The End

This time of year always makes me feel nostalgic, although if I’m honest, nostalgia is really a constant state of being for me. My students learn early on that my pot of emotions is always simmering, and all it takes is a beautiful line from literature, a student’s poem shared with the class, a picture book read-aloud, or the skillful development of character relationships in a story to make my tears bubble up and spill over the edge. At the beginning of each school year I tell my students, “In our classroom, we read stuff, we write stuff, and I cry.” I get skeptical looks at this pronouncement and then worried looks the first time it happens. After the first few times, though, they get used to it. They laugh at me, then they try and write well to see if they can be the one to make me cry with their beautiful words. The year goes on this way, and I fall in love with each of my classes more and more.

As 8th graders, my students are in their last year of middle school. They are eager to go to high school, anxious to drive, date, get a job; they do not yet view their world as being full of endings, but rather, full of beginnings. For me, though, as an 8th grade teacher, their leaving is an ending. They do come back and visit, and I do see them in the neighborhood, or around town. But it’s not the same as having them in my classroom every day, knowing their stories, loving them daily as those stories unfold.

Today, our school announcements began a countdown to the last day of school. Fifteen days. My students cheered, said “Ms.! Only fifteen days of school left!” in excitement and anticipation.

Fifteen days.

As they cheered, my eyes filled with tears and I bit my lip to stop them from falling. Luckily they were too busy talking about the end of year trip and summer break to notice me. Only fifteen days! It takes my breath away to think of such little time left. Some teachers begin the countdown after Spring Break, others begin after Christmas (!). It’s the main topic of conversation among the adults in the hall, in the workroom, in the teachers’ lounge. I understand – summer is awesome! I spend more time with my family, see more of my friends, take a much-needed mental break. However, I try my best to ignore the countdowns because, to me, it’s also a sad reminder that my kids are leaving. Our year together is about to end, and every year I never want it to end.

The End book photoIn addition to my students leaving middle school, the end of the school year brings other types of endings. I have several beloved co-workers who are retiring, which is a happy change in their lives. Other friends have children who are graduating from high school, their thirteen years of public schooling coming to an end. These endings had me feeling nostalgic (big surprise) and thinking of books that deal with big life changes, moving from one stage to the next and the mixture of sadness and excitement that accompany those changes. The books pictured here are all outstanding, and I cried reading each one (again, no surprise there). I’ll even be giving some of these books as gifts to the high school graduates I know, sending each one off with a story to fall into when their endings and beginnings feel too big.

Right now, the ending of my students’ 8th grade year feels too big. I look at my students and can’t imagine not seeing their faces every day. Can’t imagine not knowing their joys, their struggles, their successes. Will they be okay? Are they prepared? Will their peers be kind to them? Will they be kind to their peers? Will their teachers love them? Who will listen to their stories? Some of them often won’t be okay, due to circumstances out of their control. I worry about them the most. Will anyone help them? See them? I have hope that someone will.

To lower the flame on my pot of feelings, to bring my hot tears back down to a simmer, I’m doing what I always do when something feels too big. I read and I write. I get fifteen more days to read and write with these awesome kids. After they’re gone, I’ll see them around town, or at a high school event, or at the grocery store. I’ll shout their names, squeal and run up to them, then hug their necks tightly while their confused parents or friends look on awkwardly. I’ll go to their games and watch them play ball, or cheer, or march in the band. I’ll see them perform onstage in plays and choir concerts. I’ll clap loudly at their award ceremonies. They’ll do awesome things, I’ll get to see some of those things, and I will probably cry.

I’ve loved my kids this year. In August, I’ll have classes full of new faces. I will fall in love with that new group of students, just like every other year. We’ll read stuff, we’ll write stuff, and I’ll cry.

The end.


Or, maybe –

To Be Continued…

Turning Moments Into Stories

Memoir kids 3        My grandmother was a master storyteller. She had a way with the written and spoken word that far surpassed any adult I’ve personally known in my entire life. Gramma could turn normal, everyday occurrences into a story with a plot, rising action, and a conflict. Her characters were her family members, her friends, her pets, her garden full of flowers, and oftentimes, herself.  Many people take a walk in the woods, bake bread, pull weeds in a garden, take a nap in a hammock, go to the grocery store, or take a pet to the vet; but when Gramma did these things, she had adventures. Gramma always had a story to tell, and she told it very well. Storytelling was her gift.

The process of turning moments into stories is something I am always excited to share with my students. Some teachers really love the fiction units (I do, too!), but my absolute favorite thing to teach is the literary nonfiction unit because this unit is the one in which students write their own short memoirs. When students go through the process of writing their own memoirs, the learning and knowledge they gain about themselves as writers, and as humans, is unmatched.  Watching a student go from struggling writer to storyteller is just the best!

Memoir kids 2My students do not start this process without instruction. We study memoirs, using tons of mentor texts in all forms to gain a deeper understanding.  Students then choose from a selection of mentor texts to write their own memoirs – from authors, musicians, comedians, poets, young people, mature adults, and even teachers.  I write my own short memoirs, often as my students are composing theirs, and I share my stories with them for use as a mentor text if they so choose.  In my classes, I emphasize to students that everyone is a writer and any piece of writing that speaks to them can be a mentor text. Students may also choose their own form of mentor text – short narrative, vignette, poem, song, essay, even a story with artwork included!

Over the years, I’ve used a variety of mentor texts with my students. These selections have been chosen and collected over time, and each year I add some and replace others.  I encourage students to write about anything they choose – memories that are happy, sad, exciting, scary, troubling, or that are otherwise unforgettable.  However, not all moments worth writing about are huge, life-changing moments. It is often in the mundane that we find the best stories – just as my Gramma did with her stories of everyday life.

Inspiration for stories can be found anywhere, and music often evokes otherwise elusive memories and emotions. People of all ages have had moments when they hear a certain song and are suddenly flooded with a memory to which the song is tied. I encourage students to listen to music to spark memories, to talk to family members at home about shared experiences, to look at memorabilia or other objects in their bedrooms as a way to coax memories to the surface. An item that seems like trash or a piece of junk to one person may hold a significant memory for another – a ticket stub, a receipt, an old chapstick, a coin, a silly eraser – many simple objects have strong memories attached to them.

Memoir Kids 1

During this process, I share photos with my students of objects I own from when I was in middle school. I share photos of my Pop Swatch, my Jon Bon Jovi poster, my boom box and cassette tapes, and my own 8th grade school photo. I tell them the story of that day – how I took off my thick, ugly, brown 80’s glasses to take the photo, how my mom was upset that I didn’t “look like me”, and how happy I was with the result because my permed hair, giant hot pink earrings, and stone-washed jeans with suspenders all looked so awesome! And the story of how a frenemy later saw my photo when I gave her a wallet-size print (we did that for our friends back then – remember?) and then turned my photo upside down in front of many other students and made a snide comment. And of how my best friend stood up for me and talked back to that girl! Students are shown that picture-day in 8th grade can be a story, complete with a villain.

When students begin their stories, I teach them a common trick, one I use in my own writing – don’t begin at the beginning!  Middle school students often want to narrate each minute of a memory from first thing in the morning until last thing at night, in a step-by-step manner. “First I woke up, then I had breakfast, then I got on the bus,” and so on.  Instead, I encourage students to begin stories in the middle, and then weave the details in and out to fill in gaps for the reader. Students are encouraged to set the scene by using descriptive, sensory language and imagery to help the reader see in their own minds what my writers envision in their memories.  I have them brainstorm using their five senses and generate adjectives to describe. “Show me more” is something I often say when I read their writing, and then I ask for specifics. What was the weather like? What time of year was this? What was everyone wearing? What sounds did you hear? How did you feel physically when that happened?  Asking students many questions can help them elaborate on their memories and create an interesting story.  It’s true that I don’t always use all of these strategies with all of my classes, or all of my students. They are individuals, and I make adjustments for each class based on student need. A strategy that worked well in one class may not get any result at all in another; having a full toolbox of memoir forms, mentor texts, and strategies makes it easier to help any student find their voice.

Memoirs 2My students have experienced ordinary and extraordinary things. They lead simple and complicated lives. Some have hardships and joys I will never know. It is a gift to play a small part in their journey. They are unique, complex, difficult, talented, struggling, and outstanding. They are so many things. They are also all writers, and they all have a story to tell.

A Measure of Love

InkedEOY evals_LIWhen I started my fourteenth year of teaching last fall, I made sure to implement the strategies outlined in Penny Kittle’s book, Book Love, with fidelity. My students had free choice of books, time to read each day, as well as book talks and book conferences. They wrote about the books they read. They talked to each other about the books they read. I was determined to turn them into lifelong readers, determined to make them fall in love (or back in love) with reading.  I was consumed with making sure I did everything “right.”  My constant evaluation of myself – my teaching practices, my philosophies, my pedagogy – and how I affected my students was both exhilarating and exhausting. I was so worried about the impact that I would have on them, that it wasn’t until there were only a few days of school left that I realized the impact that they had on me.

My students completed an End-Of-Year reading evaluation, one I adapted from those found in Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer, and Pernille Ripp’s Passionate Readers. I added in a few of my own questions, and presented it to students. The purpose was to evaluate my teaching, the classroom culture, and students’ perceptions of their own personal reading growth. I asked for openness and honesty, and they more than delivered.  As part of the evaluation, I asked them to rank the importance of certain aspects of the reading culture in our classroom, and they overwhelmingly ranked independent reading time in class as most important to them. Ranked #2 was daily book talks, and #3 was having a classroom library. We should listen to our students – they know what they need.

In addition to praise, I received critical feedback. Some students liked the freedom to choose projects and groups, and they enjoyed all the student-talk that happened each day. Other students wrote that they would have preferred a more structured classroom in which the projects and groups are assigned rather than chosen, and they wanted a quieter classroom with less talk so they could concentrate more. Students recommended that I have more books with LGBT characters, more romance books, and more mystery books. (Which, as a winner of the 2018 Book Love Foundation grant, I will be able to provide!) Some students wanted my discipline to be harsher toward students who weren’t following expectations, while others felt that I was pretty strict. I had one student write that he thought we should read more classics, and that I should talk less about current events and books that address current social justice issues because it made him uncomfortable – which tells me he probably needed to hear those conversations more than almost any other student. I am carefully considering the feedback from all students and will make some changes to my teaching practices next year. (Although I have no plans to stop talking about current events and books that deal with current social justice issues!)

Some of their responses made me laugh out loud, and some made me cry. Here are several of my favorites:


“Though I think the current selection is fine, I believe that maybe more LGBT books in order to really show that being straight isn’t default.”

“What I like best about the way Mrs. Visness teaches is her connection with the students. She doesn’t sound nice just because that’s how she should be as a teacher, but it feels like she genuinely cares about the students and their input.”



“It’s interesting and I’m glad I saw there is something in reading other than trying to get to the end.”



“I passed the reading STAAR because of reading all these books.”



Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda because I can relate to hiding a big secret.”



“Her book talks, I can’t wait to read the books I wrote down over the summer.”

“None, I never had a good ELA teacher for all through 6th-7th grade. I’ve actually learned something and now I feel confident to go to high school.”



“My job. And Fortnite.”


“The book talks you had really helped me get more interested and intrigued me into reading more books and actually completing them.”



Tyler Johnson was Here. This was my favorite book because it was about police brutality and that subject does interest me a lot. It’s also because it made me feel like I was actually a part of it.”

“I plan to read more Jason Reynolds books, and books about police brutality.”

“You helped me as a reader by expanding/opening up my selection of books.”



“You showed me books that had characters that weren’t White, straight, and perfect.”



“She didn’t teach to the STAAR test.”



“I like that she already loves reading so she doesn’t have to pretend.”



“You helped me by every day you would give books talks about books. I liked it because you exposed me to books I wouldn’t have known existed.”



“You gave amazing book recommendations, when I read a book you recommended I was never disappointed.”



“I definitely feel that I can understand more on picking up foreshadowing and context clues earlier than before.”



“I am a better reader because now I know what type of books I enjoy and I actually want to finish them.”

“Probably The Hate U Give because it really opened my eyes to what other people face that I didn’t know about.”



“You let us read for 10 minutes in the class.”

“Let us read for 20 minutes.”

“To read every day for 30 minutes and then play Fortnite.”



“I was not a very good reader at the beginning of the year. I struggled with understanding big words. Also when I would read books it would go through one ear and out the other.”

“I am not the best, but I am a lot better now. When I read now, I can really understand what the book is about.” (Please note #2 and #3! Amazing!)


The purpose of the evaluation was to find out if students benefited from the reading culture and strategies in our classroom.  I wanted them to fall in love with reading and books, but how do you measure love? I don’t know how to measure a love of books and reading, but this year, watching my students find their reading lives and thrive while finding themselves in the pages of books has been the most fulfilling experience of my teaching career. And while they spent the school year falling in love with reading, I spent the school year falling in love with them.

A “launch” I commonly used with my classes as they left each day is this –

Be kind, speak up, do right, and keep reading!

but I may be changing it to this bit of perfection –


“Just read, boo.”

Missing Stories by Emily Visness

Nerdy Book Club

I’ve been a book collector for many years.  My collecting began because I have two children of my own and I wanted them to be surrounded by books in our home since birth.  My obsession with books for kids of all ages enabled me to begin this school year, in my move from special education inclusion teacher to 8th grade ELA teacher, with a large classroom library.   My collection includes picture books, fables, fairy tales in all their forms, poetry, Middle Grade books, YA books, graphic novels, and nonfiction books.  I enjoy talking with my students and other educators about the books that are on my shelves; however, I’m spending some time over winter break evaluating not which books are on my shelves, but by asking the question –  Which stories are missing?

Diverse stories were important to me, at first, because I wanted my own children to learn…

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Good Things

It is a poor heart that never rejoices.        – Charles Dickens


READ bookshelvesAfter thirteen years as a special education inclusion teacher, I have changed positions at my school and am now a general education/Pre-AP 8th grade English Language Arts teacher.  This is a move I’ve been contemplating for several years, and this year the opportunity happily presented itself.  As an advocate for free choice reading, my collection of middle-grade and YA books quickly found a home on my classroom library shelves. Last spring, I attended Penny Kittle’s professional development workshop, Book Love; I’ve been implementing the strategies and techniques I learned from the training, as well as from reading her book, into my classroom. I had lots of expectations about how this year would go – I was nervous to be starting this new adventure in my own classroom, but also confident in my abilities to spread book love to my students and help them build their own reading lives.  I could not wait to get started!

But. This is the time of year when negativity abounds among teachers and students – summer was forever ago, and the holiday breaks just can’t get here fast enough.  Teachers are talking, a lot, about all the things that are wrong with “kids these days.”  It gets hard to listen to.  While I do raise my voice against decisions adults make that are not in the best interest of kids, there are many things I can’t change – I can’t change that a child has a past filled with poverty, abuse, or neglect. I can’t take away learning disabilities, neurological disorders, or mental health issues. I can’t change what happened in all the other classrooms my kids sat in before they came to me.  And yet, our students are not static characters in a novel, incapable of change.  They are kids; they are not yet who they are going to be.  I may not have control over many things that directly affect my students, but what I do have control over is my own attitude and what happens in my own classroom. Recently, Donalyn Miller wrote a post for the Nerdy Book Club blog where she stated, “What we do is who we are.”  Positive rituals benefit students, and a routine we have at my school is something called “good thingsWhat We Do” – students share with the class something they are looking forward to, something fun they did, or other good news (a component of Capturing Kids’ Hearts).  So, with Donalyn’s words gently nudging my actions as a teacher (I keep a sticky note with those words on the wall next to my desk), I’m going to share the good things that have happened in my classroom so far this year.

  • On the first day of school, as I explained the process for checking books out of my classroom library, one of my Pre-AP students, a black girl, saw The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas on my shelf. She was excited to see THUG First Daythat title, and asked for more books about black characters.  I showed her some similar books on my shelves, and handed them to her one by one.  Her arms full, she said, “I can’t believe you have all these books about black people! I can really check them out? Like, for real?” I responded that yes, she really can check them out, and she said, “Man, this is the best class ever!”


  • After posting the story above on my Instagram account (and sharing it in a previous blog post), a friend from junior high/high school whom I have not seen in more than twenty years, but keep in contact with through social media, messaged me to ask if she could donate books to my classroom library. I gladly provided her with a couple of titles, and she told me that I would soon receive a package in the mail.  Expecting two or three books (and feeling quite happy about that), I was completely overwhelmed with emotion when, instead, I received ten brand new books, plus a $100 Amazon gift card, in the mail from my old friend.  I was so touched by her generosity that I cried (and freaked out my ten-year-old)! I quickly ordered books for my classroom and shared the story with my students, along with a slew of new books.

New Books 2

  • The librarians and teachers that are in my book club not only offer stellar advice and innovative instructional ideas to me without hesitation, they also all donated several current YA titles they personally owned to my classroom library – my friends are amazing! And they read great books!


  • Another student, a boy in one of my regular ELA classes, spent the first several weeks reading the same book – a fictional story about a Texas football player. He didn’t seem that into it, and his apathy toward reading was apparent. My students read in class for ten minutes or so every single day. During reading time, he sighed, fell asleep, slumped in his chair, tried to lie on the floor, and generally did everything he could to get out of reading.  He did finally finish that book, reading only one book in the first nine week grading period.  I expect students to have a book to read every day in class, so he grudgingly checked out another book, Gym Candy by Carl Deuker.  Every day for the last couple of weeks, when the ten minutes are up and I tell the class to find a stopping place in their reading, he groans loudly and says, “Noooo! Not yet!” Now, during independent reading time, he sits up in his chair and hunches over his book, gobbling up the words on the page while using his bookmark as a line guide.  I often whisper, “Okay.  Two more minutes,” to him as I take attendance.  I mean, how could I not?


  • One of my girl athletes, a Pre-AP student who struggles with attention and academic confidence issues, and who had never read an entire novel cover to cover, discovered The Hate U Give after I book-talked it to my classes. She was leery of the size of the book, but with encouragement and the relevant subject matter, she remained riveted for several weeks.  She reads slowly and it took a lot of concentration and dedication for her to stick with it, but she finished and was full of emotion for the characters.  She is now anxiously awaiting the movie adaptation, and hoping the actors portray the characters just like she pictured them in her head.  She is so proud of herself, and her confidence is soaring.  She kept asking for “more books like this” after reading THUG, so I gave her a copy of Monster by Walter Dean Myers.  She’s already halfway through.  Next in her TBR are All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, and Dear Martin by Nic Stone.  A reader is born!


  • My principal has been very vocal about his endorsement of free choice independent reading in our classrooms. I appreciate this so much because I know that not all teachers are lucky enough to have the support of their administrators when it comes to students’ independent reading.  My principal’s dedication to reading comes from his own experience – as a late reader himself, and then a reluctant one all through school – he had a high school English teacher who believed in and encouraged him, which helped shape him into the reading advocate he is today.  Because of the support he received from one teacher, more than 900 students are reaping the benefits of free choice reading in the classroom!


  • One of my girls, who receives special education services for a learning disability, was quitting a lot of books at the beginning of the year. I was worried she would become a serial quitter, when she finally found a book she loved.  Jason Reynolds’ book in verse, Long Way Down, hooked her from the first lines.  She blew through it, then read Hidden by Helen Frost.  She’s finished several novels-in-verse and has moved on to her first full-length novel, None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio.  She told me she’s read more books in the first eleven weeks of school than in her whole life.

Checked Out Books

  • At first, my book-talks were how my students knew about the great books in my classroom library. Now that they have read several of them, the books are flying off my shelves and I have kids coming to class saying that another student told them about this book, or that book, and can they check it out?  So-and-so said it was really good, Ms.! I just smile, take the requested book off the shelf, hand it to them and think, They’re talking about books. OUTSIDE OF CLASS!


  • Our school participates in No Place For Hate, an initiative that helps educators promote anti-bias and diversity education in schools. This year, I’m volunteering with our 8th grade counselor as the teacher sponsor for our NPFH student coalition.  As one of our activities, the student coalition members came up with the idea to promote diverse literature to the students on our campus, and we’ve worked with our librarian to pull diverse books and display them in the library.  To advertise this movement, our coalition members participated in a photo shoot, which featured them reading diverse books, and it will air on our Student News very soon.  I’m amazed at the ideas these kids have to promote inclusivity and diversity on our campus!


  • At the end of the first grading period, I asked my students to self-reflect in writing on their independent reading progress so far. While I was pretty happy with the results of my classroom reading culture, I was admittedly a little disappointed that some kids only read one book in nine or ten weeks.  When I read their written reflections, I found them to be refreshingly candid, honest, and forthcoming.  The students who knew they could have been doing more admitted it and committed to pushing themselves.  The students who only read one book, and about whom I was feeling discouraged, wrote about their pride in finishing a book already this year, because last year, they didn’t read even one book all year.  Their obvious satisfaction and joy in this accomplishment jumped off the pages of their Reader-Writer Notebooks and into my heart, totally reframing my disappointment into beaming pride for these kids.

We choose who we are going to be by what we do, both inside our classrooms and out.  Good Things.  They’re happening all around us.  Our students just need us to notice, to celebrate, and to cheer them on.  They’ll do the rest.


Beautiful Words

THUG First Day

“You can do an awful lot of damage with a handful or words.  Destroy a friendship.  End a marriage.  Start a war.  Some words can break you to pieces. 

But that’s not all.  Words can be beautiful.  They can make you feel things you’ve never felt before.”

– John David Anderson, Posted



At the beginning of this school year, my 8th graders read a story from the book Flying Lessons & Other Stories, a collection of diverse short stories for teens edited by Ellen Oh, co-founder of We Need Diverse Books.  Since it was our first piece of literature to read together, I gave my “No Hate Speech” speech to all my classes; basically saying that in this class, we will read stories about people who identify in many different ways and that reading about someone different from themselves is just that – reading – so no derogatory comments, noises, or gestures would be tolerated. They all nodded, and we read, learned, and enjoyed the story in peace.  At the end of one class, a student stopped by my desk and said, “Ms., what you said about hate speech – that was cool.  Thanks.”

Later, as my classes worked together to come up with our social contracts (an agreement on behavior between students and teachers), I added my No Hate Speech clause again.  One student asked, “Ms., why do you keep saying that?”  I explained that although most middle school students don’t mean to be hateful, they often use words meant to describe certain groups of people to insult each other (even in jest), and that we have to be aware of how those words can be hurtful and make an effort to not use them.  I gave examples, we discussed why certain words used as insults would be harmful to certain people, and my students learned.

During independent reading time, one student approached me in between reading conferences to show me a page from the book she checked out from our school library.  “Ms., what should I do about these words?” she asked, pointing to a few curse words on the page.  Confused, I asked her what she meant.  “I mean, do I just not read them?  Like, skip over them?” she clarified.  It took all I had in me not to laugh – she was asking me if she should censor her own SILENT reading. IN HER MIND.  Hiding my smile, I told her if she is uncomfortable with what she’s reading, or if her parents are uncomfortable, she is welcome to pick a new book, but that I will never tell her what she should or shouldn’t read; that is her choice.  Surprise showing in her eyes, she chose to keep reading the book.

During Open House Night, I pulled aside the parents of one student and shared my concern that he wasn’t bringing a book to school each day to read, and he had nearly refused to check one out from the library or from my classroom library.  I explained to his parents the importance of having a book to read in class every day.  My student’s father then told me that his son is reading a book at home, but they had not allowed him to take it to school for fear it would be confiscated due to its inappropriateness.  My interest piqued, I asked the title of the book.  “The Shining, by Stephen King,” the father said.  I nodded, then told him his son is welcome to bring the book to school, assured him it would not be confiscated, and the only “inappropriate” book for his son is the one he and/or his son are not ready to read.  The Shining showed up with my student at school the next day.

When sharing beautiful words (a Book Love by Penny Kittle strategy) in our books on Fridays, one student wanted to share, who was reading Tupac Shakur’s The Rose That Grew From Concrete, but said he didn’t think it was appropriate to read aloud because the poem was about racism.  I encouraged him, and told him any book that is available in our school library is appropriate to read aloud, even if it is about a difficult topic.  A few gasps erupted throughout the room – I mean, the white teacher just said it’s okay to read aloud about racism – and the student shared Tupac’s beautiful words with the class.

On the first day of school, after I explained my classroom library checkout system and the students were book shopping, one of my PreAP students, a black girl, saw Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give on my shelf.  She squealed and said, “OMG, Ms., you have this book!? I love this book! This book is about black people and what we go through!” So I showed her some similar books. Her arms full, she said, “I can’t believe you have all these books about black people! Teachers never have these books! I can really check them out? Like, for real?” I told her yes, and she plopped down on the floor to look through the stack, taking home three titles that very day.

I tell these stories, not for ally cookies (please don’t), but because it is so surprising to me that THEY were all so surprised.  Students, and parents, were all surprised that I would openly discuss hate speech, let kids read books they brought from home or checked out from our own school library, make diverse books accessible to students, and allow students to read aloud about difficult topics.  Inclusivity and acceptance are, unfortunately in our world, surprising.  As Banned Books Week kicks off, I’ll be talking to my students about how Words Have Power.  I hope that, all school year, I can convey to them the importance of words, the ones we shouldn’t say in hate, and the ones we should even when they’re difficult.

What banned, powerful, beautiful words will you share with students this week?

Other Duties As Assigned by Emily Visness

Nerdy Book Club

Summer is here, and as the weeks of shuttling my kids to swim team practice, swim meets, and for-fun swimming consumes many of my waking hours, I also spend time chipping away at my enormous “To Be Read” list. Like many readers, my TBR list is an ever-growing mountain, and each time I read one book, it seems three more get added to the pile.  Due to my job, for years I have read mostly middle grade and young adult fiction.  I teach 8th grade as a special education inclusion teacher, and it is my job to push in to the language arts and social studies classes to co-teach with the general education teachers, serving all students with and without disabilities. Now, if you looked at my job description and my list of official duties, you would not find avid reader or passionate recommender of books or zealous advocate…

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Books – An Essential Parenting Tool

religious-viewpointParenting in this modern age is hard – especially when your family is the type that doesn’t allow what everyone else’s family allows.  In our family, we are pretty strict when it comes to the shows our kids watch, their access to video games and the internet, and bedtimes.  Sometimes my kids complain about it, but they’re getting older and are beginning to see some negative effects of looser parenting in their friends and classmates.  As a teacher, my students are often shocked when I tell them the rules at my house – my 13 and 10 year old eat what I cook or not at all, are in bed by nine, read every day (ok, mostly), practice their instruments, and aren’t allowed to play video games on school nights.  We used to not allow even TV on school nights, but as they’ve aged we’ve let that slide if homework and chores are done.  My son has a phone and it is locked up like national secrets are held inside.  He doesn’t know any of the passwords for parental controls or to add apps.  He doesn’t even have internet access on his phone, and a few times this school year I got texts during the day when his teachers would let the kids play test review trivia games that required him to log in to a session using his phone.  The texts, to which I never responded, all looked something like this:


Mom what’s the restrictions password

Mom we’re playing a review game

Mom I need the password





I hate restrictions now it’s too late


Sorry, son.  I know that soon I will have to loosen up and let him have more freedom so he can learn how to be appropriate with internet access, apps, social media, and more.  The point is that I’m a careful parent.  However, there is one area in which I am not restrictive.  I am open and honest with my kids about race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation, and I let them read widely and diversely.  I tell them the truth, and let them read the truth, no holding back (with age appropriateness in mind). I know many of my friends, and even family members, probably disagree with me on this. When it comes to talks of race, many of them are still of the “we don’t see color in our family” mentality.  These two articles illustrate the problems with this philosophy if you’d like to read more – here and here.   Now that I’m a teacher, a mom, and a reading advocate, my social justice soul won’t allow me to be anything less than honest with my kids.  I’ve tried to educate myself over the past few years on the issues people from these groups face, and listen to or read about the perspectives of people from marginalized groups when they share their stories.  I do it because I want to understand, and I want to pass that understanding on to my children.  We buy and read lots of books, and I make a point to buy diverse books written by diverse authors – my kids read more books about people different from them than similar.  As a parent, it’s my job to mold them into responsible, empathetic, social justice-minded citizens, and we need to read all we can about others so I can do that job well.

As with all aspects of parenting, no matter how hard you try to keep your kids’ world controlled and full of only the things you want poured into their heads, the outside world busts in and messes things up.  This has happened in our family, and we had to do some damage control.  One incident that comes to mind was when my son was in 5th grade and was going through the school district’s adopted drug-free program.  Kids learn about the dangers of drugs from local police officers, and “graduate” with a certificate after signing an oath to remain drug free.  My son came home from school one day and, as my husband listened to his playlist of rap music, announced that rap artists are all drug dealers and criminals, according to what he learned in the program at his school.  That took some undoing, and many books and conversations later my son understands the lies and limitations of that statement.  For great lists of books for kids of all ages that focus on Black voices, check out The Brown Bookshelf.   There are many great books that show the truth and bust stereotypes.  Another time, just this past year, my daughter was learning about Texas history in 4th grade.  At the beginning of the year they (briefly) study the various Native groups that once lived freely on the land now called Texas.  When I asked her what she learned she immediately told me about one Native American tribe that “actually ate the people they killed.”  Now, in our family, we read all sorts of books, fiction and nonfiction, about Native people.  As a mom, I work hard to dispel the stereotypes and myths that haunt people of Native cultures, as well as others.  I do the same as a teacher with my co-teachers in our Social Studies classes.  So, I was shocked that my daughter came home with this little tidbit from her lesson at school.  I’m not even sure there’s any truth to this notion, this myth, so why tell the students at all? Even if there is a tiny speck of truth to it, there are so, so many interesting and valuable things to know about the Native people that live (and lived) in this area – why share something sensational and scandalous with a room full of nine year olds?  Many of those kids will only ever remember that one “fact”, and nothing else, from that unit of study.  I was perplexed, and had more undoing to do with my daughter, which meant we read books.  Lots more books.  I always use the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog for a list of books that are good representations of Native people, and it has never steered me wrong.

Even though my kids have a diverse group of friends, we use books to learn about people, time periods, and life situations that are different from our own.  There are so many negative messages about people of various marginalized groups infiltrating my children’s lives from those in power – both locally and nationally – that I feel an urgency to show them literature that speaks the truths about these people.  After all, I only get my kids for a short time, and I’m raising white, heterosexual, cisgender kids; it’s my responsibility to help them recognize their privilege and know how to listen to those who aren’t included in it.  Reading diverse literature is the first step in their young lives toward becoming not only allies, but accomplices, to their friends and peers of color, who are LGBTQ, who practice other religions, or who have disabilities.  Books open their hearts and minds to the lives of these people, and they learn to listen to their stories in ways they may not always encounter in our daily life.  Which reminds me – we better get reading!

Generational Storytelling


Daddy radio station

When I was a child, I loved listening to my Gramma tell stories from her childhood.  Hearing her stories shaped me in ways I am still just beginning to understand; the teacher I am today is in part due to her stories surrounding me when I was growing up.  I even wrote a blog post for Nerdy Book Club last year about how my Gramma and her stories have impacted my teaching.  I have a copy of a family ancestry book that a distant cousin self-published and distributed years ago that contains a few of my Gramma’s stories, ones she wrote herself to be included in the family history.  This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of my Gramma’s birth, and reading those stories in her own words, now that she has been gone for almost fifteen years, allows me to hear her voice in my head and makes me feel as if she is right here, telling her tales once again.  She was a natural storyteller, a writer, even if the wider world never recognized her talent.

In the years before my dad died, my mom, sister, and I practically begged him to write down some of his own stories – we wanted to carry on my Gramma’s tradition of keeping history alive for the other side of our family.  But my dad was a reluctant storyteller and would only occasionally open up enough to give us basic details about his childhood – taking the time to write down his stories just wasn’t in his heart.  My dad has been gone for three years now, and I find myself longing for a way to “hear” his voice again, the way I hear my Gramma speak to me when I read her stories.  This longing got me thinking about my own children, and how they love to hear me tell stories from my childhood, and how someday they may want to be able to hear me tell my stories again.  So, as a little side project in my spare time, I’ve begun writing the stories of my childhood.

I grew up in a small town that was pretty isolated, not near any big cities, and in a time when things moved slower and were more innocent than they seem now.  My kids are fascinated by this because they hear me tell stories of staying out playing in the neighborhood all day until sunset (I would never allow this now), or of having to drive to another town 90 miles away just to buy new shoes for school.  My hometown still has a drive-in movie theater, one middle school, and one high school.  Everyone knows everyone; I went to school with the same kids my entire life, and many of us are still close today. This concept is somewhat foreign to them because we live in a suburb of a large metropolis, surrounded on all sides by other suburbs, any of which could fit several of my hometowns inside. Many of the kids they go to school with move a lot, changing schools and towns often. Living in my hometown was a way of life my kids won’t experience for themselves, but I want them to know about it and be able to dip into that world and be able to share it with their own children someday.  The unexpected surprise of this project is that not only is this a gift for my children, but for me as well; as I write my own stories, many of which include my dad, I find myself hearing his voice again as he speaks to me through my memories.  He, and other relatives and friends who have been lost to time and distance, come alive on the page as I record these stories.  I’m sharing one story about my dad below, one of my favorites.  I think my Gramma, writer and storyteller that she was, would be proud.


Vinyl Saturdays

        A blast of air-conditioning, filled with the scents of leather and new upholstery, washes over us as we enter the front doors, a bell jingling to announce our presence.  My mother, sister, and I weave through the maze of new furniture to the glassed-in cubicle in the back of the store.  Daddy is inside it, speaking into the microphone, and we hear his voice surround us through the store’s speaker system, his real voice muffled by the somewhat sound-proof glass of the station room.  When the red ON AIR sign goes off, we’re allowed inside his tiny world of radio waves and records.  As long as I’m quiet, I get to thumb through the wooden crates of record albums, stacked as high as me.  I find my favorites – Dolly Parton (because I like her laugh), Willie Nelson (because his braids are awesome), Barbara Mandrell (because she’s beautiful), and Merle Haggard (something in his voice sings to my soul, plus I met him once).

Daddy holds my hand with one of his, and shakes the man’s hand with his other one.  I stand close, staring at the man’s boots, knees, belt buckle.  I hear snippets of grown-up conversation.

                “…met years ago…don’t remember me…radio station…the recording studio in…New Mexico…nineteen-sixty-…”

                “Sure, sure, I remember…yes…long time ago.  Who’s this we have here?”  I listen more now because it’s clear the man is talking about me.

                “This is my daughter,” Daddy says.

                The man leans down to my level and pokes one finger into the underside of his hat’s brim, raising it up higher on his forehead and exposing more of his shaggy brown hair.  He reaches out to shake my hand, and I place my small one in his.  “Well hello there, young lady,” he says with a nice-sounding chuckle in his voice.  “It’s mighty nice to meet you.  My name is Merle Haggard.” 

While I look through albums, Daddy catches the world up on the progress of Let’s Trade Even, his Saturday morning radio show.  Armando traded an air compressor for Frank’s lawn mower, and Becky traded a crock pot to Judy, who needed a weather radio.  With that business concluded, Daddy places the needle on the spinning vinyl after announcing the next songs.  Headphones on ears, mouth to microphone, he speaks using his radio voice:

“Alright, folks, remember:  if you have somethin’ to trade, and need somethin’ in return, give us a call here at the station and Let’s. Trade. Even.  Thanks for listening on this Saturday morning to your local station, KAVE FM Radio.  Up next is Ronnie Milsap, followed by George Strait’s latest hit.”

I make my selection and pull it from the crate.  My sister, who is too little to care, holds my mother’s hand in the corner of the station.  Daddy pushes some buttons, takes off his headphones, and swings the microphone off to the side.

“Come here, punkin’,” he says, patting his knee.  I carry the record in its cover over to him and he helps me climb into his lap.  He takes the record from me, and his sideburns tickle my cheek as he looks over the top of his glasses at my choice.  “Glen Campbell, huh?  Rhinestone Cowboy, I bet?”

I nod while he sets the record aside and squeezes me to him.  I rub my finger on the smooth surface of the pearl snap buttons on his shirt pocket, my nose filling with his smell of Old Spice aftershave and black coffee.  Ronnie Milsap’s voice fills the station, the furniture store, and our little town:

Pure love, baby it’s pure love

                Milk and honey and Capt’n Crunch and you in the mornin’

                Pure love, baby it’s pure love

                Ninety-nine and forty-four one hundred percent pure love


Ronnie Milsap is right.  It is.