Meeting Leah Henderson

I recall reading through the VSLA Conference program and circling “Speed Dating with Authors”. If you know me, you know I attended this session. I’m the one who buys the hardback of favorite YA authors the day their book comes out. I’m the one who attends book festivals to meet authors in person. I’m the one who uses the hashtag #AuthorsAreRockStars when tweeting about an author visiting my school. This session at the Virginia State Literacy Confernece in April drew me in.

During the 2nd round of “Speed Dating”, I sat down in one of the 8 chairs arranged in a circle and the author Leah Henderson was sitting next to a chair holding 5 books – 2 picture books, 2 novels and a nonfiction text about protest marches. As she spoke, sharing about each of her experience becoming a writer and about her books, I discovered she lived in DC. Right then, I knew I wanted her to visit my school.

Now in just 10 days, she will visit! To help prepare the students at my school, I made this SLIDEDECK. The students can choose one of her books on slide 2, click the cover and it takes them to another slide. There, they can listen to either me read-aloud the book or listen to a video I found of Leah reading the book. I added some discussion questions and a quick write prompt to each slide, too. I learned from my school librarian how to hyperlink slides, making the deck feel like a “Choose Your Own Adventure”. I can’t wait to start using this today with my students. And I really can’t wait until June 10th! What a perfect way to spend our last Friday together at school – an author visit with a local author. #AuthorsAreRockStars

NOTE: I have now read ALL her books and recommend ALL of them!! I finished One Shadow on the Wall this weekend and am so glad I got to meet Mor and his sisters and “travel” to Senegal. Add ALL her books to your Summer Reading pile! And feel free to use my slidedeck with your students, too!

New Favorite Author

Yesterday my school hosted the author, Jewell Parker Rhodes, virtually. What a treat! On this asynchronous Monday, 65 students remembered to join the TEAMS meeting at 1:30pm and for an hour, she shared about writing Ghost Boys and graciously answered student questions. Many of our 7th graders had read this book in a recent book club unit and many of my 6th graders elevated the book through their votes in our recent March Book Madness to the Elite Eight Round.

HERE is a video of her speaking about Ghost Boys. The same passion seen in that video was seen on our TEAMS call yesterday! She shared how emotionally draining it was for her to write Ghost Boys. She spent 2 1/2 years researching and writing. She explained that her writing process is to hear the character. Then, like an actress, she acts out the parts as she writes. She shared how this process made writing Ghost Boys so hard and depressing. But now, she shared, readers of the book, act as healing for her. “It was worth the effort! Your age group imspires ME! You WILL make the world even better.”

“I was just a little girl when Emmett Till was murdered and I think WHY is this still happening? She explained how she created Sarah, a character with a cultural difference, a good heart, and someone who was curious but not afraid of differences. The perfect ally.

During our hour, she asked us to watch this video of present day allies, making a powerful Public Service Announcement. WOW! SO moving! This film was directed by Kiri Laurelle Davis. More info can be found here: and @JustUsProject.

Yesterday afternoon, I also made a quick trip to Barnes and Nobel to buy Ghost Boys and her newest, Black Brother, Black Brother. She shared how she is married to a white man. Her daughter looks more like him. Her son looks more like her. Inspired by her own children’s experience, this novel explores how the world sees two brothers differently because of their different skin tones. I’ll read these books and as she suggested, ask how I can bear witness, now that I have met issues through her books. My hope is that once I know more, I can do better.

Have you read any Jewell Parker Rhodes books?
If not, I highly recommend adding her to your upcoming summer reading list!

Traveling back in Time to 3/2014 – Author Spotlight

“I’ve set the Time Machine settings to 2014 at 11pm. It’s a Monday night and the The Daily Show with Host Jon Stewart is set to begin. He is set to interview a very special autthor guest!” Just before sharing my screen to play the back-in-time video clip, I remind my students to watch carefully and to take notes. They had this slide to help them set up their notebook page and many choose to click the link in the chat, giving them an electronic template of a 3-2-1 structure.

Then I clicked on the video and we traveled back to a fabulous 10 minute interview.

Here’s a sampling of students’ notes from that day:

I ended the class reminding the students the March Trilogy can be found in our school library and in my classroom library.
I do think a few will be requesting to borrow from our school’s Curbside Pickup.

If you have 10 minutes, I recommend watching this moving interview. But like me, you might need a kleenex!
March 9, 2014 John Lewis on The Daily Show
And even if graphic novels aren’t your thing (yet), I highly recommend reading this book series
by the amazing author and American, John Lewis. #GoodTrouble

Author Visit

Friday, a mom of a student I taught last year visited my middle school classroom. Kristyn Kusek Lewis. She is also a writer for adults and a freelance magazine writer. I’ve read both her books and recommend them if you are looking for a fun beach read!

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I enjoyed hearing about her work on her third novel which comes out in January. Just like Judy Bloom, she starts a new notebook for each new novel and jots ideas into it. If ever stuck, these ideas help. And she held up a flower covered notebook to show us hers.

She shared the cover that just got approved for her new book. A red door, ajar. A flower pot was added to the lower, right cover to make it appear more of a door of a house in the country, as this novel is set in central Virginia.

“This is my homework today” and she held up about 30 pages, each with the words formatted on the page like in a novel. “I need to reread to ensure it makes sense and no typos.” She explained how she recently fixed a scene where the couple was driving home. In an earlier draft, the husband was driving. Then she changed it be the wife driving. Yet, at the end of the scene, it still said “He pulled the key out of the ignition”. Oops. She caught the mistake and fixed the pronoun to make sense.

Along with doing the final edits for this 3rd novel, she just sent in a pitch to Washingtonian magazine. She explained that a pitch is a one page summary of a magazine idea. She hopes to get an affirmative reply and then will have a deadline to write so many words for the article. Fingers crossed!

She explained how she got the idea for this recent magazine pitch. She saw a photo on Instagram by the National Zoo. The zookeepers were making toys for the animals. She interviewed the zookeepers and has an interesting story now to share, hopefully in Washingtonian Magazine! She liked meeting the zookeeper so much that now she plans to have a character in her fourth novel be a zookeeper. All because she saw a photo on Instagram, proving writing ideas are everywhere!

She ended by giving the class these writing prompts and a writing assignment:

Writing Prompts – Pick one – then write, and be sure to describe using your 5 senses

  1. ONE INCH FRAME – think of something you could describe that fits into a 1-inch frame…write about it!
  2. Write a THANK YOU note to someone
  3. Write 3 questions you want to ask your Principal.
  4. Write about the things on your bedroom floor
  5. Write as many ch- words as you can think of. Pick one and write about it.

I set the timer for 10 minutes and we all WROTE!  I used my time to write a THANK YOU (#2) to Kristyn.

When the timer went off, I asked, “Who chose prompt #1? #2? #3? #4? #5?” I was amazed that in a class of 16, ALL 5 prompts got chosen. I always hated in school when the teacher assigned a prompt. But maybe because only 1 was offered. Having 5 to choose from got ALL in my classroom to write for 10 minutes!

Thanks for teaching my students and me, Kristyn!



Google Maps indicated the Ashburn Barnes and Noble was 23 miles away from my house in Arlington and it would take me 41 minutes to drive there. Despite being exhausted all day on Monday, April 30th because over the weekend I helped with our Middle School play (helped meaning being at school on Friday until 5pm, Saturday from 10am -9:30pm and Sunday from 11am – 7:30pm while my students performed three shows of The Lion, the With and the Wardrobe. ), I still wanted to go. So once school ended, I headed west.

After following the voice on my app, I found the Barnes and Noble. I sat in the second row of the chairs and saved a seat for my friend who was on her way. A little after 5pm, the BUS arrived!


Then Kwame worked his magic!! As he talked to the crowd, I learned this was his last bus tour stop. For the last 30 days, he has been on this amazing bus that looked like the Rebound Book cover to promote his newest book. He lives just down the road in Reston so it made sense that he’d end here. So glad I made the trek!

Kwame read his poetry. Randy played background guitar music. Kids were called up to play a game – as Kwame read a poem, he’d leave out a word and the kids would fill in the blank. ALL won t-shirts! We learned he is working on a book about a character who plays tennis titled, Love.  He ended having us ALL repeat after him in song…

Be a star.
In your mind.
Day and night.
And let it shine!

Dribble, Fake, Shot, Miss
Dribble, Fake, Shot, Miss
Dribble, Fake, Shot, Miss
Dribble, Fake, Shot….SWISH!!

As I was outside the store about to head home, I noticed the boys who were sitting in front of me. They were being guided onto the bus. I was so jealous! I watched as his brother and mom stepped onto the bus and took a look. As they returned to the sidewalk, I went up to them and asked, “How did you get to go on the bus?”

The boy replied, “My mom made me bring my report on Kwame and when he saw it, he said we could get a look. I didn’t want to bring it but my mom made me,” he answered.


I love meeting children’s authors!
They are rock stars in my book!!


Spying on MY reading

This year I am teaching Reading 6 in Middle School so naturally, I am spending my time reading and spying on myself as I read. This was a trick I learned first from Ellin Keene in Mosaic of Thought, Heinemann, 1997 (a life-changing book for me and for the literacy world) and then reinforced by the staff developers at Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. Armed with the Pathways Reading book and more specifically focused the learning progressions of four skills (character traits, characters’ response to change, predicting, and author’s craft), I spied on myself as a reader Friday night.

Friday during the school day, author Alan Gratz visited my school promoting his newest book, Ban This Book.

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As I was leaving school with an autographed copy of his book, I stopped at the supply table in the back of my classroom and took time to set myself up for reading this book AND recording my thinking about it. I grabbed some post-it notes and added one to the last page of each chapter. Now for  this particular book, some of the chapters were short and the book itself is 243 pages long. And I will admit that many minutes went by as I armed my book with end-of-chapter note-taking space. However, now the book was ready. As soon as I heated up some dinner, I was ready, too, with pen in one hand and book in the other.

Friday night I sat and read the whole book! It IS a page turner and fun school story about one of my favorite things – books! And I found as I got to the end of each chapter, with that blank yellow post-it staring at me, I had a thought about the book at that moment and I jotted it down quickly before beginning the next chapter. I jotted character traits about the main and minor characters. I jotted down my predictions of what would happen next. I jotted that moment when the main character acted out of character. I jotted about times when I felt just like a character. I jotted about moves the author made to keep me reading.

It looked like this:

Then Monday night, I removed all the post-its. As I did, I sorted them into piles. All the ones about Amy Anne in a pile. Another pile for Trey and a third for Trey’s mom. I had a prediction pile and an author-craft pile. I had two favorite scenes, so I put those together. It looked like this:


During my many visits to Institutes at Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, the staff developers have encouraged the use of a Reading Notebook. Since the act of reading is so invisible, the notebook is the place to make one’s thinking while reading visible to themselves and others. It is the place to hold onto thoughts, review them, grow them, revise them, and have them close at hand during a book club discussion or in front when a literary essay is being drafted.

As I looked over all the piles on my dining room table, I asked myself, what are the big ideas? I decided I had enough thinking to make two double-pages. One would be devoted to characters, their traits, my connections to them and times they acted out of character. (These are all skills defined in TCRWP Pathways to Reading book.) It ended up looking like this:

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I then took the predictions I made, my author’s craft notes, my two favorite scene and fun things I learned while reading this book and added them to look like this:

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I can’t wait to teach my sixth graders today. My mini-lesson will be a reminder about how, when we read, we think. One way to make our thinking visible is to stop and jot it down. Then I’ll show them how I did it. First, I set myself up for success by having a book of my choice that I was motived to read. (Somehow meeting the author hours before at my school and holding a book, signed by the author is very motivating!). Then I took time to add post-its so I’d be reminded to stop and jot. Using post-its allowed me to sort thinking into piles. It allowed me to them organize my thinking into my notebook. At the end, I added some color for fun.

Now, I am on the lookout for others who read this book thoughtfully. With my notebook in hand, I’m ready for a book club discussion. Or maybe I’ll use these pages to write a literary essay. No matter what, I know I will have fun sharing my spying on my reading with my 6th graders today!

#17 – Jarrett!

It’s a great time to be a kid, with so many great children’s authors writing books.

In my classroom, we know some authors so well.
We watched Kate DiCamilla online celebrate Mercy Watson’s birthday.
We celebrated Dot Day by reading all of Peter Reynold’s books.
We laugh along with Elephant and Piggie and the Pigeon as we enjoy all books by Mo.
We cheered when watching the live announcement of the Newbery Honor award for Pam Munos Ryan’s book, Echo.

Then today an author visited my school – Jarrett Krosoczka.
You know his books – The Lunch Lady series – Punk FarmThe Playtpus Police Squad.
(If you don’t, take time to get his books, enjoy them and then share with kids!!)
So far, at age 38, he has written and illustrated 27 books, co-authored 2, illustrated 4 and he has one coming out on May 17th (yes, I’ll be at the bookstore buying it on the 17th – exactly in one month!!)

Favorite quotes from his presentation:
“I published a book in 3rd grade and all the lessons I learned to write that book, I still use today – I brainstorm, draft, revise and edit.”

“I love to use my imagination.”

“Even after LOTS of rejection letters from publishers, I did not give up. I did not quit.”

“It’s a wonderful thing to be bored. It is important to be bored.”

“What I hope you remember from meeting me today is that my career started in school and in my free time, I used it to do what I love – write and draw. I hope you use your free time to create.”

After hearing Jarrett’s story, seeing the process he follows to create books and even watching him effortlessly sketch a few of his characters on the easel, I returned to my classroom with my class. I told them to use their iPad and explore Jarrett’s website.  In minutes, kids were collaborating to create comics and sketching ideas for animal stories. Seeing how engaged they were, I thought about how I had lessons I had planned to teach for the rest for the day but all could be held and taught tomorrow. I decided instead, we needed to be like Jarrett today and have time to “be bored”!

By 3pm, we met in a Closing Circle and shared. One pair had drafted a dog and cat comic. Another a party favor comic. One group was creating an animal school. One was sketching a rock band. All enjoyed time to be “bored” so their imagination could work and they could create!


Ralph Fletcher – a great writing mentor!

The summer of 2013 I got to hear Ralph Fletcher speak at TC. That day he shared this poem with us:

The Good Old Times  by Ralph Fletcher
Sometimes I remember
the good old days,
sitting on the kitchen floor
with my brothers and sister,
each on our own square
of cool linoleum.
I’m fresh from the bath,
wearing baseball pajamas.
Mom gives us a cup of milk,
two cookies, a kiss goodnight,
I still can’t imagine

anything better than that.

Click HERE to go to my Notes about Ralph’s August 2013 Keynote

That day he told us to pick our own moment, one we remember well and write a poem about it. He suggested to get started, we use HIS first two lines and HIS last two lines.

Amazingly, that day, I wrote a poem quickly!! Since that day, I have shared his poetry writing tip every year with the teachers I help to teach writing and with the students I teach.

This year and days after Veteran’s Day, I was sharing Ralph’s poem with my 3rd graders. Afterwards, I was moved to wrote this poem:

Sometimes I remember
the good old days
Our guest arrived just before 3pm
to the Atmosphere Studio Classrooms
including Ryan’s dad in his official Navy uniform
On cue, we sang “Anchors Away”
and all the military songs with gusto.
So many moms, dads, grandpas, grandmas, and friends
came to celebrate with the 3rd graders
Honoring ALL the Veterans who keep us free
I still can’t imagine
anything better than that.
Thanks, Ralph Fletcher! You are a wonderful writing mentor!

March 15 – Fan Letter to Judith Viorst

I have another blog that I started back in 2011 –   where I post my thoughts about reading and writing.

Looking back through it, I have celebrated the many times I have heard authors speak. Living just outside Washington, D.C., I attend the Annual National Book Festival and I wrote about it here and here and here.

AND I celebrated new books by my favorite authors like here with Eric Carle and here with Sarah Weeks and here with Kathryn Erskine and here with Ralph Fletcher and here with Ralph and The One and Only Ivan and here with Candice Fleming.

AND I honored favorite authors who die like here – Maurice Sendak and here – E.L. Konigsburg.

To me, authors are like rock stars! I am amazed by their writing talent. They can place words in such order to transport me to other places, times, perspectives and they keep me thinking, questioning, pondering, and trying to live better. Writers change my world and as a writing teacher, I constantly am sharing authors’ writing as mentor text for my students. Today I wrote this letter as a fan letter to one of my favorite children’s writers and poets – Judith Viorst.

Dear Mrs. Viorst,
I am a new teacher at Janney ES but not new to teaching as I started teaching Kindergarten in 1986. Your first Alexander book came out 7 years before and it was one of the first books I bought for my classroom library. I’d read it aloud to my students, we’d all laugh, and then all easily wrote about their worst or best day, inspired by your writing. As a new teacher, I appreciated having you in my classroom through your books.

Seven years later, I took my daughters, age 6 and 3 to a free lecture at the Library of Congress while on my spring break in April. You were one of the speakers, as was Niki Grimes and student writers from DCPS. That day, as my littlest sat on my lap and her sister next to us in the beautiful Library of Congress building, we realize you as a poet. Our favorite poem you shared that day was Sad Underwear! A parent of one of my students worked at C-SPAN at the time and got me the VCR tape of the event. For the following 7 years, I showed you to my students each April as we celebrated National Poetry Month and you, again, inspired my students to write stunning poetry.

I began teaching 5th grade writing at Janney ES the week before the 2014 National Book Festival. I told my new students that I was attending this event and if they were free on Saturday, they should too. “So many great authors and poets will be there. I planned to go hear Judith Viorst.” When I said this, a child said, “That’s Isaac’s grandma.” “Really?” I replied. “Yes, and she’s my grandma’s friend,” Avey said. “Really?” I guess I knew you lived in Washington, D.C. and that your grandkids go to a school. I just never thought about where. As your fan, I love that I am teaching at the school where some of your grandkids attend school!

Last week, the 4th and 5th grade students at Janney participated in state testing and as teachers, we did not moderate our homeroom students but instead, switched. This switch gave me the the pleasure of meeting Isaac and being his 4th grade teacher last Wed – Fri and again this Monday and Tuesday. Last Firday was Idol Spirit Day at Janney. The kids came dressed as someone they look up to or idolize. During our Morning Meeting, Isaac mentioned his idol is a guitarist, a few kids dressed as their moms and dads, a few as sports fan for both soccer and baseball and I wore my t-shirt from Columbia’s Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. I told the class I go there each summer to learn how to teach writing better. Later, after testing for the day ended and I was helping Isaac with a math problem, I told him, “You know, I could have dressed up as your grandma today. I do look up to her as she helps me to write poetry.” Hearing this, a big smile came across his face.

As I end my fan letter to you, I’d like to invite you to come to Janney ES to speak to the 4th and 5th grade writers. ANYTIME! I am not sure if your schedule allows for you to do school visits. However,  I know the time would be worthwhile to the students at Janney, just as sharing your books and poems have been for me these past twenty-some years as a teacher. Feel free to email me at or send a note back via Isaac.

Thank you for considering this invitation and thank you for mentoring me through your writing to be a better teacher.
Your fan,

Sally Donnelly
5th Grade Writing Teacher
Janney ES

I hope she is able to visit my school and speak to my students. But either way, I’m glad I took the time to write her a fan letter. Writers really are rock stars!!

March 2 – Dr. Seuss B-Day!!

For me, Fox in Socks is the Dr. Seuss book that comes to mind every March 2nd. It was requested over and over and over again by my daughters when they were little. At least, The Tweetle Beetle Battle always had to be read before lights out each night.

“Let’s have a little talk about tweetle beetles…
What do you know about tweetle beetles? Well…
When tweetle beetles fight, it’s called a tweetle beetle battle.
And when they battle in a puddle, it’s a tweetle beetle puddle battle.
AND when tweetle beetles battle with paddles in a puddle,
they call it a tweetle beetle puddle paddle battle.
When beetles battle beetles in a puddle paddle battle and the beetle battle puddle is a puddle in a bottle…
…they call this a tweetle beetle bottle puddle paddle battle muddle.
When beetles fight these battles in a bottle with their paddles and the bottle’s on a poodle and the poodle’s eating noodles…
…they call this a muddle puddle tweetle poodle beetle noodle bottle paddle battle.
Now wait a minute, Mr. Socks Fox!
When a fox is in the bottle where the tweetle beetles battle with their paddles in a puddle on a noodle-eating poodle, THIS is what they call…
 …a tweetle beetle noodle poodle bottled paddled muddled duddled fuddled wuddled fox in socks, sir!
Fox in socks, our game is done, sir.
Thank you for a lot of fun, sir.”

“Again,” they would chant as I finished that funny tongue twister and close the book. Most nights, I would agree. Other times, I was too tired. Sometimes I would purposefully let pages stick together so we’d get to the end of the book very quick.

But I could never skip any part of the Tweedle, Beetle Battle because they knew it by heart and it had to be heard in its entirety. How much fun it is to read nonsense words and hear rhyming words and have your tongue tied up!

Today, my oldest is in grad school in Chicago and my youngest is in France working as a teaching assistant. And I am a 5th grade teacher. I couldn’t find my very worn copy of Fox in Sock last night so I downloaded it to my kindle to share with my 5th graders today.

Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss.
You published Fox in Socks in 1965 (when I was just 2 years old).
Today you would be 111 years old.
And your words live on!!

What’s your Dr. Seuss memory?