Category Archives: Uncategorized

Best Books of 2019

2019 feels a little bit like a blur to me. In early 2019, our daughter had just turned one, we were in our new house after living with my parents for 4 months, and only five months into our move from Brooklyn. Now at the end, we are feeling more settled and more at home, but still learning the ropes of suburban living.

The biggest change in my reading life this year was audio books. I used to read a lot on the subway in New York, and I felt this gap in my reading volume. Last year I started listening to middle grade audio books to get caught up in that genre for my work. To be honest, I was initially intimidated by the length of even young adult books. But a teacher book club was reading The Silent Patient (an excellent psychological thriller) and I decided to give full length audio books a try. I loved it. Now I listen while I clean, while I work, and of course while I drive. (They’ve also helped me not go nuts on listening to too many political podcasts!)

Here are my top books of 2019, in order that I read them, including some young adult that I think are worthwhile reading for anyone.

Becoming by Michelle Obama: This was the first book I read in 2019. I thought it would be something I read over the course of a few weeks, but I finished it in 3 days, and missed it in the days following. I’ve long looked up to Michelle Obama, and her insights in this book only deepened my appreciation of her.

Refugee by Allan Gratz: It seemed that every student in my building wanted to read this book. After I finished the (incredible) audiobook, I knew why. It follows 3 different refugee children from different historical periods. A must read.

Pride by Idi Zoboi: Another YA novel I listened to, this is an updated Pride and Prejudice set in Brooklyn. I enjoyed not only the Pride and Prejudice connections, but the brilliant commentary. I was able to hear Idi Zoboi speak this year at NCTE, which made me love her writing even more.

The Course of Love by Alain de Botton: This was the book one of my best friends said I had to read and immediately discuss with her. It was hands-down the most thought provoking and unique book I read all year.

Salt Houses by Hala Alyan: This was recommended by an NYC bookseller and offered a window into multiple generations of a family uprooted by war in Palestine. Fascinating and heartbreaking.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong: I read this in New York City over the summer, finishing it in one of my favorite parks. Gut wrenching and beautifully crafted. I went on to buy one of Vuong’s poetry collections and read it in one sitting on my flight home.

Cracks in our Armor by Anna Gavalda: I’ve long been a fan of Anna Gavalda’s work. Her short stories in this collection were filled with her signature complex, interesting characters.

The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin: This was another audio book I got completely caught up in on my commutes home. The story of a family over a lifetime, as narrated by the youngest daughter, a poet, as an old woman.

The Woman in the Window by AJ Finn: I love a good mystery, and this one caught me with twists and also contained social commentary about the way society views the credibility of women.

A Step Toward Falling by Cammie McGovern: This is a young adult book recommended by a colleague. What I loved most was the voices of the characters: they didn’t sound like miniature adults. Two high school students separately saw a special needs student being assaulted as became paralyzed as bystanders. The book explores how they wrestle with their inaction, and we also hear from the student who was assaulted as well.

First books on deck for 2020

I’d love to hear your favorites of 2019. What’s on deck for you?

One School’s Journey to Write More Impactful IEP Goals

Thank you for spending some time with us! Sue Umpleby is a literacy consultant, who is a retired teacher from a public school in Columbus, Ohio, where she was an intervention specialist for 35 years, and teacher- leader. Kristen Robbins Warren is a literacy coach in central Ohio, who studied to be a literacy specialist at Teachers College and taught middle school language arts at a public school in Brooklyn, New York for 14 years, including 7 years of inclusion as the general education teacher. For context, both of us are experienced in the reading and writing workshop model and have studied the work of the TCRWP extensively. We are in the process of creating a blog for passionate literacy teachers (see our new twitter handle below to get updates), but for now we are temporarily posting on Kristen’s blog about books. Welcome!

The Big Question: How can we write IEP Goals that support

One question Intervention teachers grapple with is this: “How can I write IEP Goals and objectives that create a clear focus and enable the student to benefit from being included in writing workshop?” In January, we began working with a group of dedicated middle school intervention teachers who were finding the reality of what happened daily in the inclusion writing workshop and the goals and objectives written annually on the IEP just didn’t align. Often the goals were only relevant to one specific genre. These teachers wanted to jump in to thinking about why this alignment is important: how can we write goals that truly help support student growth all year?   

The Big Picture: Annual Reviews and the trouble when there is a mismatch

Immediately, what came to mind was the accountability that an intervention specialist faces at an annual review meeting: reviewing the growth of a student can feel daunting. As an intervention teacher in a writing workshop inclusion setting, you can feel like you would like to say, “I know these were the goals and objectives we wrote last spring, and they sounded really great then. But, it actually doesn’t seem to reflect what we did everyday in writing workshop or the growth that your child made at all! So, do you mind if I just show you some writing and we talk about what kinds of growth your child really did make and then move on to next year’s IEP Goals? “ Of course instead, you look around the table at the special ed director, or the principal, or the parent advocate, bite your tongue, and proceed to explain that the student did in fact make growth by demonstrating that she could, in fact, produce a piece of writing that met some, if not all, the criteria. Arguably, though, this is not the most important reason for the alignment.

Trouble: Letting the “project”, not the goal, dictate how the workshop goes

What we know as intervention teachers is that the goals and objectives for a student can get lost in the demands of the daily writing workshop. We know that we can end up “helping” a student produce a piece of writing that looks similar to typical classmates, but it doesn’t help the writer grow independently.

Teach the writer, not the writing. Our decisions must be guided by what might help this writer rather than what might help this writing. (Lucy Calkins)

Even with these wise words repeating like a mantra in our minds, teaching to the piece of writing and not the writer can happen so easily. You can picture it. You walk in and the student is struggling to come up with an idea. You talk, help connect what you know about her passions with kind of writing the class is undertaking, orally rehearse, and she starts writing as you coach. You move on to the next student. And, so the thing this writer really needed to learn, in this case how to get started writing independently, gets lost in an attempt to keep her up with the class.

So we wondered, how do we change this? How can we write goals that will drive daily instruction, span different genres of a year-long curriculum, and give both the teacher and the student a roadmap about where we are headed?  How can we write goals and objectives that span all the different genres of writing, that show us, the classroom teachers, and the students where we’re headed in ways that give us direction that guides the focus of each day’s work?

It became clear to us that this was a journey, rather than a one time conversation. We are still in the midst of watching students, studying their writing, and revising our thinking, but the intervention team now feels more unified and purposeful. We are beginning to see ways revised goals can bear fruit in the writing of students. Here are some of the steps we took this year.


After almost two years of implementing a writing workshop curriculum, all intervention specialists, the Director of Special Education, the Director of Academic Achievement and the two of us met in response to teacher concern that existing goals don’t seem to align. We talked about frustrations, but also about vision. Staying anchored in the hope of what we wanted to accomplish was important to avoid feeling overwhelmed. Knowing that the district backed the work and alloted time to think and plan together felt especially supportive.

  • As a school who uses the TCRWP Units of Study, we looked at the writing progressions alongside student on-demand work. Our major discussion revolved around whether what we were seeing was the result of a process issue (for example, difficulty independently generating ideas), a learning behavior (for example, difficulty staying engaged in writing or attending to the mini lesson) or a skill deficit (for example, how do I elaborate?)–and how these three things work together.
  • We visited classrooms and studied engagement and asked: how is this connected to goals?

Conclusions: Teachers left this day of learning with an understanding that they were supported in their desire to write more meaningful goals, and for the goals to be connected to the daily work in which students are participating. We knew though, that this was the beginning, and we asked teachers to continue studying student work and engagement alongside the current goals.


This was a three hour time slot devoted to diving into the intellectual work of what might go into a student goal.

  • In partnerships or individually, teachers studied one aspect of the writing across the narrative, informational and opinion rubrics to see what they had in common. It was really important to give teachers the time to step back from the tunnel vision that can occur within one unit and see how the characteristics of writing really did span all genres.
  • We created a giant chart on the whiteboard for partnerships to share out what they learned about the aspect of writing they studied (lead, ending, elaboration, craft, etc.) For example, we noticed that using transition words and phrases to connect was important to all genres. Although the actual transition words might change, depending on the genre.  Then we brainstormed and co-created transferrable language across the genres. For example, –Writer uses genre appropriate transitions to connect different parts of a piece of writing (between and within paragraphs) Finally, we co-created some ideas how this work might turn into a writing goal. Here’s the picture of our work, but we believe that it was the intellectual exercise of all of us studying together that made it most impactful.
  • Last, we consolidated these ideas onto a shared online document for teachers to begin to use in their goal writing


At our last meeting of the year, we wanted to spend some time checking in on how our work was impacting the writing of goals and begin to make intentional plans on how the revised goals can directly impact daily instruction.

  • The feedback we received from teachers was that our collaborative work directly impacted not only how they were writing IEPs, but also how they were thinking about their students across the year. One teacher commented on the positive impact on students, noting that by creating a clear goal with his cooperating teacher and sharing this with his students, the students had produced more writing, even though that wasn’t necessarily the focus of the mini lesson–but the kids were showing growth in the area they needed it!
  • Our next question in the journey, of course, is how do we use the goal to drive meaningful instruction? We designed this day around the hope that teachers would have a plan for how they would start the year and use the revised IEP goals to drive instruction, small groups, and conferencing. We talked about the roles that on-demands play in our assessments, ways to hold ourselves accountable to checking in with students, and methods of progress monitoring. These are the kinds of things that will drive our study in the next school year.

Our time with the intervention specialists was what we hope professional learning can always look like: collaboratively working through an issue, deepening our own learning, staying close to student work, and revising our practices. The work, of course, never really ends, and we are looking forward to studying more of the lessons, small groups, and conferencing we can do moving forward.

We are also planning to continue this journey of writing…by the fall we are hoping to launch a blog featuring the work of central Ohio teachers and include a regular column about literacy and special education. Writing this post made us realize we could actually write so much more (and much more specifically) about each of the steps we took. And that only covers one small part of our passion! We are looking for contributors, so if you are an Ohio teacher interested in sharing part of your professional learning journey, please reach out! Email For now, follow our twitter account @OHLiteracyLove

Best Books of 2018

When I started this blog in 2007, I wrote about every. single. book. I read. Over the years my writing about reading has morphed in a lot of ways, and 11 years later I find it fascinating to see the role each has played in my life. In terms of posts, this year looked a lot like last year: one or two. 2017 was the beginning of transition for me that started with the IVF process, and 2018 was the epic transition year. When the new year started, my daughter was three weeks old. Not only did I have a new identity in that regard, but I also had to begin job searching while still on maternity leave. The spring became the season of “lasts” at a job and school I loved for 14 years. I packed up my New York City life, rented a minivan, and drove my family to Ohio (while Daniel handled our dog who cried for the entire ride). I started a new job in a new role two days later. We moved into our own home around Thanksgiving and finally started hanging some art this week. My hope is that 2019 won’t feel like transition, but will feel like settling in and breathing deep.

My dad bought my mom and I matching Book Nerd sweatshirts. Tessa wants one in baby size.

In terms of reading volume, I read more during the newborn/maternity leave phase than probably the rest of the year combined. When we moved to Ohio, I was so exhausted I literally read for 5 minutes a night. I think I’m finding my way back, though, and what better time than winter and dark evenings?

I’ll write a bit about each of the books I picked for my best 10 this year, since I (sadly) don’t have a blog post to link to as I’ve done in the past. These are in chronological order.

Going into Town by Roz Chast: this is a graphic novel that the author first created when her daughter was moving to New York City, where Roz Chast grew up. It is a love song to the city and all that is glorious and gross about it–and reading it knowing I’d have to say goodbye made it all the more wonderful and gut wrenching for me. This is perfect for any New Yorker or anyone who is moving there soon.

Sing Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward: this was a book club choice and it made me want to read everything Jesmyn Ward has ever written. It’s about loss, growing up, race, and how the present is haunted by history, both personal and as a country. Poetic and deeply poignant.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: I read this for a teacher book club this spring. It started slow and I wondered how I’d make it through its 500 pages. But then I was gripped and couldn’t put it down. It tells the story of a poor Korean family as they immigrate to Japan as basically lasts the lifetime of the matriarch of the family, though the reader gets to intimately know many of characters.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies: this is the book I recommended to every single person I’ve talked to since I finished it. It tells the life story of a gay man who was born in Ireland during at the height of gay oppression. The title alone captures the essence of this book–the deep dive into the protagonist’s life offers so much to think about for all people and a better understanding of contextual history.

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds: Jason Reynolds is my young adult/middle grade writer-hero and I would recommend that any parent or teacher of kids 10 and older run to the bookstore to and buy everything. All humans, start with For Everyone, which is a speech he wrote and published. Parents of 10 year olds, start with Ghost. His young adult should be required reading for teenagers and adults (I’ve written about the power of All American Boys in the past). Long Way Down is written in verse and tells the story of a young man riding down the elevator in his building who is deciding whether or not to avenge the death of his brother.

The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater: one of the most important young adult books to come out this year, I’ve put this book in the hands of Brooklyn urban kids and Ohio rural kids. I usually describe it as a nuanced look at race and gender in America today, and in this case how they intersected in the true story by Slater. This book educates and creates empathy and understanding. I’ve said it before (and have a longer blog post in the back of my mind), that young adult books are paving the way to a better future.

Story of your Life by Ted Chiang: my husband and one of my best friends are considerably more interested in science fiction and space than I am. When the movie Arrival came out I had very little interest in it (and I still haven’t seen it). BUT. My best friend begged me to read the story it was based on, and because I love her I read it the 55 page story…in one afternoon (both naptimes…ha). The science part was fascinating, but the human part was heart wrenching–perhaps because I read it as a new mother, or because my own parents were housing, feeding, and caring for us in our transition, but this was the most moving story I’ve ever read. It’s in a collection of short stories called Stories of Your Life–and it’s one I’ll reread forever. And maybe see the movie.

There There by Tommy Orange: So many people I love read this book and when I found it for $5 I knew it would jump to the top of my stack. My only wish is that I had read it in a book club, but what Tommy Orange has created is truly original fiction. It tells the story of people, but also of a place: the Native American communities in Oakland, California. It’s told from multiple voices who the reader hears from a number of times, and whose stories occasionally overlap. This book was hard to read for me because it addresses really heavy subject matter, and also because it asks me to face my own ignorance about the legacy of our country’s history and how it lingers, but that is the most important kind of book to read, in my opinion.

Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo: my old commute was literally a one minute walk, so I never really got into many podcasts or audio-anything, because I’d rather read an actual book while on the subway. Now that I drive 30 minutes each way, my ritual is Rachel Maddow in the morning and either a podcast or a middle grade audio book in the afternoon (I did try a young adult book, but it was 11 hours and took me a month to finish! Middle grade books tend to be 4 hours, and I have some catching up to do in that genre). Anyway, I LOVED listening to this book so much. It is about 3 unlikely friends in central Florida in the 70s who meet at a baton twirling class. The main character is dealing with the fact that her dad just left her family, and it was amazing to me how DiCamillo wrote those emotions in such a realistic way in the voice of a pre-teen. As I was reading, all I could think was how much I loved these characters (and the time period with no technology that I believe now impedes on childhood adventures) and how meaningful it would be for any child who has faced similar issues. Her newest book is from the voice of another character in the story is already downloaded for Wednesday’s commute.

Educated by Tara Westover: this memoir was another title that was recommended to me by so many people. This is also the year I realized how much I enjoy memoirs (perhaps because my life was moving at a pace too fast to reflect upon, that I enjoyed others’ reflections?). In this one, Westover recounts her childhood and young adulthood growing up in Utah in a family that was religious and survivalist. She didn’t attend school until she applied for college, and she went on to get a PhD from Cambridge. This book is another one that offers a look into a life I couldn’t imagine, and Westovers courage in the face of all she encounters, both on a personal and a cultural level.

We love reading on weekend mornings. This is New York Baby, which we both love for obvious reasons.

I’ve also spent a lot of time reading children’s books this year, so I thought I’d share ten favorites as well. Many of these come from one of my best friends, who is also a book nerd and whose first daughter is a little older than mine and always recommends the best titles! What a time to be a reader of children’s books–there are so many wonderfully poetic, funny, beautifully illustrated, poignant, important titles out there!

Gaston and Antoinette

City Cat

Franklin’s Flying Bookshop

Little Elliot Big City

The Littlest Family’s Big Day

The Bear Snores On (and all the bear books)


Here We Are

This Little Trailblazer

Tessa reading one of her favorites, Edamame and Edapapa, a sweet book that reminds us of our family. Have you checked your local independent to make sure they have books that can remind all kids of their families, whatever it might look like? And to teach kids that families can be different? Thankful for friends who remind me of this important question.

Cheers to 2019 and many, many good books. My plan is to get to all the books on my nightstand (in July I bought books from every New York City independent bookstore I visited) and to check out some of the summer reading books I wanted to get to and didn’t. Columbus is home to two new and one old bookstore, all of which I love. I want to continue to read books that expand my understanding and grow my empathy. And! My other goal is to use the library more regularly. We are in walking distance of one, so that is my plan with Tessa when the weather gets a bit warmer.

Summer reading in a summer of all the transitions

Every summer for the past eleven years I’ve written a post about my planned reading. I started making the list mid-May and always published it around Memorial Day. Summer never officially started for me as a teacher until July, but I’ve always liked crafting a syllabus for myself and using the warm months, whether I’m working or not, to tackle it. This is the summer of change, though.

The past two years I haven’t written as much. I was reading a ton, but my brain didn’t  have the capacity to process; reading was my main form of escape as I went through infertility treatments. We are so grateful for modern science, because in December I gave birth to a healthy baby girl. So, for a while, my identity as a writer fell away as I was a patient of countless medical treatments, then pregnant, and now a working new mother. As if that weren’t enough, we are moving to Ohio this summer to be closer to family (and to be able to afford housing that also has a dishwasher, washer-dryer, and outdoor space). So that means I will be joining the ranks of midwestern educators, where summer starts in June–which translates to me as the shortest summer of my career, as my new job as a literacy coach begins August 1.

So, of course my summer will still be filled with books, but it will definitely be out of the ordinary. The other random change in my reading life is that I’ve been using the kindle app on my phone (set to black) so I can read in bed while our baby sleeps in our room. I have no interest in buying ebooks, so I’ve been using my (amazing) Brooklyn Public Library card and their digital collection. I often put holds on books I want to read and when they are available I get an email–which I can’t predict. I’ve somehow kept a pretty normal reading pace since having a baby, but I will no longer have summer days where I can read for hours on end through the afternoons. So. This summer’s list is not so much of a syllabus as it is a wish list, since my first day of my new job is August 1. But here we go:


Ordinary Light

I Am I Am I Am

Just Mercy 

Operating Instructions

Hold Still 

The Girl Who Smiled Beads

The Liturgy of the Ordinary



Exit West


The Idiot 

Ill Will 

Six Four

Happy summer! I’d love to know your recent favorites!

Complex Grief as Metaphor: You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie is creative writing at its best. The memoir is a combination of prose and poetry, with intentional repetition of stories and various symbols that give the reader an authentic, moving take on grief. He writes “this book is a series of circles, sacred and profane,” (288). These circles, the repetition and symbols, are what I wish I could discuss with a book club or with students in a reading or writing course. Why does grief take us around and around? How do we work through the sacred and profane and hold both in our hands at the same time?

Alexie demonstrates how to address difficult truths through exploring his complicated relationship with his mother.

It’s not only a book about grief, though. Alexie explores identity and racism–and his grief for his mother almost works as a metaphor for a reader wanting to engage with how racism is at work in our country and how he or she might face it and fight it. One of the best piece of advice out there right now, a starting place, for white people to think about racism is to listen. Alexie’s accounts and insights across the book took my breath away. This passage in particular:

I have visited museums of genocide in other countries. Though I realize “visited” is the wrong verb. “Endured” is too self serving. Perhaps the best sentence is “I have experienced museums of genocide in other countries.” And what do I remember? I remember that I kept having to close my eyes against the pain. I often had to look away from the pain. I often had to sit on benches and stare at the blank floors. And what do I make of the genocide museum in our own country? What do I make of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum? It is a vital place. It is a grievous reminder. A warning. It is as necessary as any museum ever built. But it also proves to me how the United States closes its eyes against the pain it has caused. The United States often looks away from the pain it has caused. The United States often sits on benches and stares at the blank floors (296).

For readers, for me anyway, this book felt like a call to grieve, to sit and wrestle with, the racism of the past and think of how it impacts the present. What systemic processes created the realities Native Americans faced and continue to face? What policies? What small decisions on part of politicians and voters? What other areas of history do I need to reflect on with the same lens?

It’s the sitting and wrestling that our culture seems to be without these days: one is right or wrong, good or bad, tweet about it and move on. Alexie digs and circles back and digs and circles back, and the technical aspects of his writing style in this book couldn’t more beautifully capture that process. After finishing it, it feels like an invitation, knowing that it could be a process that doesn’t have a clear ending, or any ending at all. And that’s ok.

(Side note: this intersects with my reading of Prairie Fires, which is the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but also a record of government and Native Americans, government and the environment, the ways history books have narrated our understandings from limited perspectives. I love when books layer one another.)