There is something about being in a house full of creative people.  People who totally get that stories are important and that characters are real. And whether the house is full of raucous conversation or the quiet of fingers on keyboards, there is something magical about the energy that buzzes around.  I’m on retreat with a bunch of writer friends through tomorrow and am so very, very thankful for that.

Rainbow Dangling from a Cloud

It’s been beautiful and sunny here the past two days, so I didn’t expect to see this when I looked out at Lake Champlain tonight.

The showers that moved into Vermont this afternoon left us dry but with a stunning view.

*This post made with sincere apologies to   in rainy Maine…

More Thoughts on Summer Reading

Earlier this week, I posted a blog entry called In Defense of Summer Reading, and I love the conversation it’s sparked. Some more thoughts:

Author   shares her thoughts on this topic in a post today, The Guiltless Pleasure of Summer Reading.

My friend   , a future librarian finishing up her graduate work right now, writes:

Kids have personalized visits with their guidance counselor, with the school nurse, etc. Why not with the librarian? At the beginning of the year, when a librarian is getting to know their students, they can hand out a questionnaire about reading habits: What is/are your favorite book(s)? Who is/are your favorite author(s)? What is/are your favorite genre(s)? It will help develop reader advisories. Before the summer, the librarian can set up one-on-one meetings with students and give them some personalized summer recommendations based on the students’ preferences, interests, and abilities and that are available at the local public library. Inform students how to borrow even more titles through interlibrary loan. Put a graphic organizer on the school website that students and their parents can access from any location. Students can then fill in brief details about a few of the books they read. Even better, make an online form for the students to submit the details immediately. For super-ambitious librarians, create a wiki and allow for (monitored) discussion of books. When the students return in the fall, the librarian can teach students to create their own booktalks to share with the rest of their class in the library.

(Don’t you so wish Stephanie could be your librarian?)

I mentioned that the "One Book to Read This Summer" project that prompted my students’ list was the brainchild of fellow English teacher & writer  .  She shared her 7th graders’ list of summer reading recommendations here.

Author Janni Lee Simner ( ) liked Cindy’s idea so much she’s started her own version.  She’s inviting us all to comment on this post, with our own summer reading recommendations (any age, any genre), and she’ll share the list later on.

Donalyn Miller, author of the amazing teacher resource THE BOOK WHISPERER, linked to my summer reading post and shared her blog post from around the same time last year, "A Tale of Two Tables."

And finally, there was this response to my passionately stated position that kids have the right to choose books for themselves, from   …

OKAY ! OKAY ! I’m soooo sorry for hiding Judy Blume. Love, Mom

(I fully expect my dog-eared copy of Forever to arrive in the mail any day now.)

Happy Summer Reading!

In Defense of Summer Reading Freedom

best tracker

I am a huge fan of reading.  And a huge fan of summer.

But I am not a fan of Summer Reading Requirements for kids.

That’s not to say I don’t think kids should read in the summer time.  I do.  At my house, you’ll find us all settling in with our books & sweaty glasses of iced lemonade at about the same time every afternoon.  So if that’s your idea of a summer reading program, then forget what I said about not being a fan.  It’s that other kind of Summer Reading I’m talking about.  The kind with capital letters and mandatory lists.

I’m a teacher, so I understand the reasons that some schools hand out lists of what has to be read over the summer months.  They have to do with testing and accountability and achievement gaps and the list goes on and on. But I think there are much more compelling reasons for schools to keep their standardized noses out of kids’ summer reading.

  • One-size-fits-all lists are a recipe for failure.  Kids in the same grade read at wildly different reading levels, and handing them all the same book as required reading is like giving them all the same size sneakers, no matter how big their feet might be. There is no “perfect book” for seventh graders or for tenth graders or fifth graders.  Not even the one that the teacher loves so much.  The reality is that any one-size-fits-all book requirement is going to be too easy or too little for some kids, too much and too difficult for others.  If our goal is to create readers, this is not the way to go about it.
  • People have rights as readers.  Think about it.  You’re probably looking forward to some summer reading yourself, right?  I’ll bet you have some titles in mind, and I’ll bet that some books will pop up over the next few months, too — books that your friends recommend or books you read about online.  But wait….  On June 24th, someone gives you a list.  “This is what you’ll be reading this summer,” they say. “Okay?”
No.  Not okay.  Not even if it’s a list of, say, twenty titles and I get to pick any five I want.  Twenty titles? Out of all the books in the world?  I get to choose from these twenty?  Really?
  • Summer is a time when our kids actually have the luxury of extra reading time, and if they’re passionate about what they’re reading, they can read for hours on end.  We can’t do that in school (as much as it’s a lovely thought).  But summer readers only show that kind of passion when they have choices.  As teachers — and parents — we need to respect those choices.
I live in a fairly small community, and sometimes, parents approach me in the dentists’ office or the waiting room at ballet lessons to talk about concerns over their kids’ reading.

“I’ve been wanting to talk with you about Jane,” they’ll whisper, leaning forward as if they’re about to confess her addiction to heroin.  “She reads those…those….Clique books. What should I do?”

“Get the rest of the series for her,” I’ll say.  “The library has all of them.”

I’ve had this conversation more times than I can count, with slight variations.  You can substitute graphic novels, Gossip Girls, R.L. Stine, Manga, or any number of books that kids love, that their parents have judged as less than literary.  And sure…there’s an argument that those books are the crack of the reading world.  But guess what?  An addiction to reading is what we’re after here.  And rabid, passionate reading can mean huge growth for kids’ literacy. I was reminded of that this week, grading my English final exam, a reflective essay in which students discuss their growth as readers.  One student wrote:

I used to read mega-slow, and by mega, I mean ultra-mega slow. But then I picked up the Clique series and it’s like everything changed. I couldn’t put down that book at all. So I kept reading and then I noticed I was reading at least 60 pages in one class period.

That’s what we in the education world call fluency.  And it’s an essential element of literacy — one that we can’t always develop as well as we’d like in the classroom because it takes time.  Lots and lots of time reading books that kids love. Books that might or might not be on that Summer Reading list with the capital letters.

So what’s the alternative?  If you don’t send home a list of classics and give a test in the fall, how will you know kids are reading?  Well…you won’t.  But the truth is that half of them aren’t reading that list of classics anyway, so there’s not all that much to lose by going with a more progressive summer reading model.  Ask parents to commit to a daily reading time at home.  Teach kids how to request the newest YA titles through inter-library loan.  And if you really like lists, what about letting kids make their own, based on your suggestions and recommendations from classmates?

There are some great summer reading idea lists floating around – here’s one that Josie Leavitt over at ShelfTalker pulled together from reader suggestions after lamenting the state of summer reading lists. And here’s a list of recommendations from  at Not-Your-Mother’s-Book-Club.

And one more…courtesy of my students.  I love teacher Cindy Faughnan‘s end-of-the-year assignment and stole it last year to use with my own 7th graders.  I use their suggestions of “The One Book to Read This Summer” to make a list of recommendations that I send home in their portfolios.

Twitter, Teaching, & Totalitarianism

I’ve always been a fan of technology and its potential to help people learn and collaborate.  I’ve been thinking for a while about social networking and education, and how it’s probably not such a great idea for schools to simply block sites like Facebook & Twitter and pretend they don’t exist, rather than teaching kids how to use them responsibly.  I’m hoping to do some collective tweeting with my classes in the fall as a way to model effective, responsible use of social media.  I’ve been on Twitter as @KateMessner for a while, but I’ve set up a special account, @TweetK12, to talk with other educators interested in the concept of using Twitter in the classroom.  Feel free to follow & join in that conversation if you’d like.  I’m working on a proposal to present to our district technology coordinator for approval right now.

This past week, I’ve also been lamenting the fact that our regular classes are over — and that I didn’t have the opportunity to talk with my students about the way the world is changing right before their eyes…on Twitter.

Even if you aren’t on Twitter, you’ve probably heard the news reports of how protesters in Iran are using it to overcome government censors, to organize and share news and images of the demonstrations with one another and with the world.  If I were still teaching this week, we’d be talking about the history of uprising, thinking back to Thomas Paine and our reading of Laurie Halse Anderson’s CHAINS and how Isabel had to hide her illicit copy of Common Sense.  We’d talk about the efforts that those in power have always made to control the flow of information.  Totalitarian regimes, in particular, use isolation as a weapon against their people. 

Only now it’s not working.  Iranian protesters are using 21st century communication tools to circumvent government filters, and people around the world are using those same tools to help them – changing the time zones in their profiles to Tehran to help shield those tweeting from Iran, even showing support by tinting their avatars green, the color that’s come to symbolize the Iranian opposition.

John Green talks about all this much more eloquently today at his blog, Sparks Fly Up, summing up with this:

Twitter is not about what you had for breakfast, or Khloe Kardashian, or me. It’s about evening the playing field.

Exactly.  How the story of #iranelection will end is anyone’s guess, but I believe the world is a different place than it was just a week ago. A place that’s a little less safe for governments that deny human rights, and a place where people living under those governments feel a little less alone.

Champlain Quadricentennial Book Club at LCMM

I had a fantastic experience at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum this weekend.  Museum Educator Sarah Lyman emailed me a few months ago with an invitation.  Would I like to participate in a book club for Champlain and the Silent One hosted at the museum?  Kids would read the book along with their parents, then come to the museum on the weekend of the Native American Encampment to talk about it and learn more about what Silent One’s life might have been like.  Would I be interested in participating?  You bet! 

The reenactors who took part in the weekend were fabulous educators and spent lots of time showing hands-on displays of everything from cooking utensils to weapons they’d set up on the museum grounds. The kids who attended had great comments and questions during my presentation, and the group was small enough that we actually got to have a discussion — something you can’t really do when you’re talking in front of an assembly of 300 kids.  We were still chatting away when the next group started filing into the auditorium for a screening of Dr. Fred Wiseman’s Quadricentennial film 1609: The Other Side of History, so we moved our party outside and talked some more during book signing time.

I was especially impressed with some of the younger readers, or listeners as the case may be, who enjoyed the book as a read-aloud with their parents and older siblings.  They had great observations, too, and reminded me that when we write a book and send it out into the world, we can put whatever age range we want on the cover, but that book will find readers of many ages — younger and older than perhaps we’d intended — and some of those unintended readers bring wonderful new perspectives on a story we thought we knew inside and out.

This was the first in a series of summer Quadricentennial events on my calendar.  I’ll be reading & signing books at the South Burlington  Barnes & Noble from 4-6pm on Friday, July 24th.  It’s a "Lake Champlain Weekend" there;  right after my event, Mike Winslow of the Lake Champlain Committee will be signing his new book, Lake Champlain: A Natural History

On July 25th, I’ll be speaking at the League of Vermont Writers summer picnic, along with poet Daniel Lusk, whose new collection of poems explores what’s under Lake Champlain’s surface.  I’m intrigued by this idea and can’t wait to hear his talk.

On July 29th, I’ll be giving a presentation for kids & families at the Alburg Public Library.  And in August…I’ll be home, enjoying my family and summer and the lake, and gearing up for a busy autumn when The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z is released September 1st. 

Five Things on a Friday

1. I’m Skyping with a before-school book club in Vermont this morning!  Five avid fifth grade readers are meeting me on the computer in a little while to talk about THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z.  They read the ARC to help me with a special project, and I’m looking forward to our chat.  

2. Gianna Z has her own Facebook page now.  Won’t you stop by and be her friend?

3. One of my FB and real life friends, author Mitali Perkins, has a fascinating discussion about race and class in THE HUNGER GAMES up on her blog now.  

4. Have I mentioned that I only have 10 days of school left, counting today?  As bittersweet as it is to say goodbye to this year’s crew of 7th graders, I’m so looking forward to a summer that includes a retreat with some wonderful writer friends, a trip to NY to meet with my Walker publicist and editor and my editors at Scholastic, and my first ALA Conference.  Yay!

5.  It is raining today, which is…well…I’ve had about enough of the rain, even though my garden has probably enjoyed it.  I’m hoping this afternoon might bring one of these…

Hope your day is full of colors.  Have a great weekend!

This is why I write.

This colorful collection of homemade cards arrived in the mail today, from some kids whose school I visited a few weeks ago.  The artwork they created in response to my two Lake Champlain historical novels is gorgeous, and their letters made me smile over and over again.

If you’re a writer, you know that certain parts of our amazing job can be tough, particularly the waiting parts.  Waiting for news on a project. Waiting for reviews to come in on a new book.  Waiting to find out if people like it.  And a bit of worrying, too.  I was having one of those waiting, worrying days, until I saw all these gorgeous drawings, read about the kids’ favorite scenes, and finally, read this from Lily.

If Lily is full of excitement to read, then I am one happy author. How do you worry with a fat exclamation point like that staring you in the face? 

Thanks, Lily, Tenzin, Ben, Konner, Kylei, Lawrence, Riana, Carson, Gooey, Rebecca, Emma, Cameron, Lauren, Danny, Madison, Dennis, Cedric, and Caiden. I love that you took the time to write and to draw the pictures you saw while you were reading.

There’s something about a science fair…

I love the elementary school science fair.  I have plans to sneak back in, even when my kids are grown, just for the pleasure of watching the baking-soda-and-vinegar volcanoes erupt.  There’s something magical about science fair night…when everyone is herded outside for the messiest of the demonstrations, and the grownups are required to just stand around and watch helplessly while things explode.  I find it delightful.

There were volcanoes galore tonight, earthquake demonstrations, solar system models, a trained mouse, some really terrific rockets, and a most spectacular Mentos/Diet Coke display…

We all clapped and cheered. And if I ever write a book about a science fair, you can bet your Mentos this scene will make an appearance.