Friday, September 25, 2009


Picture book biographies are one of the strongest genres in contemporary children's literature. They can be read aloud across the grade levels, and they don't take long to share. Many focus on peacemakers, visionaries and artists, and so positively supplement a social studies curriculum that often follows a timeline of war. Imagine if you read aloud just one picture book biography to a child every week. By the end of the year, how many new heroes would that child have? How many new mentors? How many figures from history and around the world would that child know? There's only one way to find out! Check out the Biography Break site to discover enough recommended titles to inspire you and your class through an entire school year, reading one life story a week.

In terms of first-year teaching, it's also important to find heroes in history, because their example can serve as a makeshift mentorship when you are on your own with the kids every day. My personal hero is John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed. The anniversary of his birth (September 26) falls this weekend, and is considered a "high holiday" in my family and classroom traditions, but I talk about him all year long (just ask my patient friends). He was a remarkable person, a visionary and an inspiration. Though he was a spiritual man with very distinct beliefs founded in the Swedenborg Christian sect, through a focus on trying to manifest the love of a greater power he was able to share with and inspire the secular world (not unlike another hero, Mister Rogers). He is remembered as an extraordinary storyteller, and I think of him as a pioneer librarian, too; he would take the texts of books he liked, rip them (gasp!) into chapters, and circulate them among his pioneer neighbors. Though the details of his life are sometimes mixed with legend, there is one thing I feel in true: every day, he planted at least one seed, and by doing one small thing every day consistently, he changed the landscape of our nation. I believe that read-aloud is one small "seed" we can plant, and by sharing a book with a child every day, we, too, can change the landscape of our nation. I hope we can all pause for just a moment on this special date and think of what we can commit to doing consistently, in his memory and in the interest of our wonderful country. Each year, we make a "Johnny Appleseed" pledge, kind of like a new year's resolution, describing one small thing each of us can do every day that could strengthen our country, and we seal it with an "apple stamp" from an apple cut in half and dipped in tempera paint. Mine always has to do with sharing children's books, but the children have great ideas: "use less electricity." "Say thank you every day." "Be nice to my sister so my mom doesn't feel bad."

To celebrate a Johnny Appleseed Anniversary of your own, check out these links and resources:
  • A booklist and activities at;
  • Great links at;
  • A great apple story to tell children with a surprise at the end: The Little Red House;
  • Apple pie recipe in the back of How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World by Marjorie Priceman;
  • Expand a storytime with women planters celebrated in Barbara Cooney's Miss Rumphius, Janet Anderson's Sunflower Sal, and Jeanette Winter's Wangari's Trees of Peace;
  • Learn the "Johnny Appleseed" song a la Disney here (hey, that's a pretty clean cut look there, Johnny! I always imagined him more like a sweet, grungy hippie, myself) or a real world chorus here on YouTube. Atheists, agnostics or nervous public school teachers, you can sing "the world is good to me," though in the interest of cultural literacy, it's worth noting that the original lyrics are probably more in line with Chapman's beliefs.
Also, do you know about this amazing apple-peeling tool, often known as the "Apple Machine"? I just love this thing! It has allowed me to make apple pies on Johnny Appleseed days with groups of thirty children or more all participating; you just pop on the apple, turn the crank, and the peel comes away in a long, lovely ribbon. Though a grown-up still should supervise, there are no big, exposed blades. I have two of them, for maximum pie-making efficiency (and more crank-turning turns for everyone)!

Lastly, on a personal note: last year I was inducted as an honorary member of the Johnny Appleseed Society at Urbana University. I was very proud, because this organization does such a wonderful job of preserving the ideals and history of this singular man. I have written a new children's book celebrating what we can learn from Johnny Appleseed in our modern times...with a mystery illustrator! It should be out in a year or so from Greenwillow books, I'm very excited! Until then, hope you can have a little happy Appleseed every day!

And who is your American hero (besides your mom or dad ;-)? Please share in the comments below.

Biography break photo credit to Kent Kriegshauser.
Johnny Appleseed storytime photo credit to Stacy Buehler.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


An apple to author Bonnie Becker for writing some of the finest first pages of teacher fiction!:
Ms. Plum had the best class in Springtime Elementary.
On a table by the window in warm, clean cages, Clyde, the hamster, skittered and chattered while a brown toad named Hip-Hop softly slumbered. They were nice animals and let everyone pet them.
On the walls hung posters that showed interesting things like the world's biggest milk shake. It was banana and filled a swimming pool! On the shelves well-loved books lay in cozy piles.
Ms. Plum's desk held a vase of plum flowers, and hourglass with plum-colored sand, and a basket. You can guess what was in the basket!
But the best thing of all about Ms. Plum's room was the supply closet. Inside, the wooden shelves sagged with colored paper, jars of crayons, bottles of glue, comic books, rulers and rubber bands. It smelled of chalk and chocolate and something lovely no one could ever quite name.
On this particular day, the day before the first day of school, Ms. Plum stood inside this closet, talking about her new third-grade students. But who was she talking to?
"Oh, indeed," said Ms. Plum in her practical way to the paper and gum and sparkly markers. "They will be wonderful. Hopers and dreamers, helpers and schemers, jokers and heroes. I can't wait to meet each and every one."
The crayons didn't say anything. The erasers were silent, too. School supplies make very good listeners, but they never say much back.
Even so, there were odd murmurs and rustlings from the very back of the closet, where the dark was as soft as black velvet.
Talk about creating an anticipatory set! The full review of The Magical Ms. Plum is here (along with reviews of other fine classroom fiction, including Andrew Clements' new read-aloud masterpiece EXTRA CREDIT), but reading these pages made me wonder: How are you doing? It's been about a month since school began. Is your closet full of wooden shelves sagging with colored construction paper, or is it full of you, hiding? In my coat closet, I would always keep a glossy photograph of Ann Miller, the lovely, leggy, brassy MGM movie star who was never caught without a smile. No matter how I was feeling, I would try to imitate her enigmatic grin before greeting the children, to get us all on the right foot, no matter what had happened the day before.

Some of the most important pieces of advice in the new section of Educating Esme are to think about why you are a teacher in terms of what you have to share. The new guide talks about creating a time capsule of your intentions that you can refer to when you need to regroup and remind yourself of the teacher you meant to be; a teacher "hope chest" of sorts. A month into the school year, are you bringing to the classroom what you uniquely can impart, or are your intentions already sidelined by management and mandates? Are the children all in their places with bright smiling faces, or almost, except for the one swearing at you, or the one who has been absent for three days and you can't get hold of the parents, or...never mind. Do you think Ann Miller felt like smiling every day? Sometimes you've got to fake it until you make it, as they say. We tell ourselves stories about what teaching will be like, but it takes a lot of work to make the facts match the best of the fiction. As teachers, we appreciate (more than the average bear) the power of a self-fulfilling prophecy, and so we must make sure we continue to expect the best from ourselves as well as the children. So put on those plum-colored glasses (they look so lovely on you!) and be as unrealistic as you need to be in terms of telling the story of the great and beautiful things you expect from yourself and your charges. I hope you are having fun, finding and bringing a little of your true self into the classroom everyday, but when it's rough, remember: you get a new day tomorrow, and another chance to greet your hopers and dreamers, helpers and schemers, jokers and heroes with a smile.

Find some more inspiration in the amazing list of 100 Cool Teachers in Children's Literature compiled by the bookmark worthy teacher/booklover blog, A Year of Reading. Which teacher is your favorite? Which one is most like YOU?
Share in the comments section, and you'll be entered in this week's free giveaway for a copy of How to Get Your Child To Love Reading.
Miss Binney from Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary, illustrated by Louis Darling, 1968.
Miss Viola Swamp from Miss Nelson is Missing! by Harry Allard, illustrated by James Marshall, 1985.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


"I gave them my speech about how mean I was and how I've taught football players and cowboys and dinosaurs and Martians, so a few fifth graders aren't too challenging, but I need the money, so I'd give it a shot."

Mad love today to all my Chicago Public School friends and everyone who started with the children today! So, how did you introduce yourself when you first met the children whom it was your destiny to teach? How did it go? You can introduce yourself here, too, I'm so excited to meet all my buddies in cyberspace (and don't forget, your comments are entries in the How to Get Your Child To Love Reading giveaway). Did you get your apple yet? If not, please take one from this deserve it. And if it all didn't go as perfectly as planned, don't worry, you're not alone. Check out the outstanding post at Yeah, That'll Teach You a Lesson: Ten Rookie Mistakes of a First Year Teacher.

Monday, September 7, 2009


It’s the first day of school, and I can hardly wait
To meet my teachers for the year.
I wonder if they’ve heard what I was like before,
What kind of stories did they hear?

'Cuz I’ve had a lot of problems
With some of my teachers in the past.
But this is gonna be a great year.
At least I hope it is at last!

And when I finally meet my teachers,
When that school bell rings today
I’m gonna ask them just one question
And I wonder what they’ll say...

“Teacher, tell me what you see...
Won’t you tell me what you see?
Teacher, tell me what you see ... in me !”

What You See
Lyrics/Music by Jerry Mills, reprinted with permission
©1993 Jerry Mills / ASCAP
From the CD Urgent Reply

Okay, are you crying? That song always chokes me up. I admit, my iPod is generally populated with Beck and Broadway musicals, but Jerry Mills' meaningful music has made its way into my heart. I met Jerry this past spring at the New York State Reading Association conference where he gave the moving keynote, "Don't Doubt the Dream." He's an incredible speaker, don't miss him if you get the chance, or invite him to your school!

"What You See" is a fresh alternative to Whitney Houston's "Greatest Love of All," which seems to be the reigning anthem of Chicago Public School teachers (though I still think Whitney might win as a choice for teachers at karaoke bars). I also love the PS 22 version of the Velvet Underground's "I'll Be Your Mirror," and the Langley School Project's Innocence and Despair is as necessary to a teacher's CD collection as Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon is to...I don't know, whoever listens to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.

What songs are on your teacher playlist? And what do you see when you look out upon your classroom?

Friday, September 4, 2009


"The older teachers shook their heads and told me my room looked overstimulating, which means they are totally jealous because I have the most insanely beautiful classroom ever, of all time...I'm sorry, this room is so fun, it's sickening. I feel sorry for any kid who is not is this room."
--Educating Esmé, page 25
This quote makes me laugh a little bit now, for a couple of reasons. After having more years of teaching under my belt, I realize my experienced colleagues were probably right. There is truth in the notion that it may be best not showing all of your cards and pulling out all your stops the very first week. Some children really are distracted by lots clutter or color. Most importantly, an environment should feature contributions by the children, not just be your personal art show. That said, I also met many experienced colleagues who also made "the most insanely beautiful classroom ever, of all time!" I can't help but think of a teacher I met on the road many years ago who advised, "When you set up your classroom, you should set it up as if preparing for a deity." Whatever your faith background, it's easy to appreciate the preciousness of the children we serve, and the hope that the little child shall lead...that potential is part of why we're there, and I do think it is appropriate to set the tone for their arrival with a sense of celebration. It's also a celebration of how hard you have worked to be there, too, you first-year superstar!

Here are a couple of real world teachers who pull their rooms together with panache:

I always think of being a teacher as being a professional sharer, and wow, Mrs. Beth Newingham in Troy, Michigan really is one heck of professional. She created a crazy helpful generous website with tons of photos, clearly using themes to build community in her classroom. Look at her room during last year's sports theme. Who wouldn't want to be on Team Newingham? I do feel sorry for any kid who is not in this room. Visit her themes and then explore the whole site to remember why this is what we decided to be when we grew up.

Look at Mrs. Spurgeon's Kindergarten in Del Lago! Clearly a garden where children grow and grow.

Inspiring, huh? Newbies, you don't have to reinvent the wheel if you check out Mitch Katz's sample classroom floor plans, and you can channel your inner Nate Berkus with this "classroom architect" tool.

As you put your room together, consider the big "reveal" of the incredible chocolate room in the original Willie Wonka movie with Gene Wilder. Do you remember being a kid, saying "ooooh!" when there the camera panned across the whole delicious scene? The opening of the door was the beginning of a world of possibility. Overstimulating? Yeah, maybe. So what? Whether you dress you classroom for success in the spirit of Meis van der Rohe or a disco rave or somewhere in between, let it reflect a piece of your style and your enthusiasm and your welcome. Work your inner Wonka. Build a world using your imagination, and it can only inspire the children to use theirs. And anyone who takes a picture of their classroom and shares with a link or describes their classroom set-up idea in the comments section below will be entered in this week's drawing for a copy of How to Get Your Child to Love Reading. Good luck!

Thursday, September 3, 2009


Hi, everybody! Thank you so much for stopping by this new blog for elementary educators who want to gear up, cheer up and change the world. I'm the author of Educating Esmé: Diary of a Teacher's First Year. This blog is my way of celebrating the diary's reissue this fall, and saying a small "thank you" to all the wonderful, hard-working people who read it. Student teachers, new teachers, veterans and community has broadened as a result of the book, and I hope that through this blog, yours can, too. The purpose of this blog is for new teacher support and all-teacher camaraderie, not for personal Q&A (my favorite color is orange), flaming or flattering my books (Goodreads at your service), or any lengthy academic diatribes (unless we feel like it). I know teachers are short on time, so I hope this work-in-progress will be a quick stop for ideas, support, inspiration, links, how-to's, smiles, recommendations, teacher friendship and a place where you can feel free to comment and say, "hey! I did a great job today!"

I do want to use this first entry to answer two of the most common questions I receive. "So what have you been up to since the diary came out? Did you quit teaching?" Even though the book ends after my second year of working with the Chicago Public Schools, I worked for several years in the schools after that. When Educating Esmé came out, I resigned my position in order to work on other projects and realize other dreams, including national advocacy for literature-based learning and read-aloud. I spent a joyful year homeschooling my son, taught full-time at a private, progressive school, wrote several novels for preteen readers and a guide to children's literature, and started the PlanetEsme Bookroom, an independent venture in Chicago in which I opened a storefront salon and resource collection of about twelve thousand children's books and offered free programming for my community. During this time, I also started The PlanetEsme Plan, a blog that recommends the best brand spanking new children's books, and some oldies but goodies as well...I hope you'll check it out, back-to-school books are posted now! Currently, I am in graduate school for library science, and then I will continue my work in education, teacher support and the world of children's books. Vive la lifelong learning!

The second, more important question I am asked is, "do you have any advice for first year teachers?" The answer is "sure!" I have compiled twenty-five of my very best, most pragmatic hints in the new edition of Educating Esmé (as well as a handy-dandy new teacher shopping checklist), and we will be discussing many of my suggestions here on this blog in the coming weeks, so I hope you'll revisit the book with the new material and contribute to the conversation. Speaking of weeks, every week for the next several of them, I will be giving away a free copy of the big honking resource How To Get Your Child to Love Reading to someone who comments on this blog (chosen at random). For starters, I put the question to you: what is the best piece of advice you have for a new teacher, or that you have received? Pros, please share your expertise! Newbies, even if you haven't been in the trenches, bequeath the best advice you've gotten so far, or what you wish you could have told someone else! Homeschoolers, please contribute your unique insight!

And before signing off, may I please share three links of special interest?
  •, a major, mega, teacher-centered cyber-metropolis that offers chatboards, job postings, lesson plans, on-line mentorship and more. Every first year teacher needs this bookmarked!
  • Ellen Moir's Phases of First-Year Teaching. Fasten your seat belt...but know you are not alone.
  • My abridged diary on audio, free for your listening pleasure. Produced by Jay Allison with Christina Egloff for their "Life Stories" series and Chicago Public Radio.
And one last thing: a special thank you to Katherine Paterson, legendary author of classic books such as BRIDGE TO TEREBITHIA and THE GREAT GILLY HOPKINS and the soon-to-be-released DAY OF THE PELICAN for writing the new foreword to the book. I have not stopped pinching myself!

Happy September, everyone! Glad to mark you "present."

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.
Thanks to friends in Galesburg for the photo and the Miss Pointy artwork.
Thanks to Stacy Buehler for the storytime photo. poster by Jim Pollock.
Thanks to Melissa Jacot for her assistance.
More Esmé stuff at