Friday, June 1, 2018

Author Visit: Loree Griffin Burns

The truth is this: I have only ever had incredibly powerful and positive author visits at Oxford Elementary School, and I'm happy to talk about any of them. If you are lucky enough to host authors at your school, you probably already know that every visit--no matter how similarly structured--is ultimately it's own unique experience for the students and school community. We recently had another really wonderful visit I want to share:
Hosting Loree Griffin Burns for a two-day author visit last week was truly a pleasure.

Over the two days, Loree's presentations spanned all six of her books, and all of our students (preK through 6th grade) had the opportunity to interact with Loree in those classroom presentations. On the first day, our fifth graders virtually visited the relatively young, volcanic island of Surtsey. The sixth graders took a look at ocean movement and trash pollution, and the third and fourth graders learned about the dangers imposed by invasive species like the Asian long-horned beetle. On the second day, PreK, kindergarten, and first grade classes learned about the life cycle of a butterfly and about Loree's research experience at a butterfly farm in Costa Rica. With our second and third grade students, Loree dispelled scary stories about bees and spoke about why bees are so important. In every single session, Loree's presentation, style, and facilitation of student question and answer was seamless and perfectly suited to her wide-ranging audiences.
One part of our visit with Loree that set this author visit apart from others was the Citizen Science Night we sandwiched in the evening between her two-day visit. All of our students and their families were invited to Roberts Farm Preserve, a local preserve with gardens and greenhouses, miles of hiking trails, and indoor/outdoor classroom spaces that often hosts classes or grade-levels in our district for outdoor experiential learning opportunities. We had an amazing turn out for a gorgeous spring night during baseball/softball season! In addition to a brief presentation by Loree about citizen science and ideas for projects families can take part in together, students and their families rotated through three additional stations. Loree led families on a search for insects with techniques and tools for finding insects to observe. A parent
volunteer organized a station about tree identification and talked about watching for invasive species. A STEM teacher led a third rotation about using observation skills--especially your senses--to notice the outdoors, and students and their guests began composing haiku. It was beautiful, not just in terms of the weather, but to see the engagement and involvement of students and their families! Citizen Science Night was a solid example of Loree's willingness to work with us to personalize her visit experience to best achieve our goals for bringing her to our school community.

Another way that this author visit with Loree Griffin Burns was special was due to Loree's participation with Authors for Earth Day. (For more information about Authors for Earth Day you can visit their site, Loree's recent blog post about A4ED from her perspective, or my recent blog post about what our partnership looked like from inside the classroom.) By design, Loree's two-day visit was the culmination of four weeks of research, opinion writing, and persuasive speeches by our fifth graders who were tasked with educating the students of OES about three conservation organizations that are dear to Loree, her research, and her books. At the end of every presentation, fifth grade helpers assisted in conducting the school-wide vote in which every student, kindergarten through sixth grade, had a chance to vote for one organization to receive a generous $1,000 donation from Loree. Each team of fifth graders would come back from a presentation with a stack of ballots for me, and I counted along the way to keep the count manageable. I can honestly tell you that the race was close...the whole way. However, at the end of Loree's second day, she met more informally with the fifth graders who had done so much work and announced that the final winner was Maine Audubon. While all three organization were worthy recipients, Loree told the fifth graders she was glad that the donation would support an organization in Maine where they are living, playing, and growing.
With Loree's help and through her visit, we have been able to provide our entire school community with an author visit they will never forget.
  • My students feel like they have made a new writer-friend. They were quick in their comments to note how easily they could talk with Loree and how they were not intimidated by her credentials as an award-winning, published author. 
  • Students made many mentions related to how Loree made them feel: respected, valued, empowered. She was absolutely all-in with every age group, giving every student with whom she spoke her full attention. 
  • Loree's interactions with students, especially in inviting and fielding their questions inside of her presentations, honored her aim to instill and promote a sense of wonder in students.
  • They are motivated and tuned into the needs of the earth more than ever before, and they believe their voice can do something about those needs.
  • They are inspired, and they have shared new aspirations for writing or for travel or both. They see new possibilities and realize they can think outside their every day because now they know someone who has done (does) just that.
The bottom line? Students at OES love Loree Griffin Burns and would be ready to have her back next week or next year. But, since she just visited us and more students in more places should have the same great opportunity, they'd also probably say you should invite her to visit you.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Authors for Earth Day: Authenticity at it's Best

When learning takes place within a truly authentic context, students will soar.

Our upcoming author visit has been scheduled for more than a year, but just a few months ago, writer-friend Loree Griffin Burns reached out to me with a twist she had been thinking about. "Are you familiar with Authors for Earth Day (A4ED)?" Loree asked in an email. "I'd like to make OES my A4ED school."

I wasn't familiar, but between a visit to the website and Loree's explanation, I was sure we wanted to be her A4ED school, too. In short, authors who are a part of the A4ED school agree to donate some or all of their school visit fee to a conservation organization of the students' choosing. Yes, there was some work in it for my students, but every bit of the work was well-aligned to curricular goals and instruction.

One month before our visit, Loree Skyped with the fifth graders to introduce the A4ED project. She introduced herself and her work, and she briefly told the students about the three conservation organizations and their work, and then they would be responsible to help the other voters in the school make an educated vote.

Loree's three conservation organizations included Maine Audubon Society, The Ocean Conservancy, and The Xerces Society. Students set to work immediately to visit these websites and learn more about each group's work. In two periods' time, they would complete a quick survey about their first and second choices to help me build relatively equal groups of supporters to take the work forward.

With newly organized and somewhat informed groups in place, the students started the one-week task of researching and writing an evidence-based opinion letter to Loree to convince her why the organization they chose should receive her donation. Their motivation and confidence levels were high. They used all the resources of our previous opinion writing work, and we revisited the importance of knowing the audience you're writing for, because these traditional writing products would not be the only outcome of the project.
Once final drafts of the letters had been collected, the teams of researchers and writers moved to the next task, which involves educating their fellow students about Loree's visit and the A4ED vote. One part of the education step was for each group to make a pair of persuasive posters that would both educate and persuade student voters. The arrangement of our school is such that one poster would have a primary audience while the other would be geared towards intermediate peers. The conversations overheard in this stage, as the students wrestled with how much information to include and how to angle the text and visuals of their product, were inspired and thoughtful.

At the same time, the students began to work on a short persuasive presentation to educate other students about their organization. As part of the presentation, each group was responsible for creating a digital product using Canva or Google Slides that voters could take away from the presentation as persuasive material. There was so much synthesis happening as groups prepared for the range of audiences (grades K through 6) and thought about what would be most convincing and memorable to students, hoping to guarantee a vote for their organization. The transfer of strong opinion skills to persuasive speeches was well-supported by the authentic context.
We ended last week hosting round after round of oral presentations for student audiences of various ages (and parents and other school staff dropped by, too!). While the first rounds were a little jittery, the fifth graders quickly slid into a more comfortable spot, presenting like experts on their respective conservation organizations and trying to win the votes of their OES counterparts so that their organization will receive Loree's A4ED donation.
The fifth graders have done big work--from researching to writing to creating to sharing--in this four-week project, and they've done it all with incredible engagement and investment. With a meaningful and purposeful context for using and applying their reading, writing, speaking and listening skills, they have soared, and the work has been a whole lot of fun, really.

Tomorrow, Loree will visit OES for a two-day series of presentations at our school, and tomorrow students will begin to vote for the conservation organization that will win Loree's donation. Which will get the vote is hard to say, but what is certain is this: this project has already been a huge win for the fifth graders.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Author Visit: Erin Soderberg Downing

I remember when I first sent Erin Soderberg Downing the message that Oxford Elementary School would be reading The Quirks: Welcome to Normal for OES Reads, our whole-school community book this year. Erin's excitement about this news matched mine. I remember she almost immediately started thinking about how she might be able to make the trek from Minneapolis to Maine to meet these to-be OES Read-ers in person. 

This week we concluded OES Reads 2018, and Erin was in Maine, at OES, to wrap it all up.

All through our conversation leading up to her visit, Erin insisted it was important to her that every OES Read-er have the opportunity to have their book signed. It made for a very tight and full day, but soon after the students had arrived and the Pledge of Allegiance had been said, we set out to meet the rigorous challenge. Twenty-two classrooms (PreK-6), roughly 400 students, and just about four hours to do it.

Erin was incredible.

Erin made every classroom we went into feel she was there specifically for them, flexibly adapting to whatever was happening in the room when we dropped in. She personalized book after book while fielding questions from bouncy, excited kindergarteners through thoughtful, curious sixth graders. And, she delivered bookmarks for everyone so that no reader went home without a souvenir of the day.

Reserving time for lunch would have been tough if not for a lunch date we made for Erin to meet with several fifth grade students who have had a chance to read the advanced reader copy of the first book in her next series, The Daring Dreamers Club: Milla Takes Charge (June 5, 2018). The students were all ears as Erin told stories of the writing process, changes that have happened in readying the book for publication, and gave hints about what is to come in books two and three. They asked questions and shared their first impressions with Erin.

The day closed with a whole-school closing assembly for OES Reads, our whole-school community reading initiative. This year, the assembly culminated a six-week window in which readers and their families read The Quirks: Welcome to Normal, completed some activities from our activity calendar, answered trivia to win prizes, and attended a Quirks-themed Family Literacy Night.

Even though Erin had already answered a lot of questions throughout the day in her classroom drop-ins, the students were attentive to Erin's presentation about how The Quirks came to be and the stories she shared from writing The Quirks and Puppy Pirates. OES Read-ers were treated to an outtake chapter from The Quirks as Erin talked about revisions that mean big changes to the book. And, they had the chance to ask more questions (and did!).

Together, we listened to Erin read the Epilogue from The Quirks: Welcome to Normal, celebrated a few second grade writers who had written haiku inspired by The Quirks, and sang a quirky little tune written by one of our regular substitutes.

The students and staff at OES loved Erin, with many remarking later that day and the next about how terrific she had been and how much it meant to the students to meet her. 

Truly, it is the most important magical work to make it possible, and I'm so grateful to Erin for sharing such enthusiasm about OES Reads and her generosity and willingness to make this day a reality for our school community. 

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Bat and the Waiting Game Blog Tour

I love the idea that readers make friendships with characters they meet in the books they read. Sometimes when I read a book, I meet a character who I think would enrich the lives of all of my students.

I think all of our readers should be friends with Bat.

Bat is Bixby Alexander Tam, a charming, animal-loving, younger brother and friend in Elana K. Arnold's chapter book series with Walden Pond Press. In the first book, A Boy Called Bat, readers meet Bat and learn about his family including an older sister (Janie), his veterinarian mother, and his dad, at whose house he spends Every-Other Weekend. Readers experience Bat's love for all animals as he begs to keep and care for a bitty skunk kit, and his determination to arm himself with research and deep knowledge of this new skunk by seeking out expert advice.

In the newest release, Bat and the Waiting Game, Bat is back (and Thor, too!). Janie gets a part in the school play that involves daily after-school rehearsals which necessitates change in Bat's after-school plans, too. These changes mean spending more time with new people and new places and new situations which can be tricky to figure out.

The things I love most about Bat and the Waiting Game can be summed up in three words:
Character, Perspective, and Heart.

Character. Bat is such a likable character. His adoration of Thor, the skunk kit, is so sweet. What's not to love about his enthusiasm about growing a garden of vegetables for Thor to eat and his desire to involve his classmates in the project, too? Even Bat's blunt and honest take on things (like Janie's obsession with the play) contribute to making him an endearing character. And, as the narrator of his own story, Bat's feelings are transparent to the reader, making him both engaging and relatable.

Perspective. Bat is a character on the autism spectrum, and Arnold beautifully portrays Bat's personality and preferences. Without making autism be the focal point of the book, Bat's point of view provides us this lens through which we read and "see" the world differently: his classroom, the baseball field, someone else's house, a sleepover. Bat's story is fertile ground for building empathy and understanding.

Heart: The relationships between the characters in Arnold's writing emanate love. The care Bat's parents have for him pulses off the page in scenes where his closest adults help him process hard feelings. The portrayal of love between Bat and Janie, even in the most trying of times (What happens when a skunk shows up to a school play?) is big and honest. It is heartwarming to be privy to the development of Bat's friendship with Israel as he works out kinks and misunderstandings. Heaping examples of love and compassion radiate in this book, and can't we all stand to grow more loving and compassionate?

Bat and the Waiting Game publishes from Walden Pond Press on March 27, 2018. Gift your readers a friendship with Bat.

Walden Pond Press has generously offered to giveaway a copy of Bat and the Waiting Game to one lucky blog reader.  Use this form to enter
(Giveaway will end at midnight EST on March 27, 2018.)

Congratulations, Susan Dee!

About Elana K. Arnold:
Elana K. Arnold grew up in California, where she, like Bat, was lucky enough to have her own perfect pet — a gorgeous mare named Rainbow — and a family who let her read as many books as she wanted. She is the author of picture books, middle grade novels, and books for teens, including the National Book Award finalist title What Girls Are Made Of. Elana lives in Huntington Beach, California, with her husband, two children, and a menagerie of animals. She calls the “Bat” series for Walden Pond Press “books of her heart.” You can find her online at

And, for more good stuff about Bat and the Waiting Game, be sure to download the Educator's Resource for Bat and the Waiting Game from Walden Pond Press. You can also visit these other stops on the blog tour for more reviews and chances to win:
3/12 For Those About to Mock, @abouttomock Sam Eddington
3/15 Mrs. Knott’s Book Nook @knott_michele Michele Knott
3/15 @iowaamber Amber Kuehler
3/16 The Hiding Spot @thehidingspot Sara Grochowski
3/18 Educate*Empower*Inspire…Teach @guerrette79 Melissa Guerrette
3/19 Maria’s Melange @mariaselke Maria Selke
3/20 Nerdy Book Club post by Elana
3/20 Writers Rumpus @kirsticall Kirsti Call
3/22 Bluestocking Thinking @bluesockgirl Nicole Levesque
3/28 Unleashing Readers @unleashreaders Kellee Moye
If you haven't already, get caught up on the first
Bat book, now available in paperback!