Archive for July, 2009

Poetry Friday: Warm Summer Sun

It’s finally summer in Maine. To celebrate that, here is a poem from Mark Twain:

Warm Summer Sun

Warm summer sun,
    Shine kindly here,
Warm southern wind,
    Blow softly here.
Here is the rest of the poem…
Don’t forget to submit your own poem about your teaching life for our poetry contest. Send your poems by Sept. 1 to

Add comment July 31st, 2009

Classroom blogs: Where do I begin?

Are you thinking about starting your very own classroom blog? Gresham Brown, a fourth-grade teacher from Greenville, South Carolina shared some good advice recently about how he started and maintains his own active, lively classroom blog.

But if you are just in the “thinking about” phase of starting your classroom blog, we have a guest blogger who knows how you feel. Amanda Villagomez is a middle school language arts and social studies teacher at a dual immersion school in eastern Oregon. She and her teaching partner are just beginning to explore blogging platforms like Edublogs to host their classroom blog. Amanda will share her experiences as she thinks about how best to use the blog to benefit her students, how to get parents involved, and how to keep the blog active and engaging throughout the year. This is her first entry in a series.

I started blogging regularly a little over a year ago after seeing how much my sister was enjoying hers. This spring as I was getting more familiar with the process, I started to consider how much a classroom blog would be beneficial for my classroom. Not only would it be a resource for parents with Internet access to have frequent glimpses into what is going on in my class, but it would also provide students with a permanent record of classroom related materials that they can access from their laptops at school. It will also be one more venue for them to do real world writing, such as book reviews. They can also practice their speaking skills via podcasting. The possibilities seem endless.

Although I was more familiar with Blogger, I was interested in Edublogs since it is created specifically for education and has the capability for teachers to create individual student blogs linked to the class blog. Even though I am planning on testing out student blogs with a few students who express interest before introducing them to the class as a whole, I wanted to start out with the platform that would be most useful long term. I also appreciated the different settings Edublogs has available to consider Internet safety and to make it easier for teachers to moderate the blogs.

I mentioned the idea of a classroom blog to my new teaching partner, and she was also interested. Last week we set up our individual Edublog accounts and started exploring. While many of my Blogger experiences transfer over to Edublogs, which uses WordPress, there is still plenty to figure out with the new format. Luckily, the site also provides a lot of support and tutorial videos for teachers new to blogging. As I have started looking around, it looks like it will have some useful features not available on Blogger as well, such as pages and capabilities to upload a wider variety of files.

For now my class blog only has a welcome message, and I intend to keep the blog simple until we have our back to school meeting right before school starts. In order for the blog to be effective, I need to make sure that it is not overwhelming from the start. As the year gets underway I will be able to introduce each new piece to students as I add them on until they get more familiar with the blog features.

The most important part for me in this stage of starting my first classroom blog is to just jump right in and start experimenting. As a long-term goal I will get my students set up with their own blogs, but first I want to get to know Edublogs and familiarize students with the concept of blogging. It will also give me a chance to explore the site and make sure that Edublogs will fit our needs. Although I am hoping Edublogs will be a great fit, I am open to switching to another site if necessary. It would be a lot easier for me to switch our one classroom blog, rather than having to also switch my 50 middle schoolers’ blogs as well. As with any new experience, I am going to begin the year knowing that it will take a while to completely implement this new component to my classroom and take it one step at a time.

Visit Amanda’s professional blog Snapshots of Mrs. V and her classroom blog. What are some of your thoughts and questions as you start your own classroom blog?

5 comments July 30th, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Is Reading to Kids Women’s Work?

This week’s Quick Tip comes from Leanna Landsmann’s syndicated A+ Advice column. A reader asked her recently about how she could get her husband more involved in reading to their kids. Leanne turned to Jane Baskwill, author of Getting Dads on Board for the answer.

Is reading to kids ‘women’s work’?

Question of the Week: I read with our young children nightly. I enjoy it, but it takes time. Since my husband was furloughed and I work two jobs, I asked him to take it over, but he says “women” do a better job. How can I get him to pitch in?

This is a more typical “guy” reaction than you might think. While many dads love “reading hour,” some think they need special skills when it comes to boosting kids’ literacy development. Not true!

Dads are very important to their child’s literacy learning, says Dr. Jane Baskwill, a reading educator who coaches teachers on involving fathers. “Fathers are role models. Whenever a child sees a dad reading — whether to look up information, follow instructions to assemble a toy or simply for pure enjoyment — the child starts to value reading.”

Studies show that children whose dads read with them do better academically, exhibit more social competence, and have more confidence as learners. Data also shows that a father’s reading habits, choices and interests positively influence those of his children. Literacy activities also increase communication and strengthen father-child bonds.

Think beyond books at bedtime, says Baskwill, author of “Getting Dads on Board” (Stenhouse, 2009). “Some dads may not enjoy story hour, but they might love to share an article in the newspaper about a favorite team, work a puzzle, or enjoy reading children’s magazines or comics with kids. Encourage your husband to put his own twist on special time with your children.”

Try these activities.

TELL STORIES: With storytelling, kids learn to listen, imagine, and add to their vocabulary, says Baskwill. Find tips on effective storytelling at

PLAY GAMES AND PUZZLES: When Dad and kids share a board game or tackle a scavenger hunt, the result is conversation, inquiry and discovery. “These are easy literacy activities to extend,” says Baskwill. “For example, one dad creates scavenger hunts with his GPS. Another invented a car game called ‘Signs.’ He calls out a letter, and kids spot signs with that letter. They categorize them in a notebook. He says it’s fun, and he feels like he’s helping them with school.”

POINT OUT THE PRINT: Pointing out “environmental print” — the letters, words and logos that surround us — fans a child’s desire to read, says Baskwill. “These activities are especially good when they relate to things young children love, such as reading labels of favorite cereals and signs of places to visit. As kids get older, let them read, sort, and evaluate the family’s ‘junk’ mail. One dad creates a family scavenger hunt with Sunday’s paper supplements. Kids look forward to it each week.”

RESEARCH AND REWARD: When dads share reading about their hobbies, such as sports, fishing and cars, they’re showing kids how reading helps you keep up with things you like. A dad who is a NASCAR buff might check a fan Web site every day with kids. Conversely, he could tap into a child’s interest. Whet the “reading” appetite of a child fascinated by sharks, for example, by sharing age-appropriate books and TV shows about sharks.

A father doesn’t have to read Junie B. Jones every night to further a child’s literacy learning. “Dads can participate in ways they feel comfortable. As their confidence grows, and they see how much kids enjoy it, they will try new things and expand their involvement. The most important thing is keeping the activities easy, fun and natural. Both father and child will reap great benefits,” says Baskwill.

Copyright 2009, United Feature Syndicate, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

1 comment July 28th, 2009

Matilda meets Joan Moser

Regular readers of the Stenhouse Blog have met our office mascot Matilda before. A few weeks ago Gail Boushey and Joan Moser, “The Sisters” visited the Stenhouse office in Portland, Maine, and had a chance to bond with Matilda. Here is a short video of Matilda’s meeting with Joan to brighten your Monday.

3 comments July 27th, 2009

Poetry Friday: Introduction to Poetry

In Kelly Gallagher’s latest book, Readicide, he includes one of his favorite poems by Billy Collins. I find the words so true. Why is this attitude towards poetry so intractable?

Introduction to Poetry
by Billy Collins    

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

Read the rest of the poem here

Our poetry contest is still going on! Write a poem about your teaching life – what inspires you, what frustrates you, what your journey as a teacher is like – and send it to! The winner gets a free Stenhouse book!

2 comments July 24th, 2009

Writing contest winner

Here is the winning entry in our Mark Overmeyer writing contest. It’s from Amanda Villagomez, a middle school teacher from Oregon. Mark picked her entry for it’s “clear sense of location” and for introducing an extra character that complicated the situation.

Don’t forget that our Poetry Friday contest is still going on. Write a poem about your teaching life and send it to

Here is Amanda’s winning entry:

The metal screeched. I spun around and shot my hand out to catch it, but I was too late. The door crashed shut. Locked.

The bathroom was just two steps away, and I could barely wait. Ni modo. I didn’t have a choice. I flew up the two steps into the sunlight of the patio and peeked into the window to see Pablito still swaddled up in his blanket in the center of the bed. Approaching dangerously near him was Caro, my 3-year-old hermanita.

Maybe Javi was right. I should have stayed home, rather than spending my vacation in Mexico. I sighed as I slid the glass open,

“Caro, Caro, don’t you want to keep coloring?” I whispered, pressing my face up against the horizontal bars on the outside of the window frame.


My eyes darted across the room. There had to be some way back in.

I glimpsed the key hanging on the hook on the wall. Luckily, Caro was still at a semi-safe distance. I reached for the broom.

The bed creaked. I riveted my attention back to the window, almost dropping the broom. Caro sidled up beside Pablito. My heart thudded as I imagined having to explain if he fell on the hard tile floor.

I had to make my move quickly. The broom handle sloppily clanked through the window frame, captivating Caro’s attention.

“What are you doing, sis?”

“Just playing a little game called capture the key.”

“Can I play? Can I play?”

“Watch so you can see how it works,” I said, relieved to distract her.

I steadied the broom handle and carefully slipped it under the keys. I could feel the triumph building up. I almost had it, and Pablito was safe from Caro – for now.

The key ring was just barely on the end of the handle. I began to tilt the handle back ever so gently.

I stumbled backward as the end of the broom jammed into my bulging bladder. Startled, I saw Caro jumping up and down, keys in hand.

“Gané, gané. I captured the key.”

Ay ay ay. Think. Think. Think. Even with a throbbing headache, I just had to outsmart her.

“Oye. What do you want for a prize?”

“A mango. A mango.”

“You got it. Just hand over the keys and I will get you the best mango.”

She looked at me hesitantly and jangled the keys in her hand.

“With chile on top. I’ll sprinkle a little bit, just the way you like it.”

Jumping with glee, she passed the key through the window.

I thought my legs would collapse from relief. I sprinted back down the concrete and unlocked the tricky door in record time, ready to distract Caro with her prize while I went to the bathroom. Why hadn’t I thought of that from the start?

Mango juice was dripping down Caro’s hands and chin as Mami and Papi walked through the door, oblivious to the disaster waiting to happen just moments before.

Add comment July 23rd, 2009

Writing Contest: The results are in!

In his new book, What Student Writing Teaches Us: Formative Assessment in the Writing Workshop, Mark Overmeyer discusses how a writing prompt that might seem limiting actually helps students focus their writing. He talks about a second-grade classroom where students were excited to write about the following topic: “Your baby brother is inside the house and you are locked out and need to figure out a way to get back in.”

We challenged you to respond to this prompt with a 500-word story. We received over a dozen entries and Mark picked a winner and two runners-up. The runners-up’s stories are below – congratulations! The winning story will appear on our blog tomorrow, so check back!

What About My Baby Brother?
By Antonia Lewandowski

The neighbor’s daschund, Aggie, was in our yard again, barking like mad. I looked out the front windows. Was he chasing a raccoon or a cat? And why weren’t our neighbors home yet anyway? Along with Mom,
they’d gone to the movies. I was home with my baby brother, doing my homework and watching cop shows. Kevin-the -Cute was asleep. I’d put him to bed at the regular time, microwaved myself a dinner, and settled into the den. That’s when the dog started.

In the bright moonlight all I could see was a shadow in a frenzy.

Ruff, ruff! Woof! Growl! Something was the matter, I thought. So after checking in with Kevin, who was sleeping in spite of the racket, I slipped out the screen door. Wrong! As the door automatically clicked behind me, I realized that I had no key. Now what?

Nothing, I told myself. The cellar door is always open; I can get back. So I go across the yard, getting ready to tackle Aggie and bring her home with me, when a really loud crash stopped me short.

Roof tiles were hitting the ground, smashing my mother’s rose bushes right under Kevin’s nursery window. Four, five, six tiles. And when I look up, there’s a huge white possum looking at me from the corner of the roof. I could tell it wasn’t happy and neither was I because at that minute Kevin, who hated loud noises, started crying — no, wailing — as loud as he could.

Here we were, the dog, the possum, and me on the outside and the baby on the inside. What now? I grabbed Aggie who was hiding under a bush, threw a stone at the possum, and made for the cellar door. But it was locked too. And then I remembered we had just loaded our new washer and dryer down into the cellar. New stuff, Mom said, so we’d locked the door.

By now Kevin was raging. I visualized his sweet little squished-in face all red and that’s when I began to worry because pretty soon he’d start to hiccup or throw up and things could go from bad to worse. I was pretty scared now. Stumbling over the broken tiles, I let Aggie go and watched her run across the road and through her dog door. My problem was getting to my brother. Meanwhile, the possum was hissing at me. It looked ready to make a flying leap into my face. Wow! Think!

Just as the possum scrunched over the soffit, I grabbed the lowest bough of our old live oak tree. My hands reached a stiff, dry branch.

At the same time I lifted my feet off the ground, the possum landed above me. Together we were too much for the old tree. The giant limb where I used to have my swing cracked. It shook, then tumbled down about eight feet. Forgetting about the animal above me, I scrambled up the limb, reached Kevin’s window, lifted it and climbed in. Quickly I lifted my baby brother from his crib and snuggled him close. We were okay. The dog was safe too. And looking out the window, I thought I could still see the possum too, his eyes glittering in the moonlight.

Good Brother
By Noah Falck

The sound my feet made when as I ran through the driveway was not rhythmic but sad and added to my panic.  My two year old brother, Nicky, was locked inside alone. 

The sky was learning to become a darker shade, though not dark enough where the moon could express its geometry.  A certain kind of shock had settled inside me, which I guess was a good thing considering if I wasn’t freaking out, I wouldn’t consider myself a good brother. 

My mind kept racing around the possibilities.  Nicky falling down the basement stairs.  Nicky climbing upon the kitchen counter and knocking over the set of knives.  Nicky swallowing just about any object in the house.  Though, most of the objects in the house had already been inside his mouth.    

I know mom and dad had told me in case of an emergency to go next door to the Rilke’s and ask them for help.  Was this an emergency? Did I really need to worry poor old Mrs. Rilke, telling her that Nicky was locked inside with the oven on cooking mac and cheese?

Oh, no! I forgot about the mac and cheese. Why mac and cheese? Why not peanut butter? Cheerios?

I sprinted as fast as I could to the porch and tried to peer through the door.  It was curtained shut, as were all the windows.  I couldn’t see anything.

“Nicky! Nicky!” I yelled in a bit of a panic.  I still didn’t hear a fire detector.   I tried to stay positive. 

“Stay positive.” I remember my favorite teacher, Mrs. Schmidlapp, telling me after failing my first spelling test.  “Just remember the first word in can’t is CAN.”

Yes, stay positive.  Everything will be fine.

“Nicky, come to the front door!”  I didn’t hear anything. No thumping of feet, no falling knives, no fire detector.

In the backyard, I surveyed the house.  I noticed that one of the attic windows was left ajar.  That was the way in.  Sure, I could just go ahead and break the kitchen window with a rock, but then mom would hold that over my head until graduation. I wasn’t going to have any of that. 

I climbed the birch tree near the carport and leapt three feet onto its roof.  My footing slipped and I nearly fell backwards onto the driveway. Close. From there, I edged along mom and dad’s bedroom windows.  Just above was the attic. 

As I was about to reach for the attic window, Mrs. Rilke strolled out her backdoor with her cat, Keats.  “Now, you stay out here and think about what you’ve done,” she scolded.

I didn’t move a muscle.  A moment later and she was gone.  I pushed myself through the attic window and fell into a box of Christmas decorations.    

I heard a bleeping noise downstairs.  I heard crying.  I ran.

Downstairs Nicky was asleep on the floor.  The television was blaring a PBS fire safety show. The mac and cheese was still in its blue box unopened on the kitchen counter.  And I was sweating through my favorite skateboarding t-shirt.

Add comment July 22nd, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Finding the time for meaningful comprehension lessons

In her book, Do I Really Have to Teach Reading, Cris Tovani shows how teachers can expand on their content  expertise to provide instruction students need to understand specific technical and narrative tets. In this week’s Quick Tip, Cris talks about what teachers need to think about when faced with the decision of what to give up in order to make time for more meaningful comprehension lessons.

Not Having Our Cake and Eating It Too
I know the biggest issue for any high school teacher thinking about making changes or additions to the curriculum is time. I hear this from almost every high school teacher I’ve met with over the last few years. What we’re being asked to do is almost impossible. We’re being asked to teach ridiculous amounts of material. We’re being asked to teach kids how to read and write and think in sophisticated ways, and we’re given a very, very short time in which to do it. Something has got to give.

An English teacher recently said to me, “I want my kids to read eight novels, but they’re not doing it. What should I do?” I don’t know if he was just expressing frustration or asking me for an easy solution, but I don’t have one to give. My reply to teachers with these concerns and frustrations is this: I want to lose 30 pounds and eat chocolate cake all the time. It’s not going to happen. I have to decide if I can eat chocolate cake once a month, or cut back in a different way to lose weight.

It’s a trade-off. Only you can decide whether it is worth giving up some content for the time it takes to design comprehension instruction that means something to your students. If you don’t value the thinking strategies, you won’t give up content. If teaching kids to memorize what is in the textbook is most important to you, then this type of work won’t be very successful.

We are also putting pressure on ourselves to cover vast amounts of content. Many state standards don’t tell us that we have to teach certain novels in English classes. State standards don’t always specify what years of U.S. history we have to cover in the history curriculum. Many students will dutifully complete any strategy assignment from a teacher. After all, that’s how I found myself one night facing a desk covered with sticky notes and banal comments. But that doesn’t mean the assignment truly has any value for students, or is pushing them to think harder as readers.

I don’t know if teachers can work any harder than they’re already working, so we’ve got to find ways to make students carry more of the thinking load in our classrooms. As I walk out of school with my colleagues at the end of each day, we’re all tired. We’re carrying heavy bags of books and papers, and our shoulders are slumped.

Meanwhile, our students bound past us to the parking lot, running and jumping down the steps two at a time, full of energy. I once heard someone say, “School should not be a place where young people go to watch old people work.” We’ve got to figure out how to work smarter, because what we’re being asked to do is really a challenge.

A young teacher from my district recently came to visit my classroom. He had told his teaching teammate he was coming in to see me teach. His teammate had read some of my work and said, “Take a lot of notes and find out what she does that’s supposedly so great.” This young teacher shared that request with me. He then smiled and said, “You’re really not doing anything great. What you’re doing is something I can take back and do in my classroom.” Then he got a bit flustered and his face turned red, because he had said something that might be perceived as unkind.

I took his words as a compliment. What I’m doing is not unique or revolutionary. I use simple principles of good teaching to design comprehension lessons, activities, and materials. I give students models, time to practice, and time to think. It’s common sense, and a lot of it comes from my own process as a reader.

What Works

1. Ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” and “How will it help students think, read, or write more thoughtfully about my content?”

Teaching Point: Good readers use reading, writing, and talk to deepen their understanding of content.

2. Remember that strategies are only options for thinking. One comprehension tool is not more important than another. There is no specific order, sequence, or template for introducing strategies to students.

Teaching Point: Good readers have a variety of ways to think about text. They can make connections, ask questions, infer, and visualize, as well as sift and sort the value of different pieces of information.

3. Ask yourself as the expert of the content and the best reader in the class: “Is this activity authentic?” Would a mathematician, scientist, historian, or artist ever read in ways that approximate what you are asking of your students? If not, how could you make the activity more genuine?

Teaching Point: Good readers don’t need end-of-the-chapter questions or isolated skill sheets. They ask their own questions, based upon their need for a deeper understanding of specific aspects of the text.

4. Don’t isolate strategy instruction into discrete, individual activities from day to day. Plan lessons based on student work from the previous day, using student response as a way to analyze how thoughtfully kids are approaching text.

Teaching Point: Good readers reread and return to text to build and extend their knowledge of specific concepts, or to enhance their enjoyment of texts they have enjoyed previously.

1 comment July 21st, 2009

Poetry Friday: Code Blue

Matt Copeland, author of Socratic Circles, tried his hand at writing poetry for our Teaching Lives poetry contest. The result is today’s Poetry Friday entry. The contest is still open! Write a poem about your Teaching Life and we’ll publish it on our blog. Winners will be selected by our regular Poetry Friday poem picker, editor Bill Varner. The top five poems will receive a free Stenhouse book. Send your entries to by September 1.

by Matt Copeland

 School springs back to life just before first hour
Like a patient defibrillated upon a table.

Still, the looks from down the hall are unmistakable.�
I stand there in front of my door—
Sandwiched between the classrooms
Of Captain Worksheet on one side
And Captain Video on the other—
Thinking about the student-centered,
Innovative, creative activities
That stand waiting only a tardy bell away. 

I want to chase down tradition,
Rip her to shreds, rearrange her,
Make her more than time’s simple crutch. 

I want to address the comment made in the faculty lounge:
“Obviously he doesn’t ever teach anything,
The kids like him too much.” 

But I know I’ll never catch her in that hallway. 

In the time it takes for the command
To move from my brain to my feet,
Three more students have asked for their homework from yesterday,
Two have stopped by to inquire about my evening,
And five have smiled for the first time all morning. 

Arms crossed,
Venomous lips pursed,
Brow pinched to the thoughts of acting human,
She hovers at the far end of the hall. 

I stand in the middle,
Caught between doing what is best for kids
And staying in the good favor of tradition and her minions.

The tardy bell rings and all over the building
Classrooms fall into an arrhythmic apnea.�
I stride into my classroom—closing the door behind me—
And stare into 28 bright faces, pencils ready, eager to learn.�
“Nope,” I want to scream to the heavens
At the top of my lungs,
“I never teach a single thing.”

2 comments July 17th, 2009

Upcoming fall titles

There are many exciting titles in the works for the fall. In addition to some of the ones we mentioned in May, here is what else you can look forward to in the next couple of months:

Add comment July 16th, 2009

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