Slice of Life: Welcome to the Bayou Teche

“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”
John Muir

Welcome to the second stop on the blog tour for Margaret Simon‘s new book, Bayou Song: Creative Explorations of the South Louisiana Landscape (University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, 2018)! Over the past few years, I’ve been lucky to get to know Margaret both as a writer and a friend through our online critique group. Sharing early drafts of your writing with another person is an act of trust, but it is also an invitation. An invitation to learn more about the truth of that person’s heart. The south Louisiana landscape is woven into Margaret’s heart and has always been integral to her writing. So it was no surprise when she first mentioned her idea for this book. Watching Bayou Song grow from that tentative glimmer to a published book and been a thrill and an honor.

Annie Dillard once wrote “there is no such thing as an artist–only the world lit or unlit, as the world allows.” I’m not sure I agree with the first part of this thought, but Margaret is definitely someone who sees “the world lit.” This light shines throughout Bayou Song, creating a brilliant mosaic that brings Margaret’s beloved Bayou Teche magically to life.

© Anna Cantrell, 2018

This book is an invitation to linger and get to know the Bayou Teche. From the opening pages, where we learn legend of the bayou’s origin, to “Bayou Sunset Tanka,” the collection’s final poem, we are captivated. “I Am a Beckoning Brown Bayou” literally invites us to “stay awhile” and get to know the many moods of this mysterious world.

Margaret’s poems introduce us to the many plants and animals who make their home in the bayou. Nutria, with their “bright orange tusks” were unfamiliar to me. Other inhabitants were familiar, but Margaret’s vivid images helped me see them in a new light. I will never think of crawfish again without thinking of their “round peppercorn peepers.” And of course baby egrets are “feather-glistening,” “worm-juggling,” and “nest snuggling.”

© Anna Cantrell, 2018

Anna Cantrell’s illustrations and Henry Cancienne’s photographs complement Margaret’s words beautifully, bringing the bayou to life in a way any one medium couldn’t individually. Their collaboration is similar to the collaboration of our critique group. The work of each member makes the others stronger. Henry Cancienne’s photos provide visual support for readers who aren’t familiar with the diverse inhabitants of the bayou. Anna Cantrell’s watercolors, from two-stepping herons to “mischievous” raccoons bring Margaret’s whimsical images to life.  Together, they create a tapestry of “paper-lace fragments of butterfly wings” and the “waving leaves of cypress trees”

The inclusion of factual information about the plants and animals who call the bayou home adds another dimension to this incredible resource. Through the “Write It” and “Sketch It” sections, Margaret extends an invitation to readers to learn more about their own environment. This appeal to write and draw will help readers see the similarities between the animals that live in habitats familiar to them–raccoons, toads, turtles–as well as understand the adaptability of these animals that allow them to thrive in a variety of habitats.

I am grateful to Margaret for inviting me to share this journey with her. Of our group she writes, “You hold me up. You give me…confidence…” Our words are our own, but by sharing and letting others help us shape them, they become stronger, we become stronger. Strong enough to write an amazing book like Bayou Song.

Don’t miss the next stops on Margaret’s blog tour to learn more about Bayou Song!

Friday, June 22:
Michelle Kogan

Friday, June 29:
Ruth Hersey at There is no such thing as a God-forsaken town

Friday, July 6:
Kimberly Hutmacher at Kimberly Hutmacher Writes

Friday, July 13:
Linda Mitchell at A Word Edgewise

Tuesday, July 17:
Laura Shovan 

Tuesday, July 24
Amanda Potts at Persistence and Pedagogy

Friday, July 27:
Carol Varsalona at Beyond LiteracyLink

Monday, July 30
Linda Baie at Teacher Dance

Friday, Aug. 3
Dani Burtsfield at Doing the Work that Matters

Thank you to StaceyBetsyBethKathleenDeb, KelseyMelanie, and Lanny for creating this community and providing this space for teachers and others to share their stories every Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.


SOL 18: The MEET MY FAMILY Blog Tour is Here!


“Every family’s different–each family is just right!”
Laura Purdie Salas

Welcome to the latest stop on the Blog Tour for Laura Purdie Salas’s beautiful new book, Meet My Family: Animal Babies and Their Families (Millbrook Press, 2018). When I first read Laura’s heartfelt words and saw Stephanie Fizer Coleman‘s lively illustrations, I knew this book was a perfect mentor text for student writing.

© Laura Purdie Salas and Stephanie Fizer Coleman, 2018

Laura was inspired to write Meet My Family by feelings she had about her own family growing up. In her interview with Kirby Larson (the link is listed below), Laura says that “my family felt very different from other families.” She hopes “this book might erase some of the shame so many kids feel about their families.”

One of my colleagues is the most amazing Kindergarten teacher on the planet, and she welcomed me into her classroom to share Laura’s book with her students and work on this writing project with them. After reading Meet My Family to the children, we talked about all the different kinds of animal families in the book. Then we talked about all the ways our own families are different. After brainstorming together, the kids wrote a sentence about their own family.

The next day, we reread the book, this time looking closely at the subtext on each page. Again, using Laura’s text as a mentor, the students added details to their writing about their family. Some chose to write about activities they do together, others wrote about favorite foods. Everyone gained an appreciation for all the different kinds of families we have!

Illustrations are a very big deal for Kindergarteners, and they couldn’t wait to start drawing their families. We even used the cover layout as a model for the cover of the book we created.

Here is their work:

I live with my mom and dad in my house. We love to babysit my baby cousin.
by R.

I am the only child. And sometimes I go out to walk with my family.
by R.

I have three sisters. I watch TV with my sisters.
by S.

I moved across the country. Sometimes we go on hikes!
by J.

I live with my family. We go to Five Guys for burgers.
by L.

I am the smallest in my family! My family likes to bike together! I like my family!
by K.

I am the youngest in my family. I went with my family in the forest. We had fun.
by A.

I live with my brothers and my baby sister. My family likes to go to the beach.
by I.

I live with my mimi and poppy. We like to go out to dinner.
by Z.

I have one sister. After school we go to gymnastics. It is tiring and it is fun.
by B.

I live with my mom and my brothers. We play Manhunt outside. I am fast.
by L.

My brother is eight and I am five. My baby sister is two. I live with my Nana and my PopPop, my puppy and cats.
by E.

I live with my mommy and dad and my baby sister, too. After school I help mom and dad make chicken for dinner.
by L.

These Kindergarten students are very proud to share their work today, and are already busy planning their next writing project. Thank you, Laura, for writing this informative, inspiring book!

Thanks to Laura’s generosity, one lucky reader will win a copy of Meet My Family! Just leave a comment before midnight, Thursday, March 22nd, to be entered in the drawing.

To find out more about Laura and this wonderful book, be sure to visit the other stops on the Meet My Family Blog Tour:

The tour has two more upcoming stops! Don’t miss them!

A Classroom Guide is available to download here.

Thank you to StaceyBetsyBeth, KathleenDeb, Melanie, and Lanny for creating this community and providing this space for teachers and others to share their stories every day in March and each Tuesday throughout the year. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

SOL: On Meeting Ursula Nordstrom

I took a circuitous route to the classroom. Although I always knew I wanted to be a teacher and writer, I considered other career options along the way, including interior decorator. However, when I graduated with my A.S. in 1980, jobs in this field were few and far between. Desperate for a job, I started working as a receptionist in a doctor’s office. In my mind, this was a temporary situation. I would find my dream job soon.

As the saying goes, everything is temporary. My stint at the doctor’s office only lasted fourteen years. But it turned out to be a good training ground for teaching. Dealing with parents is nothing compared to patients! I also met some pretty interesting people over the years, including William Styron. But one encounter I will never forget was with Ursula Nordstrom.

Ursula Nordstrom was, in the words of Maria Papova, “a fearless custodian of the child’s world and imaginative experience.”  An editor at Harper & Row (now HarperCollins) for many years, she edited classics such as Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, and Where the Wild Things Are. When Ms. Nordstrom came into our office, I was writing terrible picture book manuscripts on a weekly basis, and for me, it was as if the patron saint of all I aspired to had just walked in the door.

Of course, there are rules of professionalism that have to be followed, so I greeted her calmly and asked her to have a seat. She chose a seat quite close to the window, which was a little unnerving. We were very busy that day: the phone wouldn’t stop ringing, charts had to be typed, (Yes, typed, as on a typewriter. This was in the mid-80s.) and other patients needed attention.

During one lull in the action, she looked over at me and said, “You handle everything very well.” (Or something like that.)

In that brief moment I wanted to say, “I write picture books, too!” But of course I didn’t. I thanked her, and then answered the phone again.

Ms. Nordstrom didn’t return to our office, and passed away soon after this brief encounter. If you’re not familiar with her work, Leonard Marcus gave the world of children’s literature a gift when he published Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (HarperCollins, 2000). Included in the book is correspondence between Nordstrom and E.B. White, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Margaret Wise Brown, among many, many others. I read Dear Genius when it was first published and was inspired by Nordstrom’s wit, intelligence, and compassion. Do yourself a favor and read this book. Spend time with “a deeply lovable spirit” who helped create the world of children’s literature as we know it today.

Thank you to StaceyBetsyBeth, KathleenDeb, Melanie, and Lanny for creating this community and providing this space for teachers and others to share their stories every day in March and each Tuesday throughout the year. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

SOL: A Happy Accident

“Chance favors the prepared mind.”
Louis Pasteur

My One Little Word for 2018 is focus. At school, I’ve been focused on incorporating the growth mindset stances laid out by Kristine Mraz and Christine Hertz in their book, A Mindset for Learning, as well as the habits of mind explained in Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind, by Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick. This means I’m constantly on the lookout for opportunities to weave these habits into my lessons.

In Costa and Kallick’s work, this focus would fall under the habit of “creating, imagining, and innovating.” Maybe it’s the poet it me, but I prefer to think of this as “serendipity,” those happy accidents of chance that occur when we’re paying attention. Yesterday, such a moment occurred.

As I was working with a second grader, he noticed The Day the Crayons Quit in a basket on a nearby bookshelf. “Can we read this, too?” L. asked as he pulled the book from the basket. “Mr. M. read it to us in Library and it’s really funny.”

“Absolutely,” I replied. “Let’s finish our other work first.” He agreed, and I presented How Bear Lost His Tail from Fountas & Pinnell’s Leveled Literacy Intervention kit.

He wasted no time in reminding me that he’d already read this book. The advantages of rereading are well-known and many. Among other benefits, rereading increases fluency and deepens comprehension, my goal in this case. I explained to him I knew he’d read the book before, but that readers always find something new when they read a book a second, third, or even fourth time.

He launched into the book, and because it was his second read, he read it fairly fluently and with good expression. When he finished, I asked him if he had an idea about why Fox tricked Bear. He replied, “Maybe Fox was sad.” Seeing an opportunity to develop his vocabulary, I asked him if there were any other words he could use to describe how Fox felt. “Upset?” he said, with a hint of a question.

“Why would he be upset?” I asked him.

“Because Bear’s tail is bushier than his,” he replied, this time with more confidence.

I asked him if he knew the word “jealous.” He said he didn’t. I explained that if someone has something you would like to have, you might be jealous. I asked him if his sister ever had anything he wanted but couldn’t have. He remembered that at her last birthday party, he’d been upset that she was getting so many presents. “That’s what it feels like to be jealous,” I explained.

Seizing the opportunity he’d presented me with when he asked to read The Day the Crayons Quit, I asked, “Do you think any of the crayons were jealous?” He shrugged and said he couldn’t remember. “Let’s find out,” I suggested.

Working together, we reread the first few letters of protest from Duncan’s crayons. Lo and behold, there was Beige, feeling very left out because Brown got to color all the “bears, ponies, and puppies.”

“He’s jealous,” L. announced proudly.

From The Day the Crayons Quit, by Drew Daywalt, pictures by Oliver Jeffers

New learning sticks when learners apply “past knowledge to new situations” (Costa & Kallick, p. 28). Granted, this new situation was within five minutes of L.’s introduction to the word, but he made the connection between the two characters on his own and was articulated his thinking clearly. It’s unlikely that I would have planned this sequence of events ahead of time. But L. is more likely to remember this new vocabulary because a number of conditions were in place that engaged him in a meaningful way. Serendipity at its finest.

Thank you to StaceyBetsyBeth, KathleenDeb, Melanie, and Lanny for creating this community and providing this space for teachers and others to share their stories every day in March and each Tuesday throughout the year. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

SOL18: By the Book

My Saturday morning routine almost always includes a first glance at The New York Times Book Review. It’s only a first glance because I always note which reviews I want to return to and read more carefully. The second read always begins with “By the Book.” This column, subtitled “Writers on literature and the literary life,” interviews authors about what they’re currently reading, which books they love, and other interesting questions related to their reading. Last week’s column featured beloved children’s book author, Brian Selznick, whose newest book, Baby Monkey, Private Eye (Scholastic, 2018) came out last week.

I always love to know what other people are reading, and I don’t know many teachers or writers who aren’t curious about this also. Last year, one of my March Slices was modeled after By the Book, and, since today is Saturday, I decided today was time for an update.

What books are on your nightstand?

At the moment, I’m alternating between Mary Oliver’s beautiful new collection Devotions and Voices in the Air by Naomi Shihab Nye. I am in awe of both of these poets and sometimes come away from their work wondering why I even bother. More often than not, though, the masterful imagery of these two women inspires me to keep writing.

Next is The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry. A friend gave me this book for my birthday in October and I’m just now getting to it. The jacket copy states this book “masterfully explores questions of science and religion, skepticism and faith, but it is most of all a celebration of love.” The Essex Serpent got great reviews when it was published and was on many “Best of 2017” lists last December. I’m only on page 17, so I’ll keep you posted.

There is always at least one professional book in the stack, and currently it’s Learning and Leading with Habits of Mindby Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick. My colleagues and I have been working this year to embed these habits of mind into our teaching. Costa and Kallick have countless suggestions for incorporating these habits into our days in thoughtful, meaningful ways that will help our students internalize them.

I’m embarrassed to confess I haven’t read this year’s Newbery Medal winning book, Hello Universe, by Erin Entrada Kelly yet. As soon as it’s in our library on a Friday afternoon, I’ll bring it home for the weekend. (I never take books until after the kids have left on Friday; if they want the book I want them to have it!)

What books are on your nightstand?

Thank you to StaceyBetsyBeth, KathleenDeb, Melanie, and Lanny for creating this community and providing this space for teachers and others to share their stories every day in March and each Tuesday throughout the year. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

SOL: Focus

After eight weeks of trying it on for size, I’ve decided “focus” is the right OLW for me in 2018. We develop our own understanding of words throughout our life, so I was curious about what the dictionary had to say about my word. The first definition listed in my old Merriam Webster states that focus is “the point where rays of light, heat, etc, or waves of sound come together, or from which they spread.” Although my original thinking had more to do with “to concentrate, as to focus one’s attention,” I love the image of rays of light coming together or spreading out as I pour my energy into two projects, one personal, the other work-related, that are the real impetus for me choosing this word.

In a recent blog post, Vicki Vinton, author of Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading, invited her readers to become “protagonists in their own learning” by adopting an inquiry based approach to a problem or question. Over the past few months, my colleagues and I have been focused on cultivating a growth mindset in our students. This is challenging, ongoing work that easily lends itself the kind of action-research Vicki advocates.

Following Vicki’s model, we have our question: How can we cultivate a growth mindset in our students? We have done research, although this is really ongoing process, and have a hypothesis: Modeling growth mindset behavior and embedding growth mindset stance vocabulary into our daily interactions with children will cultivate their own growth mindset.

Our research began by reading Carol Dweck’s foundational book on the subject, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Random House: 2006). Two books are guiding us as we move forward. Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind: 16 Essential Characteristics for Success, (ASCD, 2008) edited by Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick is an incredible resource, filled with suggestions for creating “thought-full” environments, assessing students’ (and our own!) attitudes and ideas about mindset, as well as lists of additional resources. Kristine Mraz and Christine Hertz’s A Mindset for Learning: Teaching the Traits of Joyful, Independent Growth (Heinemann, 2015) has guided our K-3 teachers in making the stances of mindset accessible to our youngest learners.

Through surveys, we gathered information regarding how students perceive their current mindset. To encourage reflective thinking about these stances, we asked them to include specific examples of when they engage in a particular behavior. The results were a mixture of brutal honesty (I am not persistent when my math homework is hard.) and responses that need a bit more reflection. (I am always persistent.)

Read-alouds are one way we are embedding the vocabulary of growth mindset into our day. Children’s literature is filled with determined, resilient, flexible characters who overcome incredible odds to achieve their goals. My personal favorite is Brave Irene by William Steig, which has been my go-to book for teaching character traits since it was published, but there are hundreds of worthy titles to choose from. Nonfiction is also full of inspiring stories of people who didn’t give up on their dreams. (This post from 2013 has a short list of a few of my favorites.)

We are still in the process of testing our hypothesis, and will be for months to come. As Costa and Kallick point out, “we never fully master the Habits of Mind…we continue to develop and improve them throughout our lives.”

I’ll let you know how well I’m doing staying focused and share any glimmers of light spreading out from our work.

Thank you also to StaceyBetsyBeth, KathleenDeb, Melanie, and Lanny for creating this community and providing this space for teachers and others to share their stories each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.


“You can develop this ability to see. You just have to know what to look for…and where to look.”
Erlin Olafsson *

It seems astonishing to us in the modern age, when microscopes and telescopes have revealed so many wonders, that not that long ago, people didn’t know where butterflies came from. When Maria Merian was born in 1647, a majority of people still believe Aristotle’s theory of “spontaneous generation…that insects did not come from other insects, but from dew, dung, dead animals, or mud.” Growing up “in a household filled with growing things,” Maria became curious and “from youth on [she was] occupied with the investigation of insects.”

Joyce Sidman’s engaging and colorful biography of Maria Merian, The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018), is itself a wonder. Each chapter opens with a poem chronicling the lifecycle of a butterfly. These poems, told from the insect’s perspective, mirror Merian’s own transformation from a curious girl helping in her stepfather’s art studio to a pioneering thinker who lead the way for future scientists. As Sidman writes, “she saw nature as an ever-transforming web of connections—and changed our view of it forever.”

Sidman’s clear, poetic prose, interspersed with Merian’s own words from her field notes, brings Maria and her world to life. The book is lavishly illustrated with Merian’s intricately detailed paintings and Sidman’s own photographs of the metamorphosis cycle. Maps and period paintings of daily life in Germany and the Netherlands provide young readers with clear images of 17th century Europe. Additional information about aspects of daily life at the time, including “Women: Unsung Heroes of the Workforce,” “Science Before Photography,” and “Slavery in Surinam,” among others, place Maria’s life and accomplishments in a broader context. A glossary, timeline, and suggestions for future reading are also included.

At one point, Sidman explains that “Maria had decided that insects belonged to plants and plants to insects. Together, they formed a community of living things that nurtured one another.” In this book, Sidman has woven together many strands from art and science that enhance each other to create a stellar example of what is possible in nonfiction for young readers.

The Girl Who Drew Butterflies is a true gift to readers. Maria Merian was a remarkable woman who overcame the constrictions of society to achieve her dreams, dreams that have left a legacy still with us today. She deserves this book and our children need to hear her story. They need to know that miracles and mysteries are all around them, just waiting to be discovered.

Maria Sibylla Merian [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Teachers can download a study guide here. After students finish The Girl Who Drew Butterflies, be sure to direct them to Jeannine Atkins’s gorgeous novel in verse, Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science.

Please be sure to visit Jen Vincent at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee Moye of Unleashing Readers for more book recommendations.

(quoted in Life on Surtsey: Iceland’s Upstart Island, by Loree Griffin Burns)