What are you reading today?

Two Book Reviews

Books are missing from Mr. Lemoncello’s library, and it appears that someone is trying to censor what the kids can read! Will Luigi Lemoncello find the real defenders of books and champions of libraries?

Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics by Chris Grabenstein is an easy, enjoyable read for upper elementary school readers (grades 4 – 8). The sequel to Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library is a rematch, so to speak. The competition involves puzzles, book references, and pop culture shout-outs. Teamwork, cooperation, and recognizing each other’s strengths are all clear messages for the reader. In this story, some of the adults are the villains who want to ban some books they don’t like. A delightful, fun, action-packed book for readers who love to solve puzzles and mysteries! Continue reading

A Book for Today

I know I said I would review on the 15th and 30th of every month, but this one could not wait…

            Different languages, different food, different customs. That’s our neighborhood: wild and tangled and colorful. Like the best kind of garden. (p. 54)

 Wishtree by Katherine Applegate is an amazing book told from the viewpoint of a red oak tree. Red is a city tree that has lived for 216 years (she has 216 rings). She’s also wishtreeknown as the wishtree, and on the first of May, people of all ages come to tie rags, tags, and even the occasional gym sock to her limbs with wishes scribbled on them. Red is an optimist and has strong opinions about things. Bongo, a pessimistic crow and a loyal friend, are two of the main characters along with Samar, a ten year old Muslim girl.  Red is home to owlets, possums, raccoons and skunks. They talk with one another, but nature has one rule: Don’t talk to people.

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Book Reviews: What are you reading this fall?

A new edition to my blog will be a post of book reviews twice a month. Look for reviews on the 15th and 30th – everything from picture books and novels to professional books. Happy reading!

Booked by Kwame Alexander is a great read for fifth through ninth grade students. Nick Hall, the main character, is a bright eighth grader who loves soccer and spends tiBookedme dreaming about upcoming soccer tournaments in school as well as a girl he likes. His best friend Coby shares his passion for soccer. This perfectly crafted story is told in verse and deals with the stress of separation and the eventual divorce of Nick’s parents. When Nick ends up in the hospital to have his appendix removed, he turns to books he has avoided with his soccer dreams temporarily on hold. He is surprised to find more than he expected there – a good message for middle school readers! A reflective narrative with a likable protagonist, Booked brings to life very solid teen and adult characters. It includes vivid soccer scenes, great wordplay, and a clear picture of some of the challenges (including bullying) that young people face. A satisfying, winning read!


The Seventh Wish by Kate Messner is a riff on “The Fisherman and His Wife.”  The main character, Charlie, catches a magical fish that says she will grant Charlie’s wish in return for her freedom.  Charlie wants some control over her life. Her wishes are not exactly accurate. She gets the wrong boy to fall in love with her, and wishing that her mother would get a new job causes her to miss an Irish dance competition. Then it is discovered that her sister has developed a heroin addiction during her first semester in college. Charlie’s parents get Abby into a program, and Charlie has to spend her Saturdays Seventh Wishvisiting her older sister at the facility and lying to her friends about it.  It’s hard to be supportive when she discovers her sister has lied about many things. Will the fish be able to make things right? Or are some things in life beyond even magical help?  In this story about an ordinary family – solid and loving parents, sisters that get along with each other, a great family dog – a problem arises that rocks their world. How could heroin addiction happen to a family such as this? I particularly liked the way Messner handled this situation. It is believable, honest, appropriate, and respectful.  Her brilliance was the way she helped the reader understand how the family, including Abby but specially Charlie, suffers because of this addiction. I felt hopeful when it was over.  Kudos to Kate Messner for tackling this difficult topic.

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Seeing Your Writing Through the Eyes of Your Readers

Teachers recognize the importance of revision. They want their students to value the process as much if not more than the final product. Sometimes, however, it is hard to get students to view their writing as a continual work in progress, even after their work has been published.  We all lament the “once and done” attitude, so how can we change it?

We know that writing is hard work, but in the end, writing is extremely rewarding. Giving our students choice and opportunities to write for myriad audiences (not just the teacher and classmates) can be very motivating. We want our writers to write like readers and think about how their pieces are being received by an audience. It would be great if our students recognized the need for revision without our gentle nudges.

Conferences are most helpful here. Every writer needs feedback to fuel his fire. Praise, questions, and suggestions for revision and editing are so important. Perhaps, we need to concentrate on teaching students how to be keen listeners and question-makers so they can help their fellow writers make changes that will help their message get across to their readers.

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Writing About Weather

One of my favorite lists to return to in any writer’s notebook I own is my list of weather words. From here, I am often inspired to write a poem or short story. Sometimes, I copy weather descriptions from mentor texts to help me explore new possibilities. Toad Weather by Sandra Markle, Out of the Dust and Come On, Rain! by Karen Hesse, and The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx are great examples.  The first is a picture book, and the last one is a novel I chose to read for pleasure. There are so many poems about weather. One of my favorites is “October’s Bright Blue Weather”  by Helen Hunt Jackson. Find your favorite weather poems and copy them into your notebook. They will always be a great source to spark more writing. I find that many of my poems are about rain.

Rain Song

Rain falls from the sky like musical notes,

Quenching the world with its sweet song.

Soft purple morning pitter-patter pitter patters,

Bathing petals in fragile droplets.

On drizzly-sizzly August afternoons, umbrellas

Open and rain boots delight in pooling puddles.

Rain builds in strength and fury, a rhythm

Drum-drum-drumming on window panes and rooftops.

Wet, cool, loud, angry, remarkable.

Thunder and lightning join in,

Providing the evening’s entertainment.

Using Dialogue: What We Need to Teach Our Students First

Most of the time, good monologue and dialogue is all about show not tell.  Occasionally, they can be used to offer directions or an explanation. Often, monologue and dialogue can be used to help the writer reveal her characters to the reader. They sometimes reveal characters by what other characters say about them; or sometimes, character reveals his true colors just by what the character says (or doesn’t say!).

Often, teachers begin by trying to teach students how to use writing conventions to properly punctuate conversations. Students learn about quotation marks, the use of commas and other end punctuation, how to place explanatory words before or after the words that are directly spoken, and to begin on a brand new line every time the speaker changes. Of course, it is helpful to learn this since it makes it easier for a reader to follow along. But is it the best place to start?

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Where’s Memphis? Or It was a Dark and Stormy Night

Lightning, clear-veined and jagged, cut through the moonless sky as rolls of thunder cracked in the air surrounding the house. It would be hard to drag Memphis outside to do his business, but the girls would gladly go. I sighed. Two trips tonight. I’d take Merri and Rhonda, and then come back for my stubborn male Corgi who hated rain but loved snow.

As we walked off the porch and into the backyard, rain began to fall in thick sheets – curtains of relentless rain. It seemed as if someone had slit the sky ceiling, allowing rain to pour down so hard and fast that we were instantly drenched. Why hadn’t I thought to bring an umbrella along? Late summer birthed storms that were unpredictable and sometimes wild. It was too late now to turn back for an umbrella or rain slicker. I slogged on in silence. Walking in rain is not my idea of fun.

The backyard quickly turned into tiny rivulets and muddy slopes. A pool of water formed between the two silver maples, It was going to be a bad storm. I cast a quick glance toward Sandy Run Creek. Although I could not see it, I was almost certain I could hear it, gurgling and slurping its way through the park,  churning and gushing beneath the old bridge on Limekiln Pike,  rushing and roaring its way through the golf course.

It had been raining almost every day since September had started. The creek was running higher than normal. It wouldn’t take much more for it to overflow its banks. I shivered more from fear than the cold. I had already lost a car to a flash flood. The creek was a little too close for comfort, even though I had never even had water in my basement. But this storm was different…

I trotted the dogs back to the house and grabbed towels to dry them off before they sent water everywhere. Then I called for Memphis. Where was that dog?  I called again and again as I walked through the house. Nowhere to be found.  I raced up the stairs, looking in each room and even under the beds. Then I panicked. Did he go out the door unnoticed as I took the girls into the backyard?  Memphis was a tri-colored Corgi, mostly back. Maybe I didn’t see him follow us.

With my heart hammering in my chest, I flew down the steps, into the kitchen and into the utility room to grab a flashlight, once again forgetting to nab an umbrella. As I darted past the downstairs bathroom, I stopped and backed up. Could it be….? And there he was, my Memphis, wedged behind the toilet in the downstairs bathroom. Obviously, he was preparing for a hurricane or tornado. No amount of coaxing would get him to budge – not even dog biscuits. Memphis was terrorized by the crackling and booming.

Finally, sometime after midnight, I was able to retrieve Memphis and cuddle him in my arms.  And then I thought of Snoopy in the Charlie Brown comic strip: “It was a dark and stormy night…”  I had a story to share with the fifth grade students tomorrow. I thought they would like it.



Have You Tried Writing Flash Fiction Yet?

The challenge of flash fiction is to tell a complete story in which every word is essential, to revise until you’re left with nothing but the core of a story. Flash fiction has been called by many other names including:  short-short stories, sudden, postcard, minute, furious, fast, quick, skinny, and micro fiction. In France these writings are called nouvelles.  In China this type of writing has appropriate  names: little short story, pocket-size story, minute-long story, palm-sized story.

  • Is there a definable plot? Do you have a clear beginning? A strong centerpiece? A definitive ending?
  • Does your story make its point and drive it home, hard? Most flash fiction stories, due to their abrupt beginnings and sudden endings, leave the reader breathless when finished.
  • Is every word absolutely essential to the story? Or have you left unnecessary sentences or some unneeded descriptives?  Make the most of the space you have!

Purists insist that it is a complete story told in less than 75 words; others say 100 words should be the maximum. Many flash fiction writers consider anything under 1,000 words as flash-worthy.  There are even a few who stretch their limits to 1,500 words. Today, I have attempted 369 – a set of three 69-word stories sharing a common subject.  This is my favorite structure for flash fiction. As you will see, I wrote about my dad and hints of growing up Jewish.

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The Gradual Release of Responsibility Model: The Your Turn Lesson

The Your Turn lesson is a solid plan for whole group instruction. Following the gradual release of responsibility model put forth by Lev Vygotsky, the sequence of instruction moves methodically and meaningfully from teacher control to student independence. Regie Routman talks about the Optimal Learning Model in her book, Writing Essentials: Raising Expectations and Results While Simplifying Teaching. Margaret Mooney talked about the “I Do, We Do, You Do” model of instruction. The gradual release model is an example of explicit instruction, noted for its effectiveness by researchers such as Robert Marzano.

I Do: Tell students what they need to know and show them how to do the things that they need to be able to do by modeling. Research confirms that this is an essential component of an effective and efficient learning process. This is where the teacher has control and can involve many strategies including informing, explaining, modeling with your writing, and providing examples from the literature and student samples.

WE Do: We work together, often as a whole group at first, and then again, in small groups as needed.  In writing workshop, creating a shared writing experience that you can return to for revision and editing work is often the key to students’ future success.

YOU Do: Here, student writers independently practice what you have already taught them. The  practice within the context of their own drafts will help students retain the new strategy or craft move and become fluent with what they must be able to do. It is important to see the tracks of your teaching in your students’ writing. If they are not trying it out independently, they most probably will not remember it or apply it in future writing. Of course, it is important that you offer feedback along the way through roving conferences, one-on-one conferences, and end-of-workshop whole group reflection.

A gradual release model allows the teacher to engage with students more effectively because their students become proficient with essential components of writing workshop. The gradual release provides demonstration – a teacher modeling (writing) in front of her students – to immerse writers in new concepts before they approximate the learning. Then, this lesson design establishes a clear sense of ownership as students write independently and share their thinking with others in the final reflection. Throughout the gradual release, a variety of voices are heard for discussing new learning in kid-friendly talk that makes use of the nomenclature of writers. The Your Turn lesson helps to maintain a writing community as students notice and appropriate the problem-solving strategies and techniques of their peers.

Your Turn Lesson: Punctuation to Make the Message Clear

Hook:  Share Punctuation Takes a Vacation by Robin Pulver or Yo! Yes?  by Chris Raschka.

Brainstorm: Students log their thinking/realizations into their writer’s notebooks.

Purpose: Writers, I’ve noticed the ways you have been using punctuation in your writing pieces to make you message clear.  I’ve also sometimes been confused and unsure of your intended meaning because punctuation was missing. Today we are going to study punctuation in our own writing and with mentor texts in order to share some insights – what we’ve discovered about how punctuation helps us be more effective writers.

Model: Ask students to examine a paragraph from a piece of your own writing or use a student sample with permission from the author.

Lynne’s example from her narrative Around the World:

I watched Mick talking with Stuart’s parents in hushed tones.  He probably was explaining that we couldn’t help Stuart here.  But then I saw them walking toward me, and I felt my heart sink to the pit of my stomach and settle there.  Mick was introducing me, but I was only catching a word here or there.  “…is studying to be a teacher…starts all the beginners…trust her with my own kids.” Then I was weakly shaking hands with them and leading them back to the barn to meet O’ Henry, a faithful friend who had helped me start many “up-downers” to post to the trot and learn how to canter.  As I reached for the saddle and bridle, I noticed that my hands had begun to sweat.  This wasn’t going to be easy; as a matter of fact, it was going to be downright painful.

Students can jot and turn and talk with each other. What are they noticing about the punctuation you use in your example?  Create an anchor chart with their noticings. What don’t they talk about?  You may make a note for future mini-lessons or decide you have a teachable moment. Ask students to read your sentences silently and aloud.

In Lynne’s example for a fifth grade class, the students noticed the use of an apostrophe to show ownership, apostrophes in contractions, a comma before a coordinating conjunction, a comma to separate a dependent clause from an independent clause in a complex sentence, periods as end punctuation, ellipses to show that words were omitted, and quotation marks to indicate words spoken aloud. The students had questions about the quotation marks around the word up-downers, and no one mentioned the use of a semi-colon (perhaps a future mini-lesson).

Together with your students, talk about how the punctuation helps the reader understand the passage and make the author’s intended meaning clear, rhythmical, and easy to understand

***For primary grades K-2, create an appropriate model and limit the noticings to one convention such as apostrophe use or end punctuation.

Shared/Guided Writing:
Students hunt through their writer’s notebook to find several examples of how they have used punctuation to help make their meaning clear.  Students turn and talk, sharing their findings with a partner. Ask some student partners to share in whole group. Post some examples on an anchor chart and label. Ask partners to initial their example on the chart.

The next day, pair students to do punctuation research with books they are reading independently, mentor texts shared as read alouds, and a set of books written by a favorite author.  You could also encourage them to use textbooks as well as articles from magazines such as National Geographic Kids, Scholastic News, or NEWSELA Elementary. During sharing time, partners demonstrate what  they’ve discovered and how they have documented their learning.

Independent Writing:
Students use the punctuation they’ve been researching and talking about in their own writing to make their message clear. Students should be ready to share something they’ve tried as a result of their study in a final reflection.

Optional: Pairs can plan to teach a mini-lesson to the whole group or a small group conference. List the “punctuation experts” on a special bulletin board where it can be viewed by all.


  • Think about punctuation. What were you already doing in your writer’s notebook and drafts?
  • What did you discover/learn that you will try in future drafts?
  • Did you discover that your mentor author liked to use a particular convention (parentheses, dashes, ellipses, etc.) – you noticed this convention in different books?
  • Were there any surprises?
  • Did you come across a sentence that was difficult to punctuate? How did you problem solve?
  • What did you learn about punctuation  that you could teach to someone else?

Writer’s Notebook Ideas

The best place to become and grSlice of Life2ow as a writer is the writer’s notebook. It’s a safe place to try out new craft, to experiment, have fun, and keep ideas safe and warm. Your notebook is like a garden that changes color, patterns, and fragrances from spring to fall. Even in winter, your garden has hidden potential and takes on a quiet, peaceful beauty.  Here are a few ideas, with a nod to Ralph Fletcher, Linda Rief, and Aimee Buckner, to get you started and to help you maintain a writerly life.

Unforgettable Stories:  What moves you? Whenever you hear a story that stirs something inside you, write.

Writing Small: Jot down the important, telling details you notice or hear. Use your senses. Crack open the general words you might use by providing specific examples or an explanation.

Lifting a Line: Think about a favorite song or poem.  Pick out the line that really stays with you.  Copy it into your notebook and start to write from there.

Artifact Writing:  Write about an object around the house. It can be a picture, a piece of original artwork, a ticket stub, or a candy wrapper. Think about the item and why it is important to you. Glue the item into your notebook (if possible –  or take a picture of it) and write.

Mind Pictures: Use your five senses to absorb your environment. Divide a page into five blocks and label with the senses. In the present moment, try to fill up the blocks with what is happening around you.

Snatches of Talk: Fill up some pages of notebook with dialogue, the way people say things, pronounce and emphasize words, and repeat themselves.

Write from Another Point of View: Try writing from a different point of view than your own.  Think about the people you know really well. What would they have to say about this topic?

Fierce Wonderings: Write about what you wonder about. Pay attentions to what haunts you, what images or memories keep running around in your mind, even when you try not to think of them.

Lists:  Keep lists of different kinds of leads, words that are unique, sounds and smells of the holidays, strong verbs, spring things, pet peeves, accomplishments, favorite books, similes and metaphors, goals, poems about words, etc. Writers keep lists!

Writing that Scrapes the Heart: Do not hold back. Write about things that you keep close to you – family secrets, feelings, things that sometimes may be too personal to share.

Writing that Inspires: Use your notebook to collect lines, quotes, and passages that inspire you. Use these lines to write about your thoughts and feelings or to imitate – walking around in the syntax of the author.

Writing Off a Word: Put one word at the top of the page and allow yourself to freewrtie off that word.

Memories: Memories are a writer’s most important possession. Try to capture each memory as honestly and accurately as possible. Jot it down before it’s forgotten. To recover a memory, try writing in the present tense and describe the setting connected with the memory.

Writing in the First or Second Person Voice: Temporarily adopt another voice and try it on for size. Take on the voice of a polar bear, your pet cat or dog, or a character in a beloved book such as August Pullman in Palacio’s Wonder. Experimenting with different literary styles and techniques help us develop our own voice.

I love to write ideas down in different colored pens and watch the words spill onto a notebook page.  It’s both comforting and energizing to watch the flow from brain to hand to pen to page!  I use my notebook to write about people, places, and objects that I love or that I find unique in some way. My notebook is filled with snapshots of friends, relatives, and pets.  Rich descriptions of Long Beach Island, the Poconos, my grandma’s house, the stables, and my East Mt. Airy neighborhood are some of my favorite entries.

My notebook is always a place to store lists.  For example, after reading Names for Snow by Judi K. Beach I had the urge to brainstorm a list of names for autumn.  I came up with names such as Leaf Dropper, Best Dressed Gal, and Masquerader.   I love making lists because they often help me find a topic I want to write about or research.  My notebook is a place for memory chains, my heart and hand map, and my neighborhood map.  I put photos, ticket stubs, and clips from magazines and newspapers that will serve as memory joggers or topics I want to explore.  A running theme in all my notebooks is my grandfather, Alexander William Sulima.  I have so many snippets about all the things he taught me to do and to appreciate.

Finally, I use my notebook to study the work of other authors.  I explore their writing using the advice of Katie Wood Ray in Wondrous Words.  Mentor texts are imitated here before I use them in classroom communities where I write for and with talented, youNotebook 3ng writers.  I could not imagine a writer’s workshop without the notebook as a central part of how writers live their daily lives.  I am grateful to Ralph Fletcher, Aimee E. Buckner, Linda Rief, Shelley Harwayne, and Katie Wood Ray for all their advice and inspiration they have provided in their professional publications and/or workshops and keynotes about writer’s notebook!