Category Archives: Teacher Resources-FREE

Martin Luther King, Jr Day

The holiday is this Monday, January 20, but his birthday is January 15th!  For Round Rock ISD, Monday is a Staff and Student holiday. For Leander ISD, Monday is a Student holiday and Staff Development day.

Looking for ways to celebrate this important man’s life and contributions?


There are a lot of cool activities around Austin starting Wednesday.  Go to for a listing.  The time-sensitive activity is the MLK Celebration at the George Washington Carver Museum & Cultural Center! Documentaries will be shown all throughout the day, 11am – 6pm. The event is free and open to the public.

Parents and Teachers

The web has a bunch of links to activities to do with your child or classroom of students.  I’ve highlighted a handful here that I think are worth your time to look through in order to choose your favorites. 

Scholastic’s website has great activities at

My favorite is this Reader’s Theater of a scene from MLK Jr’s childhood found here,

This page gives you ideas of how to cover some key MLK Jr lessons in just one day.  The comparing eggs (brown & white) and the water fountain activities are priceless.

Ever heard of a KWL chart?  When presenting a topic, beforehand have your child list out the things they think they already KNOW (K) about the topic.  Next, have them list the things they WANT TO KNOW (W).  Then, after presenting the information, have them look to see what things they did LEARN (L) and double-check the things they thought they knew.  If they didn’t learn all the things they wanted to, that is a great time to help them research the answers.

Great site with activities by age:

Good site with reading and writing activities for elementary kids:

Good site, National Education Association at

Great videos on this site for all ages.  There’s a rap, too!  See below for a summary of each video to see which ones fit your child’s age.

Students Remember King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech
Appropriate Grades: K–4
In honor of Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, fourth grade students recited Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” in front of the Lincoln Memorial in 2011.
Source: PBS NewsHour on
Length: 5 minutes 36 seconds

Let Freedom Ring – MLK Rap Song
Appropriate Grades: 5–8
Give students an overview of the civil rights movement with this rap song by Flocabulary. The educational rap incorporates the words of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Source: Flocabulary on
Length: 3 minutes 5 seconds

History Specials: King Leads the March on Washington
Appropriate Grades: 9-12
Students will learn about racial tensions leading up to the August 28, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a turning point in the fight for civil rights. This video highlights part of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Source: History Channel on
Length: 3 minutes 22 seconds

NPR Back to School: Part 2

I hope you’ve had a chance to listen to the following NPR story that I posted last week.

It’s about an hour long, so you can listen AND knock out some laundry-folding at the same time!  You can also view the transcript at

Here are my highlights from Part 2: The Solution.

Achievement Gap?
It’s not poverty, but stress, that creates the achievement gap.  Stress prevents the development of these non-cognitive skills.  Dr. Nadine Burke Harris provides a clear visualization with the following scenario.

“If you look on the molecular level, you’re walking through the forest and you see a bear, right? So you can either fight the bear or run from the bear. That’s kind of your fight or flight system.  And your body releases a ton of adrenalin, right? Which is your short-term stress hormone, and something else called cortisol, which tends to be more of a long-term stress hormone. And this dilates your pupils, gets your heart beating fast. Your skin gets cold and clammy. That’s because you’re shunting blood from anywhere that isn’t absolutely necessary to the muscles that you need to be able to run from that bear.

The other thing that it does– now, you can imagine that if you’re about to fight a bear, you need some gumption to fight that bear, right? So it kind of shuts off the thinking portion of your brain, right? That executive function cognitive part. And it turns on the real primal aggression and the things that you need to be able to think that you’re going to go into a fight with a bear and come out on the winning side.

And that’s really good if you’re in a forest and there’s a bear. The problem is when that bear comes home from the bar every night. Right? And for a lot of these kids, what happens is that this system, this fight or flight response, which is an emergency response in your body, it’s activated over and over and over again.” 

The repetition of this response creates pathways in the brain.  The effect of this repeated stress shows up on brain scans, specifically on the prefrontal cortex where a lot of the non-cognitive skills happen.  Basically, for these kids, the bear never goes away…even when they’re sitting in class.  This leads to things teachers see like difficulty paying attention or sitting still.

The rest of the story explains two significant solutions: one avenue that is more of a preventative one for younger children, as well as another that can be taught at later ages.

Studies have shown that a secure attachment relationship with an empathetic parent can significantly lower the affect of stress on the body.  So imagine a child who has grown up in these circumstances and now is possibly a teenage mother, again living in poverty and all the stresses associated with that. Often lacking role models of her own, she sees the baby as an incomprehensible bundle of need.  But the cycle can end if this mom is taught how to read her baby’s cues, and ways to respond, help and comfort her child—ways that enable the child to be more socially competent, confident, to make friends, rebound from setbacks, and engage in school.

But what if you’re dealing with a teenager now?  Paul Tough observed Kewauna Lerma in a Chicago school program called One Goal.  This program employs teachers as coaches, too, teaching leadership principles like ambition, resilience, professionalism, and resourcefulness.  Students learn grit, self-control, how to rebound from a setback, and more concrete skills like how to present yourself, network, and ask questions.  The idea is that it’s going to be difficult to make up how far behind this student is in cognitive skills and test scores.  Out of the 128 kids that started the program the same year as Kewauna, 85% are in their sophomore year.  That’s remarkable when you consider that 8% of high school freshman in Chicago get a 4-year college degree.

And it’s not just Chicago schools that need help.  The U.S. used to have a higher percentage of students graduate from college than any other country.  Now we have the highest college dropout rate in the industrialized world.

Heckman’s Conclusion:
Heckman and other educators believe these non-cognitive skills can be taught, making those kids able to seize a better future for themselves.

And this, I think, just changes the way we think about poverty and human opportunity and what can we do to open up more possibilities to more people…I think one of the reasons why people don’t think of this as a possibility is they think these traits are fixed at birth or fixed so early there’s not much we can do about it. 

And I think what we’ve learned is that these human capabilities can be shaped. And as an economist, what I like about it is that it has this possibility of reducing inequality, but not doing it through the standard mechanism of just handing out money and transfers from the rich to the poor. That’s ancient. The idea is you make the poor highly capable. That there really is a possibility of giving people more possibilities. That there really is the chance of improving their capabilities.  And I’m personally very excited by that. And a lot of the evidence comes together, whether it’s neuroscience, psychology, economics. It’s the confluence of these things. There are these happy times in science and social science and knowledge where different strands come together. And I think we’re at such a time.

One Hour Well Spent: NPR Back to School story

I recently spent about an hour listening to a podcast my husband downloaded from NPR’s This American Life.  I was hesitant to “waste” an hour of my time listening to a news story, even one highly recommended by my hubby.  But I’m glad I did.  And so I realize that you, too, might need some convincing.  Because I’d like to strongly recommend this Back to School story to you.

Have you ever had a discussion about standardized testing and the state of education?  If so, it’s likely that you’re either a parent (or family member) or taxpayer, or both.  This topic affects just about everyone.

This American Life’s Back to School news story is refreshingly not a political discourse on policy.

As kids and teachers head back to school, we wanted to turn away from questions about politics and unions and money and all the regular school stuff people argue about, and turn to something more optimistic — an emerging theory about what to teach kids, from Paul Tough’s new book How Children Succeed.

It begins by asking two huge questions:
How much should teachers be evaluated on standardized test scores? Host Ira Glass, a former reporter in Chicago, believes, “Where you stand pretty much comes down to whether you think teachers have a lot of power to raise those scores or not.  Are they lazy, excuse-making quasi-professionals or alternately life-savers…The truth is more complicated.”

And in light of the recent Chicago teachers strike, the question was:
How much could we expect teachers to actually accomplish…with the students they were given?

This story moves the discussion from teachers to focusing on the students in the “achievement gap.”  By looking at research from neuroscience, as well as social sciences like economics and psychology, it details the body of science that explores what a difficult home life can do to the actual biology of the brain of a school kid. The conclusions will excite you and give you hope as you learn the answers to: “What are the determinants of human success?  How fixed are these determinants?  How much can you change them?”

I hope so.  Here’s the link to the full story.

Not convinced, or perhaps short on time?  I’ve compiled some highlights that can paint the picture for you.  This post will cover part 1, The Problem.  Part 2 will cover The Solution.  You can also view the transcript at

What should kids be learning in school?
James Heckman came across the GED in the early 90’s and, as an economist, was amazed at this test.  It basically says that, by passing this test, millions of people’s cognitive skills are just as good as graduates.  But the average study time for the GED is 32 hours whereas the average study time for high school students is 1000 hours per year.  His logical conclusion: “All eighth graders should take the GEDs…instead of going to high school.”  This would save money and time.

This raised some questions in his mind, which led him to devise a study to follow these students into adult life.  After comparing graduates to people with GEDs, he found that those who passed the GED performed significantly lower in life: performance in earnings and occupation, success in college, success in marriage, and even the military.

But what struck Heckman is that this didn’t show up in the test results. Our entire education system is organized around the idea that testing and the kind of smarts that you can measure on a test, are the most important information we could have about a student. That’s how we evaluate whether a school is well-run. There are kids who do better on standardized tests. That’s at the heart of huge policy initiatives, like No Child Left Behind.

So Heckman concluded that these test scores don’t explain the full picture of what measures success.  There are other factors that public policy isn’t accounting for.  Heckman wanted to find these mystery skills.

And specifically, he was interested in finding skills that he could prove, empirically prove, help kids succeed– and succeed in the ways that an economist measure success. Things like how much money do you earn, and do you end up in prison, and are you on welfare? And he then wanted to try to understand how these things could be taught.

So what are these mystery skills?  We turn to Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.  He explains that there isn’t a master list but he gave a few terms and examples: non-cognitive skills, character, soft skills, social skills, and personality traits…they’re a bit hard to define with one word.  Examples would include things like self-control, delaying gratification, resisting impulse, keeping your temper, etc…



A famous example is the Marshmallow test.  Search for this test in YouTube and you’ll be highly entertained as children are given the choice between getting one marshmallow immediately, or 2 marshmallows if they can wait an unspecified amount of time.  The psychology professor at Stanford, Walter Mischel, who conducted the original test in the 60’s found that these kids’ ability to resist temptation as 4 year-olds had huge correlations to their SAT scores and earnings later in life.

Marshmallow test–

Theo has his meltdown at the 3 minute mark of this hilarious video–

Schools teach and test things that are measurable—cognitive skills like reading and math.  While these are important, the overemphasis leaves a large body of non-cognitive skills unaccounted for.

The next post will summarize Paul Tough’s and James Heckman’s solutions.

Mystery: It Does a Brain Good

We all need a little R & R—that is Reading & Relaxation—from time to time.  But I’ve found that my reading choices lately are starting to lose variety.  With busy schedules, I imagine I’m not alone in turning to books for entertainment…that time when I can curl up all cozy, turn off my brain, and escape into a good story.

But I remember a time when reading was where I learned about the world.  It was how I encountered words I didn’t know, and then added them to my own vocabulary.

I went through an especially long MYSTERY phase as a child.

Me and my granny

Me and my Granny

Looking back, I believe this helped me analyze and think about what I was reading.  As a detective, I had to look for clues and pay attention to sequencing.  It was necessary to read between the lines.  If I wanted any chance of solving the mystery, I had to think about characters’ motives, make inferences from what they said and did, notice discrepancies or gaps, and crunch the clues to draw conclusions.  That’s A LOT of critical thinking skills.  But as a kid, I thought I was just reading a great book!

I’ve been working on my own version of a detective story.  It’s a picture book involving Sarge, a German Shepherd, who feels a strong responsibility to watch out for his neighbors.  When suspicious dog behavior is reported, he launches an investigation to get to the bottom of things.  Quite surprised by what he finds, he learns you CAN teach an old dog new tricks.

To improve my story, I’m doing more “research,” which in this case means read and read and read mysteries for all ages.   So I thought I’d pass along the treasures I’m finding.


Hank the Cowdog

Hank the Cowdog Written by former cowboy, John R. Erickson
Interest Level: Grades 2-5, chapter book series
Plot Summary: Solving mysteries on a ranch
With almost 60 books, you’ve hit the jackpot if your 2nd-5th grader likes the first book: The Original Adventures of Hank the Cowdog.  This slightly-paranoid dog takes his self-appointed role as Head of Ranch Security very seriously.  But somehow, he always ends up on the wrong side of things and his owners, Loper and Sally Mae, just don’t understand all his hard work to serve and protect.  But Hank doesn’t let that get to him: “Every dog in this world isn’t cut out for security work.  It requires a keen mind, a thick skin, and a peculiar devotion to duty.  I mean, you put in sixteen-eighteen hours a day.  You’re on call day and night.  Your life is on the line every time you go out on patrol…The very people you’re protecting won’t understand.  They’ll blame you when things go wrong.  But that’s the price of greatness, isn’t it?”

Ace Lacewing Bug Detective

AceLacewing Written by David Biedrzycki
Interest Level: Grades 2-3, picture book
Plot Summary: Ace and his gal Xerces solve mysteries. 
“Bad Bugs Are My Business” reads the sign over Ace’s office. With this Dick Tracy-style character, kids will unravel a mystery in under 2,000 words, while learning a lot about insects in the process.

Detective Little Boy Blue

DetectiveBlue Written by Steve Metzger
Interest Level: Grades K-3
Plot Summary: Detective Blue solves nursery rhyme mysteries.
Boys and girls alike will enjoy spotting all the nursery rhyme characters in this detective story illustrated by Ted Arnold in comic book fashion.  And the ending will come as quite a surprise.  You only thought you knew those well-loved characters…

What REALLY Happened to Humpty?

Humpty Written by Joe Dumpty as told to Jeanie Franz Ransom
Interest Level: Grades K-3
Plot Summary: Humpty’s brother, Joe, is sure that Humpty was pushed.  And he’s on a mission to find out the truth.
This hard-boiled detective story weaves numerous nursery rhyme characters together in a mystery where everyone is a suspect.  Find out the truth behind the cover-up rhyme we’ve all been told.


Piggins Written by Jane Yolen
Interest Level: Grades K-3
Plot Summary: Piggins, the butler, is quite handy at more than just serving dinner.  He saves the day many a time with his attention to detail and observation skills.
This English hero resembles Agatha Christie’s detectives more than the trench coat and fedora-wearing inspectors of the 1940s.  All the detective work happens over a 2-3 page spread, so kids will really be challenged as they try to beat Piggins to the solution.

This was the extent of my library research this last weekend before the holidays.  I’ll leave you with another link that explores mystery books for preschool through ninth grade.  It supplies a wide variety of styles and interests within the genre.

That’s the beauty of mysteries.  Every child can find their interest, whether it’s sports, horror, humor, horses, monsters, fantasy, science, cars, etc…

So encourage your child to try a mystery, and pick up one for yourself, too.

New Year’s Resolution: Part 2

“How can I help my child become a better reader?”  Great question!  Your child’s reading ability affects his learning in other subjects like math, science, social studies, and writing.  In the early elementary years, the focus is on learning to read.  As early as second grade, students begin reading to learn.  Your child reads great authors in order to learn how he can become a better writer.  Your child reads nonfiction to learn about history, people, and the world around her.

ANSWER:  Ask them GOOD questions about their reading to increase comprehension and stimulate critical thinking skills.

If you aren’t sure what I mean by “good,” you’re not alone. Read this excerpt from an article written by Stacia Garland at

We all want our children to use necessary critical thinking skills. Thanks to Bloom’s Taxonomy, parents can help develop and strengthen their child’s thinking skills at home. Unfortunately, teachers and parents are more likely to ask children questions at the Remembering level, which is the lowest level of thinking. This includes questions like: who, what, where, when and why. These types of questions only require children to use memorization in order to respond.

Article in its entirety:

The only reason I know how to ask good questions is because I took classes in order to get my Bachelors in Education!  But don’t worry.  You don’t have to have a teaching degree to glean some simple strategies to help your child today.

Since I taught second grade, I do want to add one thing before I lay out the levels in Bloom’s Taxonomy.  Please don’t SKIP the Remembering level all together.  There is value in asking those reporter questions: who, what, where, when, and why.  And it doesn’t take long.  I even had a RETELL story glove (it was a cotton work glove–$1.50 a pair at Lowes).  Each finger had a different label: characters, setting, problem, events, and solution.

I’d have the child wear the glove (purely for fun) and ask the beginner reader to answer those questions for the story or chapter we’d read.  If he knew the answers, great!  We would move on to the next level.  But what if he didn’t?  This was a good indicator that the child was struggling to decode, remember, or organize in their mind what they were reading.

A struggling decoder is easy to spot, but the “hooked on phonics” type kid can slip through the cracks.  He or she is excellent at decoding and reading aloud, but might not be able to answer a single question about the story.  This totally changes your approach with that child, whether parent or teacher.

So trust me, don’t skip any of the levels, but do adjust how much time you spend on the first level based on your child’s needs.

Now, what are the levels in this taxonomy?  I’m so glad you asked.

  1. Remembering
  2. Understanding
  3. Applying
  4. Analyzing
  5. Evaluating
  6. Creating

Bloom’s Taxonomy:
This link will show you a chart of the 6 levels PLUS key words, model questions, and instructional strategies.  Good news!  The work is already done for you.  You can pluck questions directly from here and engage your child today.  You’ll soon have a feel for your child’s exposure and capacity for critical thinking.

As you listen, be patient because kids get WAY more experience with levels 1-2 in school.  Thankfully, as a 2nd grade teacher, I did not have to administer a standardized test, but I wouldn’t doubt the following quote, from Stacia Garland again, has some truth to it:

Teachers state that with the big push of state testing and the pressure to teach to the test, it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to be able to take their time and teach at a higher level. As a parent you can help your child to use critical thinking skills and work on exercising their mind so that they will be a high level thinker.

The sooner you start this habit of reading with and to your child, the better.  I’ve already shown you the benefits for your child.  But here’s the benefit for you, the parent.  Let’s be honest here.  It is MUCH easier to read a 1000-word picture book with your young child and ask these questions because you’ve just read the book with him.   YOU KNOW THE ANSWERS!

And each day you do this, you are creating a strong foundation of critical thinking skills that your child will carry with her.  She’ll be able to apply this higher-level thinking to other reading because you’ve given her practice, which leads to confidence.

In my guided reading groups, we’d often be reading lengthy chapter books.  Yes, even in second grade—the wonderful fruit of great parents who read with their children.  But the thing was, this meant I had to take home a stack of chapter books each weekend and read the next week’s assignment!  How else could I ask (and know the answers to) these Bloom’s Taxonomy higher-level questions?

And so now your child is reading Magic Tree House or Ivy and Bean, between 5,000 and 10,000 words per book!  Unless you’re going for some Parent of the Year award, I’m guessing you don’t have time to read every book your child reads.  And I know I get uncomfortable asking questions that I don’t know the answer to.

Once you get past the Remember and Understand levels, there ARE no right answers!  We’re talking about higher level thinking here, so you want them to take the information and weigh it, arriving at judgments and conclusions for themselves.

So ask your child to retell the who/what/when/where stuff briefly (summarizing is always a good skill to practice).  And then take a few nuggets from what he says and springboard from there.

What would happen if [cause]…?  What would be the effect?
What do you think the motive was for [character]?
Which seems more appropriate: what [character] did or [character]?
How did [character] try to persuade [character]?
What ideas justify the conclusion?
Propose an alternative.  How else would you…?

Which statements are facts?  Which are opinions?
What’s the relationship between [animal] and [environmental force mentioned]?
How much change would there be if…?
What’s the main idea?

And maybe, once in awhile, curl up with one of the good books your child is reading—10,000 words and all—and enter that world.  You’ll be treated to the sweet conversations that follow between you and your child as you share in their experience.

In my next post, I’ll explore my own reading of late:
What? Mysteries
Why? I’m doing “research” for my dog detective picture book.
How can mysteries help your child? I think these types of stories encourage critical thinking in students of all ages.  I will provide a reading list for you, as well.

Need a New Year’s Resolution? READ to your child.

How about a resolution this year that will change your child’s life? Parents often ask, “How can I help my child become a better reader?”  The answer is two-fold and for this post I’ll address part 1, focusing on the word “reader.”

Answer: Your child must READ!

Set the expectation for your child that he/she will spend at least 20 minutes EACH night reading.  Period.  Read to your child, with your child, in front of your child, etc….

Kind of a no-brainer, right?  Read, so you can become a better reader.  However, schedules are jam-packed, even with good things.  It will take discipline to set aside and protect this time.  But there is just too much research and evidence to ignore the importance of reading daily, no matter the age of your child.

Here are just a few statistics:

  • Of the children who leave third grade reading below grade level, 74% never catch up.
  • Out of every 193 Americans that are in jail, 49% of them read at or below a 9th grade level.
  • Reading just makes “cents”: For every year that a person spends reading (either independently or being read aloud to), his/her lifetime earning potential goes up considerably. For a time investment of approximately 87 hours a year (20 minutes a day for 5 days a week), you can increase your child’s ability to support him or herself in the future considerably.

And it’s never too early to start.  Enjoy this poem from


Read to your children
Twenty minutes a day;
You have the time,
And so do they.

Read while the laundry is in the machine;
Read while dinner cooks;
Tuck a child in the crook of your arm
And reach for the library books.

Hide the remote,
Let the computer games cool,
For one day your child will be off to school;

Remedial? Gifted? You have the choice.
Let them hear their first tales,
In the sound of your voice.

Read in the morning,
Read over noon,
Read by the light of
Goodnight Moon.

Turn the pages together,
Sitting close as you’ll fit,
‘Till a small voice beside you says,
“Hey, don’t quit.”

Author Unknown

Here are a few more links that support starting this habit early to set the stage for future success.

Convinced yet?  “Yes, but how?” you might ask.

So you need help stealing 20 minutes from elsewhere in your schedule?  Here are some good ideas of time-wasters that can be turned into reading opportunities.

This article suggests ways to create a home atmosphere of reading that involves the whole family.

To those of you already doing this…BRAVO!  I’d love to hear your testimonies.  What does your child like to read?  How early did you start?  How do you fit it into your busy schedule?  What are your favorite books to read as an adult (modeling is important)?

My next post will address part 2 in answer to the question: “How can I help my child become a better reader?”   Once you’ve created an expectation for reading, you’re ready to help your child become BETTER at it.

I Would If I Could, But I Can’t So I Shan’t: Fostering Risk-taking in Learning

As a former teacher, one of the hardest things to foster in students was perseverance in problem solving.  Whether it was a math story, logic puzzle, or science experiment, I saw the same thing over and over.  Students want immediate solutions.  Often if they can’t figure out the “right” answer immediately, they give up.

This was even true for my advanced readers and mathematicians.  Interestingly, these students would not only give up, but also be critical of themselves or the activity itself.  I’m not completely unfamiliar with this reaction.  I remember being the same way as a child.  It seems possible to me that those deemed “smart” by others are used to figuring things out quickly.  To be unable to do so is unnerving and uncomfortable.

My solution was to always challenge the students to KEEP WORKING ON THE PROBLEM.  After I assured them repeatedly that there was no mistake in the problem or scenario, they would then attack it from a different angle.  And then another, and another.

Now parents, don’t fret.  I didn’t send your kids away with a “Figure it out yourself and leave me alone” attitude.  They would often sit at my desk and struggle through it, asking me questions intermittently.  I would ask questions back (really annoying at the time, I know) to help them think outside the box, but I absolutely would not give them the answer.

And you know what happened?  They’d figure it out.  And a smile as wide as Texas would spread from ear to ear.  You see—there is something extremely satisfying about delayed gratification and perseverance.  It presents us with an intangible reward: satisfaction and renewed confidence in ourselves.  And perhaps more importantly, the faith to take risks in the future and tackle the “impossible.”

My next posts will detail an often more palatable way to encourage this critical thinking in your child…through reading.  I’ll provide you with a handy tool to help you engage your child in higher-level thinking using pre-made questions from Bloom’s Taxonomy.  I’ll also direct you to Mystery resources for your child including picture books, I Can Read, and chapter books.

Barney Saltzberg = Biggest Surprise

As I wrap up my last post about the Texas Book Festival, it’s important to note that today’s author, while last, is definitely not least.  As a matter of fact, he was the biggest surprise to me.  Since I’m currently working on 2 manuscripts for children’s picture books (ages 4-8), I was “bouncing-in-my-seat happy” to hear from Rob Scotton, Tad Hills, and Philip Yates.

When I read Mr. Saltzberg’s biography, his appearance on the panel didn’t excite me.  I saw he’d written many board books for preschoolers, but had just published his first picture book, Andrew Drew and Drew.


What I thought I really needed was to hear from the other authors who had done what I hope to do.  Surely this guy had nothing to offer me.

But I soon discovered how wrong I was.

Right off the bat, I related to the inspiration for his latest board book, Arlo Needs Glasses

He shared about his 75 pound golden doodle and the dog’s poor catching skills.  Look at Arlo with a bandana…so cute!  My two silly dogs have also inspired the seeds of ideas for my manuscripts.

Then, near the end of the session, each author/illustrator was encouraged to stand by an easel pad and show their method of illustrating.  When it was Barney’s turn, he removed the marker cap and began talking.  And like me, he spoke while gesturing with his hands.  All of a sudden, OOPS, he’d made a stray mark on the paper behind him that he was supposed to use.


This “mistake” was the springboard for him to share his vision for art and his work.

Let me give you some context.  If you’ve ever seen a child with a blank piece of paper, you know what happens when he or she makes a mistake, tears it on accident, or erases too hard and rips the paper.   “I messed up.  I need a new piece.”  And if you don’t immediately comply, the child will either get mad or end up close to tears.  It seems this “broken” piece of paper just will not do.

Barney Saltzberg sees this as a problem and he has helped become part of the solution.

Voila! Rhino-hippo

In Beautiful Oops, his interactive multi-texture and sensory board book, he shows kids the beauty found in the unexpected.

Did you tear your page by mistake?  It’s now the alligator’s mouth.

Did you accidentally spill a paint glob on your page?  Look at that glob for a moment.  What do you see?  Perhaps a puppy or bird shape?

Did you bend your paper?  No problem.  Turn it into the penguin’s face.

The story ends with a lasting message: “When you think you have made a mistake…OOPS…Think of it as an opportunity to make something beautiful.”

This might not sound like a big deal to you, but for me (a struggling perfectionist) it was an attractive reminder.  And as a former elementary teacher, I know many children that also struggle with performance anxiety. Open your mind, relax, and let art happen!

If you’re more of a “I’ll believe it when I see it” kind of person, please enjoy one of these classroom visit videos and watch the kids’ reactions to this adult’s behavior.  Kids LOVE him and you will too!
10-minute version
2-minute version here:

Barney further explores this idea in his next project called 2 + 2 = Banana.  There are no right answers, no ONE and ONLY way to do things when it comes to creative expression.

So at the end of the day, I actually spent more money on Barney Saltzberg’s books—yes, preschool board books—than the other authors.  And yes I did have fun pulling and lifting all the flaps.  It was especially fun to try the variety of glasses on Arlo to help him find the perfect pair.

This author/illustrator is also a musician, frequently creating silly songs on the fly when he’s visiting classrooms.  Listening to him, I was inspired by his open mind and passionate creativity.  He is full of energy, ideas, and (most appealing to me) a freedom to make mistakes and explore those mistakes for potential beauty.

Little kids aren’t the only ones who need to hear that.

Author Links:

Interview about his Dual-Book Tour with 2 different publishers

Crazy Hair Day

Rob Scotton Explains His Inspiration for Splat the Cat Stories

What a pleasure it was for me to meet Rob Scotton at the Texas Book Festival last weekend.  This author from Rutland, England, loves to talk.  But I can assure you that each of us in the audience loved to listen–to his ideas and accent!  His picture books about Splat the Cat are very popular, causing a long book signing line at the festival.

Meet Splat the Cat

Inspiration #1

Listening to Rob speak, I especially found the “insider information” about his inspiration intriguing.  As a fellow writer working on 2 manuscripts of my own, I love hearing how the seeds of ideas get started.  I’ve found that my ideas come from everyday things that happen in life.  Anything can inspire.  Rob’s story is further proof of this.

Rob was running his lawnmower in his backyard one summer day when his eyes spotted this ugly beast on top of his fence. It had bald patches and a clipped ear.  It was his neighbor’s cat.  This particular cat had a habit of attacking Rob when he least expected it.  He kept his eye on the cat as he went back and forth with the lawnmower.  Suddenly, a gust of wind came and the cat teetered precariously.  It then hung in the air briefly before falling from the fence.  Rob thought to himself, “Surely this agile creature will land safely on his feet, as all cats do.”  But when the cat landed not so gracefully on its bum, he heard the word “SPLAT” in his head.  He immediately ran inside, lawn duties forgotten for the moment, and played with the idea of a character, Splat the Cat.

Rob Scotton, author of Splat the Cat picture books

A key element for this artist was finding the look of Splat right from the start.  He needed a cat he could enjoy spending time writing stories.  Rob wanted to keep Splat simple.  As a child, Rob had practiced drawing characters like Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, and Pluto.  These shapes were simple and easy to practice with.  So he designed Splat’s rectangular body with his young audience in mind.

Splat’s rectangular body

And what could be funnier on a chunky body than long skinny “arms” and legs coming off it?

Splat’s skinny “arms” and legs

Next Rob played with various ideas for the eyes, and finally settled on the “wide-eyed” look of the circles close together. This style is similar to Russell the Sheep, a beloved character from his previous picture books.  He also had fun with Splat’s tail, which expresses the character’s mood.

Possible eyes for Splat–rejected

Put it all together, adding belly and tail.

Rob Scotton’s illustrations are created using Painter and Photoshop.  He even has a pressure-sensitive stylus and pad that allows him to create the brushstrokes for Splat’s amazing fur!

I encourage you to meet Splat now at your local library or bookstore.  Then this summer, as “back to school” rolls back around, revisit this story and the Back to School activities below with your child or students.

Inspiration #2

Rob Scotton’s latest book is just in time for Thanksgiving, Splat Says Thank You.  This idea has a totally different origin than the original Splat.

Rob was at a book signing and a little boy stood off to the side.  In between signings, this 6 year old kept asking him questions about his books.  It went something like this:

Boy: You wrote a Halloween Splat book, didn’t you?

Rob: Yes, I did.  Did you like it?

Boy: Yes, I did.

[long pause as Rob signs someone’s book]

Boy: You wrote a Christmas Splat book, didn’t you?

Rob: Yes, I did.  Did you like it?

Boy: Yes, I did.

[another long pause as Rob signs someone’s book]

Boy: You wrote a Valentine Splat book, didn’t you?

Rob: Yes, I did.  Did you like it?

Boy: Not really.

[another long pause as Rob signs someone’s book]

Boy: Are you going to write a Thanksgiving Splat book?  You should.

And this got Rob thinking later.  How would Splat and Thanksgiving relate or link together at all?  Being from England, he tried to focus on the main theme of thankfulness.  What things are we all universally thankful for?  And that led him to thinking of friendship.  A light bulb went off as he realized he could write a Thanksgiving Splat book where Splat was thankful for his best friend, Seymour.  This would also be a great time to write the two friends’ backstory of how they met and why they’re such good friends.

Parents and Teachers

This writer’s inspiration is a great example for your own young authors.  Sharing the “behind the scenes” of how published authors get their ideas can encourage your child to look around with “author eyes.”  Settings like the lunchroom, playground, and their own backyard can spark an idea for a character, setting, or plot.

Leave a comment if you decide to check Splat out for yourself. 🙂

Rob Scotton’s Website:

UN-Happy Halloween for Author stuck in Austin

It was such a pleasure to meet and listen to Tad Hills this weekend at the Texas Book Festival. I was sad to see on his Facebook page after the festival:“Stuck in Austin TX for I don’t know how long. My only other option at this point is to fly to Chattanooga then train to Richmond and sail up the coast to Brooklyn.”

He lives in Brooklyn, NY, but Hurricane Sandy has stranded him here in Austin. This is especially sad since he might miss Halloween, his favorite holiday, with his kids. Each year he designs elaborate costumes for them. Visit his website to view masterpieces ranging from buildings (Leaning Tower of Pisa, Eiffel Tower) to a furry monster that has iPhones playing a moving and blinking eyeballs video loop!

UPDATE: On 10/30 at 10:45 a.m. Eastern, Tad Hills posted: “They [My wife and kids] are fine. We are very lucky. They are safe and the house is dry.  But surrounded by so much damage.” 

From costumes to acting, sculpting, or writing and illustrating, this man is an all-around artist who views each of these expressions similarly. He feels you create each in a similar way, adding and cutting to shape the end product.  This author/illustrator began writing touch and feel board books, but is best known for his Duck and Goose picture books, as well as his latest two stories about a dog named Rocket who learns to read and write.



Tad Hills shows how to draw Duck at the Texas Book Festival.
I was in the front row and he was 3 feet from me!


Tad Hills at the Texas Book Festival introducing his latest Rocket story, Rocket Writes a Story.

In Rocket Writes a Story, I was immediately delighted with the authenticity of the writing process Rocket goes through.  For parents, this book provides ideas of your role in helping your child love writing: encourage him; give her time and space for inspiration; listen as he reads aloud his progress; ask her questions. I would add to this list–ask her tell you stories verbally. “Storytelling” is a great pre-writing activity because kids love to talk. Revising as you go is simple when no paper or pencil is involved.  As a former teacher, I would have loved to share this story as a model for how authors really write. Writing a story is not a canned task where you:

1) sit down with paper and pencil,

2) write a good story, and

3) get up and say VOILA!

It is a process that is exciting and frustrating, fast and slow all at different stages. You need time, space, inspiration, and support from others. My favorite lines in the book are:

“He wrote words down and crossed words out.  When things were going well, he wagged his tail.  When he didn’t know what to write, he growled.”

And writing impacts those around us. Rocket experiences each of these elements on his writing journey.

Writing Mini-lesson using Children’s Literature:

In the classroom, have students brainstorm the things they do and need in order to write a story. List these ideas on chart paper. Make sure they don’t leave anything out. Then read Rocket Writes a Story. Have students list the things Rocket used and did in his writing process. Compare the two lists. “Can you add any of his tools to your process?” This should facilitate an encouraging discussion about ideas and their development. Then, as a fun treat, show them the picture of the real Rocket that inspired Tad Hills (


Personally, this story strikes a chord because it’s been about a year now of me nursing 2 manuscripts of my own. My two ideas (a fairy tale and a dog detective story) look radically different than when I began.  I, too, have needed breaks, inspiration, peers, encouragement and feedback, time and space.  And of course, my great dogs also originally inspired me.

I hope you’ll take time to introduce Rocket to your children or students. He’s a model reader and writer!

Author Interview Links: