Friday, February 5, 2016

CALLING ALL CARS for the 100th Day of School

It is hard to believe but this week we celebrated the 100th day of school. That special day ranks right up there with Valentine’s Day around our campus. Most teachers asked their students to bring in 100 items of their choice. Take a look at their clever ideas.

One of my speech students asked if we could read 100 books in honor of the day but we’ll have to make that a long-term goal. After all, we don’t want to rush through a good story.

And speaking of a good story, I was able to share a new book with a kindergarten class this week. They were thrilled to be part of a review team for Calling All Cars by Sue Fliess, illustrated by Sarah Beise.

      Big cars,
           Small cars,
        Let’s call
        All cars!

They loved the zippy text and, I must admit, I loved reading it to them. I couldn’t help but match my speed to the speed of the racing cars then slow for the climb over the mountain.

       Zip through tunnels,
       Make no stops,
       Climb up over

The kids poured over the bright, eye-popping colors and giggled at the illustrations of a long-necked giraffe in a tiny convertible, a car with elevator wheels and adorable animals on every page. They each picked a favorite scene and their choices were as varied as the clever text and illustrations.

The students thought this was a great story for the 100th day of school because there were at least 100 cars in the book.

I’d say it was a good choice because their enthusiasm hit a full 100%!

Thursday, June 25, 2015


It has been quite awhile since I last posted but my writing time has been well spent. I completed a middle grade novel, and now, before I start working on the next one, I thought I’d check in on my blog. Thank you all who continued to visit while I was away. I expected to find the number of views had plummeted, but what a surprise—they kept growing. I appreciate those of you who dropped by.

School is out and I’m on summer vacation so I won’t have many student stories to share but I do have a fabulous book to bring to your attention. My first read of the summer was HOW TO SPEAK DOLPHIN by Ginny Rorby, published by Scholastic Press.


I was drawn to this book for several reasons: first, I’ve enjoyed Ms. Rorby’s previous novels and assumed her writing would be as engaging as ever (I was right); second, Ginny Rorby is a friend of mine and I wanted to know what she has been up to in her writing life; third, Ms. Rorby did substantial research for this book in the autism class at the school where I work—with MY STUDENTS.

The narrator of this story, Lily, is big sister to Adam, a young child on the autism spectrum. You can’t help but root for this loyal, loving sister, whose family-life revolves around her half-brother. Her life takes a twist when her oncologist, step-dad, Don, is called in to assist in treating a young dolphin with cancer. Don brings Adam along, and when he meets Nori, a rescued bottlenose dolphin, a bond forms between them that crosses the communication boundaries inherent in Adam’s disability.

Adam is soon enrolled in a Dolphin Assisted Therapy program in hopes that his communication skills will improve. But when Lily sees how confining the environment is for the young dolphin, and realizes Nori may have to live in a chain-linked pen at the back of a pool for the next 37 years, she struggles between her loyalty to Adam and her desire to see this young dolphin freed from captivity.

Since several of my students are on the autism spectrum, I read the book with a critical eye to Ms. Rorby’s depiction of such a child. She did a brilliant job. Not only did she paint an accurate picture of Adam, she clearly depicted the family struggles surrounding a child with Adam’s particular cluster of autistic behaviors.

This story draws compassion from its readers—compassion for those with disabilities, their families, and for animals held in captivity.

I may not have shared stories about my students in this post, but Ginny did a fine job doing so. The main character in her book, Adam, is fictional, but his name and many of his characteristics are not. I work with the real Adam and with others in his class who exhibit the behaviors Ginny so accurately described.

When school rolls around in the fall, I’m glad I will have HOW TO SPEAK DOLPHIN on hand to share with my students, especially those animal-loving girls at our middle school. Perhaps their insights and our future discussions will make their way to this blog. I’ll keep you posted.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Students Interview Jim Averbeck

Welcome back, Jim Averbeck. Our Redwood students had such fun participating in an interview with you back in December of 2012—we’re overdue for a second one. Your book, The Market Bowl, was a hit with the kids and they’re full of questions for you.



Olivya: How long did it take you to write this book?

Jim: It took me probably 2 years all together. Even though it was very short, I wanted to make it perfect, so I re-wrote it many times. Plus I had to do all the art, which took about 9 months.

Riley: Did you use paint or crayons to make the pictures?

Jim: I used paint and also paper. I scanned everything into my computer and assembled the pieces there.

Ariel likes paints and paintbrushes and crayons and pencils and she likes to knit. She wondered if the blankets in the picture at the market were knitted.

Jim: Those things for sale at the market are called pagnes (pronounced pah-nyah). They are lengths of cloth that people in Cameroon wear either by wrapping them around their bodies or by sewing dresses and pants and other clothing from them. They have a kind of shirt they make from them called a boubou (pronounced booboo)

Maddie: Do you like writing stories?

Jim: I don’t like writing stories… I LOVE writing them.

Jacob doesn’t have any questions but he wants you to know he likes the part where Yoyo makes the yucky stew. He really loves the flies.

Jim: I liked the flies too. Poor Yoyo!  No one liked her first stew except the goats.

Zayde: Why didn’t Brother Coin wear a shirt?

Jim: It can sometimes be very hot in Cameroon. In the part of Cameroon where THE MARKET BOWL is set, there is a traditional outfit the men wear which consists of a length of colorful cloth wrapped around the waist.  It’s comfortable for them.

Skyler: Why did Yoyo make stew—why didn’t she cook brown eggs?

Jim: Mama and Yoyo did not have enough money to own chickens to lay any eggs. But the leaves for NdolĂ© grow wild in the rainforest, so they didn’t need to buy them.


Allisyn: How does it feel to be an author?

Jim: Scary because I never know if anyone will buy my book. Like Yoyo and Mama, I depend on what I make to give me money for food and clothes and stuff. I wish I could get a blessing on MY market bowl.

The kids would bless your bowl if they could. But since they can’t do that, they’ve promised to spread the word about your book. They’re sure it will sell well.

Diego: When you were in school, did you do a lot of writing and drawing?

Jim: I liked to draw when I was little but I started writing stories because I loved to read, and I wanted to make stories like the authors I admired.

Kiara: Could you write a castle story?

Jim: I can start one. Maybe you can finish it. Here goes:
Eliana had a secret. Inside the left bottom drawer of the desk in her bedroom she kept a tiny castle. Not a toy castle, but a real one, with a tiny king and a tiny queen, who ruled all the people who lived inside the drawer. Eliana never opened the drawer all the way. She didn’t want to scare the tiny people, to whom she was a giant. But one day she had to open the drawer because…

If you could have seen the wide-eyed looks on the kids’ faces as I read Eliana’s secret, you would have had a hard time stopping but I’m glad you did. The beginning inspired the whole class and they are working together to finish the story.

Santiago: “How did you learn to be an artist?”

Jim: By doing art. I still struggle every day. It is hard because I see a picture in my head, but I can never draw or paint it as well as I see it in my head. But every time I try to make a piece of art, I learn something and I get better. Maybe I will be a really great artist someday.

The kids think you already are a great artist.

Sean: What is Yoyo’s dog’s name?

Jim: Ebobolo.  (all the o’s are pronounced like the word “oh”)

Diego: Why does Brother Coin live in a cave?

Jim: Brother Coin is an ancient spirit. He has been around since before there were houses. He has a very elaborate and fancy cave with all the things he likes best, so he has never taken to houses, after they were invented.

Byron: Does Brother Coin have a brother?

Jim: He has a brother named Poverty and he also has a pet bull and a pet bear.

Santiago: How did you think of these ideas for the story?

Jim: Different ideas come from different places. Sometimes I dream them. Sometimes I write a word on the page and then think about things that are opposite of that word and how I might make a story out of opposite words. Sometimes I listen to things kids say and it makes me think of a good story idea.

Aubree: I like the story. Are there giraffes where Yoyo lives?

Jim: There are giraffes close to where Yoyo lives. She lives in the forest. The giraffes live on a grassy plain a long drive to the north of her.

Daniel: Do the people, where Yoyo lives, eat anything besides bitterleaf stew?

Jim: Yes- they eat lots of things. They eat some things that you and I might eat- spaghetti with tomatoes, peanut butter, and sweet potatoes. But they also eat crocodile, monkey and termites. I’ve eaten fried termites too. They are crunchy and salty like popcorn.

“Eewe!” That was the response from several of the students but others were hoping to try a few termites. We had quite a discussion about how people of other cultures might like some of the foods we eat.

Dmitri really liked the story and he said he learned a good lesson. He likes to sell his old stuff and he decided he will never again, refuse a fair price, even if it is just a quarter.

Jim: Just as long as he gets a fair price, he should do okay with that strategy.

I hadn’t intended to mention the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) during this interview but Dmitri’s comment nudged me to do so. The third Reading Standard for Literature asks second-grade students to “Recount stories, including fables and folktales from diverse cultures, and determine their central message, lesson, or moral.”  I think Dmitri is on his way to meeting this one. Thank you for supplying us with an appropriate CCSS literature text, even if it wasn’t your motivation for writing it.

Jim: No problem. I am looking at my novel A HITCH AT THE FAIRMONT and making a CCSS guide for it. Maybe I should make one for MARKET BOWL too.

If you did, I know of several teachers who would put it to good use. That brings me to a question of my own, now that forty-five states have adopted the standards, will that influence what you write?

Jim: Not really. I quit a lucrative job to become a writer because I wanted to tell stories that delight me. I write for myself and have just been very blessed that people will pay me a little for my stories.  I wouldn’t change that for CCSS. That said-- I will create and include more “informational text” as either auxiliary materials or as author notes in the actual book, to help teachers more easily access the research I’ve done to meet some of the standards and to give them a way to reach the fiction/nonfiction percentage mixes in one nice package. And I will create guides that give ideas for how to use the book to meet specific standards.

Wonderful! I’m sure your stories are delightful because they delight you. The CCSS guides will be useful but from my perspective, an engaging story has the most value of all.

To wrap up our interview, do you have any advice for young writers?

Jim: Just to remember that when they write something, if it isn’t the best they can do the first time, they can write it again and again until they are satisfied that it is as good as they can make it.

Great advice! I couldn’t agree more. Thank you, Jim Averbeck.

Mrs. Jackson’s class art project—Market Bowls sitting over flames:


Friday, May 2, 2014

Explore the Core (Common Core State Standards)

There is a lot of debate surrounding the CCSS but that’s healthy; after-all, in education you can be sure of one thing—change will happen and you can’t always be certain it’s for the best. Programs and approaches often cycle through our school systems with new names, minor (or major) changes and a big price tag. It makes sense to take a close and appraising look at the changes before hopping on board and spending our limited resources to do so.

That said, since the majority of the states in the US have adopted the standards, and we need to get on with our job of educating children, I’d like to look for creative ways to implement them. We don’t need to make extravagant purchases to begin. There are wonderful resources around our schools that will do the job effectively: good books, involved parents, dedicated teachers and librarians, like our very own Allison Brown who used her creative talents to raise funds to purchase new books for our students. She is aware of the new standards and was inspired by them to increase our selection of non-fiction books and refresh our selection of fiction. 

Besides a shift to more non-fiction in our schools, the Common Core State Standards bring other changes.  I’ve been poking around the CCSS website to identify some of them ( When I read, “[t]he Standards insist that instruction in reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language be a shared responsibility within the school,” I realized that I too share that responsibility. I’m not a classroom teacher but I do support students in my role as a Speech Language Pathologist (SLP). Looking at the standards from my SLP perspective, I was surprised to discover that language skills are at the heart of most of them.

I work with students from kindergarten to those out of high school and it’s obvious to me— these kids are going to need strong language skills in order to meet the standards at every age. From the very first kindergarten reading standard, “With prompting and support, ask and answer questions about key details in a text,” a child will need appropriate language skills to achieve the goals.

This need is even more obvious when you come to the “Speaking and Listening” standards, like this one where second graders are expected to, “[t]ell a story or recount an experience with appropriate facts and relevant, descriptive details, speaking audibly in coherent sentences.”  And how about the language standards, with their emphasis on grammar? That falls neatly in the SLP’s domain.

Even the math standards have a language component—first graders are expected to “Distinguish between defining attributes (e.g. triangles are closed and three-sided) versus non-defining attributes (e.g. color, orientation, overall size . . .) These kids are going to need a healthy vocabulary to be able to meet that one.

I was a little worried when I first read through the standards; I thought my caseload might jump to about 900 students.  But then I remembered; I’m just support staff and lucky for me, our classroom teachers infuse language instruction throughout their days.

But this all brings me back to the reason for this post.  Kids benefit when the responsibility for their education is shared across a school campus and within their homes. I’d like to suggest the responsibility spreads even further. I’ve introduced my students to some wonderful stories and non-fiction books written by authors from around the world. Each author has impacted the students in one way or another. And you can be certain; these books have provided a perfect springboard to work on several standards.

Last week, one of my first grade students came in asking for a story. He said, “I want the one with the carrots.”

“Which one?” I asked, “Tell me more about it.”

“You know, the one where the carrots followed the Rabbit everywhere and scared him, only he didn’t know for sure, he just saw orange all the time and then he’d turn around and it was just stuff like a bottle or curtains or a rubber duck.”

Of course, I quickly realized he was asking for Creepy Carrots! By Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Peter Brown, but I didn’t want to interrupt his retelling of this fabulous tale. Little did Jacob know, he had just demonstrated impressive growth toward the second Reading Standard for Literature where first grade students are expected to, “Retell stories, including key details, and demonstrate understanding of their central message or lesson.”

I don’t think implementing the new standards needs to be a tedious proposition, at least not in the speech room. And since educating children is a shared responsibility, I’d love to hear suggestions from others, of how we all can effectively support children in meeting their goals, and ours for them.

Friday, April 4, 2014

“Once Upon a Time” at a Speech/Language Convention

Last week, toward the end of an exceptionally rainy day, three of my first grade speech students (all boys) came bounding into my classroom, overflowing with unspent energy. I had an appealing speech game laid out on the table, ready for this exuberant group, but as we started the activity, their wiggling bodies and wandering eyes made it obvious—their minds were not fully engaged. And so, with a quick sweep of my hand, I gathered the articulation pictures, folded up the game-board, and stood. They looked a bit worried when the game disappeared but their wrinkled foreheads cleared and their eyes sparkled when I said, “I think we need a story.” I had their full attention from the moment I spoke those words and their minds didn’t wander through the rest of the session.

Stories are powerful. Whether the students are listening to them, reading them or helping create them, I can’t think of a better way to reach a child or help a child reach their goals. Since that has long been my belief, I was delighted to find two story-related courses at the California Speech, Language and Hearing Association Convention last week. I guess I’m not alone in my desire to use literature with my students. The massive ballroom at the San Francisco Hilton was packed with speech therapists during both courses.

The first one, entitled Narrative Intervention: Teaching “Once Upon a Time” was taught by Teresa A. Ukrainetz, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Wyoming, in the division of Communication Disorders. From her first PowerPoint slide, I knew I had found a kindred spirit, or mentor, or story-telling guru, (after all, she has a Ph.D and has written numerous research articles on the subject.) But back to that first slide. Under the bold printed title, Why Narratives?, she listed, among other things,

            Bridge between orality and literacy
            Teaching language and literacy through stories
            The magic of story

Parents and professionals, both, will easily catch the direction of her research findings. Stories build a bridge. What child, after hearing a good story, does not want to decipher those letters and watch them turn into words, then lift off the page to become unicorns or castles or wild horses running through their imagination? As Dr. Ukrainetz indicated, literature provides a perfect avenue for teaching speech, language and literacy skills, and that is when the magic happens.

Later that same day, I attended a course by Dr. Shari Robertson, a professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. This one was entitled, The Best of Both Worlds: Using Children’s Literature to Meet Oral and Written Language Goals. Once again, I was hooked by her first slide. This course was in the afternoon and after a heavy lunch, but I had no problem staying alert, even when she pulled out a picture book and read, what easily could have become, a bedtime story.

In the course description she stated, “Put some evidence-based zing into your therapy sessions by using books to target oral and written communication development.” Dr. Roberson put some zing into her entire presentation, and if I hadn’t already been enthusiastic about using literature with my students, I would have come away committed to doing so. As it was, I came away with fabulous new lists of books to use with my speech and language kids, one of which is a picture book written by Dr. Robertson herself—Capering Cows—the story of a sleepless child who counts cows instead of sheep.

CC Cover

This book, illustrated by Alexandra Crouse, is perfect for children who need practice with their “k” or hard “c” sounds and it is full of descriptive words and rhyming stanzas, like this one:

Cows that are cowardly
Cows that are brave.
Cows that have ears that waggle and wave.

The book includes tear-out flash cards for vocabulary practice and story extension activities. And at the back, you’ll find instructions on how to effectively use the book to address several National Reading Panel targets.

Dr. Roberson introduced other books produced by her publishing company, Read With Me! Press, which support language and literacy development. Speech therapists will especially appreciate the stories in their “Word Menders” series, which target specific phonological processes.

You don’t need to be a speech therapist or to understand those processes to read these stories to children. Elizabeth Redhead Kriston’s Go By Goat, charmingly illustrated by Gary Morgan, will help children listen to and pronounce the final consonants in words.  Since this sound often disappears when some of my younger students speak, I’ll be putting the book to good use.

And when my exuberant speech group comes in for their next session, I’ll be armed with several new stories that are certain to delight them as we work toward their goals.

I received these books for review purposes. The opinions are completely my own, based on my experience. I was not financially compensated for this post.