…in the middle of the story…

Last week, I heard these words by Phil Callaway: “We live in the middle of the story.”

For whatever reason, these words struck a cord with me. We are where we are right now. The past has influenced us, yes. Yet we don’t know what lies ahead. We can plan and we can prepare, but life has a tendency to throw unexpected curve balls.

As the sun shines through the window, the sky a bright winter blue, I am reminded of my dad who appreciated each moment and truly lived in the present. Somehow, when I was a kid, he made our weekly shopping trips enjoyable and something to look forward to. Somehow, when he was losing his physical abilities, he found ways to appreciate what he was still able to do. Somehow, as a quadriplegic, he found joy and pleasure in what we, his family, were doing.

So today, I choose to live in the middle of the story. I choose to enjoy each moment as best I can… to enjoy the work I do and the people I meet… to enjoy the company of loved ones. I choose to enjoy the day. Tomorrow will come but today is already here.

“We live in the middle of the story.”

This seemingly simple eight-word sentence led me to this writing and these thoughts. What words might you share to prompt your students’ writing?

Lift to the Level of Books

The other night I was speaking to a gym full of parents about the differences between Read Alouds and Home Reading (and the importance of both). I explained that Read Alouds enable parents and teachers to expose children to books that they may not yet be able to read on their own. What’s more, they provide an opportunity for children to find joy in the experience of reading. Beverly Cleary once said, “Children should learn that reading is a pleasure, not just something that teachers make you do in school.”

Reading aloud–at home and at school–can certainly help children find joy in reading. Daniel Pennac says, “A teacher who reads out loud lifts you to the level of books. He gives you the gift of reading!”

Pennac describes two potential student fears connected to reading: the fear of not understanding and the fear of length. These fears often lead to reluctance and avoidance. Thankfully, by reading out loud, we can nurture a love of reading, taming and tackling student fears.

A New Favourite

Have you ever had a chill run through your body and felt goosebumps form during a musical performance, perhaps when the singer or musician hits that note?

Recently, on my way home from the theatre, I wondered, Is there a word for that? There sure is!


I was thrilled to discover a word for this phenomenon!

In the classroom, I encourage students to collect favourite words. They might like a word because of how it sounds (smithereens), because of its meaning (serenity), or because of associations or memories with a word (malarkey – When playing cards, my dad used to say “Who dealt this malarkey?”).

Reading The Word Collector by Peter H. Reynolds is a wonderful way to begin this practice in your classroom. From there, be creative! Where will students collect their words? A literacy notebook? A shared bulletin board space? As part of an art project?

Word collecting can help students pay more attention to words when reading and writing, increase vocabulary, and lead to discussions about structure, meaning, origin, and context.

Remember, “A word after a word after a word is power.” Margaret Atwood

Traveling the World through Books

Last Friday afternoon I read aloud to seven classes: not part of a lesson, simply an opportunity to share a love of books and reading. A short fifteen minutes in each class. Of course my book choice was deliberate. And the conversations surrounding the read alouds? Pure joy.

I read A Lion in Paris to the grade four classes. We arrived in Paris at Gare de Lyon. And then as we journeyed with Lion, we enjoyed the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, we even imagined the taste of a Parisian baguette. We climbed Montmartre to see Sacre-Coeur and saw our reflection in the River Seine.

In one class, after I finished reading the book, I said, “I just love how we can travel across the world through books.” A little girl piped up, almost interrupting me with her excitement. “I know! It’s like we can just go there. My mom and I get library books every week and we can go anywhere in our books! Like anywhere.”

Ah, yes. In a short fifteen minutes we talked about Paris, about dreams, about emotion, about life. As Daniel Pennac describes a moment like this: “He [or she] discovered the paradoxical virtue of reading: it takes us out of the world so we may find meaning in it.”

Abandon That Book

I have a problem… I feel the need to finish reading every book I start. Anyone else?

Today I am proud to announce that earlier this week I abandoned a book! I was over 70 pages into the 400-page book but I just wasn’t into it. I had actually been excited to read it because it was by an author whose other work I enjoy. And yet this book, nothing. Wasn’t doing it for me. Felt more like a chore than a pleasure.

Here’s the funny thing. I often talk to students about book abandonment. I reassure them that it’s okay to stop reading something if they’re not enjoying it. After all, if we want them to read, why would we want them to struggle through and feel like it’s a chore as I did. I would much rather they choose something else and find pleasure in what they are reading.

So why do I have different standards for myself? Good question! But, I’m learning. And I’m happy to report that I’m now deep into two other books and enjoying both immensely. If I had continued the other, I doubt I would have read much this week…

Talking to Learn

If I were to walk by your classroom, whose voice would I hear? Yours alone? Yours and a handful of students? Or a sea of voices and a buzz of energy? The answer would be different at different times of the day, of course. However, it is essential that our students are talking much of the day: to articulate their thinking, to share opinions, and to ask questions.

Fostering equitable opportunities for all student voices to be heard is vital. We don’t only want to hear from those most eager to talk. We want to hear from everyone. By creating opportunities for students to turn and talk throughout the day, we place value on talking to learn. By encourage and listening to those more reluctant to share, we show that we value all voices in our classroom.

In her latest book, The Heart-Centered Teacher, Regie Routman says, “For optimal relationships and optimal learning, the quality and depth of conversations matter–a lot.” She continues, “Let’s prioritize creating a classroom environment that puts conversation at the heart and center of teaching and learning.”

A Gift of Literacy

This season, consider giving the gift of literacy. A book to a loved one–of course! But, if you’re able, also consider a donation to one of these literacy organizations who work to empower those in our communities.

Centre for Family Literacy

Edmonton Public Library – Ready. Set. READ!

Young Alberta Book Society

Project Adult Literacy Society

Not from Alberta? Check out United for Literacy or search for literacy organizations in your community.

“A book is a gift you can open again and again.” Garrison Keillor

Learning from Dickens

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens was first published in 1843: a classic Christmas story, read and reread, told and retold. The Citadel Theatre puts on this production every year for good reason.

With students, I use Adam McKeown’s version retold for young readers: fantastic for teaching both transformation stories and character development. Dickens’ 180-year-old work of art also includes a literary device that has found its way into the new grade 5 language arts curriculum in Alberta: a flash forward. Dickens’ use of a flash forward is an engaging, effective example to share with students. Ebenezer Scrooge visits the future with The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come where he is shown what lies ahead if he doesn’t make changes to his life. This flash forward is instrumental to the story, leading to Scrooge’s ultimate transformation.

Read and enjoy, yes! But also consider the craft of the writer…

Different Worlds

November 9th was the 22nd anniversary of my dad’s death. On that day, my closest childhood friend sent me a text including this picture of an apple. Her words, “I’m thinking of you and your dad today.” I was immediately brought to happy tears.

Here’s the connection. My father–my incredible father–carved a picture in my nightly, bedtime apple. Imagine a miniature pumpkin carving. It now seems unbelievable but he did this for many years. He would typically carve out the pieces and then put them back so we would have to remove the tiny pieces to discover the picture. I loved this ritual. And yet, as a child, I did not fully appreciate the time and care he put into this routine.

In addition to my childhood friend who experienced the apple carvings during our many sleepovers, my cousin recently shared a similar story with my mom. As a child, he was once staying with us and feeling sad and lonesome, apart from his parents. My dad carved a picture in an apple to lift his spirits. I didn’t remember this at all. I also didn’t realize that my cousin has since done this for his own children with my dad in mind.

My dad’s intention: to bring us joy. And yet, decades later this ritual still means so much. A legacy indeed.

I can’t help but think about this experience as compared to some of our students’ experiences. For some, the simple presence of a father, or an apple, is a blessing in and of itself. Sometimes, the complex, heart-breaking situations force learning to be secondary at best. We have students in our classrooms who crave attention from a caring adult–any attention. We can’t carve them bedtime apples but our words, our acceptance, and those hugs may mean more than we might ever know…

Stir it up!

We have season’s tickets to Broadway Across Canada. On Friday, we saw Hadestown. Before the show, I ran into someone I went to high school with. We started talking about previous shows and we shared similar opinions about most. However, we discovered one performance that she (and her friends) did not enjoy while we loved it.

This conversation reminded me of how important it is to read a variety of books to our students. Not everyone has the same tastes. By reading across the genres, by ensuring we choose books with diverse main characters, by considering the topics (even within fiction), we will more likely engage every student.

Yes, read your favourites… but be sure to try something new in between!