Classroom Reading Writing

An Open Letter To My Students:

Dear Readers, I forgot to share this letter with you. It was meant for my students, and while they have read it, I feel it is important to share with you too, because you have become part of this journey. Thank you for joining along with me this year or for as long as you have been reading. Thank you for your comments and constant hits on the site, even when I lag in posting. Enjoy!



An Open Letter To My Students:

On the first day of school, the look on your faces when I told you to read five books by the end of September was priceless. And then when I told you, to write for twenty minutes a day on top of that, the fear in your eyes almost made me back down. But at seven years into teaching, I’ve learned not to trust your eyes, at least not in moments like that.

However, the truth is I wasn’t sure if you could do it. I mean my fancy teacher books, blogs, and workshops had said that you could, but I wasn’t sure. It seemed like an insane amount of reading and writing. Even when I asked my Mom about it, she thought I was crazy (and my mom, well she’s my teacher expert hero). And so what you might not have heard in the mist of your fear was the trepidation in my voice— and maybe that has been our journey. Fear.

Maybe what you don’t know about me is that I love safety. There is nothing more comforting than knowing an outcome before a task has begun. In my past, if I didn’t know the outcome, I simply would have found a different way. The risk of failing, the risk of getting hurt or worse being laughed at, has always been too great.

Yet for some reason this year, the fear felt like less of a “stop right there” and more of an “I dare you to try”.

I was at a crossroad in my career passion and you gave me your hands, your pencils, and your trust. At night, sometimes I would wake up panicked, wondering if I had a lesson that would engage you, wondering if I was giving the right amount of feedback, wondering if I was still the teacher you needed me to be.

Then came you. You guys took what I gave you, and brought it to the next level. You exceeded my expectations academically, forcing me to raise the bar again and again. But that wasn’t all; you got excited and started dreaming too. Soon your dreams and ‘what ifs’ became our new curriculum. I wasn’t alone at all; I had 75 people planning with me, giving feedback, dreaming bigger.

I need to thank you for pushing your fears aside. I need to thank you for giving me the freedom to teach you as individuals. I need to thank you for allowing me to fail and for dreaming with me again.

After 180 days together, these are the messages I hope we both take home: When life hands you a healthy dose of fear and you’re not sure you can go on, know that sometimes when fear whispers it’s less a place to stop and more of a dare to press on. When your plans fail, when something doesn’t work, and everything falls to pieces— keep dreaming, keep chasing after . . .  there is a supercar just around the corner.

In closing, I believe children’s book author A.A. Milne has said it the best, “If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together . . . there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

Sincerely your teacher, mentor, coach, editor, hairdresser, stain remover, relationship advice giver, DJ,  fearless dreamer,


Miss Smith


Classroom Reading

Our Own Masquerade

Bronx Masquerade  is my secret April weapon; it has been since 2002. Since 2005, I have read this book aloud to three separate classes each April (National Poetry Month). That’s over 21 times reading the same novel aloud. It has not gotten old. I love this book. I would like to give Nikki Grimes a hug.

It’s the story of a high school English class, told by the students who are learning about poetry and The Harlem Renaissance. Each student takes a turn writing honestly about his or her life, and then writing a poem that is read to the class. By the end of the book the students view each other differently because they recognize the struggles each has to go through.

It’s a story of removing masks, revealing true identities, and embracing poetry/writing.

Slowly, slowly, the book takes us over, and we feel like our classroom too is going through the change. We are real with each other; we learn that there are some parts of each person’s story they had not dared to share before. Slowly, Slowly, the masks come off and we become inseparable.

Here’s a section of one of the poems from the book . . .

I woke up this morning

exhausted from hiding

the me of me

so I stand here confiding

there’s more to Devon

than jump shot and rim…

I dare you to peep

behind these eyes,

discover the poet

in tough-guy disguise….

don’t call me Jump Shot

my name is Surprise


If you are a teacher and thinking about using this book in your classroom, please be advised it does contain mature topics. I would use it for upper middle school or high school. If you are a parent, read it with your kid and talk to them.

Classroom Reading

Once Upon a Twice

Once upon a twice, in the middle of the nice, in a middle school classroom, the students had fun during the week of the PSSAs.This is not a fairy tale.

But, it does involve a picture book.

It was a book I had forgotten about until retreated by to my familiar and well loved Columbia University Teacher’s College notebooks— it’s where I go when teaching gets hard, because I know if I have the motivation and the joy, my kids will too.

I saw the title, Once Upon a Twice, scribbled across the top of the page, with the words BUY THIS BOOK written in bold and underlined near it. I hadn’t bought the book, but I did remember this youtube video of a five year old reading it.

I also remembered my frustration the first time I had heard this story read to me, the rhythm and rhyme were beautiful, but hard for me to follow and my comprehension was hindered by made up words and out of context places for words with which I was familiar.

And then I remembered the third read of the book at Columbia, when I sorta’ fell in love with this book and it’s whimsy, “a riskarascal in repose, a mouse who stopped—to smell a rose.” I resolved right then that I would read the book to talk to my kids about a time when I, as an adult, struggled with a children’s book.

There is no better time to admit to your kids that reading is sometimes hard for you than during the PSSA. So I ordered the book from Amazon, and we set off to discover a book that at first had stumped me and then had me under its spell. There were giggles, laughs, gasps, and . . . I have to admit it learning—even during the week of the PSSA.

If you’re looking for a book to read to your kids of any age I’m totally recommending Once Upon a Twice by Denise Doyen.

Here are the strategies things I would teach with it . . .

  1. Vocab in Context
  2. Root words, Prefix, Suffix work
  3. Really anything you can think of vocabulary
  4. Foreshadowing
  5. Theme
  6. What to do when reading doesn’t make sense
  7. And for the little guys, using pictures to help with comprehension
Classroom Reading Writing


When you’re a good teacher, sometimes you have to do nothing. I mean it probably looks like nothing, but sometimes when you’ve given them the tools, you’ve got to let them use them. Alone. No hand holding. No answering questions. And I’m so pretending not to see that one kid that’s struggling right now, cause it’s his fight and the best way for me to help him is to give him space.

It’s a fickle chemistry this knowing when to step in and knowing when to let them struggle. My first instinct is to always have a conference going on, always be moving around the room, but there are times when you just shouldn’t, when you should let them be with their book or their journal and let them journey the way you do.

The best part of my job is showing kids the journey, not the one that happens sitting in a school desk, the one that happens on the floor with your journal, when you shut out the world and figure out that who you are exactly isn’t who you thought you were. Cause I’ve been lost in a journal or a book and somehow in all that lostness, I’ve found myself, and maybe my job is more about helping these kids find themselves than anything else?

Classroom Reading

ahappyneighbor—Part I

And because I’m always trying to make everything a little more fantastic in my classroom, and since I never make too much of anything easy on myself…this year I decided that ALL of my students would learn about Detroit. That’s right, leveled texts and tons of them, hours upon hours of Internet research so every group could access the information, tons of Goggle searches and Youtube videos. I even went to the library, and you know how much that pains me.

This year instead of having Evan work with small groups of ten students in each class, he would work with everyone, right from the start. If Detroit and Evan had so greatly impacted 30 kids last year, why not go for 90? (because it’s crazy, that’s why?!)

Who in their right mind would try to write a new curriculum on a place they’ve never been, using the common core for the first time and incorporating both reading and writing standards for levels three through High School? acrazyteacher ahappyteacher

So we jumped in Mid-October. A history of Michigan with focus on Detroit, oh and sing-a-longs for fluency (thank you Bog Segar and The White Stripes). When I tell you I ran groups and made copies, I want you to understand the massive undertaking this was. I think I stayed for over an hour after school on Friday just to do one weeks worth of copying and this unit lasted until the last week in December!

As we studied, the kids shared their information with eachother via skits, power points, photos, drawings, essays, and graphic organizers. Each group had to learn from the other because honestly I couldn’t find the same information at all the different levels. Here’s the catch, each group listened to the other, because each group had the common experience of what we’re calling, “Evan videos”.

Again, Evan filled in gaps I just couldn’t find in texts. He made Detroit real and cool and funny (very funny, if you ever need to make a fourteen-year-old laugh; email me for Evan’s contact info). Like last year, Evan brought learning to life with relationship; work was completed not so much because I was asking them to do it, but more because Evan had suggested it was cool or because Evan had been there before. The power of cool in the life of an 8th grader is unreal.


What am I trying to say here? Why am I doing all this extra work?

Well, part of it is that you’ve got to enter into relationship with kids to make anything work. By letting the kids meet my best friend and interact with him, I make myself more real and they see the authentic nature by which my whole life is run. They know that I write inside and outside of school, because I tell them I do, because Evan tells them I do, and because I suspect some of them stalk me here.

The extra work, the copies, the hours sorting through information? I like learning; Detroit is a cool city, with a rich history. At the end of the day, the more excited I can be about a topic, the more excited the kids will be; my energy, my enthusiasm, my classroom—it’s contagious.

Classroom Reading Writing

Rigor, Detroit, & Evan

This story was written last year, and never posted. It’s strange how things get away from me sometimes. I can’t believe I’ve never shared this story on ahappyteacher; it’s one of my favorite teacher things I’ve done yet. So before I begin to try and tell you about this year’s project, I’m taking you back to last year and letting you read about . . .

Evan. It’s hard to even begin to describe this Detroit native, or why I think it’s so vitally important that you know him. But, it is.

This fall my students fell in love with Evan and Detroit. The whole thing felt sort of magical. I was running around in my backyard with sparklers on the 4th of July when I discovered my greatest lesson plan yet. I am an eighth grade language arts teacher in Pennsylvania, and when you meet your new neighbor, who bears a striking resemblance to Robert Paterson (Edward, from Twilight), you instantly start dreaming up ways to keep this kid in your life and use him to inspire the young, vampire obsessed teens in your classroom. What I did not know that night was just how much Evan, the young Cullen look-a-like, would change my teaching practice and my classroom.

After one look at his new house, it was apparent that Evan was not from around here. His house is one of the coolest I have seen in West Chester, with little pieces of Detroit hidden throughout it. A picture of Michigan Central Station resides on his kitchen wall next to a framed picture with the word Detroit artfully scribed upon it. On his end table sits a copy of Detroit Home. Ask Evan about Detroit, and you are sure to hear about it for quite some time. If ever a boy loved his hometown, I have certainly found him.

Remembering a Time magazine article about Detroit I had read the previous fall, I asked Evan if he would help my students to connect with the text by providing short video segments about his life and Detroit. This fall a section of my students were dubbed “Detroit” and our lessons began.

At first, the kids found the article, which was above their reading level, difficult to read and the history confusing. They didn’t understand why Detroit mattered. Enter Evan and his first video entitled, “Why I Love Detroit.” My students giggled as he referred to Coney dogs and the ability to get a Greek salad with little olives at the local gas station. They connected with him as he told them of how neither of our football teams, Philly nor Detroit, have ever won a Super bowl. They listened, surprised, as Evan told them of the musical greats that have come from his city.

Now understanding that Detroit mattered to Evan, my students began the research process. Together we learned about the history of Detroit and in turn the history of our nation. My students grew to love and even defend Detroit. They searched for more information online, and when we were stuck, we turned to Evan. We once spent an entire class looking at pictures of the Heidelberg Project. We watched YouTube videos about the city and read online articles and blogs written by true Detroiters. There were timelines charted, concept maps constructed, and comparisons drawn. We listened to their music, took in their art, and salivated over their local cuisine. Our little class had fallen for a city much bigger than ourselves.

As our project drew to a close, so a chapter was perhaps (okay so we made this up, but they’ll never know) closing for Evan too. The students were informed that Evan was faced with the decision of whether to move back to Detroit or to stay here in West Chester, PA. Each student was asked to write a persuasive letter; it became so much more. I realized how much my fourteen-year-olds loved Evan and Detroit. They wanted Evan to stay, because he is part of their lives and has had such success here. They also wanted Evan to return to Detroit– the city he so loved– because they recognized the heart of a true Detroiter: passionate, creative, and motivated. Though they loved Evan dearly, some did choose to send him home to be a part of a city that is “redefining cool.”

When I assign a writing project to eighth graders the first question out of their mouths is, “How long does it have to be?” This time it was, “I can’t pick,” and “Can he do both?” It mattered. They discussed; they read more; they even made movies of questions for Evan to watch. At the end of the week, I collected the best work I have ever seen eighth graders write, some topping four pages in length, and all supported with facts from a variety of sources. The passion with which these students were invested blew me away and brought tears to my eyes.

It was at this point that I truly began to reflect on the process. My kids gained more knowledge than I ever dreamed they would have of Detroit. We had not merely skimmed the surface instructionally; we had gone into the deep waters of comprehension. I had given the students the gift of Evan, someone who would love and celebrate them. Someone who would never dream of grading them or telling them they could or couldn’t go to the bathroom. Evan who would read their papers and write a response to them as though they were long lost friends, not a teacher checking for proper grammar or focus in writing. By letting go a little bit, I had given my students the three R’s I hear so much in the teaching field: Relationship, Relevance, and Rigor. It made all the difference.

In the end, Evan is not moving back to Detroit, but certainly a small part of Detroit has moved into Room 302, and we couldn’t be happier.

Evan teaches the boys how to add voice in their writing.

Classroom Reading

an apology long overdue

I’m not a huge fan of the library. Is that a crazy thing for a language arts teacher to say? It probably is. So I take it back, sorta.

When I was in school, every time a teacher took us to the library for some lame research project, I would goof off. Crazy, right? Me, ahappyteacher, wasting class time? Truth was I hated the books, I hated the card catalog, and searching a page for information was just painful. I come from a Googlemethis generation, and to be honest, I’m proud of it. We get it on our kindle, we take notes on our iPad, the bibliography is formatted for me on .

So maybe I’ve been a little lax these past few years in taking my kids down there. Just because I didn’t see a use as a kid, or a college kid, or a grad student, doesn’t make the library old school? Or does it?

Regardless, we headed down there for a cross-curricular project with social studies this week. The kids used books and google, in harmony, and I have to say I’m pretty proud of them. They worked harder than I did as a student and really I feel like their understanding is deeper than any I would have had at their age. Who would have thought, a simple trip to the good ol’ library?

There was this really cool atmosphere of research going on down there, I kept finding myself thinking, “Awwww look at my little learners!”

Dear Library,

I’m sorry; you’ve done good for my kids and I this week. I plan to take them down to visit you a little more this year; I don’t mind that you’re not all digital, and I love your nerdy atmosphere. So for all the years neglected you, I hope we’ve no hard feelings.





Did she really just say five books?

Yeah, she did.

A majority of my students are on their third book of the year; I’m pressing for five by the end of September. We’ll be working on covering a volume of pages this year, but for September we’re working on a volume of books. For some kids, this is a goal they would have met anyway, but for most it means putting in more time, going for shorter books, or lowering your reading level and going back to old favorites.

I thought five books by the end of September was a strong request when I first said it. Now, I’m realizing it’s totally doable. I am giving them time to read in class, and I am forming my instruction around their independent reading books, they have more than ample opportunity to cover ground. In fact, their only homework for my class is to read (and make a post-it note or two on their book).

I wish my teachers would have done this for me— it’s no fault of theirs that Independent Reading wasn’t a trend when I was in middle school. However, I just love that most of my kids can name a book they love or an author they enjoy reading. It’s my hope they’ll be reading books long after they leave my class, long after they leave school. Side Note: I’d really like to thank all the teachers from kindergarten to seventh grade that worked with my students before me; it’s not a battle or a challenge for them to find books they like—I know this teaching and this culture is yours; I cannot thank you enough.

If there is one thing my district does right, it’s create readers. Five books? No problem.

Another Side Note: some kids do complain— they’re fourteen. I tried to count them today, out of a potential 85 students, 10 thought five was a bit much. A little more than 10%— this happyteacher is totally okay with those odds. It’s cool to read.

Classroom Reading Writing

Product of: Starbucks, Conversations, and Dreaming

Yesterday I was trying to figure out if we have been in school for two weeks or three. I’m starting to feel a sense of urgency in just about everything I do. During the summer there was Starbucks, conversation, and dreaming. Now I reflect, plan, and do, praying that a little bit of sleep makes it into the equation somewhere.

But, I feel like we are gearing up—I’m giving them the tools and structures they’re going to need for the journey this year.

  1. Lots of Reading & Post-It making
  2. A ton of Partner Talk
  3. Generating Ideas to write from

Post-Its. I’m a teacher; I love them, that comes naturally with the job. However, it wasn’t until this summer at Columbia University’s Reading Project that I understood their value for my students. I’m modeling strategies for responding to text in ten-minute mini-lessons and then watching the kids use that strategy on Post-Its in their Independent Reading book. It’s a beautiful thing to see their thinking sticking out on brightly colored notes between the pages of a book.

Partner Talk. I was pretty good about remembering partner talk last year with writing. I understand the importance of talk within the writing process, but this year I added reading partners to the mix. Now, my kids are talking purposely at least twice during the block. Once during reading; once during writing. I’m modeling this talk with my coteachers and other kids in mini-lessons, and mid-workshop interruptions. Sure, I’m hearing off topic talking. Sure, this is taking up valuable time. But, I’m thinking, give me another week or two and everyone will know my expectations for both reading and writing partners—from that point, these partner talk relationships will become invaluable to my instruction.

Generating. It’s weird to say I teach my kids to think up their own ideas. It’s even weird to me that they can’t just do it on their own. I mean they have facebook; they like to post. But, in response to their cries of, “What should I write about today?” I’ve learned the importance of teaching them to generate their own ideas. I try to give them about one generating strategy a week in the beginning of the year to get them going with ideas. Then later in the year, if they come to me with the awful, “What should I write about today?” question, I can simply point them to my wall charts and move on with a smile.

It’s the end of week two, it’s the product of: Starbucks, conversations, and dreaming.

Classroom Reading Writing

August is.

It’s August.

I guess for some teachers that means the end of vacation. For me, August is inherent with reflection, planning, and oddly high credit card bills. My brain is ready to go back and my wallet needs to stay away from Manhattan and Starbucks.

I’m left thinking about what routines, what structures, and what assessments I really want to pack into that first week of school. I’ve downloaded curricular calendar after curricular calendar, and I’m packing my brain full of first month of school non-negotiables.


In Reading Workshop for Week One I’m thinking

-Volume Matters, kids make a plan of the next 6 books they’ll tackle (see things I’ve learned from my coworker S.Gardner)

-Model Reading Log Possibilities (More on this in the next post)

-Establish Reading Partners & Model talking about books

-Read Aloud A Picture Book or Two

-Reading Survey


In Writing Workshop for Week One I’m thinking

-PreAssessment, kids showing off their best writing skills

-Spelling Inventory

-Making Writing Portfolio Folders

-Generating Ideas to journal from

-How to set a up a journal page

-Establish writing partners & model talking about writing

-Writing Survey


And that’s just the start…

I’ll need to show them where to keep their tools and how to organize/respect our room. I’ll need to show them how to move the desks quickly when we sit on the floor, and how to move them back quickly to begin working. I’ll need to discuss technology, and how to respect it within the classroom.

There is more, I mean I can’t really even begin to tell you the more, because if you’re a teacher like me the more has started to wake you up in the night. What I’m recommending is starting your non-negotiable lists now. Then come the first day of school you can focus on helping kids open their lockers and learning their names, rather than planning some strange get to know you game that has nothing to do with your curriculum anyway.  Happy Planning!