A poem for my daughter, who steals books before I’ve finished reading

A poem for my daughter, who steals my books before I’ve finished reading

(with a nod to William Carlos Williams, who probably swiped books, too, in his day)

This is just to say
I have absconded with the book
That you were reading
(and really enjoying, too)
and claimed it for my own.
Forgive me.
I was starved for a story,
and its voice was so crisp,
its plot so juicy…
I am still licking sweet details
from my thieving fingers.

TED Talks in the Classroom: The Great Power of Failure

TED released two of my favorite talks from the 2012 conference this week — both with important messages about the power of failure in science and innovation. Both Regina Dugan of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and Donald Sadoway, an inventor and MIT professor, shine a bright light on the power of experimentation and the courage to fail.


Pair these talks in the classroom, and ask students these questions:

What role did failure play in the success of both Regina Dugan and Donald Sadoway?

How has failure played a beneficial role in your life?

Do you think schools give students enough opportunities to experiment, fail, and try again?

What would you do if you knew that failure was impossible? (from Regina Dugan’s TED talk)

And one more talk on failure – from one of the most successful writers of all time –


And finally…an article to share. How might the emphasis on success in standardized testing be affecting students’ ability to experiment and learn?

Thank you, McConnellsville Elementary School!

My week started with an early-morning drive through the mountains on Monday, for an author visit at McConnellsville Elementary School in Camden, NY.  My author visit kicked off  the school’s Parents as Reading Partners celebration, and the day started…with dancing in the gym!  The McConnellsville teachers (and the principal, too!) really know how to bust a move. They got the kids super-excited for two weeks of special reading activities. What a wonderful way to start the day!  Side note: If the kids meet their reading goals these two weeks, they get to turn their principal into a “human popcorn ball.”  I so wish I were going to be around to see this!

Many students in the assemblies had read MARTY MCGUIRE or THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z., and they’d all read SEA MONSTER’S FIRST DAY with their librarian.  They knew that this book was inspired by Lake Champlain’s legendary lake monster, Champ, so they also learned a little about the legend and voted on a bulletin board… “Do You Think Champ is Real?”  The verdict? Overwhelmingly yes!

From left to right, that’s librarian Shelley DeLosh, me, and reading chair AnnMarie Knight.

I told the kids my story of seeing something big and unidentified in the lake years ago (we still don’t know what it was – but it was 20-25 feet long…and swimming) and then we turned our attention to the woods to talk about OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW.  I do a puppet show when I share this book with younger readers, and I always have so much fun.

Here’s one of my terrific helpers, pointing out a hiding snowshoe hare in OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW.

McConnellsville’s older readers were excited about my newest book, EYE OF THE STORM, so I read them the first chapter and then left behind a copy for the school library.

Thanks, McConnellsville Elementary School – I was truly honored to be part of your reading celebration!

TED Talks in the Classroom: Awele Makeba on the Stories that Empower Us

The TED Team launched a new initiative this week — TED-ED, focused on sharing short, dynamic videos for classroom and lifelong learning. The initial launch is modest — just a handful of videos. But they’re engaging and concise and really perfect for including in lessons.

Here’s an example — Awele Makeba is a storyteller from Oakland, California who was part of the recent TED 2012 session called “The Classroom,” along with me and a bunch of other storytellers of different kinds, who teach in different ways.  Her talk is about the power of stories — how they shape us, and how we, in turn, can shape the world.  If you’ve read this book…

…you’ll have a special appreciation for Awele’s story.

Classroom Connections:





Before Rosa Parks, There was Claudette Colvin”  from NPR

An interview with Rosa Parks


From Scholastic, “Rosa Parks: How I fought for civil rights”

Awele’s website

For a really fascinating classroom conversation, pair Awele’s TED Talk with this one from Bryan Stevenson, about race, poverty, privilege, and justice in our own times.

How far have we come as a nation? And where do we go from here?

Six Lessons I Learned as a Speaker at TED

Two months ago, I got an email that simultaneously thrilled and terrified me – I’d been selected to speak at the TED2012: Full Spectrum as part of a session called The Classroom.  After two months of frantic preparation – talk-writing and graphics-making and question-emailing – I flew out to Long Beach last week and checked into the Hyatt next to the performing arts center where the conference is held. It was an amazing week, full of insight, creativity, and courage, and I know that I’ll be processing for months to come. I’ve heard people say that it’s impossible to come away from a TED conference as quite the same person you were when you left home, and I think that’s true. It’s hard to be in the presence of such incredible thinkers and world changers without hoping to do a little more for the world, too.  So with that in mind, here are six lessons I learned at TED, from the light-hearted to the life-changing…

1.  Don’t leave your badge on the coat rack.

This is important if you hope to learn anything else at all, because without it, they will not let you in.  Not even if your face is on a great big poster in the lobby.  True story.

During the Monday rehearsal session, I had a chance to run through my talk on stage, with the microphone and my visuals and everything except the audience. When the AV crew helped me with the mike, they hung my TED Conference badge on the coat rack backstage.  When my rehearsal was over, they came out to the stage to help me take off the mike, and I left. Without my badge. I only got two steps out the door before I realized, but as soon as I turned around to go back in, the security guard who’d just watched me walk out asked to see my badge. I explained that I left it backstage, and as I was doing so, a nice TED staffer came along and offered to escort me back to get it. That was good enough for the first three security officers we met – but not for the last one, who detained me in a hallway while the terrific TED guy went to find my badge for me.  Silver lining: I felt very safe and secure all the rest of the week.

2.  Introduce yourself and make friends.

I knew this from way back in kindergarten, of course, but somehow, I was worried that it would be different at TED, in a sea of CEOs and venture capitalists. Not so – and while I spent a good part of the week with the other educators who were part of The Classroom session, I also met some mighty nice Google engineers, writers, magicians, researchers, futurists, film makers, artists, CEOs, angel investors, and social scientists.  You hear a lot about “making contacts” at TED, and I supposed I made some of those, too. But the best part of the week? Knowing that I shared this experience with some like-hearted people who will be friends long after I’ve lost track of my conference badge.

3.  Be brave.

The most moving talks I heard at TED2012 had a kind of raw honesty about them. Brene Brown spoke about vulnerability and what happened after her original TEDx talk on that topic.  Susan Cain talked about being an introvert at her childhood camp and told to put her books away and socialize.   Bryan Stevenson gave an incredibly challenging and honest talk about race, poverty, privilege, and justice.  New Hampshire teacher Angie Miller spoke about the box of primary documents she keeps as a record of her life – including the not-so-positive letters from parents, alongside the glowing ones.  Bravery takes many different forms, but it always inspires the people around you to be a little more courageous, too.

4. It’s okay to be afraid.  Because courage isn’t the opposite of fear; it’s what you do even though you’re kind of scared.

On the day of our speaker briefing, TED host Chris Anderson spoke to a room full of speakers who would take the stage over the next four days.  Some of us looked more anxious than others, but there we were – the preparation was over (except for a few more late-night practices in the hotel room!) and it was time to do this amazing thing we’d been invited to do.

“Let a thousand experiments bloom,” Chris told those of us who were clustered in the front few rows of that theater that would soon hold 1500. “Be proud of what you’ve prepared and how you do it.”

My new friend Cesar Kuriyama, who spoke about his plan to record one second of every day of his life on video, mentioned to Bill Nye that he was nervous. Bill assured him this was okay. “If you weren’t nervous, it wouldn’t be worth doing.”

5. Never underestimate the power of spectacular failure.

 If there’s one big idea I took away from TED, it was this. Story after story from people who took the stage were stories of failure.  Donald Sadoway from MIT talked about the liquid metal battery he and his students have invented – and he included the stories about how it didn’t work, before it did work.  Andrew Stanton, the creator of Toy Story and WALL-E, shared a scene he had originally envisioned for the opening of Toy Story.  It didn’t work and didn’t make the cut.  And Regina Dugan, the head of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, asked us this: What would you do if you knew that failure was impossible?  Without failure, there is no creativity.  There are no aerial robots, no new energy prospects, no stories at all. The only way to learn to fly, she told us, is to fly.

6.  Regular people can change the world.

I don’t care if it’s a cliché. It’s true. Speaker after speaker who took the stage at TED showed that regular people with extraordinary passion and courage can do seemingly impossible things.  This video, remixed based on the first three days of the TED conference, captures that feeling for me perfectly.

 Other speakers, it turns out, learned a lot at TED, too. Check out Brene Brown’s thoughts here – and more “Lessons from TED Speakers”  links on the TED blog.

Why you’re never too old for a read-aloud

Last night, my daughter and I gathered a pile of books to prepare the serious business of choosing our next bedtime read-aloud.  It’s not a decision we make lightly; this is a book that will bring us together and linger in both our thoughts every night for a while.  It can’t be too scary or too sad.  (When we read THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN, wonderful as it was, we had to read parts during the day, because who wants to wake up with those red, puffy, crying eyes?)  We settled on SHAKESPEARE’S SECRET by Elise Broach for right now and Rebecca Stead’s FIRST LIGHT is on deck in the book-cubby that hangs from her bed.

My daughter’s been reading voraciously on her own  for years, and occasionally when I mention to a parent that we read aloud every night, I see raised eyebrows. Why read aloud to a kid who’s been tackling Harry Potter on her own since first grade?   But I believe read-alouds have special powers.  They do. Powers to bring us together and create a shared reading experience that’s different from the one we have, even if we’re reading the same novel on our own, at the same time.

That’s why I’m a huge advocate of reading aloud to older students in schools, too.  When I taught 7th grade English, we always had a read-aloud book.  Sometimes, all my classes read the same title, but other times, they voted by class and came up with vastly different choices that suited their collective personalities. One group of classes chose OUT OF MY MIND by Sharon Draper, SCRAWL by Mark Schulman, GIRL, STOLEN by April Henry, and BREADCRUMBS by Anne Ursu — four titles that really couldn’t be more different from one another. All four were perfect for the group that chose them.

Many older students who are struggling readers have fallen out of love with stories.  Ask a preschool class, “Who loves to read stories?”  Every hand goes up.  But ask that same question to a group of 5th graders, 7th graders, 9th graders…and you’ll see the numbers dwindle as the kids get older. Somewhere along the way, our kids who struggle have learned that reading is hard work — and often, hard work that they’re not especially good at. That makes it hard to love a story.


Unless someone shares one with you aloud, with no strings attached, no test at the end, and that someone reads with expression and does all the voices.  Teachers of older students have the power to give stories back to struggling readers, to reintroduce books as a joy rather than a struggle.  It’s such a powerful thing to see.

A few years ago, a guidance counselor stopped by my 7th grade classroom one morning to let me know that one of my kids was having a particularly rough day and probably wouldn’t make it through class. When he arrived, I could tell he wasn’t himself, and he came up to me right away to tell me he was leaving for the study room so he wouldn’t get in trouble.

“I can write you a pass to go if you want,” I said, “but we’re reading CHAINS. And we’re at that good part. Do you want to give it a try and see how it goes?”

He nodded and went to his seat, and I kept an eye on him as I read. I watched the story change his afternoon. I watched his hands unclench and his face relax, and watched him leave in a better place than he was when he came. And it wasn’t my doing; it was Isabel and Curzon, I think, who made him feel like things might be okay, and it was those funny British soldier wives who made him laugh.  I saw him later in the day, too, and he still seemed to be doing all right.  I wasn’t surprised.  Stories stay with us.  They nurture us, long after the reading is through. That’s why you’re never too old for a read-aloud.

TED2012: Full Spectrum – Photos from a Magical Week

The TED Stage is a place I never imagined I’d be…so while I was in Long Beach last week, I made it a point to appreciate every minute of every day, and I took lots of photos. Here are some that I hope will give you an idea what an amazing and surreal experience it was…

A red carpet led to the door of the Long Beach Performing Arts Center.  And inside…

Giant posters of all the speakers loomed over the TED lobby. This was a little scary.

And speaking of scary things…

This glowing hand offered me an apple when I opened the door to my room at the Long Beach Hyatt late Sunday night.  I made it past the scary apple-hand and was comforted by checking out the contents of the famous TED gift bag before I went to bed.

Monday was rehearsal day.  It was great to have the opportunity to stand on the stage and see what it would be like speaking later on in the conference. There are monitors on the floor as well as a digital clock that counts down your time (six minutes, in my case!)

TED curator Chris Anderson gave the speaker briefing Monday afternoon. “Let a thousand experiments bloom,” he told us. “Be proud of what you’ve prepared and how you do it.” Then he invited the whole speaker crew onto the stage for one last look before the official talks began the next day.

In the opening line of my talk on world building, I’d planned to ask the audience how many had played with Legos as kids. So I was delighted to find this on display in one of the TED social spaces…

It had to be a good sign, right?

The social spaces were full of all sorts of amazing exhibits, including this one from Genentech, where you could swab your DNA and then hear what it sounded like as music (they used algorithms to make DNA code into musical notes somehow).

You didn’t think I’d pass up the chance to be part of a genetic symphony, did you?

If you’d like to hear the full symphony of TEDsters’ DNA, it’s available online. Sounds pretty neat, even though I’m not sure which notes I contributed. I hope it’s one of the nice, zippy parts.

Here’s Julie Burstein speaking at TED2012 – Her book, SPARK: HOW CREATIVITY WORKS is a favorite of mine, so I was excited to meet her, and she was so, so nice. Julie spoke early in the week and spent much of the rest of her week reassuring the rest of us that we would do just fine.

On Tuesday night, there was a big, fancy party.

And here is the dessert table, for those of you who value dessert like I do.

I will be doing gym-time penance for my TED desserts for months.

Regina Dugan is the head of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and gave one of my favorite talks of the week. She asked what we’d do if we knew that failure was impossible…and that got us all thinking about how fear of failure impacts the choices we make, the chances we choose to take, and what we dare to try. Powerful stuff from an amazing woman.

Thursday night, there was another fancy party, at the aquarium.

Even the fish were fancy.

On Friday, the walk from the Hyatt to the Performing Arts center felt a little different; that morning was Session 11: The Classroom, where I was speaking along with Bill Nye, Ainissa Ramirez, Angie Miller, Al Vernaccio, John Bohanon, Awele Makeba, Rafe Esquith, Chris Anderson, and Aaron Reedy.  I was nervous, but my family had flown out to California to meet me on Wednesday so they could be at my session, and that helped so much.

There were lots of fascinating people at TED, but these three were my favorites.:-)

Here are two more super-nice people I met in Long Beach…

Nicoletta Daskolakas and Jessica Patrick were the official TED makeup artists, and they were both super-talented and incredibly kind (even to those of us who don’t really know our mascara from our lip liner on a regular day).  Bill Nye and I had our hair/makeup appointment together.

I kept thinking, “How surreal is this? I’m having my makeup done with Bill Nye?!!  And usually I don’t even wear makeup!”

Then it was time for The Classroom. The theatre looked a lot different than it had during rehearsals.

I was happy with the way my talk went. It was far from perfect, but it was me, and I got to share some ideas about which I’m truly passionate.

Official TED photo by James Duncan Davidson: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tedconference/6801109922/in/set-72157629496635587/

There’s no video online yet, but you can read the TED blog summary here. After the last session on Friday, the conference ended with a picnic and goodbyes.

From left to right: Julie Burstein, Ainissa Ramirez, and Cyndi Parr (Encyclopedia of Life)

From left to right: Ben Lillie, who writes for TED, Charlie Todd of Improv Everywhere, Angie Miller, Al Vernaccio, and Brandon Miller.

I met such great people here — especially my fellow speakers in The Classroom session. I’m hoping they’ll visit my blog for interviews later on so you can get to know them better. But for now, I’m so thankful for the friendships that bloomed along with so many incredible ideas this week.

It was the opportunity of a lifetime – and one that I wish everyone could experience. Just in case you’re interested…TED is holding open auditions for its 2013 conference, “The Young. The Wise. Undiscovered.”
You never know…

I’m still processing all the amazing talks from last week and will have thoughts to share in the weeks to come, but for now, here are a couple that have already been shared online that you should check out.

Vijay Kumar shared his engineering team’s robots that fly and cooperate. (There’s an amazing robot-music-video at the end of this one!)

Susan Cain spoke beautifully about the power of introverts in our world.

And finally, Bryan Stevenson got what long-time TED attendees say was the biggest standing ovation in TED history with his talk on race, poverty, privilege, and justice. Please share this one where you can; it’s a conversation that we so need to be having.

TED2012: Full Spectrum, Day 3

It’s been another amazing day at TED2012 – full of science and improvisation, nature and urban planning, robots and magic and gospel music. Two talks that really made me think yesterday have already gone live on Ted.com  – so you can watch futurists Peter Diamandis and Paul Gilding present their views, too.

Regina Dugan, the director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, gave an amazing talk today about the groundbreaking work being done by scientists and engineers on her team. Talk about a sense of wonder… You won’t want to miss this one when it goes online.

My two favorite quotes from Regina today:

“When you remove the fear of failure, impossible things suddenly become possible.”

“Be nice to nerds. Scientists and engineers change the world.”

So true.  More quotes from today, from talks you’ll be able to see online soon:

“I’ve been from one end of the earth to the other, trying to get the perfect shot and capture animal behavior we’ve never seen before.”    ~Karen Bass, film maker

“I didn’t want my grandchildren to grow up and say, ‘Opa understood what was happening, but he didn’t make it clear.”  ~Climatologist James Hanson on why he speaks out on climate change

“Be the entrepreneur of your own life.”  ~Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn

“A neighbor is a better and cheaper alternative to government services.”  ~Code for America’s Jennifer Palka, on the apps her code writing fellows develop to solve community issues. One lets people adopt a fire hydrant that needs shoveling after a snowstorm. You even get to name your hydrant.

The 2012 TED Prize was unveiled tonight, and it has to do with creating the city of the future. You can help… and you should. Here’s how it will work.

One last TED story from today…

During one presentation, the speaker pressed his multimedia clicker to play a video, and nothing happened. He pressed it again and got the spinning rainbow of doom.

He waited.

We waited.

He pressed the button again and the computer made that clunking noise it makes, when it’s frozen and you keep pressing buttons anyway.  Then he pressed it again. It thunked again. And another spinning rainbow appeared. We all thought the TED tech team would jump in any second. But they didn’t.

The speaker squirmed.

We all squirmed in the audience.

And then another spinning rainbow showed up with another error message. And another.  And then…

Scattered audience members opened rainbow umbrellas and began spinning them. And then people in rainbow bodysuits and with rainbow hair ran out on stage and fired rainbow streamers out of a cannon. And then the beach balls rained down from the balcony.

Have you guessed it yet?  Improv Everywhere. It was amazingly fun, and you can read more about it (and see clearer images) on the TED blog.

Tomorrow brings a new cast of speakers & performers – I’m especially looking forward to hearing from Philippe Petit, the man who walked the wire between the Twin Towers, and Jon Ronson, whose book about psychopaths I recently read, enjoyed, and then had bad dreams about.

More soon…