What Can I Offer Parkland?

As a K/1 multi-age teacher in Upstate New York my students are not aware of the details of the Florida school shooting. They are not aware of the gun control debate. They are not aware of the mental illness discussion. They will not be marching in protest in the upcoming weeks.

They are, however, VERY aware of the tension in the air. Like me, they feel the heartache and confusion in our country.  What can I do with my five, six and seven-year-old students to give them comfort? To give them voice? What can I do to give them a sense of control? How do I teach them the skills of productive action?

Books. Books. Powerful, emotional and challenging books.

The Recess QueenEvery September I read Alexis O’neill’s book, The Recess Queen, where we meet a playground bully who picks on everyone.  Through O’neill’s delightful rhyme and rhythm we meet Mean Jean who “…hammers and slammers ’em, kit and kajammers em.” My students easily identify the bully behavior and discuss appropriate playground rules. Lisa Huliska-Beith’s illustrations are equally delightful and when we meet Katie Sue, “a teeny kid. A tiny kid. A kid you might scare with a jump and a boo” the students easily identify the quiet kindness she shows Jean.  Together the author and illustrator create a safe entry point for discussions.  “Why was Jean so mean?”   “Have you ever felt bullied?” and the trickiest question, “Have you ever bullied someone because you felt left out?”  These discussions in September are BIG and powerful and they set the tone for our community.

OneIn October I read Kathryn Otoshi’s book, One.  As a class we have been together for 30-40 days and we have all experienced the feeling of being left out, of feeling sad, of saying things that hurt.  Otoshi uses colors as the main characters and this invites the students to identify with the hurt of sadness (blue) and the tension of anger (red).  As Red picks on Blue over and over we see the other colors (green, yellow, purple) stand by silently.  Quietly they tell blue they don’t think it’s right, but they never say that to red. Soon all the colors are afraid of Red.

Student make wonderful connections to Recess Queen and make predictions of how to help include Red. “If yellow played with Red they could make Orange!”  “They could tell Red they need him for fire engines!”  But alas, none of the colors are brave enough to tell Red to stop.  Until one day…One arrives.  In kind and peaceful word, One says, “No.” The other colors feel stronger and they stand up to Red.

This alone would be a nice quaint book on how to stand up to bullies. But Otoshi knows the power of words and the power of kindness that looms in young children’s hearts.  Blue, who has been bullied so much turns to Red and asks, “Can Blue be cool, AND Red be hot?”   Oh, that moment…

Our discussions revolve around how can we see and celebrate each other’s strengths? How will we, as a school family, develop the power inside to say something when mean things happen?


Jan de Kinder’s book, Red, is next on my list.  In this book it’s not a bully that starts the teasing, it’s a friend.  The main character thinks it’s cute that Tommy’s cheeks go red when he blushes, and she points it out.  Other kids notice it and start to taunt him.  Tommy repeatedly asks them to stop but they don’t. The girl stays silent. When the teacher asks what happened the powerful text draws us in to the girl’s ache of shame and anxiety of getting in trouble. de Kinder’s beautiful language challenges my students to decipher metaphors and infer complex emotions.

As the teasing continues the teacher again asks who saw what happened and in the sparse illustration of the girl’s hand being raised we once again feel the courage to be the one voice. Other hands go up and we feel the comfort of solidarity.

In the final pages de Kinder creates room for students to recognize and define true empathy. As Tommy and the girl head out to recess, she blushes. We realize, through tender honest discussions, that we have all been embarrassed and we have all done the embarrassing. We realize, what happens to you, happens to me – maybe in the same way, maybe in a different way. We realize we are all connected. And when we recognize our connections we become stronger, kinder, happier.


Bird Child

It’s January now and our classroom community continues to grow and mature both academically and socially.  We have celebrated each other’s accomplishments in writing and math and the monkey bars! And yet, there are still moments when something new or different brings out a sharp retort or hurtful jab.  In Nan Forler’s book, Bird Child, we are once again faced with the dilemma of speaking up.

Lainey is a new girl at school that looks and acts differently. Eliza notices the intricate and vibrant drawing Lainey creates but as the teasing starts those drawings become darker and sparser. But Eliza says nothing to the bullies.

As a baby Eliza’s mother taught her to fly with the words, “Look down and see what is…Now look up to see what can be.”  As Lainey’s hurt seeps into Eliza’s heart Eliza finds her wings and stands up to the bully and once again we see the strength in unity. In the end Lainey and Eliza build a “snow castle that reaches the sky.”

My students enthusiastically debate what “to fly”, and “found her wings” and “snow castle to the sky” really mean.  We create a poster making connections to our lives. Chloe tells us she “flies” when she is writing poems because they feel good inside.  Aiden shares his Dad teaches him “to fly” when he helps him get back up when he falls in hockey.  Shannon says her “snow castle to the sky” happens when Clara allows her to make up the game at recess.

And then, Parkland happened.


And then, in my mailbox, was this:

The Big Umbrella

Oh my.  Such sweetness.

Amy June Bates with her daughter, Juniper has created a inspiring book of lightness paired with depth, of tenderness with boldness, of humor with acceptance.  And after the fifth read I have yet to add any comments to the dialogue that flows among my students. They have interpreted, inferred, disagreed, collaborated, compromised and concluded: We accept everyone.

I have 180 days to create a community where students accept, inspire, challenge and bravely stand up for one another. This is not a tag along activity, a one-day lesson, a throw in on a half day separate from the curriculum. Community building IS the curriculum. It is THROUGH the development of a safe and caring community that students engage, debate, calculate, write, defend, persuade, read, question, fail and ultimately succeed.  It is through books and honest dialogue, that I teach. This is what I can offer Parkland. This is what I offer our future.


One of the very first lessons I teach in Friendship Workshop is: We ALL make mistakes…it’s what we do afterwards that matters.  In those first days of school it’s inevitable…she will bump into someone, he will knock down a tower, she will shout out an answer when it wasn’t her turn.  We’re all going to make mistakes – even teachers! What’s important to us as a community is how we fix things afterwards.

Product Details           Product Details

In the past I’ve used Blue Hat, Green Hat by Sandra Boynton and It’s Okay To Make Mistakes by Todd Parr as anchor texts.  The simplicity of those texts and illustrations allow students to feel safe and admit they have made some silly mistakes too. We always enjoy sharing our silliness while emphasizing how we can be kind when others make a mistake.  One year I took photographs of the kids with clothes in silly places and interactively wrote the words with them. Fun way to strengthen letter and sound connections.

This year I came across a new book by Corrina Luyken     Product Details

This is not a straightforward book about making and fixing mistakes.  It does not have simple illustrations.  It does not directly tell readers mistakes are okay.

This book requires thought.  A LOT of thought. How could I use it so early in the year? We’re 5! We shout whatever random connection we have as soon as it pops in our heads! We haven’t learned how to actively listen or how to follow someone else idea before sharing our own. Maybe I should wait.

My gut told me the quality of this book could drive the conversation but I should have a specific lesson for it….I’m the teacher, right?   I need to feel a sense of urgency and have rigorous expectations and keep up with the pacing guide.  I can’t do a Read Aloud unless  I know it addresses three or more standards can I? (Read with a jesting tone.)

I reread the book several more times and each read stirred excitement in me.  I began to realize I trusted the quality of the book AND I had to trust in the ability of my students to think deeply, question openly, and discuss respectfully. The lessons of “how to” do those things would be generated from our authentic need.

We have read it nine times already and the response has been amazing. Fluid back and forth dialogues, comments that received two or three connected responses, questions that are allowed to “float out there.” Five and six years old deeply questioning the word “becoming” and how it applies to the title, the “main character”, to their lives – wow.

One student suggested we make our own book of mistakes, “because we all make them.”  So we started retelling some of the mistakes we’ve made in the first days of school. There were stories of simple bumps, of not sharing, of cheating in a game.  We all openly and honestly admitted our mistakes (including me — when I raised my voice…) The real power came when we started to discuss the words we wanted to write.

Did we want to include “Becoming” too?  What other words could we use? (vocabulary work) What do we want to reader to feel when reading our book? Curious? Nervous? Relieved? (writing for an audience) How will our illustrations make the reader want to turn the page? Should we use photographs? Water colors? Cut paper? (collaborating with peers) So many literacy standards being addressed through vibrant and authentic discussions — on Day 16!

My mistake? Almost forgetting one of my favorite notions:  “it’s the process not the product.”  Young students can grapple with ideas, offer genuine support and passionately engage in their own learning.

They are “Becoming.”

Sometimes It Just Takes One

“You could be like One and stand tall!” exclaimed Everett.

“Yeah, you could be One and change things!” added Josiah.

A second grader had come to our Morning Meeting and explained that one of our classmates had been kicking him on the bus…even after he asked her to stop.  Samantha admitted it, sheepishly, and said she heard him say stop but she kept kicking.  A few more questions and a few more silent moments and Samantha whispered, “The other boy told me to.”

Ahhh… the power words can have on us.

one    Kathryn Otoshi’s book, One, is a brilliant picture book that addresses bullying, fear, and community in simple language and illustrations.  It is a wonderful way to connect the literary work you’re already doing with the social and emotional issues of the classroom.

One is told through the voice of Blue, a joyful flowing blob of paint that likes being blue. Blue sees the brightness of Green and the Regalness of Purple but is happy being Blue – except when Red is around. Red taunts Blue with the phrase, “Red is hot. Blue is not.” When this happens Blue becomes a thin faint line that almost disappears off the page. The other colors do not stand up to Red, they too feel frightened and helpless. Soon the number 1 comes along and is able to say no to Red and help all the colors get along.

Samantha is really struggling to define what it means to be a friend.  She wants to be in charge, likes to dictate play and her go to protection mantra is, “You won’t be my BFF!” She pinches and shoves and she stick out her tongue.  She tries desperately to gather troops to her hurt corner with bribes and promises of extravagant playdates. Her classmates are confused by her actions because when things are going Samantha’s way she’s funny, lively and inclusive.  But at the drop of a hat things can spiral into angry retorts, stomping fits and physical outbursts.

During the first two weeks of Writing Workshop we had read and studied Otoshi’s, One, commenting on the simple illustrations that evoked joy, fear, sadness and courage.  We shared stories of being lost and feeling scared, jumping off the diving board and feeling proud, moving to a new school and feeling lonely.  We drew our stories and emotions using crayons, watercolors, and colored markers. My Writing Workshop goals for these lessons were:

  1. practicing telling a simple oral story
  2. using and caring for our various illustration tools
  3. creating expressive illustrations through use of color and lines choice (heavy, thin, fading, etc.)
  4. and choosing stories that make our readers feel something

The lessons were focused, fun and fostered risk taking as each of us shared our drawings and stories.

And then months later Everett connected Samantha’s bus trouble with the Main Idea from One!  There were no pointed fingers, no one muttered, “You’re in trouble.”  The class took Everett’s lead and shared stories and connections about standing up for what is right. A community of five and six-year olds making text to world connections authentically and powerfully. Addressing a very real and difficult situation with kindness.   The class offered ideas to Samantha on how she could apologize and she asked several of them to help her draw her card for the second grader.

As the year progressed there were other hurtful situations and angry outbursts, there always are. And by choosing quality books that addressed real and difficult situations we developed not just our reading and writing skills but our peacemaking skills as well.

Lessons in Friendship

This article originally appeared in Library SPARKS! January 2016

Best Library Sparks friends in books stay with you for a lifetime. What young reader doesn’t connect  to the everyday and endearing adventures of Henry and Mudge? Or
tear up at the tenderness and worry of Charlotte and Wilbur? And who can forget the challenges and escapades of Harry, Ron and Hermione? Children of all ages gravitate towards friendship stories. Through them, readers make connections, gain confidence, and explore all the ups and downs of friendships. As educators we can use these characters and connections to strengthen our students’ enthusiasm for reading and writing.

 In Paul Tough’s book (2012), How Children Succeed, he explains that improving IQ and academic skills as early as possible (what he calls “the cognitive hypothesis”) used to be the focus of education. Preschools and tutoring programs pushed drills and worksheets on children as young as three! The belief was that intellectual aptitude was the foremost indicator of success in adulthood. In 1995, Daniel Goleman’s book, Emotional Intelligence, began to change that focus. Read through any current educational magazines or books,
and you will see an emphasis on social and emotional skills, character building curriculums, and antibullying programs. A new hypothesis has developed in the past few years, one that focuses on the noncognitive skills or self regulation skills. These skills — the skills of friendship—rose to the forefront because many students showed signs of stress, anxiety, and aggression and today’s children are busier and “plugged in” more than ever. Research shows that more than 50% of all students experience some form of anxiety on a daily basis.

Throughout the school day our classroom tasks require students to pay attention, cooperate with their peers, recall information, link it to new thinking, and more—a multitude of processing skills that depend on a healthy state of mind. Studies indicate that skills such as empathy, self control, and perseverance have significant positive impact on success both socially and academically. These skills, when taught in an integrated and explicit manner, can pave the way to calmer, more confident, and academically robust classrooms.

I developed Friendship Workshop to address the social and emotional needs of my students. I created time for a twenty minute workshop to introduce skills such as labeling emotions, apologizing, disagreeing, and persisting. It is a conscious approach for helping children identify and regulate their emotions so they can make choices that support their relationships and their schooling. Our conversations and discussions during Friendship Workshop help us reach academic standards—they don’t pull us away from those goals. By understanding one another—orally and socially at first, then using those community building exchanges to strengthen reading and writing skills—we experience the joys of communicating, connecting  understanding, and connecting to one another.

In the classroom, Friendship Workshop follows a similar format to a Writing or Reading Workshop. There is a mini lesson, an activity and discussion, and a reflection period. The themes come from careful and purposeful observation of the students while they are  at work during independent and play time. Do they need more support in sharing materials? Is there a constant jostling for a “premier” spot in line? Can they have a discussion with opposing opinions in a respectful and thoughtful manner? In Reading Workshop or Math Workshop, the students have independent practice time. In Friendship Workshop, that independent practice is embedded throughout the week as authentic
opportunities to be patient or kind arise. By collaborating with the classroom teacher, you can adapt Friendship Workshop to introduce the skills and text connections that are
most appropriate for the group. The following lesson ideas will give you suggestions for trying a Friendship Workshop about kindness with your students. The most important aspect is to listen to the students and create opportunities for them to connect to literacy in authentic and engaging ways. (These lessons are written for grades K-2 but by changing the level of discussion you can easily adapt the lesson to grades 3-5. Also included are
additinal titles the classroom teacher could read as follow up Read Alouds to further the discussion throughout the week. The lessons can stand alone or be part of a series of lessons on kindness.)

Social/Emotional Skill: Kindness

Show students a collection of your favorite friendship books (Henry and Mudge, Clifford and Emily, Frog and Toad). Ask the students to name some books about friendship that they have read and liked. Ask them to name some traits they think make a good friend and record those on a chart. Explain that just like learning to do the monkey bars or write their name in cursive, they can learn how to be a good friend.

Seeds of Kindness
Read aloud Glenna’s Seeds by Nancy Edwards (2001). Stop regularly and have students predict what may happen next. Ask if the students have had an act of kindness happen to
them (getting a gift for “no reason,” a friend helping with a project, etc.). What acts of kindness could we do for our school? Plant seeds, of course— Seeds of Kindness!

Idea #1
Have your students create a garden mural. Throughout the week, they can add their acts of kindness. They can start by “planting a seed” that says, “I helped Anna pick up her crayons.” Anna adds to that seed a stem that says, “I pushed Devon on the swings.” Devon adds to that stem a bud that says, “I taught Jeff how to tie his shoes.” Jeff adds to that bud a petal, etc. Students and teachers keep adding until a beautiful garden of
kindness blooms!

Idea #2
Have students write to the local nursery for help with planting flowers on the playground. They might write a group letter or they might write letters as partners, or the class could
create a short video letter. (Check with your principal and/or district to make sure planting is allowed.)

Idea # 3
Students can create paper flowers and write a note of thanks to the “unsung heroes” of the school (custodians, office staff, cafeteria helpers, grounds crew). They can deliver them in person or anonymously like in Glenna’s Seeds. These short but authentic writing
pieces build student enthusiasm for reading, writing, and being kind within their school community.

Additional titles
Because Amelia Smiled by David Ezra Stein
Ordinary Mar’s Extraordinary Deed – Emily Pearson
The Lemonade Club – Patricia Polacco (grades 3-5)

Kind Nothings
Read Aloud A Gift of Nothing by Patrick McDonnell (2005). Discuss why Mutt’s gift of nothing was so special. Compare this book to Glenna’s Seed. How is it similar and how is it
different? Discuss how kindness is an important component of friendship.  Ask the class to share a time when someone has given them a gift of “nothing”. Record answers on a
chart (hugs, love you cards, reading together, walks, watching birds, etc). Tell students they will use their ideas to create a special “Box of Kind Nothings”. The box will be filled with kind thoughts and ideas to cheer people up when they are having a bad day. After the students fill the box, anyone will be able to come by and choose a card to help make their
day better.

Give students two or three colorful index cards. Have them write and illustrate special nothings on the cards to give to other people (think of the “love coupons” kids often give at Christmas time). Some ideas from my past students:

Sit in the sun and feel its warm hug.
Read a funny book with a friend.
Eat ice cream.
Tell knock-knock jokes.
(and they included two!)
Watch a butterfly.

Create a box (a large shoe box wrapped in fancy paper) where students can drop in their created “special nothings” anytime they create one. This is an engaging writing activity to
do for the two – three weeks before the winter holidays when so much emphasis can be on giving (and getting) material things.

Additional titles
The Recess Queen – Alexis O’neill
Those Shoes – Maribeth Boelts
Enemy Pie – Derek Munson

Special Kindness
For this lesson, you will introduce and discuss with your students how sometimes children may need extra support in becoming our friend. There are various degrees of this and choosing a book that fits your own personal comfort level is important. (Your Special Education colleagues are another great resource for collaborating on ideas and

Show students a collection of books about “special needs” friendships— friendships that may be different or not be typical for the group and may feel strange to them. Books
about language differences, autism, divorce, different cultures, etc., are some of the topics you may want to include. Explain that sometimes when someone looks or sounds  different, or when a new student joins the school during the school year, some people can be a little mean. Ask the students if they have ever seen this or experienced being left
out. Write down the key words they use to describe what they felt—sad, lonely, hurt, etc. Tell them that often it just takes one person to make a difference.

Read Aloud Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig. Before reading, ask the students for some predictions about the book based on the cover illustration and title. After reading a
bit, ask the students what they know about Brian and what they can infer. Read a little more and stop after meeting the new boy, Justin. What do the students predict may happen? Finally, at the end of the book, there is a powerful question: “How many kids
did it take in this story to help Brian feel less invisible?”

Other titles
The Name Jar – Yangsook Choi
Apt 3 – Ezra Jack Keats
One – Kathryn Otoshi

In Friendship Workshop, I address the social and emotional behaviors of my students by connecting what I see my students doing and saying during independent work times with my insights about their developmental  needs. I create a path to learning using their lives and emotions. Throughout the kindness lessons, the following curricular standards can be
• Retell stories, including key details, and demonstrate understanding of their central message or lesson.

• Compare and contrast the adventures and experiences of characters in stories.

• Actively engage in group reading activities with purpose and understanding.

• Participate in collaborative conversations with diverse partners in small and larger groups.

• Describe people, places, things, and events with relevant details, expressing ideas and feelings clearly.

• Add drawings or other visual displays to descriptions when appropriate to clarify ideas,
thoughts, and feelings.

These lessons on kindness, once introduced, will find their way into all aspects of your teaching and your students will astound you!