Monday, November 28, 2016


I am excited to announce that Freddie Ramos Rules New York was released in October 2016. This book is the sixth in the Zapato Power series about Freddie Ramos, the boy with super-powered purple sneakers. 

In Freddie’s newest adventure, he outgrows his special sneakers and must adjust to a larger pair. But will his new shoes work as well as his old ones? Freddie  contemplates the possibilities during a bus ride to New York.

          Uh-oh! Did my new zapatos give me super hearing? What about super speed? And super bounce? Could they do all three? I had two buttons on my wristband. What if two powers was all I got? Which ones did I want the most?
          Super hearing would be good when I wanted to hear what grown-ups were saying. Would I like it as much as running fast?
          I had to get off the bus and find out what my new shoes could do! But I was stuck in the window seat, watching more brown fields and buildings go by. How much longer till New York?

The inspiration for the Zapato Power series came from students when I worked as an elementary school librarian. My students never tired of discussing their favorite superpower and the requests for books on superheroes never stopped. The interest was especially intense when I shared Margaret Mahy’s The Seven Chinese Brothers in story time. This traditional tale is about seven identical brothers who each have a special skill. One brother has super strength. Another brother has super sight and so forth. My students and I had many lively conversations over which brother had the best super skill.
The process of choosing one superpower over another can develop critical thinking skills. Ask your students to write pros and cons for a list of selected superpowers. This can lead to a persuasive writing exercise in which students explain why the superpower of their choice is the most useful and effective for their particular needs. A high interest topic like this can motivate even the most reluctant of writers.
In the Zapato Power books, Freddie Ramos has trouble navigating the ordinary world with his superpowers. Ask your students to write about how they think their lives might change if they had super speed or super hearing. What kind of challenges might they face? Would it be difficult to keep your superpower a secret? Would you be tempted to eavesdrop on your friends or use super speed to an unfair advantage in athletic events? Ask your students to really examine how they would use their superpower and when.

There are many questions to consider. Would you try to stop bullies and make the world a better place? Would you enjoy doing good deeds if no one knew you were responsible? A list of writing prompts are available on this page of the Zapato Power Activity Guide. Enjoy!

Monday, November 21, 2016

“Literature Teaches Us Empathy”

by Karen Leggett Abouraya

Usually when we talk about diverse books, we mean books that enable children of all ethnic groups to see themselves in the books they read. In this year’s Zena Sutherland lecture, the African-American poet Marilyn Nelson added this notion.

“While reading about characters and experiences we already know is affirming, and while self-affirmation is an important aspect of self-knowledge, literature offers more than the experience of reading in a cubicle with a mirror. Literature allows us to extend our understanding beyond ourselves; it asks us whether we can understand others. Literature teaches us empathy.”

And this year’s Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Gene Yang wants young readers – all of us for that matter – to have empathy with people who are not like us. He is asking children “to read a book about a character who doesn’t look like you or live like you.” He calls it his “Reading Without Walls Challenge.”

Such reading opens the door to countless writing prompts.

· How is the child in the book different from you? What is the same?

· How are your days different or the same?

· What would you like to do with that child if you could meet her?

· What would you show that person if he came to your school?

The next question might be where to find such books – especially good, accurate ones. One answer is to look at awards such as the Children's Africana Book Awards (CABA) - and the African Studies Association’s Teacher’s Workshop Dec 3 in Washington, D.C. - the Middle East Outreach Council, and the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature.

This year’s recently celebrated CABA awards include an exuberantly illustrated folk tale from Nigeria, Chicken in the Kitchen, written by Nnedi Okorafor, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Nigeria, and illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini, an Iranian artist living in Great Britain. Elizabeth Wein wrote Black Dove White Raven, a World War II young adult novel about a black boy and a white girl raised together in Ethiopia. Miranda Paul wrote One Plastic Bag and the Recycling Women of the Gambia, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon, about Isatou Ceesay’s efforts to recycle discarded plastic bags in her community. An earlier Pencil Tips Workshop focused on the CABA honor book, Emmanuel’s Dream, written by Laurie Ann Thompson and illustrated by Sean Qualls, about Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboa who was born with a deformed leg yet grew up to play soccer and raise money for people with disabilities in Ghana.

The opportunity to read, think and write about any of these books gives children a chance to deepen their awareness of countries where they may one day live or travel or have a friend – and build pride in their own countries of origin.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Gingerbread Man Series as Mentor Text

 Let’s go on a scavenger hunt!  With a book!

Picture books can be wonderful mentor texts for student writing skills and curriculum connections. Being a former teacher, I thoroughly enjoy writing the adventure series about a little “class-made” Gingerbread Man, but I also strive to weave fun “teachable” writing threads in the stories as well.

Here’s a bit about the Gingerbread Man’s latest adventure and a few ideas on how to use it as a writing mentor text.

 The Gingerbread Man Loose at the Zoo begins as the Gingerbread Man and his classmates are trying to solve riddles on a field trip scavenger hunt! But a zoo full of critters is a tricky place for a tasty cookie – even a very fast one. Some of the creatures find the smart cookie to be a tempting treat and he gets separated from his class. After a few narrow escapes, the Gingerbread Man meets someone else who is lost and they team up to follow the riddles to get back where they belong.  

It’s so much fun for readers to be able to interact with a story. The animal riddles in the text are written so that the reader gets a chance to solve the riddle clues, before the answer is revealed by a page turn.

The first animal riddle is, “I’m spotted. I’m gentle. I’m tall as a tree. A branch full of leaves is the best snack for me. I have a new baby and she is my calf. ‘Ah-ha!’ we all shouted, ‘The answer’s… (page turn)  Giraffe!’”

Each riddle in the book has many descriptors of the animal, and rhymes that help the reader predict the animal.  Let your students try their hand at these riddle writing and vivid verbs activities.

A Student Riddle Writing Activity

Writing riddles is a fun way to practice skills such as prediction, researching animal attributes, and using descriptive vocabulary and vivid verbs.

Have students pick an animal and then answer these questions to come up with descriptors for that animal. This could be done as a group or individually.

·       What does the animal look like? Color? Size?
·       Where does the animal live? Habitat?
·       What sound does the animal make?
·       What does the animal eat?
·       Words that describe how the animal moves.
·       What is the animal’s baby called?
·       Do you know the species of the animal?
·       Does the animal have personality traits? Like sneaky or stealthy?

Then students can use the descriptors to write a riddle. (The riddles don’t need to rhyme, but they can if the students happen to find a rhyme that works.)

·       Here are links to two handouts with animal rhyming words if your students are interested in the challenge.

o   Animal–Related Rhymes by Laura Murray

Using Vivid Verbs  

The Gingerbread man and the animals are very active in the story. By using very vivid verbs to describe the way they move and react, it helps readers visualize the story better than ordinary verbs that aren’t very descriptive. 

Here are some vivid verbs that are used in the story -

·       Vivid Verbs - jumped, popped, scooped, wiggle, jiggle, zoomed, swing, glanced, scurry, screech, dodged, squeezed, waved, slurped, spied, raced, flew, snuffled, shuffled, slumped, hopped, sprang

Challenge your students to replace the common verbs listed below with vivid descriptive verbs, and then use some of those verbs in sentences / stories, or revise a piece of writing they’ve previously written.

·       Ordinary Verbs – walked, saw, ran, looked, put, went, was, moved, drank, said, get, took, ate, gave, made

And here are a few more student connections that you might explore with the book:  
·       sequencing of the animals as they appear in the story
·       map skills
·       problem solving

In the story, the Gingerbread Man knows that creative problem solving, determination, and helping others along the way, will get him where he needs to go. I hope that your students have fun with these activities and can call on these same qualities as they approach their own writing journeys.

Laura Murray was a teacher before becoming an author and had to deal with many an escaped Gingerbread Man in her time. She is the author of the award-winning rhyming picture book series – The Gingerbread Man Loose in the School, The Gingerbread Man Loose on the Fire Truck, The Gingerbread Man Loose at Christmas, and The Gingerbread Man Loose at the Zoo.  Laura lives with her family in northern Virginia and loves speaking at schools about reading, writing, and creating. Visit her online at and on Twitter @LauraMurrayBook.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Finding the Wild World

Guest Post by Megan Wagner Lloyd  

Finding Wild follows two kid adventurers as they discover the beauty and wonder of the wild world. It asks the questions “What is wild? And where can you find it?” and invites readers on a journey to find the answers.

I’m so excited for teachers to share Finding Wild with their students. (And I’ve been thrilled to hear from teachers on Twitter who are doing just that!)

Three ways to use Finding Wild in the classroom:

1.    As a nature-writing prompt

When and where have your students experienced the wild? Going camping, gardening, playing at the park, cloud gazing…kids have so many unique experiences with nature to share. I was thrilled to read this blog post from a teacher who plans to use Finding Wild as an introduction to a nature-writing unit with her high schoolers (more proof that picture books aren’t just for little ones!).

2.    As a poetry mentor text

Finding Wild provides a great jumping off point to discuss metaphor, personification, and descriptive writing, and to encourage kids to include details from all five senses in their work.
3.    In preparation for any kind of outdoor field trip or nature excursion

Reading Finding Wild before going out and about can encourage kids to pay attention to the natural wonders, big and small, all around them. I think it would be a great to share it before winter and spring breaks, too, to encourage kids to get outside and play! And then when everyone’s back in the classroom, teachers could set aside some time for everyone to share their wild observations.

BIO: Megan Wagner Lloyd has been reading for (almost) as long as she can remember, and writing stories for just as long. Her debut picture book Finding Wild, illustrated by Abigail Halpin, was released by Knopf earlier this year. She lives with her family in the Washington D.C. area.
Learn more about Megan and her books at

Monday, October 31, 2016

Poetry Prompt Jar

Guest Post by Laura Shovan

When I work with young writers in the classroom, one of the things we talk about is writing prompts. Unlike a writing assignment, prompts are akin to drills in sports, or the etudes that musicians practice in order to work on technique. When we write in response to a prompt, the focus is on trying, on playing around with ideas and language, not on the finished product.

In my middle grade novel in verse, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, teacher Ms. Hill keeps a jar of poetry prompts for her fifth grade students, who have free-writing time every morning. Educators have told me that they like this idea. If students don’t know what to write about, they can grab an idea out of the jar and see what bubbles up for them.

That’s exactly why I love working with prompts. As writers, we can’t always rely on inspiration to show up. Sometimes it needs a nudge – which a good writing prompt can provide. I also like the way that random writing prompts, because they are unexpected, shift young writers away from their favorite topics and help them to stretch, exploring new territory in their poems or stories.

So, let’s fire up the glue gun and make a Poetry Prompt Jar.

Jar or box (big enough to put your hand inside)
Craft supplies
Glue gun (optional)
Writing prompts on small pieces of paper

For my prompt jar, I cleaned out an old protein powder container, then covered it with scraps of giftwrap. 

I thought it would be fun to decorate the prompt jar with a poem. Since my own children are too big for our Magnetic Poetry Junior set, I pulled out some tiles, constructed a little poem, and hot-glued it to the jar. 

My finished craft jar is kind of quirky. I may have gotten carried away. I'm sure Ms. Hill would have shown more restraint. 

Next, I put some folded up writing prompts inside the jar. However, I also added a few odds and ends: a button with flowers on it, a hamster-shaped eraser, a small wooden turtle. If you’re making a prompt jar for your classroom, consider including a few small objects or magazine clippings for students who are kinesthetic and visual learners.

Last, it might be fun to borrow an idea from the Little Free Library movement: Stewardship. What would happen if a student or two were responsible for the prompt jar? Prompt Jar Stewards might make sure that the prompts are returned when people are done, that nothing unexpected (or inappropriate) shows up inside the jar. They might even be inspired to create some writing prompts of their own.

Let’s close with a poem. In The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, one of Ms. Hill’s students writes a poem about the classroom prompt jar.

By Katie McCain

For Ms. Hill

I am stuck.
I cannot rhyme.
My words are weak
as tadpole slime.

I dip my hand
into the jar
of poem starts
from near and far.

There’s tanka poems
from Japan,
Shakespearean sonnets
(I’m not a fan).

A limerick?
No. They’re too rude.
Why not an ode
to my favorite food?

When writer’s block
has made me pout,
the prompt jar’s here
to help me out

Laura Shovan is the author of The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary. She has served as a poet-in-the-schools for the Maryland State Arts Council’s Artist-in-Education program. Visit her at

Monday, October 24, 2016

Tell Me a Tattoo Story

Tell Me a Tattoo Story, by Alison McGhee, illustrated by Eliza Wheeler, features a young boy who learns about his father’s life through the stories behind each of his father’s tattoos.

The We Need Diverse Books campaign has raised awareness about the importance of kids seeing themselves, and their families, in books.  While we may first think about racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity, there are other types of diversity too.  Many students in your class may have parents who have tattoos, and this book celebrates those parents in a beautiful way.

Tell Me a Tattoo Story makes an excellent writing prompt for your classroom.  After you read the book aloud, here are a few ways to use this picture book with your students:

1.    Ask each student to draw a tattoo.  It can be simple—like a cat, or a single word—or more complicated.  On a separate piece of paper, ask students to write down the story behind their tattoos.  Whose tattoo is it?  And why did the person decide to get that tattoo?  Perhaps it is the story of how a lonely man found a cat and adopted it, and then got a tattoo to show his love for his pet.  Or perhaps it is the story of a little girl who desperately wanted a pet cat but could never have one due to allergies…so she got a cat tattoo when she grew up.
2.    After each student completes his or her own tattoo story, collect the tattoo drawings, shuffle them, and give each student a new drawing to think about. Ask students to make up stories behind the unfamiliar tattoos that they have received.  When all students are finished, you may wish to hold up a picture of a tattoo and have both students who wrote about that tattoo (the original artist and the second recipient) share their stories, then discuss similarities and differences.
3.    The father’s tattoos in this book are his way of telling his life story.  What are other creative ways that a parent could tell his or her life story to a son or daughter?  Make a list individually or as a class.
4.    Ask each student to think of an important event in his or her own life.  What tattoo would be appropriate to represent that event?   
5.    Would your students want to get a tattoo if their parents permitted it?  Why or why not?   

Monday, October 17, 2016

Salvador Dali Clocks

Creating art based on the work of famous artists in history are lessons commonly used in classrooms from kindergarten to college. While studying and copying from the masters is an important part of an art education, it can sometimes frustrate the younger student that has more difficulty with drawing and painting.

A fun and alternative way to learn about a particular artist and their work, is to have students create a 3-D project based on a painting. A sculpture made of found or recycled objects, papier-mâché, or clay can be a fun alternative lesson.

In a recent art class, we looked at the work of Salvador Dali, perhaps most known for his painting titled The Persistence of Memory. Students were instructed to make a “melting clock” from air-dry clay. After observing and talking about the original painting, clocks were sculpted using about two fist size pieces of clay, with the winding mechanism and clock hands added. Numbers were carved into the clock face. After the project dried for a week, the clocks were painted with acrylic craft paint, using similar colors from the original painting.

For a writing exercise, ask students to observe the various objects in the painting and come up with a short story. Why do they think the shapes are distorted? What do the objects represent? How do the objects relate to one another? What would happen if you found a “melting clock?”

Materials used:

Crayola brand air-dry clay

Plastic bowl (bottom side up) to mold and warp the clock face

Pencil or other tool to carve the clock numerals

Acrylic craft paint (silver, gold, blue and black)