Developing a Love of Language

Language is the cornerstone of culture. We should encourage our students to create a relationship with language, then literacy, then books. Students should be encouraged to write about what they know and what they don’t know but want to discover and learn.

One of our ongoing goals for our classrooms:  to foster curiosity — both external and internal. For example, if I want to learn more about E. B. Lewis, that is an external curiosity. If I want to find out more about the grandfather I never met and never knew, that’s an internal curiosity. Discovering and actively building knowledge about ourselves is an internal curiosity.

Building a love of words can start with a simple list of nouns. We can try to find new ways to describe these words:

Flowers: strong smells, orange or yellow, annuals, love the sunlight, never eaten by rabbits or deer, long-lasting, stay from spring to the first frost, dotting my gardens, outdoor plantings

Foot-wear: athletic, reflective shoelaces, platforms, Velcro straps soft, easy to walk in, best to run in, ultralight comfort, water-resistant, flexible, durable, rubber-soled, with printed logos
… sneakers

Teach your writers how to take the fewest words and make them say the most. Get an image in your head and paint the picture with words. Choose strong nouns and verbs and exact adjectives. Style is all about choosing the words that will carry our ideas and make them meaningful to our readers.  Remember, economy of expression is important. There is no need to write, “A really, really tall boy ran down the street quickly!” Instead, we might consider: “A supersized boy zoomed down the street.”

Play word games in your classroom. Here is a simple one to help students start to build original similes.

I see….       It looks like….

I see… a water cooler by the office.   It looks like….an oasis in the middle of a scorching desert.

I see… a black suitcase.     It looks like…an ancient magician’s trunk.

I see….a snow globe.   It looks like….a tiny, Welsh village during King Arthur’s reign.

Here is another way to have fun with words and teach similes, too.  Make a word jar filled with nouns written on slips of paper. Ask students to choose two slips and try to list all the ways they can find similarities between them. Here are my examples:


  • both have an O in them
  • people purchase both
  • both can be helpful
  • both can give the owner pleasure
  • they keep you company
  • both can die
  • both can be purchased at a store
  • you could play games with their help
  • you cannot live without them
  • they are entertaining

My laptop is like my dog. Throughout the day it keeps me entertained, and when I go to bed, it goes to sleep, too.


  • they are dark
  • they can be mysterious
  • they both begin with the letter M
  • they can pull you in (visually and literally!)
  • they can appear unexpectedly
  • they can heal
  • they are mystical
  • they are both important in a story that takes place in a swamp
  • in a new Cinderella version – they could both be important – if Cinderella loses a glass slipper in the mud instead of on the steps to the palace

Midnight is as sneaky as mud, pulling you in to its dark beauty and not letting go.

The great thing about creating unique similes is the push to think outside the box and write something that, perhaps, no one else has ever written before!

Hypehnated adjectives do the same thing and give a piece of writing a breath of fresh air. They also help the author with economy of expression. What day is show-your-love day?  Does the hyphenated adjective conjure up pictures of heart-shaped boxes of chocolate candies and red roses? Students can study examples from mentor texts and set off to find them in their independent reads. Eventually, ask kids to try to write one or two hyphenated adjectives in the pieces they are drafting. Here are a few mentor sentences:

All About Frogs by Jim Arnosky
Note the use of hyphen to create an unusual adjective in plant-climbing lifestyle. 

Baseballs, Snakes, and Summer Squash by Donald Graves
Look for the use of hyphen to create sound words or exact adjectives in run-down, long-haired, clickety-click, doe-eyed, no-thank-you’ and orange-bellied.

Talkin’ About Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman  by Nikki Grimes
Note the interesting use of hyphens in the school teacher’s description of the school that Bessie attended: Bessie would attend the hot-in-summer, cold-in-winter, one-room Colored schoolhouse where I taught in Waxahachie. 

Twilight Comes Twice by Ralph Fletcher
Wonderful adjectives are created with hyphens.  Some examples are deep-rooted, last-minute, and dew-spangled.

Up North at the Cabin by Marsha Wilson Chall
Use this book to discuss how hyphens are used to create adjectives such as air-bubble balloons and peanut-butter-and-worm sandwiches. 

Welcome to the River of Grass by Jane Yolen
Some use of hyphens are white-tailed deer, spear-sharp beak, tuft-eared bobcat and dark-sighted to describe an owl.

Granddaddy’s Gift by Margaret King Mitchell
Note the use of hyphens in black-eyed peas and the powerful feeling created by used-to-be friends.

The Divide by Michael Bedard
Hyphens are used in copper-colored grass, rose-patterned paper, sunflower-bordered road, weather-beaten boards, and fresh-plowed soil. Note the name of a flower, snow-on-the-mountain.

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
“She stared at us. She stared at one face, then another and another. The kind of bold, I’m-looking-at-you stare you almost never get from people, especially strangers.”

Readers and writers are lovers of words. Playing with language is enjoyable and can spark a renewed interest in reading and in writing. Build in some time to experiment in notebooks and guided experiences, to search for new examples, and to transfer new learning to drafts and even pieces of writing that have already been published. Writers become more sophisticated by taking risks and trying new craft moves and strategies. Students enjoy a challenge!

How do you develop a love of words in your classroom?

What are you reading? Two book reviews

The Boy at the Top of the Mountain by John Boyne is a fictional novel that takes us back in history to World War II. Similar to his novel, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, there is real tragedy here. Pierrot, a young boy growing up in Paris in 1936, loses both his German father and his French mother. When his best friend Anshel’s  mother gives Pierrot to an orphanage for his own safety (these are not good times to be Jewish and be living in Paris), Pierrot’s own Aunt Beatrix finds him and brings him to Adolf Hitler’s home in the Bavarian Mountains where she is a housekeeper.

Beatrix, to keep Pierrot safe, asks him to forget his French roots, his childhood friend, and changes his name to “Peter.” Pierrot is quickly won over by the pageantry and power and Hitler’s personal attention. He is filled with a sense of superiority that his own father’s bloodline offers him. He becomes a cold, calloused teenager who eventually betrays his aunt and her lover who have forged a plot to poison Hitler. He coldly watches their execution from his bedroom window. Eventually, the Allies arrive. Herta, the only remaining member of Hitler’s staff tells Pierrot:

“The deaths you have on your conscience. But you’re still a young man, you’re only 16, you have many years ahead of you to come to terms with your complicity in these matters….Just don’t ever tell yourself that you didn’t know. That would be the worst crime of all!”

Years later, Pierrot finds Anshel who has become an author, and he tells him his story to write it down so that it can be shared with others. The Boy at the Top of the Mountain can be read by middle school students, but I think I would recommend it to high-schoolers. Continue reading

On Modeling Writing for Your Students

In her book, Creating Writers, Spandel notes that most of the modeling that was done for us (now, teachers of writers) “…involved assigning, collecting, and correcting writing.”  We saw our teachers manage and assess writing, but we did not get to experience teachers who wrote, shared, or revised in front of us. We were not privy to their writing processes.  I grew up in a time that emphasized product over process.  Maybe that’s why I didn’t really learn a lot about how to grow as a writer until I came to the Pennsylvania Writing Project housed in West Chester University.

One of the things that helped me the most was reading myriad professional books. Bruce Morgan (2005) models writing by gathering students in his “Oval Office” where he sits in a comfortable chair with all the materials he needs at his fingertips: chart stand, chart paper, markers of different colors, and picture books (mentor texts, I would guess). He gathers his writers together in this manner because he believes it “…strengthens the community” and helps him monitor students’ engagement and attentiveness. Students gather here daily to observe him  modeling writing while he thinks aloud.  He talks about his process – the things that are going right, the things he is struggling with, and where he’s stuck. He will ask students for help, and their responses help him assess their understanding. Morgan has high hopes for his students. Continue reading

Creating a Positive Classroom Environment: It Starts with You!

Often, we are so concerned with positive ways to manage student behavior that we forget about the importance of our positive attitude each and every day. As the school year dips into the middle of autumn, already we start to question if we are meeting all our students’ needs and doing the best job we possibly can do. Good classroom management that creates a positive environment starts with the teacher. What can you do at school and away from school to use and enhance positive energy?

At School:

  • At recess or lunch period, take some time to read a chapter in a novel or read some poetry, take a walk on the school grounds or neighborhood, or write a personal note to a colleague to thank or praise him for something he did for you or the staff.
  • Stay (when you can) after school to comment and grade papers or start a little earlier to do the same before school starts. Find a quiet spot away from the door so your colleagues will be less inclined to drop in to chat with you during this time. The work will be completed much faster in school than at home!
  • If someone on the staff is a constant source of negative energy, steer clear!
  • Teach students how to do things for themselves as soon as possible. They need to feel capable, and their greater independence will free up some precious time for you to manage all that is required of you.
  • Find a friend you can have lunch with regularly and decide to pack a lunch once or twice a week and have a quiet, relaxing lunch with each other in a location other than the teachers’ lunchroom.
  • Do what you can to build a positive attitude about being at school. Be sure to say “hello” to your colleagues when you pass them in the hallway. Share your ideas freely, and be willing to problem solve as a cooperative team whenever the occasions arise.
  • Set high expectations for your students and be their biggest cheer leader.
  • On the weekends or on Mondays before school begins for the week, reflect on things that went especially well during the previous week. Select one experience and record it in your writer’s notebook. Savor the moment!

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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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