my list).  In an effort to hydrate my book-loving soul, I again consulted my laptop.  However this time I visited the site for Anderson’s Bookshops, which (like always) had ALL of the books for which I thirsted.  But for which I did NOT have gift cards. 

Why let that stop me?

So, I headed to Anderson’s, which just so happens to be located near some grand gift stores.  For which I also did NOT have gift cards. 

Why let that stop me?

So, I headed to Paper Source.  It seems like the kind of store that was invented just for me (though I suspect a large number of people feel that way).  Although I would like to purchase the entire inventory of the store for myself, I reminded myself that spending money is more likely to feel guilt-free when I am spending it on gifts for others.  So, I thought of every possible person in my life who could use a gift and every possible occasion for gift giving.  Mostly that means my nieces.  They can always use what I fondly call aunt-crap—you know, the kinds of gifts that are more about the joy I find in giving them than the joy they find in getting them? 

I walked out of Paper Source armed with gifts aplenty for my nieces’ birthday/un-birthday and lake house swag bags. 
Pillows, Smash Journal accessories, and owl lip balm

So, I really didn’t have any reason to stop at Anderson’s gift shop Two Doors East. 

Why let that stop me?

In a matter of minutes I walked out of there with a bag overflowing with more gifts for the nieces.  Did you know Two Doors East sells squirrel underwear?!?  What niece doesn’t want to arrive at the lake house to find squirrel underwear tucked inside her swag bag??  Like I said: aunt-crap. 
Magnetic Boards and Kelly Rae Roberts magnet sets
Who doesn't need squirrel underpants?

I did finally make it to Anderson’s to load up on all the books I’ve been hearing about on Twitter.  I now have books aplenty to read for the Summer Throwdown.

But, why let that stop me?

So, I stopped at B&N on the way home, too.

Monday, June 18, 2012


I hemmed.  I hawed.  I bit the bullet and joined the Teachers Write challenge hosted primarily by Kate Messner.

I had big plans.  I had good intentions.  Then summer took hold of me. 

I could whine about why the challenge has turned out to not be a good fit for me  (blog posts are too long to read and focus because they are chock full of good information and not at all skimmable, too many fascinating links to eat up valuable writing time, such an overwhelming amount of participants that makes it difficult to feel part of a community, the thought of cozying up that giant community with a critique group—YIKES!), but that’s not really the point here.

End result:  I hemmed.  I hawed.  I decided to gracefully bow out of the Teachers Write challenge.

(…but this does not mean I am not a writer, right?)

I still have plans to write.  And I still have good intentions.  I am just shedding the pressure of the challenge.  (I still plan to stalk the challenge from a quiet distance to glean all the goodness I can when it fits my life) [yes I realize I don’t have to quit the challenge entirely in order to stalk from a distance and participate as desired, but if you know me, you know not being able to fully follow-through on my commitment does mean I have to quit the challenge]

So…what better way to shift my focus from the Teachers Write challenge of my summer-past than to join the Summer Throwdown reading challenge! #summerthrowdown

The challenge starts TODAY!  And to top it all off, I found time to read the last 100 pages of Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler this afternoon.  So I already have a book to log for my team.  This is a good-natured contest between teachers and librarians.  My team, Team Teachers, is already in the lead.  Just saying.  

And it is my favorite kind of contest: a contest where everyone wins because everyone reads!

I am adding another layer to the challenge, but the challenge itself is simple: read and log your progress.  In addition to reading, I plan to blog about every book I finish (and love) on my book blog: Beyond the Middle.  Books I don’t love I might talk about here since I only post positive reviews on my book blog. (The whole point is to keep my former students reading beyond the time they spend in my classroom, so why post about a book I wouldn’t recommend?

Will you join me?  Get started at one of my favorite book review blogs: Heise Reads and Recommends!

Thursday, June 14, 2012


{ . . . a day late, but who’s counting?}

A writer’s words:

“Usually I don’t write until know what I want to write.”

“I don’t write the first draft and then practically throw it away, as I understand some authors do.  I pretty much try to get it right the first time.”

“I think that reading aloud helps you detect things in the story that you might otherwise not notice.”

What I can learn from these words:

I can rehearse a piece of writing in my head before writing.

I can write-off-the-page (a technique I learned from Nancie Atwell) before I begin writing to get my ideas organized.  I can continue writing-off-the-page throughout my draft to plan before I write.

I can revise as I draft.

I can read my draft aloud (as a whole or in pieces) to help me find ways to strengthen my writing.

How I might approach this teaching point with my 8th graders in writers’ workshop:

In a few days, our writer’s workshop time will be focused on drafting ______________ .  Start thinking about what you might want to write about.  Where might you begin?  Where might your writing take you?

Before drafting today, try writing-off-the-page to gather your ideas.  Some writers like to jump write into the writing, but today we are going to try a new strategy to see if it might work for us. (return to this technique mid-draft)

As you are drafting today, pause to reread what you have written and make changes on the spot to strengthen your writing while it’s still fresh. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


Have you ever had one of those nights when you thought you were surely going to be broadsided by a bus on your way home because the night was just that perfect, just that complete, that you were certain you had somehow used up all the goodness you are allowed in one lifetime?  I hope you have.  Had one of those nights, I mean (NOT been broadsided by a bus).

Sunday night, my husband and I made our way through downtown Chicago to the Green Mill Jazz Club.  And on our way home, I was sure we would be broadsided by a bus. 

I gripped the steering wheel tightly and stayed alert the whole way home because I wanted the opportunity to hold on to the memory of what we’d experienced long enough for it to become part of me.  Part of us.

Having never been to a live poetry slam before, my husband and I didn’t know exactly what to expect.  Which turned out only to make it all the more thrilling to be there. 

The Green Mill Jazz Club is a Chicago original.  It is filled with hazy air and circular booths and little café tables and a carpeted stage and jazz music and the scent of time and words and fried food.

When we got there, it was already pretty crowded and we weren’t sure we’d be able to find a seat other than a crescent shaped booth all the way in back by the door.  But in true poetry house style, Marc Smith (the father of slam poetry himself), welcomed us into the throng of poets by gesturing at an empty table up front.  Empty probably because it was pressed against the stage, intimately close to the performing poets and musicians, but I was happy to find a table in the midst of the action. 

I was there to see Sarah Kay in particular, in her first ever Chicago appearance.  However, as soon as we sat down, I knew I was in for much more.  Seated at the table directly across from us was Taylor Mali, most famous probably for his poem “What Teachers Make.”  Leaning down, chatting with him, was Sarah Kay. 

This glimpse of what we were in for was enough to soothe my soul.  These are the moments I consider to be our first true moments of summer break. 

Marc Smith took the stage first, and did some kitschy audience response routine to introduce this Sunday’s edition of the weekly poetry slam at the Green Mill.  Then we were treated to some open mic accompanied by improvised support from the jazz band.  And by improvised, I really mean improvised.  The band was given vague direction by the poets, such as, “Give me something that sounds like a sea turtle diving.”  It’s a good thing poets and jazz musicians speak the same language.

After the open mic, Taylor Mali took the stage with poems like: “Miracle Workers” and “The The Impotence of Proofreading.”  Listening to him, I felt proud to be a teacher.  A feeling I don’t often experience outside the walls of my classroom these days.

Taylor Mali was followed by Sarah Kay, whose performance included the poems:
Point B,” “Montauk,” and “A Love Letter from Toothbrush to the Bicycle Tire.”  I got goosebumps from the rhythm of her words.  There is magic in the way she uses language.

The final segment of the night was the actual poetry slam, which made me wonder why I had been so intimidated by the idea of poetry slams up to this point.  I am not a conventionally competitive person, so the unconventionally competitive nature of the slam suited me well.  A poetry slam is an atmosphere of audience interaction and a celebration of spoken word, honesty, and bravery more than it is a competition.  Surely this poetry slam energy needs to go straight from the Green Mill to my classroom next year!

My husband and I soaked up as much of the goodness of poetry as we could before we left Green Mill Sunday night, but even with the power of all of those words pumping through our veins, the first thing we said to each other when we got into the car to head home was, “When do you want to go back?”
Me with Sarah Kay

Me with Taylor Mali

Wednesday, June 6, 2012


I have decided to jump toes first into TeachersWrite, a virtual summer writing camp for teachers and librarians hosted by Kate Messner.  As part of this challenge, my goal is to write every day (and make an effort to post nearly as often).  Wednesdays at camp are about Questions & Answers with writer-mentors.  So, I’ve decided to do my own version of reflection here.  I have loads of quotes from writers just waiting to be harvested.  When I first heard Katie Wood Ray speak, she talked about keeping the inspirational words of writers on index cards to teach from.  Wednesday posts throughout the summer will be my version of those index cards.

A writer’s words:

“I don’t know why, but if I’m working on a book, it will cause ideas for two more.  I’ve currently got 130 ideas for books.  I’ll never catch up.”

-Gary Paulsen, source: Author Talk edited by Leonard S.Marcus

What I can learn from these words:

Writing causes new ideas. 
It is okay to have ideas I don’t ever write about—my writing territories list is not a “to do” list, but rather a list of writing possibilities.

How I might approach this teaching point with my 8th graders in writers’ workshop: 

As you write today, notice new ideas that bubble to the surface of your mind.  Be intentional about recording these ideas—add them to your list of writing territories.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


I am participating in Teachers Write!, a summer writing camp for teachers and librarians hosted by Kate Messner.  If you haven't already joined, what are you waiting for?

Today's challenge was to write about a place, then revise for sensory details.  I couldn't limit myself to the required paragraph.  Go figure.  I guess I have lots to say.

When I talk about the Northwoods of Wisconsin, I can’t help but get a sparkle in my eyes.  The first real conversation I had with my husband was about just that—the Northwoods of Wisconsin.  I recognized the sparkle in his eyes as we talked, a reflection of my own affinity for one of the most incredible places on earth. 

The summer between my 6th and 7th grade school years, my family decided to leave the suburbs of Chicago and move to a peninsula between two lakes in St. Germain, Wisconsin.  We had a vacation home that had begun to call our names with greater and greater strength.  It was as if we were being called home.

When I stood in the living room, my feet pinched by the beveled edges of the hardwood floor, I could see water on either side of me.  Lake Content was a small, calm lake.  Perfect for a private backyard retreat.  Perfect for a canoe ride, for wildlife watching, for studying native plants and trees.  Big St. Germain Lake was just the opposite.  A large, roudy body of water fit for being noticed, for pontooning, for swimming (day or night if I was feeling bold enough).

Some of my most important days were lived in those woods.  But when I think of that Northwoods home, the moment that I carry with me is a quiet one. 

I sit at the edge of the pier, dangling my feet off the edge, into the water.  I hear the hum of boats in the distance, the voices of fisherman loud enough to float over the water, but not quite clear enough to make out their words.  I watch the minnows swim around my feet, relieved, knowing their presence is a sign that there is no bass lurking under the pier waiting for a juicy toe to bite into.  The steady beat of a woodpecker calls my attention to the tree on the shore behind me, but not long enough to miss the regal wingspread of the bald eagle dipping through the air off the point. A dragonfly buzzes past, landing deftly on the water’s surface, bobbing on the gentle waves.  I watch it carefully to be sure its wings remain dry enough to ensure its flight once again.  I am alone—a peaceful loneliness wrapped in the company and bustle of the natural world around me.  I am alone.  My eyes sparkle.