10 Things to Keep in Mind When Collaborating With Others

I’ve recently begun communicating with a couple of teachers from the other side of the world. This has been very exciting, but also attitude-altering in several ways. I wanted to share some of the things I’ve learned at the outset of attempting to foster these new relationships with international colleagues.

ONE. Compromise

I begin with the most basic and obvious. Clearly, for any collaboration to get off the ground, there must be give and take. An airplane needs both aerodynamic wing design AND speed. Without the one it is a very fast weird-looking car, and without the other it is little more than a model of a plane. Speed pushes the air around the wings so that the craft lifts off of the ground. Hopefully, you get the picture, but if you want to go down that rabbit-hole, enjoy. I’ll see you later:)

TWO. Active Listening

This means seeking to understand. Because we are only using text, and my collaborative partner comes from a totally different *everything from me, I must be a super sleuth to find context for concepts. One thing I try to do is “un-think” much of my expectations, as well as not assume that my partner knows American educational habits. This past week I had Monday off due to snow. Then, Friday there wasn’t school for students because of Professional Development. Do my international teaching friends experience these conundrums?

*In addition to all of the concrete differences and experiential differences, there are the attitudes and mindsets that will be different. Are days off considered “off” to people in other countries? Perhaps time away from school is full of more work than being in school.

THREE. Give Up Google

Don’t have a stroke Alice Keeler, but not everyone in the world uses Google. I do, and I love it. In fact, I spend more time in my G suite than my house. (Right now, I’m typing this in Google Doc, planning to copy and paste it into WordPress.)

This may be hard to imagine for some, but what if there were something better than Google? Right now, America is the most powerful and largest tech market, but it isn’t the biggest. China and India dwarf the U.S.A. Were those countries to develop a system that worked better and was even more easily accessible, Google would be Lincoln Logs next to Legos. As collaborators and educators, we would do well to have an open mind and try out whatever our partner wants to use.

All that being said, there is the whole if you set it free and it comes back to you business. I did suggest Google to my pen pals. One person is familiar with Google, and her students use Drive. Another person’s students don’t. With this second collaborator I will be using ePals program to connect my students with hers. We will see how it goes.

FOUR. Swallow Pride

This will read funny after what I just said, but when I found out a collaborating partner from another side of the world didn’t use Google very much, I thought, “Great! An opportunity to show you how awesome, useful, and helpful it its!” I did not email this sentiment, however. Instead, I thought about what the goal of our collaboration should be. Did this person sign up to have her students pen pal with mine, only to have me preach at her about the benefits of Google? We both expect to grow and learn through the experience, but I don’t want to turn off my partner by acting or even dreaming of tech superiority.

Scarlet and Sonia on vacation.

You arrange to hangout with someone. The new friend suggests riding bikes to a park for a picnic lunch. Do you insist that the two of you drive? “It’ll be faster. The lunch won’t spill or cool off. It’s more convenient…” For you, maybe. If you insist on driving, you could drive your friend away. Even if the new acquaintance agrees to be driven, and the lunch doesn’t spill or cool off, your fragile new relationship could.

3319673304_53ea643fedPerhaps your partner has driven a car before–Maybe they have a Ferrari sitting in the garage that you’ll be able to experience if you allow the friendship to blossom naturally.


FIVE. Keep it Consistent: “Rotisserie Relationship”

Keep it moving. Try to stay on top of communication. Maybe even agree on frequency. Do you expect to hear from each other once a week, every other day. Might you be setting yourself up for failure hoping to correspond every day? Take turns and practice a comfortable, reliable back and forth.

SIX. Adjust the Temperature

When cooking marshmallows over a fire, there are three ways to do it.

  1. Grab a raw marshmallow from the bag and plop it in your mouth. You might be too impatient to wait. Or, maybe you just prefer raw marshmallows to gooey, sticky ones.
  2. Thrust the marshmallow right into the flames of the fire. It will light up like a torch. Let it burn for a few seconds. After blowing out the flames, you plop the carcinogen-crusted half-melted marshmallow in your mouth. These have some yummy melted marshmallow, but the papery skin sticks to the roof of your mouth and tastes burnt, which it is. And, the center is still raw.
  3. You know how this one goes. The experienced, patient person waits for the fire to burn to red-hot embers. He finds just the right stick and wittles the end while he waits. Once the cooking conditions are just right, the master marshmallow melter delicately develops a rich brown color on all sides by slowly spinning the fat white column over the heat… checking often for discoloration. The most important thing to know is that it isn’t the flame that cooks the marshmallow; It’s the heat. Embers are hotter than flames, but they take time to develop.

SEVEN. Don’t Pile On

Personally, I have too much to say, in general, clearly;)

I have to work at taming myself to 1 or 2 ideas per communiqué. This is not my strong suit, but I have found that too many ideas can smother a relationship. If you put too many sticks on a fire, do you know what happens? It dies out. (I’m still thinking about those marshmallows.) Fire needs to breath. It is best to add just a few sticks at a time. Let them catch. Then add more. Or, when adding a lot of wood to a fire, be sure that there is an air vent; a place where oxygen can reach the heart of the fire.

When participating in a conversation, try to be masterful about it. Add thoughts that have to do with what other people are talking about. Only tell one story and limit the details. Give listeners the opportunity to ask to hear more. Don’t hog the mic. And, never drop it. Inevitably, it will definitely land on your metaphorical foot.

EIGHT. Be Humble

This may exist as “Eight” in the list, but can be woven in and out of every sentence of this blog. In other words, it is every number.

Humility can be your savior. Back to the “Driving to the picnic” analogy: How would your partner feel if he or she only owned a bicycle, and you show up in a Ferrari? You may as well rev your engine and run over the partner’s pet dog on your way to your picnic. Hubris is killer.

NINE. Questions Show You Care

Always include questions. Again, only a couple; don’t make your correspondent feel like he is taking a survey. It might work well to volunteer your own answer to the question that you asked your new friend. I recently told my pen pal about having to take a “snow day” because of inclement weather. Then I asked if it snows where she lives. A better question, now that I think about it, would have been, “What kinds of things might cause you and your students to close up shop and not have school for a day or more?” Yeah, I think I’m going to go type that into my next correspondence.

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I am asking a student questions about her salsa during our annual 3rd grade salsa taste-testing event.

And, now that my list is just about over and you have come to the end of this blog, I will practice what I preach by asking you:

  • Which of these ideas resonated with you and why?
  • What experience have you had communicating with people from other countries?
  • How did you get in touch with these individuals? (Others might be interested in starting a collaborative project, so provide some specifics, including links, please.)
  • What do you plan to do with the information that you just read?

I ask you these questions because I care; more than caring that you read this blog, I care about people collaborating effectively. I care about people making friends, working together, growing as humans. I care for humanity…  evolving to be better.

TEN. Distance


This is related to “Don’t Pile On” (no. 7). Make sure that there is enough space for your partner to provide suggestions.

Relationships are like a simple game of catch. Is it fun to toss a ball to someone who is 2 feet from you? No. The further away, the better.

You start off close, but with mastery, you move further from one another. There will come a point when the distance becomes too challenging or ineffective. And then, you make adjustments. This space can be applied to time, proximity (you are not going to email the person sitting next to you), and ideas (tossing the same thought back and forth gets boring).

Okay. All done. Now, back to “Questions Show You Care”, I’d love to hear your thoughts on all of this… Well, on part of this… Okay, just tell me nice things… No, really, I want to read your thoughts, whatever they are. Just frame them nicely, please. Thank you.


Unsolicited Criticism is NOT Classy

“How do you tell someone that they shouldn’t bring a lot of toys to school… but, nicely?”

Scarlet writes the rules for playing with the beany toys that she is sending with me to my school.

On the way home from daycare my daughter asked me this question, and by the way she told me the story, I could tell that she was really asking, “Did I do this right?”

I had to laugh at my crafty daughter. She was working at justifying something that she did that probably made a peer feel badly. She may have well asked, “Why didn’t he take my criticism better?” In fact, as we began to talk about it, Scarlet even suggested a very soothing tone, and modeled for me the way a kid might tell another kid that they shouldn’t do something, and it be respectable. She sounded like an adult explaining something painful to a child.

My initial reaction was, “No”.

“Daddy, how do I tell someone that he is doing something wrong?”

“No. You don’t.” I didn’t realize that she already had. When this concept dawned my cognition, I began to walk Scarlet back. She had explained that a friend who she sat next to on the bus had opened his backpack to show Scarlet all of the toys that he was bringing to school. It seems like this is when my daughter tried as much as she could to classily tell him that he was ridiculous for doing exactly what she would have done if her mommy and daddy let her.

As Scarlet provided more and more details, I could tell that she was actually envious of her friend. The word “fair” surfaces every five sentences, these days. This was definitely one of those times. I explained to Scarlet that it wasn’t her place to tell her friends what to do, how to do it, or not to do certain things. “If someone breaks the rules, you can remind him or her of the rules, and you can let an adult know. But, if someone does something that bothers you, it is your job to deal with it. Let’s say someone says something mean to you. You should tell the person that those words hurt your feelings, and you didn’t appreciate it…”

Scarlet is an only child. She has a bit of a bossy streak in her. When I told her to tell someone something, she was all about that! We discussed how to do this classily. Then she prompted, “And, you tell the teacher!”

I told her that classy kids don’t bother the teacher with every little thing that bothers them. “If someone hurts your feelings, you address this. Perhaps the person apologizes and you remain playing partners and friends. It is possible, though, that the person does not behave politely. And then you just stay away from that individual. You only go talk to the teacher if someone is breaking the rules.”

This bit of news–Rules News–was eye-widening. Someone has experienced this before! Scarlet gave me all kinds of examples of this happening at school. I explained that the rules are set up to help students be safe and not hurt others. Scarlet mentioned punishments for kids who break the rules. I didn’t want her to focus on that. “What happens to students who break the rules is up to the teacher to decide. That is none of your business. And, don’t tell on someone, so that he or she gets into trouble. Your job in communicating rule-breaking is to help your friends and yourself be as safe as possible. Don’t worry about punishments.”

“When grownups break rules, they go to prison,” Scarlet offered.

Scarlet sent her toys with me to school last year. She also sent a list of rules.

“Sometimes they do. There are a few different kinds of punishments for adults who break the law. Rules for adults are called laws,” I explained.

“What are grownup rules?”

When I began thinking about what laws my 7-year old would understand, my mind went to the classroom. I told her that just like kids, adults shouldn’t take other people’s things. I explained that if someone took daddy’s truck, we would have a difficult time getting around. Now, if someone asked to borrow it, that would be different. Then I would know where it is, or at least who had it. I told her that taking someone else’s things without asking is called stealing. Before letting Scarlet go to school and accuse anyone and everyone of this crime, I explained that sometimes a neighbor will borrow something, like a pencil or crayon without asking. If they need one, and you aren’t using yours, someone could choose to use yours for a minute. This is not “stealing”. As long as it does not hurt anything, that is permissible, and you should classily allow friends to use your things. If they didn’t return it, or if he/she broke it and didn’t replace it, there would be a problem. That is not nice. “Then I tell the person, ‘You did something not nice’,” Scarlet practiced.

I smiled. “Do you have to tell the teacher about that?” I inquired.

Just some of Scarlet’s rules for playing with her beany toys.

“You don’t have to, but you can,” Scarlet regurgitated.

I also told Scarlet that another law for adults to live by is not hurting others, physically. “When adults have disagreements, they use words to sort things out,” I told her. “They do not attack someone with their hands or feet and hurt the person’s body.” I wasn’t sure Scarlet knew the word “physical”, yet. I’m not sure that this idea was communicated clearly enough, but the seed was planted. Those two laws seemed like good ones to begin with. We didn’t need to get into driving, taxes, or copyright infringement just yet.

Going back to the backpack full of toys that Scarlet’s neighbor on the bus had shown her, I wanted to communicate to my daughter that sometimes we need to simply deal with our own feelings. “Just because you think that boy shouldn’t bring all of those toys to school, doesn’t mean that you should tell him. You’re not his mommy. You’re not his teacher.”

When I asked her how she would feel if someone told her what to do, Scarlet said, “You’re not the boss of me.” I laughed.

Constructing Classy Introductory Sentences to tap Memories

  • IMG_5105
    Students take notes about bats while reading an informational text.

    Have you ever had something that you really wanted to remember, but couldn’t? What did you do to try to remember it?

  • Did you know beforehand that this was something you were going to want to remember?
  • Have you ever had information that you wanted to help someone else remember?
  • What did you do to help them remember the information?
  • How did it work?
  • What do you think you could have done differently that would have helped the person more?

[These questions were posed to and answered by my class after participating in the following exercise.]

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This slide was projected onto the board, and the following questions were asked.

What are neurons?

And, what do they have to do with you?

What connections can you make?

What do you already know about this subject?

I did not have a lot of hope that my students would be able to provide stellar answers to those questions. In fact, I was hoping that they wouldn’t be able to provide any cognizance on the concept! –Not because I was hoping that they were ignorant, but because I wanted to illustrate the need for an opening sentence that would help a reader tap already existing information from their memories. My aim was to provide a text that my students couldn’t use… yet. With a different opening sentence; however; they might be able to open a prefrontal pathway to a mental folder that holds related information. Then my students would be able to both use existing knowledge to build upon and store this new information with related knowledge.

Now that my class was primed to try to understand where I was going with the original exercise, I asked, “What would be a good opening sentence for the paragraph about neurons that would help a third grader understand what they were about to read?” What ideas might stimulate thinking about related topics?

Post reading and taking notes, students composed paragraphs in Kidblog.

The idea here is to write an opening sentence that gets your reader to think about your topic. In the same way you try to “actively read”, using strategies that help you get the most out of a text, you should hope that the reader of your writing is doing the same thing. You should write in such a way as to help your reader get the most out of his/her experience.

  • If you want your reader to infer things, don’t write every single detail.
  • If you want your reader to establish cause & effect relationships between things, make sure those connections are clear. (This is what I am trying to do write now–I intentionally misspelled “right” to hopefully pun you into remembering this tidbit of a thought.)
  • If you want your reader to question, present information that is so interesting that your reader wants to know more.
  • If you want your reader to make predictions, give her just enough information, but not too much. Stretch out your text so that the reader has some time to think about what will happen next. Don’t just dump information onto the reader. Spoon it out a little at a time, so that she can come up with her own ideas of what might be next. (Did you notice that I tried to do that… spread out the ideas through writing a few unnecessary sentences, before getting to the next point? I did that to try to illustrate how a writer–in this case, me, but soon to be you–could produce this trick. Good luck!)
  • There are more reading strategies, of course, but I will end this short list with making connections. If you want your reader to make good, strong connections to your text, you must help him through introducing your topic in such a way that the reader is open to receiving the information.

I find that many times third graders assume that their readers already know what they are writing about. This is probably do to a natural level of narcissism that 8- and 9-year olds still possess. Also, they are mostly correct, because what they are often writing about was assigned, everyone who will be reading the produced text (their peers) already knows the assignment, and they are writing for me, the person who assigned it!

This blog and lesson is meant to help students write in such a way as to pretend the reader does not already know the assignment. If an author is writing for an audience ignorant of the assignment, how would he or she begin the paragraph? If you want the reader of your writing to get something from the experience of looking at your text, it will be helpful to know what the reader is doing while reading. In this way you can steer the reader toward your goal of gaining new knowledge that can be retrieved later. If you want your reader to remember any of your text, it helps to understand how remembering works.


Remembering things can be broken into a three-step process. First, you take in new information. I was tempted to write learn instead of “take in”, but before you understand information, you first literally absorb it through your senses. You hear words and sounds; see images, colors, and light; touch/feel manipulatives, textures, and temperatures; smell; and sometimes taste. This is called encoding.

After your brain gets the information, it looks for a place to store it. This is the second stage of memory. The place and way that the information is stored will depend on how useful your brain decides it is. Are you going to need to know this again, soon? Perhaps, not, but the information would be very useful in a particular circumstance, so it shouldn’t be lost. Some information is interesting, but not very useful. This could get pushed out of your thinking like pictures you delete from your iPad. The information may go to a “recently deleted” file in the brain, awaiting total forgetting when too many new thoughts push the information out of the way.

Screen Shot 2019-02-06 at 4.02.42 AM
“Cognitive Constipation”–1st Usage;)

The last part of remembering involves retrieving memories. This is the part where you try to recall information that you know you know, but can’t quite find it in your brain. Some people who try to remember something that they know they learned, but can’t recall the exact information refer to this as a “brain fart”. Just last night, I may have coined a new term on Twitter: “Cognitive Constipation”. Rather than your brain farting, it is more like it gets all backed up with un-useful information that blocks your thoughts from landing on what you want to remember. A successful memory, though, is easy to recall or comes to mind quickly whenever you want it to.


A writer (you… and me) wants his readers to remember the ideas that are presented. We want our readers to be able to recall the concepts that we have presented. This will make the ideas valuable. There are a couple of ways that can help writers do this.

Lets begin with encoding. This is the first step of building a memory. Your readers are taking in tons of sensory information all day long. How will your writing stimulate the senses in such a way that it will stand out? One of the things that I try to do during teaching and in this blog is provide visuals. I try to tap more than just the imagination. Also, when teaching (This is virtually impossible through a blog post.), I try to create “experiences” during my lessons. A lesson on narratives will involve smoke machines, giant hairy spiders, and loud noises. Writers will want to make information appealing to readers. But, in order for readers to remember it, authors will need to make the information useful.

IMG_1631When new information comes into your brain, your mind tries to make sense of it.  Your brain looks for information that is related to the new senses being stimulated. It is sort of like looking for a code or translation that can make sense of the new information. If no translator or decoder is found, the information will most likely be deemed useless and get deleted. It may even be found incompatible immediately. This could have happened with the neuron information that I presented to my students at the beginning of this lesson. If I hadn’t talked to them a little about cells and brains, they wouldn’t have anywhere to put this information. I may as well have been speaking Greek to them. This is probably how many people feel when reading or listening to specialized scientific texts and talks.

It is our job, as authors, to help our readers make connections. We must provide the code to our text right at the beginning of our writing. The translator needs to be set up and ready to go before any information is conveyed, or it will be lost. The opening sentence should present this code. It should tell the reader what folder in the brain she will need to access to find related information. This will empower the reader to make sense of what she is reading. Not doing this is like throwing the reader into the middle of the ocean without a lifejacket.

Opening Sentence
I’ll be opening the “Bat File” for this one.


BBC Earth Lab (Producer), & Head Squeeze (Director). (2014, February 20). How Does Your Memory Work?[Video file]. Retrieved February 6, 2019, from https://youtu.be/TUoJc0NPajQ

Cherry, K. (2018, August 3). What Is Memory and How Does It Work? An Overview of Memory and How it Works. Retrieved February 4, 2019, from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-memory-2795006

Craig Freudenrich, Ph.D. & Robynne Boyd “How Your Brain Works” 6 June 2001.

HowStuffWorks.com. <https://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/human-brain/brain.htm> 5 February 2019

Richard C. Mohs “How Human Memory Works” 8 May 2007. HowStuffWorks.com. <https://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/human-brain/human-memory.htm> 6 February 2019

Schwartz, K. (2016, November 21). What Neuroscience Can Tell Us About Making Fractions Stick. Retrieved January 16, 2019, from https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/46865/what-neuroscience-can-tell-us-about-making-fractions-stick

Texas A&M University. (2016, May 17). How does memory work?. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 4, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/05/160517131928.htm



Visual Thinking is Classy

screen shot 2019-01-13 at 8.06.15 amThe exciting and informative live chat #MasteryChat that takes place on Twitter between 8 and 9PM on Thursdays discussed the topic of “Visual Thinking” on January 10th, 2019. I’ve always held the belief that the more connections students make to a lesson, the more they will remember. Also, the more emotionally attached they become to their learning, the more they will get out of it.

Teaching nonfiction text can seem like a boring topic. Here is a way I get kids creative about their learning: They make mini booklets about the text features that help them navigate through nonfiction texts.screen shot 2019-01-13 at 7.15.24 am

This is great because it gives them a reason for listening: They need to know what to include in their books. Each page models and defines a different text feature or part of a nonfiction book.

The learning tool becomes a toy. Students love looking through their creations all year long. They are proud of what they produce, and show them to their peers and parents.

screen shot 2019-01-13 at 7.15.48 amHere’s how it works. First, I spark the class’s excitement by showing telling them they are going to make books. Then I show them a mini book. Everyone loves that! They begin screen shot 2019-01-13 at 7.16.04 amantsing to make one. That is when I share a unique style of nonfiction text; The “instructional text” that tells how to make a mini book. I point out the sequence words, and we picture in our minds what is happening to the paper.

After students display good listening skills, it is time to hand out paper. I walk around and model as well as help make the folds. The cutting from fold to the center of the paper is tricky. There is always, without fail, a couple of kids who mess it up and have to start over.

Once they have their booklets made, students number the pages. This year, to get everyone back on track, listening carefully, I made this process hilarious by acting like the students couldn’t possibly guess what the next number was going to be. For some of them, I made up riddles and algorithms. Even though the kids obviously knew that the numbers were simply chronological order, they loved it. They were recreating my jokes days afterward in new contexts.screen shot 2019-01-13 at 7.16.17 am

The next thing that we do is put the vital information on the cover of the book. The project usually takes several days to complete, and I don’t want any books to get lost. The “Locating Info Mini Booklet” by (name of student) is placed in “Unfinished Work” folders, to be continued later.

screen shot 2019-01-13 at 7.16.43 amWhen we work on the mini booklets again, I have students label each page. They look at the list that I post on the board for them. Then we make a “Table of Contents”. Finally, students write explanations for each text feature on its page. Some of them, like the “Title Page”, are virtually self-explanatory. Others, like “Graphic Organizers”, require many examples. Students are only permitted to decorate, which they are all iching to do, AFTER all of the information is completed.

This project is more than just visual. The crafty nature of creating your own learning tool is sure to coat axons with much myelin.

Image from Wikipedia

Competition is Classy

Every year, on the first day back to school after the winter break, I initiate a competition between two teams in my classroom. The contest is to see who reads more, but the purpose is to make reading a habit and instill an excitement for text consumption. I call it “The Reading Super Bowl”, and it lasts until the actual football game.

Screen Shot 2019-01-01 at 8.56.16 PMThe class is broken up into two equal groups. I’ve done girls versus boys, odd student numbers versus even student numbers, and broken the class up according to desk arrangements; Doesn’t matter how you do it. The NFL teams that are entering the playoffs are listed on the board. Kids get the lunch/recess time to decide on their group’s team. Then the players are passed out. I usually project a few pictures of each team’s jerseys on the wall for kids to model the coloring of their figure after.

Before all of this, first thing in the morning, I will have the students sit on the carpet while I explain the rules and how the contest works. Students bring home a paper that has images of footballs on it. Each football represents 20 minutes of reading outside of school. They must be initialed by an adult; parent, caretaker, daycare worker, babysitter, anyone. Each football is one yard. It takes one hundred footballs to score a touchdown, but with the whole team working together, it happens faster than you think. If each kid reads 1 football each night for a week, and there are 12 kids on a team, you are looking at midfield (48 yards) by Friday! As you can see, there is lots of math in this contest. Each touchdown is worth 7 points. Field goals can be scored by students completing book reports.

In addition to the classroom contest, each of the five 3rd grade classrooms compete against each other in a grade-level competition to see who will be MVP. We celebrate the students’ successes with a “Reading Super Bowl Party” the Friday before the NFL’s big game. That is when our contest ends.

The students always love friendly competition. They get into coloring and cutting out their footballs. I have them tape them to the classroom football field that I post in the back of the room. Counting their team’s footballs seriously energizes the students to go home and produce multiple footballs for the next day’s taping session.

Screen Shot 2019-01-01 at 8.56.36 PMI got this idea from John Burger, my mentor in 2010 at Willow Lane. It was his last year, and we were teaching second grade. I wouldn’t be surprised if he got the idea from someone else. That’s how teaching works. If you like the idea, use it, go for it. Good luck!

Google Slideshow with Award and Characters

Appreciating the Past is Classy

Appreciating the past is classy. That sentence was worded carefully. Being stuck in the past is not classy. In fact being stuck in general is not classy. Glorifying the past is not classy, either; It says, “Those times were far better than today.” With advances in medicine, technology, and transportation, no time in history can compare to modern times.

To appreciate something is to recognize its worth. 

The opposite of “Appreciating the Past” is when a person thinks that things are the way they are because of his or her efforts alone. If you make a scientific breakthrough, that is great, but I guarantee that there were hundreds, if not thousands of scientists and scientific works, not to mention your teachers, parents, and even environmental situation that all lended to you being able to perform your accomplishment.

On the other hand, while age isn’t everything, the older the wine or cheese, the more expensive the bottle or package. There is value in something maintaining its importance, if not even growing its influence, over time.

A lesson that I have been doing for years explores this hypothesis. Every year, after 440px-NutcrackersThanksgiving, an army of nutcrackers marches into the American commercial and decorative landscape. They are everywhere, decorated in every imaginable theme. There are Philadelphia Eagles nutcrackers, stormtrooper nutcrackers, teddybears, ninjas, knights, historical figures, bright pink Breast Cancer Awareness nutcrackers, etc. There is no limit. Where does this army come from? There is a famous, seasonal ballet with a terrific Tchaikovsky score. There are mountains of books. Where did it all begin, and why is it so popular?

In 2012 I dug up the original novel by ETA Hoffman and gave it a read. The 1816 text (translated to English from German) was difficult to comprehend and full of robust vocabulary, so, naturally, I decided to share it with my students. (Challenge is classy; future blog.)

Before beginning, however, I came up with what has proved to be a clever way to record our findings. I projected an image of a nutcracker onto the wall. Using different pieces of paper (eight in all), I traced the outline of the nutcracker. I photocopied and stapled the pages into packets. Students were instructed to write their notes within the outlines, but “Do not go ahead”. In the same way the mysterious nutcracker comes to life within the tale and eventually is set free from his spell by Marie, our paper packets start to reveal themselves once the students get to the image of a face, one of the last pages.


IMG_1389 2
Mrs. Merrill shows students our favorite version by Maurice Sendak

My friend and co-teacher Lori Merrill combined her class with mine, and we would take turns reading the original text to the class. We came across a copy that Maurice Sendak penned and illustrated. It is slightly easier to read than the Dover edition, published 1967. Plus, the Sendak pictures are amazing. This year we had the advantage of a school Youtube channel, “Willow Lane Read Alouds” that allowed us to videotape the read alouds and publish them to the web for kids who missed a chapter to catch up. They could share with family members, as well.

Throughout the read aloud, students record vocabulary, write down key events, and draw illustrations inside the outlines of their soon to be nutcrackers. After finishing the story, students complete their notes, drawing visualizations of the toy-mouse war, the Mouse Queen placing a spell on Princess Pirlipat, Marie giving up her toys and sweets to save Nutcracker, and of course the trek through The Land of the Dolls. Then the students lightly color in all of the sections, cut them out, and assemble their very own nutcrackers. We tape them together, and get them laminated, usually and hopefully just in time to bring home for the holidays.

IMG_2022Now, these third grade students have a tool that they can use to retell the real story (or at least, the original story) of The Nutcracker. They are also beautiful decorations!

If you look at reviews of the original “Nutcracker”, you will find Fritzes scolding the text for inconsistencies, flaws, and poor quality. There are Madame Mouserinks waiting to bite the Nutcracker’s head off with criticisms. There is no end to the naysayers who demean the text. So, again, why has “The Nutcracker” remained and even grown in popularity?

Perhaps, it is because the characters are so unique. Nutcracker is not just a toy that comes to life. He is the Superman of toys. Judge Drosselmeier is a lawyer, tinkerer, seeming villain, and finally patriarch. Fritz displays the same militaristic attitude that his stiff soldiers show when he sentences Nutcracker’s fait. And, the noble, sweet Marie is about to sacrifice her most precious possession to save the Nutcracker. And, is there a more sadistic nemesis in literature than the seven-headed Mouse King?

IMG_2036The Nutcracker might maintain its popularity because of its foreignness. Winter swoops in, bringing cold and snow and holidays. Initially, it is fun and exciting because it is so different from summer and fall. Similarly, Nutcrackers take over the turkey, Pilgrim, and Native American displays. They often have an Eastern European aura to them. Also, the ballet was produced by Russians; The story written by a German.

Maybe The Nutcracker is popular because he is a symbol of olden times; simpler times. Who cracks nuts, nowadays? What kid treasures wooden toys that have one moving part?

I don’t know why our culture is so fascinated with The Nutcracker, but visiting its conception is one of the highlights of the school year. I feel like a textual anthropologist when I lead students into reading, learning, and studying the first writings of this cultural icon. I hope that not only do they develop a deeper appreciation for this classic, but that they learn the importance of appreciating the past.

IMG_2796PDFs of Scanned Nutcracker Papers:




Building Bridges–Classy Connections

Earlier this year a student from my room hurt the feelings of a peer by pointing out a physical characteristic that contrasted the child’s appearance with the other kids in the classroom. The rudeness was unintentional (Whitman, n.d.), but painful nonetheless. 

firstThe only reason that I knew about this interaction was the hurt child came over and told me about it. It almost seemed like she wasn’t sure if she should be upset or not. As she told me her story, others, overhearing the tale, chimed in with their two-cents. This additional commentary seemed to spin the story into a negative frenzy, so that I put an end to the retelling in order to address the class.

I talked to my third grade students about the effect that pointing out differences among people can have. I explained that while the observant student may not have done anything overtly wrong, it wasn’t polite to focus on what makes someone different from you. It is great to be proud of what separates you from others; These characteristics make us unique and special, but don’t draw attention to how other people are different from you. Rather, we should celebrate our similarities.

secondWhat the boy did when he pointed out the way a little girl looked different from himself was a natural thing to do. We humans can’t help but categorize things (Vanderbilt, 2016). We have genres for music, books, movies, art, dance; You name it! It’s much easier to find things when they are labeled. When I’m in the mood to read a mystery, it’s much faster and easier to go to that section of the bookstore, rather than sift through every single shelf. But, what about those books that are very funny true stories about a person’s life that happen to also be highly mysterious? Now what? Often times, we simply create a new category.

silly facesTom Vanderbilt (2016) goes a step further, suggesting that the more we like something, the more we want to categorize. A person who enjoys candy will separate a bag of treats into several groups of like sweets. How many times has the book-lover rearranged his or her library, recategorizing titles? I have grouped books that I read close in chronology, only to separate them after reading new texts.  

The problem with doing this to people is that genre-making exaggerates differences (Kaufman, 2012). When we categorize things, we look for what makes them unique. When it comes to relationships, it is wise to seek similarities over identifying differences. Contrasting characteristics can create wedges and rifts between people. Locating, examining, celebrating, and strengthening the things we have in common will pull people closer together. This will build relationships that will be useful, helpful, comfortable, and enduring.

IMG_0463I came up with an activity to help reinforce this concept in my classroom. I call it “Building Bridges”. We have a snack/play time in the afternoons, when we give ourselves a brain break. I instituted a “constructive” play rule, where kids use items that can be connected or built upon in order to make things, rather than just mess around. We have Legos, Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, 30+ year-old Robotix toys from my childhood, and we also use the colorful interlocking blocks that came with our math curriculum. Because we have the most of this last medium, I chose to have the whole class use the colorful blocks in a contest. (The competition makes it more exciting.) Groups of kids–I not only let the kids pick their own groups, I didn’t limit the size of groups–arranged and connected blocks to form bridges that spanned distances between desks. I told them that the bridge had to be able to hold and transport a Thymio robot–This is a little robot that students can program to drive. The robot was the trick. Students worked to make their bridges wide enough, thick enough, and strong enough for the robot to use. Rather than drop robots on the floor during trial runs, we measured the weight with a simple scale. The robot was equal in weight to a half-full pencil box.

We discussed the concept of working together right after having experienced it first-hand. The kids loved constructing the creations.

The thing is, the blocks in our bridges were all different colors. Not only that, but they stuck together in varying strengths. Some had tight connections. Some were very loose. But every block had way more in common with the others than it did with the desk it rested on!

In the same way, humans are all different; We look, think, behave, talk, dress, and smell different. But, we have way more in common with each other than our differences would let on. Lets focus on our connectivity, building bridges, rather than tearing each other down.    

Celebrating similarities is classy.


Kaufman, S. (2012, October 13). The Pesky Persistence of Labels. Retrieved November 5, 2018, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/beautiful-minds/201210/the-pesky-persistence-labels

Vanderbilt, T. (2016, May 28). The Psychology of Genre: Why we don’t like what we struggle to categorize. The New York Times. Retrieved November 5, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/29/opinion/sunday/the-psychology-of-genre.html

Whitson, S. (n.d.). Is it Rude, Is it Mean or Is it Bullying? Retrieved November 6, 2018, from http://signewhitson.com/is-it-rude-is-it-mean-or-is-it-bullying/