Category Archives: classroom moments

Famous

One of the best things about being a published writer is that you run into people at conferences who have read your book. I enjoy meeting colleagues who share my professional interests. Talking to other teachers and librarians about the importance of reading excites me. These conversations engage my brain.

I know that I’m a better teacher now because I have learned from some of the best teachers in America—the ones I meet while presenting at professional development conferences and workshops. Anyone who gets up early on a Saturday morning to learn about reading instruction is my kind of person.

And sometimes, these kind colleagues will ask me to sign my book for them. It is awesome. Signing books is fun. It is one of the best things.

But, it’s not the best thing.

At the end of every school year, I cull our class library and my students help. My class librarians and I examine every book and I pull out damaged books, duplicate copies, and out of date books. I dig out books no one has read all year and booktalk lots of them. Kids recommend books to each other and take more reading risks—branching out to try books they haven’t already read this year. Our class has renewed excitement for reading.

Every morning, I fill one marker rail with discarded books, scrawl “Free to good homes!” on the whiteboard and invite my students to take these books. I know many of my students don’t own books, and I would never sell my used books when I can give them away to kids.

A few students each day grab a book off our giveaway rail and bring it to me, so that I can write “discard” in it. Wednesday, two girls in my afternoon class shyly asked, “Can you write your name in our books, too, Mrs. Miller? When we donate books to the class library, you always ask us to write our names in them. You should do it, too!” I smiled, “Sure, girls.” All of the kids wanted me to sign their books. I’ve been writing “donated by Mrs. Miller” in books all week.

My favorite book signings ever.

It’s true that some teachers are famous for what they contribute outside of the classroom.

But all of us are famous for what we contribute inside of the classroom.

Teachers feed more dinner table conversation than Beyonce and Peyton Manning. We are famous (or infamous) to our students and their families. These relationships matter. One of my favorite poem is “Famous” by Naomi Shihab Nye, my fellow Texan. This poem centers me, and I read it often. (Read it. I’ll wait.) “famous as the one who smiled back,” that’s how I want to be remembered.

As we end another school year, reflect on how you’re famous to your students. How will they remember your class and you? What can you celebrate? What do you still need to teach them before they go? What can you do together to end this year memorably?

I wish you the best for your last weeks with your students and colleagues. Enjoy your time with them.

Bless It All

My students and I launched our second semester by celebrating our reading accomplishments (so far) and looking ahead to new reading experiences. I created an online survey where students could reflect on their reading habits, recommend books to each other, and set reading goals.

I decided to model answering the questions by taking the survey in front of my students.  Working through the survey while projecting it on a screen, my fifth graders tried to guess my answers.

We write and talk together a lot, and the kids know me well. They know that I love coffee, green (except neon green), and owls. They know that I have a scar on my ear from a dog bite. Of course, they know I love to read and I want them to love reading, too. It amused me when they couldn’t answer questions about my reading preferences that well.

Reading out loud question #4, I asked, “What is my favorite genre and why?”

Alex called out, “I know this one! You like books about animals. You give me snake books all of the time.”

“Yeah, you give me dog books, too, and you brought that animal poetry book. I know you like reading about animals,” Destiny agreed.

“I think Mrs. Miller likes historical fiction. She recommended Number the Stars to me,” Ryleigh said.

“You always read us sad books like Wonder and The Little Match Girl,” Sam said, “but that’s not a genre, is it?”

My students began bickering, each one claiming that my favorite genre was their favorite genre.

Hailey chimed in, “I think Mrs. Miller likes to read anything, as long as it’s good.”

You and I have that in common, Hailey, I thought. I laughed and agreed, “That’s true, Hailey. I read a little bit of everything. When I was your age, I read Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Greek mythology.”

Neil and Jeremy, diehard Lightning Thief fans, gave a little, “Woot!”

As much as I have influenced my students’ reading habits over the years, they have influenced mine. Some time ago, I realized that I gravitated towards the students who loved the same books I did, like fantasy epics and books about animals. Was I missing an opportunity to connect with some of my students or connect them with books? I couldn’t let my book preferences favor certain kids over others in my class.

Since that time, I have pushed myself to read more widely than twelve-year old Donalyn did. Reading out of my personal tastes benefits my students and me:

  • Trying a little bit of everything keeps my reading life fresh and exposes me to books that I might not have tried.
  • I can recommend books to my students that match their tastes, not mine.
  • My students appreciate each other as readers and don’t feel pressure to like the same books.
  • I communicate to my students that whatever we are reading, and whoever we are as readers—it’s all good.

Linda Gambrell often says, “Kids read what we bless.” If we want kids to find themselves as readers, value each other, and take risks–both in reading and in life, we must bless their books–and them.

Little Red Goes to School (By Way of Boston)

Some people name their cars. I name my suitcases. My big suitcase is affectionately known as The Pet because my husband claims I drag it around like it’s on a leash. My new carry-on—purchased in a futile effort to pack less—is named Little Red. Here she is:

little red

Little Red, along with The Pet, accompanied me to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), Conference on English Leadership (CEL), and Assembly on Literature for Adolescents (ALAN) annual conferences in Boston last week. She was almost empty when I arrived in Boston, but Little Red was crammed full of books when I left.

The first time I attended the NCTE conference (New York, 2007), a friend told me that I needed to leave room in my suitcase, so that I could bring a “few” books home. In my mind, a few meant five or six books–no problem. I was ill-prepared for the piles of low-cost and free books offered by generous exhibitors. I wound up purchasing a cheap duffle bag in Times Square, so that I could lug books home.

(I also stood in line with TWO people, so that Suzanne Collins could sign and stamp a copy of her newly-released book, The Hunger Games, but that’s another story.)

I learned my lesson. While I don’t feel the need to grab mountains of books in the exhibit hall, I manage to acquire a “few” during the conference every year.

Explaining to my students why I would miss three days of school right before Thanksgiving, they were curious, “Will you meet any famous authors while you are there, Mrs. Miller?”

“If you see Rick Riordan, will you ask him to sign a book for us?”

“Are you going to see where the Boston Tea Party was?” (I teach American History, too, so this isn’t as random as it seems.)

“Is Tom Angleberger going to be there?”

Trying to answer their questions as best I could, I told my class, “I am not sure who is going to be there, but I imagine I will have some new books to share when I get back.”

I had spoken the magic words: new books.

I wish every children’s author could have heard my class in that moment.

I wish every naysayer who says kids don’t read could have heard the children cheer when I told them we would have more books to read and share.

Mason asked, “How many books do you think it will be? How will you carry them?”

“I guess I will put them in my suitcase, Mason,” I assured him.

Mason grinned, “You should bring your suitcase to class and we can help you unpack it!”

This morning, I loaded up Little Red with books I picked up during my trip, as well as some books I found for the children during the break. Wheeling my suitcase across the school parking lot, no one gave me a second look. I guess teachers bring all sorts of weird props to school.

Parking Little Red by my desk, I greeted my students as the came to class. It didn’t take long for them to notice a bright red suitcase.

Kenzie shook her head, “You really did it. You brought us a suitcase full of books, didn’t you?”

I whispered to her, ” I found a copy of Who Is Michelle Obama? in a bookshop. I know you’ve been waiting for it. Let’s get it out.”

Kenzie beamed and fought off classmates eager to see inside Little Red.

gifts from Little Red

Looking for an orderly, but fun way for my students to investigate the books, we conducted a musical chairs-style book party. It’s a lot like my friend, Colby’s speed dating with books idea or Janet Allen’s Book Pass. Students carried their to-read lists and a pencil. I placed one book on every desk. We sang holiday songs and jingles at the top of our lungs while moving around the room.

When I rang my desk chime, students stopped at the nearest desk. Students examined the book at their desk for two minutes and recorded the title and author of any book that interested them. After two minutes, we repeated the process–moving around the room and looking at books. We had a blast. Everyone added books to their lists and all of our new books were previewed.

As my students filed out at the end of class, several patted Little Red and complimented her, “Thank you, Little Red, for the great books!”

The symbolism of a bright red bag full of gifts for children was not lost on me in that moment.

Thank you, Little Red. Every time I pack you, I will remember this day and smile. You helped me show my students one more time that reading is worth celebrating.