Empathy, It’s All About the Empathy

We had quite a chat the other day in my 5th grade classroom. I looked around and noticed that almost everyone was reading either graphica (which is fine:) or Did You Know kind of books. But one girl was reading Fish in a Tree. While the majority of kids were furiously turning pages because of the nature of their books, she was quiet, intense, deeply focused. When silent read was over I asked her about her book. She shared that she really related with the character. That she felt like she was in her head. That she didn’t want to stop reading. Some of the others looked at her with quite the puzzled expression.

Because I saw this as an opportunity to discuss the role of stimulating empathy and the power fictional reading can have over that we shifted to a discussion about the state of affairs lately. My kids talk about what they hear, and they hear a lot about the political landscape of our country. But their understanding is lacking. They are confused, as are many of us adults! I mentioned that reading fiction could help them navigate life with a bit more grace and compassion than how our country is navigating its course right now. “How?” they wanted to know. That’s when one of my other fiction readers joined in. I didn’t have to say a word. This boy proudly said, “Well I think it must be like when I read I get into character’s heads. I can feel what they are feeling and sometimes I’m surprised or confused. But as I read I begin to understand them, kind of like walking in their shoes.” Wow, oh wow. Did he really just say that most perfect response to what reading fiction can capture!? Then a few of the girls chimed in supporting his notion that yes, reading fiction can help you see different viewpoints and understand characters, even ones you don’t agree with. And yes, that people in our country could use more of that, more understanding of each other. They gave many examples of how they or their families have been poorly judged for things others didn’t understand.

Reading fiction as a way to encourage empathy isn’t a novel idea. There is quite a bit of research out there on how reading fiction can encourage empathy. So as I read the above NYT article about our soon to leave president and the power that books and writing have had on him and his life, I thought about this conversation and the research I’ve read on this subject. It seems like the perfect time to pull out some fiction and get some empathy going. And you know what, that’s exactly what a few more of my kids did without my saying anything more.  We are so eagerly waiting for Newbery Award announcements!


Giving Gratitude


Like other years, the blogosphere and Twitter are full of  writings and reflections on the power of One Little Word. These words we choose, guide us through the upcoming year. And like other years, I’ve read through many of them to guide me in my choice. But this year is different. It is different on so many levels. While I loved reading the blog posts, many of which were very inspiring, none of them spoke directly to me. And that is OK.

Then this morning I woke up to a very cold house and spent my coffee sipping time watching Meryl Streep’s Golden Globe speech (http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/la-et-golden-globes-2017-live-watch-all-of-meryl-streep-s-1483932724-htmlstory.html). I was deeply moved by her class and courage. This is not an easy time to rise up and share the fears you have about the direction of our country. But I must say that her visit into my family room was very welcome. But I must also say that I had another visit from someone who is rather new to me, anxiety. Since our political system has been turned upside down by our new president elect and those he chooses to surround himself with, this unwelcome visitor has paid me many a visit in the past few months. The effects are noticeable, both physically and emotionally. Like many mornings of late I found myself thinking about my kids and the unknown future that lies ahead as I watched and listened to her. As I turned the computer off, which is something I have begun to do when this unwelcome visitor arrives, and worked my way to the shower I thought about how to rid myself of these thoughts before my day really begins.

As I stood in the shower I thought about the historical implications of all this. Of the many people all over the world who have had their lives turned upside down because of an unstable but cunning tyrant. I thought about photos I’ve seen of Middle Eastern countries during in the 1970’s and then again today. The contrasts are noticeable and unsettling to say the least. People who live in those beautiful countries had their lives suddenly turned upside down. This is the thought that I find the most stunning. The thought that unwittingly opens my heart to that unwelcome visitor. But this morning, while stuck at that thought, I was able to do something different. I stopped and realized how good the warm water felt in our cool morning home. I thought about the love of my husband as he slept in bed. I breathed. And breathed again. I felt a sense of some relief. So I continued. I intentionally thought about the everyday things I have and experience that I often take for granted. Wood for the wood-stove on these cold days and nights, healthy food in my cupboards and refrigerator, a job that I love, two beautiful and healthy kids who I love more than anything. And just like that  my unwelcome visitor left me. For however fleeting, he left.

Gratitude. That is my One Little Word. The power of that word for me, for now, is what will guide me through this year. A year that I worry I will have so little power and control over. Gratitude will guide me to stop and appreciate all I do have and will guide me to realize that I have the power to continue, to move forward, to voice my beliefs no matter how they are accepted. I have control to choose kind in my family, with my neighbors, my friends, and at school with my kids and coworkers. That power I do have and no one can take that away from me. Gratitude will give me the voice, hope, and belief that things, no matter how rough they may be, will be ok because I am surrounded by beautiful, loving, wonderful people. With gratitude I will always notice them, the most important things in my life.

May your day and year be filled with gratitude.


PS – Once again, I am selfishly writing. Once again, it is political in nature rather than having a literacy focus. I just had to write. I had to write what was inside of me this morning as a way to try to capture my thoughts and feelings to make some sort of sense out of them. I will try to remember the relief that this brought to me and provide more opportunities for my kids to write just to get their ideas and feelings out. Maybe, just maybe, it will provide them some relief for them as well.


Taking a Path Less Followed

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
                                                                     Of course, the visionary, Robert Frost


We know that poem. We share it with our kids. We say we love it. Yet we struggle to take that first step off that well trodden path.

It’s a new day in a new year, the day before returning back to school. School work to be done. More than can get done in this day. But outside, the snow glistens under the light of the low rising sun. It is beautiful. It is calling my name. Gently, I succumb to its call.

With stacks of books, manuals, papers on my kitchen table I decide to go outside, clear my head, feel the cold bite my face. While snowshoeing, my mind begins to clear, to release. Release the tensions and fears about returning to school. I know I’m not alone in these feelings. It doesn’t matter if you’re a first year teacher or an elder like myself. These feelings that so often occur before returning after a long break are fairly universal. It’s taken years to learn that it’s OK to put the planning/grading aside and go outside. It’s taken years to learn that there is more to gain from that then from plowing through what my mind thinks needs to be done. We cannot be an effective teacher if we do not take care of ourselves. We all know that. So out I went.

The first thing I noticed was the beauty. The surface of the early morning snow is soft. It looks like the heavens generously sprinkled glitter over its entirety. The air is crisp on my face. I smile. I am happy. My heart calms. I stand and look, taking in the beauty and air, and then begin. One foot forward. Easily following the trail made a few days ago encourages me to continue. Then I look to the east and decide to break trail. Leave its ease and go into deeper snow. Immediately I question my decision as snowshoes sink. The happiness is replaced with a touch of fear. Onward. Then I see winter goldenrod covered in veil of delicate ice crystals that shimmer like the best of diamonds. Stop, notice, enjoy. Onward. During this diversion I realize how important it is to diverge, to sometimes leave comfort for what’s new and beautiful. My mind wanders back to lesson planning and tomorrow’s day one. I know my kids must feel the same jitters that I do. How can tomorrow be a day of Welcome, a day of joy, a day that makes us all happy to return, to see each other, and spend the next few weeks engaged in the hard work that this time of year demands? I continue, onward.

After finishing the trail I turn around, and do it again. Same trail, different perspective.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
As I reenter my home, brush off the snow, enjoy the warmth that I feel, I’m ready, ready to begin the planning of something to welcome my kids back to school.
May our New Year be filled with happiness, joy, and peace;
PS – How do we welcome this new year when we all know that this new year could very well prove to be a difficult year for us personally and professionally? It is critical that we take care of ourselves. Our families and students need us to be strong and healthy, both physically and emotionally. We need us to be strong and healthy. Take care of yourselves. Do the things you love to do. Hold your friends close, and your family closer. Our kids and our work will always be there waiting for us.

One Candle by Eve Bunting


The nights are getting longer, days shorter. Sometimes I feel this way about our country as well, like we are entering a dark period. Hopefully it will be followed by eternal light. Do we as a country understand what we have just done? I think many still do not. Because of that, it is easy to let the darkness win. But we can’t, we won’t, because we are the protectors of the children.That’s what we do, day in and day out; we protect, we love, we teach.

As I continue to wrap my head around this place we find ourselves in while at the same time maintain my health, I’ve been looking for places of light. This month our school is celebrating the lowly potato. It’s a huge agricultural crop here in Maine and a great source of nutrition for those in need, aka, many of our kids. Our FoodCorps service member, Sam, has been cooking potatoes in our classrooms while kids read a Maine Ag in the Classroom booklet about Maine potatoes. We are learning they are a great source of vitamin B6, potassium, vitamin C, and fiber. Some say it’s the perfect food.  Being of Irish descent, I have to agree. Then something happened in our town that rocked our socks. Someone spray painted large swastikas on large rocks that are at the entrance of our small skiing and hiking trails. This of course led to many mixed emotions and discussions. We decided to make potato latkes in our classrooms as a way to show solidarity and love and peace. As we were planning our lessons I came across this book in our literacy specialist’s room. Of course I needed it.

Eve Bunting, what can be said about her and her writing that hasn’t already been said? Probably not much. This book, like almost every single other book she has written, is a book that stops you dead in your tracks. It gently demands reflection. The book is centered around the lowly potato. The lighting of a potato during Hanukkah by young girls in a concentration camp. “Oh that’s too heavy,” you may think.But like most of Eve Bunting’s work, she tells this story, about events most adults couldn’t begin to touch, in a way kids (and adults) can handle. Love in face of hatred, hope in the time of hopelessness, unity in a time of division. These are Eve’s messages. Messages that are so relevant today. Messages we must hold onto  if we are going to continue to be protectors of the children.

So with that I will get out our potato to bring to school tomorrow to light as we read this message of love, hope, and peace. May your holiday and new year be filled with the same. And may you have the courage and stamina to carry out the work that will be summoned of us as the protectors of the children.

Love, peace, and light,



When We Teach Our Kids How to Read in an Upside Down World


“You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”

Maya Angelou

Has it really been just over a month that our world has been turned upside down and left me feeling like I’m walking around in a fog?

As a woman, wife, mother, teacher I am devastated by our election results. Our life and the lives of our children are in jeopardy. The other night I was listening to a food policy panel discussion that came out of Harvard University Law School’s Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation. The panel, which included members of the Union of Concerned Scientists, discussed transforming our national food system. As a literacy room teacher I care deeply about teaching my kids to read but I also care about what our kids eat because it’s rather hard to learn to read if you’re body isn’t fueled with a high quality fuel. So food policy, like reading, interests me. As I began listening to this panel discussion, a popular foodie, Mark Bittman formerly a NY Times columnist, got up to speak. He blew me and the audience out of the water. He was so strong, so focused, so clear. And he didn’t talk about food. Like the audience, I was ready to hear him talk about high quality foods for all. But what he, the opening panelist, spoke about was our country under a Trump presidency. He held back nothing. So here is a man, a food policy guru, on a food policy panel at one of the most prestigious universities in the world talking about how we need to unite to undo all the harm our new president elect is about to unleash on our country.

The next day I drove with a friend and coworker to see and listen to Kylene Beers and Robert Probst talk about teaching kids to improve their reading abilities through their techniques of Noticing and Noting. I’ve read their books, love them, and have found amazing success using their thinkings with my kids. That of course means that my kids have found success in understanding their reading in a much deeper level using their tricks of the trade. But when Kylene and Robert addressed the audience they didn’t initially speak of their Notice and Note books. Rather they spoke of Fake News. For two hours they spoke about the same thing Mark Bittman did, the horrifying state of our country. Like Mark, they brought their expertise into this national discussion. They spoke about how we can recognize fake or utterly biased news and how to teach our kids this skill. They chose this topic because a large part of our adult population not only can not recognize fake news but when they are shown that it is fake, they still believe it. They believe it because it supports their world view. Many believe this is how Trump won the highest office in the world. We obviously have work to do.

The list of rights and protections that are in jeopardy are overwhelming. But the work we can do with our children isn’t. Every day we teach children. We teach them to love each other and themselves. We teach them how to read, speak, and write both to learn and to communicate with others. When it comes to reading, we provide techniques to help them engage with their reading, to understand their reading, to be moved by their reading. We also provide the newest books in hopes of tickling their love of reading. We cannot lose sight of this deep power that reading gives, in particular the power of critical reading. We also cannot lose sight of the fostering a joy of reading. This is quite the balancing act, one that Kylene’s and Robert’s methods foster, encourage, and are essential in this time of “in our face” fake news.

Please, thank you readers. This post was a selfish post. One that was written to begin to help me unravel the confusions I feel in this new world we live in. May we stay strong and voice that strength. Our children are all going to need it.


It’s The Writer


Guiding a class of ten year olds to write a well constructed, logical narrative is like training beans to grow up a corn stalk. For the most part they follow the path but not always, not necessarily in ways you want, and not every last one of them. Some meander up other vertical objects, some stick out horizontally grabbing for something else, and some, well they never leave the ground.

I thought about this analogy and found it helpful as I reflected on this past week’s writing workshop. Like many fifth grade classes across the country who use Lucy Calkins, we are writing narratives. Most kids are writing about an experience they have had. Some add minor elements of fiction to spice their story up. One of my students shared this moment with her classmates, “When my mom said that a part of my story didn’t really happen and I should take it out, I  told her, ‘Why not? I can write whatever I want. It’s my story after all.'”  I quietly cheered this determined  young writer on when she told that to the class. Another child had chosen to write about a super hero pickle. (I guess the countertop pickles we made and ate made an impression on this kid:) Yet, as I reflected, I felt disheartened. They are not making the progress I want. They aren’t making it fast enough. They are missing crucial points we go over with models and rubrics and mini  lessons. Then one warm afternoon while I was cutting corn stalks from my garden I looked at all those determined and independent bean vines and realized something we all know and often lose sight of. It’s about the writers not the writing. Just like the bean vines reaching and searching to find their way, our young writers also search for their way. I realized that I was the one who lost focus and trust in the process and the fact that each child will grow as a writer in their own individual ways. It was I who wasn’t slowing down enough to notice that, enjoy that, celebrate that. Like the independent beans who go every which way, our writers sometimes go every which way searching for their way. It is in that search that they will grow as a writer. Now, I can and do step in and rewrap those bean plants and reroute my kids in an effort to show them the way. But in reality I want them to explore, to reach, to find out what works for them and what doesn’t. Why do I get nervous, critical of myself and my kids when it isn’t happening fast enough or smoothly enough? I know writing is messy, time consuming, full of unexpected twists and turns. I have to remind myself to stop long enough to notice and enjoy their search because like the beans, my kids will stretch, try new routes, reach and grow and bloom.

So here I am, stopping long enough to notice. Let me share some of the things that come to mind since I finally took that much needed deep breath and thought about what I was seeing right there in front of me…

“Mrs. Dunn, I finally have figured out the problem in my story and it does make my story better!” “Mrs. Dunn, look I fixed all the capitals and even remembered them on the proper nouns.” “Mrs. Dunn, I’m stuck. I know I need a beginning, a middle, and an end but I can’t figure what the middle part is.” Then I noticed something else. I noticed that when they were working with partners (great idea from the fabulous little book, Celebrating Writers, by Ruth Ayres)  they were discussing elements of a good story. They were questioning and discussing how to better describe their character and setting. They were editing use of dialogue. They were discussing making the endings stronger and even tying it back to the beginning. So they are hearing. They are mulling. They are attempting, no matter how clunky those attempts may be, to write like writers. I’ll be honest and say I don’t see evidence for all that mulling… yet. But if I look and listen carefully and closely, it’s there in their talk. That, I realize, is the beginning of writing and the power of shifting focus from written products to writers.

May we all enjoy the power and fun that comes from slowing down to notice and note the successes and struggles of our young independent writers.


Are Kids Like Lettuce Seedlings?

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 11.20.02 AM

Shallots are a delicious allium to grow. But this year I learned they can be a little trickier to grow than I thought. I ordered the bulbs, planted them, and nurtured them like I’ve done in the past. But they didn’t grow. It makes me think of the book, The Carrot Seed, by Ruth Krauss. But with my shallots, they didn’t come up.

As I pulled up the sorry shallots I noticed something. They were in the shade of the raspberries. No wonder they didn’t grow.My lettuce didn’t do well this year either. They were in full sun. Then I had a thought. “Oh, this shade is the perfect spot for lettuce!” So I planted lettuce there. They grew, and grew, and are almost ready for harvest. They are happy, healthy, and look beautiful.

As I watered the lettuce this morning on this last day of summer vacation I realized these little lettuce seedlings are just like my students. Some prefer “shade”. In other words, they prefer “another way” to learn and grow.

As we organize our classrooms and we make spots for whole class work, partner work, individual work, spaces for sitting, spaces for standing, etc. I am reminded of these shade loving lettuce seedlings. Our kids, like lettuce, have unique needs to learn, and grow, and shine. May I, may we, all remember this throughout the year, to provide those alternate ways for our lettuce seedlings, aka kids, to learn and shine.

Have a great year and may we all provide the “shade” we need for our kids to have a fabulously successful year.