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!


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!

August 14, 2015
by mnosal
1 Comment

Reading and Empathy

My school’s professional readings this summer are centered on empathy, what it means and how focus on empathy in our work in school. I have no argument with any of the ideas presented in the book Empathy: Why It Matters and How To Get It,  by Roman Krznaric.


In fact, I do think it is an area that needs to be addressed in my school and I look forward to the continued conversations as the school year unfolds. I have a strong belief in the use of literature to build empathy.

A recent article, Reading for pleasure builds empathy and improves wellbeing, highlights findings from a study on pleasure reading in the UK.

The impact of reading for pleasure and empowerment’ surveys research into the effects of reading for pleasure on people of a range of age groups and requirements. Among the benefits it finds are improved social capital for children, young people and the general adult population; better parent-child communication and reduction of depression and dementia symptoms among adults.

As a strong proponent of reading workshop, these findings come as no surprise. What is confounding is how so many people who make decisions about reading instruction do not see value in giving children two of the most important, essential ingredients for powerful reading: time and choice. The International Literacy Association has a position statement on Leisure Reading, also known as Recreational Reading, and states:

Research shows that leisure reading enhances students’
reading comprehension (e.g., Cox & Guthrie, 2001),
language (e.g., Krashen, 2004), vocabulary development
(e.g., Angelos & McGriff, 2002), general knowledge (e.g.,
Cunningham & Stanovich, 1998), and empathy for others
(e.g., McGinley et al., 1997), as well as their self-confidence
as readers, motivation to read throughout their lives, and
positive attitudes toward reading (e.g., Allington & McGill-
Franzen, 2003; Eurydice Network, 2011). The benefits of
leisure reading apply to English learners (ELs) who read
in English as well as in their native languages. Because
interesting texts provide comprehensible input as well as
practice with reading, leisure reading offers many benefits
for ELs.
Children need to read a lot. They need to have agency over the materials they choose to read. As a teacher, I know I can help by expanding their knowledge of books and building their skill set. Reading habits matter as much as foundational skills. It’s not “either, or” and unfortunately, the powers that be who make policy decisions that impact millions of children, don’t quite get it. See Donalyn Miller’s work for great support in developing classrooms of independent readers.
I am lucky that I teach in a school where I can focus on both skills and habits, and this year I will add a focus on developing empathy as readers.
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