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Okay. . .We’re Going to Say It Again.



This is Josh. He is reading a book called GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE by Andrew Smith.

This title, released earlier this year, is the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award 2014 Fiction Award Winner.

It’s reading level according to the Junior Library Guild and Renaissance Learning (parent company of Accelerated Reader)  is 6.2. The points Josh would earn from Accelerated Reader would be 16. The book is recommended for Mature Young Adults ( this is a JLG designation).

Before I say more about Josh and GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE, let’s take a look at what Accelerated Reader has to say about the book:

Austin Szerba narrates the end of humanity as he and his best friend accidentally unleash an army of unstoppable bugs and uncover the secrets of a decades-old experiment gone terribly wrong. The text contains profanity, violence, and sexual stituations.

Fair enough.

But, I wanted to see what Accelerated Reader had to say about the other Andrew Smith titles my readers have read and enjoyed in the past couple of years in Room 407. The title that comes to mind first is Smith’s STICK. The first thing I see is that the reading level drops with this particular title, but there is still an RP quiz available. I wanted to look up RP. Here is the description of an RP Quiz as offered by Accelerated Reader in its information provided to parents (a PDF document I am sure few parents have ever been offered to read and to consider):

Reading Practice Quizzes are the most common type of assessment in AR. The purpose of these quizzes is to
determine whether your child has read a book, to measure literal comprehension of the book, and to provide immediate feedback. Each Reading Practice Quiz consists of 3, 5, 10, or 20 multiple-choice questions depending on book level and length. They are available in English, Spanish, and Recorded Voice formats.

Friends, in my experience with Acclerated Reader, these Reading Practice Quizzes are the ONLY type of assessment. For the author. For the book. For the reader.

For the cause.

But it is the description of STICK that causes me to stop again for a moment:

Stick’s older brother, Bosten, has always defended him, but when Bosten comes out as gay and leaves home and their abusive parents, Stick sets out to find him. The plot contains profanity, sexual situations, child abuse, and other violence.

My readers LOVE Andrew Smith. We offered GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE as Books and Bagels title last year which culminated in Andrew Smith’s interacting with my students in Room 407 via SKYPE. It was a robust conversation about the book, about writing, and about being teachers and students in the room who share books together.

Not because of a level, but because of our love for books.

So, I had to go back to Accelerated Reader just one more time to look at one more Smith title.

Because I was becoming concerned. I read on the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award Committee. This award has a three-part criteria: literary merit, teen appeal, and a positive, life-affirming feel. This year, one of our finalists was Andrew Smith’s WINGER. Here is what Accelerated Reader had to say about WINGER:

Two years younger than his classmates at a boarding school,14-year-old Ryan grapples with living in the dorm for troublemakers, falling for his best female friend, and playing wing on the varsity rugby team. The plot contains pervasive profanity.

Despite Accelerated Reader’s treatment of Andrew Smith’s titles, the ratings offered by readers do not drop below the highest marks available by those polled after having taken the quiz. Accelerated Reader’s treatment of plot, however, does cause some concern as I understand plot to be a description of a character(s) conflict and a sense of resolution. If the plot, itself, contained “pervasive profanity,” Renaissance Learning would not print that plot out of prudence, would they?

Andrew Smith’s titles, despite their average page count of 375-400 stay at a 14-15 point mark for Accelerated Reader “points” a student might earn for having read the book and having passed the quiz after the reading.

For fun, I went through some other popular titles (based upon the books my Room 407 Readers have enjoyed over the past couple of years) to see what Acclerated Reader was offering by way of page count and points awarded.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

This book was our Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award Winner for 2014. Accelerated Reader offers a 3.8 Reading Level and 11 points.

But here is what Acclerated Reader does not offer by way of including Rainbow Rowell’s title within its catalog of quizzes:

A 2014 Michael L. Printz Honor Book for Excellence in Young Adult Literature.

Winner of the 2013 Boston Globe Horn Book Award for Best Fiction Book. 

The Pull of Gravity by Gae Polisner

Here, Accelerated Reader offers a book of Middle Grade interest with a level of 4.1 and 6 points for having read the book and having passed the quiz after reading. Of course, this is an instance wherein Accelerated Reader misses recommending a title to middle grade audiences that–according to its description of the book–has a plot [that] contains profanity and sexual references.

The Pull of Gravity earned the Nerdy Book Club Award Best YA Fiction 2011 distinction.

Pennsylvania School Library Association’s List of Best YA Fiction 2011

YALSA Readers Choice Nominee 2011

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate:

The Newbery Medal winning title earns a 3.6 reading level and 4 points for having read the book and having passed the quiz after reading.

Did we mention that this book won the Newbery Medal?

The Book of Broken Hearts by Sarah Ockler

Reading Level 5. Points for having read the book and having passed the quiz. . .12.

Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos

Reading Level 5.7. Points awarded for having read the book and having passed the quiz. . .7.

But ask my student, Tyler, what it meant to have read this book last year in Room 407 and to have received a signed copy with a personal message from Jack Gantos. Further, ask Tyler what it felt like to have read over 100 books last year coming out of a year wherein, according to Tyler’s accounting, he read fewer than three books in two years. Tyler clearly did not like reading.

Here is what Acclerated Reader has to offer to parents who wonder about a child who might not like reading:

Using Accelerated Reader, your child will choose the books he wants to read. The teacher or librarian will make certain the book is at the right level so that after completing the book, your child should do well on the AR Reading Practice Quiz. Success on the quiz will encourage your child to read more. With guidance from the teacher or librarian, and success, even students who say they don’t like reading will develop a love of reading.

Do you see what I see?

The teacher and the librarian will make certain the book is at the right level. Seemingly, the student reader and the family have no input here.

Success on the quiz awards points within a point system. In many cases, the ability to pass an Accelerated Reader quiz (or inability) will be reflected within a student’s grade for the class. Friends, what point value do you think we might have to assign to a reading program that will assure self-motivated readers will not take the quiz with the knowledge that it will not affect their grade to have not complied with the program’s requirements? Think about this. The number of points awarded would have to be of value to the student. Do you see what is being created here?

With guidance from the teacher or librarian. . .guidance is not merely pointing someone in the direction you want them to go. A first-day employee at Wal-mart gets this kind of training in customer service.

And guidance from the teacher or librarian is a part of his or her job description. We–as stakeholders–would pay extra beyond the contracted salary to an outside party to assure our students love for reading?

This post is going long. And I sense that there is so much more to say about the subject of reading management programs that we are not saying here. To talk for a moment to those who might ask, “Yes, but what about titles from the canon? What about the classics?”

Here are some classics–canon and neo-classic style that we offered to the students who participated in Books & Bagels last year in Room 407.

A Lesson Before Dying by Earnest Gaines

Reading Level: 4.4 AR Points: 11 Description: Two black men–one a teacher, the other a death-row inmate–struggle to live and die with dignity. The plot contains sexual situations and violence.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Reading Level: 6.7. AR Points: 13. Remarkable here is the description offered by Accelerated Reader: This sensitive autobiography tells of a Black woman’s childhood journey to retain her personal “human dignity.”

Not to disparage the memory of a treasured American poet, but why does Gantos not get the same treatment as Angelou in regard to coming through adversity to come to a pace of “personal human dignity?” Further, this treatment is not offered to Stick, Ryan Dean. . .Nick and Jaycee.

Night Shift by Stephen King

This title, requested by the students to coincide with the month of October earns a 5.2 by way of reading level and the most points of any title referenced in this post at 18.

Check the description: “This is a collection of unsettling short pieces, bizarre tales of dark doings and unthinkable acts.”

I was surprised that poet Kahlil Gibran (THE PROPHET)and modern-age creativity proponent Sir Ken Robinson (OUT OF OUR MINDS) are not even noted within the available Accelerated Reader quizzes despite the fact that AR markets itself as a service that reaches readers up to the 12.9 reading level. Yet, both of these books stretched our readers within our groups this year to think about creativity. To think through poetry. To share books within a community. These are now our books.

This goes on and on and on.

I want to come back to Josh. I want you to look at that face. It’s almost as though Josh knows that he has stumbled upon a book that he cannot believe he is reading. That no one is keeping him from reading it.

He also knows that he does not have to take a quiz on this book. To my knowledge–at the date of this published post–there is no quiz for this book that a student can take.

To determine whether he has read the book.

His friends will know when he sees them again after he finishes. Any reader who finishes this book needs to talk to someone soon after.

To measure his literal comprehension of the book.

His friends won’t care about his literal comprehension. They’ll want his take on the ending of the book (something we noted during our conversation with Andrew at the end of the year).

To provide Josh with immediate feedback.

His friends will take care of this. Josh has become a part of a small cell group (including his lead reader) who has read a book that has flown under the radar since its release in February.

And why shouldn’t it be his reading friends who do–for free–what Accelerated Reader has a set subscription fee?

After all, it wasn’t his lead reader who recommended this book to him.

It wasn’t a reading management program.

It was his friends.

His friends who read. They are of inestimable value. Their love for books exceeds a need for leveling. They point other readers to books they will read, love, and share.

It makes one’s heart skip a beat. . .

as if. . .accelerated somehow.



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New Ways of Seeing. . .New Eye-deas.


Image Courtesy of DailyMail.co.uk

If you haven’t seen the video with Sina and Soni in the past couple of days, take a moment to view their X-Factor Australia Audition here: http://youtu.be/u-SJ7oxRKzw It’s about 9 minutes long, but it will be so worth the view (we’ve been sharing this one in Room 407 as a pre-cursor to planning and drafting our personal narratives). This video might also work well as an introduction to titles like R. J. Palacio’s WONDER.

And, now that you’ve seen it. . .do you see what I see? As a lead learner at the beginning of a new year? Getting ready for the first time to draft our personal narratives? To share our stories together?

It’s the father.

The father gets me the whole time.

He is a stakeholder. Not much unlike the stakeholders that we will work with over the course of the next school year.

They love.

They send.

They watch.

They wait.

If you watched the video, watch it again (perhaps with students this time–I had to turn my back for a moment, but you may be okay). Watch the father closely.

Do you see it?

He is bracing himself against a lifetime of memories and hoping that the arms holding him up will help him to stand tall against the coming moment.

He loves his children. You can see it. He is watching attentively the whole time–from the introductions to the performance to the final evaluation. There are only a couple of moments that we see the father break from this stoic presentation to give himself over to a little bit of emotion that cannot be held back.

Love and levees. . .they have a certain strength. But they also have vulnerability.

The flood tides of emotion are not easily contained.

Do you see it?

There is a certain pride in those eyes. They are looking directly ahead and they will not avert their gaze until this moment has come to fruition.

These are our stakeholders.

They love their children and they send them to our learning communities to watch over them while they wait to hear how their child’s day has gone.

Into a world that has the power of respect and reject. . .include and exclude. . .of elation and evaluation. . .of joy. . . and judgment.

Of affirmation and assessment.

Do you see it?

The father never breaks that faraway stare until the final judge says “Yes” to his children. And it’s a beautiful moment when his children return from their moment to receive his and her father’s affirmation.

This is why we call them stakeholders.

They hold their children dear. And there is a lot at stake.

They have seen the “true colors” within their children. And they are beautiful. . .like a rainbow.

And this is why, taking inspiration from the Leo Buscaglia work that I am reading this week, we will take some time to evaluate the down-drafts of our personal narratives leaving only affirming comments. And we will recognize that red is not the only color that can be used as an evaluation tool.

No, instead we will look for the beauty that comes of sharing a story in earnest. Our final evaluation of the down draft will consist of words like “beautiful,”"fantastic,” and “wonderful.”

I want the first paper that goes home to read something like, “Take a look at this. This young person is a writer. This story is going places.”

There’s so much at stake.

There’s beauty to behold.

There’s memories to make.

There’s tales to be told.

Have a great week at school.  And for my friends who are just returning to the classroom for the new school year, may you be richly-blessed within your learning communities.

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Moving Out of “Passive Opt-Out” and into “Urgent Optimism”

face out


Room 407 Bookcases on an Organized, Waiting-for-Readers Kind of Day (probably taken before 8AM)

In their 2013 title, CREATIVE CONFIDENCE, authors Tom and David Kelley include the voice of author, futurist, and game designer Jane McGonigal. The Kelleys offer that in the video game world, “the level of challenge and reward rises proportionately with a gamer’s skills” (47). Further, the next level of the game is “never completely out of reach” (47).

McGonigal calls this desire to progress through the game “urgent optimism” and defines this condition as  the desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle, motivated by the belief that [one has] a reasonable hope of success (47).

Isn’t this the condition we want for our readers? Perhaps we just hadn’t put a name to it yet. “Urgent Optimism.” Here is a term we’d probably like to see on a report that preceded any student who entered into our room for the new school year. It might read like this, “Pete has strategies, goals, and interventions in place for his Urgent Optimism. Chief among these goals is for the host teacher to be sure that book talking is part of the daily language. We find that Pete does best with the T.A.R.G.E.T. interventions as  coined by Dr. Teri Lesense.

Trust Pete. Allow him to make informed decisions and choices regarding reading selections.

Pete needs Access. To books. Lots and lots of books. Urgent Optimism in reading is fueled by them.

Respond to Pete when he talks about books with you or requests a new book from you. Talk to him.

Guide Pete toward increasing levels of complexity and challenge when he and/or the both of you sense that he is ready for a new challenge.

Be Enthusiastic about books and reading as Pete seems to thrive in this kind of atmosphere.

Be sure that Pete has plenty of titles that have authentic Teen Appeal; Pete is a teen.

With these strategies in place, we feel confident that Pete will be able to retain this condition of urgent optimism. Our concern is his dual diagnosis of Passive Opt-Out.”

We’re not going to get a report like this at the beginning of the year, are we? But many of us will immediately recognize the shadow of urgent optimism. It’s passive opt-out. At the beginning of each year, we have conversations about reading on the very first day. It’s the day that students are just getting to know his or her new teacher. They are openly-guarded to the new experience.

And they will tell you anything if you would only ask them. They will tell you about how they “survive” reading management programs (and they will tell you his or her strategies for this survival). They will tell you with a sense of ironically-detached achievement how many books they have read since their 8th grade year.

Ladies and gentleman, when you are inviting students to read 40 Books within a school year, and 75% of your classroom has come to having read fewer than five or six books–independently–within the past two years, you will want to be able to name that sense that you are tapping into. . .urgent optimism. You’ll rebelliously abandon the  the reading management program that has helped in creating this passive opting-out. You’ll begin putting books into the hands of readers on the very first day of class.

And you’ll remember. You have a school year to get these kids to want to read because you know that the resistance is a kind of quiet dare. You’ve seen the symptoms of passive opt-out before. The leaning back in the desk. The arms crossed over the chest. The way the head kind of falls back from its midline and take a angled position left or right.

You invite, “Read with me.”

They respond, “Try and make me.”

Eighty-nine class meetings is what we have left now. Eighty-nine opportunities to come into the room together to talk about books. To share books. To be book people. I cannot make them read. But I can lead them to begin to discover that they do–in fact–want to read.

Because I have learned in ten years I don’t make kids read. I make kids readers. It’s systemic. From the language I use to the dogged and daily persistence that says, “It’s our room, but it’s my practice. I’m going to talk about books. And we will do this read-aloud today. . .page one. . .’I've lost my hat.’”

I’m urgently optimistic that the students I met on Thursday and Friday will return on Monday and Tuesday. Our work has begun.

And I have a reasonable hope.

And a T.A.R.G.E.T.

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“Reading on the Blind Side”: The First Day of Class



Image Courtesy of Browning Website: Browning.com

I’ve been a teacher for ten years. I think I am growing into my own as a literacy expert and a sort of consultant on topics regarding readers and reading. But it is only until just recently that I have really learned how to read a room, how to read a reader.

How to look for the “blind.”

I’m not a brand-conscious person by nature. I don’t look to see who is wearing Ralph Lauren or American Eagle or Holister on the first day of school. But I will look for the profile of the buck shown above.

In the field of reading with non-readers (or pre-readers), I have found this logo on the chest in a direct access to the heart of one who hasn’t thought through entirely the role that a book might play in his or her life.

Unlike the logo shown above, the t-shirts worn by my students do not have the Browning name underneath, relying instead upon the sort of code that is communicated by the iconic logo.

Those who see it know it. They recognize it. They slip into a language that is foreign to me. But, I know as soon as I see the logo, where this reader spends his or her weekend in the fall.

In the blind.

And so it was. . .on the first day of school. . .that a most respectful young man who insisted on calling me “Sir” during our interactions appeared in the front row of Room 407. During the initial question and response portion of the class, his hand went up with earnest as he identified as a struggling reader, a non-reader, and one who has often employed “innocent but unethical approaches” to the reading management programs of which he has been a part.

There was the logo. And so was the life.

While passing out papers, moving up and down the row, I asked the young man about hunting. I had him. He told me about processing and making jerky and steaks and the pride of putting a large deer on a mount, a mark of pride for any hunter.

This is not manipulation. This is conversation. We have begun the conferring process on the first day of class. I scoped him out from the front of the room. The non-reader was in my sights. All I had to do was quietly lead him where I could get a good shot at putting a book in his hand.

As I got ready to move to another row, I told him about a young man from last year’s class who eventually began taking books out to the blind on the weekend. I told him that young man had read over fifty books by the end of the year. I could see the young man’s eyes widen at the prospect of reading at this level.

Do you see it? I used an example of a reader who looked more like this young man than looked like me. I made another reader the attraction that kept the non-reader in his place, beginning to believe that if he was of the same hide, the same heart, and the same hunt, then he could see himself being successful in the field in which I was inviting him to walk, to look around, and to graze safely.

And I had positive movement. You watch for this from my position. And up and down motion wherein the chin touches the chest is a sort of affirmation and appreciation of what is being said. Movement from side to side with the chin touching alternate shoulder signifies a denial. And. . .in some cases the subject will bolt from the area.

I finished passing out papers. The whole class watched–along with me–the videos produced by Penny Kittle with her students wherein they show, most vividly, how many books they have read prior to entering into her classroom and her expertise as a book lover and guide. At the end of the video, her students turn over the cards that have their number then and his or her new number now. It’s really something to see.

It’s like a simulated hunt for readers that you watch with the same degree of interest that one might watch a master fisherman on the weekend.

At the end of the class the young man said, “Mr. Hankins. . .I’ve been thinking. Taking a book to the blind wouldn’t be a bad idea. I’ve never thought of it. Can you recommend a book I might take?”

It’s always a thrill when you bring a non-reader in, isn’t it? You just want to ride around with them all day in the back of some truck taking all of the rough trails of a new journey, the switchback trails of plot, the rises and the ditches of a new conflict, and the calm of an evening in the completion of a day’s reading.

Ahh. . .the language. The life.

On the wall mount of my happiest classroom memories are the non-readers who came into the room and left with the idea that they can be part of clubs that are specialized with their own language and life. . .

. . .and enter into a life with its own special language. . .

and an ever-growing club.

Someone should make a t-shirt.

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One Hug in a Huge World. . .



Image from Shel Silverstein’s “Hug-Of-War”

I don’t know how people see me in general. I cannot look with another’s eyes to see the external me, and this has always been a sort of frustration for me. Because I am inwardly-driven.

Introspective. Reflective.

Questioning to the point of self-frustration. Sometimes even to the point of self-loathing. This idea. . .how do people see me? Am I doing enough to project a likable, trustworthy personae? Am I okay?

It’s not this way with small children, however. Never has been. If a small child sees me in a restaurant, it is little time at all before there are peeks around a high chair or a small face peering over the top of a booth. Sometimes, I create trouble for a child by proximity. Small children. Small animals. Do they see something I do not see?

It’s no time at all before we are engaged in some kind of quiet play. Smiles. Silly faces. A finger wave. There’s a connection. Sometimes, you just have to accept that to some other person in this world, you are seen as a viable playmate.

I’m the last person you would expect such a reciprocal expression from. . .I’m 6’3, 250. I’m quite foreboding having spent some time in the gym as a younger person. But there is no fear in these small children. . .none.

It’s really quite humbling. But it does invite and afford glimpses into a self that I don’t recognize in passing. And it almost always happens in passing.

Today was Maddie’s 12th birthday. The plan was to go to The Olive Garden for lunch. Maddie would sit with a friend and Noah and I would sit at a near-by table to allow for some girl-conversation without the intrusion of Daddy and Big Brother. Before we took our seats at a table, this small child turned in his chair to squeal at me. Big toothy grin, delightful squeal. Hands out-stretched. It’s not my first time. This happens.

And then IT happened.

The mother of this child in response to his outburst slapped him across the mouth and turned him in his chair to face his own group.

And I was struck in the moment. I turned red about my lips. My mouth. I could feel my face on fire. And something broke within me.

I know it was not my head, because if it were, I would have been over that seat taking matters into my own hands (please see the description above–I also see myself as being strong enough to defend myself and others if need be).

It was my heart. I am not always aware of my heart and the multitudes it might contain. Not in public moments like this anyway. Oh, sure, I can be moved to tears by human moments captured in film. I do cry openly at the endings of books. I am moved by read-alouds in front of students when they are moved by something they are experiencing for the first time even if I have experienced it over seventy times.

My heart was slapped. And the reverberation came of Noah’s having witnessed the slap. His teenage head shaking from side to side. The look upon his face that read, “Did you see that, Daddy? Did you see what happened to that baby?” And my return look that must have read, “Yes. I saw. Go ahead. Eat your salad. It will be okay.”

Since, we were seated back-to-back, I could have written the whole event off as a chance event that we just happened to witness. We are here to celebrate. We are here to enjoy a meal that we don’t always get to have.

But a slap just doesn’t go away. Slaps are processed. Especially by the inward. The introspective. The clumsy oafs who grab daisies by the petals and lack the understanding of brokenness.

The group behind us left before we finished our meal. But the mother left with baby carrier with a smaller child leaving a grandmother to tend the toddler.

When the toddler passed my chair, he playfully grabbed my shirt hem. I turned to him. I looked at him and I smiled. He smiled back. Big toothy grin. Chubby toddler fingers. Brown skin. Beautiful.

His grandmother called him by name, but I didn’t catch it. Perhaps this is better  for me in the end. He becomes archetypal. Any child.

Any child reaching out. It’s a moment one cannot afford to lose.

The little boy immediately gestured “Up.” You’ve seen children do this, right? “Up.” It’s a universal gesture.

The grandmother smiled and said, “Baby, this gentleman doesn’t want to pick you up.”

And I said. “Yes. Yes I do. I want to pick him up.”

I turned my chair and let that little brown baby sit right on my lap. Wouldn’t you know that close cut brown-haired head found itself nuzzled right into my chest and armpit.

What are you going to do? I kissed him on the forehead. I told him he was a good boy. That I believed that he was a really good, good boy. Beautiful boy.

And that was it.

Taking his grandmother’s hand, he walked out of the restaurant. And into the world outside of restaurants. Outside. Where the world presents equal parts slaps and equal parts hugs. But. . .every now and then. . .a chance encounter with a person who reads the heart of others better than he may read his own will come your way.

We cannot lose the chance to express a little bit of love in this world we live in. We are in this together, kid. Who knows. . .one day we might run into each other again. You will read my heart and remember. And you’ll want to hug me. I can do that. I’ll be ready. And you’ll tell me, “You said I was a good, good boy. You’ll told me I was beautiful.”

And I’ll reply, “I remember. I did. You are.”

That’s it. No reading connection here, unless we might count our hearts as a kind of text. And for this, we are led to stories we share. And the connections we invite via the books we share. A close-reading of the heart. The names of the people we meet. . .and we touch. . .and we love. . .inscribed in the margins.

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Galley Review: FISH IN A TREE by Lynda Mullaly Hunt (3/2015)




This is a review of the Advanced Uncorrected Galley of FISH IN A TREE. This review is based upon an uncorrected text and any quotes from the book that appear within this review will have come from the galley edition of FISH IN A TREE.

When our twelve-year-old Maddie was just a little bit younger, she came home from school one day wanting to share a joke she had recently read at her school.

Not heard.


Always an appreciator of a good joke, I told Maddie to go ahead and share the joke. Maddie recited with the delivery of someone who has just gotten “off-book” with his or her lines:

“Everyone is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its life believing it is stupid.”

Maddie thought this was a joke. I thought it was probably the very best idea she could have read, internalized, and recited for her entire 6th grade year.

But, it’s no joke. And to unpack how Maddie may have thought it was initially is an exploration of Maddie’s empathic processing, her enjoyment of wordplay, and, certainly, her deep, deep affection for the random and the silly. . .I mean, a “fish in a tree?”

“A mind movie flickers in my brain of an angry fish at the bottom of the tree, banging on the trunk with its fin and complaining that it can’t climb it” (159).

I know about fish in trees. I have seen them. They continue to present themselves when the wind blows just so through the leafy greenery of the summer season, but seen them even more when those leaves turn to brown, and orange, and red. And they are laid most bare when those leaves fall away.

They are fish in trees and you would hardly notice them for all of the birdcall in the boughs. Except that they speak differently. They move differently. Everything about them, including their ill attempts at managing a pencil. . .different. Oh, they know all about bubbles.

They make them. They’ve never been asked to fill them in.

And read? While others are reading the skies for boundless opportunities and the conditions of the ground for landing and plucking, they have been content with the current. The warm waters. They imagine again the schools to which they once belonged before they were flung into foliage unfamiliar.

“I wish she could understand my world. But it would be like trying to explain to a whale what it’s like to live in the forest” (29).

Ally Nickerson is the protagonist of Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s newest title, FISH IN A TREE which is set to release from Nancy Paulsen Books in March of 2015. The opening scene of the book puts the reader right into the classroom wherein Ally is being asked by Mrs. Hall to write a page about herself for the new teacher coming in. Ally’s page is full of doodles.

“The rest of the class is getting tired of me again. Chairs slide. Loud sighs. Maybe they think I can’t hear their words: Freak. Dumb. Loser” (3).

I love Lynda’s use of punctuation here. Doesn’t it seem that these labels come with their own sense of finality? You’re a ______. Period.

Mrs. Hall is preparing to leave to have a baby. A simple mistake in card selection on Ally’s behalf upsets the classroom party and becomes just another of Ally’s classroom disruptions. Lynda puts the reader right in that place early on of  ”sympathy” for Ally as she chooses a card based upon its appearances and not for its intended message.

Ally cannot read.

“No matter how many times I have prayed and worked and hoped, reading for me is still like trying to make sense of a can of alphabet soup that’s been dumped on a plate. I just don’t know how other people do it” (10).

I’ve never had a problem with reading. Most of my problems with my early education came with presentation. The Paul before the first day. Raised as a Jehovah’s  Witness as a child, I was “other.” I was the one who went to the hallway during birthday parties. I never recited the pledge as a child though I knew it by heart for internal recitations over the period of thirteen years and pledged flawlessly as a new recruit with the United States Navy years later. Teachers had expectations of me before the first bell. I would only be able to do so much of a holiday-themed project. I would have to be considered before celebrations and class plays could come to fruition.

It’s funny how “fishers of men” often fail to look in the trees above them.

This week, I received a well-intended email from a parent of a student I am going to have in class this year. The email was to assure me that I had the parent’s full support and backing (which I do appreciate). The subject of the email was described as a “good kid” but “somewhat lazy.”



I see you.


“Since the day of he mystery boxes, I keep thinking about how good it felt to do something right. To fit in.

That’s what I want. To feel like everybody else” (97).

I never wanted to be “lazy” either, young man. But that is the perception over time that is the product of submitting plain pumpkins crafted from paper strips and secured with a staple, turkeys without Pilgrims, and construction paper pine trees that are cut in a matter of minutes (often times without inspecting for indwelling fish).

Young man, when Mr. Hankins was in 2nd grade a teacher told him, “If you cannot do the same work that the other children are doing, perhaps you shouldn’t go to this school.”

I wasn’t “lazy.” I was merely trying to stay afloat.

You ever try to swim in a tree?

And that is why I will greet you at the beginning of the year and we will celebrate the shininess of your new school year scales and forget about those other types of scales. Those pesky human scales that only know some kind of binary system of pass and fail.

Lynda Mullaly Hunt celebrates teaching and lead learners in her new book in the character of Mr. Daniels, the new teacher who takes over the classroom in Mrs. Hall’s absence. Mr. Daniels has a sense about him to do what I heard is one of THE best interventions for protecting the smartest voice in the room (which is the room according to Kylene Beers) by “shutting down the put-downs” during one of his first interactions with the class (37).

From this point in the book on, the reader gets to experience how Mr. Daniels sees his “Fantasticos” and how they interact as a community within the classroom. From unspoken cues to quiet celebrations of work, Lynda’s book is a celebration of teaching and what a gift it is in this regard.

Ally has to deal with her challenges and her bullies throughout the book, but she also makes some good friends along the way. Here, Lynda does a super job of creating a sense of creating any tree you might find anywhere in the world with Suki, Keisha, Albert, and Oliver taking supporting roles. And readers will not want to miss one of Ally’s most wonderful gifts in a scene that happens before a big recital.

Lynda creates a wonderful family structure for Ally with a long-suffering mother and a highly-supportive brother, Travis (a character I will not spoil for you here, but I want you to know about Travis the way I want you to know about a wonderful companion text for FISH IN A TREE called IF SHE REALLY KNEW ME). Ally’s father is deployed with the Army, a reality that will resonate with many young readers and helps to really bring what Ally has by way of gifts for survival in the tree to light.

“But, now, on top of all of those other big wishes that I carry around, I now have one more. I want to impress Mr. Daniels. With every tiny little piece of myself, I just want him to like me” (57).

Lynda paints a picture of teaching that includes quiet, subtle guiding, public encouragement, apology when mistakes are made, and celebration of even the smallest of achievements.

Because Ally’s internal voice is not coming from a student who wants to disrupt class or classwork. These are the voices of students who, like Ally, have spent years “staring into. . .stomachs while they have sat at their desks while they are told what is wrong with them” (57).

Lazy is just another label, young man.

Look up. See me. I am a tall as a tree. I am your teacher.


God help me. I’ve never been good with labels.

But I am pretty good with kids. And I am excellent with words. And stories. And books. My certification appears at the bottom of this post should you need to see my credentials.

“And I think of words. The power they have. How they can be waved around like a wand–sometimes for good like how Mr. Daniels uses them. How he makes kids like Oliver feel better about ourselves” (185).

Maddie has come to a realization that this is actually a quote often attributed to Einstein. That is is a comment upon how children learn vs. how children are assessed of the learning that should have happened based upon curriculum and criteria.  She has come to the realization this is a poster hung in the room of someone who believes in the unique nature and qualities of each student in the classroom.

And this realization all comes of the same growth process we have all gone through, doesn’t it?

I am her father. I want her to keep looking up.

For paper posters. For potential paradigms. For a person’s possibilities.

I want her to see the fish in the trees.

Oh. . .my credentials:




To be celebrated by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, with the pages of a book like FISH IN A TREE, is all the affirmation I need to have a super school year. I’m not going to shake the tree; I am going to climb up inside of it and take a branch.

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“Read” (Parody of Magic’s “Rude”)

Daddy Room 407


It’s summertime. . .and it’s been a while since we have dropped a parody on the crowd. It looks like Magic has the big hit this summer with their song, “Rude.” Well. . .it sounded so much like “read.”

I just couldn’t help myself. Crank up the song. Sing along. Create your own reading anthem. 


It’s Monday morning. He jumped out of his desk, and put on his game face.
Stepped into the aisle like it’s not a “No” yet, and presented his best case.
Thumped on the cover with his heart in his hands
to ask the question
‘Cause he knows that you are a leveling man yeah yeah:

Can he read what he wants for the rest of his life? Say yes, say yes
‘Cause he needs to know.
You say it’s not on his level and he starts to cry.
Tough luck, kid, but the answer is NO!

So, is this the way you want to lead?
There’s something in these books he needs.
Why can’t you just let him read?
I hope he reads these books anyway.
Read these books;
read these books anyway.
Read these books;
yeah, you heard what I said.
Read these books.
He’ll be in the Nerdy Community.

Why can’t you just let me read?

You must understand the power of choice.
No readers without it.
Release the power to girls and boys
standing at that bookshelves.
Or they’ll go away–
another year from now–
Can’t you hear their plea
They’ll read whatever you allow.

Can she read what she chooses for the rest of her life? Say yes, say yes
‘Cause she needs to know.
She’ll read what you bless till the day that she dies (or 3PM)
But, even knowing this, the answer’s still no!

Is this how you were taught to read?
Letting someone else take the lead?
How hard is it to see her needs?
I hope she reads those books anyway.
Read those books.
Read those books anyway.
Read those books.
Invite her to have their say.
Read those books.
She’ll be in a Nerdy Community.

Why can’t we just let them read?

Can they read freely for the rest of their lives? Say yes, say yes
‘Cause they need to know.
The books that you bless will be the books that they’ll try.
Good luck as your readers begin to grow!

C’mon, let’s just let them read.
It’s the best approach to reading, indeed.
Sit back and just watch them read.
They’ll read those books everyday.
Read those books.
Read those books everyday.
Read those books.
Even on summer days.
Reading those books
as part of a Nerdy Community.

When we going to let them read?
When we going to let them read?


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National Poetry Month: 20/30: “If Not for Franki”




“If Not for Franki”


If looking for a voice that says, “You should come too”

not one that just says “Just do the best that you can do;”

for one instance of another belief in your ability:



If looking for that brand new title your kids will love

not just one more book under the desk to shove

for building a little reading excitability:



If  looking for a model of sharing resources,

not just handouts, programs, or bills for courses

for feeling that you are one within a large community:



If looking for one to beat weekly in Bejeweled Blitz

not being able to top you, knowing it gives her fits,

for knowing that if she ever did, it would be with humility:



And here are some quatrains

I might not have had otherwise. . .


If not for Franki.

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Using Cinquain to Draw Summary from Books and Reading Part II

Their Eyes

On Tuesday, we posted a few pieces from our work with Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. I have added those to this post, but I have added a few new pieces that I got to draft with my other classes in order to really draw out this idea of using the cinquain of a means of drawing deeper connections to the text to invite personal responses that approach the analysis we want our readers to be doing at the higher levels of learning.

I’m still working with the idea to clarify how it meets the CCS or other State Standards in an effort to codify vs. poetically-render my idea here for use in the classroom. But I cannot help myself. As much as I would try to claim otherwise, I am a poet at heart.

Using Garland Cinquain to Analyze a Character from a Book


Chapter Two of Their Eyes Were Watching God:



kisses with boys

can lead to big trouble;

it must mean you’re a woman now,




It’s too early.

She knows nothing of it.

Couldn’t she wait just a bit more?

Too young.


To want

to be a tree–

want what nature promised,

waiting for pollen–bumblebees.




How she got here–

the mysteries of she–

born of another tree and time:




for saftety now,

alone in the world

without a father or mother.




It’s too early

want what nature promised

born of another tree and time



Using Garland Cinquain to Analyze a Character’s Feelings from a Moment in a Book


Chapter Five of Their Eyes Were Watching God


Big Train

south to Maitland,

with Jody by her side,

ready to go rule the world.




her brand new dreams.

There’s a new town waiting,

everything she’s dreamed of inside.

New chances.



to find little

more than roots and dirt roads–

less than what she expected.



 The speech

she wants to give

is quieted, quickly,

a voice as big as the world




to speak out now.

She’s aching to be heard.

This is what a woman sounds like



 Big Train:

her brand new dreams–

more than roots in dirt roads–

a voice as big as the world




Using Garland Cinquain to Explore a Minor Character (Symbolic) from a Book

 ***NEW PIECE***

Matt Bonner’s Mule



Most all raw-boned

Brutes are commanded daily.

Come up is seasoned with rawhide.



Rib bones

used for scrub boards;

he’s fixed up for laundry,

clothes hanging on hock bones to dry.




Waits with the whip;

there’s a field to be plowed.

Fighting inches in front of plows.





Always another job

to be done with an old mule’s back.



The feed

is the day’s wage

for the work that is done.

But tomorrows’ is not promised,




used for scrub boards.

There’s a field to be plowed,

to be done with an old mule’s back:




Using Garland Cinquain to Explore a Minor Character’s Role in Driving a Story Line



lonely’s limit—

a story’s bit player

meant to last just one season:



The land

meant to protect

is simply a framing

of a young girl’s limitations,

the home.


The man

she wants to love,

he lacks the pretty bloom,

is hard to love the way he’s made:




like long winters

threatening her green time;

there is no springtime within him.



Fence rail,

the beckoning.

Simply a boundary,

like a page that comes to an end.




meant to protect,

he lacks the pretty bloom.

There’s no springtime within him.



Using Cinquain to Analyze a Setting or People within a Setting


around time’s toes.

Porch-time interactions–

all ’bout da day’s nuttinness,



wit dey own thoughts,

arguin’ about dis-and-dat,

from da sun rise til da sun set




wit opinions

playin’ da dozens

til someone gits reconciled




the sun goes down

back inta da same earth,

and da sun pays ‘im rev’rence




it’s beyond dem.

Each to dey own thoughts

words changed with the earth and wit the sky




wit dey own thoughts

til someone gits reconciled

and da earth pay ‘im rev’rence.



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National Poetry Month: 17/30: “Spine Poem”



I thought to share this spine poem with the group today if you’ve not seen this on Facebook or Twitter. It’s the “spine poem” I put together of the resources I had pulled in advance of the NCTE-sponsored #nctechat. With five minutes before the chat was to begin, I thought, “Hey, a spine poem would make a nice feature image for the chat. Not only would we showcase some resources, but we could demonstrate that words are everywhere (this is really important when we find ourselves without the ability to find words).

Now, one of the drawbacks of spine poetry is that one has to silently communicate the intended line breaks that might get lost to the viewer on the other side of the poetic transaction. I’ve tried to scatter stack these before and it becomes a Jenga-like lesson in physics (particularly gravity). This is why I like to print my poems alongside of the stack (something I learned from appreciating Bob Rascka’s LEMONADE. Show the art. Share the poem.


“The Power of Poems”



independent voices.


You know who:


poetry people.


People I’d like to keep–

hand in hand–


awakening the heart.


Let them be themselves:


word playgrounds.



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