Category Archives: personal reflection

Why I’m Not Answering Your E-Mail Today

I know I owe you an e-mail response. Looking at my inboxes, it appears I owe the world an e-mail. It’s not that I don’t want to respond. I do care, but if I give as much time to answering my e-mail as it demands, I would never read, write, or talk to my family and friends, again. Yes, I could have answered your e-mail instead of writing this blog post. I could let g-mail consume me and never again feel the rays of the sun.

I have two e-mail accounts, Sisyphus and Bartleby. I conservatively receive 300 e-mails a day—each box. I admit that occasionally it’s a Talbots’ coupon. If you e-mailed me during your workday this summer, I was likely standing in front of our teaching colleagues leading a workshop, or attending a literacy conference. At night, I’m usually on airplanes. I feel blessed every day to have these opportunities, but they do limit my availability.

You must know that I spend a lot of time reading. I need to read for both my sanity and my soul. In a traveling life, reading wards off loneliness. The stories I’ve read (and lived) inspire and sustain me. I’m not much good to myself or anyone else if I stop reading.


I read journal articles, professional books, blog posts, tweets, and Facebook posts about teaching and reading. I need to remain current with our profession. I’m not done learning how to be a good teacher. To keep growing, I must read research, innovations, conversations, and world news. I will never learn all there is to know.

I read hundreds of books a year written for kids. I enjoy children’s and young adult literature. Reading it helps me stay connected to my students and the children in my life. Staying current on children’s literature remains a vital part of my teacher education. Bottom Line: I should always be able to recommend a book to a kid. That’s where I started. Who am I if I can’t do that?

I enjoy and appreciate children’s and young adult literature for my own reading purposes. I’ll admit it. At this stage of my reading life, I’m chasing a great story. I want to read things that excite and surprise me. Children’s and young adult authors are the best writers around these days. Yes, I read The Goldfinch this summer. OK, part of it. I didn’t like it as much as Grasshopper Jungle.

I read all of your e-mails, I promise. You’re not just casting into the wind. I respond to as many as I can every single day. Some days, it’s five. Some days, it’s fifty. I will eventually answer you. I learn a lot reading your e-mails; you stretch my thinking and show me what topics matter to teachers.

Reading e-mails feeds my writing, but answering them doesn’t. If twenty teachers ask me the same question, I need to pay attention. My answer to you might be addressed to thousands of teachers or just myself. Reading in the Wild began with questions teachers asked me. My blog post about the 40 Book Challenge grew from e-mails, too. I’m working on a book right now with Teri Lesesne. I need to spend more time writing it. She’s counting on me to row my side of the canoe.

Fleeting free moments in my life– I tithe to writing. I discover and work through a lot of ideas and feelings when I write. Writing helps me think. Everything I read, hear, see, feel, wonder—comes together when I write. As Donald Graves said, my brain is “in a constant state of composition.” I’m a painfully slow writer. I spend an inordinate amount of time percolating ideas. Thinking about what I want to say through my writing takes up more time than writing does. I have grown to accept my processes. Sometimes, I slip my writing out into the world and share it. That feels good.


I might have time to answer your email today. I probably won’t. I’m sorry. I’m going to lunch with an old friend. I haven’t seen her in almost a year. Later, I’m going bowling with my husband and my teenager. You’re important. They’re more important.

I promise to be fully present when I answer your email. I will focus on the conversation and engage with you. I will take the time and write a decent answer. You may be waiting awhile. I know it’s rude, but I can’t help it.

I need to be fully present and engage with my life, today. I hope you take the time to live your life today, too.

What Remains

“Someday, in the mist of time,

When they ask me if I knew you,

I’d smile and say you were a friend of mine.

And the sadness will be lifted from my eyes.

Oh, when I’m old and wise.”

–“Old and Wise,” The Alan Parsons Project

If you want to feel life at its fullest, attend a high school graduation. Look into graduates’ beaming faces and you’ll see it—their eyes glow like stars. Youth at its pinnacle. Adulthood on its first day. Freedom personified.

For a few hours, the adults called to witness this passage feel what it’s like to be young again. We remember. But we are only visitors now. We passed this way once, but we can’t stay long. We feel time’s march and our place in it. No matter how much we influenced these golden children, we have moved into the past now. Just a few paragraphs in their stories. Chapter One.

And life goes on.

It’s hard to explain sometimes why anyone chooses to teach. Teaching is challenging work. It’s often thankless. Beset on all sides by condescending people who infantilize us and tell us how to do our jobs. Sisyphean paperwork and endless meetings. Why would anyone endure it?

“I like working with young people.”

“ I believe in the power of education.”

–Shadows of the truth, interview platitudes that fail to capture the intensity of our relationships with students. You want to know why we teach? We look at the sun without blindness and feel its warmth. We hold possibility in our hands. We see hope manifest. Year after year, we see life reborn. Teachers are keepers of the flame. The children stand as life’s promise. We will go on.

Teaching is touching immortality.

My students make me feel alive and through them, I live forever.

As this school year ends, I feel the weight of this pact more than most years. My fifth graders are leaving our building for middle school next year. I am leaving, too. Packing my classroom, passing back notebooks, clearing the walls. When Room 211 empties this Friday and the children and I leave it forever, I wonder what remains. Will my students remember what they’ve learned? Will they remember our classroom family? Will they remember the books we read? Most of all, will they remember how much I loved them?

While my professional training prepared me for many things—designing lessons, implementing best practices, working with other teachers—it never prepared me for the fierce, territorial love and concern I feel for my students. These children—brilliant, loving, flawed, hurting, and needy—come into my classroom every year.

My family knows my students’ names and their stories both heartwarming and tragic, I worry about my students long after they leave me, and my life becomes entwined with theirs—for one school year at least—often longer. As much as I hope to change children’s lives, my relationships with students transform me. They are forever mine, and I am forever, their teacher.

On their worst day. On my worst day. Until my last day on Earth, I will love them all. That’s my promise.

Twenty years down the road, what else could they take away from my class that matters more?

I spent the evening attending a graduation party for one of my former 6th graders, Daniella. Flitting around the party, laughing with friends, hugging relatives, dutifully talking with all of her guests, Daniella was bubbly and brilliant. She is glad that high school is over. She is ready for her next life.

Chatting with several former students at the party, I asked each one, “Where are you going? What are you going to do?”

“University of Texas. Biology.”

“Oklahoma Baptist. Art, and I’m going to swim for them.”

“Weatherford. Architecture.”

“Full Sail. Media Communications.”

“Midwestern State. Undecided.”

“Two year mission in Mexico.”

They all had an answer, but I could see it in their eyes. They don’t know. They don’t know where they’re going. They don’t know what they are going to do. Their eyes shine a little too brightly. There’s fear underneath it. An unanswered question, “What’s next?”

I don’t have an answer for them. I wish I did. All I have is the promise I made to them years ago. I love you, my bright stars. I believe in you. I always have. I always will.

Life goes on.

Love remains.

The most important lessons ever learned.

Common Knowledge

Yeah, so this happened:

Screen Shot 2014-03-29 at 11.46.31 AM

My little Book Whisperer, which turns five-years-old this month, received its worst review. I’ll admit HH’s words hurt my feelings. I read it out loud to my husband and texted a few friends about it.  At first, I was offended. Don’t I know how mainstream my ideas are? Anyone who’s read anything knows how to engage children with reading. My ideas are common knowledge to all teachers. I wish HH was right. Unfortunately, HH presumes that most traditionally trained teachers know best practices in language arts instruction, and apply these practices in their classrooms.

HH, your experiences are not my experiences. Sadly, I’ve never worked in a school where more than a handful of teachers know who Richard Allington or Peter Johnston are. I’ve worked in schools where no one reads children’s books, including the librarian. I weep because my daughters will never have a high school teacher like Penny Kittle or Kelly Gallagher. Instead, Sarah, spent 7th grade pre-AP English filling out S.E. Hinton crossword puzzles. I wish more teachers believed what you and I believe, HH, but they don’t.

HH, it’s clear that you and I are kindred teachers, shaped by the same body of knowledge. You and I both know that “students need time to read and teachers must be avid and passionate readers.” I’m glad that you live and teach in a world were these concepts are widely understood, but a lot of teachers and kids have never seen your world. Are you naïve that many of our colleagues—pressured to prepare students for endless, mindless tests—have jettisoned best practices like unnecessary cargo under an onslaught of mandates and accountability initiatives?

Even in schools where teachers understand and implement research-proven instruction, many must battle ignorant administrators who lack a fundamental knowledge of quality instruction. They struggle with parents who don’t value reading or support their children academically. I’m invited to speak in schools that want to improve their test scores, but the kids don’t have books to read and parent volunteers run the library. They don’t get it.

I’m glad, HH, that you live and teach in a world where children have engaging, accessible books and time to read them. I’m glad that your colleagues and you read. I’m glad that your school community supports reading. I’m glad that my dream—a place where children love reading and adults model reading lives exists somewhere in the world.

It sounds like Paradise. I hope I see it some day.

HH, I wish your review is true. My entire body of work should be common knowledge by now, but it isn’t.  Trust me, when I say that I’m doing my part to see that it is. I know a lot of teachers, librarians, administrators, authors, and parents who strive every day to make reading better for kids. It comforts me that you are out there, too. It’s great that you don’t suffer the same obstacles to good teaching that many of us do.

I’m still mad that you didn’t like my beloved Book Whisperer, though. It’s just another book about teaching reading to you, but anyone who really knows me understands that The Book Whisperer is my memoir. When I open that book, memories fall out of it—a sea of students’ names, book titles, field trips, lessons, and conversations. Besides my two daughters, I know that The Book Whisperer is my shining achievement. I’m proud of it. You don’t have to like it or see it as groundbreaking. I love every one of the students in that book. Our years together matter. Your opinion doesn’t fit into the picture.

Share what you know with as many people as you can, HH. I’m still learning how to be a good teacher. I hope you still think there’s something to learn.


Professional Development Discussion Opportunity

**Talking with Teri Lesesne this week, we discovered a shared interest in reading and discussing several influential research articles together. Join us for a Twitter discussion of Richard Allington’s “Every Child, Every Day,” on Sunday, April 13th at 7 pm Central.

Jump on the Bandwagon

“The great thing about rock-n-roll is you realize the top of the mountain is big enough for more than one band.”

–Paul Stanley


This week, Don and I attended Sarah’s Winter Band Concert. All three junior high bands were scheduled to perform. The packed high school auditorium we borrowed was too small for the crowd. Parents and grandparents stood in the aisles. Everyone smiled and greeted each other. We were in this together—supporting and celebrating our children’s accomplishments.

The Beginning Band played first. Composed of new musicians—who learned to hold their instruments twelve weeks ago—you could see students’ pride and nervousness about performing their first concert. Parents cheered and applauded. The kids beamed. Don and I remarked how small the seventh graders looked now, “Can you believe that was Sarah two years ago?”

Concert Band performed next. The kids in Concert Band are second and third year band students. Many tried out for Symphonic Band last spring and didn’t make the cut. All of them chose to stay in band another year.   While they played, I spent a lot of time looking at individual kids—trying to figure out their stories. The redhead playing first chair clarinet bobbed her head while she played. The oboe players looked like they were jamming in someone’s living room. One boy, a friend of Sarah’s, borrowed a French horn because he left his at school. Lively and fun, the kids and their director had a great time playing.

I have been thinking about those Concert Band kids all week.

I understand why Sarah and the other Symphonic Band kids stay in band. They are the top musicians in the school. They take pride in that. Symphonic Band plays at pep rallies, tours elementary schools, and competes in district contests. They hang out with other kids who share the same interest and talent for music. There’s status and prestige that comes with earning a spot in Symphonic Band (at least among the other band kids).

But, why does a Concert Band kid stay in band?

Imagine what these students have endured. They competed for a slot in Symphonic Band and everyone knows they didn’t make it. For whatever reason, they didn’t play well enough during their audition. Maybe, they don’t practice as much as they should. Maybe, they’re struggling to learn the fundamentals. Maybe, they don’t have a talent for music. Some of their friends bailed out of band last year—moving on to Spanish class or art. But these kids stay in band even though they’ve been told (publicly) they’re average musicians at best.

So, why do they do it?

Thirty seconds into their first performance piece, you can see why. Those jamming, head-bobbing, borrowing-a-French-horn kids play because they love it. These kids love being in band. While they were learning how to hold a clarinet and read sheet music, they fell in love with performing it. These young musicians believe:

We are in the band and it’s awesome.

We have made some good friends in band.

We love playing music.

It’s hard, but if we practice we will get better.

Our band director believes in us. She’s a musician, too.

It makes sense, yes? You need to love what you’re doing and believe that commitment and practice lead to self-improvement. The more you work at it the better you get. The better you get the more you like it. Pick a skill. Any skill. It’s the same.

I think about reading, of course.

Doesn’t everything lead back to reading?

If you don’t think we sort readers the same way we sort band kids, you’re not being honest with yourself. Do our developing readers receive the same positive message the concert band kids do? Young readers must believe:

We are readers and it’s awesome.

We have made some good friends who are readers.

We love reading.

It’s hard sometimes, but if we practice we will get better.

Our reading teacher believes in us. She’s a reader, too.

All kids need positive reading experiences, not just the kids who read well. It baffles me that no one questions why athletes need practice time (Practice improves performance on the field!) or the band needs to visit elementary schools (If these little kids think band is cool, they might join when they’re in middle school.), but English teachers must justify why their kids need reading practice and librarians must align an author’s visit to CCSS to show its “instructional” value.

Meeting an author makes reading exciting.  Author’s visits help kids fall in love with books and reading. You need the love for learning to matter.

You need love for anything to matter.

If we want kids to stick with reading when it’s hard, if we want kids to build positive reading relationships and experiences, we must help kids love reading.

Or else why would they keep trying?

Snow Day

My school district announced last night that we would be closed today because of ice and snow. I had already planned to miss school because of a dental surgery appointment to fix a cracked molar, but it looked liked my students wouldn’t be going to school, either. I slept through most of the storm, oblivious to the ice pellets and sleet that blanketed our neighborhood in solid sheets of ice.


My phone woke me at 6 am. The dentist’s receptionist was calling to cancel my surgery because my dentist and her staff couldn’t get to the clinic. Disappointing, but at least I wasn’t faced with pouring hot water under my car tires and finding my ice scraper. My bed was warm—a nest of husband, pets, and blankets, so I went back to sleep.

Waking up later, my mind automatically went through the endless to-do list of tasks I could possibly accomplish with a free day. I could get so much work done! Empty my email inboxes. Finish an article that’s due next week. Write lesson plans that will take me to Winter Break. Sign and address Christmas cards. Clean. I could always clean something.

Before I drank my first cup of coffee, I had filled my snow day with work plans. In other words, I turned it into every other day. Not satisfied with booking up my own day, I suggested several tasks that Don could accomplish since he would not be going to campus to take his Statistics final. Good-natured (and used to my ways), he only grumbled a little.

I am, by Nature, a worker bee. My mother raised me to believe that if you are in bed after 8 am—even on holidays and weekends—you better have a fever. I also suffer from the insecure notion that my value is linked to what I do and how much I do for other people. It is hard for me to relax. Don is a self-proclaimed slacker. He has no trouble lounging. The Grasshopper and the Ant. We joke about this, mostly. Don urges me to rest and enjoy myself and I push him to be more motivated. It’s a delicate tension between us.

I stalled about getting out of bed. Faced with a day full of work, I just wanted to go back to sleep. What would I be doing today if it wasn’t a snow day? I would be lying in a dentist’s chair getting a root canal and spending the rest of the day sleeping off anesthesia and pain. Was that the only thing that would keep me from filling every day with work? Surgery?

I made a decision—a snow day is a rare gift and I wasn’t going to waste it by being productive.

Don was thrilled. My decision to lie around all day liberated him, too.

I made new plans.

After a shower, I put on clean pajamas.

I pulled out a pile of books and journals to read and found the TV remote.

I got back in bed.

Don wandered through on occasion, checking in to chat and bring me more coffee (or cocoa, or chili, or grilled cheese sandwiches).

We watched three weeks of Walking Dead, then three days of Stephen Colbert and John Stewart.

We spent all afternoon reading–advancing though pages the only evidence of productivity all day.

Besides pet maintenance and food preparation, we didn’t do anything else.

Checking Facebook and Twitter, I admired my friends who were working harder than me today, but I squashed any urges to join them.

It was glorious.

I will tackle that to-do list tomorrow, but I must hold the memory of this lazy day. I need to remember that I can’t be productive every minute of every single day. Here in Texas, we don’t get snow days more than once or twice a year. Maybe, I need to declare my own “snow days” more often.