Monday, October 3, 2016


A few of our cherubs. 
"But what'll we do for our Three-Peats?"

"We'll take 'em to Chatham! All we need is us and a bus." 

"Okay, when you just said 'us and a bus,' I started to get choked up. That's perfect."

Five years ago we wondered if the administration would let us take our readers to see a movie. This year, we sought permission to take 58 middle-schoolers to Chatham, Massachusetts.

And they said yes.

Chatham, a quaint, touristy beach town nestled on the Atlantic coast was the setting for The Finest Hours, the real-life story of the most daring rescue in US Coast Guard history...and it is less than a two-hour drive from our middle school. Sometimes life hands you a gift and you need to smile and accept it with gratitude. We Crazy Reading Ladies knew what we had to do.
One of the best days, period.
Kids remember the wonderful stuff. In their time at HMMS, our 8th graders had watched Three-Peats attend the Boston premiere of Divergent and have their very own luau in honor of Unbroken's Louie Zamperini. Now it was their turn.

Waiting to climb the lighthouse.
Crafting a special experience for our Three-Peats has - very quickly - shot to the top of our yearly to-do list. We need to honor the kids who stuck with us for three years. We need to validate the 8th graders who deemed reading a book worthy of their time and social risk. We need to celebrate their success and show them what they mean to us. This year yielded fifty-eight Three-Peats. We were ridiculously excited to plan this for them and managed to keep it under wraps for months.

Though the trip itself was a surprise, the kids knew something big was coming. In our school "Three-Peat" is part of the kids' vernacular. Bestowed on the 8th graders who have gone All In! each year of middle school, it's a title which many strive to attain - some even set it as a personal goal from the time they enter our building and step into the midst of our crazy. Occasionally, when we walk the halls of our neighboring elementary school, kids will stop us and say things like, "I can't wait to go All In!" or "My brother is a Three-Peat! And I'm gonna be just like him!" Our kids deserved this.

So on May 20, we loaded a bus and took 'em to Chatham.

The weather was picture-perfect summer-gorgeous. We visited the Atwood House and Chatham Historical Society where we became the very first to view the Rescue of the Pendelton exhibit, made especially to commemorate the events surrounding The Finest Hours.

We marveled at a three-hundred year-old house, viewed collections of seashells and pottery, and fingered shoes and dresses worn centuries ago - by obscenely tiny women.

We picnicked on the beach, where the sight of 58 teens tossing their shoes aside and racing to the ocean made tears fall silently behind our CRL sunglasses. We watched kids skip rocks, turn cartwheels, and play football. We saw them take selfies and examine crab shells and write "All In!" in the sand.
Three-Peats hit the beach in Chatham.
We pointed out the Chatham bar where, in the middle of a nor'easter sixty-four years earlier, Bernie Webber and his crew braved the breaking waves and rocky terrain to cross into the open ocean and save those stranded aboard the lifeless Pendelton.
"36500 this is station Chatham, do you read me?"
Don St. Pierre - keeper of CG36500 - came to meet our kids.

We visited the US Coast Guard station and touched the walls and walked the floors where the real heroes had lived and breathed and worked. We climbed the lighthouse steps, conquering fears and feeling - if only for a moment - like we were at the top of the world.

There she is! CG36500.
And we saw the boat. Through a beautiful twist of fate - perhaps we have Bernie himself to thank - the CG36500 was in Chatham that day getting a new coat of paint for her upcoming summer outings on the Cape. We spoke to men whose names and faces we recognized from the book and let our hands hear the story again as we walked around the boat. For real.

To our Three-Peats: we love you.
It was one of those days spent in celebration of good. There was magic and joy and laughter everywhere we turned that day. And it was another for which we had no words. Without verbalizing it, we both felt like there was so much wrapped up in that day. Another year, our fifth successful All In!, Mary's new administrative position, and the sight of her daughter taking her place among the Three-Peats.

After a year filled with so much change, it was beautiful to know that some things stay the same. We wiggled our toes in the sand and looked around. The Crazy Reading Ladies aren't going anywhere. We'll always have each other. As long as we have our kids and a good book - as long as we have us and a bus - we'll all be okay.

Sunday, July 10, 2016


  The International Literacy Association conference is in Boston this year, something that made us squeal with excitement last year. There's just something fun about playing host to thousands upon thousands of book lovers. 

We arrived yesterday mid-morning and, after locating the rooms for our various sessions and checking out the technology set up (2 years running of last-minute tech disasters makes a CRL a little twitchy...) we hit the exhibit floor. After reuniting with a lifelong friend, meeting a woman with whom we've exchanged dozens of emails, and meeting Snuffy, Mary sighed to Erin, "I love it here."

More than once yesterday we found ourselves explaining: during the rest of the year, we're excited. We're giddy and wound up and overwhelming. But we're always a little bit off. When the world around you doesn't respond to life with the same level of enthusiasm, you sorta feel like there's something wrong with you. But then we get here. These are our peeps. This is our tribe. And everything slides into place and we feel like we belong. 

Tricking out the badge in true CRL style. 

Have you met Snuffy!? She's got a great story to tell!

Ruta Sepetys. Play it cool. Stay calm. 

Dan Buyea!! Hmmmm...what's that box?! And Tad Hills! 

Bein' classy with Renee Ahdieh

Sigh. We love it here. 

Friday, July 1, 2016

You Told Me

We have a tradition at our school. Each 8th grader writes down something a middle school teacher said - a piece of information, an encouraging word, an inside joke - that has stuck with them. We compile the images, throw in some pan and zoom effects, add some music, and show it to a packed, already-weepy auditorium the night of 8th grade Promotion; the kids enjoy making it, and the teachers and parents love seeing it.

We call it "You Told Me."

Our inspiration came several years ago when we sat in on one of Darren Kuropatwa's sessions at the BLC conference in Boston. It spoke to the power of words and how - good or bad - we have a keen memory for how someone made us feel at a particular moment in time.

It's fascinating to watch the students think about their moment. Some of them make us laugh out loud, some make us cry, others require explanation (one of our colleagues apparently confessed how much she loved eggplants, and more than one child chose that as their middle school memory a full year later!) What comes together is a patchwork as brilliantly diverse as the children we teach. It's incredibly, beautifully, awesome.

The book that brought us together
This year, as we gathered the images, one in particular caught our eye. She's one of our beloved All In! cherubs, and when we saw her photo we gasped. Given over 500 days of instruction, and three years' worth of memories, she picked the moment we asked her about a book.

She is not a dormant reader by any means, nor does she struggle with reading. She's  a voracious reader - a girl who goes through multiple books a week and with whom a conversation can always begin with "Whatcha readin'?"  During one such conversation she answered with a familiar title, and we immediately started talking in the way all book lovers are familiar: "Oh, I LOVED that book!" "How far have you gotten? What do you think!?""We HAVE to talk about it!"  A few email exchanges with her mother, and we met our girl at Panera for muffins, hot chocolate, and an hour of wonderful conversation.

If we needed anymore proof that books are the way to build relationships with children, she just told us.  Her middle school memory came from the moment she realized that books have power to bring people together. It was the moment she felt validated. It was also the moment two Crazy Reading Ladies swarmed her desk during homeroom, but hey! She was reading a fabulous book!

We got another reminder later that same week as we welcomed our new recruits - the 5th graders who will come together as the Class of 2023 and will begin middle school this September. Giving tours to the newbies that day were sixteen superlative 8th graders. Before we let them loose to visit classrooms, one of the tour-guides approached Erin and said, "I remember when I came to visit in fifth grade. You asked me about my favorite book and I told you I had just read The Hunger Games. You told me you loved me already!"

It was a conversation that hadn't registered with Erin; a quick and friendly exchange that teachers can and do have multiple times a day.  But for this young lady, it was an important memory: her first impression of middle school.  Once again, The Crazy Reading Ladies come face-to-face with the power of books for building relationships.  We opined about it in this post; we preach it in our conference presentations: books bring us together. They provide generation-gap-bridging topics of conversation, transport us to different places and times to give us common experiences and friends, they are the things nervous 5th graders, reflective 14 year olds, and giddy reading teachers have in common. These are things we know, believe, and proselytize.  But when it comes from the mouths of our students, it has so much more power.

As teachers, if we really consider how incredibly powerful our words are each and every day, it's paralyzing. There's the possibility a child will remember exactly what we said to him and then carry it the rest of his life. It's an incredible honor. And it's damn scary.  But when we talk about books, we aren't paralyzed by the overwhelming power.  We can put our fears aside and just talk, just BE with these kids, authentic and real. And that's what they'll remember.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Finest Hours

Inside the box: the title for Year 5.
Every year we find ourselves singing the same old tune - time is positively flying by. But seriously, how is it June? This year seems to be marching to an allegro all its own. We could spend an entire post telling you how many sticky notes fill our respective desks, how many times we'd send each other a quick text that says simply, "That's a blog post!" or how often BLOG! appears on weekend to-do lists.

So now it's the end of June, and it has somehow been way too long since we've posted an update. So we'll take our first step. And instead of listing all of the blog-worthy events of the last few months, we're going to start with one.

Stealing moments to read.
It's fitting that our title for Year 5 was The Finest Hours; we couldn't think of a better tag if we tried.

Even though we had settled in to our CRL-groove and felt pretty awesome about our fifth iteration, this year will perhaps be remembered for its extraordinary firsts.
  • This was the first time we let the students pick the title.
  • This was the first time we held a Barnes and Noble book fair, helping us fund our field trip.
  • This was the first time Mary was at the helm as a CRL 2.0, having accepted the position of Assistant Principal (!!!!) in December, the very week All In! 2016 was launched.
  • This was the first time our new Principal experienced All In!
  • The book that spread like wildfire.
  • This was the first time we cracked 300 student readers, resulting in our biggest turnout EVER.
  • This was the first time the author of the book contacted us and insisted on a visit, which led to the planning of a massive assembly in celebration of both the book and its real-life heroes. 

We hope you forgive us for our hiatus. We promise - we haven't gone anywhere! We are here to offer you the same kind of crazy we always have, to share our insights, thrills, and failures, and document our literary shenanigans. And we invite you to stick with us as we delve a little deeper into All In! Year 5: The Finest Hours.  Stay tuned...lots more CRL to come!
Our Literary Leader revealed the book live on the morning news.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

A Title for Year 5

All In! is five years old.

What started as "The Hunger Games Book Club" - fun fact, all of our documents are saved under that original name - morphed into the "School-wide Read," then became the educational non-profit All In!, and now here we are. We are so proud of our journey, and the five year mark feels momentous.
Students filled a banner with their guesses back in October.

Before we knew anything about this year, before we considered one title, before we wrote a single idea down on paper, we knew we wanted this year to be memorable. We wanted to mark the milestone. Five years! We have a lot to celebrate.

Truth be told, we started thinking about titles a year ago. There's no real starting date for us, we just constantly read and constantly talk. And somewhere along the line, things just click and an All In! title is discovered. For the last four years, it has been that simple.

This year was different. Nothing was clicking. We read all summer long and couldn't settle on a book. There were a few good ones, but nothing was great. We didn't LOVE anything. For the first time, we started the school year without having a title in mind.
This year, our kids waited longer than ever for the reveal.
But here's the crazy thing - we didn't panic. We knew a title and a plan would come to us. And we knew we were going to make it awesome.

We have several "unspokens" between us. One of them is that we are a literacy initiative. We choose books that we love. We choose books that get kids reading. And at this stage, we are confident that we can get students to buy-in even without a movie. We've earned their trust. As long as there is a field trip - and only readers get to go - we can sell it to our kids.

One idea that sort of came and went was the idea of student choice. Several people had mentioned it to us over the years and for one reason or another, we always left it on the table and went in another direction. It never felt right. This year, it fit. We couldn't decide on a title, so why not let the kids pick it?

Since we had the serendipitous tie-in of the election cycle we decided to (wait for it...) go all in. The book for All In! 2016 would be chosen by our students.

In late November, we aired this promo, which put our already desperate children over the edge. We'll put it up against any political ad out there.

Coming up, we'll tell you all about our campaign, debate, and election process - which featured not a single hanging chad.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Extreme Library Makeover: Part 1

Seventeen months ago we came home from ILA 2014 and bounced into our Principal's office.

"We went to this session, and this woman took her school's underused library and turned it into a literary cafe. And there are comfy chairs! And colors! And books on display! And can we do this? We can totally do this! Let's DO THIS!"

He smiled, and nodded, and - we're pretty sure - pressed that magic button which summoned the secretary to rescue him with some sort of emergency phone call.

"The answer is yes, but not yet. Put it on your radar for next year."

So the CRL did something we hardly ever do: we waited.

Before: Kids love rows! Not.
We have a gorgeous library. It's located on the second floor of our recently-renovated building and boasts high ceilings, carpeted floors, and lots of windows. The only thing that's missing is a librarian. And students. Like so many school districts, our town eliminated the librarian position years ago. In place of a full-time librarian is an overworked and underpaid EA who must split her time between our middle school and the elementary school next door. This year, our middles have access to the library exactly one period a week.

Our design - and it worked!
Over the years, the CRL have done their best to fill the gap and keep good books in the hands of our children. Erin's room became a mini-library where students would come to browse for books. Mary's room served as the annex next door - if Erin didn't have a book, Mary usually did. It wasn't unusual for kids to walk in while we were teaching, find what they were looking for, and silently sign it out.

Meanwhile, our *actual* library became a lot of things it was never intended to be: a warehouse, an A/V storage closet, a museum, and a faculty meeting area. Our 500 students knew it primarily as That Room We Walk Through to Get to the Computer Lab.

This was not okay.
One word: Weeding.

Summer of 2015, it was Go Time and we were thrilled with the opportunity. Not only would we reinvigorate the library, we'd address a few other pressing issues, namely:

1 - Erin's need for classroom space
2 - Mary's need for hours for her administrator's license

Such a good egg!
We had visions of spending a few fun-filled hours in the library then heading out for al fresco lunches. We'll have all afternoon to hang out at the pool! We'll take Friday off! It'll be done in a week, we thought. 10-15 hours, tops.

*cue maniacal laughter*

This one was in Beast-Mode.
This thing was like an onion - an out-dated, emotionally-charged, allergen-filled onion - containing more layers than we care to remember. More than once we looked at each other and silently - okay, not so silently - acknowledged how far over our heads we actually were; but there was no choice other than to just keep swimming. We did research on the fly, discovering long-forgotten policies and steps to the process we never even knew existed. It was a summer spent taking two steps forward and one step back.

We got to the pool twice. Mary's children spent some serious bonding time with our library scanning system. Her 3rd grader boasts newly-developed pecs after loading and unloading carts. As for hours, we stopped counting after one hundred.
CRL - with power tools!

Pretty purple ones!
This past August, we spent each and every morning in our school library in the hopes of transforming it into a book-filled sanctuary worthy of our extraordinary kiddos.

Though school opened without the project being complete, we are extremely proud of our work-in-progress and the kids are already excited. More than once, a student has come up the stairs and gasped "Oh! It looks so GOOD! Thank you!!!"
They look at a space with half-filled shelves. They see spartan wooden chairs where - we hope - comfy beanbags will someday reside. And still they see beauty. Kids curl up on the bare floor, finding the nooks we created just for them. And that's more than enough to keep us going.
New configuration
This summer, we managed to weed the entire non-fiction collection, rearrange the shelving, and carve out a classroom. Just yesterday, we placed a furniture wishlist in the hands of our Principal.
In our next post, we'll outline the steps we followed in case any of you are clinically insane find yourselves inspired to do the same.
- Mary and Erin

Friday, September 18, 2015

Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me a Match

This summer Erin and I were privileged to spend a day absorbing independent reading teaching strategies from Donalyn Miller at the Scholastic Reading Summit in Boston.  We were there to "assist," but we did little more than provide a cheesy introduction.  In reality, we were happily soaking up the positivity and enthusiasm that comes from having a high concentrate of literary professionals in a small space.

Donalyn, author of The  Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild, inspired me to change the way I approach reading in the middle school classroom.  I thought about how I taught novels, what my independent reading requirements were, and I threw my old models out the window.  I can't tell you how my new novel plan worked - I plan to start it in two weeks - but I can report that the new independent reading model is already a smashing success. 

On day three of the new school year, I gave my 8th graders a reading interest survey.  They were asked if they identified themselves as "a reader," the last book they read and loved, what gets in the way of reading, and genres they preferred.  I spent Labor Day weekend pouring over student reading preferences and attitudes, and played match-maker, setting kids up on dates the books I thought best complimented their reading profile.

 Some students were easy to match.  They liked a wide range of genres and provided detailed insight into their reading psyche.  Others presented more of a challenge; these kids didn't have a history of positive relationships with books.  They did not categorize themselves as readers and their genre preferences were more narrow.  These readers (Donalyn taught me to call them developing or dormant, not struggling or reluctant) are the ones I had to work the hardest to please, and the ones for whom the matchmaker system works best. 

These are the kids who wrote comments claiming they didn't like to read.  And I think, too often, parents and teachers took them at face value and believed them.  But that buck stops here.  When faced with a child who claimed to not like reading, I simply told them their words were translated in my brain as, "I haven't found the right book yet."

The actual match making process was time consuming.  I devoted two full class periods to it.  I prepared a review activity for small groups to complete.  While they did, I walked from table to table with stacks of books I'd curated for them based on their survey.  One by one I sat next to each student and explained my choices.  "Because you said you like mystery, I pulled an Agatha Christie book.  Have you ever heard of her?"  "Because you said you hated reading but identified historical fiction as a genre you like, I brought you a graphic novel about the Donner Party.  Have you ever heard of them?"  In this way I had conversations with each student in the class over the course of two days.  Each student was presented with a minimum of three books.  Each books was the subject of a mini-book talk - no more than 60 seconds apiece - and students were given the option to pick a book or say they'd like new choices.

A handful of students, five to be precise, proved to be challenging.  Those five either outright rejected their offerings or returned minutes later to say they tried a book but didn't like it.  One boy identified himself as a lover of non-fiction and action adventure but rejected every exciting non-fiction read he was offered.  Chasing Lincoln's Killer?  Sounds boring.  Into Thin Air?  Nah.  Revenge of the Whale?
Nope.  Eventually, after thirty minutes of excruciating patience (I forced myself to remain calm.  I had to make sure that their book selection experience was positive and stress free.  Thankfully this encounter happened at the end of the school day.  Otherwise, I might have cracked), I asked him to define non-fiction.  Turns out, he had switched the definition of non-fiction and fiction.  He left with Soldier Boys, a happy camper.

One young lady claimed to like "old books," and reported reading and loving Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.  So I presented her with a varied mix of Jodi Picoult, Agatha Christie, and Carl Hiaasan.  She took Murder on the Orient Express but returned on Matchmaking Day Two to say she didn't like it.  I book talked two other YA titles.  She tried them both, blessing neither with approval.  Finally I took a desperate shot in the dark and asked, "Have you ever read Hatchet?"  And that's the one that stuck.

But for every child who put me through my paces, there was one who finished their book in one night.  I was thrilled to pieces when a student who claimed to "really dislike reading" read Smile in one night and asked to borrow Sisters and Drama for the weekend.  Thank you, Raina Telgemeier, for helping me reach this girl.

Before leaving for the weekend, a colleague told me that the kids were loving the books I recommended.  I replied that I was happy to hear that, and she said, "What they really loved is that YOU recommended them.  The kids told me, 'She picked this out just for me.'"

Until that moment, I hadn't thought about book matchmaking as a tool for relationship building, but now it seems blindingly obvious.  By giving three or four book talks to each individual child in my classes, I was able to give each one several minutes of undivided, one-on-one attention.  Think of that...several minutes of eye contact, story telling, smiling, and give and take conversation.  I'd completely overlooked how powerful that was going to be, not just for the kids, but for me.  I feel like I *know* my students so much better now.  I know that Thomas is on book four of the Charlie Higson books and Chris loves Harry Potter, that Shannon "hates to read" but loves S.E. Hinton, that Chloe reads slowly but loves a good horror story.  If you'd asked me last year after 7 days of teaching if I could name one thing about each of my students, I'd be lucky to get 50%.  And now?  I think I have a better start on the school year than I have in a long, long time.

Maybe it's a little early to celebrate.  It is only day 7 of the new year, after all.  But I can't help but feel optimistic.  I mean, just LOOK at them!