Traveling with 25 Books

Two weeks from today I’ll be departing Seattle for Johannesburg, South Africa! Wow! The time is going by so quickly and I’m trying to find balance between relaxing after a stressful school year, doing the household chores that I’ve put off for months and getting ready for my trip.

attachment_58344953I’m a total planning freak with lists of clothes I’ll need, piles of books, and boxes of “should I take these items”. This week I made a OneNote notebook with all my travel arrangements, so I have all the details in one place online and have the ability to print them for my family. No more sorting through emails to find the details I need.

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If you have never tried Microsoft OneNote, check out here. Instead of having a physical notebook, this is an electronic notebook where you can include photos, written documents, files, etc. The possibilities are endless and it’s a FREE download from Microsoft. You can access your notebooks from any device or from the web. You can also share your notebooks with other people, which makes it really convenient for sharing travel plans.

Today I started the first part of what my friend calls the staging process. I set up a table and started organizing all the books I want to take in my suitcase. When you are a librarian, the anguish of deciding which books to take is real. I’m going to three different schools. Will I pick the right books for each school? I’ve had to forcefully tell myself, “stop it!” and know that whatever I take will work out just fine. The world is not going to fall off its axis if I choose a Piggy and Gerald and not Knufflebunny. The kids at school also gave me clear guidance as to which picture books they thought I should take. Here are the results.

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The Dot always travels with me. This story about how we all need to make our mark on the world inspired our Book to Africa project.

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When it comes to picture books, no other series are checked out more. Pete the Cat, Piggie and Gerald, and Pigeon made the final cut. I also included Underwear because I had a copy and face it. A book about underwear is funny to all kids under the age of …..! Hum…it looks like Pigeon himself is going to make the trip too. Imagine that.

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I’m also bringing a set of books that can be used in a small group reading session and an oldie book with puppets for a reader’s theater. The text is great for early readers and using puppets to act out the characters is a stress-free method to practice oral reading skills.

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Of course, you can’t forget non-fiction. This set from National Geographic highlights animals that aren’t common in this part of Africa AND they are light-weight! A double plus in my department.

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I love to use Gerald McDermott books to teach the importance of setting and how color is reflected in the illustrations. Raven and Zomo clearly showcase trickster tales from our different regions.  I’m not sure how many opportunities I will have to teach, but I have to have these just in case!

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For the emerging chapter book readers, we chose Magic Tree House because you can’t go wrong with Jack and Annie, they teach you about different places in the world, and we have student made book trailers available for viewing.

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The last two chapter books are treasured by both my students and myself. When I read The Honest Truth for the first time, I knew it was going to be a hit. To read my review and watch the book trailer click here. After sharing the trailer with my 5th graders, I quickly learned that only having one copy of the book wasn’t going to work. For the last few months of school, all four copies were checked out continuously. Jasmine, like many others, had to be coaxed to return her library copy. “It’s the BEST BOOK EVER! Can’t I keep it for a few more days….please????”

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Dan Gemeinhart, an author and librarian in Washington state, Skyped with our students this spring. They talked for weeks about how awesome it was to talk to a real author and ask questions. Dan gratiously sent me a signed copy which I am donating to the Highbury Preparatory School library.


And then there’s Ivan. I had to save the best for last. Like so many other readers, this book holds a special place in my heart. I can’t give One and Only Ivan to a student without gently rubbing the cover and saying, “This book is my absolute favorite in the library. I hope you will love it as much as I do.”


I hope to show the book trailer I made of this book and photos from when Katherine Applegate came to our school. I still pinch myself to think that we hosted a Newbery author at our school. There’s NO WAY this book wouldn’t be in my suitcase to hand to a new set of readers.

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Oh yes, I’m also going to bring a travel guide and a journal in my backpack for obvious reasons. I like to journal while I travel, if only to keep track of what I did and when it happened. I’ve learned from experience that the details that you thought you would never forget go flying out of your head in record time. 

I wonder if you are asking,  what am I reading on the plane?  I don’t know yet. I’ve been making that list too. I definitely will be downloading a bunch of e-books to read on my iPad or Surface for the 24 hours of airplane time I’m going to have each way.

So that’s it. Twenty-five books…and that’s the short list. In my next blog post, I’m going to cover what tech tools I can’t live without. Yikes! I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll have room for clothes in my suitcase. The good news is most of these books are staying in South Africa leaving me lots of room for souvenirs.

What books would you take? Please leave a comment and let me know. To keep following my posts about this South Africa trip more easily, you can subscribe to receive email notifications (see box on right side bar near top of this page) or look for the hashtag #bookstoafrica15 on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.



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Beating Down the Fraud Voice

Gävle library seatsCreative Commons License Wrote via Compfight

It happened to me again yesterday.

I was visiting the middle school when some of my former students walked into the library. They glanced at me as they walked in not giving me much notice. A few steps later, they stopped turned around and said, “Mrs. Hembree, what are you doing here?” I explained that their librarian and I were discussing some things. They nodded and went on their way.

Seeing my former students as they finished 8th grade, was not the problem. It’s awesome to see how they have grown and matured. The problem was that I couldn’t immediately access each person’s name from my memory bank. I wanted to be able to say, “Hey it’s great to see you Jane, Bob, Sue”, but instead I couldn’t fill in the name. I had to live with a generic greeting, which prompted the little voice in my head to begin the “You can’t even remember a student’s name from three years ago, what kind of teacher are you?” mantra.

What kind of teacher am I? If I can’t immediately recall every student’s name I’ve ever had over 28 years of teaching, does that mean I am less of a teacher than others? Am I a fraud?

The end of the school year is a vulnerable time for teachers. We’re almost to the finish line, yet the challenge in the last few weeks is like running the 50 yard dash every single day. I can’t speak for everyone else, but I know I’m reviewing the year’s library lessons and wondering if I have taught the topics the students need this year. Could I have done better? How can I change things to improve my program?

At the same time, I’m trying to get grades done, collect all the library books, finish the inventory, hold the summer used book sale and generally get the library ready for the summer. Once one item on the to-do list is crossed off, another takes its place. May and June should be named the time of the never ending task list.

I was meeting with a colleague recently and we were talking about the ups and downs of the school year. It doesn’t really matter what subject or grade you teach, we all feel the same way. We are tired and our positive energy barely measures on any scale. For me, this is when I beat myself up the most and begin feeling like I’ve been deceiving my students because I can see my weaknesses more than my strengths.

What if someone finds out that I know a lot about technology, but don’t have near the skillset of someone else? Numerous librarians post book reviews long before the book has even been officially published. Others have makerspaces or create book trailers that earn national acclaim. If it’s not happening the same way for me, what does that mean?

The answer is absolutely nothing.

What I do is good enough and in some circumstances,  may borderline on really good. I cherish those moments when a student walks into the library and announces that she has finished her third complete book series this year. I think I can take some credit on helping her become a passionate reader. We are our own worst critics and comparisons to others isn’t healthy…ever.

When I shared my fears with my colleague, she quickly reminded me that we all have gifts. None of us are perfect. We each need to look inside ourselves to find our gifts and celebrate the positive. She’s right. When we are vulnerable and worn down, it’s time to find the brightness in ourselves and not let the muck take us down.

So, to answer my question, “Am I a fraud?” the answer is no for me and for every other teacher who is feeling the weight of the school year. While it’s easy to sink down in the hole, now is the time to re-acquaint ourselves with what we do well. We need to remind ourselves of our purpose for being teachers. We are making a difference for our students, and really, that’s all that matters.

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Succeeding Through Failure


I sent off our last shipment of books this week to our partner schools in Lesotho and South Africa. It’s been an incredible year of fundraising, gathering donations and shipments. We raised a total of $2088.50. Sent 23 boxes of books and 1545 books altogether.  Wow! Taking that final photo yesterday made me wonder what will get to South Africa first. The boxes or my suitcase???


Yes, I’m going to South Africa! Woo-hoo!

We have been involved with our Books to Africa program for three years. During this time, I have had the chance to get to know the teachers we work with quite well despite the fact that we live thousands of miles apart.  I am immeasurably grateful to the Microsoft Expert Educator program, which connected me with our partner teachers. If not for that program, I know I never would have met these teachers.


It’s been my wish for a couple years to visit the schools where we send books. I applied twice for a Fund For Teachers grant to enable me to go to South Africa to study children’s literature and extend our partnership. Twice I was turned down. The second time it really hurt. I had put hours and hours of effort into my application. I revised it with advice from members of last year’s committee. I submitted a draft this year and got valuable feedback on what would strengthen my application. I put everything I had into the application and it didn’t work.

When I told one of my classes I didn’t know what I would do if I wasn’t accepted, one of my students said, “Why don’t you go anyway?”  I had all sorts of excuses for why I couldn’t, and I stuck stubbornly to the belief that I would get the “You are a Fund for Teachers 2015 Fellow” letter that day.  When I  got “we regret to inform you” letter, I was crushed. Immediately I thought I was a failure. I had tried my best and I still failed. How could that be? I had a very big pitty party for myself all afternoon. Yet, the words, “Why don’t you go anyway” kept ringing in my head. 

I also thought about how we teachers  are role models for our students. If we can’t accept failure, learn from it and move forward, how can we ask our students to do the same? So, after finding some amazingly priced airline tickets, and the “I’ll be disappointed if you don’t go” message from my husband, I took that failure and turned it into a success story.

In exactly 9 weeks I will be boarding a plane and flying to South Africa to visit three of the schools and teachers that we work with on our project! I am so excited.
First, I will fly into Johannesburg (purple circle) and spent a couple days visiting some historical sights and recovering from 26 hours of traveling. From there I will fly to Polokwane (formerly called Pietersburg). I will spend 4 days visiting Pula Madibogo Primary School. Phuti Ragophala, the principal of this public school is trying very hard integrate technology into the classroom and  make changes for her students. I will have the chance to teach some lessons and work with some of the area teachers about how to get students inspired to read.

From there, I will fly to Durban on the Indian Ocean coast. I will spend a week in this area and visit two or three more schools. Our partner school Highbury Preparatory School is here. This is an all boys private school located in Hillcrest, South Africa.


They partner with Ndlokolo Primary School, a semi-rural school near the Inanda Dam in the Valley of a Thousand Hills outside of Hillcrest, South Africa. They have had a ten year relationship with Ndlokolo Primary School, sharing visits between the two schools for 7th graders, an annual Easter egg collection and food collection project designed to collect food for the numerous children who attend school without having had breakfast. They also deliver the books we send to Highbury Prep.


I may also have the opportunity to visit the all girls school in the area as well. St. Mary’s School is in Kloof, South Africa and a short distance from Hillcrest. I’ve never actually visited an all girls or all boys school, so that experience will very different than school in Washington.

Words can’t really fully describe how much I am looking forward to this trip. I’ve never been to Africa or traveled this far by myself. It’s going to be an adventure of amazing proportions. I’m crossing my fingers that I will be able see some of the Big 5 animals (elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard, and rhino) while I am there too.

Between now and July 15th, I’m trying to figure out what books to take and lessons to share. If you have any advice for me, please share it! There’s nothing worse about going on an adventure and then saying, “I wish I had thought of ….” or “I wish I had known….”. I will be sharing photos via social media and on this blog as much as I can or as internet cooperates. Look for the hashtag #bookstoafrica15

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A Skype Visit with Dan Gemeinhart

coverWe are huge fans of the Wenatchee, Washington based author and school librarian Dan Gemeinhart and his first novel The Honest Truth. In late February Josa and his Mom gave me a copy of The Honest Truth with the message,“You have to read it Julie. Josa and I loved it. We think you will too.” So, I took it home and put it to the top of my book pile.

That was the beginning of our love fest with this book. I wrote a review and published it in early March. I couldn’t put the story out of my mind and it didn’t take long until I made a book trailer to show my students. It never gets old when an author tells you they like a book trailer you have made for them. He even embedded it on his website . Now our four copies are always checked out with a long list of fans waiting not-so-patiently for their turn. It’s become the norm to hear the students talking about the book and discussing their favorite parts. So say we are avid fans is probably an understatement.

When I asked Dan if he could Skype with us,  he willingly agreed. The students wrote down their questions on the white board so they could reference them during our Skype session. We had about a dozen students give up their recess to talk with Dan virtually.

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We learned that The Honest Truth is not a true story, but he did know someone who had cancer and that influenced his story.  He dreamed of being an author from second grade, but it’s only been in the last eight or nine years that he got serious about writing. He wrote four books before this one, but was rejected 99 times! The Honest Truth was his 100th submission to a publisher and it was accepted immediately. Thank you Scholastic Publishing! Apparently 100 is his lucky number. He emphasized that you have to keep trying to achieve your goals, and not stop because you fail once or twice. Use what you learned and move forward. Don’t give up and believe in yourself.

He and the students talked about their favorite characters. He did share that Beau and Wesley are his favorites in. He spoke about the importance of naming characters in a story and how the name Beau (the dog) came to him immediately. It’s not always like that, and right now he’s wondering if he has found the right name for the horse in his next book.

His new book Some Kind of Courage is coming out next winter, but it is not a sequel to The Honest Truth. The book is set in Washington again, but in the late 1890’s. It sounds like it’s a mixture of western realism, historical fiction and adventure.

Twenty minutes flew by in record time. After we finished the call, the students were so excited about their visit. They couldn’t believe they had just had the chance to talk virtually with a REAL author! Many told me they prefer Skype author visits over large in-person author visits because they are  so much more personal. The conversation evolves naturally and is controlled primarily by the students. I love how technology can bring the world into our library! Thank you Dan!



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Poetry Collaboration

How did Poetry Month slip away so quickly? April was National Poetry month and once again we celebrated poetry in the library. Unfortunately I didn’t get our poems published on the blog during April. A little late is better than never!


The theme this year was “Wild about Poetry” and most of the poems students wrote had an animal theme. We wrote some specifically for our friends at Benfer Elementary in Klein, Texas. This is our second year collaborating with our 1st graders for Poetry month. Last year we wrote acrostic poems and PaperBag style poems for each other. PaperBag poems are a mystery style poem. An object is placed inside a paper bag and students have to use describing words as they touch and feel the hidden object. Acrostic poems are written both vertically and horizontally.
Written by the students at Benfer Elementary.

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Written by the students at Bell Elementary

This year the students at Benfer continued the tradition and wrote some new PaperBag poems for us. We shared poems through social media and our blogs.

benfer 1 benfer 2 benfer 3We also wrote our Wild Animal poems for them.

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Mrs. Camp and I both think our first graders did a great job in using describing words in their poems.  I wonder what we will write next year.

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Developing Grit through Cup Stacking

Makerspace Monday continues to be a huge hit during our recesses. We have the usual Legos, K’Nex, Duct Tape and MagnaTiles. Then we also have the surprise popular item…..

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3D Magna Tiles

Freebie plastic cups!

When I found a cardboard box filled with 3 ounce plastic cups this year, and included them in our makerspace supplies, I never thought those cups would be second most popular makerspace items in the library. (First place goes to the MagnaTiles seen above.)

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The students rush into the library hoping to be some of the first to the containers of cups. Our makerspace rule is first come, first served AND everyone shares. It’s been an engineering stacking and building wonderland.  Everyday one group of students or another asks me to take a photo of their cup structure.

cup tower 3However, watching students learn how to collaborate as they play and build has been the most rewarding piece for me. Sometimes students in different grades construct something together. Other times it is groups of friends. What they are all learning is the importance of collaboration and perseverance. All too often the perfect tower is built and the last cup placed on top sends a cascade of cups to the floor. We are all used to the intermittent screams of frustration followed by, “Let’s try it again!” The groups scours the floor finding all the cups and then starts over again. Sometimes, they build the same structure using different techniques. Other times they build a modified structure based on what they learned through failure. What I never hear is, “I give up!”

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Love Your Library Month


February was Love Your Library Month at our library. I know…it’s not February anymore and I admit I’m pretty late in posting anything about Valentine’s Day. Yet, we had such a great time, that I just had to share. I got all of my ideas from Pinterest

The Date with a book was almost too much of a success. I could hardly keep up with wrapping books for kids who wanted to try a book date! Each book  had a rating sheet inside that students could return and be eligible for a prize. The candy guessing jar was very popular. About 80% of our students made a guess. Their guesses made me smile as they  ranged from 1 to 1 million. I had small prizes for the top three students who came the closest to guessing how many candies were in the jar without going over. The students found it fun to mix math and reading in the library.

I’d like to give a big shout out to Jamie Camp,  librarian  (@connect2jamie) at Benfer Elementary School in Klein, Texas. We partnered again this year and our second grade students made bookmarks for each other.


Here’s a Sway illustrating our activities.

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The Dream Continues

Books to Africa: Year Three


In  September 2012 when my students and I began our Books to Africa project,  their dream was to help other kids. They wanted to matter and make a difference by sharing books. They love to read and wanted to make sure that other kids had the chance to be readers just like them, no matter where they live in the world.

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That was the dream. We didn’t know exactly how things would work out, but we hoped they would. That’s where our partner schools came in. They made the magic happen in ways we couldn’t imagine.

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Who can believe that it’s been three years since we began our Books to Africa program? From the first Dream Team crew to now, each year the program has grown and evolved in different ways. We now have all the K-5 students participating, raising more money, sending more books and ultimately helping our partners in Ghana, Lesotho and South Africa! The first year our goal was to raise $1,000. The second year we totaled about $1800.  I am excited to announce that this year we have raised over…


With this money, we will be able to send about 24 boxes of books overseas. I am so proud of the efforts of our students! I know there are some excited children waiting for the boxes to arrive too!

A couple years ago, I was listening to a book on tape and the speaker was talking about planting seeds, except she wasn’t referring to plants, but rather the seeds of ideas. She asked her audience, “What seeds did you plant today?” She explained that often we have no idea how the seeds we have planted have affected others. Her point reminded me of our literacy project and the reading seeds we have planted in different parts of the world.


When our original team brainstormed the slogan: “Every Child Deserves a Book”  they believed that where you live shouldn’t determine what resources are available to you. Kids here are just like kids in other parts of the world. Books open up a world. They plant a garden of knowledge. They can change the educational course of a child’s life. Here is a video clip from Pula Madibogo Primary School in Sovenga, South Africa. The children wrote a song and recorded it for our students. It’s a great reminder that the actions we take do matter to other people, even when they live on the other side of the world.

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We have had numerous fundraisers since January including Friday Fun Night, Multicultural Night and Lollygrams. Many other people donated money for postage, including a very special group of my friends who don’t even have children at our school. A special shout out to my “Girls Club” friends for your belief that all children should not only have the right to read, but also have the materials they need.


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A Must Read – The Honest Truth


coverOh wow! You know when you read a book and you get goosebumps because it’s so great? When you stay up WAY later than you should because you can’t put it down? The Honest Truth is that kind of book! It has star power. This book has that elusive it quality. From page one, I knew deep inside that this book was something truly special. 

I felt this way when I read The One and Only Ivan. I felt it again when I read Wonder and again when I read The Fault in Our Stars (YA novel). This book was a gift that came to me one ordinary afternoon. Judy brought it to me and said, “You have to read it Julie. Josa and I loved it. We think you will too.” So, I took it home and put it to the top of my book pile.

As soon as I had a chance I picked it up and started in. It was love on page one. Mark, the main character, lives in Wenatchee, Washington. He is 12 and has been fighting cancer for a large part of his life. When he finds out that his cancer is back which will most likely mean he will die, he makes the decision to take life into his own hands. He packs a backpack, gets his dog Beau, and runs away to Seattle. This begins a life or death journey for Mark to climb Mt. Rainier with his dog….alone. It’s a quest filled with danger and problems at every turn. I couldn’t put it down. I absolutely had to know what was going to happen to Mark and his dog Beau.

This book spoke to me and pulled me back into the book trailer creative mode. My husband and I even took a drive to Mt. Rainier to take some photos and footage of the mountain. Here is the trailer, made with iMovie.


Earlier today, I shared the trailer link with Dan, crossing my fingers that he would like it. I was pretty thrilled when I read that he does! Whew!


If you love realistic middle grade novels with a heavy dose of action and adventure, then this is a good match for you. Pick it up at your local school/public library or at your favorite bookstore. Dan Gemeinhart, the author, is a teacher-librarian who lives in Wenatchee, Washington. This is his first novel. I sure hope it’s not his last!


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