To/From Japan With Love









All throughout human history we have had periods when the world feels a mess. I don’t think it’s surprising to acknowledge that this is one of those periods. When we look back and study history we also notice that small acts of kindness by ordinary people are what get us through those dark times. This project was inspired by that simple thought.

For a year many, many of us teachers and the families we serve have watched in fearful awe the direction our country is going. We feel like those who need the most are being left out and worse. They are targeted for the years of repressed fear, hatred, and racism our country continues to deal with. Educators all across the country share stories of the hardships our families endure because of the policies that are put in place. They are also noticing stories of hope. Here is one more story of hope. Hope was our word of the week when a package arrived in my mailbox. It contained the items shown above as well as a few more.

The art and haiku poems were inspired by our school wide Writers’ Day. The entire school writes and posts their writing in the hallways. Our hallways were lined with our students’ writing. Visitors were encouraged to use stickies to write positive comments to stick to each piece of writing. It’s quite nice to see especially once the stickies begin to show up.

A young friend of mine, Myra, moved to a city in Japan to work with school children there. We’ve kept in touch, discussing the differences and similarities of our educational systems. This sharing of work came from that exchange.

When I decided to have the kids write haiku poems for our wall hangings, it was for a rather simple reason. They struggled with syllables. As a student who struggled with spelling, syllables saved me. They were my first check point to self assess if I was on the right track. I thought this strategy might help my kids too. It does. As we were exploring haiku we decided to visit to our school garden with our FoodCorps service member, Emily. She directed the kids to notice the small, often unnoticed parts of our garden. Their talk was all about the bees, the flowers, the colors, the carrots, the tastes. Perfect haiku inspirations. We collected words on stickies and brought them inside. We started playing with words and syllables…5,7,5. We went back outside, clipboards in hand, and started observing again with the 5,7,5 haiku beat guiding us. Back inside they shared their writings and started helping each other with words, beats, and creating feelings or visions. It was much harder than I thought it would be. It was clear many still thought of a word as a syllable. A few more sessions of arm tapping and chin counting (techniques which help isolate syllables) and our haiku poems were complete. It was time to hang them up in the hallway. The problem was they looked so plain. Knowing that presentation is everything, we pulled out watercolors and painted colors to enhance the feelings of our haiku poems. The results were lovely. Lovely words. Lovely art. Lovely, happy, proud children.

Haiku poems originated in Japan. They are usually about nature. Three lines. Five syllables first line; seven syllables second line, five syllables third line. Rhyming is not a must but lyrical flow is a goal. When we began studying the origin of haiku I thought again of my friend, Myra, and reached out to her to see if she’d like to partner up. Her supervising teachers thought it was a good idea and an authentic way for her students to play with the English language, so we proceeded forward. My kids made a Google Drive class slide show of their haiku poems and paintings; one slide per kid. We shared with Myra. Several weeks later I got an envelop with the following contents in the mail:


My friend had printed out our slide show and shared them with her students who are learning to speak and write English, a task she says is not easy. When her students read our haiku poems they replied in English and Japanese. She photocopied them all and sent them back to us. Tomorrow I am going to give them to my students and hang them with these Japanese comments back up in our hallway. The Japanese/United States connection will be clear. The similarities of our students will be visible. The love and hope will be shared.

Communicating with students from other countries is one simple act we can do to encourage breaking stereotypes and knocking down the doors of ignorance. I know my kids will be filled with warm feelings when they read these comments from the other side of our small world. The kindness of these comments and the kindness that these students and their teacher took to write them will  not go unnoticed. My kids will notice. And they will feel the love that was shared. This small act of kindness was not only educational and fun but it filled our hearts with hope and love. Not so small after all.

May you and your students engage in simple acts of kindness to spread hope, peace, and love.




Ghost by Jason Reynolds


We all have that child in class. The one who can’t find the “just right” book. This may be the book for that child I have in my class this year. After reading a little about this story on Twitter, I ordered the book. I read it in one sitting. I loved it.

Several reasons I can’t wait to get this into the hands of my kids. First of all, it’s real. Its characters are real and so is its plot. In a very engaging way it deals with many emotions that kids growing up experience. From insecurities, to fears, to pride, and to love. It’s also about a good kid who is rough around the edges because of the lousy cards life has handed him. But when a coach steps in we see the power a positive male mentor can have on a lost boy. And finally, it’s about running track, sprinters to be exact. As a high school sprinter this book brought back many fond memories for me. The camaraderie, the goals, the hard practices, and the freedom that running brings. It reminded me of the power that sports can have on a kid who feels lost. I loved this book and I hope my kids do too. I hope it might even turn a few kids onto the notion of running track next year.

However you decide to go through life may you at one time or another run like the wind and feel the wind in your hair and the bounce in your feet.


1620 A New Look At Thanksgiving

Anyone else feel like the old traditional ways of recognizing and celebrating Thanksgiving aren’t quite right? For years I’ve struggled with how to teach about Thanksgiving, Pilgrims, and Indians happily having a first meal together to celebrate; but to celebrate what exactly?

I found the above book and opened it up to see if it could help answer some questions that I had about this. I’m going to type the first page from this book, word for word.

Forward written by Nancy Brennan-Executive Director Plimoth Plantation and Margaret M. Bruchac- Wampanoag Indian Program Advisory Committee.

“Back in the 19th Century, one paragraph of only 115 words in one letter written in 1621 about a harvest gathering inspired the growth of an American tradition that became a national holiday: Thanksgiving. A number of today’s assumptions about that event are based more on fiction than on fact.”

As I read this honest reflection I realized that I may have found a source that will help me move forward. After all, if Plimoth Plantation, what many of us consider a Pilgrim museum, can wonder about this and explore our beliefs while searching for the truth, certainly American’s can too. No?

So I continued reading: “Many Americans think that the Pilgrims took over empty land from roving Native wanderers who had no fixed settlement. They are unaware of the continued existence of Native people. Unquestioning acceptance of biased interpretations can affect the way we treat one another, even today.”

When I read that section I knew I located exactly what I was looking for. In this year, the year of 2017 in the United States, what many of us refer to as the year of the Upside Down World, the year when chaos took over our country’s soul, I needed something to help me find truth.  Did the election of our 45th president bring about racism or did it just expose what has always been here? An honest question in my mind. Many say it goes back to slavery. Yes, it certainly does and slavery is certainly a sin we still have yet to truly acknowledge and make reparations for. But in reality it goes back much further than slavery. It goes back to the day the first white European stepped foot on this land because that is when the genocide of the native populations began. Our country is founded on that genocide. We have never acknowledged that sin and we still don’t. Many are shocked by the blatant racism that exists in our country today. But yet, until we acknowledge the fact that our country was built on someone else’s land we will never be able to successfully extinguish the racism in our country.  I’ll keep going…

“In 1947 the founders of Plimoth Plantation created a museum to honor the 17th-century English colonists who would come to be known to the world as the Pilgrims. In doing so, the founders left out the perspective of the Wampanoag people who had lived on the land for thousands of years. At Plimoth Plantation today, we ask questions about what really happened in the past. We draw from the new research of scholars who study documents, artifacts, homesites, culture, and formerly untapped sources such as the Wampanoag people themselves. We encourage new scholarship that includes multiple perspectives.”

When I read that I wanted to cry. 100 years ago we say we may not have know any better. I guess. But today, how can we not? Today we can know better and thus we must know better. We cannot continue to play ignorant just so we can continue this cultural celebration. What we did to the native peoples is nothing less than what Nazis did in Germany during WWII. Both are examples of the desire to exterminate a people. So I continued to read.

“What  you will read in these pages represents new thinking about the people and events of 1621. This book is just one part of a museum-wide effort to reinterpret the 1621 harvest feast through books, videos, educational materials, and a reenactment that gave birth to these photographs. We invite you to join us here on this shore and view the past from a different perspective.”

Happily, I continued to read this book. I hope you too will reconsider how you teach the next generation about Thanksgiving (and Columbus Day). We can still have our big family and friends meals, turkey and such, Macy’s Day Parades, and give thanks for all that we have. But as a nation we must reflect and ask how we can build a nation, our nation, one where we honor and treat each other with respect and empathy. We certainly can’t do so on a lie. It is time we unearth the lie. While that may be just a first step, it’s a powerful step, that will hopefully open the doors to real acknowledgement and reparation to the people we harmed.

May you enjoy your day of thanks with gratitude and reflection, and by giving thanks to all those who continue to work for peace and justice for all,


About the book: In October of 2000, Plimoth Plantation cooperated with the Wampanoag community to stage an historically accurate reenactment of the 1621 harvest celebration. 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving exposes the myth that this event was the first Thanksgiving and is the basis for the Thanksgiving holiday that is celebrated today. This exciting book describes the actual events that took place during the three days that the Wampanoag people and the colonists came together. The photographs taken by Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson capture the spirit of the event and bring it to life. Co-authors Catherine O’Neill Grace and Margaret M. Bruchac worked closely with Plimoth Plantation historians to produce this timely new book that tells the whole story by including the voices of all who were involved.


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It’s not often I email our literacy coach and only say a few simple words. But as I read this book I emailed her and said a simple, “Thank you.” This book of hope, friendship, and magic was exactly what I needed right now. And I believe it is what my kids need right about now as well. So I’ve decided to change what I had planed for a read aloud tomorrow and instead will begin to read this. You see, I love trees. But more importantly, I love magical trees who give us hope.

Last week each member of our Children’s Literature study group was given a copy of wishtree by Katherine Appplegate. I dug right in and immediately realized that I was happy. Her prose, her topic, her gentle way of interweaving accurate science.

Written through the eyes of a great oak tree named Red, we follow Red’s thoughts and plans as a new family moves into the neighborhood. We meet a young girl, Samar, who struggles to feel accepted in her new neighborhood and who’s gentle spirit allows her to befriend this old tree, its little critter inhabitants, and a neighbor boy. If this sounds too corny, I hear you. But please trust me when I say that this story is anything but. It is nothing short of melodious beauty on a very deep level.

I have a request for the few readers who may read this post and then hopefully read this book. If you feel like I do, grief as we watch our country’s soul being ripped open, then I’d love to read your thoughts on this fabulous story and hear any connections you may have made. Please share in the comments section so that it may, like the wishtree itself, share our combined wishes of love, tolerance, and peace.

May your week be filled with hope and love,


Home of the Brave

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A breath of beautiful, sunny, fresh air… Home of the Brave

When the world feels so overwhelming out of control a joy can often come in the form a a small book written in verse text. Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate is just that. A breath of beautiful, hopeful, fresh air.

The post is short because I don’t want to give any of its magic away but trust me when I say that you MUST get this book and read it, all in one sitting. Within the first page you will fall in love. The book opens with the line, “When the flying boat returns to earth at last, I open my eyes and gaze out the round window. What is all the white? I whisper. Where is all the world?”

Kek is new to America and he misses the cows he herded in his homeland. This tale is of his journey “home”.

Get the book and read it. I promise it will take you away from the hate that dominates our news today and it will bring you to a place of love and beauty through the eyes of a lovely child.



The Power of a Simple Phone Call

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Often we view cellphones through the lens of their negative impact on our classrooms and society in general but their potential power to transform is immense. Today I want to talk about the power of a simple phone call home.

Every year I call home. I call all the homes of the kids I have in my classroom that year. It’s a bit awkward and clunky but I do it anyway. That first contact home via phone needs to be a positive one. So after a day or two I begin the calls, only a few a night. And the response is fairly universal, surprise and joy. This year I have a lot of single dads who are parenting kids in my class so that was unique. Each call was similar in that just hearing the words, “I’m so and so’s teacher,” brought hesitation on the other end of the phone. But when they heard that their child was happy, trying hard, and doing well I could almost hear the sigh of relief. Almost every parent thanked me, repeatedly. One parent started to cry. Seriously. She said that when she heard my voice she wondered what her son did now. When I told her he had a good week and was trying hard she started to sob. She told me that was the first positive phone call she had ever gotten from a teacher, and the kid is in fifth grade. I now have fifteen parents who have heard from me that I like their kid. That’s power. Power to move forward and have the difficult conversations should the need for them arise.

It’s not too late. Start calling your parents. It literally takes two minutes per phone call. It will be the best investment of your time in developing positive parent relationships.

Have a great year,



So What?

Screenshot 2017-09-09 at 9.58.46 AM                         Calvin and Hobbes incorrectly capture the meaning of “So what?”

Teaching middle school science shapes you into what I consider an unusual teacher. The reasons for this include the infusion of the above question into much of what they do. The ongoing use of inquiry and hands on methods to explore our world also add to that shaping. These are strategies that many teachers are intimidated by. And for good reason. They are intimidating! They lead us and our young learners to places we may not anticipate or feel we are ready to explore. But when it comes to using the question, “So what?” a door is gently nudged open to reveal the whys of what we are doing.  I have been using and writing about this question for almost twenty years and some of my colleagues have thought of it as flip and disrespectful. But on the contrary, it is anything but.

Fast forward to my current position in which I lead the learning of fifth graders in a literacy classroom. In a previous post I open up about the “sock in my stomach” feelings I had when reviewing less than great end of year test scores. While I spent the summer trying to wrap my head around and decide what I wanted to do to move forward I found myself reading many posts by many talented and experienced educators. Today I found an article on the use of the above question in a professional development forum for reading teachers. I was pleasantly surprised about this leader’s use of this question. The teachers in this article had their children draw “readers”. The teachers then categorized and discussed the responses. This article was part of an online treasure trove of literacy articles from  Choice Literacy. After finally joining this resource, that our school’s literacy coach recommended many years ago, I found the article, “Draw a Reader Test, Informal Assessment Supporting Teacher Inquiry”. It was the first article I read after joining.  It renewed me.

After our meeting last year I realized I had a choice to make. I was either going to get my act together (hone in on structures and goals in reading and math workshops) or I was going to retire after twenty five years of teaching. During those reflective months I read a lot. I wrote a lot. I talked with friends a lot. I did the same things we guide our kids to do when they feel overwhelmed and don’t understand something. I also came across a podcast about my exact dilemma written by a talented and compassionate teacher leader, Angela Watson. It was time for me to see myself as a veteran teacher who is in a profession that is shifting immensely. This article also renewed me and gave me the guidance, strength, and gumption to move forward and tackle the challenges that lie ahead for not just me but for all teachers. I knew in my heart I wasn’t ready to stop doing what I love, teaching fifth graders who struggle to learn. After reading several dense tried and true “how to teach reading” texts over the summer I slowly regained the power, strength, and self confidence I needed to move forward. They, and my friends, and my writings helped instill in me the fact that my instincts, at times, are spot on. “So what?” So what about teaching? So what about working with kids in a literacy room? So what about working with kids who have so much baggage on their plates that learning is hard for them? So what?

So here is my reflection on that question. I love teaching. I always have. Yes, it’s gotten harder, way harder. Yes, the demands at times feel overwhelming and I often wonder how on Earth am I going to do this; how on Earth do young teachers and teachers with kids do it? Yes, teaching reading and writing is hard enough never mind trying to teach kids who struggle the most. Add to that, teaching kids who come to school hungry, dealing with trauma in their lives, working with less than what they need to be whole and happy and complete. So what? Because I love these kids and they deserve the best we can be.

Teaching is hard. We all know that. But if we hold on to why we do it, the kids, we will muster the strength and grace to move forward even when the wind is knocked out of us, even when one more thing is put on our plate and we think we can’t manage one more thing on our plate. It’s the kids and the belief that by teaching them how to read and write will help them immensely in their difficult lives we will be able to move forward through trying times like now. We are their lifeboat. But maybe, just maybe, they are our lifeboat too.

Enjoy your kids this year. Teach them how to love reading and writing. Teach them to love themselves. And never, never stop asking the guiding question that brings such deep reflection and relevance, “So what?”