Free Range Readers

Nurturing Self Reliant Readers and Writers in K-6 classrooms

August 22, 2016
by mnosal

Tackling Tough Topics With Our Elementary Students


This Monday, I’m reading Towers Falling, by Jewell Parker Rhodes. The book centers on fifth grader Deja, and her classmates Ben and Sabeen. Their teacher has decided to assign a project that requires the students to learn about September 11 and the Twin Towers. As stated on the cover flap, Jewell Parker Rhodes tells a story of resilience, hope, and finding yourself in a complicated world.”

Deja’s life is complicated. She lives with her family in a homeless shelter. She’s trying to negotiate her home life with her life on a new school that is very different from schools she has attended in the past. The book offers lots of opportunities to teach topics that can be hard to talk about in the classroom. Because of this, the book is an excellent choice as an anchor book in a text set. In fact, if you want great suggestions, check out Book Whisperer Donalyn Miller’s terrific post on Nerdy Book Club. She offers a great range of fiction, non-fiction, and picture books. A favorite picture book of mine is included: Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey, by Maira Kalman. I am a longtime fan of Maira Kalman, and this book is deceptively simple. It is actually great for upper elementary students, as well as younger children, as a springboard for talking about this difficult event.

As a teacher, I struggled with ways to talk about 9/11 with students who weren’t even born when this event took place. I absolutely wanted to steer clear of any type of sensationalism and tried to think about reasons why it would be important to address with 5th graders.  Jewell Parker Rhodes helps make sense of things with Towers Falling by helping children understand many changes in our world since 9/11. Here is a quote from Deja at the end of the book:

“School didn’t teach me everything about 9/11. Still, I understand a lot more now. I understand some of the enormous hurt to families, my family, and country.”

If I were going to add to Donalyn Miller’s list of teaching resources for 9/11, here are some texts I would add:

Messages to Ground Zero by Shelley Harwayne.

An excerpt from the National Writing Project provides information:

In the introduction to this anthology, Harwayne writes:

“On the morning of September 11th, 2001 many of our New York City students saw, heard, smelled, and felt things that none of the grown-ups were prepared to explain. Our students, as well as students throughout our country picked up their pens, pencils, crayons, markers, and paintbrushes and attempted to make sense of this most incomprehensible of acts. Our children attempted to use their words and their art to wrap their arms around the tragedy that befell families in the New York metropolitan area as well as residents of Washington and Pennsylvania….Our children also used their writing and art to offer condolence, comfort others, and of course, bear witness.”

I also would include an essay written by self-described Arab American poet Naomi Shihab Nye, entitled

To Any Would-Be Terrorists.

The current climate in our country as we head into our presidential election is filled with fear and hate. It’s a very hard world to navigate these days, and it is good to know that there are books and authors who can help us help children make sense of the senseless….or at least try. I will end with a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye that I would also include in the early days of the school year, called Kindness, as well as a poem by Mattie Stepanek that follows:


Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

To read the rest of the poem, find it here at The Writer’s Almanac.

Finally, a beautiful poem for young children:

For Our World by Mattie Stepanek:

For Our World

We need to stop.
Just stop.
Stop for a moment.
Before anybody
Says or does anything
That may hurt anyone else.

Read the rest here.

Have a great week!


September 20, 2015
by mnosal
1 Comment

It’s Monday and I’m Reading Walter Dean Myers!


It’s the beginning of a new school year, which means new books for my classroom library. After moving a few shelves into place and rearranging some books, it is very clear to me that I need to do more curating and less hoarding  with my classroom library books(thank you, Donalyn Miller!).

This week, I am trying to find books that will appeal to my strong reader  tweens who are “on the reading cusp” between 5th and 6th grade. It’s so tricky, but I am happy to have rediscovered The Cruisers series, by the inimitable Walter Dean Myers. While it’s a little more middle school-ish than 5th grade, those kids who are pushing the middle grades envelope will be happy to have found this series.

Cruisers by Walter Dean Myers

Cruisers by Walter Dean Myers

From Goodreads:

Zander and his crew are underdogs at DaVinci Academy, one of the best Gifted and Talented schools in Harlem. But even these kids who are known as losers can win by speaking up. When they start their own school newspaper, stuff happens. Big stuff. Loud stuff. Stuff nobody expects. Mr. Culpepper, the Assistant Principal and Chief Executioner, is ready to be rid of Zander, Kambui, LaShonda, and Bobbi—until they prove that their writing packs enough power to keep the peace and show what it means to stand up for a cause.

This book brings the past to the present by taking on the Civil War issues between the Union and Confederacy with a group of middle grades students who are exploring freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and identity. I think this book (and series) is a good “pre YA” transition type book. Let me know what you think!


September 13, 2015
by mnosal

It’s Monday …. “Be Who You Are”


I am a little behind on my reading, as I try to get back into the rhythm of the school year. There are so many things to do, and never enough time to get them all done! However, my priority right now is to get my classroom library stocked and ready for business. My range of 5th grade readers this year spans Fountas & Pinnell reading levels O – V. I spent the better part of my Saturday afternoon at my local indie bookshop combing the shelves for some new titles to add to my shelves. I know I wanted to get

Be Who You Are

Be Who You Are

and it might just have to be a read aloud this year. Goodreads says:


When people look at George, they think they see a boy. But she knows she’s not a boy. She knows she’s a girl.

George thinks she’ll have to keep this a secret forever. Then her teacher announces that their class play is going to be Charlotte’s Web. George really, really, REALLY wants to play Charlotte. But the teacher says she can’t even try out for the part . . . because she’s a boy.

With the help of her best friend, Kelly, George comes up with a plan. Not just so she can be Charlotte — but so everyone can know who she is, once and for all.

I am so happy to have this book geared for my age group. It’s about time! Thank you, Alex Gino! I am eager to read and plan how to work with George in my classroom. That’s all, this week!

September 12, 2015
by mnosal

Settling Into the New School Year!

We just finished the second week of school, and things are off and running! We are busy establishing routines, getting to know one another, and building stamina for reading and writing. Next week’s work is writing I Am From poems, which I will share more about next week.

Our class puzzle is a precept from A.A. Milne: You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.

5th grade classroom door

5th grade classroom door

The year is off to a good start. Stay tuned!

September 11, 2015
by mnosal

In Remembrance for Poetry Friday

It's Friday, what poem are you reading?

It’s Friday, what poem are you reading?

Life on the Deckle Edge has this week’s roundup. Thank you, Robyn!

It’s hard to believe that 14 years have passed since 9/11. For this week’s poem, I’ve chosen one from poet Mattie Stepanek, from his book, Hope Through Heartsongs. I love this poem for so many reasons, and especially because it was written by a child and so appropriate to share with children when talking about this day. Stacey over at Two Writing Teachers has some very developmentally appropriate and thoughtful ways to mark this day in classrooms. Here’s Mattie’s poem:


For Our World


We need to stop.
Just stop.
Stop for a moment.
Before anybody
Says or does anything
That may hurt anyone else.
We need to be silent.
Just silent.
Silent for a moment.
Before we forever lose
The blessing of songs
That grow in our hearts.
We need to notice.
Just notice.
Notice for a moment.
Before the future slips away
Into ashes and dust of humility.
Stop, be silent, and notice.
In so many ways, we are the same.
Our differences are unique treasures.
We have, we are, a mosaic of gifts
To nurture, to offer, to accept.
We need to be.
Just be.
Be for a moment.
Kind and gentle, innocent and trusting,
Like children and lambs,
Never judging or vengeful
Like the judging and vengeful.
And now, let us pray,
Differently, yet together,
Before there is no earth, no life,
No chance for peace.


Mattie Stepanek 9/12/2001

Have a peaceful day.

August 27, 2015
by mnosal

“Poetry Friday” Everyday!

A recent post by Tara Smith over at Two Writing Teachers inspired me to reflect on my out routines and rituals around making poetry an every day part of my instruction, rather than contained in a unit of study to be taught at a specific time of year. Thanks, Tara, for a great post!

Sylvia has the round-up this week over at Poetry for Children. This week, my poem for

It's Friday, what poem are you reading?

It’s Friday, what poem are you reading?

is a poem I wrote a few years ago after attending a summer writing institute at Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. Ralph Fletcher gave a terrific keynote and took participants through a few writing exercises that I have since used a lot with my students.


The Good Old Days


Sometimes I remember

The good old days


Riding to Jones Beach in our big, black Chrysler

With my four brothers and sisters


Each of us standing

Shoulder to shoulder across the capacious back seat


I run across the white -hot sand

Twirling in my plaid skirted swimsuit


Dad gives us all

a “ready-set-GO!” and we

Race to the water


I still can’t imagine

Anything better than that.

by Maureen Nosal (inspired by Ralph Fletcher)

Ralph had read his own poem, The Good Old Days, and encouraged us to use his first and last two lines and write our own memory in between. It was a fun, thoughtful, and successful endeavor for most, and I thought about how fun it would be to write this poem with my 5th graders.

This year, I had a student who lost his big brother in an unspeakably tragic incident. He was having a hard time and did not want to talk about it with anyone. When we started working on our own Good Old Days poems, he suddenly wanted to write about a memory of happy times with his brother. He wrote a beautiful poem and the act of working on it gave me an opportunity to talk with him a little about the healing power of writing. He gave me a beautiful smile and asked if he could publish his poem. It was a most fulfilling writing conference, as you can imagine.

You can find this short writing exercise in Ralph’s book Mentor Author, Mentor Texts, at Heinemann.

So, how does poetry fit into my school year? I start on Day One with a poem that we will work on for the week. My students keep a poetry folder and get a poem every Monday that we will take time to read and unpack each morning at the end of Morning Meeting (my Shared Reading time). Students work with the poem, reading, rereading, and annotating all week during morning work and for homework. I follow a structure from Georgia Heard’s terrific book, Poetry Lessons to Meet the Common Core Standards to implement a 5 day weekly routine. If you do not have this book, you need it! It is a practical and, despite its clunky title, inspirational. I have found countless ways to work with poems. From Goodreads:

Favorite poet and author Georgia Heard shares step-by-step poetry lessons that guide students to identify figurative language, hear rhyme, rhythm, and other poetic conventions, and explore imagery and theme—and then determine how these elements deepen their understanding of the poem. Students gain a thorough knowledge of poetic elements, which helps them meet Common Core State Standards in literature and language. Includes model poems, response activities, and performance tasks! For use with Grades K-5. (less)

Georgia Heard

Georgia Heard

If you are familiar with Georgia Heard’s work from Awakening the Heart, you are sure to be delighted with this resource. I like to use both books. I think of Awakening the Heart as more of a writing resource, and Poetry Lessons to Meet the Common Core Standards as more of a close reading resource.

We often illustrate poems, or favorite parts of poems, and sometimes these illustrations live in our folders, or sometimes they live on our classroom walls.

By Bobbi Katz

5th graders respond to poem with illustration

Poetry brings us together as a community of readers, writers, and thinkers. While I’ve enjoyed working out ways to use poetry for daily reading these past few years, I haven’t done as much with writing poetry on a regular basis. This year, I am going to find small ways to tuck in a poetry writing routine. I learned a lot last year with my predominately English language learners about the payoff with poetry writing for language development. I will be posting more about this topic and my experiences as I work it into instruction this year.

Here are a few of my favorite poetry books:

one part of my poetry bookshelf

one part of my poetry bookshelf

Poetry bookshelf

Poetry bookshelf

August 26, 2015
by mnosal

Making Space for Reading

It’s almost Thursday, and I can’t believe I missed #IMWAYR this week! Time is flying! My school finished two weeks of professional development last Thursday, and this week we are “off” before school starts on Monday. Anyone who teaches knows that we are never really “off” the week before school starts! I have been in my classroom every day, getting ready for the year ahead.

Thanks to a dear colleague, I made some much needed changes in the layout of my room. After moving big and small pieces of furniture, my technology, and my “teaching space,” I am almost ready to do some of the day to day planning. First up is my read aloud planning. I love to think about my book choices and how they will spark strong conversations, gentle or not-so-gentle-laughter, and plant seeds for future discussions. I like to think about a mix of old favorites and new books, and I like to think about the new books that will become old favorites! If you look closely, you can see the newest book on my shelf, The Little Gardener, which I won from the awesome Mr. Schu! Many thanks, Mr. Schu!


My meeting area is the hub of my classroom, and although it is still very much a “work in progress” it is Command Central! Next to the read aloud picture  books for the first few weeks of school are my Family Book Bags. These are books that are chosen to share with families. After we read and discuss the book in school, each child has a chance to bring the book home overnight and share it with someone. They record their response in a notebook and share the experience with the class the next morning in school. It is still one of my favorite rituals and it is surprising how many 5th graders enjoy participating. I will be sharing more about these as the year goes on. Here is one that I made for the fabulous Jeanette Winter’s book, Biblioburro, based on a true story from Colombia about a man who starts a donkey library. What’s not to love?!


Biblioburro Family Book Bag!

Well, time to get back to work….. kids are coming in 5 days and I have books to shelve!  😉

August 20, 2015
by mnosal

Poetry Friday <3



Yes, it is once again Poetry Friday! I am up to my eyebrows in classroom setup stuff, and want to share a favorite Eloise Greenfield poem this week:



By Eloise Greenfield

I’ve got

books on the bunk bed

books on the chair

books on the couch

And every old where

But I want more books

I just can’t get enough

I want more books about

All kinds of stuff, like

Jackie’s troubles, Raymond’s joys

Rabbits, kangaroos, girls and boys

Mountains, valleys,

Winter, spring

Campfires, vampires,

Every old thing,

I want to

lie down on my bunk bed,

lean back in

my chair,

curl up on the couch

and every old






This is a fabulous poem to share at the beginning of the year when getting kids pumped to read books, showing them the library, and talking about reading expectations. I have this poem available around the classroom, and we read it for shared reading. I found it a few years ago in a great anthology of children’s poems entitled:

Hip Hop Speaks to Children

Hip Hop Speaks to Children

From Goodreads:

Hip Hop Speaks to Children is a celebration of poetry with a beat.

Poetry can have both a rhyme and a rhythm. Sometimes it is obvious; sometimes it is hidden. But either way, make no mistake, poetry is as vibrant and exciting as it gets. And when you find yourself clapping your hands or tapping your feet, you know you’ve found poetry with a beat!

This amazing collection of poems for children is edited by Nikki Giovanni, and it is a brilliant, “must have” book for your classroom library! OK …. back to my books!










August 16, 2015
by mnosal

Words to Live By

It's Monday, What Are You Reading?

Spread the Wealth of Books!

Thanks again to Jen over at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee at Unleashing Readers for hosting IMWAYR?

Lots and lots of thinking around books this time of year (especially) and I read a great post over at Two Writing Teachers that made me think a lot about the words that we use  and share and give importance to in our classrooms. Words matter, and intentionality with our words matters.

I do a lot of work with my students around quotes, and this year we will hold this book very close to us as we travel the school year together: 365 Days of Wonder: Mr. Browne’s Book of Precepts, by RJ Palacio.



One of my favorite things about Wonder, by RJ Palacio, was Mr. Browne’s precepts — principles to live by. From goodreads:

In the #1 New York Times bestselling novel Wonder, readers were introduced to memorable English teacher Mr. Browne and his love of precepts. Simply put, precepts are principles to live by, and Mr. Browne has compiled 365 of them—one for each day of the year—drawn from popular songs to children’s books to inscriptions on Egyptian tombstones to fortune cookies. His selections celebrate kindness, hopefulness, the goodness of human beings, the strength of people’s hearts, and the power of people’s wills. Interspersed with the precepts are letters and emails from characters who appeared in Wonder. Readers hear from Summer, Jack, Charlotte, Julian, and Amos.

There’s something for everyone here, with words of wisdom from such noteworthy people as Anne Frank, Martin Luther King Jr., Confucius, Goethe, Sappho—and over 100 readers of Wonder who sent R. J. Palacio their own precepts.

I started to introduce daily precepts from the book during Morning Meeting or Closing Circle, and the class would have strong conversations about the meaning and the relevance of the different precepts. We started to collect our own, too, such as:

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou

I like the idea of choosing a few to focus on long term, across the year, and then picking up our book, 365 Days of Wonder, for daily inspiration. I am thinking of keeping the ones the students collect in a separate notebook. At any rate, I am excited to start the year with 365 Days of Wonder!

Here is the precept for today, August 17 (from the book):

The things that make me different are the things that make ME. Piglet (A. A. Milne)


Have a great week! 😉


August 15, 2015
by mnosal

Planning Ahead By Looking Back At Independent Reading Structures

It’s hard to believe that school is starting in 2 weeks! I know a lot of friends are back in school already, while a few (lucky) friends are still about 4 weeks away. There is much work ahead, but my favorite planning is around my 5th grade Independent Reading Workshop.

Classroom Library

Classroom Library

Reflecting on my past year – looking back to move forward —  will help me revise and refine my structures. Several things I’ve learned:

  • Kids did not have a strong enough sense of authors, genres, series, or titles in September. This makes “choice” very challenging.
  • Many kids were lacking passions for books OR had one book or single reading experience that they keep going back to and didn’t quite know how to recreate that experience with other books.
  • Most kids did not identify a favorite book or author in the beginning of the year.
  • Many kids were not making enough time for reading once out of school
  • Kids were mostly passive readers, expecting the book to do the work of reading, and not working up what Kathy Collins calls “brain sweat” while reading.

1. Kids did not have a strong enough sense of authors, genres, series, or titles in September. This makes “choice” very challenging.

At the beginning of the year, I give students reading surveys to get a handle on their habits, tastes, feelings, and experiences around reading. Some of these include the Garfield survey, the Title Recognition Test, and others that I have either made or collected throughout the years. I get a good baseline from this data, and use it to inform my initial reading conferences with students. I communicate my expectations for appropriate book choices the students need to make for themselves, and in order to choose well they need to know themselves as readers.


2. Many kids were lacking passions for books OR had one book or single reading experience that they keep going back to and didn’t quite know how to recreate that experience with other books. 3. Most kids did not identify a favorite book or author in the beginning of the year.

ALL kids know who Jeff Kinney is, whether they’ve read Diary of a Wimpy Kid or not! I think there is much to learn from this. With all due respect to Mr. Kinney, there are other authors and series out there! We (teachers) can “market” other books to our students and create a buzz around other books and authors that kids will like and want to be seen reading. This is important because reading in school is very social and children are highly aware of what everyone around them is reading. If they can feel excitement while reading a book once, we can help them learn how to take that experience and generalize it to new reading experiences. In fact, Stephen Krashen wrote about this here and referred to Jim Trelease’s idea of “the home run book:”

…a limited number of positive experiences with reading
may be enough to create a reader. Jim Trelease (personal communication) has in
fact suggested that one very positive experience can create a reader, one “home run”
It is imperative that teachers include reading motivation as an important piece of the reading skill set that we monitor, document, and teach into.
3. Many kids were not making enough time for reading once out of school.
A lot has been written about reading volume and time spent on reading. I refer to the research from Anne Cunningham and Keith Stanovich when I talk with parents about the importance of reading volume. To inform my practice, I lean into work by Lucy Calkins and Donalyn Miller, who both stress the importance of pulling kids into the volume conversation. More time spent in school reading often translates into increased time spent reading outside of school. I have found this to be true for many students, and my proof is in the 40 Book Challenge results. The past few years have been richly rewarding when kids tally up their books and realize how much reading they have accomplished.
4. Kids were mostly passive readers, expecting the book to do the work of reading, and not working up what Kathy Collins calls “brain sweat” while reading.

It’s a lot of work to keep kids reading in just right books, and we want them digging in and having robust reading experiences. In my reading workshop, I am on high alert for students who are posing with their books, just kind of dozing or daydreaming with a book in their hands. Bad habits are harder to break than good ones are to form, so it is not acceptable to “pretend” read in 5th grade. While working with Kathy Collins in our school this year, I loved her idea of the author doing all of this work to write the book and it’s our job as a reader to have an active reading experience that makes our brains sweat a bit. Kids need to know that’s an expectation, and that it’s good for them! What are some ways you combat passive reading?

Partnership work helps make children accountable for their reading in authentic ways. I am excited to do more work around reading partnerships this year. I also had students writing me letters about their reading, as well as sharing comments in their googledocs logs with classmates.

Student reading log in googledocs

Student reading log in googledocs

Also, I cannot stress enough the importance of daily read aloud work with talk as an integral component of literacy instruction. I will be posting more about structures and routines on this component, as well as shared reading, as pieces of a balanced literacy framework.

So, for now I am busy planning and dreaming of the reading work that happens soon!

Skip to toolbar