Category Archives: Uncategorized

Report Cards are Here

I hope everyone had a wonderful Winter Break.  Now it’s time to get back to work!  For Round Rock ISD, report cards come out this week.  Does your child need a little extra help in 2014?  Not sure tutoring is worth the cost in time and money?  If so, I’d love to meet with you, even talk with his or her teachers, to discern ways I can help.  I’d be glad to have you try one free session just to see if I am a good fit for your child.

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.

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.

Pirate Obsession, Perhaps?

I don’t know about your kids, but my best friend’s little ones are obsessed with pirates.  And have been for the last 2 years.  That’s saying a lot since the twins are 4 1/2 and their younger brother is 2 1/2 years old.  “Doubloons” and “Arrrggh” might even have been his first words!  Just to prove it, here are 2 adorable pictures taken on this very Halloween night of 2012.

It’s not just kids…my sister-in-law has been obsessed with pirates ever since Pirates of the Caribbean came out.  Wait, hers is actually a Johnny Depp obsession.  Never mind.

But really, I have to agree with Philip Yates, a local Austin author, who explains his own fascination with pirates and his inspiration for his two picture books, A Pirate’s Night Before Christmas and A Pirate’s Twelve Days of Christmas.

“Who didn’t dream of being a pirate when they were a kid? It’s a dream-come-true for a child. No parents hanging around, stay up as long as you wanted to, dig for buried treasure on the weekends, don’t worry about brushing your teeth, capture and burn ships, kidnap men and women and make them walk the plank. Look at Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and their overwhelming desire to be pirates. It’s the ultimate kid fantasy.”  [full interview found at]

Philip Yates at the Texas Book Festival
in Austin on Oct. 27, 2012.

By asking himself questions, Philip Yates created a new take on two well-loved Christmas poems.

“What would a pirate ask for at Christmas? Well, a plank, of course. How would pirates celebrate Christmas? Surely they would not be visited by St. Nicholas, no, not these robbers and murderers, unless he left coal in their stockings. The idea continued to haunt me until I came up with the solution that if pirates were to celebrate their own Christmas, they had to have their very own pirate Santa Claus and that’s when Sir Peggedy was born.”

This buccaneer spent the majority of his time researching pirate history, the parts of the ship, and more. “I also wanted the language to be authentic in every way, so that when you read it out loud, you would sound like a pirate.”

And every parent knows how important that is, especially on September 19th each year.

If pirates don’t float your boat, Philip’s humor will.  It’s no surprise that he actually got his start writing joke books.  After co-writing nearly 10 joke books in 8 years, he then wrote his debut picture book called 10 Little Mummies. This counting book is jam-packed with silly explorations inspired by his mummy riddles:

“What do you do when a mummy rolls his eyes at you? You roll them right back.”
“What kind of underwear do mummies wear? Fruit of the Tomb.”
[full interview at]

Always on the lookout for ideas around him, Philip tells of the inspiration for his next picture book.  It’s based on a seemingly irreverent statement he overhead at an Austin public library.

“A little girl came into the library once and told her mom, ‘I love you so much I want to throw up.’ I thought this was hilarious and touching because a moment later the girl hugged her mom and added, ‘Throw up my arms and hug you and kiss you.’ This later became a picture book about how much a child can love a parent or guardian.”

You know the drill.  Halloween’s over now, so Christmas will soon be upon us (if not already in a store near you). So get out there and purchase two special pirate poem Christmas books for your own buccaneers.  I already got my autographed copy for my best friend’s 3 pirates.

Author Interview Links:

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:

Back with a Bang

I’ve just returned from the Texas Book Festival and I am pumped up!  This free event is located on and around the capitol building in downtown Austin.  While there, I got to meet some very cool children’s book authors.  I was even able to ask them, one-on-one, a few questions I have as a new writer with my own manuscript in the works.  So, for the last few hours I have been singing the refrain “Now I’ve had the time of my life.”  And that’s when I thought of you.  I’d love to share some insights these authors revealed about their characters and inspiration.  As an avid reader, those details further endear to me a story or character I already love.

The next four posts for this week (and I promise to do my best to get them out this week while it’s fresh on my mind) are: DRUMROLL, please…………….

Tad Hills, author of Rocket the Dog stories

Philip Yates, author of 2 pirate Christmas-themed books

Barney Saltzberg, author of books for pre-school children

Rob Scotton, author of Splat the Cat books

Left to right: Moderator, Suzanne Wofford; Author, Tad Hills; Author, Philip Yates; Author, Barney Saltzberg; Author, Rob Scotton

More photos and stories to come–hope you’ll join me.

1st Grade

Thank you to  all 10 first grade classes that allowed me to come and read to your kids.  It was very helpful and I’ve been able to revise many things in my RUFF draft based on your students’ responses.  Please enjoy the pictures below and don’t forget to click on the image to view in the full screen gallery.

Mrs. Tran’s Class

Elley’s Story

Ms. Morrow’s Class


Monday and Wednesday I had the pleasure of reading to 9 different Kindergarten classes.  They were so sweet and I was pleased to see how well they understood the plot and enjoyed the characters.  I especially was excited at how many went home and were inspired to take a small moment of their own and turn it into a story.  These budding authors make me proud!  Some even wrote a sentence and labels to go with the picture.  View their illustrations below and don’t forget to click on an illustration to view in a full-screen gallery.

Mrs. Stroh’s Class

Ms. Campbell’s Class

Mrs. Satterwhite’s Class

Ms. Gaskamp’s Class

Ms. Elder’s Class

2nd Grade

This Friday the thirteenth was a lucky day for me.  I got to spend the morning with 2nd grade classes, sharing my love for reading and writing.  A stellar audience, I went home energized and ready to revise.  I added a little of this and that…took away a word here and there.  I was a cook perfecting her recipe!

Take a look at the following illustrations these artists created based on my story, Not Your Ordinary Pet Detective (NYoPD): The Case of the Staring Contest.  Be sure to click on an image to open the gallery in full screen.

Mr. Gray’s Class

Mrs. McCarthy’s Class

Mrs. Bryant’s Class

Mrs. Baker’s Class


Patsy Sommer Elementary Drawing

Thank you for letting me visit your school. I enjoyed reading my dog stories to each of the kindergarten, first, and second grade classes. You were a fabulous audience and an inspiration. I hope I also inspired you to use your author’s eyes and see the small moments that happen to you every day. They are just waiting for you to turn them into good great stories. I would love to hear from you. And just to prove it, I’m going to have a drawing.

NOTE: Put your FIRST NAME, GRADE, and TEACHER on anything you write, draw, or type. “No names” get no prizes.

How Do I Get My Name In The Drawing?

  1. Draw a picture to go with my dog story. Give it to your teacher and I will publish it in a gallery on this website. (Picture gets your name in the hat one time.)
  2. Leave a comment here on my website. Did you think of a different ending for my story? Do you want to see anything taken out or added? Revising is the key to making a good story GREAT! You should see some of my earlier “RUFF” drafts. Yikes—not good at all! (Each comment gets your name in the hat one time.)
  3. Did I inspire you to write a small moment of your own? If so, write that story at home and post it to the comment section of this website or email it to me at the email address you were given at school . (A story gets your name in the hat five times!)

I will hold the Patsy Sommer Elementary Drawing on Tuesday morning, April 24. Winners will receive their prizes at school at the end of that day. The total number of winners will depend on the amount of participation.

NOTE: Put your FIRST NAME, GRADE, and TEACHER on anything you write, draw, or type. “No names” get no prizes.

Be sure to have your parent help you use a computer to enter the drawing.  While you are here, take a look at Bear and Jordan’s biographies, too.  They each wrote a little about themselves.