Skype-a-Thon is a Wrap!

The 3rd annual Microsoft in Education Skype-a-thon has officially wrapped up for us at school. This fabulous global learning experiences provides students a chance to open their hearts and minds to new people and opportunities for learning. We played Mystery Location, Mystery Number and Mystery Animal.

Playing these games seems pretty easy until you try it! Imagine 20 questions, except you are trying to figure out where in the world the other classroom is located, or what their mystery number or animal is. The object is to figure it out quickly and using smart “juicy” questions. Think questions such as “Does your state border an ocean” instead of “are you in Florida?” to begin the game.

This year we were able to connect with students and teachers in California, Canada, Nigeria, India, Croatia, Georgia, Kentucky, Virginia and other classrooms in our own school district. Here are a few photos of our experiences.

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Dragon of the Month Club author visits

Iain Reading, author of the Dragon of the Month Club and the Kitty Hawk series visited our school again this week. Here is a presentation about the event.


Iain Reading Guest Author
Iain Reading, author of the middle grade Dragon of the Month Club and Kitty Hawk series came to our school on Thursday for a 5th grade author visit. This was his second visit in two years a…
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Wonder by RJ Palacio

I first read Wonder in 2012 and lost track of how many times I’ve recommended it. This book about ten-year old Auggie who was born with Treacher-Collins Syndrome which affects a person’s facial features.

“My name is August, but the way. I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.” page 3

Now this #1 New York Times bestseller is being released as a major motion picture on November 17th, starring Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Jacob Tremblay, Daveed Diggs, and Mandy Patinkin.

We have a copy of the new version of Wonder which includes full-color movie photos, exclusive content and a foreword by Stephen Chbosky, co-screenwriter/director of Wonder.

I have adored Auggie, his friends and this amazing book for years. As Stephen Chbosky writes in the foreword, “RJ Palacio has given our world- and our troubled times-a ray of light. A silver lining big enough for any gray cloud. A standing ovation for empathy itself. She has taught us that no side “owns” kindness. We can only practice it.”

I am looking forward to this movie. The previews look fantastic! I just hope I bring enough tissues…

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Lights, Camera, Middle School!

“Babymouse is back and sassieer than ever in her middle-grade debut, Babymouse Tales from the Locker: Lights, Camera, Middle School! Using Babymouse’s signature humor and engaging illustrations, sister and brother duo Jennifer and Matthew Holm are now introducing their beloved Babymouse to a new crop of readers sure to embrace the humor and heart of the new graphic novel series as younger readers have done for the original books.” From Random House Children’s Books

I’ve been waiting for a new Babymouse book. I never thought she would turn up as a middle schooler! Babymouse has to grow up? No, say it isn’t true! However, Babymouse has the same issues as before, but now in a larger scale. This time she is the director of a film for the film club, but of course, nothing works the way she envisioned. Laughs and problems only Babymouse could have will entertain fans from beginning to end. The novel/graphic format format will appeal to readers who love Babymouse but are also ready for a longer book.

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The Perfect Score

“Award-winning author Rob Buyea offers a new series of unforgettable characters in The Perfect Score. Kid-friendly and full of heart, this new series is further evidence of Buyea’s masterful understanding of middle schoolers, a reputation first established with his popular Mr. Terupt series.”From Random House Children’s Books:

The Perfect Score is told through the voices of five students in 6th grade. Gavin loves football, but has never done so well in school, Randi is a gymnast who is trying to cope with her zealous mother, Natalie thinks like she is already an attorney, Scott who is almost always a hot-mess, and Trevor who really doesn’t like school, but would rather be there than at home. While they are all different, they share their universal dislike for the CBA standardized tests coming up.
The book is told in a short chapter — switching voices technique similar to Buyea’s previous Mr. Terupt books.  I personally yearned for a little more emotional connection with the characters. However, for Bob Buyea and realistic/school fiction fans, I think it will be a hit. A great choice for upper elementary or middle school students. 4/5 star rating

Realistic Fiction


*I was given a review copy by Random House Children’s Books in exchange for an honest review.

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Owl Bat Bat Owl

From Goodreads, “Can two very different families find their space in the world together? A wonderful wordless picture book offers stylish art, humor, and charm. ”

The wonderful part about reading wordless picture books is that it forces the reader to slow down and thoughtfully engage with the illustrations. Owl Bat, Bat Owl  by Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick is a great example of a wordless picture book that begs to be read slowly to savor its quiet, yet powerful message. We might be different, but we can all get along is something we all need to remember more.
Good choice for K-2 readers. Especially good choice for teaching inference.
I was given a review copy by Candlewick Press to read and offer an unbiased review.

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Libraries are For Everyone

I’m not usually one to do a theme, but I’m giving it a try this year with a global theme: One Global Library One of the qualities I love the most about my school is the rich diversity of our families. Besides English, there are 84 different languages spoken by our families.

To celebrate this diversity, I have created a wall outside the library with signs saying Libraries are for Everyone in 51 different languages. These signs were made by  Rebecca McCorkindale, a public librarian in Nebraska. They are published on her website Hafuboti. She wants and encourages libraries to download, share, modify and enjoy her signs. 

Libraries are for Everyone in Bulgarian.

I have enjoyed watching students walk down the hallway and point out the language they speak to their peers. I believe having their language celebrated is just one more way for our English Language Learners to feel included at our school.

When our ELL teacher saw the display I thought she would never stop smiling. She now has her country display next to ours so we can have a united message of unity and acceptance.

This theme will tie into my focus on global citizenship as well as learning about the Global Goals, also known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and how they pertain to literacy.

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Picture Book City Is Here!

Finally, the wait is over. The summer is a distant memory. We are four weeks into the school year. The behind the scenes project that took us an entire year to accomplish is in place and working!

Our everybody picture book area has been switched from a traditional book shelving system to a category based shelving system called  Picture Book City. Now we have a seamless system for early to intermediate readers to find books easily.

I was an early converter to a genre based fiction system. I’ve done some Dewey modification in animals and sports. There’s more work to be done, but I’m happy overall with the changes we’ve made so far.

And then there’s the everybody section. I couldn’t stand seeing young children frustrated in their search for a book. They had more trouble finding books that the older students. I decided something had to change and I started the research process.

Lucky for me, other librarians paved the pathway before me. Amy Koesler, The Show Me Librarian wrote about her experience converting her picture book area in 2012 after going to an ALA conference session about re-organizing the picture book section. She coined the term Picture Book City. She also has generously licensed her work with a Creative Commons Share Alike License, so anyone can use her ideas! YES!

Storytime Katie, an early literacy public librarian near Chicago also wrote about her process in switching her library in a series of blog posts.

Then the icing on the cake was when our local public King County Library System converted the picture books in every branch in their entire system to a category based program. The blog post Finding Picture Books Can Be Child’s Play published by the Urban Libraries Council outlines the innovative reasoning and research behind their decision to move away from traditional book shelves for their young readers.

If these three public libraries could take this innovative step, then so could I. We spent all of the last school year deciding on the categories and getting the books ready. After students left in June, I re-arranged all the picture books so we could open in September fresh with the new system.

Soon we will have a new logo. The temporary one I made will be replaced by one that a graphic artist at one of our high schools has designed. I can’t wait to see it. I will also write more about our process from beginning to end in a series of blog posts.


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Impact of Caring: Post 7 – Tinny and Vernice

This is the final post in a series about my experience while teaching and traveling this summer in South Africa. Here are the links to the previous posts:
Impact of Caring: Post 1 – Faaidah and Mahavia
Impact of Caring: Post 2 – Fiona and Cheryl
Impact of Caring: Post 3 – Kannemeyer Primary School
Impact of Caring: Post 4 – Julika Falconer
Impact of Caring: Post 5 – Desiree
Impact of Caring: Post 6 – Phuti

When I think about teachers who give their hearts to teaching, these ladies are at the front of the line. Tinny (left) and Vernice (right) teach at Pula Madibogo Primary School in Limpopo Province. Tinny and Vernice began the Reading Club there and we have been connecting ever since. We  send their students books and then we  Skype and their students talk about their reading. These are some photos of our calls through the years.

After I visited their school in 2015, I knew I would have to come again. Unfortunately with my schedule on this trip, I was only able to come for a few hours. We did see each other at Phuti’s Community Reading Club Project launch party so we were able to re-connect before I got up to their school.

Tinny teaches 6th grade and believes with her heart and soul in the saying Readers are Leaders.

She also knows how to make a person feel special.  When I arrived on campus, I saw some drum majorettes practicing in front of the school. I thought they were practicing for a competition. No, they weren’t. The Drum Majorettes greeted me and led me into the school where the student body was waiting for a special ceremony.

The students were in charge complete with a ceremony leader and a schedule of events.

From beginning to end, I was touched and overwhelmed with emotion. My students and I send this school books, but the kids at Pula Madibogo are the superstars because they are using the books to improve their reading. Yet they were treating me like I was the superstar as they shared their gratitude.

All morning long, the students impressed me with their passion for reading and school. I have been able to live a life where education was something I expected and I have at various times taken it for granted. By many standards, I have lived a life of privilege. From my small town in rural Massachusetts to California, Oregon and Washington, I have been able to live and teach in areas with quality public school districts.

The ability to have access to a quality education is not always possible and certainly not in rural Limpopo Province. Yet at this school where the women still cook in an outside cook shelter using traditional cooking pots, the teachers are determined to make things different for this next generation of learners.

Women like Tinny and Vernice, as well as the other teachers at Pula Madibogo do everything in their power to bring the best out in their students. I felt honored to spend time with them and share teaching ideas. I loved hearing the students read passages from books, sing songs,  or tell fun stories. They have passion for learning.

In the classroom Tinny’s students continued the presentation with story-telling, posters, a lovely embroidered towel and a heart-felt plea for more books. Honestly as I looked at the books they were holding, I realized they had worn them out from reading love! They even had a book that I had sent at least three years ago.

As I walked around campus after the presentation, students came up to say hello. One girl I recognized immediately from when I was at her school in 2015. I had a selfie with her then, and we did it again!

Photo from 2015

Photo from 2017

Another boy, Nathaniel and I had a longer conversation. He is now in 7th grade, which is a critical grade in South Africa. Very often children do not have the opportunity to move on to secondary school. He remembered my previous visit and really wanted to assure me that he is taking his studies seriously.


I shared my card with Nathaniel and sincerely hope he stays in contact with me. He has the drive to go far in life. I just hope his dreams don’t fade with age and the hardships of life.

I will be boxing up some books this month and sending them so they have some new choices before the end of their school year. I can’t forget these teachers and students and their needs for materials. The thing is, we can’t do it alone.

This is the last post in the series and I hope that other teachers and students will consider joining our program or starting their own. Anyone who is interested can contact me through the Books to Africa Partnership website. Books can change lives. I’ve seen it come true and so can you.

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Impact of Caring: Post 6 – Phuti

This post is the sixth in a series about my experience while teaching and traveling this summer in South Africa. Here are the links to the previous posts:
Impact of Caring: Post 1 – Faaidah and Mahavia
Impact of Caring: Post 2 – Fiona and Cheryl
Impact of Caring: Post 3 – Kannemeyer Primary School
Impact of Caring: Post 4 – Julika Falconer
Impact of Caring: Post 5 – Desiree

Sometimes the words, “thank you” don’t seem to emphasize the depth of thanks I feel for the actions of others who have helped me. The generosity of Phuti and her husband is a perfect example.

Pula Madibogo Primary August 2015

For the past three years, Phuti has been a central force in my Books to Africa Partnership. We met in Barcelona, Spain at the Microsoft Global Forum and struck up a friendship based on a mutual belief that all children deserve the best. When I went to South Africa in 2015, for a week, I visited her school, Pula Madibogo Primary School near Polokwane, in the northern Limpopo Province. Phuti was the principal there and would pick me up each morning and bring me to school where I helped teach lessons or worked with kids on their reading skills. We had been sending her books for over a year and I could see the benefit of our actions.

Kids came to her office to check out books and take them home. Fellow teachers had started a Reading Club and the school was on its way toward emphasizing the importance of reading in children’s daily lives.

Fast forward two years and I visited Phuti again, but this time a few things changed. First, she and her husband were gracious and allowed me to stay in their home while I visited her. Phuti is also now retired from her principal post, but remains steadfast in her commitment to literacy education.

A few weeks ago, she sent letters to neighbors about the Saturday literacy and tech program she was starting. It would be a free weekly two hour commitment for the children. Within days she had more positive replies than she could accept! Children started coming to her home each Saturday morning to have reading lessons and learn how technology could be used as an educational tool. The community reading club was born!

I was fortunate when I came to Phuti’s home because I was able to participate in the grand opening of this community reading project. With books we have been sending her this year and others she gathered, the students have been reading and extending their learning on Saturdays. For the grand opening, she had the students prepare the agenda, make a plan for the activities, invite local parents and participate in the events.

It was a wonderful morning of celebrating literacy with oral reading, poems, songs, speeches and delicious food! We had conversations about reading and books and the importance of education. I loved seeing books that my students had signed in the hands of a new set of readers.

I was truly honored to be able to participate and see the level of commitment Phuti and these families and children have toward reading literacy.

One side surprise Phuti had for me was a donkey cart ride around her neighborhood. No, people don’t ride donkey carts all the time. This is definitely a means of transport from former days.

However, one young man does earn money for his family by using his donkey cart to haul dirt, rocks or anything someone needs from one place to the other. In this case, his goal was to haul one American and one South African teacher around the neighborhood for a funny ride!

I have to admit I laughed for the entire time as people stopped us from the side of the road to take our photos. I hear the word “lekgowa” shouted from the sidewalks. Phuti explained that lekgowa means white woman. The sight of a white American woman in a predominately black neighborhood riding in the back of a donkey cart had everyone laughing.  It was the surprise of day and we totally enjoyed our ride with our donkey cart friends.

Phuti went out of her way to help me understand some of the traditions of her culture. We visited the Bakone Malapa outdoor museum with a reconstructed village in the style used by the BaSotho people about 300 years ago,

While there, our guide a Phuti demonstrated how to play some of the traditional games of the region. In the first photo stones are moved up and down the holes in a game similar to Mancala.

The game Morabaraba is a traditional two player strategy game played in South Africa. Similar to chess, the object is to move your pieces from one intersection to another until a winner emerges.

We visited a local game reserve and had a very relaxing picnic lunch. While there we became picnic friends with a female Kudu who was visiting each picnic area scrounging for food to eat.

We talked to a woman carrying her baby on her back to make sure it would be okay for me to take her photo. This method of carrying babies happens all over  Africa. In the Limpopo region the word in the Sepedi language is Pepula, meaning “baby on the back”. In rural areas quite common to see women carrying large loads on their heads as they walk down the street or men pulling recycling wagons down the street. That does not mean that all people use these traditional methods. I was just fascinated by the mixture of modern and traditional life.

On my last evening in Polokwane, Phuti made me a special dinner of Mopane worms. In many cultures eating insects is viewed as a delicacy. This video explains more about the worms and how they are cooked.

I fully admit while I watched Phuti cook the mopane worms, I was a little worried. I’m not a super adventurous eater. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to eating these strange looking creatures.

Phuti served with Mopane worms with pap, a traditional black African staple food made with finely ground maize meal. Each ethnic group in South Africa calls pap by a slightly different name, but basically it looks a little like very thick mashed potatoes or a soft polenta. It’s served most often with a meat and gravy. For our dinner we had pap and worms. I decided since Phuti had gone to great effort to make this favorite delicacy, I would do my best to give it a try.

I won’t lie – I couldn’t eat my entire plate. They tasted a lot like a very crisply cooked piece of thick bacon. A little crunchy and quite spicy. They really didn’t taste bad, but I couldn’t get my brain to quit reminding me that I was eating worms. I was also a little worried about my tummy knowing that I would be flying home the next day. I proudly ate 3 worms and called it quits!

When it was time to leave, we mutually decided not to say goodbye. Instead we said, “Until next time”. I truly hope we will have another occasion to meet either there or here. In the meantime, we will send books and I will Skype with the reading club on Saturdays. We will talk about their books and I will hope that through our combined efforts these children will become even better students in their regular schools.

If you would like to learn more about the Books to Africa Partnership, please visit our blog. We are always looking for new partners from the US, who are committed to helping others.


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