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kevin henkes

Just read this little quote from Kevin Henkes at Highlights Kids about how a teacher inspired him. Made me think of the importance of classroom environment!

KEVIN HENKES is an award-winning author and illustrator whose books include Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, The Year of Billy Miller,and Kitten’s First Full Moon, which won the Caldecott Medal, a special honor given each year by the Association for Library Service to Children.

“I grew up in the school days of silent hallways and desks in neat, even rows. One day, our fourth-grade teacher allowed the class to move the desks out of rows into groups of four. It might seem like a small thing now, but it taught me that you could do things differently; you could think outside the box. That teacher helped me view my world differently. Good teachers can change lives. And here’s a video clip of Kevin Henkes talking about a new character he’s created named Penny. Share it with your students!


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Recently I had the privilege of participating in the 20th Annual Plum Creek Literacy Festival at Concordia University in Seward, NE as the literacy expert featured speaker. What a joy! Not only did I get to share my ideas on literacy stations with Nebraska educators, but I got to hear Eric Litwin who wrote the amazing Pete the Cat: Rocking in My School Shoes and other stories.

I’ve been enamored with the Pete the Cat series for a while. But my infatuation deepened when I saw how my granddaughter, Chloe, connected with this character at only 20 months old. In fact, this is the first storybook character she’s identified with. We have the first four Pete books and of course, the stuffed animal book character.

When she arrives at my house, Chloe usually enquires about Pete the Cat and then goes in search of him to cart around and engage in play. As an early childhood educator, I’m fascinated by her language development and pay close attention to it. Recently, at 25 months old, I heard her use five-word sentences for the first time. (Only two weeks prior, it was four-word sentences.) And, interestingly, her longest sentences included Pete! As she went into her playroom with the little kitchen and play food, here’s what she had to say:

“Get Pete the Cat, please.”

“I hold Pete the Cat.”

“Pete hungry.”

“Here, Pete.”

Yesterday morning, when I found out that I was presenting in the auditorium that Eric would perform in after my sessions, I was thrilled! I could meet the guy behind these engaging stories. I’d been a bit confused on if he was the author, the songwriter, the illustrator, or just what. He told his story, and it all made sense.

Eric Litwin was a teacher of young children. He gets little kids and what they love! He gets early reading instruction! And he gets my vote for being an outstanding entertainer with outstanding pedagogy!

Why weren’t little kids becoming joyous readers? is a question he investigated. He found that the combo of only phonics and high frequency words wasn’t enough. It’s important, but not enough. So he added his winning pieces… repetition, rhyme, call and response, prediction (in the form of questions), and music (which helps the brain remember those high frequency words and beginning sounds). Pure genius! No wonder Chloe loves these books!

He shared with me that he wrote the first four Pete the Cat books only. Eric Litwin met James Dean at a folk art festival and loved his paintings of Pete. They combined their strengths, James Deans’ art, with Eric Litwin’s story and song, to make four wonderful books!

Eric plays the guitar, dances, and is totally silly (but fun!). I learned that he has created several new series with fun new characters… the Nut family (based upon his own family) and Groovy Dog (to be published by Scholastic). I can’t wait to introduce Chloe and the children I work with around the country to these new characters, stories, and songs.

To hear over 100 of Eric Litwin’s songs, go to www.thelearninggroove.com. You and your children will be glad you did!

Do you have a story about your children and their love for Pete the Cat? I’d love to hear it!

Eric Litwin Chloe and Pete the Cat

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Do you ever catch a student snoozing in class? Here is a lovely poem for today’s Poetry Friday.

For a Student Sleeping in a Poetry Workshop

By David Wagoner

I’ve watched his eyelids sag, spring open
   Vaguely and gradually go sliding
      Shut again, fly up
With a kind of drunken surprise, then wobble
   Peacefully together to send him
      Home from one school early. Soon his lashes
Flutter in REM sleep. I suppose he’s dreaming
   What all of us kings and poets and peasants
      Have dreamed: of not making the grade,
Of draining the inexhaustible horn cup
   Of the cerebral cortex where ganglions
      Are ganging up on us with more connections
Than atoms in heaven, but coming up once more
   Empty. I see a clear stillness
      Settle over his face, a calming of the surface
Of water when the wind dies. Somewhere
   Down there, he’s taking another course
      Whose resonance (let’s hope) resembles
The muttered thunder, the gutter bowling, the lightning
   Of minor minions of Thor, the groans and gurgling
      Of feral lovers and preliterate Mowglis, the songs
Of shamans whistled through bird bones. A worried neighbor
   Gives him the elbow, and he shudders
      Awake, recollects himself, brings back
His hands from aboriginal outposts,
   Takes in new light, reorganizes his shoes,
      Stands up in them at the buzzer, barely recalls
His books and notebooks, meets my eyes
   And wonders what to say and whether to say it,
      Then keeps it to himself as today’s lesson.

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A poem on this Friday about a different kind of teaching and different students. Enjoy!

Teaching English from an Old Composition Book

By Gary Soto

My chalk is no longer than a chip of fingernail,
Chip by which I must explain this Monday
Night the verbs “to get;” “to wear,” “to cut.”
I’m not given much, these tired students,
Knuckle-wrapped from work as roofers,
Sour from scrubbing toilets and pedestal sinks.
I’m given this room with five windows,
A coffee machine, a piano with busted strings,
The music of how we feel as the sun falls,
Exhausted from keeping up.
                                       I stand at
The blackboard. The chalk is worn to a hangnail,
Nearly gone, the dust of some educational bone.
By and by I’m Cantiflas, the comic
Busybody in front. I say, “I get the coffee.”
I pick up a coffee cup and sip.
I click my heels and say, “I wear my shoes.”
I bring an invisible fork to my mouth
And say, “I eat the chicken.”
Suddenly the class is alive—
Each one putting on hats and shoes,
Drinking sodas and beers, cutting flowers
And steaks—a pantomime of sumptuous living.
At break I pass out cookies.
Augustine, the Guatemalan, asks in Spanish,
“Teacher, what is ‘tally-ho’?”
I look at the word in the composition book.
I raise my face to the bare bulb for a blind answer.
I stutter, then say, “Es como adelante.
Augustine smiles, then nudges a friend
In the next desk, now smarter by one word.
After the cookies are eaten,
We move ahead to prepositions—
“Under,” “over,” and “between,”
Useful words when la migra opens the doors
Of their idling vans.
At ten to nine, I’m tired of acting,
And they’re tired of their roles.
When class ends, I clap my hands of chalk dust,
And two students applaud, thinking it’s a new verb.
I tell them adelante,
And they pick up their old books.
They smile and, in return, cry, “Tally-ho.”
As they head for the door.

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Sign up sheets for students to choose books for literature circles on Harriet Tubman

Sign up sheets for students to choose books for literature circles on Harriet Tubman

Recently I received an email from a 4th-grade teacher about using novels in guided reading. It’s a question I get quite a bit, so thought I’d share it here. Here’s the question and my reply:

QUESTION: I am an elementary teacher who is a tremendous fan of your work. My question is when working in guided reading groups in fourth grade, is it appropriate to read the same novel with each group? My lowest level group reads much slower and I don’t know if I will have time to finish it with them. What is your advice? It’s Sarah, Plain and Tall. Thank you in advance!

MY ANSWER: I would not use the same novel with each group. The purpose of small group instruction is to differentiate for students. Choose a book for small group that is at students’ instructional level. This means that each group is reading a different book. If you have the resources, you could try to find books that tie together in some way. But that is not necessary. The important thing is to teach the children, not to teach the book. As for Sarah, Plain and Tall, some children could read that book as an independent read. Others could read it in guided reading. For still others, it will be too hard and they will need too much support. It would be best to read aloud and discuss the book to the whole class, I think. Or read aloud some of it and leave it out for kids to finish on their own, if they’d like.

Another option is to use this book for some children in a literature discussion group. For more information on these, I like Harvey Daniels’ site (but it appears to being rebuilt at this time). Another source is www.litcircles.org. Yet another (for ELL students) is at http://www.eflliteraturecircles.com/

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I just came across this poem by accident. I think the way it captures the magic of childhood and the bond between siblings is just lovely.

In Childhood

By Sarah A. Chavez
In childhood Christy and I played in the dumpster across the street
from Pickett & Sons Construction. When we found bricks, it was best.
Bricks were most useful. We drug them to our empty backyard
and stacked them in the shape of a room. For months
we collected bricks, one on top another. When the walls
reached as high as my younger sister’s head, we laid down.
Hiding in the middle of our room, we watched the cycle
of the sun, gazed at the stars, clutched hands and felt at home.

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 I am so sorry that although we tried to find another room where I could present a second session, there were none to be found. The IRA folks and my publisher tried. They have promised me that next year they will have me in a large room. Here’s hoping! Thanks for your understanding and see you next year!

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Thanks to the more than 400 elementary educators who traveled near and far to Garland, TX for my vocabulary conference there! I was amazed at the teachers who attended from all over the state! We investigated how to teach high-quality vocabulary lessons in whole group using picture books for read aloud. A great resource for this is Isabel Beck’s Bringing Words to Life.

We learned how to choose the most useful words for teaching vocabulary—words spoken by people with mature speech that can be used again and again at school by kids, especially words that connect with the main idea of the story. Teachers, principals, literacy coaches, and staff developers worked together to create vocabulary cards to use with their students.

We watched vocabulary-related clips from two of my videos, Think Small! and Spotlight on Small Groups, available from www.stenhouse.com and shared ideas on vocabulary-focused literacy stations. If you’d like more ideas on teaching vocabulary in small group, check out these videos and read chapter 8 in Making the Most of Small Groups.

A big thanks to Kyle Warren of Warren Instructional Network and Garland ISD for hosting this day of learning at the Garland Special Events Center. We plan to make this an annual event!

Here are some pictures of educators working together choosing rich vocabulary from high-quality picture books:

A resourceful teacher uses her phone to search an online dictionary for help with creating a kid-friendly definition for one of the words she chose

A fifth grade math teacher’s vocabulary card and picture book

Another teacher’s vocabulary card

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“PlayStation” Station

No, that’s not a misprint! It’s a station. Recently, I saw a great new technology station in 5th grade. It’s the “PlayStation” Station! This school has quite a few of these. They were in a closet until one teacher thought, “Hey, these would make an awesome station.” And she was right! Kids are right at home using the controller as they read and play games here.

PlayStation for reading

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Today at a training on literacy work stations, a teacher told me about a poem she thought I might like. When kids aren’t taking home a backpack of worksheets every day, here’s a response to share with parents! It’s by Donna Whyte:
You ask, “What’s in my backpack?”
When I come home each day.
I wonder what you hope is there.
If it’s empty, is that okay?
I tell you about my busy day,
How the teacher watches over me.
We sing, we laugh, we share, we learn-
That’s the way it’s supposed to be.
You ask, “What’s in my backpack?”
I say, “Today it’s empty.”
I see the disappointment
As you look down at me.
School is much more than “things”
That you can see and touch.
It’s all of my life lessons,
And that means so very much.
For if you really want to know
What I do each day,
It won’t be on a paper;
You’ll know by what I say.
When you open the zipper wide.
What you are looking for today
Is all on my inside.
Ask me about my hands and ears,
My nose and my eyes.
Ask me what we talked about,
And if I remember why.
Each day we do so many things,
So many books to read.
Sure is nice my teacher knows
Exactly what we need.
That backpack on my back today
Carries back and forth my stuff.
If you want to know what I learned,
Listening to me will be enough.
My teacher wants to plant a seed,
Get my “love of learning” to sprout.
She wants it to last a lifetime-
That’s what school is all about.
It’s in my head and in my heart
That learning will take place.
“Childhood should be a journey…
Don’t look at it as a race.”

Last two lines of poem adapted from slogan by Bob Johnson and printed with permission from SDE/Crystal Springs Books ~ Ten Sharon Road ~ PO Box 577~ Peterborough, NH 03458 ~ 1-800-924-9621 ~ All Rights Reserved.

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