Category Archives: Teaching

Process art

Thursday was the first time that I attempted a process art project in my preschool storytime.  And it was one of the more wonderful experiences of my library career.

Quite a while ago, I had firmly decided that I wanted to pursue process art projects with this age group, but I was heavy on the concept, short on the specifics.  So I was thrilled when I found MaryAnn Kohl’s book Preschool Art: It’s the Process, Not the Product.  Not only did the title match my thinking, but the book is a well-thought-out and easy to use resource that also provides a wonderful photocopy-ready explanatory page to hand out to parents.

In planning this fall’s preschool storytimes, I decided to establish a three-week rotation:  storytelling with puppets week one, feltboard story week two, and process art week three.  That way we’re not overly heavy on the arts/craft angle, and we get to explore alternate ways to approach stories in two of the three weeks.

For the first process art project, I chose Kohl’s “Dark Sugar Chalk.”  After reading two stories aloud, I explained to the nine kids in attendance that we needed to do some prep work for our art, then we’d sit back down for a last story before doing our artwork.  This terrific bunch of kids took turns helping me measure out the water, add scoops of sugar, and stir the mixture, then everyone helped plunk pieces of chalk into the sugar water.  Totally riveted, we noticed that little bubbles come out of the chalk, and that it immediately starts to turn a darker, brighter color.

While the chalk soaked, we read one last story, then packed up our carpet squares, moved the tables to the center of the room, and fished the chalk out of the water into dry tubs.  And here came the best part: the kids colored with this bright, less smudgey chalk on black poster board, playing with the colors and the quality of the chalk, experimenting with using cotton balls to moosh the colors around, putting one layer of chalk on top of another…generally having a great time messing around with this new medium and discovering its qualities.

One of the children went back to the tub that contained the sugar water, and dipped some cotton balls in that mixture, then went back to his art and experimented with using those sugary cotton balls to smush and blend the colors.  Another child dipped her finger into the sugar water, and noticed that the sugar hadn’t completely dissolved, so that she could trace almost invisible pictures in that layer of sugar.  Yet another child discovered that he could draw pictures with the chalk on the inside surface of the dry plastic tubs.  Needless to say, all of these discoveries were shared with the group, and each of the children tried a variety of techniques and approaches that I would never have anticipated.

It was incredibly fun, and so rewarding to see how the kids responded.  I had a fantastic time, and can’t wait ’till our next project!

Note on materials used:  I bought sheets of black poster board, and cut each sheet into four pieces (bigger pieces wouldn’t have fit well on the tables we use, though bigger pieces would be a lot of fun).  The chalk was remarkably hard to find: I went to five different stores before finding regular Crayola colored chalk at Crosby’s Supermarket in Concord.  The plastic tubs are storage tubs from IKEA – they’re perfect for this kind of project.  Not too big, not too deep, not too expensive, easy to carry because they have a broad lip all around the edge.

How I know summer’s really over…

…I started tutoring again last night. 

It was great to see M. again (she’s my only student this year, with two lessons a week), and to have my ego pumped by finding out how much she disliked working with another tutor up at their summer home these past couple of months.  (Let’s face it: we all like to have our ego pumped up.  It’s part of being human.)  And I’m happy to report that tutoring on Monday and Wednesday nights feels much more manageable and sane than last year’s Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday schedule.  It’s a good feeling to do my tutoring gigs at the beginning of the week, when I’m fresh – or at least fresher.

The interesting side of my lesson with M. last night was discovering that her Wilson tutor for the summer didn’t faithfully adhere to the Wilson lesson plan and techniques.  A bit puzzling, considering that when I got certified in Wilson (in the summer of 2001), my trainer was extremely strict about following the structure of the Wilson Reading System to the letter (so to speak).  No deviations were allowed.  Period.  If we trainees didn’t follow the system, we wouldn’t get certified. 

And then I find out that M.’s summer tutor deviated in odd ways from the Wilson system.  For example, this tutor wouldn’t let M. see the sound cards in the decoding Quick Drill; M. told me that the tutor “hid the cards” from M. and simply asked her “What are the keywords for ‘a’?”  Wait a second – what about the sound/symbol connection, Ms. Summer Tutor?  Don’t you realize that is a hugely important part of teaching a child with dyslexia??

Ms. Summer Tutor also didn’t have M. write down any sounds on her dictation pages – once again demonstrating a clear lack of understanding of how the WRS works.  And Ms. Tutor didn’t have M. set up her own dictation pages, but instead used the pre-made dictation forms that can be downloaded from the Wilson website.  I feel the student’s setting up of her own dictation page is incredibly important, as it both builds a sense of being a partner in her own education, and also helps the student with transfering information from one page (the dictation template) to another (the actual dictation page) - a skill which comes into play when trying to copy information and assignments from the teacher’s whiteboard to the student’s notes. 

Another deviation that Ms. Summer Tutor made was to completely and totally skip the Step 10 Posttest.  This tutor simply moved M. on to Step 11 without confirming that M. had mastered the concepts of Step 10.  Wait a second.  The Wilson Reading System, as I was taught it, is all about achieving mastery and fluency.  There are firm guidelines for grading the posttests to ensure that the student has mastered all of the taught concepts and is fully fluent in decoding and encoding words with those concepts.  If the student fails the posttest, review of the step is required before moving on to the next step.  Skipping the posttest isn’t an option.  Most interestingly, Ms. Summer Tutor sent me an update saying that substep 10.5 had been introduced but not mastered, and that substep 11.1 also had been introduced.  So it was a conscious shirking of the mastery and fluency rules.  What’s up with that??

It’s disappointing to me that a parent looking for a Wilson tutor has to know how to ask all the right questions, and can’t simply depend upon the tutor having official Wilson certification.  I take my role as a Wilson certified tutor very, very seriously, and I don’t invent things or change things.  Barbara Wilson spent many years and much research developing this system, and it works.  Don’t mess with it.  In not messing with the WRS, I’ve had a great deal of success teaching students with dyslexia and other language based learning disabilities.  Other Wilson certified tutors should have respect for Barbara Wilson’ s work, and not mess around with what she spent years perfecting. 

Wow, I sound like some sort of cult member.  But seriously, my many successful students prove my point, and justify this soap box moment of mine.  And now I’ll step down from that soap box.  Thanks for listening!!


I’m finished with this school year’s tutoring; no tutoring this summer.  I’m relieved – exhausted – and sad. 

Each girl had one final lesson with me last night, and each girl was clearly having a tough time saying “goodbye.”  M., my motivated and enthusiastic student, was acting out in strange ways, giggling too loud and hard and being a bit silly.  And another sure sign of stress popped up, as she struggled terribly with a problem that only surfaces for her when she’s stressed out: she kept giving the letter j the hard sound of g, making “Cajun” become “Cagun.”  Over and over and over again, which is not like her at all.  But M. and I resolved the bittersweet sadness of summer vacation approaching by reminding each other that we’ll be working together in the fall.

It was a different story for A., who has graduated from my instruction and will no longer need me next year.  Last night was definitely our last lesson together, and A. kept writing little notes to me on the edge of her paper: “I’ll miss you!”  “You’re the BEST teacher!”  and “Thank you for teaching me!!!!”  Lots of smiley faces and lots of cute, sweet comments.

At the last moment this past weekend, I decided to buy a book or books for each girl as an end-of-school-year present, and I am so glad that I did.  As I left last evening, each girl was happily clutching her book(s), and I know for sure that they’ll read them over the summer.  For M., I picked Blue Balliett’s The Calder Game, and for A. I chose Blue Balliett’s Chasing Vermeer and Michael Buckley’s The Fairy-Tale Detectives. 

And the girls each bought me a present, presents that show how thoughtful and perceptive they each are.  A. got me a bag chock-full of Lindt truffles to feed my chocolate addiction, and a bar of pink grapefruit soap from the Body Shop to feed my soap addiction.  M. made a point of telling me that she had paid careful attention last week when I talked about my favorite things to do, so she picked out a cool, funky pair of slippers and a gift certificate to the Concord Bookshop.  “Because,” she said, “You told me your favorite thing to do is read a book while sitting by the woodstove with a cat in your lap.  So you can wear the slippers to keep your feet warm and use the gift certificate to get a new book.  See?  I was paying attention!” as she tapped her forehead.

Great kids, both of them.  I’ll miss them this summer, for sure.  But, as with all bittersweet things, there is a good side:  more sleep for Abby, less of a sense of perpetual exhaustion.  Goodbyes are hard that way, both good and bad and happy and sad.  Have a terrific summer, M. and A.!

Friday wrap-up

It’s been a busy week, as usual…

Monday was my second toddler storytime, and it was SO much fun!  I’m still using Judy Nichol’s book as a guide (the newest edition arrived at the library for the children’s office professional collection), and I chose her “Bears” storytime this week.  Despite my concerns about learning and presenting “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt,” I was able to pull it off, and we all had such a great time with it.  As Jim put it, I actually got out of my own way, and tapped into my inner storyteller. 

At this point, I’m not yet limiting enrollment to the toddler storytime, but it’s clear why Nichols recommends that approach.  Three families arrived late, and at different times, and the flow of the storytime was definitely interrupted by those late arrivals.  Perhaps in the future, once this storytime is better established, I’ll be able to require pre-registration and on-time attendance, but I am working in a small town with a limited number of toddlers, and I want to be accessible and open to all.  It’s a puzzle, one that I’ll have to work out over time.

On Tuesday, I hosted two book groups at the library.  Continue reading Friday wrap-up


As of last night, I have now reunited with both of my tutoring students from last year.  I still see Z– twice a week, and J– once a week, and we’re still using the Wilson Reading System.

I’m delighted to say that neither student regressed at all over the summer, which shocks me no end.  Usually there is a certain amount of regression, and usually I have to reteach a variety of things, from keywords to spelling rules to syllable definitions.  Not so with these two students!  One review lesson each, mostly for my benefit, to reassure me that there was enough retention to continue on where we had left off.

Both students are very motivated and enjoy learning the structure of the language, which surely helps, but I also think that I’m seeing the tangible benefit of one-on-one after-school tutoring.  When I worked at the elementary school, I usually tutored students in small groups (still quite effective, mind you), and my lessons occurred in the midst of the school day.  My school students always experienced some regression each summer, not a terrible amount, but some.  But weekly one-on-one tutoring in the comfort of the student’s home clearly holds more weight.  I can focus my lessons to be specifically tailored to that one child’s needs, and the child is learning in a safe, distraction-free environment. 

At any rate, I’m thrilled to be working with both of these students again.  They’re both great kids, with great attitudes, and it’s an absolute joy to be working with them. 

The Diamond in the Window

(This won’t be my best blog entry, since I have a screaming horrible headache, so please do forgive…) 

The 5th grade book group met yesterday, and we had a fantastic meeting.  Nine kids were in attendance (a tenth had to miss the meeting due to soccer practice, and an eleventh joined the group as the group was meeting – he’ll attend next month).  As I’ve mentioned many times before, this month’s book was one of my personal favorites, The Diamond in the Window by Jane Langton.

Based on past book group meetings, and on comments I’ve heard from the kids in the weeks leading up to this meeting, I was really, really afraid the kids would hate the book, and that they would have difficulties with the non-linear plot development.  I spent a good part of yesterday afternoon concocting ways to discuss the book and delve into its more philosophical elements.  So our group discussion was a very happy surprise for me.  The kids all loved the book, passionately and completely, except for one boy who had not finished it because he thought it was realistic fiction (hmmm – go figure on that one).

One girl had memorized a line from the book:  “Beware how you paint yourself!  Carve yourself well!”, which led to a wonderful discussion of the mirror dream and what it means.  Another girl opened her book and read aloud the lines that Uncle Freddy had cross-stitched for his family’s Christmas gifts:  Longfellow’s “Lives of great men all remind us we can make our lives sublime and, departing, leave behind us footprints in the sands of time,” Thoreau’s “Fish in the sky,” Emerson’s “Hitch your wagon to a star.”  The kids had not figured out that “H.D.T” stood for Henry David Thoreau, or that “R.W.E” for Ralph Waldo Emerson, but that’s of little consequence, since they each processed the meaning of these phrases and now these phrases are a part of each child’s subconscious.  That’s the beauty of this book, that it serves as a bridge from children’s literature to the literature of the Transcendentalists, and in so doing creates a foundation of knowledge that can be drawn upon later in life. 

Surprisingly, the kids did miss two things that I thought for sure were obvious: when I asked them a pointed question (the kind I usually try to avoid), no one knew that I was refering to the role of Louisa May Alcott in the story.  And when we were discussing the dream about the line of great men leaving footprints in the sand, I asked them “Who was the man who left the greatest, deepest footprints in the sand, and who passed on the brightest light to Mrs. Truth?”  Not one child in the group knew who that man was.  I had to tell them, “Ummmm, it was Jesus.”  Which prompted one child to cry out:  “It’s a RELIGIOUS book??!?!”  Which led us to discuss that no, it’s not a religious book, really, that this dream is about the impact one has on the world: that one person can be so full of truth and vision and goodness and intelligence that his or her impact on the world is lasting, and many other people walk in the virtual footprints left by that one person. 

We also talked a bit about literature in general, for the benefit of the two kids who joined the group yesterday and therefore had not read the book.  The general literature discussion quickly became a one-ups-man-ship contest – “I read way above my grade level” and “I have to read REALLY thick books because I read so fast – a skinny book like this doesn’t last me long enough!”  Cringing, I subtly put the brakes on this conversation, and we talked about the value of literature, as opposed to its size and speed and “level.”  I picked a random passage from TDITW and read it out loud to the group as fast as I possibly could.  Several kids giggled and said, “huh?  What did you say?”, to which I responded, “Exactly!  When you’re reading a book really quickly, that’s probably the speed at which you’re reading.  When you read that fast, you’re getting the plot line, but you’re not picking up on the beauty of the language and the deeper meaning of the words.”  And then I read the same passage again, slowly and thoughtfully, lingering on the longer, more delicious words, stopping to contemplate, out loud, the meaning of the phrases.  I saw a lot of virtual lightbulbs go off over the kids’ heads at that moment.

It was the best book group meeting ever.  We all had a fabulous time, and it was hard to pack up and leave.  And the one boy who hadn’t finished the book shyly asked me to renew it, since he thought he’d like to keep reading it, after all.

When things don’t work out…

I got fired yesterday.  No, no, no, not from my full-time gig as a children’s librarian: from a new tutoring job that I had taken on for this month.  I had agreed to tutor this student, who is going into the eighth grade at a school that specializes in Orton Gillingham, even though I had some reservations about my ability to help her.  My specialty is tutoring students using the Wilson Reading System, which is based upon Orton Gillingham, but differs in many practical ways from Orton Gillingham.

And the moment I arrived at the student’s house on Tuesday, I could see that the student had reservations, too.  It was abundantly clear from the start of that lesson that there was nothing I could do or be to win over this student.  Without a doubt, that lesson was the toughest one that I have ever taught.  Light humor didn’t work, being firm but fair didn’t work.  Not one of the three assignments that I gave in that hour interested the student.  As we got further into the hour, the student’s baseball cap came further and further down over her eyes, until I couldn’t see her face at all. 

I tried, but it was obvious this wasn’t going to work.  I sat down with the mother at the end of the lesson and told her that, in my opinion, her daughter didn’t want to be tutored.  The mother was very surprised, said she’d talk to her daughter and get back to me.  It was no shock to me when I got an email from the mother yesterday saying “thanks, but…”.

The moral of this tale?  These things can’t be forced.  This student probably needed a full summer break from school and learning, and nothing I could have done would have made her enjoy working with me.  I won’t take it personally.  Maybe.  🙂


Last evening Gayle and I went to a fifth grade performance of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”  Gayle and I both used to be (note the past tense) SPED tutors at this elementary school, and two of our favorite students were in this play, one of them as the lead, Charlie Brown. 

I left the school in November of 2005 to take my current job, feeling very very guilty about leaving in the middle of the school year; it took a lot of rational thinking to convince myself that, for once, I needed to put my own career and financial needs ahead of the needs of my students.  It was a tough leaving, and to this day I feel rather hollow about having abandoned “my kids.” 

Gayle worked through the school year of ’05-’06, then left to take her own fourth grade classroom in another town.  In the remainder of that school year, Gayle spent a lot of time with the kids who were in last night’s play, and when she was invited to the performance there was no doubt that she wanted to attend.  She also convinced me to come, and we worked it with the SPED teacher, Rachel, that we would be a “special surprise” for the kids at the end of the show.  (Rachel talked up the “special surprise” for a couple of weeks, but the kids never guessed that it would be us.)

Sitting through the performance last night, I realized a couple of things.  First of all, though I had close bonds with the kids who played Charlie Brown and another lead role (we’ll call her “Janet”), I really didn’t know much about the other kids in the play.  Had this been the class of kids who are now 6th graders, or the kids who are now 7th graders, I probably would have been a weepy mess as I reunited with old friends and favorite students.   But the era of Abby at that school is pretty much past; the kids I spent so much time with have moved on, grown up.

I also realized that my self-esteem plummeted the moment that I walked into that school.  Though I was pretty great at my job there, it made me miserable to be the second-class citizen that is known as a “tutor.”  In my current job, I feel valued, respected, incredibly happy, and challenged.  I never dread going to the library the way I did school – I look forward to each day of work with enthusiasm.  Guess I’ve finally found my calling.

And then, after the show, Gayle and I chatted with the kids (hugs all around) and their parents, most especially Janet’s mom.  Janet’s mom is wonderful – sweet and kind and smart – and it felt like a knife through my heart when she told me that things were never as good for Janet at that school as they were when I was working with her.  She told me that Janet made so much progress in the year and a half she was with me, but after I left there just wasn’t anyone to fill the role that I had played in her life, and things were never the same.  I got a bit weepy, and told her how guilty I felt about leaving, and this gracious mom put a hand on my arm, looked me in the eye, and said, “Don’t feel guilty, please – I am SO happy for you, SO happy that you found a job that you love.”

It was a tough night: remembering where I’d been, feeling terrible about having abandoned kids who needed me, and also feeling so very thankful that I have moved on to a job and a role that makes ME happy and fulfilled.  Isn’t that always the challenge in life?  Keeping yourself happy while doing right by others?

Winding down

The school year is almost done, and I only have four more lessons with one of my students (her family goes away for the summer), and one more lesson with my other student (she’ll be attending summer school).  Both girls have made great progress this year, and I’m very pleased with how much they each have learned.  In an ideal world, I’d love to continue tutoring the first girl over the summer, to get her in the best possible position for fourth grade next fall, but it’s not an option since her family won’t be in town.

And then there’s the idea of having my evenings to myself again.  I’ve gotten accustomed to getting home late each evening, devouring a late dinner cooked by Jim, and having only an hour or so before bedtime.  It’s going to be truly lovely to get home at dinner time, relax out on the deck, read a book, enjoy Jim’s guitar playing…as much as I’ve enjoyed tutoring both of these students, it will be a real treat to have some free time this summer.  It will feel like a vacation, though I’ll still be working full-time at my day job.  Pretty good trick.

One of those great moments

Thursday night, while tutoring A________ on one of the more difficult phonological concepts, I had one of those great moments that make teaching worthwhile.  A________, a third grader who had been totally confused and frustrated by schwa when taught it in school, excitedly declared mid-lesson: “I get it!  I understand schwa!”  And then, a bit later in the lesson, she looked up from her dictation page and said, “Thank you for teaching me about schwa,” then ducked her head and shyly added, “thank you for teaching me.”