Educator Spotlight: Brooks Benjamin

In the Educator Spotlight today – middle grade author and 5th grade teacher Brooks Benjamin! 

Please tell us about yourself!

My name is Brooks Benjamin. I’m the author of My Seventh-Grade Life in Tights and I teach 5th grade in a tiny Tennessee town you’ve probably never heard of. I’ve been at that school for 15 years and have taught everything from first to fifth. My sweet spot, however, seems to be 4th and fifth. I love interacting, teaching, learning with, and writing for kids that age. They’re beginning to explore their independence with this wonderfully innocent curiosity and that allows for so many amazing learning opportunities.


What are some of your favorite middle grade books or authors?

My favorite MG book is and will always be Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. The struggle Jess deals with in creating the relationship he needs with his dad is something I always connected to. Some of my more recent favorites, though, are anything by Natalie Lloyd, anything by Dan Gemeinhart, the Track series by Jason Reynolds, The Last Kids on Earth series by Max Brallier, The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser, The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill, The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier, Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan, Alan Cole is Not a Coward by Eric Bell, Death and Douglas by J.W. Ocker, The Last Monster by Ginger Garrett, The Serpent’s Secret by Sayantani DasGupta, and so many more that I’d be able to fill up this entire interview with a massive list of books everyone should check out.


Tell us about your classroom library!

Oh, this I’m quite proud of. I’ve spent the last several years collecting books from different conventions I was invited to, being first in line at my local indie on release day, and going on shopping sprees after spending months begging for bookstore giftcards from friends and family during the holidays. I don’t know exactly how many books I have in my classroom library, but it’s near 1,000. To some teachers out there, that number may seem a bit paltry, but for our tiny little rural school it’s quite something. My room has become a second library to other students in the school. Even our librarian comes to me sometimes asking if I have a particular book a kid can check out. And, of course, I let them. They simply write their name down with the title of the book and it’s theirs for as long as they need it. I’ve got my books divided into every genre and nothing is leveled. They range from picture books all the way to a few select, totally-appropriate YA books, but the majority of my library is MG. And, yes, before I ever shelve a book, I make sure to read it first. I can’t recommend a title if I don’t know why a student might love it.

How do you make sure that the books your students have access to reflect the diversity of our world?

I stay connected to other educators, authors, and industry professionals who are promoting the underrepresented voices of authors everywhere. Adding one or two books to a classroom library doesn’t do the job. It takes a concerted effort on my part to make sure that when I come back from a bookstore, I’m not only about to add quality titles to my library, but I’m also about to further diversify my current list. In order to do that, we have to keep our eyes and ears on what’s being said about the books coming out. Listening is key. There are some problematic books or authors we don’t need to spend time promoting when there are others out there with authentic voices that need our support.

Are you connected with authors online? How do you incorporate authors in your classroom?

I am! Being an author myself definitely makes it easier to reach out to fellow writers. One thing I love doing (which I plan on doing even more next year) is Skyping with authors. Twitter has been instrumental in helping me connect with and stay connected to authors. I haven’t met a single author yet who wasn’t more than happy to coordinate a Skype visit with a classroom. Last year we were lucky enough to visit with Hena Khan and Tracey Baptiste and my class had the best time asking questions and learning all about the authors’ lives.

How do you encourage less-than-enthusiastic readers?

Patience. It takes loads of patience. You can’t keep shoving a book into a kid’s hands and expect them to eventually love it. There are so many reasons a child might be unwilling to read. Just like getting them to try anything new, you have to help them start small and work their way up. What I do is read a lot to my students. Letting them hear me enjoy the book, allowing them to see me get into the story, providing them an opportunity to experience the character’s journey at a safe distance helps build that bridge from listener to reader. In my class, I’ll read them anything from comic strips to picture books to novels. They need to see that nothing is off limits when it comes to reading. It doesn’t matter how wordy or wordless it is, the joy comes from living the story through the characters, no matter how it’s told. That combined with a well-stocked library, I believe, is the key to giving reluctant readers the encouragement and support they need to pick up a book on their own.

How do you share your own love of reading with your students?

I do exactly that–I share it. I always let them know what I’m reading. Last year, we had a twenty-five minute block of time where we just read. I made sure to have my book out so they could see me reading, too. I also encouraged them to show me what they were reading, to share interesting lines or pictures, to ask questions and predict. I wanted that time to be a moment where students felt safe to pull a book off the shelf, dive into it, and find out what they thought.

What advice would you give new teachers?

My biggest piece of advice is one I have to remind myself of from time to time. With all the testing and curriculum and meetings and conferences that get thrown at us and pushed into our schedules during the year, we have to remember why we’re there. We’re there for the kids. To make their lives better. We’re there to teach them academic, behavioral, social, and emotional skills that will allow them to be better human beings. The problem is, we can’t do every bit of that ourselves. As much as we want to, we’re just not equipped to handle it alone. And that’s why we have to have the stories that can fill in the missing pieces so every kid’s education is as complete as possible. That’s why we have the inservices to become better educators and to learn more ways to connect with our class. Every book we select, every professional development session we attend, every lesson we teach, it has to be for the kids. Hands down, full stop, no questions asked. They are, after all, precious cargo. They’re our future. Handle with care.

46fc7c_9a36434084d14e8397a917507edbee03.jpgYou can connect with Brooks on Twitter at @brooksbenjamin , Instagram @thebrooksbenjamin and on his website





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Cover Reveal: THE CRYPTID CATCHER by Lija Fisher


Today I’m thrilled to welcome Lija Fisher to the MG Book Village for the cover reveal of her debut novel, THE CRYPTID CATCHER. I’ve been excited for Lija’s book ever since I read the premise, and as soon as I saw the cover, my excitement skyrocketed. Learn a bit more about Lija and her book in the interview below — and feast your eyes on THE CRYPTID CATCHER’s awesome cover!

~ Jarrett

. . .

Thanks so much for coming by the Village, Lija, and for hosting your cover reveal here at the site! Before we get to the big reveal, can you tell us a bit about THE CRYPTID CATCHER?

It’s about a 13-year-old boy who discovers that legendary creatures (like the Sasquatch and Yeti) are real and he must find the special one who is the key to immortality before the bad guys do. And humor and mayhem ensues!

What led you to write about cryptids in the first place?

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that it all started with the trashy but delicious website TMZ. There was an article about an actor who went on a hunt to find the Otterman in Alaska. It made me wonder, “What would cause a grown man to run around the wilderness and search for a creature that might not exist?” Well, as I researched creatures like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, I stumbled upon the vast world of cryptozoology, which I thought would be a fun science to explore (or pseudo-science, depending on if you believe in these monsters or not!)

Have you ever gone looking for cryptids yourself (outside of your imagination, I mean!)?

Oh my gosh, I haven’t even asked myself that question! But now that I think about it, yes, yes I have. I grew up in the mountains and would spend Midsummer Night combing the hills looking for fairies and trolls. I kid you not, one time a bush rustled next to me and a sound that I can only describe as a gurgling, curious troll voice called to me. Sadly, I did not investigate. I RAN!

Ha! I would’ve been right behind you! Now, onto the cover. Were you involved at all in the art process?

My editor asked what I pictured being on the cover and I think I said things like, “mist and smoke and beasts and mystery yet joy and adventure!” You know, standard cover requests!

Who’s the artist?

The artist is the amazing Lisa K Weber. I haven’t met her in person, but I hope to so I can shake her talented, ink-stained hands.

What did you think when you first saw the cover art?

Initially, they sent me five possible sketches and my first thought was, “Who are those people in the cover?” And then I realized that they were my characters! Having an artist bring to life what’s been living in my head for so long was such a delight. And I think the final cover is beautifully filled with beasts and joy and mystery and I’m so happy!

All right — I think it’s time to check it out. Here it is!

The Cryptid Catcher

I love it! He’s taking a selfie!

Yes! If I ran into the Otterman I’d take a selfie too!

Thanks again for hosting your cover reveal at the MG Book Village, Lija! When can readers get their hands on THE CRYPTID CATCHER?

Thank you so much to the MG Book Village for hosting my cover reveal! THE CRYPTID CATCHER comes out August 21st from Farrar, Straus & Giroux and you can find me at, Twitter @LijaFisher, or in the mountains running away from trolls.



Lija Fisher is the author of THE CRYPTID CATCHER, a middle grade humorous adventure novel coming August 2018 with Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and THE CRYPTID KEEPER coming out in 2019. Yes, she believes in Bigfoot! She was the Writer in Residence in 2017 with Aspen Words. You can find her on Twitter @LijaFisher, or at

A Conversation with Cordelia Jensen & Laurie Morrison, Books Between, Episode 50

Episode Outline:

Listen to the episode here!


Hi everyone and welcome to Books Between – a podcast to help teachers, parents, and librarians connect kids between 8-12 to books they’ll love.  I’m your host, Corrina Allen – a 5th grade teacher, a mom of two girls, and a new aunt!! A few weeks ago, my brother and his wife had a beautiful baby girl they named Nora and has been so wonderful to have a baby in the family again!

This is Episode #50 and today I am sharing with you a conversation with Laurie Morrison and Cordelia Jensen – authors of  Every Shiny Thing   

But first I am excited to tell you that today’s episode is sponsored by MoxieReader – a literacy app that’s like a fitness tracker for your reading life. It gives teachers insights unnamedinto their students’ reading, customized recommendations, and a way for kids to set and work toward their own reading goals in a way that is engaging and fun. My 5th graders and I have been trying it out over the past couple of weeks and they really, really loved it!  They had armfuls of books they were excited to scan in and share with each other. I really feel like the end of the year is the perfect time to try something new that will energize your class and launch them into a summer full of reading. So head over to and try out their $7 for 3 months special by using the code welovereading!

A few announcements to pass along! The Twitter chat for  Every Shiny Thing will be on Monday, June 5th at 8pm EST using #MGBookClub.

There is also a fantastic educator’s guide available for the novel and a Flipgrid for the book where you can watch videos of Laurie and Cordelia and submit your own to ask questions about the book!

Our next Middle Grade at Heart book club picks are The Mad Wolf’s Daughter in June, Just Under the Clouds in July, and Where the Watermelons Grow in August.

Also – Ann Braden and Jarrett Lerner have teamed up with some other educators to launch the #KidsNeedMentors project to connect authors with classrooms through book deliveries, postcard exchanges, Skype visits and lots more exciting things.

A quick reminder that the outline of today’s interview and links to every book we chat about along with other awesome middle grade content can be found right at


Cordelia Jensen & Laurie Morrison – Interview Outline



Our special guests this week are Cordelia Jensen and Laurie Morrison – authors of the newly released middle grade novel  Every Shiny Thing .


Take a listen…


Let’s start with introductions

Can you take a moment to tell us about yourself?

How did you two meet and decide to collaborate on this book?

Tell us about Every Shiny Thing!

Let’s talk about Lauren first since we meet her character first – as she is thinking about saying goodbye to her brother Ryan as her family is leaving him off at a therapeutic school for kids with autism. And we learn right away how upset Lauren feels about this.

Laurie – can you talk a bit about any experiences you had or research you did to write your part of the novel?

One of the things that’s been on my mind lately as a teacher and as someone who is always searching for books that are mirrors for children’s own lives is the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences. And oh does Sierra have so many of those – her mother is an alcoholic, her father is in jail, and she is living with a foster family.

Cordelia – how did Sierra’s character first come to you and how did you find that balance between her vulnerability and her resilience?

There are two images in Sierra’s section of the novel that are so powerful to me – the kaleidoscope and the garden. That symbolism of Sierra’s and Lauren’s and all of our lives fragmenting and reflecting and then cycling back together….

Can you talk a bit about those parts of your novel and how you came to include them in Sierra’s story?

One part of Every Shiny Thing that fascinated me was the Quaker school that the girls attend! And the Quaker values they study – can you talk a little but about that aspect of the book?
I really noticed how much of school life your novel got right.

Did that come from your own experiences as educators or did you do some research for that aspect of the book?

**BONUS SPOILER SECTION: Cordelia and Laurie and I discussed the ending of the novel, and if you’d like to hear that conversation, I moved that part of the recording to after the end credits of today’s episode at the 37:12 mark.


What was your collaboration process like for writing Every Shiny Thing? Did you meet in person or do most of your work online?

What’s next for each of you?



Was there an adult in your life who made you the reader you are today?

What have you been reading lately?


Cordelia Jensen’s website –

Laurie Morrison’s website –

Cordelia on Twitter and Instagram

Laurie on Twitter and Instagram

Good Morning Sunshine Breakfast Cookies

Cranberry Orange Scones


Books & Authors We Chatted About:

NeuroTribes (Steve Silberman)

You Go First (Erin Entrada Kelly)

Star Crossed (Barbara Dee)

The Female Persuasion (Meg Wolitzer)

Well That Was Awkward (Rachel Vail)

The Science of Breakable Things (Tae Keller)

The Girl With Two Hearts

Dumplin (Julie Murphy)

One for the Murphys (Lynda Mullaly Hunt)

Forget Me Not (Ellie Terry)


Alright, that wraps up our show this week!

Alright, that wraps up our show this week!  And thanks again to MoxieReader for supporting the podcast this month – definitely check out their website for an engaging way for your students to build their reading resume.

If you have a question about how to connect kids between 8-12 to books they’ll love or a suggestion about a topic we should cover, I would love to hear from you. You can email me at or message me on Twitter/Instagram at the handle @Books_Between.


Books Between is a proud member of the Education Podcast Network. This networkfeatures podcasts for educators, created by educators. For more great content visit

Thanks and see you soon!  Bye!


Corrina Allen is a 5th grade teacher in Central New York and mom of two energetic tween girls. She is passionate about helping kids discover who they are as readers.

Corrina is the host of Books Between – a podcast to help teachers, parents, and librarians connect children between 8 and 12 to books they’ll love.

Find her on Twitter at @corrinaaallen or Instagram at @Corrina_Allen.



Educator Spotlight: Matt Renwick

In the Educator Spotlight today – elementary school principal Matt Renwick! 

Please tell us about yourself!

I am finishing my eighteenth year as an educator. This is hard to believe as time has flown by! I started as a 5th and 6th grade teacher in a country school in Central Wisconsin. We were a multi-age school and we developed a two year curriculum that connected literacy with big ideas and topics in science, social studies, and technology. After seven years of teaching, I transitioned to a dean of students/athletic director role at a junior high. This became an associate principal position, which eventually led to running my own school in an elementary building. Currently I serve as the principal for Mineral Point Elementary School in Mineral Point, Wisconsin.

Besides being an educator, I am also a husband to Jodi and a father to Finn (11) and Violet (9). We bought a large older home in Mineral Point two years ago. It’s a project! We do enjoy the character and layout of an older home, as well as taking care of the landscaping on our property. In my spare time, I enjoy writing, reading, walking, watching science fiction shows, trying out new technologies, and participating in citizen science projects.

What are some of your favorite middle grade books or authors?

Growing up, I actually don’t remember reading a lot of middle level books as an adolescent. For better or worse, I was reading adult fiction, especially thrillers and horror literature. Stephen King and Peter Straub novels were my favorites. These titles probably weren’t appropriate content-wise for my age, but my teachers let me read them anyway! I remember swapping these tattered paperbacks with a friend of mine back then. It was almost like we were getting away with something.

Today’s middle level readers have such a wide range of literature in which to choose from. Personally, I have enjoyed the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, The Mysterious Benedict Society series by Trenton Lee Stewart, anything by Jennifer L. Holm and Katherine Applegate, the Joey Pigza series by Jack Gantos, One for the Murphy’s by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, and Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage. I feel bad even listing authors and titles here, as I am sure I am leaving out too many that should be included in this list.

What was your favorite book as a child?  Why did you love it so much?

Unknown-3My favorite book as a child was Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing by Judy Blume. My 3rd grade teacher read it aloud to us. This is my favorite book for a couple of reasons: it was incredibly funny (especially with having a younger brother eerily similar to Fudge), and for the first time I saw reading as something more than a set of skills and strategies. Prior to this experience, I remember being shuffled between reading groups but not really understanding why reading was so important.  That’s a big reason why I loved this book so much: reading was not seen by me as a pleasurable experience. It all came together for me. My parents said that I read and reread Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing several times after my teacher read it aloud to our class. After that, I was hooked on reading. My teachers after 3rd grade didn’t need to do much in the way of instruction.


Who is your favorite fictional teacher?

I like how Andrew Clements creates compelling characters as teachers in his books. They aren’t cookie cutter educators but rather are dynamic people capable of change. For example, in Frindle, Mrs. Granger was resistant to Nick inventing his own word. Yet she didn’t squash his dreams. Instead, she allowed him to follow the path he wanted to go down. This relationship between student and teacher culminated in the note Mrs. Granger had written in the beginning of this adventure. Similarly, in The Landry News, Mr. Larson is also changed by the provocative decision of a student (she writes with honesty about the school and classroom environment). So, to address the question…I don’t have a favorite fictional teacher in as much as I appreciate how Andrew Clements has created complex and relatable characterizations of educators. The students change the teachers instead of only the other way around as it typically occurs in school literature.


What book impacted you most as a teacher?

I remember reading aloud Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech to my 5th and 6th graders one year. I did not see the ending coming as we came to last pages. (I had not read the book ahead of time, as I usually did.). I have to admit, I got a bit choked up in front of my students at this point. Looking back, I am glad my students got to see me get a little emotional in response to literature. I am not by my nature a demonstrative person. Reading aloud Walk Two Moons communicated with students that literature can have an emotional impact on us, that reading is not only an academic experience. It was one of the most important lessons I have ever taught, and I didn’t even have it planned.

If you could go back in time to your first year as an educator and give yourself some advice, what would you say?

First, I would start with gratitude. I would say “thank you” for taking the time to read aloud to the students every day. It’s a decision I have not regretted once. I’d also express my appreciation for focusing on developing a classroom community those first couple of weeks in the school year, and not getting too bent out of shape regarding academics. The time and energy spent in building trust and routines was a great investment especially as the year progressed.

My advice to myself as a first year educator would be to focus more on developing relationships with my students. I should have inquired more about their interests, their hobbies, their strengths, their concerns, and especially their personal goals for the year and beyond. With this information, we could have co-created a learning environment that would have better served all of us. I try to do this now as a principal by including my teachers in almost all areas of leadership, including determining the direction that our organization needs to follow as well as the process for getting there.

ascd-author-headshot-9-2016-web-25You can connect with Matt on Twitter at @ReadbyExample and on his website







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Educator Spotlight: Deana Metzke

In the Educator Spotlight today –  Literacy Coach Deana Metzke! 

Please tell us about yourself!

Hi! My name is Deana Metzke and I currently live in the capital of Illinois, Springfield, where I have spent the entirety of my career in education. I have taught 1st and 4th grades, but for the last decade or so I have been either a Reading Teacher or Literacy Coach at the elementary level. At home, I have a husband who is also an educator, along with a 6 year old son and a 9 year old daughter, all who support my reading habit. Me and my latest thoughts about reading/books can be found on Twitter at @DMetzke or on my blog On my blog I toggle between kidlit book reviews and detailing my experiences trying to raise my two children to be avid readers.


What are some of your favorite middle grade books or authors?

Most recently I have been obsessed with all things Kwame Alexander and Jason Reynolds. They are really writing the books that I wish had been around when I was a child, so I am always trying to put them in students’ hands. I also enjoy history, so I love books by Christopher Paul Curtis and Kimberly Brubaker Bradley because they do such a great job of transporting me back to different times in history, and entertaining me at the same time.


Tell us about your classroom library!  How do you get books?

Interestingly, I think the book that impacted me the most as a teacher was A Series of Unfortunate Events. I had a difficult class one year teaching 4th grade, and reading to Unknown-1them after lunch was a perfect way to calm them down after being outside. I thought the book was funny, but I didn’t feel like they were finding the story as amusing as I was. However, as soon as I stopped reading or closed the book–the number of “awwwws” I heard was shocking. I really thought that I was just reading for my own benefit, but who knew that they were actually as into as I was. I remember one student in particular, I thought he was sleep, but every time I stopped reading, his head would pop right up and he would ask me to read more. I think we got through the first two books in the series that year. Reading that series really showed me that the benefits of reading aloud not only a chapter book, but also a series, and that just because they don’t react like me, doesn’t mean that they aren’t enjoying it.

What are some of your favorite reading-related projects or activities to do with your students?

We do Book Battles in our building and it is one of my favorite things to do. I had seen online many different ideas of March Madness with books or Mock Caldecotts, but I bookbattlecould not figure out how to make that work efficiently, school-wide. So instead, I select books that are popular for any variety of reasons, including popular authors, award winning or even just possibly award winning, and pair them up. I then give teachers copies of the books to read to their students, and they have the students decide which one out of the two they like the best. Sometimes I give them criteria, i.e., a focus on illustrations, and other times I allow them to let students pick however they choose. I have the competing books on display, either on the bulletin board outside of my room or on my door, so then everyone can see which classes have selected which book. I am very lucky to work with a wonderful group of educators, some of whom get almost as excited as I do when I bring them new books to read, and that makes the Book Battles that much more enjoyable. It is also a way to expose the teachers to new read-alouds that they can continue to use in their classrooms whenever they see fit.

What professional development book influenced you most as a teacher?

When I read Steven Laynes’ Igniting a Passion for Reading a decade ago, it for sure reignited my passion for reading. I had never heard of the word “aliterate” before 51OgDtS-KyL._SX376_BO1,204,203,200_reading this book, and after I did, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I also loved the fact that he listed so many titles and suggestions for their use in the book. At that time, my knowledge of current popular books for kids was basically restricted to the Scholastic Book Club flyers, so these lists opened up my eyes and got my wheels spinning. Since then it has become my mission to prevent as many aliterate readers as I possibly can.

If you could go back in time to your first year teaching and give yourself some advice, what would you say?

Oh my. I for sure would tell myself to do more read alouds! I was teaching 1st grade my first year, and I had not fully developed my passion for kid lit at that time. Most of the read alouds I did do were suggested/planned through the district curriculum, with the occasional holiday-related book. My first year wasn’t horrible, but I definitely think more read alouds would have done wonders for both my morale, as well as the students’ that first year.


What’s a strategy or tool that you are excited to try out next?


I really want to try more “Book Tastings”, where students get to do real previews of books before selecting what they want to read next. Since I’m not in the classroom, I don’t get to recommend books to as many students as I would like to. Before our Winter Break, I had an opportunity to do a quick mini-book tasting with a 5th grade classroom, and I really enjoyed it (and I think the kids did too). However, I would like to go all out with the ambiance and create some really good conversations among students about books, so that something I would like to try in the near future.

What advice would you give new teachers?

This is not a solo job. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from other teachers/coaches in your building, or find teachers you admire on Twitter or other social media avenues, and don’t be afraid to ask them questions. You don’t have to do this by yourself.
unnamedAYou can connect with Deana on Twitter at @DMetzke or on her website






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Educator Spotlight: Kristen Picone

In the Educator Spotlight today –  5th grade teacher Kristen Picone! 

Please tell us about yourself!

My favorite  job is being a mom to a kind, compassionate, baseball-loving, almost-9 year old.  My second favorite job is being a 5th grade ELA/SS teacher, however, I don’t really see teaching as my job, it is my passion.  It’s the only career I ever wanted and stemmed
from my six-year old love of, and desire to give, Spelling tests (which I have never given CYpzpoVN.jpgas a teacher!). When not watching Little League or NY Yankee games, I can usually be found reading a book (I am a proud member of #BookJourney), planning lessons around books, buying books, at the library checking out books, on Voxer and Twitter talking about books/teaching, or attending a bookish event, like #nErDCampNJ, #nErDCampNNE, or the Brooklyn Book Festival.  My love of literacy is what led me to become friends with two very special people, JoEllen McCarthy and Ali McDermott, with whom I have the honor of co-organizing #nErDCampLI. Our 4th Annual nErDCampLI will be held on November 3rd 2018! I hope to see lots of nerdy friends there! You can find me on Twitter @Kpteach5 and @KPStars5 and information about #nErDCampLI is on our website: .

Thank you for all the amazing authors/illustrators that support #nErDCampLI !

What are some of your favorite middle grade books or authors?

This second question is basically impossible for me to answer.  My kids ask me this same thing at the start of each school year and I tell them that there is no possible way for me to narrow down my favorites.  High up on my list is One for the Murphys, by Lynda Mullaly Hunt because it is one of the few books that has made me cry each of the four times I have read it.  Ghost Boys, by Jewell Parker Rhodes, is a book I recently read that I KNOW will be one of my read alouds next year (I read different books every year). Lifeboat 12 (September 4th), Susan Hood’s debut MG novel (in verse), is not only an incredible mixture of fact and fiction, but the back matter is just as intriguing as the story itself.  The Train of Lost Things, by Ammi-Joan Paquette, is a recent read that had me reaching for the kleenex multiple times. Lauren Magaziner’s books always make me laugh-out-loud, and Wizardmatch, her most recent book, is not only hysterically funny, but also a timely and necessary read. Amal Unbound, by Aisha Saeed, is our current class read aloud.  This is a book that stayed with me for weeks after I finished reading it and prompted me to do more research into indentured servitude around the world. One of my very favorite MG voices is Cilla, from Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire and This Book is a Classic, by Susan Tan. My very favorite graphic novel is Brave, by Svetlana Chmakova.  Two Truths and Lie: It’s Alive!,  by Ammi-Joan Paquette and Laurie Ann Thompson is genius and a wonderful tool for teaching kids about credible sources and fact-checking.  I love the family structures represented in Two Naomis, by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick, and The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, by Dana Alison Levy. And who doesn’t adore the Rip and Red series from Phil Bildner and anything that Alan Gratz, Kwame Alexander, or Jason Reynolds writes is sure to at the top of my “current faves” list.  For #heartprint books, I adore any of Barbara O’Connor’s, Elly Swartz’s, Nanci Turner Steveson’s, or Kat Yeh’s beautiful MG books. Some books that I believe more people should be reading are The Meaning of Maggie, by Megan Jean Sovern, The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky, by Holly Schindler, The Way Home Looks Now, by Wendy Wan-Long Shang, Paper Things, by Jennifer Richard Jacobson, and The All Four Star series, by Tara Dairman.  I could, and want to, go on and on…but I will stop now!

Tell us about your classroom library!  How do you get books?

Aside from my son, my book collection is my pride and joy!  I mentioned to my students the other day that maybe we should do some book counting in June as we do our end of the year book re-organization and some jaws dropped on the floor.  Most of the books in my classroom, I have purchased myself. I am passionate about creating an inclusive classroom library, reflecting the diversity of our world. I want books that help students push past stereotypes and bias, books that build empathy and provide global awareness.  In order to do this, I feel like I need the books at my fingertips, which is why I choose to spend my own money on books. My classroom library is always a work in progress, but it contains picture books and MG novels, fiction and nonfiction, in every format. There is something for every reader.  My library has actually outgrown my (very) small classroom, so if anyone out there knows an interior designer who wants to come help reorganize, I am all for it!

What does your literacy instruction look like?

Although I change my chapter book read alouds every year, my first picture book read aloud is always Wings, by Christopher Myers. That book and the resulting conversations set the tone for the entire year. The first few weeks of school are not spent on curriculum, but rather on creating a classroom community.  We engage in explicit lessons on courage, respect, trust, and tone, based on inspiration from Patrick Allen’s book, Conferring: The Keystone of Reader’s Workshop. At the heart of the literacy instruction in my classroom are picture books!  I am a firm believer that picture books should be used in classrooms at every grade level.  Aside from committing to #ClassroomBookADay, almost all of my Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop mini-lessons are done with picture books.  Many of my Social Studies lessons also begin, or are followed up with, a related picture book. Picture books are accessible to all students. They provide the visual support that many students need and that most students love.  They provide complex ideas in smaller packages. They can be used to promote SEL and social justice.

While I have always collected picture books, my practice of reading books was enhanced tremendously after reading Reading Picture Books With Children: How to Shake Up Storytime and Get Kids Talking.  In this book, Megan Dowd Lambert describes the Whole Book Approach. As soon as I began following this approach, I noticed more conversation, more risk-taking, and deeper thinking, particularly when thinking about the images within the books. My students also learn and practice the BHH Framework and Notice and Note strategies (Thank you Kylene Beers and Bob Probst) using shared texts (usually picture books), before they apply these strategies to their own CHOICE novels or picture books. Through think alouds, conversations and using Signposts, we learn to read like writers and write like readers, with audience and purpose in mind.

My favorite unit of the year is the #MockCaldecott unit, where students analyze and evaluate illustrations before choosing a class winner.  We also do the Battle of the Picture Books, a bracket-style tournament of Fiction vs. Nonfiction picture books. If kids read nothing else all year (of course they do!), in these two units alone, they are each reading more than forty-two, high-quality, picture books. I am very intentional with the books I choose for lessons and read alouds. As JoEllen McCarthy always says, books are our co-teachers!  That statement couldn’t be more true in my classroom!


Picture books that were part of our #MockCaldecott unit this year!

How has your philosophy changed since you first became a teacher?

I began teaching in my own classroom in 2001.  I remember very clearly that my resume had a quote from William Butler Yeats: Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. I truly believed that and wanted my classroom to reflect that overarching principle. Looking back, I don’t even recognize the teacher I was back then.  I taught reading out of a Basal. I used workbooks and worksheets regularly. I gave reading tests, vocabulary tests, math tests, social studies tests, science tests…see the pattern?!  I am sure there were projects thrown in there somewhere, probably book reports, and definitely reading logs. Pail filling. I did what other teachers around me were doing and followed along with the materials given to me by my district. I can honestly say that my education classes in college, including my Masters degree classes, did nothing to prepare me for actually teaching my own classroom.  A year later, I started in a different school district, at a different grade level. I am pretty sure it was much of the same. Fast forward a few years and I found myself teaching reading strategies out of a test prep workbook. It was at that time that I knew something had to change. I have always collected picture books, but they were sitting dusty on shelves. Instead of reading the books, kids copied notes off the overhead projector, we all read the same book and answered comprehension question after comprehension question, they did homework nightly in every subject, and they had quizzes and tests every few weeks. More pail filling. I thought that’s what school was supposed to be. But I certainly wasn’t lighting any fires and my own was close to becoming extinguished.  If it hadn’t been for a conference where Dr. Tony Sinanis, who was a principal on Long Island at the time, introduced me to Twitter, I may not have stayed in this career.  Becoming a connected educator changed everything. I always remained steadfast in what I wanted my classroom look and sound like, but I was simply doing school.  Once I connected with educators that had similar philosophies and took charge of my professional learning, my own fire was rekindled and school became about the kids again. There are no workbooks or worksheets, homework is reading and exploring personal passions, projects have replaced most tests, and students have choice and voice in their learning. Fires are being sparked each day and learning is the joyful experience it should be.

If you could go back in time to your first year teaching and give yourself advice, what would you say?

If I could go back and give myself advice (or give advice to new teachers), I would say, Stay true to what you know is right for kids, no matter what others around you are doing. Ask yourself: Would you want to be a student in your own classroom? Be kind to yourself, we all have days where we feel ineffective. Reflect and grow. Seek out learning opportunities. Challenge yourself. Embrace discomfort. Push boundaries. Take charge of your own professional development.  Surround yourself with people who support you, but also push your thinking. Never stop learning and listening with an open mind. The kids are your guide. You teach standards, but your curriculum is the children. The kids will teach you more than you will ever be able to teach them.

I am so thankful for my PLN and to the friends I have met through Twitter (educators and authors).  I am a better teacher and better human being because of all of you! **And as an aside, I would also like to send my sincerest apologies to the students I taught in those first few years.  I often received compliments and thank yous from parents, so I assumed I was doing a good job. I think they could tell I cared deeply for their children, but I wish I could go back and give them the learning opportunities being created in my classroom today.  

Twitter friends, turned real life friends, have made me better in every way. Thank you Paula Bourque, Michele Knott, Lesley Burnap, Jason Lewis, Cara Newman, Lorie Barber, Erin Varley, Susan Sullivan, Michelle Simpson, Niki Barnes, Jess Lifshitz, and so many others not pictured.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

Time…to do all the important work I want to do each year. Time…to read all the books aloud that I want to read. Time…to try all of the wonderful new ideas I learn from my passionate PLN. Time…to know everything I need to know about each and every one of my students. Time…to share with them everything I wish they knew about me. Time…to introduce my students, via Skype,  to all of the incredible authors I now feel lucky enough to call friends. Time…to read every piece of writing the kids write in their Writer’s Notebook. Time…there is never enough time.

One other challenge for me is balance.  As I said earlier, teaching is my passion. For me, teaching is a 24 hour/day job.  It’s not something I can just “leave at school”, as people often like to suggest. I am constantly thinking about my students, thinking about new lessons and experiences I want them to have, and hoping that I am doing enough to inspire curiosity and wonder, develop strong reading and writing identities and habits, and help them to realize that their voice matters in this world.  So many people like to believe that we teachers work from 9:00 – 3:00, 180 days per year. Most of us know that couldn’t be further from the truth. And while the hours I spend working outside of the actual contractual work day are sometimes challenging, and not everyone in my family completely understands, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Come summer, I will give myself a week or two “off”, but even during those weeks I will be reading picture books, MG, or YA novels. After that, I will dive into my next professional read, while I sit at the beach or the pool. I will start to think about the new group of students I will have the opportunity to meet. I will wonder about who they are and who they will become on our ten month journey together.  By the time September comes, I will be refreshed, renewed, and ready to start anew.

This job is a privilege and, no matter how short on time I always am or how unbalanced my life may feel sometimes, I am fortunate to spend my days doing what I love! Who wouldn’t want to be spend their days with kids in a room full of books?!?!

Thank you so much for the #MGBookVillage for giving me this opportunity!  We are better together and I am thankful for all that you do for students and teachers!

Screen Shot 2018-05-22 at 10.50.52 PMYou can connect with Kristen on Twitter at @Kpteach5 





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Educator Spotlight: Michele Knott

In the Educator Spotlight today –  literacy specialist Michele Knott! 

Hi everyone!  Thanks, MGBookVillage, for welcoming me.  My name is Michele Knott, I’m a K-4 literacy specialist at a school in the northwest suburbs of Chicago.  I’ve been in this position since 2004. Before that, I was a classroom teacher, spending time in PreK-2nd grade classrooms.  I never stayed in a grade level for more than three years before needing a change, yet I’ve been in my current position for 14 years.  Every year has been different – no getting bored in this position! I spend part of my day working with intervention students, part of my day working with teachers and all of my day getting books into hands of readers!  me reading.jpg

My love of reading began at a very young age.  I can remember my dad reading to me – picture books, chapter books – and he always changed his voice to match the characters.  He showed me the power of stories and what it’s like to fall into one. It wasn’t long before I had a library card and I memorized where all of my favorite books were located.  It was here at the library that I learned not only could I find books, I also learned that these books had a wonderful smell! I always thought it enhanced the story if it was a really good smelling book!  I taught my sister how to sniff – little did I know that I would find other nerds that did the same thing! I also was brought to bookstores – B. Dalton and Kroch’s and Brentano’s were the stores in my day – and I remember calling them to find out if they got the new Babysitter’s Club book and then eventually the new Sweet Valley High book in.

Books and stories permeated my childhood.  It wasn’t enough to read them, they were also part of my playtime.  I remember setting up libraries and making library cards and having that all important date stamp to use.  It wasn’t the one that “real” libraries had at the time – the one you pushed and it clicked and made that satisfying sound.  I could only manipulate the date, stamp it with ink and put it on the paper. But it was something. And no at-home library was complete without signs and other notifications that were typed up on my blue typewriter.  I felt real important clicking and clacking away on those keys. I also remember hours of time spent playing with my sister as we pretended we were at a boarding school and we would carry around our books, going to classes, trying to escape from the evil principal – Mrs. Scardina – and the evil Guard Cincinnati.  Somehow this plot loosely came from a book I was reading at the time – Ghost Host – and we embellished and made it our own.

Then came the teenage years when I moved on to books that were more edgy and made me feel older.  I snuck into my mom’s library books from time to time but more often than not they bored me. V.C. Andrews became a favorite in upper middle school and carried me through high school.  

And then there  were the notorious quiet years.  When reading was for a purpose, not for fun.  When reading was given to you, no choice involved.  Never enjoyment, always with set answers.

But the good years came back.  When I first started teaching, I read picture books everyday to my classes.  They took home book bags filled with books and activities to enrich their home lives.  I started building my classroom library – thank goodness for bonus points – and added books to my mentor texts collection.  I remember collecting books to use with science and social studies lessons, knowing picture books would captivate my readers way more than a textbook would.

As I moved into the reading specialist role, I knew getting books into the hands of readers mattered.  We had book checkout every Friday. All week long they spent reading books that were part of an intervention program, they needed choice in their reading diet.  

And then RTI happened.  You know how you can take a good thing and do it wrong?  That was the start of our journey. We moved to interventions that were too involved, too not what these kids needed, and not enough actual reading.  But they were all research based programs, they had to work, right?

I’m not going to lie.  It took me way too long to realize the error of my ways.  That kids who read slowly, don’t need to sit in front of a computer and practice reading a passage three times in a row so they get faster.  That kids who have trouble answering comprehension questions need more than reading passages and answering questions. That kids who have trouble decoding need more practice than skywriting or writing words in isolation.

These kids needed books.  They needed to hear books read to them.  They needed to fall in love with characters or gasp when an unexpected event happened in their story.  They needed to bring home books that they chose and read from them every night. They needed to read and read and read and when they loved what they read they did that no problem.  They needed to have conversations with others around them and talk about what they were wondering about or could you believe this happened or what confused them.

Me reading 3.jpg

The more we did this, the smaller my groups got.  The students I see now are students with true reading difficulties.  But that doesn’t stop them from checking out books every Friday, or any day they need one.  That doesn’t stop me from continuing to build a library that has books that can provide windows and doors to all readers that come in to check-out.  That doesn’t stop us from reading out loud together to enjoy books, discover books and fall in love with reading, even when it’s hard. These kids have access to books in their classroom, in my classroom, in our school library.  They are readers.

I won’t lie and say I’ve made all of my students become lifelong readers.  If you give some of them a choice, independent reading still doesn’t fall high on their list.  But they’ve all had positive reading experiences. And if we can keep giving them that, I can only hope it’s enough to keep them going.

Why do I think about this?  Because I had a literacy-rich upbringing.  I had access to books, I was read to, I was encouraged to read.  Not only did I read books, they also were an integral part of my play.  I had positive experiences that lead me to being a lifelong reader. But not all of our students have that.  And there is so much they have to learn in a school day, month, year. There are so many standards and expectations for us to teach, that sometimes, it’s easy to pass on those things we can do help facilitate those experiences.  

I believe thinking about literacy journeys and reflecting on them are important.  When I started writing this post, I wasn’t sure what direction I was headed toward.  It seemed important to share a glimpse of my own literacy life. I could have told you about my favorite middle grade book (Snicker of Magic) or how finding Harry Potter brought me back to reading kidlit, but somehow knowing I played library or that a middle grade novel inspired a whole new pretend game seemed even more important.  And maybe playing library won’t win out over sports or video games, but plant a seed. Let’s grow those readers.

gmailphoto.JPGYou can connect with Michele on Twitter (@knott_michele) and on her website:






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Educator Spotlight: Amber Kuehler

In the Educator Spotlight today –  4th grade teacher Amber Kuehler! 

Please tell us about yourself!

My name is Amber Kuehler and I am wrapping up my fifth year in fourth grade in West Des Moines, IA! Next year I will be moving into a new position in the same building and will be teaching fifth grade reading, science and math. I am so excited!

I have been married for four years and we have a two-year-old daughter that is as obsessed with books as I am (I LOVE IT!). I have always been a city girl (despite living in Iowa…) but we just bought an acreage outside of Des Moines and so far I am loving country life.

Teaching is a second career for me and switching careers to education has been one of the best decisions I have ever made. I love just about everything about my job. The kids keep life interesting on a daily basis, I regularly feel rewarded and valued and my job will always be a challenge because it is never done and always evolving.

I have always been a reader. From a young age, my parents fostered a love of reading and we were never left without books in our house. My childhood was filled with trips to the library and the bookstore and I am so grateful for that gift. I can still remember begging my mom to stop at the book store on her way home from work to buy me the latest Fear Street book (true story, right mom?).

As a child, I loved Amelia Bedelia and Encyclopedia Brown. From there, I discovered Charlotte’s Web and Roald Dahl after my teacher read aloud James and the Giant Peach. After that I discovered my characters could live longer in series and I fell in love with the Sweet Valley Twins (which continued with Sweet Valley High) and the Babysitter’s Club books. After that, I loved R.L. Stine (Goosebumps and Fear Street) and Christopher Pike books. I also went through a phase where I couldn’t get enough of Lurlene McDaniel books (and apparently crying my eyes out because they were so sad!).

Reading has always been a huge part of my life and is somewhat of a hobby for me. I love reading and collecting books and I especially love passing that love on to others.

What are some of your favorite middle grade books or authors?

Oh, boy.  It’s SO hard to pick favorites because I am such a mood reader. My favorite genre is historical fiction and I LOVE Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan, The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, and Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart.

Other favorites are Sticks and Stones by Abby Cooper (I’ve read it aloud two years in a row now!), Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling and Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed. I like books with serious themes and that really stick with me over time  – which is probably why I love historical fiction so much!

I tend to read mostly middle grade, but I do read a few adult and young adult novels as well! I recently discovered Neal Shusterman and am floored with how good his books are!

Tell us about your classroom library!

My classroom library is constantly evolving. Books are my weakness and I love adding books to my library. Before I became a teacher, I bought a ton of adult books that just sat Screen Shot 2018-05-15 at 11.29.44 PM.pngon my shelves at home when I finished them and I rarely used the library. Now that I’m a teacher, I cannot justify purchasing too many adult books that just on my shelves at home. Now I tend to use that money for children’s books that will be used often! If I own young adult books, they always get sent to my friends that teach in the middle schools. In the past few years I have become really obsessed with getting books out and in the hands of kids or others. What is the point of them just sitting on your shelves at home?? Besides looking pretty of course…

My classroom library is organized by genre and I have three library helpers that help keep the library organized each day. I do use a checkout system, where the kids just fill out a form for what book they have and the librarians make sure it gets returned. My classroom librarians are amazing and are so organized!  

How do you stay “in the know” about new/upcoming books (are there tools, people, sites you regularly rely on)?

I love staying active on Twitter and Instagram. I’m an avid user of Goodreads as well. I love seeing what books other educators are talking about online and adding them to my own ginormous TBR (to be read) pile.

I found the majority of my friends online through Nerd Camp, which is an event every year in Parma, Michigan. After the first year I attended I felt the urge to maintain that momentum and spirit that I felt at Nerd Camp and keeping in touch with everyone online has really helped! I am so grateful to all the people in the Nerdy community because they have inspired me to be the best reading educator I can be!

How do you share your own love of reading with your students?

I post what I am reading and what I just finished on my door. This allows students to see what I’m reading and connect with me over books. Most of the books I read are books Screen Shot 2018-05-15 at 11.29.53 PM.pngthat will end up in our classroom library so it is not uncommon for students to ask me if they can have a book when I am done with it!

I constantly have books with me and there are piles of them around my room! My kids know that I don’t go anywhere without a book and they have even tried to do the same. I have even had to stop them from trying to bring books on their field trips!

What are some of your favorite read-alouds?  Why?

I love Dan Gemeinhart books for read alouds because the chapters always end on cliff hangers and keep the kids begging for more! My favorites to read aloud are Some Kind of Courage and The Honest Truth. Another favorite read aloud is Sticks and Stones by Abby Cooper. I just love the message in that book. The main character, Elyse, has a fictional disease where words that others say about her end up on her skin like temporary tattoos, but they itch like mosquito bites. It is such a good symbol for when we let others’ words hurt us.

How do you encourage less-than-enthusiastic readers?

I do my best to get to know students and offer suggestions without cramming it down their throat. I don’t want to be too overbearing, but I am honest with kids and they know my goal is to turn them into a reader. I noticed a “reluctant” reader on Friday finishing Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate and he had that focused look on his face that said I’m-reading-don’t-you-dare-mess-with-me and I about cried. When I went to pull another Katherine Applegate book for him, I realize he had already read The One and Only Ivan AND Wishtree and I about cried again! My job with him is definitely not done, but a little bit of a wall has broken down and that makes me so happy.

With kids that are less-than-enthusiastic I tend to pull out audiobooks and instead of small group lessons, we will spend time listening to the book and following along. I will often stop the audio to pull out a word or two (which they hate when I do that because they want to keep listening) but other than that, the lesson is truly just about enjoying a book. Strangely enough, playing an audiobook in the classroom with a small group while the rest of the class is working keeps everyone pretty quiet. You would think the opposite would be true (because we don’t wear headphones) but I think students like to hear the audio playing during reading workshop!

Audiobooks are always my secret that I’m really to share freely. They give access to students that would not have access otherwise.

Screen Shot 2018-05-15 at 11.30.43 PMYou can find Amber on her website Teachers Who Read  and connect with her on Twitter (@iowaamber), Instagram (@iowaamber), and Facebook.      





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Educator Spotlight: Aliza Werner

In the Educator Spotlight today –  3th grade teacher Aliza Werner! 

Please tell us about yourself!

My name is Aliza Werner (pronounced Aleeza) and I have been teaching since 2005. Currently, I teach third grade in Glendale, Wisconsin, in the district in which I grew up! I serve on the Wisconsin State Reading Association’s Children’s Literature Committee and I write for the collaborative education blog Classroom Communities ( I am a Curriculum Writer at Milwaukee Film and do year-round work on their Education and Children’s Film Screening Committees. My husband and I love to travel the world…Indonesia to Ireland, Peru to Portugal. We are dog parents to the world’s sassiest wheaten terrier, Liffey. I am a reader, photographer, baseball fan, Boston U. alum, and hot sauce connoisseur. I am passionate about building diverse classroom libraries that provide all children with windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors, and I am a fierce advocate for choice, access, and time to read.

What are some of your favorite middle grade books or authors?

You should really sit down…this could take awhile! We are living in a golden age of children’s literature, which is getting more diverse and inclusive every day. My favorite middle grade authors write books that stay with me long after I’ve closed their covers: Katherine Applegate, Jason Reynolds, Kate DiCamillo, Dan Gemeinhart, Jacqueline Woodson, Nora Raleigh Baskin, Kwame Alexander, Laurel Snyder, Elana K. Arnold, Debbi Michiko Florence, Cynthia Lord, and Celia Perez. Some of my all time favorite middle grade books, including some very recent reads, are: The Honest Truth, The Wild Robot, Ghost (Track series), Because of Winn-Dixie, Tuck Everlasting, The One and Only Ivan, El Deafo, Brown Girl Dreaming, Three Pennies, and Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to The World.

What was your favorite book as a child?  Why did you love it so much?

The first book I ever loved was The Little Engine That Could. My parents claim I had it memorized by the time I was three. The repetition of lines, persistence of the characters to get over the mountain, and the “I think I can” mantra was engaging and inspiring to me. Everyone needs a steadfast friend like the Little Blue Engine, literally pulling for them. Most importantly, I heard this story over and over again sitting on the laps of my parents, who never told me I had to go choose another book.

How do you create a culture of reading in your classroom or school?

A culture of literacy starts with the lead learner…me. My students know from before day one, when they stop by at our late summer meet & greet, that “reading is what we do here”. As soon as my students enter my classroom, and see our library as the heart of it, they know that reading is more than a compartmentalized section of our academic day. Screen Shot 2018-05-15 at 10.56.01 PMAs they explore the classroom library and find that their lives, cultures, and experiences are represented there, they become a part of our community of readers. Above all, I value each reader where he or she is on their literacy journey. Some are voracious bookworms and others just haven’t found the right book yet. Children often value what we praise. So if we saturate our days in positive and engaging literacy experiences, more often than not, they want to come along for the ride. I share my reading life by displaying my current book by my “What is Mrs. Werner Reading?” sign, post book covers on a hallway display to track my reading throughout the year, share my authentic reading experiences with my students, post book covers of all the books we’ve read together, share student recommendations via Flipgrid, display student-created books in our library, give student-led book talks, keep TBR lists, use audiobooks and digital reading. We communicate with authors via Twitter and “meet” them through Skype sessions. We hold an annual Read In. We read picture books every day and end our day with a chapter book read aloud. We go beyond the curriculum to participate in The Global Read Aloud, March Book Madness, World Read Aloud Day, Mock Caldecott, and Poem in Your Pocket Day. We live and breathe reading moments into everything we do.

How do you make sure that the books your students have access to reflect the diversity of our world?

My number one goal as I continually build my classroom library is to add positive and diverse representations of my students and humankind beyond our classroom walls. It is vital that educators consider that diversity goes beyond race and ethnicity. Diversity includes religion, ability/disability, family structures, gender and sexual identity, culture, and more. I am inspired by the young people in front of me every day, and I reflect on this question: Do I have books in my classroom that are mirrors for every child? My Jewish and Muslim kids? The child whose parents are divorcing? The child with two moms? The child who immigrated? The child who has autism? The child who smashes gender norms? The child in foster care? My students’ lives and experiences motivate the new purchases I make for our library. Through my work on the state reading committee, social media, literary organizations and websites, and educator and author friends in my network, I learn about up and coming books, along with treasured titles. It is absolutely vital that the books we share and celebrate include #OwnVoices authors and represent more than a single story whenever possible.

Take a picture of something in your classroom and tell us the story behind it.

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This photo represents everything I love about my new morning routine this year. We call it “Spark & Shine!” After years of struggling with what to do for morning work, I heard about the concept of soft starts. This allows students the chance to start their day the way they want, collaboratively or individually. As adults, we start our day by grabbing coffee, chatting with colleagues, listening to music. Most of us don’t dive into work immediately, especially not with a packet of pre-assigned, undifferentiated work. If I need this daily warm up and wake up, wouldn’t the kids need it, too? Each day my students decide on a choice with the guidelines that they must “Read, Build, Create, Make, Design, Solve, or Explore”. Ever since starting Spark & Shine, my students are excited to arrive at school. They race into the room knowing they can build and create or have a quiet moment to themselves. Some things they have done this year: made slime, built a two-story cardboard castle, stop motion movies, made bath fizzies, origami, Tinkertoys, Legos, IO Blocks, dominoes track designs, cup stacking, making graphic novels, puzzles, spin art, and researching/observing animal bones found outside to identify an animal (as seen in the photo). This way of starting the day also gives me a chance to play and spend time with my kids, starting our day in a fun and positive way.

How do you encourage less-than-enthusiastic readers?

Encouraging our readers is all about patience, connection, and scaffolding. Often our students who view reading as a chore haven’t found a book yet in their reading
experience that grabs their heart, mind, and soul. It takes building a relationship with that student to research why they are resistant to reading. Is it because they need to hone their book selecting skills or reading habits? Are they yearning for a mirror book, but not finding it? Are life challenges causing them to neglect reading? Once I discover the root of the roadblock, it is much easier to seek out solutions. At any chance I get, I build up these students’ positive experiences around reading. I’ll buy a certain book I hope will hook them and select them as the first reader. Connecting a student to an author can often motivate them. Entice them with a shared reading to start a book, or a first chapter read aloud. Audiobooks and graphic novels are excellent ways to hook readers and bridge them to a world of reading.

What advice would you give new teachers?

I will never forget my first year of teaching. I remember the nerve-wracking interview process, getting the call that the job was mine, setting up my 7th grade classroom, and then thinking…wait, how do I do this?! How do I actually teach? When I look back on my first year, it was filled with countless mistakes, endless hours of prep and grading, and self doubt. But we all have to start somewhere, and teaching is an art and science that takes years to master, though we never do entirely. My advice to brand new teachers:

  1. Focus on relationships with your students first. With every single child. Academics second. It makes all the difference to invest in those bonds.
  2. Accept and embrace that you are always learning in this profession.
  3. Find your passion within the profession so you can do heartwork, not have-to-work.
  4. Read. Read. Read. And then read some more. And write.
  5. Self care, above all. Leave the grading at school. Don’t check your email before bed. Do things that make you happy and healthy. Go travel and have life experiences that fill you up. You’ll be a better teacher for it.

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You can find Aliza’s website at and connect with her on Twitter at @alizateach






Want more inspiration? Check out the other #MGEducators interviews and guests posts!




MG at Heart Writer’s Toolbox: Writing a Fallible Narrator

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Since the MG at Heart May pick is Every Shiny Thing, the book I co-wrote with Cordelia Jensen, we’re handling this writer’s toolbox post a little differently than usual. I’m here as both MG at Heart contributor and author to tell you about a challenge I faced when working on Every Shiny Thing and some strategies I used to address that challenge.

Every Shiny Thing has two alternating narrators, Lauren, whose chapters are in prose, and Sierra, whose chapters are in verse. I wrote Lauren’s sections, and Lauren…is not exactly a reliable narrator.

She isn’t unreliable on purpose. She doesn’t withhold information or tell lies. Greta Olson, who wrote an essay called “Reconsidering Unreliability: Fallible and Untrustworthy Narrators,” would categorize Lauren as fallible rather than untrustworthy. Fallible narrators, according to Olson, are “mistaken about their judgments or perceptions or are biased.” This is Lauren, for sure. She’s mistaken in some of her judgments and perceptions because she has some fundamental misbeliefs.

Lauren’s central misbelief is that her parents were wrong to send her older brother to a therapeutic boarding school for autistic teens because the school is not a good place for him. This misbelief leaves Lauren feeling frustrated and alone, and it leads her to question a lot of things about her parents and the privileged world she lives in, which sets the plot in motion.

But I wasn’t attempting to trick readers into believing Lauren’s misbelief along with her. One of the main things our editor brought up in our edit letter was the challenge of “toeing the line between what the reader knows to be true (that Ryan’s school is probably a good place) and what Lauren believes is true (that her parents are making a selfish mistake in sending him away).” Our editor went on to say, “It’s delicate, but I think you can do it.”

Delicate, indeed! So how did I try to accomplish this feat? Here are three strategies I used.

1.) I built in self-consciousness and desperation at the sentence level to hint at the uncertainty behind Lauren’s words.

Let’s look at the very beginning of the book, when Lauren reflects on what it was like to visit Ryan’s school for Family Weekend. She says:

There’s nothing harder than saying goodbye to Ryan.

It was hard enough back in August, when Mom and Dad first took him to his new school. Back then, I knew I’d miss him. And I was afraid that this fancy therapeutic boarding school way far away in the middle of nowhere, North Carolina, wasn’t the right place for him, even though Ry said he wanted to go, and Mom and Dad kept gushing about what a wonderful opportunity it was, and his old occupational therapist, Jenna, said you couldn’t find a better school for a teen on the autism spectrum.

But saying goodbye today, at the end of Family Weekend? This was worse. Way, way worse. Because now that I’ve seen the place for myself and seen how Ryan is there, I’m not just afraid it isn’t right. Now I know it’s not.

It was awful. Really, it was.

Here, I tried to convey the sense that Lauren has a lot of intense emotions she doesn’t know what to do with. Lauren uses repetition and short sentences that pile on top of each other, reflecting how urgently she wants to hold onto her misbelief despite some evidence to the contrary when she says, “This was worse. Way, way worse,” and, “It was awful. Really, it was.” Lauren also goes a bit overboard emphasizing just how certain she is with italics for words like “afraid” and “know.” And when she mentions reasons the school might not seem so bad, she often does so in long, breathless sentences, like the one in this passage about all of the people (Ryan included) who think the school is a good idea. It’s as if she’s rushing past the things that might seem positive as quickly as she possibly can.

2.) I allowed Lauren to admit details that contradict her misbelief…but then she either lets them pass without commentary or discounts them.

In addition to admitting all the people who think the school is a good idea, Lauren lists other aspects of the school that might seem positive to people who “aren’t paying close attention.” For instance, she admits, “It’s actually sort of beautiful, with purple-gray mountains in the distance and a long, winding driveway and super-green hills.” But then she moves right past that description to get to the things that aren’t a good fit for Ryan, in her mind.

Lauren also narrates moments that show how hard it is for her parents to say goodbye to Ryan even as she worries that they have sent him to the school because they think their lives will be easier if other people are taking care of him. For instance, when Lauren remembers that her mom was crying at the end of the weekend, she says, “For a fraction of a second, I felt sorry for her, but she’s the one who decided it was a good idea for Ryan to go to this terrible school, where he obviously doesn’t belong.” So there’s this split-second recognition that her mom is struggling with this transition and loves Ryan so much…but Lauren isn’t ready to accept that her parents are doing the best they can, so she immediately downplays that.

Basically, I tried to include plenty of clues for the reader to process, even though Lauren doesn’t let herself process them.

3.) I showed the source of Lauren’s misbelief so readers could understand where she was coming from.

I didn’t want readers to be so frustrated with Lauren’s misbelief that they would stop reading, so it was important to show that she had some good reasons for worrying.

Also in the first chapter, Lauren says, “The thing about Ry is, sometimes he goes along with things that make him feel awful because he wants to make other people feel good, and then it all gets to be too much, and he melts down.” Then she gives examples of other times Ryan tried to do what he thought other people wanted him to do and finishes, “So now he might just be sticking out boarding school because he thinks it’s important to Mom and Dad. And then there’ll be nobody around but Scott the Smug OT to comfort him when it’s all too much to stick out.” And in her second chapter, we find out that Ryan attended another school at home where the therapies were detrimental for him, and it took her parents a little while to realize that school was not a good fit.

These parts make it clear that Lauren’s worry stems from a deep affection for her brother and past experiences that have made her fears seem plausible. These insights into the valid reasons for Lauren’s not-so-valid belief help readers feel for her, I think.

I hope these strategies are helpful for other writers who are crafting fallible narrators, or for readers who are reading books that feature these kinds of characters. And if you read Every Shiny Thing with us this month, I’m sure you’ll notice lots of other ways Lauren’s fallibility comes through…some of which I likely didn’t do consciously. I’d love to hear about them if you do!

. . .

Our newsletter about Every Shiny Thing will go out on 5/28 and our Twitter Book Club Chat about the book will be on 6/5 at 8pm EST with the hashtag #mgbookclub. Hope you can join us!

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Laurie Morrison taught middle school English for ten years and is the author of two middle grade novels: EVERY SHINY THING, which she co-wrote with Cordelia Jensen, and UP FOR AIR, which comes out from Abrams/Amulet Books in spring of 2019. She has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives with her family in Philadelphia. She loves books for older middle grade readers, fresh-baked pastries, being outside, and the ocean.