Archive for November, 2011

Questions & Authors: Using short texts with struggling readers

In a recent post author Pat Johnson (One Child at a Time, Catching Readers Before They Fall) talked about guided reading with struggling readers in grades 3-6. She emphasized using short texts with these students whenever possible. In this latest installment of Questions & Authors, Pat talks in more detail about what kinds of short texts she suggests.

I often recommend that teachers in upper elementary grades use short texts for struggling readers during guided reading. It’s so much easier to focus in on the students’ comprehension, or lack of understanding, when the lesson is centered on a poem, short story, or something equally as short. On occasion a teacher will ask, “But where do I find these short texts?”

My list of short texts includes five ideas: poetry, non-fiction articles, short stories or vignettes, excerpts from the book you are reading aloud to the whole class, and picture books.

Poetry. Poems often say a lot in very few words. They are perfect opportunities for students to dig deeper and create the meaning behind the poem. They can be read and reread easily enough and struggling readers often discover more each time they experience the poem. Poetry abounds with metaphors, figurative language, subtle humor, and other inferring opportunities. Take Jean Little’s poem called “Clothes” in her book  Hey, World Here I Am. She uses the first stanza to talk about what’s great about new clothes and then the second stanza to say why old clothes are so terrific also. But it’s the last line that gets kids delving deeper into the poem’s meaning. “You know, it’s a funny thing… Friends are like clothes.”

Non-fiction articles. Many teachers worry that in order to match their upper grade struggling readers with appropriate texts, they have to use “baby books.” There is nothing babyish about non-fiction articles. Check out some of the interesting topics in kids magazines, such as, Muse, Click, National Geographic for Kids, Time for Kids, and so on. I’ve learned so much about giant squid, climbing Mt. Everest, making jam from cactus flowers, what spiders do, and more, along with the kids I work with. Struggling readers, more often than not, love non-fiction. So spend a little time in your school or public library skimming through some of those magazines and look for a few articles that would spark your students’ interests.

Short stories and vignettes. I love Cynthia Rylant’s book Every Living Thing. Each story is about a person and an animal. The stories include real dilemmas, interesting issues, and sometimes, sad endings. But they always leave the kids with lots to talk about as they negotiate the meaning of the text together, connect with the characters, and give their opinions about what happened in the plot or what should have happened. Not all of Sandra Cisneros’ short stories are appropriate for grades 3-6, however, I’ve used several of them from her books House on Mango Street and Woman Hollering Creek. Jean Little’s Hey, World, Here I Am is another great resource these short vignettes.

Excerpts from your read aloud book. I often see teachers reading aloud great chapter books to their upper grade students and I can’t think of anything better for developing community. But sometimes the discussions around these texts are dominated by the “talkers” in the classroom. Why not revisit sections of the book with struggling readers in a small group setting to offer them more opportunities to respond? Look for a part of the book that has potential for discussions beyond the literal level, like the climax of the plot or a major turning point.

Picture Books. We are so lucky to live in a time when wonderful picture books are available for upper grade students. Even though most elementary school book rooms may not have multiple copies of picture books, with a little effort you can round up three or four copies for the students in that one special guided reading group, even if the kids have to partner-up on reading them. Try any of the ones listed here and you’ll see that your struggling readers can get hooked on books, want to reread them to find more support for their opinions, and are actually willing to practice their fluency in texts like these.
Voices in the Park, Anthony Browne
Faithful Elephants, Yukio Tsuchiya
Garden of Abdul Gasazi, Chris Van Allsburg
Emma’s Rug, Allen Say
The Enemy, Davide Cali
The Bracelet, Y. Uchida
Nettie’s Trip South, Ann Turner
Freedom Summer, Deborah Wiles

1 comment November 29th, 2011


We always love to travel to conferences because we get to see you, our readers, and we get to see our authors. We all enjoy putting faces to names after corresponding by e-mail for months during the book production process. So here are a few pictures from our booth and from a little party where we all got to mingle authors, staff, and future authors.

Stenhouse editor Bill Varner with Liz Hale

Cris Tovani (left) chats with a fan at the Stenhouse booth

Jeff Anderson (back) and Terry Thompson with the newest member of the Stenhouse team, Jill Cooley

Jeff Anderson signs his new book at the booth

Kelly Gallagher and Gail Boushey have some fun at the party

The Sisters have a serious discussion with Ruth Ayres (back right) and Stacey Shubitz.

Add comment November 22nd, 2011

See you at NCTE!

We are really excited to be heading to Chicago this weekend for NCTE 2011! We hope to see you again this year at booth #303. Browse our books, meet our authors, and take advantage of our 20% show discount. Bring this coupon with you to receive a free poster. Scroll down for a full signing schedule. For a schedule of Stenhouse authors presenting at NCTE, visit our website.

Signing at the Stenhouse booth (#303):

Tim Gillespie (Doing Literary Criticism) — 12:30-1:30

Elizabeth Hale (Crafting Writers) — 12:30-1:30

Jane Baskwill (Books as Bridges, Getting Dads on Board) — 1:30-2:30

Gail Boushey & Joan Moser, “The Sisters” (The Daily 5, The CAFE Book) — 2:30-4:00

Lynne Dorfman & Rose Cappelli (Mentor Texts, Writing with Mentors) — 4:00-5:00

Mark Overmeyer (What Student Writing Teaches Us) — 4:00-5:00

Kate Messner (Real Revision) — 10:30-11:30

Katie Keier (Catching Readers Before They Fall) — 11:00-12:00

Jeff Anderson (10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know, Mechanically Inclined) — 11:30-12:30

Kelly Gallagher (Write Like This, Readicide) — 12:30-1:30

Cris Tovani (So What Do They Really Know?, Do I Really Have to Teach Reading?) — 2:00-3:00

Ruth Ayres & Stacey Shubitz (Day by Day) — 3:00-4:00

Patrick Allen (Conferring, Put Thinking to the Test) — 3:00-4:00

Janet Allen (More Tools for Teaching Content Literacy, Inside Words) — 10:00-11:00

Terry Thompson (Adventures in Graphica) — 10:00-11:00

2 comments November 15th, 2011

Greetings from Louisville

We just have a couple of days to unpack and repack our bags during this month of conferences. We just returned from Lousiville, KY, and this year’s AMLE conference — in time to fly to Chicago and NCTE later this week. Here are a few photos from our booth at AMLE and stay tuned for more information on our author signings and whereabouts at NCTE. See you in the Windy City!

Erik Palmer, author of Well Spoken, chats with a fan

Herb Broda (left), author of Moving the Classroom Outdoors, and Rick Wormeli, author of Metaphors & Analogies, shared a signing table

Stenhouse editor Philippa Stratton (left) and author Janet Allen chat at the Stenhouse booth

1 comment November 14th, 2011

Poetry Friday: Saying Goodbye to Very Young Children

I am going to turn sentimental for a second on this Poetry Friday. I came across this poem as I was trying to decide what to post today and it made me think of all of the Stenhouse babies — Ruby, Sam, and Dean — who are turning two this year.

First, here is the poem by John Updike:

Saying Goodbye to Very Young Children

By  John Updike
They will not be the same next time. The sayings
so cute, just slightly off, will be corrected.
Their eyes will be more skeptical, plugged in
the more securely to the worldly buzz
of television, alphabet, and street talk,
culture polluting their gazes’ pure blue.
It makes you see at last the value of
those boring aunts and neighbors (their smells
of summer sweat and cigarettes, their faces
like shapes of sky between shade-giving leaves)
who knew you from the start, when you were zero,
cooing their nothings before you could be bored
or knew a name, not even your own, or how
this world brave with hellos turns all goodbye.

And then here is a baby update:

Ruby just celebrated her second birthday

Sam is turning two in December

Dean is going to be two in January

1 comment November 11th, 2011

Work That Is Real: What Sustains Today’s Teachers?

Teacher educator Maureen Barbieri recently conducted an informal survey on her Facebook page, asking teacher friends what keeps them going in these confusing, difficult times for teachers. She shares the results in this essay. We would love to hear from you: what keeps you going as a teacher?

In her poem “Tribute to Teaching,” Shelley Harwayne poses the question, “What gets you up in the morning?” In other words, why do teachers keep coming to work?  Lately this question has been on my mind, given all the forces that seem to be stacked against teachers these days: the media obsession with school reform, which tends to give teachers short shrift; commercial curriculum chosen with little teacher input and little room for teacher autonomy; high-stakes testing for younger and younger children; and a widespread distrust of public spending and public servants of any kind. Faced with all of this, what keeps teachers coming to work?

Pondering this question and aware of the challenges teachers face, I’ve been doing an informal survey on Facebook of friends and former students who are teaching right now. “What sustains you as a teacher?” I ask. Their reflections fall into three general categories: (1) they love working with kids, (2) they respect and appreciate their colleagues, and (3) they embrace the intellectual rigor and creativity that their work demands.

Diana, who’s been teaching middle school for many years, says laughter keeps her going. She says, “Surely somewhere it has been written, ‘Teachers, love the children more than you love the personal money you spend on hand sanitizer, tissues, paperbacks, writers’ notebooks, and writing utensils for them; teachers, love the children more than you love a clean house, a free weeknight, a calm Sunday afternoon, and a leisurely lunch; teachers, love the children more than you hate wasteful meetings, mindless paperwork, and pointless bureaucracy; teachers love the children more than you dread the faltering economy, the angry taxpayer, and personal bankruptcy. Perhaps I exaggerate.” Perhaps she doesn’t.

But still, she hangs in there. “The best days for me are the ones where I can say, ‘I made ‘em laugh today!’ I relish finding new ways to bring the wonder of language (and human nature) to my students in a way that makes them THINK, LEARN, and SMILE. . . .”

Of course, it is about the kids—for Diana, for every teacher who responded to my question, and for countless others who press on in the face of discouraging circumstances. These are extraordinary people who consider it their vocation to build relationships with young people, to share their own passion for learning, and to entice students into exploring the life of the mind.

“When I think of teaching, I don’t refer to it as ‘work.’ I say ‘school’ because for me, I am learning from the children. They drive my instruction, and they bring out my energy,” writes Eileen, a Brooklyn early childhood educator and mother of two young sons.

Ashley, a former University of New Hampshire student, is now teaching first grade in Harlem. She says, “The statistics vary, but many read that only 40 percent of NYC students graduate high school. I wake up in the morning, think of that statistic and realize I can change it (or at least I can try to).”

This determination comes up, again and again, as I read teachers’ postings. They are listening carefully, finding energy in the needs, the honesty, and the efforts of their students. They see their work as meaningful, and they want to make a difference.

“It’s the kids,” writes John, who teaches middle school in Brooklyn. “Even when the reality that we as adults bring with us intrudes, the kids are always curious (not always about the things we want them to be curious about, but curious just the same), genuine (in a way we are not), and filled with possibility. . . . Not only do they change and grow constantly, but they force me to figure out a way to change and grow with them.”

Jason, who’s been teaching for fifteen years, reminds me that teaching is, and always will be, inherently political. “What sustains me? Some days it’s the little moments . . . working with a student at lunch, a random incidental teaching moment or conversation. Some days it’s the grand successes . . . the student I got into the Stella Adler Acting Studio, the student who turned in the best writing of her academic career in the form of her college admissions essay. Some days it’s the joy of the craft of teaching . . . the lesson itself that works out exactly as intended. Some days it’s the creativity . . . coming up with a new way of doing things that puts the focus on the students. But at the heart of each and every one of these experiences beats the core value of student agency. I got into teaching because I saw how adolescents were being devalued, how their incredible insights were dismissed, how their voices were stifled by adults in the community who viewed them as human becomings rather than human beings. And each day, I do all I can to provide a safe, productive, critical space for my students to engage in that sense of voice, to realize they have power in the world and in our school. Whether they’re questioning a text, questioning me and my ‘authority,’ or questioning school policy and advocating for change, their drive sustains me. . . . The mini-revolution that happens once my classroom door closes is more than enough to get me through.”

Teachers also speak with gratitude about being able to work with dedicated, like-minded colleagues and administrators who trust them to make their own decisions in the classroom. Natalia explains, “The adults around me are motivated and passionate and make it their intention to nurture. Being an eternal student myself, what I have learned is to embrace the rewards and challenges of teaching by choosing to be graceful in everything I do instead of ‘perfect.’”

Melissa also knows that colleagues can make all the difference. “So often it is said that teaching can be a solitary profession, but I wholeheartedly disagree. I get through the difficult days with the support and guidance of my sage colleagues. They inspire me with their intelligence and empathy and also provide a healthy dose of humor for those moments when you feel stuck in a French absurdist play.”

Meredith says, “My colleagues are an essential part of my longevity in the classroom. . . .  And by extension, things like this [Facebook] page sustain me—along with books, magazines, and blogs about teaching—it all reminds me that I am part of a much larger community of educators with heart.”

Finally, they’re grateful that the work is challenging. They do not shrink from difficulties, embracing instead the chance to be flexible, compassionate, and courageous. Don Murray used to say, “I’m apprenticed to two crafts I will never master, writing and teaching.” It’s often the need to do it better that keeps us in the game. Every day is another chance, and teaching, like writing, is all about revision. These smart teachers appreciate meaningful professional development. They do research, attend conferences, and take courses during the summer months.

Kerry, a French teacher in Maine, goes to a workshop every year where she is able to learn more about progressive methods of teaching language through storytelling. She also presents her own work, a challenge she welcomes. “I look forward to it all year,” she says. “And I always come away more inspired and eager to teach.”

“What sustains me changes daily,” says Meredith. “And THAT is what sustains me over time—the richness of this profession. Two snippets/quotes float into my head when I’m at school (or just thinking about it). One is the title of a Calvin and Hobbes collection, ‘All the World in a Day.’ In our lives as teachers, each day holds so much: we make thousands of small but loaded decisions, we act as parents/psychologists/nurses/mediators/scientists, and we interact with the wide world in all its complexity through our students’ needs, backgrounds, personalities, and actions. By 3:00, I often feel like I’ve participated in a seven-hour reenactment of human history.

“The other words that often come to mind are from Marge Piercy’s poem, ‘To Be of Use’: ‘The pitcher cries for water to carry / and a person for work that is real.’ For me that line connects especially to teaching because teachers have to truly ‘submerge in the task.’ Teaching has forced me to learn how to be much more present, to work in the realm of the real rather than in the realm of my own projections, fears, and assumptions.”

Shelley wrote a poem that ends with these lines:

I’m up now, really up

Eager to go to work,

Eager to see the honest faces of children,

Eager to lose myself in the important work at hand—

Teaching children to make a better world.

The teachers who were kind enough to send me their notes from the field are immersed in “the important work at hand,” and I’m hoping they’ll stick with it for a long, long time.

Works Cited

Harwayne, Shelley. 1999. “Tribute to Teaching,” in Going Public: Priorities and Practice at the Manhattan New School. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Piercy, Marge. 1973. “To Be of Use,” in Circles on the Water. New York: Knopf.

3 comments November 7th, 2011

Poetry Friday: Forgive My Guilt

“Writing can be much more than a school task,” writes Kelly Gallagher in his new book Write Like This. “Writing can be used as a vehicle to express ourselves as we negotiate the journey through our lives.” Using Robert P. Tristram Coffin’s poem “Forgive My Guilt” as a model, Kelly asks his students to write a list of thins they regret. His students then choose one item from their list and begin writing. Kelly shares his own version of the poem with his students. Read his poem and then head over the Stenhouse website to preview his book online.

Forgive My Guilt
Kelly Gallagher

Not always sure what things called sins may be,
I am sure of one sin I have done.
It was not a single incident, but a series of events,
All involving my sister,
Who eventually lost her battle with drug addiction.
Two siblings, raised in the same household,
But, oh, so different. So different.
It didn’t start that way, of course.
We were close before the drift,
She slowly pulled away from me, from us,
Each year, a little farther away from our childhood
Until the relationship that was, wasn’t.

Walking through stores, at ballgames, in restaurants,
I see young brothers and sisters laughing, playing, talking,
It makes me happy and sad.
I silently wish them well, knowing how things can turn.
Looking back,
I wonder if I should have been kinder,
Whether I should have put my anger aside.
My sadness has lessened, but it never disappears.
I could have offered more love.
I should have offered more love.
Too late now.
But I have hoped for years,
That my sister, Cathy, forgives my guilt.

2 comments November 4th, 2011

Video podcast: Jeff Anderson

In his new book 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know, Jeff Anderson focuses on developing the concepts and application of ten essential aspects of good writing: motion, models, focus, detail, form, frames, cohesion, energy, words, and clutter. In our new video conversation with Jeff he talks about why he felt it was important to “zoom back” from the sentence level of writing and look at the bigger picture of what makes writing work.

Add comment November 2nd, 2011

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