Don’t Dilly Dally!

When Nicole Crumlich, a Kindergarten teacher in Glen Cove, NY noticed that her students were wasting precious writing moments, it was time to do a minilesson on dilly-dallyers.  In Nicole’s lesson she explained what it meant to dilly dally and why it was not a good idea to do it.   Then (this is the piece I love) she modeled what it would look like to dilly dally BEFORE, DURING and AFTER writing.  Here’s what it looked like: Before: you go to your seat, slowly open your folder, don’t take out your piece of writing right away.  During: playing with your pencil, “pretending” you can’t see a word on the word wall so you have to get up and walk over to it and hang out by it for awhile, even though your seat is right next to the word wall!  After: when it’s time to clean up, you don’t put your paper away quickly, you hang out by the folder bin, but don’t put your folder away because you want yours on the top!  And you don’t come to the carpet to share quickly.  The kids all laughed when Nicole demonstrated each of these (probably laughs of self-recognition).  The kids are taking writing time much more seriously now and they love to tell each other, “Don’t dilly dally!”

The Daddy Mountain by Jules Feiffer

I just have to talk about The Daddy Mountain by Jules Feiffer!  It’s short, only a line or two on each page, but it works on so many levels.  It’s the story of a girl who climbs up her dad.  Here are the ways you can use this text as your book-of-the-week.

Day 1: Read to the class, ooh and aah over the pictures.  You could also do a tiny bit of reading work by asking your kids to make predictions.
Day 2: Reread a second time, teaching new vocabulary.  There are a few good words to work with here.  ’Catastrophe,’ ‘dawdle’ and ‘faint’ are three I’ve taught.  When I teach these words explicitly, I get kids very involved in thinking about what the words mean: For example, with ‘catastrophe,’ I might say, “I’ll give you a situation and you tell me if it’s a catastrophe or not.”  Or I might have kids turn and talk to a partner about a situation that was (or could be) a catastrophe.  Kids could draw a catastrophe on white boards.
Day 3: The Daddy Mountain is great for writing workshop.  I’ve used it often to teach students that writers write about moments in time.  After reading the book, I ask them how long they think it took the little girl to climb her father.  Then I ask them to think of events or activities they can storytell.  The rule is, the activity has to be short, like in The Daddy Mountain.  We brainstorm various activities, then kids each make a book to tell one of their own moment-in-time stories.  

Day 4: I return to the text again and ask kids to dramatize their stories, storytelling the action.  Then I ask them to put one or two of those action words into their writing.
Day 5: I return to the text again during writing workshop, asking students to notice how the author put in vivid details, and ask them to tell their stories using vivid details as well.

Other things to notice/teach in The Daddy Mountain: The book has a wishing/wanting structure: a character wants something and gets it in the end.  The author talks TO the reader.  The author lets the reader in on the character’s thoughts.  Authors sometimes end with thoughts.  The illustrator draws the father in the story in black and white, and the main character in color until she reaches the top.  Then the dad is in color also. Students could do a lot of wondering around that artistic choice.  
P.S. It makes a great Father’s Day gift!

Change of Heart

When I told my seven year old

the story of Ray,

my friend with a hole

in his heart

he didn’t ask

how deep

how long

how bad

He only asked,

“If you get a new heart

do you forget who

you love?”



The teachers at the Greater Brunswick Charter School in New Brunswick, NJ sure know how to appreciate each other.  They post these little thank-yous in their staff room.  What a great pick-me-up!  I say thank you to all of them for welcoming me this year.

A Different Path

An open letter to my beloved nephew, 24 year old Nicolas Primero:

Dear Nick,

I was so excited when you first started school.  New pencils, new lunchbox, new you.  The first baby in the family was on his way to Kindergarten.

Remember how, every year, the night before school started, I would call you?  To wish you well, to send you off with good thoughts about reading and writing and making friends? The first years were easy.  Everybody loved you and you did well.  When the reading specialist came to test kids, you told me you knew all the answers and you were “too smart” to need extra help.  You wouldn’t be following that path.

And then things changed.  Maybe the difficulties at home made school difficult.  Dad moving out.  Mom getting stabbed and spending all that time in the hospital.  By now, you were struggling and you spent every July and August in summer school.  There were lots of Ds and Fs and pretty soon you didn’t even care all that much.  You were on a path, for sure.  But…a path to where?

High school wasn’t any easier.  You got a tutor to help you pass.  But you didn’t get to class enough for tutoring to make a difference.  There were more failing grades.

Then…you dropped out.  I was disappointed, but tried not to show it.  This wasn’t the path I had envisioned for you.  You would do well and go to college.  You would find a good job and get an apartment and maybe travel the world.  Yes!  You would follow the same path I had.

But your path was different.  You kicked around after high school, joined a band, hung out, got a million tattoos, threatened to get your GED.  You worked, but what kind of job can a 20 year old get with a tenth grade education?  Pizza delivery, factory stuff…not enough to make ends meet.

I worried and wondered about you, Nick.  Where could this path possibly lead?

And then…things changed again.  You did get the GED.  On your own.  Maybe it was the girlfriend.  Maybe you were tired of scraping by.  Maybe you had hope for something nobody else could see?

Now you would go to college, I thought.  And get on the “right” path.

But you didn’t.  You kept working.  I was always proud of you for holding a job.  And people always loved you, Nick.  You had a knack for making and selling “merch” for rock bands. But really?  Where would these jobs lead?  Couldn’t somebody convince you to go to college, somewhere?

Then you found welding.  You had always loved the idea of it.  But welding school seemed out of your reach.  Now there was a chance to go.  You would have to go at night after work and it would mean taking out a loan.  You texted to tell me you were scared.  Would you be able to pass?  Would you be good enough?  Would you end up dropping out when it got too hard?

But you signed up anyway.  You went every night.  You wanted extra time so you could learn more.  You just wanted to be good enough!  Smart enough!

And here you are texting to tell me your first grade: 93, best in the class.  There are job offers, too.  Good ones.  And you love welding.  Which is the most important thing.

Your path is so different than mine.  So different because it’s yours.  And I’m writing to say I love you, Nick, for showing me this other route, this other way, a path I never envisioned.

Logo Books

A while ago an ESL teacher came to me with a question.  She was trying to get her Kg ELLs to use environmental print.  She had taken them on walks around the building and one, two, three, everybody would look at the sign and say, “B, buh, Boys’ Room.”  Or, “E, Eh, Exit.”  But when it came time for the kids to connect sounds to letters in their writing, they didn’t remember to use the letters they had learned about on their walks or in their classroom.  It was all too new, too much at one time.

So we came up with the idea of logo books.  Maybe the kids couldn’t remember that ‘B’ stood for ‘Boys.’  But they sure could remember ‘B, buh Burger King,’ as soon as they saw the logo.  So my teacher friend collected logos A-Z.  In small groups the kids picked out the ones they knew.  As soon as a student could identify a letter and the corresponding sound, he cut that logo out and attached it to the correct page in a pre-made book.  The kids used the books as tools during writing time.

A surprising thing happened with the logo books, or sound books, as I called them initially.  The other kids in the class wanted in.  They loved looking at their favorite characters or foods or stores.  They couldn’t stop talking about the logos and the things the logos represented.  So everybody was invited to make a book.  Kids who knew sounds and letters wrote personal stories connected to the logos.  The kids loved it and the Kg. teachers created a writing celebration around the books.

Here are some sample pages from each kind of book.



Five Reasons to Take Notes When You Confer

Many teachers tell me they don’t take notes when conducting reading and writing conferences.  They tell me they know exactly what each student is doing and that taking notes wastes valuable time.  I ask them to consider the following five points.

1.  My notes inform my teaching in the moment and allow me to reinforce positive behaviors.  When I write down the positive things students do, I remember to compliment them on those behaviors and this makes them think, “Oh, I’m doing a good thing as a reader/writer and I should keep doing it.”
2. When I write down what I’m noticing over the course of a conference, I make a better decision than I would if I just jumped on the first thing I saw.  Here’s an example: I saw a teacher do a writing conference the other day with a first grader who was doing some very good things.  The teacher wasn’t taking notes, and jumped in to teach the kid that he needed to start using appropriate capitals and lower case and spent five minutes teaching that.  There were at least six other things she could have taught, and if she had written down the child’s strengths and needs she probably would not have taught about appropriate capitals and lower case.  In any conference, I sit for a moment and I look at my notes and I think, what is the single most important thing I could teach right now that would have lasting impact?  For me, I won’t know that unless I take notes.
3.  I take notes so I can give the student back his/her exact words.  This is great with little kids who may want to write a whole lot, but really can’t yet.  Once they tell you the story, you can choose one sentence or a word from that sentence to record, and it’s still in the student’s voice.  It’s great for older kids who may use beautiful language or use a catchy turn of phrase and not even realize it.
4.  Notes are also great for noticing patterns.  If I take notes and notice that three out of four students are doing X, then I’m going to plan a lesson around X.  I may remember this in the moment and teach into it during the share, or the next day or that week, or I may not.  If I have it written down, I can reflect back on the particulars of why a writer made a decision and teach directly into that when it’s needed.
5.  If we reflect on our notes over time, we can see if our teaching decisions are making an impact.  If I look at a kid’s work and notice, hm…I keep giving the same teaching point over and over and he’s still not getting it, maybe I need to teach it differently. Or maybe I need to teach a different strategy ’cause he’s not ready for this.
I wholeheartedly believe that an individual conference is the greatest gift I can give a student–my undivided attention and time.  Taking notes helps me make more informed decisions and makes my conferences even better.

Dig it

What does Donna Kull do on weekends?  She takes care of the garden at Walnut Avenue School in Cranford, NJ.  A long time second grade teacher at Walnut, every year she organizes The Big Dig.  Volunteers come out to plant and make the garden what it is.  This year Donna and her volunteers even got the experts at Home Depot to come help with the garden.  Once The Big Dig is over, Donna keeps the garden going.  She lovingly plants and weeds and makes sure the garden stays beautiful and healthy.  I’m sure WAS will miss her when she retires this year!  Keep up the good work, Donna.  We need more teachers like you.

Mother’s Day Sob Fest

Last week I received a note from my son’s first grade teacher.  She was inviting me to a Mother’s Day Tea and by the way, could I write a poem for my son?  Oh, man.  Another Mom project, I thought.  Can you say corny?

But I wrote it, wondering what the other moms would do.  Would they all write something?  Would they all show up?  Would we be rewarded with good food at least, for our efforts?

Well.  Let’s just say I cried all the way through the Mother’s Day Tea.  I was so completely taken listening to the moms read to their children.  And the stories that were told in verse.  Wow.  The mom whose first son had died and who now found healing in her second son.  The mom who made the clever rhyme comparing her son to an ice cream cone.  The mom who’s afraid to read aloud to the class for fear of stumbling, but found the courage to read a loving ode to her daughter in front of almost fifty people.

I’m moved by the moms in my son’s class.  I am moved by the poetry in their souls.  I loved this Mother’s Day celebration more than any other so far.  I thank my son’s teacher, Angela Cerchio, for asking me to do corny and for giving me the chance to open my heart.

Making a Stand

Last year, my six year old was desperate to become an entrepreneur.  We had passed numerous lemonade stands, and at the beach, kids were selling painted rocks and seashells.  Kids were making money right in their own front yards!  Ari wanted a piece of that action.  He begged me to make lemonade or cookies.  But I was too nervous.  I had heard about the little girl in Maine who had been fined for selling lemonade without a permit.  (How dare she!)  Plus I was too lazy.

Without my help, Ari took matters into his own hands.  He decided to sell books.  The books he had made during his Kindergarten year.  Books that he’d made at home.  Books that he wrote for fun.  And now, profit?

Out came the masterpiece called Five Bucks.  (A boy had five bucks.  He spent it.  The end.)  Next was a book about a fish who ate a shark.  There was also a book about a worm who got lost in North Carolina.

As I watched Ari set up a chair and a box I got a little nervous.  As I watched him make a sign to advertise, I started to worry.  Selling books is no easy thing!  (My rejection slips are all the proof you need.)  I didn’t want Ari to experience the disappointment I’d felt so many times.  The feeling that…maybe nobody wants to read my writing?

We waited.  And waited.  At one point he asked me to play the recorder to drum up business.  So I accompanied him (500 Miles, Row, Row, Row Your Boat) as he ate snacks and waited some more.  A few cars drove by slowly but didn’t stop.  I asked Ari if he had a Plan B, just in case he didn’t get any customers.  ”They’ll come,” he told me.  ”Who wouldn’t want to buy homemade books?”

After a while, I went inside, discouraged, wondering how I would explain supply and demand to my boy.  Wondering, how I would help him understand that sometimes?  What we think is valuable may not be valuable to others.

And then it happened.  The neighbors starting dropping by to see what Ari was doing.  Mr. T from the corner bought the first three books.  (He loved the simplicity of Five Bucks.)  The nice lady across the street bought two.  And the father two houses down brought his pre-schoolers over to buy two more.

Ari was a hit!  He never once doubted his ability.  I smiled watching him stuff his newly earned dollars into his piggy bank.  Listened as he outlined new book ideas.  Marveling at the six year old who became a summer time entrepreneur.