Text, Tool, and Thought: Come with Me by Holly McGhee

Image result for come with me


In the necessary and heartwarming story, Come with Me, the reader follows a girl who is fearful of the world surrounding her.  The news inundates her with dark facts, but rather than feeling helpless she asks her father what can be done to make the world a better place?  His simple response, “Come with me.”  Together they go out into the scary world, finding ways to connect with strangers in their city.  But the news does not change.  The world is still dark and evil, so she poses the same question to her mother.

“What can we do?”

“Come with me.”

Together, she helps her daughter face the scary world once again.

Upon returning home the girl decides she wants to do something herself.  Stepping foot outside her door, alone, to walk her dog, the little girl is soon connecting to others on her own.  In turn she learns a powerful lesson–actions don’t have to be big to make a big impact.


Craft Moves:

  • Repetition
  • Character Development
  • Character Traits
  • Theme

The repetition in this text can be analyzed from two different levels the text– the phrase “come with me” stated throughout, and the characters’ repetitive actions.  First she goes to the subway with her father who has said, “Come with me,” then she goes to the grocery store with her mother who said the same.  Ultimately, she goes out on her own and as she meets others along the way, she tells them simply, “Come with me.”  Her parents had shown her the world did not have to be scary, and now she was leading others to see the same through her bravery.

Although the text is simple, each character is so layered in who they are and the illustrations do a beautiful job bringing these traits out.  We also see a significant shift in each of one as the book progresses.  Initially, the text starts with the girl being scared and her parents showing her how to be brave out in the world.  As the girl begins to internalize that bravery she wants to go out into the world, and now her parents are the ones who are scared.  The turning points in the text allow for a deep level of analysis from both a reading and writing standpoint.  The reader can analyze how the character is changing through actions and words, but the text is also simple enough to make emulating this work accessible and transferable with our young writers.

Finally, there are so many themes/universal messages that can be gleaned from this text.  Below is one of my favorite tools for tracking theme because it gives students a lens to think through as they read, and also requires them to pay special attention to scenes which are often difficult for them to write in their own work.  By doing this work in reading, we build natural places to go back in our text(s) to analyze it for craft and message as writers.

theme scenes - Copy


I had this text selected as my next to share long before the hurricanes and Vegas shooting transpired.  As our nation and world continue to face destructive and unthinkable adversity, we feel lost.  What can one do?  These moments are so big that any action feels insignificant.  This text is a beautiful reminder to us that it’s not.  It shows us that no matter the action, our human calling is to step outside, connect, and do. Living behind closed doors and screens and fear does not exact change.  Uniting in a voice of solidarity does.  Come with me.  Now is the time for change.  Now is the time for bravery.

Now is the time.



Using Quick Writes as Authentic Writing Spaces for Volume Development




Student writing volume is an under-invested component in establishing students as writers.  I have several theories for this, but all lead to the same conclusion–it’s hard.  It’s hard for kids to write more and well because collectively I don’t think we are as intentional about building student writing stamina as we are about building their reading stamina. It’s also hard for teachers because the more they write the more we have to read.  That takes time and it feels overwhelming.

While these are all very real and valid reasons, I’m still left with an itch I can’t ignore called hypocrisy.  If I believe readers need to read more to become better readers, the same has to be true for writing.  So why do my expectations differ?  Why do I encourage my kids to read more to get better at reading, but not write more to get better at writing?

Oh, yeah.  It’s hard.  But then I remember the wise words of Mary Ehrenworth and know I have to do the hard things more.  The hard things don’t get easier, and I don’t become more proficient at them, if I avoid them.

I had to scratch this itch.  To do so I began reflecting on where to start this work knowing everyone would feel its weight.  The purpose of getting kids to write more was not about giving a grade.  The purpose was about building stamina in a way that resulted in increased volume.  So, where does writing exist that I don’t grade?  I didn’t want to create something new (enter overwhelming feelings) and  I don’t want kids to feel the additional weight of it being assigned a score (doing this makes me a hypocrite again. It doesn’t match my purpose. I don’t need any new itches.)


We typically start each unit of writing with a series of quick writes over the span of several days.  This serves as the immersion phase into our new unit,  allowing students to explore and experiment with the style and genre of writing they are about to embark upon.  Additionally, it gives our students the opportunity for “joyful, ungraded practice” as advised by the incredibly brilliant Penny Kittle.  If I can center students in an environment where they feel liberated as writers, and engaged in the act of it, that’s where I can find our real potential for volume and stamina.  My quick write environment typically provides just that.

To track this goal, I have set up a graph to show progress.  It looks similar to our reading stamina graph, only we track words, sentences, paragraphs or pages, not minutes.

Our set-up for quick writes is this:

  1. Look at and examine the picture, infographic, writing, etc.
  2. Think
  3. Write
  4. Talk
  5. Write

Students get five minutes to write for steps 3 and 5.  After our very first quick write we average how much we were able to write as a class for a collective ten minutes.  This is our baseline data.  As the unit and year progresses, we work to increase this amount by words and sentences (primary level) and paragraphs and pages (intermediate level).

Just as we monitor volume for reading, I am working to do this same thing for students as writers.  When it is higher?  When is it lower?  Perhaps our volume goals will even differ by genre.  As I navigate this for the first time, I’m not exactly sure where it will go or what I will find.  I have assumptions, and I’m looking forward to seeing how, or if, students will fulfill those.  Regardless, I know the information this provides will make my instruction more intentional.

And scratch that dang itch.

Text, Tool, and Thought: Survivors Club by Michael Bornstein

Survivors Club


In the book, Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz, Michael Bornstein joins his daughter to tell the tragic and miraculous story of his family and their will to survive the evils of World War II.  Michael Bornstein’s family lived in Zarki, Poland in 1939.  In October of the same year, the the Jewish community was invaded by Nazi soldiers as World War II began rearing its horrendous, hateful head.  Despite a heavy Gestapo and Nazi presence, Zarki would remain an open ghetto.  (It is still remembered as being one of the more favorable ghettos to have resided, despite the unspeakable crimes witnessed by its inhabitants).  Shortly after the invasion, Michael’s mamishu (mother) learned she was pregnant with him and he was born into the ghetto on May 2, 1940.  What transpired over the next four years of Michael’s young life can only be told by the author himself.  His family got separated time and again, but when life in the ghetto is all you know this is your norm. Ultimately forced into Auschwitz, Michael soon realized his family’s luck had run out.  They could not survive this.  Or could they?


This book serves as a powerful example of narrative nonfiction.  Michael tells his story in such a profound, yet protected, way for his young audience, without losing any authenticity of the era or his life.  As many of our students launch the year with some form of narrative writing–whether formal or informal–this book shows exactly why our personal stories must be shared.

Potential Craft Moves to Highlight:

  • power of personal accounts
  • embedding another language to connect to larger message (Yiddish terms are used consistently to highlight the family’s commitment to their faith; German terms are used when Nazis are talking to show how misplaced and misunderstood they were in the community)
  • theme–migration, war, poverty, family, faith, marginalization, death, crime, power… (the list goes on)

In connection to bullet one, having students interview family members about powerful stories in their lives could serve as a brainstorming tool to pull in those deeper, more meaningful moments in our lives.  It might look something like this:

  • What different parts of the world is our family from?
  • How do those places connect with my life today?  Food?  Clothing?  Religion?  Family traditions? Home? Music?  Art?
  • Why are these cultural components so important to our family?
  • How do we keep our family history alive?  How can I keep it alive through my narrative nonfiction writing?

The interview does not have to be long–remember, we’re just brainstorming at this point.


So often when our kids begin narrative writing they want to talk about winning a video game (likely Minecraft), their trip to the local amusement park, or that one time they got a great Christmas present.  And we sigh.  There has to be more.  How am I going to get this child to see there’s more?

Additionally, we live in a society where our demographics are changing at a steady pace. If we want to know our neighbors, we have to listen to their stories.  More importantly, if we want to know ourselves, we have to know our own.  This is where understanding and empathy are birthed, and connections to others become meaningful and lasting.  Culturally relevant teaching has never been more important, and how many of our students really know and understand their own history?

As I read this book, I could not help but think how much of this author’s young life has impacted every facet of his being as he’s grown into an adult.  Certainly, our students are not likely to have stories as harrowing.  But some will, and they can’t be ignored.  Those who don’t still have important stories to tell.  Connect with families to learn student stories through the interview builds vital relationships for the year and gets them involved in their child’s learning right away.  More importantly, for our students it creates an outlet for writing to be connected to self-discovery.  I can’t think of a more essential audience than that.


Two additional picture books that could serve as mentor text:

  1. Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey by Margriet Ruus (this text can connect thematically with migration, poverty, war, hardship, etc. and bring about meaningful cultural conversations connected to these themes.  The story is told in Arabic and English, showing the power of bringing in another language as well).
  2. Mirror by Jeannie Baker (this text shows life in the Middle East on one side of the text, and in the U.S. on the other side.  This helps kids see all the small day-to-day activities that create the culture we live in.  As they start to think about stories they have connected to their culture, this can help them see all that culture entails).

Andy Takes Action: A Text, Tool, and Thought


Andy Takes Action


This entry is introducing a new type of post that will be featured the first week of each month on the blog.  There are so many amazing books out there, and we continually find ourselves wanting to know new titles and how to use them, so that is exactly what this monthly post will do–introduce a new text, provide ideas/tools for how to use it, and capture a few thoughts on the importance of the message to our students.  And our first one is a real gem!  I know it’s the last week of August, but it’s too good to hold back.  So, what does that mean for you?  You get a “Text, Tool, Thought” post next week, too!


Andy Takes Action is a book I happened upon in a small art museum gift shop in Philadelphia.  The author, Valerie Lang, attends Moore College of Art and Design with an emphasis in illustration, and also works in the gift shop!  When I saw this book, I knew it was perfect for launching the school year.  I snagged it, she signed it, and I have dearly embraced this book ever since!

In the book, Andy aspires to be an action hero despite being mocked by his peers for having such an audacious dream.  As events play out at school where action is needed, Andy learns, with the help of his teacher, that Andy has what it takes to make his dream come true. More importantly, his peers do too.


Craft Moves:  

  • repetition
  • quotations/dialogue
  • word style and formatting–color, size
  • balancing action, dialogue, and thoughts in a text
  • symbolism–cape, helmet

Theme/Central Message: 

  • community
  • activism
  • individuality

word formatting demo notebook tool

A tool I created in my demonstration notebook outlines how word formatting impacts a text.  So many times we ask students to thread a theme or message throughout the text, or try out repetition and they struggle to do so.  Once students have written a draft, have them review it.  What words are repeated?  Why?  Do they have meaning?  Are they connected to your theme?  Could we make them look differently?

Additionally, your aesthetic learners who might resist writing, would love to start out in an artistic way.  What words are coming to you write now that are driving your piece?  Write them out in an artistic way.  What impact are you wanting them to have on your reader?  Start with a single word–I like to call it a piece’s “essence word,” and let the writing grow from there.

I also used this book with a primary teacher to help set a tone of unity while building community at the start of the year.  We had the students think about their natural strengths, and how those could be used to empower and help others throughout year.  They made capes stating how they were going to be action heroes, and then we used those words to help us draft our class mission statement.  We have coined the term ‘hero’ into our class name, and continually think about what positive action looks like in different situations throughout our day.  It has definitely established a proactive, rather than reactive, stance to our thinking, words, and actions.  It’s been wonderful to watch students help each other out, and then exclaim, “I was just an action hero!”  Yes, yes, you were.  Keep being just that.


Taking action in our world today has never been more important.  We see the news, we know the issues, and we know action needs to be taken to right them.  But too often it feels too big or our lives are too busy, and so we show compassion and empathy, and move on.

 That’s awful, but what can I do?  When would I even find the time to do it?  It seems so big.  What does the first step even look like?

Yes, these are all valid thoughts and reasons.  However, what we must remember is that systems, whether broken or functioning, were created by individuals with a vision.  The only way the broken systems are going to be taken down or remedied is in the same way.  It starts with us.  And at the even more cellular level, it starts with us being a model of action for the generation looking up to us-our students, and our very own kids.  We are in an age where being a compassionate, empathetic onlooker is not enough.  And Andy is just the character to show us that our actions being big or small is not what matters, it’s that action was taken and you were brave enough to do it.

When Kids Don’t Care about our Rules



just the students I'd hoped for

In Pernille Ripp’s latest blog post, Welcome Them All, she displays this sign created for her classroom.  It gave me pause.  We are days into school and only on the surface of learning the many layers underneath each student.  Their stories are just beginning to unfold.  Their identities remain largely unknown to us at this time, yet many of us have already begun to project identities onto them.  We are days in, and the labeling of students has begun.  And that’s where I pause because I wonder, have we even given them a chance?

Don’t get me wrong, labels, in and of themselves, are not bad.  They are how we make sense of our world.  But too often in education the labels we place on students come from a deficit mindset–their incapabilities, their rule-breaking.

In turn, these students become incapable rule-breakers in our minds.

Not a glamorous identity.


In Kylene Beers new book, Disruptive Thinking, she asks the reader to reflect:

Think of something you don’t do well. (golf).  Think about how it makes you feel when you try it. (hopeful and anxious).  Think about how it makes you feel when you try it repeatedly, and don’t make the progress expected. (frustrated, passive, defeated).

Now imagine doing that thing 7 hours a day for 190 days in front of your peers.  That’s what we ask our struggling readers and writers to do every day.


And guess what?

It’s also what we ask our struggling behavior students to do every day.

We ask them to conform and follow rules and fit in boxes that their bodies and minds were not made for.  Innocently enough our first actions are focused on fixing the behavior, but this often turns to a mentality of needing to fix the child.  In doing this, we frame an identity for this kid that suggests they are broken in some way.  Imagine having to work in that kind of space–where you are seen as broken and in need of fixing?  It doesn’t exactly build a foundation for community or an environment for success, huh?

Furthermore, many times our solution to the behavior comes in the form of isolation–a safe seat, a buddy room, the recovery room.  Again, none of these are bad, and that’s not the intended message. Safety is number one, and each of these have a place in keeping students safe. What I simply want to encourage is thoughtfulness when deferring to isolation as the solution, and here’s why:  we have two types of students in our classroom–rules kids and relationship kids.

Rule kids are just that, they respond to rules.  They have been taught to trust adults because adults want what is best for them, and they are surrounded by adults that live this message.  “Rule kids” thrive on the structure and organization that rules establish.  They’ve learned the system and the system works for them, so they don’t question it.

Relationship kids are the exact opposite–they do not care about the rules.  If they did, they would follow them.  Likely, rules have not played a large part in their existence and in their eyes, they are doing just fine. I’m here, right? Additionally, these students have to trust the adult imparting them, and this trust is not something that comes as naturally as it does for the “rules kids”.  Typically, “relationship kids” are not surrounded by trusting adults, so it has to be earned.  Continuing to remind them of and punish them for rules they don’t care about only creates madness and frustration for both parties.  Your relationship kids respond to humans–they need the connection, they need the trust.  When we send them away, so does our opportunity to create that connection so desperately need to succeed.  We have to keep them close.

It’s also worth stating that the rules kids still need relationships and vice versa. The two are not mutually exclusive.  It’s just understanding that the thought process differs for each kind of kid when walking into a new experience or situation.  One thinks, “What are the rules here? I need to follow them, and then I’ll get to know the people around me.”  While the other kid thinks, “Who are the people here?  Who can I trust, and what do they want from me? Those are the ones I’ll respond to.”


In the case of identities, we talk endlessly about shaping students’ to see themselves as readers and writers.  What we don’t talk about is how we shape them to see themselves as successful, capable humans, even if the grade card suggests otherwiseDoing this gets buried under the demands of teaching content, yet the implications of doing so are far more lasting because when we do this we honor individuality. Students live under the fallacy that the successful people of the world are those that sat quietly and got good grades in school.  We cannot continue to perpetuate this idea.

Each year teachers think about and  fill their toolbox with many tools related to classroom management and curriculum and instruction.  We are missing a key component.  What tools do we have in place to connect individually with our students?  To let them speak their identity to us, rather than us projecting ours onto them.  What tools do we have for listening, for showing empathy, for focusing on their strengths, not weaknesses?  We’ve got students hanging on by a thread, and we can be the connection that builds that single thread into a rope, pulling them back in and giving them hope through a life-changing relationship.  We must use the power we possess to do just that.




Crashing Through Comfort Zones: Finale


new beginning

I’ve become painfully aware of the past week how demanding daily blogging can be.  As I sit at home today with a sick son, I’m finishing up my blog series.  Indeed, a few days late. Thank you for being patient.  As the members of the district I work in attend convocation this morning, I’m gathering some rousing words of my own to energize me for the year.


This week we embark on “Back to School” week and become inundated with apples, pencils, excessive wine consumption memes, and lethargic children, we need quiet.  Quiet to recharge, quiet to reflect, quiet to create a vision that focuses us in the madness.

This weekend I had the opportunity to have Saturday morning coffee (or bloody marys…) with two of the fiercest women I know.  They are not complacent, and because they are not complacent they see deeper, think stronger, envision greater.  Which also means they challenge uncomfortably and meaningfully.  I’m privileged to get to sit in this intellectual space. So as the new school year dawns, and I think about space and place, I’m making a conscious effort to fine new ones.  To seek out opportunities never before capitalized upon, growing my boundaries both literally and figuratively.   Part of my reimagine mission, includes reimagining myself.  We are built by our unique experiences.  I’m spending this year seeking them out.  I’m not waiting for them to come to me.

I’ve already got three lined up:

All events are free and welcome the entire community.  I’d encourage you to join me if any pique your interest.

I’ve also made the decision to give up television this fall.  For me this space and place breeds passivity in my life.  Complacency lurks here.  I have four 300+ page books I want to read.  I thought I’d get them read over the summer, but that didn’t happen so I’m saying goodbye to the screen.  These books are focused around community, activism, and truth. The television will never offer me that.  Even in a place as comfortable as my home, I reimagining what it looks like–what potential can exist here?

Whether you crash through your comfort zone blindly as I did with summer school, or stick one toe out in the vast waters of the ocean, I encourage each of you to truly reimagine what this year could be for you personally or professionally.  What’s that itch you’ve always had?  What’s keeping it from happening?  Who could help me scratch that itch and bring it to life?  Think beyond your comfortable circle.  Find new people, make connections, dare to think differently, and in doing so you’ll expand your tribe.  You’ll create one that raises the bar for possibilities, and stomps over every roadblock along the way, because we are doing the damn thing.  Whatever the thing is, we. are. doing. it.

The human existence was not made for boxes and boundaries.  If you do nothing else, be keenly aware of where these exist, and who’s putting them there.  Am I putting myself in this box or someone else or a system?  Does it have to be this way?  What does it look like to break down this box, enlarge this boundary?  Does it need to be here at all?

What does effective action look like?  And then take it!

Because in the words of  Denis Waitley, “The real risk is doing nothing.”


new adventures



Crashing through Comfort Zones: Trusting in the Unknown and Rallying Relationships


Yesterday got me.  A husband out of town.  A week full of back-to-school presentations. Two kids resisting the alarm clock daily and coming home exhausted each evening.  I had very few thoughts yesterday, and even fewer words prepared to articulate them.  So, today you get a double dose which actually works out perfectly because these two topics are so closely related.

Trusting in the unknown is cliche, I know.  We see it all over the digital landscape through memes and inspirational Pinterest boards.  This is not the “trusting in the unknown” that I’m referencing.  Not really, anyway.    Trusting in the unknown often refers to situations; going to try something new that you’ve never done before.   What I’m referring to is self.  Trusting in yourself to not know, and being vulnerable enough to admit it to others.

Margaret Wheatley says it best in her remarkably honest text, Turning To One Another:

“We have to be willing to let go of our certainty and expect ourselves to be confused for a time.  We weren’t trained to admit we don’t know.  Most of us were taught to sound certain and confident, to state our opinion as if it were true.  We haven’t been rewarded for being confused. Or for asking more questions rather than giving quick answers.  But the world now is quite perplexing.  We live in a complex world, we often don’t know what’s going on, and we won’t be able to understand its complexity unless we spend more time in not knowing.”

In a time where I find myself feeling like I need to be everyone’s everything, it was an incredibly revealing experience to say to others, “I don’t know.  I need you.  I need you to be my something this time–my guidance, my mentor, my answer to this question, my eyes that haven’t looked this direction before.”  I had to get comfortable saying, “I know I’m supposed to be leading you, but to do that well I need you to lead me. I need you.”  In doing so, two-way dialogue reached new depths and my listening skills sharpened.  More importantly, unlikely relationships formed.  Everyone has a skill set, assets, they feel strongly about.  Many times we are too busy to notice them.  When you stop someone and tell them you are in need of what they can offer, a seed sprouts.  An incredibly profound seed.

Often times as leaders we feel we have to have all the answers.  People look to us for that, and expect it.  What also has to be recognized is that no one person has all the solutions, nor is there a single one to to varying situations we face.  They are complex, layered, and confusing.  They are not simply resolved.  We are always going to be faced with limited time.  But we don’t have to always present ourselves as satisfied to quick, easy answers that don’t truly satisfy us.  Doing so perpetuates passiveness and honors nothing beyond the surface.

I went in to my summer school role as a blank canvas, allowing myself to be newly fashioned.  I let people see beyond my exterior.  What I would become was unknown. Each day,  I was built up and created in new ways.  New strokes were added, and bold colors scattered. Those who held the paintbrushes have forever left their mark.

Thank you.