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, October 29, 2013


The Liebster Award is given by nomination from a fellow blogger.  It’s an award for small bloggers made to encourage one another.  Liebster is a German word for “sweetest, kindest, nicest, dearest, beloved, kind, pleasant, valued, cute, endearing & welcome.”

This week, I was surprised and flattered with a little Liebster encouragement from my Estonian friend, Terje (who blogs at Just for a Month).  I am always charmed (enchanted, even) by Terje’s words.  She has such an endearing way with language and never fails to come up with a clever approach to her blog posts.  I also follow her on Pinterest and find her taste in artwork just as inviting as her writing.  It is amazing to be connecting with someone so far away.  To have her recognition like this means a great deal to me; the honor alone is special, but to be honored by someone whose writing I so admire is truly meaningful.  Plus, I suspect she knows me better than many of the people I interact with daily know me.  That makes me smile.

My duties as a Liebster recipient are to answer some questions to introduce myself and to pass the honor on to a blogger I know and love.  Here goes:

Why did you start blogging? 
After silently lurking around the Two Writing Teachers blog for months, I decided to try the Slice of Life challenge.  My first attempt was not what I would consider successful, but I stuck with it and eventually got the hang of this blogging thing. 

What is your favorite book?  
Ahh!  Authors always say this question is like being asked which child is your favorite.  I think the same goes for readers.  How can I choose just one?  Answer: I can’t.  So, my answers right now are...

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli is a book I can read again and again and like more and more each time.  I admire the poetic quality of the prose.

The Human Comedy by William Saroyan is a classic that I fell in love with in high school.  It is about a young boy who has a job as a messenger during WWII.  It is a coming of age story with Saroyan’s trademark philosophical ponderings threaded throughout.  I collect first editions and old copies of Saroyan’s work. 

What Came from the Stars by Gary D. Schmidt is a future classic.  The more closely I study this text, the more deeply I love it.  In fact, all of Gary D. Schmidt’s work is worth this kind of study.

Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo is my favorite of her books.  The Magician’s Elephant is a close second, though.  Reading Kate DiCamillo is the book equivalent of wrapping yourself in the comfort of a thick, fluffy old quilt.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer.  This book made me fall in love with books written for grown-ups again.  I had given up on them for so long. 

What makes you laugh out loud? 
My husband (even his fart jokes).  And the latest episodes of Modern Family.  Often my 8th graders—for instance this conversation today:
S1: My friend’s cat had kittens.  I named one Cookie Monster.  When it was 6 days old, her dog ate it.  Then he threw it back up.
S2 (obviously misunderstanding the gravity of the previous story…and the fact that kittens can’t survive inside a dog’s stomach):  Do you still have it?

What is your favorite social media?  
I don’t know what I would do without Twitter, Blogger, and Pinterest.  I am pretty addicted to Pinterest.  It is like a hobby.  Or an illness. 

Who would play you in a movie? 
Alyson Hannigan.  She is one of those stars who looks like a regular old Joe. And I am a regular old Joe. 

How long have you been blogging?
Since March 2010.

What is the most annoying song in the universe? 
At the risk of offending, I cannot stand the Christmas song “Carol of the Bells.”  Something about the frantic pace of it makes me tense.  If it is playing while I am out shopping, I will all of a sudden start rushing without even processing it is my physical reaction to that song.

What time of day do you write? 
Nighttime.  Always.  I am a night owl.  Plus, writing is one of those things that I do for myself.  Because it just feels good.  So, it often gets pushed to the end of my list of things to do for the day.

What part of your home is your favorite? 

I am especially fond of my little work area tucked into a corner of our main living space.  It contains a chicken wire bulletin board my husband made, an antique jelly cabinet my husband bought me, and an antique typewriter.  It makes me happy; however, the best part of my home is wherever my dogs are cuddling.  They are the therapy in fuzzy form.

What is your favorite recipe?  
I make the yummiest vanilla fudge, and it is so easy!

2 bags of Nestle Premier White Morsels (12 oz)
2/3 cup of sweetened condensed milk
1 jar of marshmallow fluff (7.5 oz)
1/4 cup of butter or margarine (one-half stick)

Place White Morsels in microwavable bowl.
Microwave on DEFROST setting until completely melted, stirring occasionally. (approx. 10 minutes, stir every 2-3 minutes)
Stir in melted butter.
Heat marshmallow fluff and stir it in.
Add 2/3 cup of sweetened condensed milk.
Keep stirring until the fudge mix is one consistent shade of off-white.
Pour fudge into a foil lined 9x9 brownie pan.
Smooth the top so that it is even.
Refrigerate for a few hours until firm.
Cut into squares and serve.
Keep refrigerated and store in an airtight container

What is your favorite season?
I’ve always liked fall best.  Sweaters, jeans, and scarves are an indication of perfect weather to me.  I like the sound of leaves crunching under foot.  However, I am also a fan of summer sunshine and sparkling white snow.  Really, spring is the only season with which I don’t really get along.  Rain, humidity, and allergies make for a long three months.

How fun it is to pretend I am giving you information you wanted to know!  Now, for the best part…I get to share the goodness.  So, my Liebster award goes to Deb Day.  You can find her blogging at Coffee with Chloe.  I was lucky enough to be allowed into her classroom last spring to see the amazing work she does with her high school students.  In fact, she doesn’t even know this yet, but I started a middle school speech team at our school because she makes it sound like so much fun in high school.  Plus, she has an incredibly cute (and talented) writing dog. 

Saturday, October 26, 2013

in which I CELEBRATE Lehman, Roberts, and Kittle

Ruth Ayres is hosting a Saturday link-up!  Join us by clicking the link below.

Participating in the Heinemann Webinar Let’s Talk About Your Readers with Chris Lehman, Kate Roberts, and Penny Kittle was just the nudge I needed to deepen and solidify the work Paulsen’s words had begun. 

Friday after school, I met with some colleagues for our weekly staff Write Club.  Each week we read a short piece, complete a quick write in response, and share our writing (of course we do much more than that—laugh, cry, vent, grow—but this is the basic structure of our time).  This week, I had chosen “The Lanyard” by Billy Collins.  Initially, I thought I might write my own piece in response focusing on the passion, knowledge, and dedication I bring to my job, and counter it with the mandates, clipboards, and negative feedback I get in response. 

However, I just couldn’t muster up the negative energy (which had come so easily over the past few weeks) to write such a piece.  Instead, I found myself focusing on a line of the poem that I hadn’t fully appreciated the first few times I’d read the poem:  and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered.  This time, with the words of Lehman, Roberts, and Kittle still lingering in my heart, the whispered gift of two clear eyes to read the world tugged at my sleeve, calling to be noticed, hoping to be admired.

I started to think about reading the world—closely reading the world.  I started to think about choice and the role it plays.  And I wondered why I have been choosing to closely read the parts of the world I have been lately.  This reminded me of the words of Ruth AyresLife is for celebration, not survival.  Why had I been focusing on the parts of my world I feel I have to endure instead of the parts of my world that sustain me?

And you know that part of the Grinch’s story where his heart grows?  I felt that happening for me.  The black outer layer started to crack away to reveal a pink, fleshy interior, as if someone had finally sprinkled water on the dry, parched ground of my teacher soul. 

I whispered a new choice—a choice to focus my two clear eyes to read closely the parts of the world that matter.

I choose to focus on Chris Lehman’s idea that close reading is a particular type of thinking about text, a habit readers can choose to use while reading; it is NOT all of reading, NOT an entire curriculum, NOT a list of text-dependent questions.

I choose to focus on Kate Robert’s thoughts about the purpose for close reading being to raise engagement and joy for reading.

I choose to focus on what Chris Lehman said when he was summarizing Kate Robert’s ideas about close reading being an interaction between a text and reader rather than the act of finding of a truth inside of a text.

I choose to focus on Penny Kittle’s practice of closely reading her students, and Chris Lehman’s thoughts about students being our curriculum.

I choose to focus on Penny Kittle’s idea that part of our job is to create a love reading, which leads to the development of non-cognitive qualities that are critical to future success (see How Children Succeed by Paul Tough): persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence.

I choose to focus on Penny Kittle’s words about taking time for what really matters in our classrooms: Without conferring I can’t reach my readers.

I choose to focus on Penny Kittle’s declaration that every text is worth reading closely, and students should be making choices about what they are closely reading.

I choose to focus on Penny Kittle’s ideas about text complexity needing to start where kids are, that it is okay for students to end the year in different places when it comes to text complexity.  This kind of differentiation is good practice, she says.

I choose to focus on Penny Kittle’s idea that the more control she gives her students, the more they read.

I choose to focus on Chris Lehamn’s words about the Common Core State Standards: They are all about independence.

I choose to focus on what matters.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013


I have been feeling lost lately.  I have been feeling distant from myself.  I have been feeling disconnected from what really matters.  And I have been downright crabby.

So, Saturday morning, knowing I had an hour of wait time to fill during an oil change and tire rotation, I grabbed a couple of old notebooks to reread.  My hope was that sifting through past notes, wise words, and thoughts I’d forgotten I ever had would offer a spark, perhaps even awaken something inside of me. 

I ended up taking new notes on my old notes.  I marked passages that I intend to revisit soon.  And I came across this gem from Gary Paulsen’s address to teachers at the Illinois Reading Council Conference a couple years ago: 

Boy, did these words ever awaken something inside of me!  Paulsen’s advice was like fuel for my soul.  Don’t let them grind at me.  Is that what I was allowing to happen?  Well, not anymore.  Thanks to Gary Paulsen.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

in which I CELEBRATE this week

Ruth Ayres’ one little word this year is shine.  She never ceases to amaze me by the way she lives her beliefs.  Her one little word is no exception.  The CELEBRATE This Week link-up she is hosting is just one of the many ways she shines warm light into my life.  Won’t you consider linking up with us?

one.  I started this week in the company of a three-year-old.  My oldest friend (we’ve been friends since second grade, she is not old herself), her husband, and their daughter joined my husband and me at my dad’s house in Indiana for Columbus Day weekend.  I think this is obvious cause for celebration, but moments that made this extra special include A telling us to be her darling cows while she pretended to be the cow mama.  When her father complied by letting out a deep, “Moooo,” she ordered us to sound like darling cow children by using our pink voices.  Here she is sharing Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons with my dad’s partner:
two.  Yesterday I had to give my students their third district common assessment for language arts this school year.  But since this is about celebration, I won’t dwell on that issue.  It is simply significant to note because following the multiple choice style beatdown, we shifted the energy in the room by having what Ruth calls in her newest book, Celebrating Writers, a ‘Silent Celebration.’ 

I mounted student poems on large sheets of butcher paper.  These were scattered around the room in a ‘Gallery of Poetry.’  Each student chose a fun colorful pen.  Mozart played softly in the background.  I briefly set the stage with a tightrope visual, discussing comments that offer the kind of strong support I expect and the lenses through which students might respond (as a human, as a reader, as a writer).  Students moved around the room, visiting each others’ words, offering celebratory responses. 

At the end of class, I heard evidence of the power of celebration in the words of my students as they walked out of the classroom:
“Class flew by today.  I hate when class is so good and it is over too quickly.” 
“I didn’t know people would think these things about my poem.”
“These comments are like food in word form.  I feel full.”
“I should’ve just put my name on my poem.  I had no reason to worry about what people would say.”
“I had no idea D could write like that.  His poem was amazing.”
They had already forgotten the 45 minutes spent bubbling in answers. 

three.  This week is ending with freshly groomed pups at my side, the last Chicago FIRE soccer game (complete with hopes for making the playoffs) on the television, warm pumpkin seeds straight from the oven, and words on the page (thanks to Ruth and Terje for nudges to find joy this week).