Some Kind of Courage


My students and I are BIG fans of Dan Gemeinhart. When he published The Honest Truth, I couldn’t wait to share it with my students.

dan gemeinhart

This novel of a boy with cancer who wants to make his own choices, tugged at my heart. I don’t have time to make many book trailers these days, but I made time for The Honest Truth. I convinced my husband to take me on a road trip to Mt. Rainier, so I could capture photos of the scenes in the book. I shared the finished trailer with Dan and he published it on his blog.

My students fell with it too, and soon even four copies weren’t enough to circulate in the library. They begged for me to see if we could Skype with Dan. He told us last spring about the new book he was doing the final edits on. We were all eager for January 2016 to come.

Then I switched schools and had a new group of students who had never read The Honest Truth. What would be their reaction to this fabulous book? Would it be similar to my last school? The answer is a resounding yes! Again, I had more students wanting to read this book than I had available in the library. Many students bought their own copies at our book fair and teachers bought copies too after hearing the buzz from their students.

So, when Some Kind of Courage was released in late January, I was eager and nervous to read it. I loved The Honest Truth so much, I was worried that Dan’s second book wouldn’t measure up to my expectations.

I was silly to worry. Dan scored again with Some Kind of Courage.

Set in 1890 in Eastern Washington state, this historical fiction book is the story of Joseph Johnson, a twelve year old boy in search of his beloved horse Sarah. Sarah is the only family he has after his father, mother and sister die. When Joseph finds out she has been sold, he is determined to get her back as fast as possible.

Joseph faces numerous obstacles along the way, but never gives up. Joseph is the kind of realistic character, that as a reader you feel like you know him, and feel his heartbreak at every turn. At many points I wanted to bring him home and go get that horse myself to put him out of his misery.

And that’s Dan’s gift. He knows how to create characters that you relate to emotionally. Every trial the main character faces hurts and each success is a celebration that you feel as much as the character. This historical adventure story will take you on a ride full of hope, angst, and courage. Bring a tissue, you might need it along the ride.

Some Kind of Courage

Dan Gemeinhart


Published by Scholastic Press 2016

Honest Truth Book trailer

Dan’s blog



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Hack the Classroom

On Saturday, January 30th, Mrs. Moynihan and I were very fortunate to be able to be part of the Hack the Classroom live studio audience on the Microsoft Redmond campus.


During the event we had the opportunity to listen to Hadi Partovi (founder of, speak about his experiences with computers growing up and the importance of teaching students how to code as early as kindergarten. The same morning President Obama gave his support for coding in his morning address.

“In the new economy, computer science isn’t an optional skill — it’s a basic skill,” Obama said Saturday in his weekly television and radio address. “I’ve got a plan to help make sure all our kids get an opportunity to learn computer science.”

When we think of programming, we often think of teenagers huddled over complicated script, but coding works with the younger children too as demonstrated by Canadian teacher Leah Obach. Leah teaches first grade and her students have been coding most of the year. Her class was chosen to be featured in the Hack the Classroom event. Here is her classroom in action.

Seeing how easily her students approach computer programming has inspired me to try more in my library classroom.

Another one of the speakers was Dale Dougherty, founder of Make Magazine and Maker Faires. He brought attention to the fact that our students need time to be creative in the classroom. They need time to make things because it helps them develop their critical thinking skills, perseverance and expand their creativity.

3D Magna Tiles

3D Magna Tiles

Richard Snyder, a middle school librarian in the Lake Washington School District asked Dale what the role school libraries have with the maker space concept. The librarians in the audience were thrilled when he said, “My secret weapon in class is the school librarian.” Makerspace time is so important to bring into the libraries because we work with all the students.

Jeff Kash spoke about how he uses OneNote and OneNote ClassNotebook in his classes. Students using OneNote no longer lose all their papers or have trouble organizing themselves. OneNote stores everything digitally, so students and teachers can access anytime from any device.

Rafranz Davis explained how she uses Minecraft edu in her classes. I’m probably the last person on earth who hasn’t played Minecraft yet, but I am intrigued by the higher level thinking skills that are engaged when playing this game.

If you would like to watch the recording of the Hack the Classroom event, this link will take you to the website, where it will be available for about 90 days.

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Coin Drive Exceeds Goal

Our Coin Drive to raise money for postage to send boxes of books to our partner schools in Ghana, Lesotho and South Africa exceeded our goal!


In the course of three days we raised – - Glitter Graphics – Glitter Graphics

How absolutely fantastic is that?! Our goal was $1,000 and we raised over $400 more than our goal!


Most of the money we raised was in coins. We had over 4800 pennies donated! It took hours to sort and count the coins. Thankfully there were many volunteers (students and staff) to came to help! We did use Coinstar to count the pennies otherwise it would have taken hours to count and roll them.

IMG_7856 IMG_7857 IMG_7858

Now that we have money, we can box up donated books and send them overseas! Each student will have the opportunity to sign a book and create a book mark to insert in the boxes.

2014 shipment 1


In a few weeks, we will see some happy faces from some children who can really use these materials. Here is a photo from Mr. Malakane’s classroom in Lesotho taken last spring. His students often use these books in lessons as well as free reading at home.


I want to thank our school community and especially our students who donated their own money to help a student in another part of the world.  Your generosity is amazing. Whether you donated a penny or a dollar, every cent helps. Your actions matter!


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African Animal Research for 2nd Graders

Our second graders will be doing research using the database PebbleGo about an African mammal. Today we are collecting information about which African mammals to study in each class. We are using Excel Online to collect our data. The data will help us form study groups about different African mammals.

Please, if you are not a second grader at our school, please do not take our survey!

White Rhino Valentina Storti via Compfight

African Mammal Survey Link


Britain's Next Top Zebra

Scorpions and Centaurs via CompfightCreative Commons License Tambako The Jaguar via Compfight

If you would like to learn how to make an Excel online survey, this QuickTip video will give you all the directions you need to get started.

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Penguin Survey for 1st Graders

Our first graders will be doing research using the database PebbleGo about a penguin. Today we are collecting information about which penguin to study in each class. We are using Excel Online to collect our data. The penguin with the most votes will win for each class.

IMG_6729Creative Commons License Dwilliams851 via Compfight

Please, if you are not a student in our first grade classes, please don’t take this survey!

Penguin Survey Link


If you would like to learn how to make an Excel online survey, this QuickTip video will give you all the directions you need to get started.

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A 2016 Facelift for Dewey

“Mrs. Hembree, can you help me find the wolf (substitute any animal) books?”

“Did you look on the poster to find the number?”

“Yes, but I can’t find the number on the shelf, can you help me?

Sound familiar?  I moved to a different school this fall. The library has a big collection and is very well organized. We have a big poster with all the important animal Dewey numbers listed in alphabetical order. Yet questions about how to find books happen daily in my library and I’m willing to bet it’s happened in yours.



We have signs with numbers on the edge of the shelf.  However, when you are 8 or 9 years old, trying to find a book with Dewey numbers extending two and three numbers past the decimal point is….well….pointless.


They can’t find the numbers on the spine and give up. Even our parent volunteers find it difficult to shelve the books sometimes.

 Student frustration with finding the books they want to read is the major reason I switched to genre shelving in my fiction area.


It’s also the reason why last year in my former library I switched to a subject/theme organizational system in the picture books.

genre pic books


I plan to do it again in my new library, but that’s a project for next year. When I do, it will be modeled after the method the King County Library System is now using with their picture books in the 48 public libraries in the system. Their changes came after research with parent focus groups to determine how parents think books should be organized. After analyzing the results, the picture books are now arranged by categories and have as many face out books as possible.



 If it works for the largest library system in the country, I think it can work in my elementary library. While this bird walk into the KCLS shift may seem irrelevant, seeing the books on the shelf this way actually helped me take action on doing something about the non-fiction problem.

Back to the non-fiction books. I’ve never touched or messed with the non-fiction books.

Until now.

I’ve read countless blog posts and articles about librarians who ditched Dewey completely. I may not like Dewey 100%, but I do like the basic organizational system. In many ways it really works.  I wasn’t ready to destroy a system that had its merits. I just wanted to re-vamp it, but I didn’t know how. 

Then this fall I read a blog post on the Wrinkle in Tech blog by Mrs. J who simplified Dewey with a whole number dewey system. No more decimal points! She’s made terrific signs to use to lead students to the area they are looking for. We exchanged a few emails as I asked some more clarifying questions. I thought I had an answer to my dilemma. I bought the signs on TpT and started adopting this method in certain sections. Yet, I still had the animal problem.

When students go to the shelf to find books on panda bears for example, they expect that all the panda bear books will be together, as in next to each other. Not some here and some more 5 books away farther down the shelf. After all, isn’t that the point of the numbering system? It’s what the kids think. Of course, that’s not how it works in reality. I still needed to figure out how to keep the animals together on the shelf. I went back to the drawing board and dug deeper in my research.

To my absolute delight, I found a 2013 blog post Mammals: A Dewey “Do-over” by Sarah Ducharme on her Try Curiosity library blog. She figured out the solution, that is so obvious. Hallelujah! She organized her land mammals by animal and changed the call number to reflect the area and subject of the book.

mammals dewey

Generalized books on multiple mammals are 599, but all land mammals are 599.1 plus the animal name. For example, 599.1 ELE (elephant) All the elephant books have the same call number and are placed on the shelf next to each. Instead of having to remember an author’s last name, a student can search for a book on the shelf in alphabetical order by animal. You can read a more detailed explanation of Sarah’s system here. It’s simple. It makes sense. It meets my objective of making it easier for kids to find books on the shelves independently.

Winter break gave me some time to think about how I could interweave these two systems in our library. It’s also when I walked into the KCLS library and saw their complete changes. In addition I was reading Passionate Learners: How to Engage and Empower Your Students by Pernille Ripp for a book study group.  In chapter 2, I read this:

“Once again, reflection is where we begin. Ask yourself, would you like being a student in your own room.”

I want our school library to be a place where students can successfully and easily find the books they want. It’s not a book depository that must uphold the merits of an organizational system developed in 1876. My students are frustrated by our system. That part is obvious. If I was an elementary aged student, I wouldn’t like how complicated it is to find a book in the library when it’s so easy at a bookstore. Pernille’s two sentences cemented my belief that change was not only important, it was necessary for students to be successful library users.

There’s nothing like a new year to begin a new system. Not to be overwhelmed by the vastness of animals, I started small with the pet books. All the cat, dog, horse and other small pet books are together in 636 with a whole number dewey system. I typed up new call numbers, changed the numbers in the catalog and got to work re-labeling and shelving books.



Furthermore, I decided that pigs, sheep and cows would be removed from this section and shelved with the other land mammals.


Yes, they are farm animals, but it’s 2016. We live in a suburb near a large metropolitan city. My students don’t think of cows, pigs and sheep as being anything other than a mammal. I doubt more than a few have ever seen a farm, let alone know what animals live on a farm. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen quizzical looks from students when they see cows near the pet section. The farm animals were moving.

Here is the final result of stage one of our revamped Dewey project. I’m not sure if the sign at the top is what exactly what students will find useful, but it’s a start.


Now I can’t wait to see what the students say! Check back in the next few weeks. As I move through other areas, I will publish more photos and share student reaction to the changes.


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Hour of Code Week

We just finished 5 days of Hour of Code week. Many of the teachers used the Hour of Code website and tutorials like Minecraft, Star Wars, Angry Birds, Ice Skating to promote in our school. I had countless questions about whether kids could do this at home too! Yes! Hour of Code doesn’t have to be something you do at school. You can experiment with the games at home too. Go to for lot of options.

Here’s a short video that Josh Moore, one of our district Tech TOSA, created about our Hour of Code activities.

Hour of Code 2015 from Tech Tosa on Vimeo.


In grades K-3 we focused on Robotics with our new Bee-Bots. A Bee-bot is an exciting new tool to teach robotics, sequencing, critical thinking, problem solving while having lots of fun! The children use directional keys to enter a sequence of commands, push GO! and send Bee-Bot on its path. The robot eyes light up and flash when it has finished its program. As the children became used to the commands, simple sequences became more and more complex as they guided Bee-Bot around the mats. The children learned programming skills and had a blast in the process.



The Bee-bots are made in the UK and brought to the US by Terrapin Tools for Thinking which is, according to their website, one of the oldest and most experienced educational software companies. A huge shout out to Donor’s Choose and the Chevron Corporation for funding my grant!


In the intermediate grades, we worked with the games on  Mr. Larry Golding, a Microsoft programmer and his wife helped us with the Minecraft, Star Wars and other games on the Hour of Code website.



In the 5th grade classes we did some beta testing  with the BBC micro:bit devices. The BBC micro:bit is a very simple computer. It is programmed using another device like a computer, smart phone, tablet, etc to write the program, which is then compiled and downloaded onto the BBC micro:bit. The device has a display made up of 25 LED lights which light up when it runs the program.



The purpose of the BBC micro:bit is to offer a gentle introduction to programming. It’s designed to be a starting point to get students interested in coding so they can move on to other, more sophisticated devices in the future.


The BBC micro:bit is supported by Microsoft and we were very fortunate to have one of the programmers on the program, Michael Braun, bring the devices to our school as part of their beta testing. Michael and I know each other from the Microsoft Expert Educator program and it was so much fun to experiment with a device that isn’t even available to the open market yet.


Our Hour of Code was a week-long introduction to computer science, designed to demystify code and show that anybody can learn the basics. All week long I repeatedly heard students cheering  “I did it!” as they successfully figured out a command sequence. Remember, it’s not limited to school. Try coding at home too!


(Information obtained from  BBC micro:bits handout, Hour of Code, and Bee-bots websites.)

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Edublogs Finalist


Woo-hoo! What great news I received this week when I found out this blog was not only nominated, but also is a finalist in the Best Library Blog in the 2015 Edublog Awards. To be nominated and given the boost of confidence that there are indeed people who read this blog and value it means the world to me. To those who nominated this blog, please know that I really appreciate your support. Blogging makes me a better teacher, writer and learner. It also pushes me beyond the walls of my classroom to learn from other terrific bloggers in my PLN. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with all of us.

The purpose of the Edublog Awards is to draw attention to the educational value of social media. Secondly, it provides an invaluable resource list of blogs for teachers to read and learn from.  That’s the part I love the most. I love to read what others are writing and see their classroom ideas. When we learn from each other the world becomes our classroom. Can it get any better than that?

If you would like to vote for this blog, you can go here.  Voting closes on Wednesday, December 11th at 11:59pm EST (8:59 PST).


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A Night Divided



Gerta went to bed Saturday night, but woke up the next morning with a grim sight outside her window. A barbed wire wall divided her city in half. The realization stunned her as she remembered her father and brother were on the other side of the wall. How would they come home to Gerta, her mom and brother? Why would anyone want to build a wall in the middle of her beloved city? What was going to happen to her family?


The Berlin Wall is the topic of Jennifer Nielsen’s new middle grade historical fiction book, A Night Divided. The story is set in 1961 when the city of Berlin was separated in half by a wall that would last for the next 28 years. This concrete wall is considered by many to be the symbol of the Cold stemming the mass defection of citizens from communist East Germany to the west.


The book is well researched and brought back memories of one of the most frightening days of my life.  I was 18 years old and an American Field Service exchange student visiting Berlin with other members in my group. West Berlin was a vibrant city with museums, shopping and discos. Bright neon lights lit the downtown at night. We didn’t have a bored moment as we tried to experience all that West Berlin offered. This video shows what life was like in West Berlin at that time.

The organizers of our trip also wanted us to experience the other side of Berlin behind the huge wall that divided the city. Being the naïve and self-absorbed teenagers we were, few of us realized the history lesson we were about to learn.


We crossed at Checkpoint Charlie, the main crossing area for westerners. It was a particularly intimidating experience as we had to give up our passports, sit in a room and then wait for our number to be called. These were the days before modern airport security checks, so being so screened with such severity was frightening to us. The freedom I took for granted as an American suddenly had new meaning.


Entering East Berlin was like stepping back 30 years into postwar Germany. I’ll never forget the images of gray that permeated the city. Gray concrete buildings. Gray streets. Gray cars. Drab clothing on people who seemed to carry defeat on their shoulders. It was common to see World War II bombed buildings still empty and never re-built. It was like going from technicolor to black and white.

Courtesy Britannica Images

Courtesy Britannica Images

All of us had the opportunity to have lunch with an East German family. Mine shared how their family had been divided by the wall and they had no idea when they would see their loved ones again. After being nearly hit by a car who tried to hit me and a friend as we walked on the sidewalk, I wanted out…! It took some convincing, but we postponed our return a couple hours and went to an East German play. I appreciated seeing communism hadn’t completely squelched the arts. Still, like the rest of the group, I couldn’t leave fast enough. We made it back before the midnight deadline and embraced the freedom afforded to us because we were American.

A Night Divided brought back all of these memories. After hearing Jennifer Nielsen talk her process in bringing this part of history to life, I felt compelled to make a trailer for her book. The images and words were bubbling inside me needing to be released. In the weeks since, my students and I have had many lively conversations about the wall and this part of history few westerners talk about anymore. Usually historical fiction is not the genre students clamor to read. Yet the 20 hold slips of students who want to check out this book from our library tell me that Jennifer got it right. Find A Night Divided at your local library or favorite bookstore. Recommended for ages 9+ Visit Jennifer Nielsen’s website and find out more about this and other books she has written.


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Grateful for Stories


What’s their story?

I was in California over the weekend with my husband and we had a surprise encounter with thousands of migrating monarch butteries wintering at a small grove of eucalyptus trees at Natural Bridges State Beach. We arrived when the sun was filtering through the leaves and warming the orange and black wings of these delicate creatures. Seeing thousands of butterflies wake up and begin fluttering through the grove filled me questions. Why are they there? How do they know where to go? Is one of the senior butterflies their director of story?

Seeing them made me think about the gala we attended on Friday evening and how I have a serious case of job title envy. My husband and I were at the Digital Innovation in Learning Award gala and heard the Karen Cator, the CEO of Digital Promise introduce the keynote speaker and his position within the company.  I thought I misunderstood what she said, and had to check the facts on their website.

Director of Story

Digital Promise believes in the power of story enough to actually have a person be a Director of Story. Not a Communications Director.  Not a Media Relations Specialist.

Director of Story.

I think that job title speaks volumes about the vision and uniqueness of this company whose dream is for all learners to have access to learning technology.

And a storyteller he is. Marco Torres spent the next 20 minutes illustrating how math and music can integrate through GarageBand and iPad orchestra. Within minutes he had created a musical composition without ever touching a “real” instrument. Then he shared his story of how some students in Geneva, Switzerland saw a similar demonstration and then proceeded to make their own version of Canon in D by Johann Pachelbel. You can view this incredible piece here:


What I took home from that gala event were the stories about amazing educators being recognized for doing amazing projects in their schools. Administrators bringing coding to entire school communities. Teachers finding ways to connect their students with peers around the world. Companies bringing cross-cultural and meaningful exchanges to school aged children. Everyone in the room had a story. Stories with heart. Stories with vision. Stories with children as the core element. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to participate in the DILA gala event as one of the honorable mention award winners in the Busting Boundaries category because I could share the story of how my students have worked to make our world better through generosity and literature. Their story deserves to be heard.

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That story and those of our partners in Africa will continue to be heard in 2015-16 within the Microsoft Expert Educator program. Educators around the world have been celebrating for the last week after receiving their congratulations letter. Me too.

mie announement

My letter highlighted a spectacular week – acceptance into this amazing program, the DILA gala, and a Skype call across continents with 120 students from different cultures. I am grateful for the opportunities Microsoft has opened for me to meet and collaborate with teachers around the world and close to home.


I have been involved with the MIE program since 2012 and it has changed my life. I am not the teacher I used to be. I don’t regret the way I taught, but now I’m thrilled with how my lessons are evolving and integrating technology in meaningful ways. The world is coming inside my classroom without the need of a passport. This year my students will be making book trailers with students in Spain, writing cards and mini-stories with a teacher in Turkey, creating videos for students at a refugee camp in Kenya, plus continuing our Books to Africa program. All it takes is technology and a willingness to experiment and step outside the traditional box. I am not the extroverted person in the group and I certainly am not the most talented. I need quiet to re-charge my batteries and time to write. What I am willing to share is what my students want to say to the world. I am grateful that the MIE Expert Educator program has helped me find the voice for my students and myself through story, technology and education.

I am a teacher. I am a librarian. I am a Director of Story.


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