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Honesty-Themed Books For Your Reader's Workshop

Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.
                                                                                                                     -Thomas Jefferson

Emptying my dad's change jar out on the living floor is one of my favorite childhood memories. My sister and I were always fleecing my father for his spare change. Early on, we learned about the power that pennies could wield at Dan's Convenience Store down the road. And on hot summer days, we rode our bikes around one-armed or no-handed while we slurped down orange sherbet pop-ups that we'd bought with our begged spare change. Spare change meant sugar, bike rides, and sticky fingers when the ice cream inevitably dripped down our hands and handlebars.

So when I discovered The Hard Times Jar by Ethel Footman Smothers, published in 2003, my own happy childhood memories were triggered. Instead, my students and I found a beautifully written book that provides a window into a household with a very different reality. 

Emma Turner is a little girl who loves books. She loves reading them and writing them. She dreams of owning her own "store-bought" book, but she and her family are migrant workers. There isn't money for extras like store-bought books. Emma decides she'll use some of the money she makes picking apples to purchase her own book. But then, her mother announces that she won't be picking apples this year because she'll be going to school for the first time. Emma is devastated, until she discovers that her classroom is filled with real books. Emma is in heaven! The only rule is that she can't take the books home with her. 

Emma breaks the rule and takes the book home. She has to confess to her teacher about what she has done. Her mother, realizing that this honest action was very hard for Emma, gives her money from the hard times jar for her very own book, because hard times aren't just about not having bread or milk. Sometimes, hard times are about doing hard things, like being honest when you've done something wrong. 


This book has become one of my new favorites in my Empathy Project (you can read about that HERE or HERE). However, good children's literature is rich with multiple themes. Honesty is a big lesson in this picture book. I'll be using this book over the next week to teach about theme. 

One of my favorite ways to teach my students about theme is to have them reflect on theme over the course of several picture book read alouds.  We begin by placing a sticky note on a designated page in our reader's notebook. They date the sticky note, and write their definition of honesty. Then we read the first picture book, The Hard Times Jar. We discuss the theme of honesty and how it played out in the book. Then they place a second sticky note, write the book title at the top of it, and write a new definition of honesty, based on the book we just read together. They also write a statement of how their thinking changed. 

Next, we read 3-4 more books with an honesty theme. Each time, we add another sticky note and our thinking about the theme in our reader's notebooks. The most powerful part of this is when students explain how their thinking changes every time we read a new book. 

Finally, I give them a sentence strip. They place their sticky notes in order from first to last in order to see the evolution of their thinking. They describe this evolution with a discussion buddy. At the very end, they write about it in a very short essay. I use that essay as a reading and writing assessment. 

My students love this approach because they get to talk about their thinking. I love it because I can see how their thinking develops over time. 

I've made a featured freebie for the month of December, just for you! You can snag the theme bookmarks I give my students for free. They're like an anchor chart on a bookmark. Simply click the picture.


You can hear more about honesty-themed books by listening to our latest Book Talk-Theme Talk episode. My podcast buddies had a ball talking about these books and our ideas for how to use them in our classrooms. Click the picture to access the episode.

OR, you can read about the other honesty-themed books I'll be using in my theme talks by visiting my podcast buddies' blog posts below. They've written about some fantastic books and have included some great teaching ideas to go with them!





Gentle Rebellion 101: A Teaching Story


Once upon a time, there was a fearsome dandelion fighter. Every week, he rode a 20 horsepower mower across an immaculate lawn... a lawn manicured so carefully that when the neighborhood association whipped out its Home Depot measuring tape, no matter where they measured, his grass was exactly 1 1/2 inches tall. At the end of each weekly battle, the warrior strutted across his lawn with a hoe in hand and grubbed out each dandelion green that his weed and feed fertilizer had not killed. 

Now next door to the lawnmower knight, there lived a young girl. Her favorite past time was to lay in the tall grass and weave dandelion crowns for Gracie, her dog, and Eddie Spaghetti, her marmalade cat. Every evening after the knight had retired to his suburban castle, she picked fluffy white dandelion heads and gently blew them across the knight's lawn. Then she closed her eyes and dreamed about a yellow sea of dandelions and all the beautiful crowns, necklaces and bracelets she would create for the neighborhood strays. It was an act of Gentle Rebellion.

Last Friday, I was lucky enough to attend a free professional development day at the Detroit Institute of Art. I had just spent three mind-numbing, soul-sucking weeks of teaching, grading, planning building professional development, attending leadership meetings, and teaching a weekly night class at a local university. Add parent-teacher conferences and some health challenges, and it was the perfect storm. I thought about not going. I wasn't feeling well. I could easily stay home. I was past exhaustion, but I went. The conference was on creativity, and I had been looking forward to it for weeks. 

I arrived at the Detroit Institute of Art and was given a free copy of Say Something by Peter H. Reynolds, a free copy of Start with a Dot, also by Reynolds, a number of free art posters for my classroom, and a little museum notebook for note-taking. I nestled down into the lecture hall and mourned the cup of coffee I had left in my car. When Reynolds walked out onto the stage, one of the first things he said was, "Education needs gentle rebels. Lean outside the box without getting fired." 

I forgot about my coffee. 

He told his story. The one about doodling all throughout his school career...the one about his boundless energy, and the math teacher who changed everything for him. The math teacher who asked him if he had ever thought about illustrating math concepts. The math teacher who suggested he make an animated movie, and then helped him do it. 

By the time Peter H. Reynolds was done speaking, I felt two things I hadn't felt in a while...alive and valued. I know I sound like I'm spewing sentimental drivel, but he reminded me of something I had forgotten. Once again, I had forgotten to take care of myself, and I had overlooked my impact on my colleagues and students. 

His keynote was the start of a fabulous learning day. We learned how to use visible thinking strategies and art in order to teach empathy . We were given the opportunity to engage in deep conversations about art. We learned about creative exploration and used junk and stamp pads to create our own works of art, and then discussed ways we could use the same thinking and creating processes in our classrooms. 

We painted and drew, all the while brainstorming ways to incorporate creativity into our every day classroom lives. 

The art institute filled our bellies with amazing food (no boxed lunches here), and we were given time to talk and think with the colleagues around us. 

And throughout it all, Peter H. Reynolds sat with us, painted with us, talked with us, ate with us, and quite frankly, held up a mirror for us to remember our own worth and power. It was an amazing day.

When Peter talked about gentle rebels, I pictured the hundreds of dandelion seeds that float delicately from my yard into my neighbor's yard. Often times in education, initiatives are rolled out (like a steamroller),  ideas are brainstormed (always makes me think of barnstorming), concepts are scripted and managed like a lawn cut so short that noone wants to walk on it because it's uncomfortably prickly. I was relieved when reminded that it only takes one whispering seed of creativity and belief to float into the fertile young minds in my classroom. I'll have a new crop of dandelions before I know it. 

P.S. If you ever get a chance to hear and see Peter H. Reynolds present, do it. You won't be sorry. While you're at it, buy his books. All of them. 


Thinking about ways to catch your breath with the upcoming break or spread a little calm? Check out these goodies. There's a freebie just for you!




It's a Teacher Talk week! Visit some of my teacher-blogger friends below.



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The Empathy Project Update: Explorations into Empathy, Part 2


There are times I hate being a kid. Here I am waiting to see which team will choose me for some pick up basketball. And the decision rests on some stupid game of Rock Paper Scissors.
                                                             -Just Kidding by Trudy Ludwig

Last month, I wrote about The Empathy Project, a year-long action research project that a colleague and I designed (you can read about that HERE). With our school year well under way, we tackled our first book, Just Kidding by Trudy Ludwig.


Before our first read, we set up a page in our reader's notebooks. We wrote the book title and date of our first entry on the first sticky note. Students responded to the prompt, "What is empathy?" I was surprised by the variety of responses students wrote. Some said empathy was knowing how someone felt. One child said that you had to do something to help the other person for it to be empathy. Another student thought it was more like sympathy or pity. 

Then, we completed our first read of Just Kidding.  Students' initial reactions to the text were varied. Some sat, knowingly nodding their heads. Others groaned when the bully uttered the words "Just kidding," the first time. 

This was my first time sharing this book with a class. If you don't know the book, please accept this blog post as my hearty recommendation. D.J. is the main character who is repeatedly bullied by Vince. Vince makes fun of his name, his soccer prowess, his clothing. When D.J. protests, Vince always adds on, "I was just kidding. Can't you take a joke?" This further demoralizes D.J., and he feels confused and doesn't know how to respond. He eventually gets help from his dad, older brother, and his school principal. 

What really makes this book special, is the way D.J. is taught to deflect Vince's statements. He learns to deflect Vince's taunts without meanness, or aggression. By doing so, Vince loses his power over the situation.

In our discussions of the book, my students practiced using the technique that D.J. learns. They really focused on how he is able to turn the situations around. Because I wanted my students to really process the story, I led them in a 4Cs thinking routine from Making Thinking Visible by Church, Ritchart, and Morrison.




The 4Cs thinking routine uses four quadrants, and I think it's one of most powerful thinking routines for reader response. The first quadrant is "Connections." My students talked and wrote about their personal connections to the story. However, I required that they also use evidence from the story to strengthen their connections. In fact, using evidence is my grade level's SMART goal this year, so we worked hard to do that for each quadrant.
The second quadrant is "Challenge." What do you challenge about the character's actions or reactions? Do you agree or disagree?  The third quadrant is "Concepts." What are the important concepts from this story (think: THEME)? And lastly, "Change." How has your thinking about the story changed? We used the "At first I thought...but now I think...because..." sentence  stems for this response. 

We read Just Kidding a total of five times by the time we were finished with the 4Cs thinking routine. We explored one quadrant per day. Because of this, when it came time to meet via Google hangouts with our buddy class, our discourse was rich and deep. 

On our meet up day, we met our fifth grade discourse buddies online right after lunch. Both classrooms of fifth graders had prepared at least two questions they wanted to pose to the other class for discussion. Since it was our first meeting, we met as a whole class so that my teaching colleague and I could make introductions and help facilitate. 

Nancie's students had prepared their thoughts and questions on notecards, while my students had their reader's notebooks on hand. Both of us had discourse stems displayed for our students to use when introducing questions and responding. They were over-the-moon-excited! We discussed the book and shared our understandings of empathy for about 20 minutes. After umpteen million years of teaching, I don't think I've ever seen students more engaged in a literature discussion. After we finished our meet up, my students returned to their reader's notebooks to write a second definition of empathy. We shared how our thinking had changed as a result of reading Just Kidding engaging in discourse with another class. 

We meet again at the end of October. We'll be reading and discussing Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson. This time, however, our students will meet online in partnerships or groups of three for their online book discussion. Stay tuned! I'll be back in a couple of weeks to fill you in!


Interested in learning more about visible thinking? Check out this website and resources:


For other great book recommendations about bullying and empathy, check out the We Teach So Hard podcast. Our newest episode showcases three more books! Click the picture below. 


This month I've linked up with some fabulous Teacher Talk authors. Check out their ideas below!



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Teaching Perseverance: Powerful Books to Change A Student's Mindset


In this world, we are not perfect. We can only do our best.
                                                                                           -Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah

If I have one goal as a teacher, it's that my students don't dance with perfectionism the way I have my entire life. It's an exhausting dance, and I've tangoed, fox-trotted, and step-ball-changed my way through my entire life trying to learn that my very best is always good enough. It's a crappy way to experience life, always feeling like you're never quite good enough. 

When I talk about perseverance with my students, I always use books. Good children's literature gives kids a chance to vicariously experience someone else's struggle, to see themselves in similar episodes of struggle, and finally to explore ways of working through it. However as an embattled perfectionist, how I talk about perseverance is really important. I teach my students to ask themselves 3 questions: 

  1. Have I done my very best? 
  2. How do I know I've done my very best?
  3. Is there anything else I can try before I feel I am done with this struggle?
A couple of years ago, I stumbled onto a little gem of a book, Emmanuel's Dream The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah. It has become one of my favorite books to use when teaching theme and perseverance. It's narrative nonfiction, which means that's it's a true story that sounds like a fiction story. 

Emmanuel is born with a birth defect. Only one of his legs functions normally. In Ghana, his home country, birth defects are viewed as curses and families are expected and encouraged to kill or abandon their children to the elements. Emmanuel's father leaves, but his mother makes the courageous decision to save her child and raise him. She tells him that he can do anything he wants to do, but that he'll have to work for it, and Emmanuel does just that, in ways that his mother could never have imagined. In the end, Emmanuel becomes a national hero and focuses a spotlight on his country's treatment of its disabled citizens.  Emmanuel's actions are inspiring and remarkable, but this young man is a picture of perseverance.

When I teach theme in reader's workshop, I first review retelling and summarizing with my students. I do this because I want them to be able focus on the character's struggle and resolution. I usually use a story chart to map out the parts of the story. The story chart includes the setting, characters, 3 important story events, the problem, resolution.

After we map out the story, together or in small groups, we turn our attention to the struggle and resolution. What was the character's conflict? How was it resolved? Because I teach fifth graders, it's usually at this point when I introduce types of literary conflict commonly found in fiction and narrative nonfiction: Character vs. self, character vs. character, and character vs. society/nature.

My students usually identify Emmanuel's struggle as "character vs. society."  We use a Making Thinking Visible thinking routine (by Church, Morrison & Ritchart) called "Step Inside."  Using this routine helps us to step inside Emmanuel's shoes to try to think, feel, and perceive the world as he does. You can find out more about that HERE.

I define theme this way:

By focusing on the character's struggles, my kids have an easier time identifying themes. Because of Emmanuel's willingness to do the hard stuff, like hop to miles to school on one leg or travel 2 hours away to the city to get a job to support his sick mother and younger siblings, he was able to overcome society's expectations of him. He showed perseverance when the situation could have overwhelmed him. In our small group discussions, we revisit our 3 questions about perseverance:
  1. Did Emmanuel do his very best?
  2. How do we know he did his very best?
  3. What more could he have done to help the situation?
For our final look at this book, I ask my students to create newspaper headlines that will summarize a theme. This is also a visible thinking routine, and it demands that students "go deep." The headline can't summarize the story. It must summarize the big ideas or themes of the story. 

I love that these theme lessons work with any fiction or narrative fiction book. You need Emmanuel's Dream in your classroom library. It's a testament to the power of one person. Be sure to check out the links below. There are 2 youtube videos about Emmanuel's journey, as well as link to his non-profit website, because he continues to dream...



Like the theme and conflict mini posters in this post? You can grab them for free by subscribing to this blog! They're this month's featured freebie for subscribers!

Don't forget to visit Kathie, Retta and Deann's blogs about other fantastic titles and lesson ideas for teaching perseverance. I'll see you over there!





Or, check out our newest episode of the We Teach So Hard podcast. It's our monthly book talk and we're exploding with ideas for perseverance-themed picture books. Click the picture to access!

I've linked up with some fabulous teacher-bloggers this month. Be sure to check out their posts below!
You are invited to the Inlinkz link party!
Click here to enter

A Classroom Action Research Story: The Empathy Project



I'm writing this on the eve of a brand new school year. My fifth graders will arrive tomorrow morning, and we'll be boogie-ing our way into the new year. Tomorrow will mark the beginning of my 27th year of teaching. Not bad for someone who, after her first day of teaching, told her veteran teacher mom  that "This will not be the rest of my life. It's okay, for now." 

And here I am. I have to admit that when I peel back the layers of crap imposed on us...crap that isn't teaching...I still love my job. In fact, I adore it. I'm still curious. I still approach teaching like a research project. Every year, I investigate a pedagogical question. This year is no different. After listening to Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle at our state reading conference, my colleague Nancie and I put our heads together and asked "What if?"

What if we selected 9 empathy-themed picture books and shared them with our students, one per month? What if we used the picture books to help our students develop a definition and awareness of empathy? What if our students met online across our school district to discuss the books within discourse groups, using flip grid or google hangouts? What would happen to their listening and speaking skills? What if we tracked those skills using WAPT/WIDA? What if our students self-assessed their discourse skills?

Action research makes my heart sing. It always has. I like pondering questions, developing hypotheses, and tracking data. There's nothing like the rush of success or the surprise of unexpected results. 
I've found that when I share my action research with my students, they are genuinely interested. They, too, ask questions and keep up on "how we're doing" with our classroom learning experiences. 

Nancie and I developed 3 essential questions for our students:

  1.  What is empathy?
  2.  Why is it important?
  3.  How does discourse impact your every day life?
These three questions will guide our shared readings and discussions as we collaborate every month across our school district. Students will return to the first question every month, in order to revise their definitions after reading the selected picture book. 


Before our first online meet up, Nancie and I will be teaching discourse strategies. I'll be introducing sentence stems for discussion, engaging in visible thinking routines that foster student conversations, and using open-ended learning investigations. Both of us will introduce Jennifer Serravallo's Conversation Learning Progression continuum to our students, because we want them to be able to self-assess their conversation skills. Later on, we'll be using that particular continuum to do our own formative assessment.
Within the first three weeks of school, we'll be administering the WAPT test to our whole class. We're doing this with the help of our bilingual support staff. We're doing this so we can get some baseline data on the four quadrants: Listening, speaking, reading, and writing. We've found that even when students aren't English language learners, they have weak areas. We want to be able to see everyone's starting points so we can better measure growth later on. 

In addition, during the week of our online meetups, Nancie and I will be using Serravallo's conversation continuum to assess where our students are as they talk. We'll be conferencing with our students about their progress, too. This is our sole focus during this week. Our goal is that by the close of the school year, our students will be at the end of Serravallo's Conversation Learning Progression continuum: 
Thinks flexibly, allowing one’s own opinions to be changed and/ or considering new perspectives and uses empathy to understand others’ ideas, especially when others’ opinions differ from one’s own.
We'll repeat the WAPT again in January and May to measure progress. I'm predicting that we'll see an increase in our students' listening and speaking scores, but I wouldn't be surprised to also see a spike in writing due to verbal rehearsal and expression. Both of these things develop writing skills. 



Nancie and I worked hard to choose the books. We wanted books that honored diversity. We wanted meaty books with strong characters. We wanted empathy-themed books. These are the books we chose:
  1.  Just Kidding by Trudy Ludwig
  2. One Green Apple by Eve Bunting
  3. Be Good To Eddie Lee by Virginia Fleming
  4. The Hard Times Jar  by Ethel Footman Smothers
  5. Ruby's Wish by Shirin Yim Bridges
  6. Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco
  7. A Thirst For Home by Christine Leronimo
  8. Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes & Friendship by Irene Latham & Charles Waters
  9. Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson
I'll be writing about The Empathy Project's progress throughout this school year. Be sure to check back the first week of each month to read more about our progress and findings. We're so excited! Our first book is Just Kidding by Trudy Ludwig, and it's powerful!



Looking for some ways to support your reader's and writer's workshops? You can read more HERE!

Plus, I offer many resources (some free) to help your kiddos take off! Click the picture below to discover more.