How much easier it is to balance with the help of our neighbors.

As a librarian who teaches, my head is often a-swirl with new ideas for lessons, creative ways to use picture books, and thoughts about collaboration, curriculum and collection. I’ve developed ideas from reading the blogs, articles and tweets of other librarians and educators, roaming the aisles of the public library, and learning from my colleagues.

This weekend, however, I drew my inspiration from a yoga class and a hike. Although I wish I could claim to be in the class pictured to the left, that is unfortunately just a stock photo. My yoga class took place on a cold and blustery New England day. But the image remains the same. Substitute a spacious church meeting room with sunlight streaming in, participants wearing a few extra layers of clothing and you get the idea.

I love tree pose. Over the years, however, as my strength has diminished and my balance has gotten shakier, I have had to modify my stance. This weekend, however, when the yoga teachers instructed us to come together in a circle and provide support for each other, I could miraculously grow a beautiful tree unlike any I had in the last few years.This was my first ah-ha moment of the weekend. With a little support (educators sometimes refer to it as scaffolding), students can achieve so much more than they can working on their own. The strength of the yoga community held me up and I held them up as well. Even though I was having trouble on my own, I had something to contribute to the group.

Small, but powerful.

While hiking, I often get the opportunity to discover a hidden gem previously unbeknownst to me. Agassiz Rock, in Manchester-by-the-sea, Massachusetts is one such place. After a short climb up Beaverdam Hill, my friends and I came upon the large glacial erratic perched at the summit. One of the surrounding boulders, pictured here, was balanced and being held up by the strength of a much smaller rock placed just so. You can probably guess where I am going with this. With the help of its much smaller neighbor, this boulder has stood strong for the millennia (or at least a very long time). “Ah ha” I thought. “Sometimes support comes from something (or someone) that you least expect.” Even this (relatively) little rock played a supporting role in this geologic marvel. So, too, can even our youngest students provide assistance to each other in the wonderful process of learning.

Balance, strength and support. I intend to integrate this conceptual framework into my teaching. I’ll look for ways to draw on the strengths of my students. I’ll develop units with more opportunities for partnering and group work. I’ll acknowledge the little moments  that can often make such a huge difference in the success of a lesson.

And I will continue to be grateful (here’s my belated Thanksgiving contribution to the blogosphere) for the friends, family and colleagues who keep me balanced in this journey called life.


Teaching Bibliographic Citation


I love to teach bibliographies! No, really, I do! Every year, I am invited into the classrooms of the teachers on the fifth grade team to teach their students how to create the first formal bibliographies of their academic careers. I make a big deal out of it, both to grab their attention and to emphasize that this is a skill that will be useful for the rest of their learning lives.

Now, do I hear some of you clicking your tongues and wondering why I am teaching such an arcane topic to elementary students? With the availability of online citation generators, why bother teaching the “grammar” of bibliographies anyway? Hey, why teach kids how to add and subtract? They can use a calculator! Learn to read? Why bother. Just download a handy text-to-speech converter on your computer and pop on those headphones. Seriously though, I do believe that learning the why’s and wherefore’s of citing one’s sources is as important as the research itself.

The lesson begins with a show of hands. “How many of you have been to the movies and stayed after ‘The End’ was shown on the screen?” All hands are raised. “Tell me what comes next.” Most all students will provide the answer I am looking for-“The credits.” We then discuss the purpose of the credits and some of the examples. I usually let this part of the lesson linger longer than it needs to, as children want to share some of the more unique jobs featured–“Best Boy” and “Gaffer” being two of their favorites. Once this little digression is wrapped up we talk about how a bibliography is similar to the credits at the end of the movie, an analogy easy for them to understand.

The next show of hands is for participation in sports or dance. Again, this usually results in a unanimous response. By this time the students are wondering if all we are going to do is to talk about what we do in our free time. But I quickly bring them back to the world of education by comparing the rules of sports or dance to the rules of citations. We talk about how rules must be followed, even if it seems like there might be an easier way to do something. The examples I use are a sideline throw-in at a soccer game and second position in dance. Following the rules makes things fair and easier to follow. Learning the rules might be hard, but helpful in the long run.

Now it’s time to get to work. We start very simply with a citation for a book by a single author. First we break it down into the five elements. Then, using a title page projected onto the white board, we locate the title, author, publisher and city of publication. I very sincerely ask them to find the last element, the date. “Can you enlarge the image?” they ask. I do. No date. Finally, someone offers that it can usually be found on the other side of the title page. “Yes, the verso!” I cheer and I quickly provide that image so that we can complete stage one of the citation–gathering the information.

The next step is to transform our bibliographic notes into a bibliographic citation. I explain that it is simply a plug-in formula that need not be memorized as long as it is understood. As a class we then convert the “data” into a citation by applying the formula which I chant as a warm-up. “Last name, comma, first name period. Title, underlined, period. City of publication, colon. Publisher, comma. Date of publication, period.” Perhaps the hardest concept to communicate is what I call “reverse” indentation, but they get the hang of it eventually.

Before I set them off on their own, I check each individual’s work, give them a big round of applause and then tell them, “You are now ready to create your own citations!!” Working in pairs for support, they are given books (or copies of title pages and versos) and off they go. At the completion of this task, again, I make a big deal out of the fact that they just independently created their first bibliographic entries.

In follow-up mini-lessons, I teach other formats (Internet primarily), alphabetizing, and how to use “hanging indentation” in Word.

Practicing what I preach, the original inspiration from this lesson came from correspondence with another librarian over a decade ago. Here is the citation:

Hastings, Jeff. Email to the author. September 9, 2000.

Bibliographies are not glamorous, but with a little pizzazz, the lesson is fun and the kids get it. And that’s what my job is all about.

Common Core Correlation: English Language Arts: W.5.8 Recall relevant information from experiences or gather relevant information from print and digital sources; summarize or paraphrase information in notes and finished work, and provide a list of sources.


Read a little; write a little

Green eggs without ham? Elephant without Piggie? Ivy without Bean? A library blog without book recommendations? Inconceivable!

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While I hadn’t specificaly planned to feature book reviews here, the opportunity has presented itself. My school is migrating its webpages from one provider to another and as a result I will be losing some of the content from my old website. These book blurbs date from 2007 to 2010 but they feature some of my favorite teaching resources and read-alouds. So while you won’t find anything brand new here, if you follow my creed “Any book you haven’t read yet is a new book”, hopefully you will find a gem or two to add to your repertoire.

Today’s post features suggested titles for English Language Arts. Math, science and social studies will be covered in a future post.

Need inspiration or mentor texts to teach the writing process? Here are four great titles to get you started:

The Plot Chickens by Mary Jane and Herm Auch

In this pun-filled offering, book-loving hen, Henrietta, decides to write her own story. Writing advice is sprinkled throughout, including Rule Number Seven-“Make your story come alive by using all five senses.” Follow our spunky heroine through the writing and publishing process in this amusing picture book.

The Best Story by Eileen Spinelli

What does a good story need? Action, humor, pathos, romance? Watch the creative process flow through the eyes of our young protagonist and see what truly makes the best story.

Nothing Ever Happens on 90th Street by Roni Schotter

More writing advice is offered in this narrative about Eva, a young girl faced with writer’s block because “nothing ever happens on 90th Street”. With assistance from her helpful neighbors, Eva develops her story by asking “What if?”, observing carefully and finding the poetry in her words.

You Have to Write by Janet S. Wong

In a more serious piece, Janet S. Wong encourages struggling and reluctant writers to take the plunge even when they think they have nothing good to write about. Good writing doesn’t have to be about glamorous vacations or astounding talents. “Write about the fights. Write about the holes in your socks, your grandmother cracking her knuckles, your father snoring all night long.”

Don’t be stuck up a creek without a paddle! Use these books to introduce idioms and similes to your students.

Crazy Like a Fox by Loreen Leedy

Do you shake like a leaf when it is time to teach similes or are you as smart as a whip? Either way, this new title by Loreen Leedy is sure to make your lesson easy as pie.

Butterflies in My Stomach and Other School Hazards by Serge Bloch is an entertaining little book which illustrates some of the more common idioms using simple pen and ink drawings enhanced with photographs. (Picture a nice hunk of swiss cheese with a head and boots depicting the “Big Cheese”.)

My Teacher Likes to Say by Denise Brennan-Nelson will amuse with a line of super-glued students (“stick together”) and There’s a Frog in My Throat by Loreen Leedy is bound to please with “440 animal sayings a little bird told me”.

But if you would like to use these titles, you better hurry; the early bird always gets the worm!

Four Famished Foxes and Fosdyke by Pamela Duncan Edwards

Students will comprehend alliteration in a flash with this fabulous, funny fictional picture book. Mother fox cries “Farewell” and leaves for five days in Florida. What a fracas ensues! Pair with Edwards’ other offerings–The Worrywarts, Some Smug Slug and Clara Caterpillar.

Miss Alaineus: A Vocabulary Disaster by Debra Frasier

This book is a teacher’s dream come true. While it stands alone as a great read-aloud, it can best be used as a springboard for both vocabulary and spelling lessons. Each page features a spelling sentence in the margins as well as intriguing vocabulary words such as hypothesis, pasteurization and ancestor in the text itself. Additionally, the story offers a lesson about excessive pride and the courage it takes to face one’s mistakes.

Fly With Poetry and Leap Into Poetry both by Avis Harley

Looking for a new twist to teaching poetry during National Poetry Month? These two offerings, both written in A-B-C style, present a myriad of poetic forms to use as lesson introductions. From alliteration to zejel (a form of poetry popular in medieval Spain), from abecedarian (sounds like what it is!) to zoophabet (also sounds like what it is!), it is guaranteed you will discover an aspect of poetry new to you and your students.

I Search, You Search, We All Search for Research

Research is fun!

A student notes in his weekly journal home that he hopes he gets a chance to do more research in the future.

“When I read about it, I said, ‘Wow! That’s really interesting!’”

“I liked asking the questions and finding the answers.”

“Lots of the books had answers to our questions.”

In an earlier post entitled “How”,  I remarked upon the excitement of Mrs. Farrell’s third grade class as they explored the world of Native American cultures, spurred by a recent visit to the Fruitlands Museum in nearby Harvard, MA.

That excitement never waned over the three week study period as the children searched for information of interest to them. The buzz in the room was palpable. Here were actively engaged students, collaborating to build knowledge. The final product, a “Lift the Flaps Poster”, was the culminating work to present what they had learned to the school community.


The culminating project for the students’ research was to create a Lift-the-Flap Poster to share their discoveries with the school.

Research is nothing new in the classroom or the library. This project, however, was newsworthy from the start. Starting from the Common Core ELA Writing Standard: “Conduct short research projects that build knowledge about a topic” our original intention was to have students generate thick and thin questions about subjects of their own choosing in order to work on individual short research projects. Research would take place in both the library and the classroom. We began by introducing nonfiction conventions in mini-lessons. Another mini-lesson was devoted to locating information in a resource. We were ready!


After the trip to the museum, however, and recognizing that this early in the year group projects would be more supportive, Mrs. Farrell suggested we switch gears and narrow the subject area to native American culture while still allowing the children to generate their own questions. As you can see from the lead-in quotes, she made the right decision! This is the beauty of collaboration with a classroom teacher. She knows her students so well that she can tailor a project to meet them where they are.

Another aspect contributing to the success of this unit was the careful scaffolding during the research process. Resources were chosen with the developmental and literacy levels of the students in mind. During the first session of hands-on research we were fortunate to have five adults in the room (librarian, teacher, volunteers and aides) so that each group had guidance should the going get rough.

Before beginning the second session, we added one final mini-lesson–“The Researcher’s Chair”, based on “Anticipating Reader’s Questions” from Nonfiction Craft Lessons by Joann Portalupi and Ralph Fletcher. After modeling the process, several students were chosen to sit in the Researcher’s Chair. After reading their research question and preliminary answer to the class, they fielded questions from their classmates. The queries from the class were designed to help them clarify and expand their answers. The students then met in their work groups and continued this exercise so that every student had an opportunity to refine their research. The feedback gave them focus as they continued their research.

Culminating project presents research “answers” to the school community


Mrs. Farrell and I intend to continue this successful collaboration throughout the year. How can we not build on the enthusiasm of our budding researchers? And while the title of the post, which borrows from the ever popular phrase “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream”, may be a bit of a stretch, I look forward to many more enjoyable research experiences with her class and others in the school.

Students were fascinated with the dwellings of certain Southwest peoples






Melvil Who?

The immortal Melvil Dewey returns from the afterlife to lecture fourth graders about his life and achievements.

“Melvil who?”

That had best be my non-librarian followers asking that question! Those of us in the field, women especially, owe a lot to this brilliant but eccentric man of the 19th and early 20th centuries. So, fellow librarians, please, all together now, let’s enlighten the others with a chorus of  “Melvil Dewey, the Father of Modern Librarianship.”

Of course you may have already guessed that Melvil Dewey was the creator of the Dewey Decimal Classification System, a way of organizing library books that is still in use today by 95% of school and public libraries in the United States. What is lesser known about Dewey is that he also opened the first professional library school at Columbia College and proceeded to admit women despite Columbia’s insistence that they attend a separate school. Dewey prevailed and librarianship became a respected career for educated women.

Melvil Dewey speaks to a rapt audience of fourth graders

Interesting stuff, but of what relevance is this to elementary school students?

One of my teaching goals is to create independent library users—students who can use the online catalog to direct them to the right resource, in most cases a book, and then to use library directional signs and labels to find the book on the shelves. Do they really need to understand the Dewey Decimal System to find the book? No. But I believe that an understanding of classification and sorting will help them better understand the library in general, and if we can have fun with it, all the better.

So, on the day that I plan to introduce the Dewey Decimal unit, I arrange to be called to a meeting during library class. In my stead, back from the dead (his system immortalized him, didn’t it?), is Melvil, pacing back and forth, perpetually consulting his pocket watch, treating the students dismissively and in some cases, outright rudely, as he lectures them about his life, his passion for efficiency and his greatest achievement–the Dewey Decimal Classification System.  You could hear a pin drop in my normally chatter-filled library. Students do try to catch him (me) up in his lie—but the closet thespian in me stays in character and barrels full steam ahead until his allotted time on earth begins to run out and he exits the classroom just in time for me to return from my meeting. (Think Viola Swamp and Miss Nelson).

Dewey points, rather rudely I might add, to students with questions.

Now the fourth graders are intrigued and questions are flying. Teaching the DDS in the coming weeks won’t be so dull and boring, after all. We’ll practice sorting objects into Dewey’s ten categories. We’ll learn about the subject matter of each section and try to figure out why Dewey grouped things as he did. We’ll play guessing games, make paper airplanes, recite poetry and study maps.

And, believe it or not, a little bit of the Common Core can be thrown into the mix. One of the standards for fourth grade math is:

Understand decimal notation for fractions, and compare decimal fractions

While I won’t actually be teaching decimals, as we use the DDS we will be seeing the relations between numbers with decimals and will have practice using the concept of Base Ten.

 To my librarian friends, let your lessons come alive and try an impersonation or two. I don’t have rights to this concept. I actually borrowed this idea from a post on the LM_Net listserv from October 1998 which itself was based on an article in School Library Activities Monthly, April 1992. I have refined it and made it mine, but it’s there for the sharing.

To the rest of you, the next time you head to the library and find everything you are looking for conveniently grouped together, say thanks to Mel. He’d probably be too busy to reply, or just rude enough to offer a grunt in return. But he’d appreciate it. Even curmudgeons are grateful for a kind word or two.