Authors’ Stories


I recently attended the 13th Annual Longwood University Summer Literacy Institute.  Day one of the institute included presentations from 5 different authors.  I always find it so interesting to hear authors share their writing process.  Hardly ever does it match the structured process that teachers traditionally instruct in school.

Below are the authors that presented this year and my takeaways from their presentations:

Marfe Ferguson Delano


Bio: Marfé Ferguson Delanois the author of more than 20 nonfiction books for children, including Master George’s People,  Earth in the Hot Seat, and award-winning biographies of Albert Einstein (Genius), Thomas Edison (Inventing the Future), and Annie Sullivan (Helen’s Eyes). Her most recent titles are the picture books Baby Animals and A Tree Grows Up. A graduate of Duke University, Marfé lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

As a writer of nonfiction Marfe stressed the importance of really getting to know your topic and experiencing it first hand.  When she was asked to write a book about caving she went caving.  For her book on Anne Sullivan she visited Helen Keller’s birthplace and school.

For her biographies she writes quotations on notecards during her research phase and then organizes her notecards, outlines the story, and then writes a first draft.  She works to include all the “oh wow, facts” she uncovered and stated that a favorite line of hers is “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.”

For her nonfiction picture books she has a spiral notebook for her brainstorming.  She begins with a topic and then writes down all the words that come to mind when she thinks of that topic.  As she reads up on her topic she adds words to this list.  Next, she makes a list of questions about her topic careful to check on assumptions.  She drafts her story on notecards and then types these up to send to her editor.

Steve Watkins


Bio: Steve Watkins is the author of Juvie, a young adult novel about juvenile incarceration, and Great Falls, a post-Iraq War novel.  He has four books in his middle-grade Ghosts of War series.  Steve is also the author of What Comes After, which was named by Bank Street College as one of the best YA books of 2012 and selected as a finalist for the Georgia Peach Award for YA Fiction. His YA novel Down Sand Mountain won the 2009 Golden Kite Award for Fiction from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.  A graduate of Florida State University, Steve taught journalism, creative writing, and Vietnam War literature at the University of Mary Washington.

Steve Watkins was humorous in his presentation and more off the cuff.  He talked about his childhood and what lead him to be an author and a yoga instructor!  He said that he wrote his first story in grade school and that his parents made copies of it to give to family at Christmas time.

Kristen-Paige Madonia


Bio: Kristen-Paige Madonia is the author of the young adult novels Invisible Fault Lines and Fingerprints of You. Hailed by Judy Blume as “a remarkable young novelist,” Kristen-Paige was the 2012 D. H. Lawrence Fellow, and her short fiction has appeared in such publications as the Greensboro Review, Five Chapters, New Orleans Review, American Fiction: Best Previously Unpublished Short Stories by Emerging Writers, and the Sycamore Review. She was the 2010 recipient of the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival award and was granted the Marianne Russo Fellowship to attend the 2008 Key West Literary Seminar. She holds an MFA from California State University, Long Beach, and currently lives in Charlottesville, Virginia where she teaches creative writing at the University of Virginia and James Madison University.

Kristen told us that she writes books that she wished she had access to as a reader.  She shared she always has a notebook with her and said “we are watchers of the world that is.”

Mark Tyler Nobleman


Bio:  Marc Tyler Nobleman is the author of Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman (which made the front page of USA Today) and Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman (which inspired a TED talk…and changed pop culture history). Upcoming titles include Thirty Minutes Over Oregon, Fairy Spell, The Chupacabra Ate the Candelabra, and Brave Like My Brother. He has spoken at schools and conferences internationally from Thailand to Tanzania and blogs about adventures in publishing from research victories to promotional gambles at Noblemania.

Mark did not talk about his most recent book…instead he shared with us the story behind his favorite book he has written called Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman.  The story was fascinating and I am excited to receive my copy in the mail today.  To get a taste of the story watch his Ted Talk below:

Louise Borden


Bio: author of over 30 books for young readers, graduated from Denison University with a degree in history.  She taught first graders and preschoolers and later was a part-owner of a bookstore in Cincinnati, Ohio. In addition to writing children’s books, she speaks regularly to young students about the writing process. She also has done extensive research for her books including The Journey that Saved Curious George and His Name was Raoul Wallenberg.  Some of her other titles include Good Luck, Mrs. K!, which won the Christopher Award, The A+ Custodian, The Day Eddie Met the Author, Across the Blue Pacific, and Kindergarten Luck. Louise lives in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Louise Borden started shared with us special teachers in her life.  She talked about the important connection reading has to her writing stating “I was a reader before a writer.”

Day two of the institue was all day with Donalyn Miller.  Check back tomorrow to see what I learned from her!



A Warriors Birthday


A standard book I like to recommend to any student who starts talking to me about cats is Warriors – Into the Wild.  It is the first book of MANY in the Warriors series.

I must confess that my knowledge of the book series comes not from reading the books but from my daughter who is a Warriors expert.  Here is a photo of her Warriors bookshelves (please note that two books are on loan…she was very upset I took the picture of the set incomplete):

In May my daughter decided that the theme of her 12th birthday was going to be these Warriors books.  This meant I was in need and in store for some serious schooling about this series. Since my daughter was born in July we are fortunate to have the time to make her birthday party a grand event we host at our house.  Previous book themed parties we have hosted were Skippyjon Jones (7) and Harry Potter (10).

Every party begins with an invitation.  We printed the Riverclan Warrior call to meeting on the outside of each invitation.  On the inside we ask our guests to pounce on over to celebrate her 12th moon and become a Warrior.  The party was to begin at 3pm with pick up at 7pm.


Upon arrival girls met grandma cat at a table and she invited them to choose cat ears, tail, and name prefix…yes, there is an entire naming process in the books.  We gave girls a two page list of possible prefix ideas.  Once chosen girls worked on a few duct tape crafts including decorating a notebook and making feathers.

Once everyone had chosen a name we wrote them on the back of white Tshirts and had the girls sign each of them with their Prefix.  My daughter chose warrior names for her friends but we covered those up with painters tape until the warrior ceremony at the end of the party.  Erin Hunter (the author of the series) website has iron on transfers you can download for each of the cat clans (there are 5) so we iron on the Riverclan symbol on the front of each of the shirts.

IMG_5714I learned in the books when cats are born they are given a prefix (such as shade) then the name endings change as they get older.  Shadekit would be a cat who is younger than 6 moons (months), then she would become Shadepaw as an apprentice cat, and then at 12 moons she would be given a warrior name.

With all the shirts decorated I called the apprentice ceremony to order.  Here is the ceremony from the book:

Apprentice Ceremony
The Clan Leader calls a Clan Meeting to appoint a new apprentice and assign a mentor to him/her.  The following words are used, by tradition:
Leader: (Kit), you have reached the age of six moons, and it is time for you to be apprenticed. From this day on, until you receive your warrior name, you will be known as (new name, ending with ‘paw’). Your mentor will be (name of warrior or medicine cat). I hope (name of warrior or medicine cat) will pass down all he/she knows to you.
The leader calls up the warrior he/she has chosen as a mentor.
Leader: (Warrior), you are ready to take on an apprentice. You had received excellent training from (former mentor), and you have shown yourself to be (quality) and (quality). You will be the mentor of (apprentice), and I expect you to pass on all you know to (apprentice).
The mentor touches noses with the apprentice and the Clan greets the new apprentice by calling out his/her name.  After this, the apprentice will usually go greet their family.

During the ceremony each girl was assigned a mentor (an adult) and given her shirt to wear.  Girls then read over the warrior code that was printed in their notebook.

The Warrior Code
1. Defend your Clan, even with your life. You may have friendships with cats from the other Clans, but your loyalty must remain to your Clan, as one day you may meet them in battle.
2. Do not hunt or trespass on another Clan’s territory.
3. Elders and kits must be fed before apprentices and warriors. Unless they have permission, apprentices may not eat until they have hunted to feed the elders.
4. Prey is killed only to be eaten. Give thanks to StarClan for its life.
5. A kit must be at least six moons old to become an apprentice.
6. Newly appointed warriors will keep a silent vigil for one night after receiving their
warrior name.
7. A cat cannot be made deputy without having mentored at least one apprentice.
8. The deputy will become Clan leader when the leader dies or retires.
9. After the death or retirement of the deputy, the new deputy must be chosen before moonhigh.
10. A gathering of all four Clans is held at the full moon during a truce that lasts for the night. There shall be no fighting among Clans at this time.
11. Boundaries must be checked and marked daily. Challenge all trespassing cats.
12. No warrior may neglect a kit in pain or in danger, even if that kit is from a different Clan.
13. The word of the Clan leader is the warrior code.
14. An honorable warrior does not need to kill other cats to win his battles, unless they are outside the warrior code or it is necessary for self-defense.
15. A warrior rejects the soft life of a kittypet.

There are 5 different cat clans in the warrior books: ThunderClan, WindClan, RiverClan, ShadowClan, and StarClan.  Each clan has different habitats and characteristics.  After the Apprentice Ceremony I went over the different clans with the girls and the girls actually took notes in their notebooks on the differences.


Next we went outside to play some RiverClan games!  Girls were separated into partners and then two teams.  To practice their scent and tracking partners went on a mouse hunt to find Easter Egg mice we hid all over the yard.  Next partners were given a paper bag and 15 minutes to find as many items on their list as possible.  This was to help them with respecting the environment.  Then it was on to battle training.  Here girls participated in a variety of water balloon activities.  Finally we separated them into two teams and they played a form of capture the flag.  Each team hid a colored toy mouse instead of a flag.

The girls were hot after all the outside activities so we moved on to swimming fun!  We gave them an hour in the pool to practice their cat swimming skills.  Plastic bath toys were lined along the side of the pool and each toy had a number written at the bottom of it.  Every 15 minutes I told the girls to grab a toy and if  the number I read matched the bottom of their bath toy then they got a small prize.


Next we fed the girls pizza and sang happy birthday!  My daughter made and decorated her birthday cake:


For the final event we performed the Warrior Ceremony and revealed each girls final name.  Here is the ceremony straight from the books:

Warrior Ceremony
Once the mentor is satisfied with the apprentice’s progress and skills, he or she recommends them to the leader of the Clan. Then, the apprentice must pass an assessment, when their abilities as a warrior are checked.  In cases when the apprentice has just made an important contribution to the Clan, the leader may decide that there is no need for an assessment.  If the Clan Leader is satisfied, he or she calls a Clan Meeting and calls the apprentice.  The following words are used, by tradition:
Leader: I, (Leader), leader of (Clan), call upon my warrior ancestors to look down on this apprentice. (He/she) has trained hard to understand the ways of your noble code, and I commend (him/her) to you as a warrior in (his/her) turn.
Leader: (Apprentice), do you promise to uphold the warrior code and to protect and defend your Clan, even at the cost of your life?
Apprentice: I do.
Leader: Then by the powers of StarClan, I give you your warrior name. (Apprentice), from this moment you will be known as (new warrior name). StarClan honors your (virtues), and we welcome you as a full warrior of (Clan).
The leader rests his or her muzzle on the apprentice’s head, and he or she licks the leader’s shoulder. the rest of the Clan then greets the new warrior by calling him or her by their new name.  The warrior will sit a silent vigil guarding the camp that night.

And here I am trying to figure it all out so I can lead the ceremony (I am still an apprentice):


In the end it was another great party!  Several girls left loaning books from my daughter to read.  I certainly know more about the series and will continue to recommend the books to kids.  I find 5th graders seem to like them the best but more advanced 3rd and 4th grade readers enjoy them too.  My daughter learned about them in 3rd grade and read 3 of them then, she read a few more in 5th grade, and finished the entire series in 6th grade.  There is also a series about dogs (Survivors) and bears (Seekers) but I am told they are not as good or as many.

Where Has The Summer Gone?

IMG_0652When I last blogged I was packing my bags for a week in Florida.  I was able to spend time with my family and finally conquer my fear of the TOWER OF TERROR!  I hadn’t been on this ride since it was changed from one drop to multiple drops way back in 1996.  That is me in wearing the black shirt in the front row.  I learned that my 20 year fear of this ride was unwarranted and it just held me back from some good times.  Isn’t that usually the lesson we learn when we finally get the nerve to conquer our fears?

So here is how the reading went on this trip:


This book continues to be the buzz on Twitter and other literacy blogs and it continues to get glowing reviews.  There are many parts of the book that are great…and then there are two parts that make me hesitate recommending this book to elementary children.

The first chapter of this book is amazing.  It is fast paced and funny.  I LOVED the explanation of the six types of teachers in the world.  The story moves quickly into the boys quest to give their beloved teacher the good-bye party she deserves.  Here are the two things about this book that I wish I would have known before I read it:

  • On p. 107 Brand tells of the mascot his family made up for April Fool’s Day: “The April Fool’s Jackass, a magical donkey who would sneak through your windows on March 31st and dump a basket of goodies in your bed.”  The word Jackass is then sprinkled through the next couple of pages.  Funny?  Yes.  Appropriate?  I don’t think so.
  • On p. 157 the tooth fairy is not written upon in a positive way to children: “Adults are always telling you you can be whatever you want when you grow up, but they don’t mean it.  They don’t believe it.  They just want you to believe it.  It’s like a fairy tale.  Like the tooth fairy…”  I will let you read the rest on your own.   I personally believe in the magic of the tooth fairy and would not want children who are not ready to read on.

I am surprise that other educators have not mentioned these two events in their reviews. Am I being too cautious?  Let me know your thoughts.


While Ms. Bixby’s Last Day was fast paced….Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children was S. L. O. W!  I had the audio version of this book and even listening to it on 2x speed didn’t even help.  The main character doesn’t arrive to Miss Peregrine’s house until halfway through the book.  This is Mystery and then Fantasy book complete with time travel.  While it wasn’t my cup of tea I am sure there are plenty of readers out there who cannot wait to see the movie coming out on September 30th.


If you can only buy one Donalyn Miller book, this is the one you should choose!  Why I like this book better than her first book, The Book Whisperer, is because more research is sprinkled throughout the text to support her teaching decisions.  I loved so many of the ideas mentioned such as having book doors, students planning of future reading, and To Be Read lists just to name a few.  I will be looking to get a paper copy of this text soon!


I was able to get my unplayed podcast down to 0 and discover a new Podcast called Found.  In Found they share letters that have been found lying around and try to track down the original authors…sometimes 20 years later!  So fun.  Oh, and today I just subscribed to a few more Podcast after seeing this post.


So, that leaves one text that I packed that I did not get to!  Ah…The Armor of God remains on my To Be Read list.

How is your summer reading going?

Packing My Bags…Again!

For my second trip of the summer I am packing light…just two paper copy of texts:


I CANNOT WAIT to read is Ms. Bixby’s Last Day.  It came in the mail on Monday and I have been saving it for my trip.  What I know about this text is that 3 boys tell the story of their teacher getting very sick and the party they will stop at nothing to have her experience.


The second paper text I am taking is my new Bible Study books The Armor of God by Priscilla Shirer.  Many ladies at my church have already started working through this book so I have some catching up to do!

I have two LONG audiobooks to listen to:


I was on a waiting list at my local library for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children for  3 months before I finally got this text!  I believe it is so popular because the movie is coming out very soon.  The book hasn’t grabbed me in yet and I am on chapter 5 (of 11) but I am still holding out hope!


In the middle of July I will be at a conference where Donalyn Miller will be speaking.  Reading in the Wild is the second book she has published.  I am interested to hear what new insights she has from her first book which stressed the importance of independent reading.

Finally, I have 10 unplayed podcasts to listen to:

I will write about the texts I finished when I return!  Happy Reading!!!

Phonics and Spelling Worksheets Part 3


The last section of this text describes what research has shown DOES work when it comes to phonics and spelling instruction.  Here is what was suggested:

  • Step ONE:  ASSESS students using a strong diagnostic tool
  • Step TWO:  Create Groups
  • Step THREE:  Maintain a consistent routine
    • Set up:
      • work stations (students move among 4 stations) OR…
      • Daily structured routine (everyone does the same activity with different words)

It’s as easy as 1, 2, 3!  HA!  What are the recommended activities that support word study?   Here are the activities mentioned in this text:

  • Word Sorts:
    • Open Sort – No headers given (good formative assessment)
    • Closed Sort – Headers and example given (always ask students to explain the sort to you or a classmate)
    • Blind Sort – Students hear the word and try to write it in the correct category
      • allow students to check their spelling
      • add words not previously sorted
    • Speed Sort – students set a personal goal and try to beat it
  • Word Study Notebooks: to record their thinking (Trail of Learning)
  • Poems:  Highlight words that follow pattern
  • Games:  Dominos, Blank Boards, Show Me
  • Anchor Charts Students can add to these as they work and find others words that fit
  • Word Wall (color code words by groups)
  • Interactive Writing: At the end of the day one important thing worth remembering is written in a class journal
  • Independent Writing: students need to write on their own EVERY day…students need to be accountable for applying what they have learned.

This book is a first step in changing one’s practice away from the traditional Monday to Friday spelling routine.  It does a good job of convincing the reader of WHY this practice should be changed.  HOW to change one’s practice (the hard part) is only lightly touched upon in this text though.  I like that the authors acknowledge the challenge in shifting to a Word Study approach and suggest teachers embrace the challenge and take things slowly.  I will end with a quote from the beginning of the section:

How do you as a teacher use this research regarding effective phonics and spelling instruction?  You’ll change and grow as I did, one step at a time.  Set a goal.  Try one or two of the practices outlined in this section.  When you feel ready, try some more.  Take time to study, think, and experiment (p. 53).

Phonics and Spelling Worksheets Part 2


Part two in any “Not This, But that” book is all about the research.  In this text there are 40 pages of research that supports NOT doing weekly whole class list or phonics worksheets.  In fact, the research proves over and over again that spelling dependent upon memorization does not work.

Here is SOME of the research cited in this chapter:

  • Read (1971) showed that children’s inventive spellings, which were previously thought to be done in random, showed phonetic sensitivity and logic.
  • Beers and Henderson (1977) students’ uncorrected spelling attempts provide a window into their understanding.
  • Henderson (1990) found students acquire specific spelling features in a developmental progression that builds on language concepts related to sound and meaning.
  • Schlagal (2002) found that most classes contain a range of at least 3 developmental spelling levels.
  • Morris et al. (1995) found that whole-group spelling instruction was particularly ineffective for the bottom third of the class, while students who were provided differentiated spelling did better not only on posttests but also on unstudied words.
  • Jean Chall (1983) found that about the 4th grade, words in children’s textbooks change from mostly familiar to more unfamiliar and abstract content-specific or academic meanings that exceed their oral vocabulary knowledge.

The research shows that students’ phonics and spelling knowledge follows a predictable developmental continuum and the authors argue that to teach these topics well teachers must identify where students are and then give them instruction that moves them to the next level of achievement.  Interestingly the book stated that qualitative spelling inventories are similar and listed a variety of assessments for teachers to choose from.

What we need to know about spelling development:

  • Students’ spelling confusions relate to the elements of sound, pattern, and meaning. p. 21
  • Tiers of Orthographic Word Knowledge:
    1. The Alphabetic/Sound Tier p. 22
    2. The Pattern Tier p. 25
    3. The Meaning Tier p. 26
  • It is estimated that as few as 4% of English words are truly irregular. p. 30
  • Linguistic approaches that incorporate reflection and discussion on various aspects of language and orthography are not only superior in teaching students to spell specific words, but linguistic approaches also give students the knowledge to spell new words they had not yet studied. p. 32
  • Ask, don’t tell students how words work. p. 34
  • 10 guiding principals for word study:
    1. Look for what students “use but confuse”
    2. A step backward is the first step forward
    3. Use words students can read
    4. Compare words “that do” with words “that don’t”
    5. Sort words by sound, sight, and meaning
    6. Begin with obvious contrast first
    7. Don’t hide exceptions
    8. Avoid teaching with rules
    9. Work for fluency and flexibility
    10. Link word study to reading and writing
  • The golden rule of word study:  Teaching is not telling p. 48

From reading this second section it is clear that the third section of this text will be focused on how to effectively implement Word Study in the classroom.



Phonics and Spelling Worksheets Part 1


This is the last “Not This, But That” unread text that I own and since they are so quick and easy to read, and I have a crazy busy week, I have decided to tackle this text next.

Section 1 is titled “Worksheets/Workbooks:  The Trap of Repetition Without Transfer.”  It is written by Jennifer Palmer who describes her frustrations as a classroom teacher with using basal reader spelling lists, social studies and science words for spelling, and phonics worksheets…LACK OF TRANSFER!

Here are some great quotes from this first section:

  • Looking back, I see one source of my difficulties.  I was following the “factory model” of spelling and decoding, in which students were the recipients of the “knowledge” I was dumping into their heads. p. 3
  • No one can memorize the spelling of every single word in the English language, yet I taught both decoding and spelling as if this were the one true way to learn to read words and spell. p. 4
  • They were factory workers contributing one small widget to a car whose make and model they didn’t know or care about. p. 4
  • Spelling bees, games, and fun phonics activities fail to motivate students to hold onto their learning (or learn in the first place) because they’re experiences decontextualized from real reading and writing. p. 7
  • The factory model confuses compliance with learning.  A student who completes his phonics or spelling worksheet every night is following directions, but not necessarily doing deep-level thinking or demonstrating independence.  p. 7

Tomorrow I will read and reflect on section 2 of this text which shares the research on how to effectively teach phonics and spelling.