Monday, November 12, 2018

The School’s on Fire!

How often do we think of fire drills as a nuisance that interrupts a lesson or a nice break to get everyone outside for a few minutes? Even though the kids at Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago, Illinois, had dutifully marched out in fire drills, their school lacked the safety measures that might have saved them in a tragic 1958 fire. Ninety-two children and 3 teachers died in the fire. Although it was not the worst school fire ever, it did lead to dramatic improvements in fire prevention measures in schools.

“This can’t be happening,” (remembered thirteen-year-old Michele Barale.) “Schools don’t burn down. Who ever heard of a school burning down?”

Rebecca C. Jones knew about a school that did indeed burn down in Chicago and wanted to learn the real story behind it. She conducted dramatic interviews with 26 survivors who shared their memories and experiences, classroom by classroom.

“The neighbors’ ladders were far too short to reach the second-floor windows, so some kids began jumping to the alley.”

In one classroom, a back door to the school’s only fire escape was always kept locked. 

“Sister Geraldita normally kept the key to the back door on a key ring attached to her belt…She had forgotten to bring (her keys) to school that day….10-year old Matty Plovanich watched his teacher. ‘I will never forget the look on her face,” he says. “It was complete panic and anguish.”

Jones provides a riveting account of children and teachers responding to a very immediate danger. As the subtitle says, there was bravery, tragedy and determination. There are also opportunities for young writers today to reflect on various reactions to a dangerous situation and how they can prepare themselves to think quickly in an emergency. The very real story of this tragic fire could even open the door to difficult conversations about current dangers in schools and communities.

·       What might you have done in Sister Geraldita’s situation when you did not have keys to open the door to the fire escape?

·       Teachers tried different approaches to keeping their students calm.  What do you think you might do to calm younger children in an emergency in the school, on the school bus or on the playground?

·       Tragedy affected every child and family connected to Our Lady of the Angels School. What are some examples of bravery and determination? 
o   What does it mean to be brave?
o   Do you remember a time when you have been brave?

·       After classes were back in session, some teachers did not want anyone to talk about the fire ever again. Do you think that was a good idea?

·       Do you have an escape plan if there is a fire in your home? Describe a conversation at home about what each family member should do during any type of emergency.

·       Survey the fire prevention measures that exist in your school. Are there things that aren’t working, like some doors and rules at Our Ladies of the Angels? What can you do about something you think is not working as it should?

In December, there will be special programs in Chicago to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the fire.  A new school was built on the site in 1960 with state-of-the-art sprinklers, smoke detectors, fire doors and fire-resistant stairwells; the school closed permanently in 1999.  More information about the fire is available at 

School Library Journal concluded that “this moving narrative of one of the most devastating school fires in U.S. history is recommended for middle school nonfiction collections.”

Sunday, October 28, 2018

CANDY CANDIDATES: Writing Campaign Posters

Both Halloween and Election Day are just around the corner. Why not capture the excitement of both events by having a candy election?

Elementary school students should enjoy making posters and writing slogans for their favorite candy treat.

Since there are so many different kinds of candy, you could have primary elections to select candy candidates. Or you can simplify the process and offer three choices.

The important thing is to get students thinking about what goes into a campaign and attracting voters. It takes more than artwork, it takes poetry in the form of slogans.

How do you describe the best qualities of your favorite candy? Can you write 5 to 10 reasons why your candy will improve the life of voters? What promises can your candy make? What can you write that will persuade someone to vote for your candy?

You could even have a debate between candy candidates. One group could write questions and another group could prepare answers.

A classroom of 25 students is the perfect environment for demonstrating the importance of each ballot. A single vote may win the election or there could be a tie, requiring a runoff or coin toss.

Voting is a civic duty. It is never too early to explain the process and to get your students excited about voting.

For more teaching resources on government, voting, and civic responsibility, please check out the following:

Monday, October 15, 2018

Turning Pages: My Life Story

Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor has shared the story of her life in an autobiography for adults, a story in Spanish for young adults and now as a picture book in both Spanish and English. Both Justice Sotomayor and Lulu Delacre, the illustrator of Turning Pages: My Life Story/Pasando Páginas share family traditions and memories from Puerto Rico. Young readers can look carefully at the illustrations to learn about life in Puerto Rico, in New York or at Princeton University and even to see newspapers the Justice’s family might have been reading when she was growing up. 

Justice Sotomayor remembers trips to sunny Puerto Rico when she could eat fresh mangoes and spicy chicken. From Puerto Rico to New York to Washington, D.C., books were always the Justice’s friends.  She called them her harbor, helping her escape the sadness of her father’s death; her snorkel and flippers, helping her explore life; a time machine inspiring her imagination; her launchpad, blasting her into her dreams. Now, in her life as a lawyer and judge, books are “maps to guide us to justice.”

The life of Justice Sonia Sotomayor is itself a launch pad for writing and discussions among students of any age.

·       What kind of books do you like to read and why? Did you have a favorite book when you were very little?

·       Justice Sotomayor remembers when her Abuelita, her grandmother, would “close her eyes and recite poems written long ago about the tropical land our family had left behind.” Does anyone in your family tell stories or sing songs when everyone gets together? What stories or songs do you remember?

·       Sonia Sotomayor was diagnosed with diabetes when she was just seven years old. She imagined she was brave and powerful like the superheroes in comic books so she could give herself daily injections.  What superpower would you like to have? What would you do with that power?

·       On the steps of the cover of the book is an opinion written by the Justice. Can you find her name and the title of the opinion?

·       Justice Sotomayor remembers receiving a set of encyclopedias at her home and learning about myosis, mitosis and molecule (all pictured in the bubbles) from diving into the pages of one volumeIs there a set of encyclopedias in your school or neighborhood library? If so, pick any volume, open to any page and read about something you find on that page.  What did you learn?

·       “Justice means treating people fairly under the law,” writes the Justice. Why is it important to have laws or rules for a country or a school or a classroom? Everyone in the class could write one reason on a 3x5 card; then the cards can be posted in the classroom or hallway for everyone to see. 

·       There are lots of family photographs of Sonia Sotomayor on the book’s endpapers – as a child, at special family events, with her colleagues on the Supreme Court. Take photos of each student with a favorite book. Students can write a few sentences or draw a picture to explain why that book is special.  The photos can be posted so students learn about new books they might also enjoy reading.

Justice Sotomayor talks about the importance of books from her childhood to her life on the Supreme court: “Books are keys that unlock of wisdom of yesterday and open the door to tomorrow.”

Note: An exhibit of Lulu Delacre’s illustrations for Sonia Sotomayor’s life story is on display at the ZimmerliArt Museum, Rutgers University, New Jersey. 

Monday, October 1, 2018


Freddie Ramos, the boy with super-powered purple sneakers, is back with a new adventure in Zapato Power #7: Freddie Ramos Hears It All.

In Freddie Ramos Hears It All, Freddie must adjust to the thrill and the challenge of having super hearing in addition to super speed and super bounce. He goes to a space museum with his class and realizes that he can overhear conversations everywhere. Should he help the museum guards find a lost child? Should he help a woman who dropped her bracelet? Freddie has a big heart and a thirst for being a hero. With super hearing he can find many more opportunities to use his super hero powers. He can also find opportunities to eavesdrop. Should he be listening through his friend's door? What is the line between being a snoop and a super hero?

After reading Freddie Ramos Hears It All, students can write about how they would use super hearing and how it might help or complicate their lives. 

Here are some questions to consider.

Would you listen through a closed door?
Would you share important information you overheard? Or keep it secret? 
Would you be tempted to listen in on others all the time? 
Who would you most like to eavesdrop on? Your parents? Brother or sister? Teacher?
What would you do if you heard someone crying? Would you run to get involved or respect his/her privacy?

Story Prompt Ideas:
·       You’ve overheard a conversation on the playground. Two friends are talking about another student. The information you heard is supposed to be a secret. What will you do?
·       You’ve heard your parents’ talking about your brother. The information surprised you. What is it? Will you tell your brother what you know?
·       You’ve overhead your teacher talking about a pop quiz for your class. Do you tell your friends to study? Do you study? What do you do?

Encourage your students to think of all possibilities. Information obtained through eavesdropping can be happy or sad. And the dilemma of knowing something you were not supposed to know can be very real. Happy Writing!

Monday, September 17, 2018


Delivery Bear, written by Laura Gehl and illustrated by Paco Sordo, is the story of a large bear named Zogby whose lifelong dream is to deliver cookies for the Fluffy Tail Cookies Company—a company staffed entirely by bunnies.

After reading Delivery Bear out loud, try these writing activities with your students:

1. Imagine you are in charge of the Fluffy Tail Cookies Company. You get to decide all of the different types of cookies that customers can order. Will you sell classics like chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin? Or creative new recipes like Peanut Butter Potato Chip Delight? Or a mix? Write or draw a list of the cookies you will sell.

2. Even when he is a small cub, Zogby knows what he wants to do when he grows up. What do YOU want to do when you grow up? What is your dream job? Why?

3. When all of the customers are scared of Zogby, he is tempted to give up on his dream. But in the end he thinks of a new way to approach the deliveries and succeeds in his own way. Think of a time in your own life when you were tempted to give up. What happened? How did you manage to overcome your frustration? Was there someone who helped you?

4. When Mrs. Rabbit hears the Fluffy Tail Cookies delivery song and opens the door, she expects to see a small bunny. Instead, she sees a large bear and screams “AAAAAAHHHH!” In this case, Mrs. Rabbit is judging Zogby based on his appearance. Have you ever judged someone based on her/his appearance? Has anyone judged you by your appearance? Do you think Mrs. Rabbit’s reaction is reasonable or unreasonable? If you were a rabbit and opened the door to a bear, what do you think your reaction would be?

Monday, September 3, 2018

“The Caterpillars Marvelous Transformation…”

“Small, silent,
swelling to
I do not yet know
what secrets I hold
what marvels await me.”

Joyce Sidman’s poem is written from the point of view of a butterfly egg, the first chapter in The Girl Who Drew Butterflies – How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science.

Maria was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1647.  Her father ran a publishing shop until he died when Maria was only three years old.  Her mother married an artist who painted flowers and insects, which Maria often collected for him. No one knew at that time how insects grew. Some people thought butterflies flew in from somewhere else; others thought they emerged from dew, dung, dead animals or mud. Maria was fascinated.

She learned to paint and draw from her stepfather. But she also collected insects in glass jars to watch them grow and change – silk worms and then moths and butterflies.  Her interest in art and especially science set her apart from other girls in the 17th century. She was different – she had to be careful and clever about how she worked. 

In 1679, at the age of 32, she published a book with a long and fabulous title, typical of the time – The Caterpillars’ Marvelous Transformation and Strange Floral Food. She engraved every print in the book herself and hand-painted many of them, like this title page. You can see her name in the branches at the bottom. 

First published 1679, digitized by the Universitätsbibliothek Erlangen-Nürnberg

Maria did not have a happy marriage, leaving her husband to live in the Netherlands with her mother and daughters. She even moved to Surinam, a South American country with Dutch colonists.

“She rented a house, cultivated a large garden, and plunged into the work of discovering and breeding caterpillars.”

When she returned to Amsterdam several years later, “Maria’s beautiful, accessible art and text electrified her fellow naturalists. Most of the species she discovered were unknown to Europeans at the time, and her observations were widely quoted and discussed.” 

Joyce Sidman raised caterpillars herself while she was writing about Merian and also read her books, including The Caterpillars’ Marvelous Transformation – a primary source for her research. Sidman wrote a short poem for each stage of a butterfly’s life, from egg to approaching death.

The Girl Who Drew Butterflies is the tale of a young woman who stepped far outside the typical world of 17th century girls to become a botanical illustrator and scientist who “saw nature as an ever-transforming web of connections – and changed our view of it forever.”

Here are several ideas to let Maria Merian’s work spark creativity in modern-day young people.

1.    Take a walk outside.  Ask students to look carefully at any living thing – plant, insect, bird. Write a short poem describing the plant or animal – or written from the point of view of that plant or animal, like Sidman’s poems.  Budding artists could instead draw their chosen creature or plant with all the detail of Merian’s illustrations.

2.    Maria Merian traveled to the Dutch colony of Surinam, also known as Dutch Guyana, and now spelled Suriname. Where in the world would you want to travel and why? What would you want to see or learn there?

3.    Are you passionate about something that you would like to make your career? It’s ok if you have no great passion yet, but if you do, write about why you would like to spend your life working in that field.

In her poem about a butterfly in flight, Joyce Sidman mused,

“How vast
the swirling dome
of the sky!
How strong the wings
I have grown
for myself!!”

Encourage young writers and readers to grow strong wings for themselves by writing, drawing and carefully observing the details of their world.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Reader’s Theater for Pluto Demoted Day & Beyond

Did you know that August 24th is Pluto Demoted Day?  That’s the day the International Astronomical Union voted to downgrade Pluto’s status from the ninth planet in our solar system to belong, instead, to a group of dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt.

In my new book, Pluto is Peeved: An Ex-Planet Searches for Answers, Pluto seeks answers in a museum. After meeting Earth, some wild-and-crazy germs, a friendly dinosaur, and others, Pluto learns that his change in status is not unique in scientific history. Earth was once considered the center of the solar system. The Apatosaurus was originally named Brontosaurus.

After reading Pluto is Peeved with your class, challenge your students to research and write about scientific breakthroughs such as how Anton van Leeuwenhoek first saw tiny wiggling “animalcules” through a microscope in the 1670’s or how Louis Pasteur proved it was possible to kill germs through a heating process now known as pasteurization.  

Illustrations by Dave Roman

Scientists make observations and question everything—even ideas people have long considered to be facts. They spend years researching and collecting data. When new evidence is discovered, scientists present discoveries to the world, expanding our knowledge of the universe. Other topics your students can investigate include: The Fate of the Dinosaurs, The Center of the Solar System, The Discovery of Radium, Penicillin, or DNA, Plate Tectonics, and the New Horizons Space Mission. For a list of 11 Innovations That Changed the World see this list from The History Channel.

When research is completed, challenge your students to write a Reader’s Theater script in which one scientist describes his/her discovery to another person. Will the discovery be received with excitement or skepticism or confusion? Dialogues your students write could include spirited discussions.  

Reader’s Theater is a fun, interactive tool for developing oral reading skills and reading fluency. When your students have the opportunity to write their own scripts, it doubles the fun. In addition, a Reader’s Theater based on research can integrate science into the language arts curriculum.

For an example of a science-based Reader’s Theater, please visit my website and download a Reader’s Theater for Pluto is Peeved.